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Iraq: Briefing on ISIL/Dae’sh Accountability (UNITAD)

Tomorrow (4 December), the Council will receive the first-ever briefing by Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, the Special Adviser and head of the UN Investigative Team for Accountability of Da’esh (UNITAD). Khan will brief Council members on his first report (S/2018/1031).

On 21 September 2017, the Council adopted resolution 2379, which requested the Secretary-General to establish an investigative team to support Iraqi domestic efforts to hold the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) accountable for crimes it committed in the country “by collecting, preserving, and storing evidence in Iraq of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.” Additionally, UNITAD is tasked to promote accountability globally for atrocity crimes committed by ISIL in order to counter the narratives put forward by ISIL that have led people to join the terrorist group.

Resolution 2379 asked the Secretary-General to submit to the Council within 60 days Terms of Reference (ToR) that would be acceptable to the Iraqi government and would allow the investigative team to fulfil its mandate. The initial deadline was 21 November 2017, but the Council only received the ToR for agreement on 13 February due to lengthy negotiations between the Secretariat and the Iraqi government. Different parts of the UN system (the Secretariat, the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) had raised concerns over mass executions of suspected ISIL fighters and a lack of due process and fair trial guarantees, resulting in a delayed process with the Secretary-General requesting three extensions for the deadline to finalise the ToR (S/2017/989, S/2017/1122 and S/2018/63). In April, a needs assessment mission was deployed to Iraq to evaluate the conditions on the ground for the investigative team.

Khan, whose appointment was announced by the Secretary-General on 31 May, has formed a core team and met s with interlocutors in New York before conducting a preliminary visit to Iraq from 6 to 14 August to meet with representatives of the Iraqi government and communities affected by ISIL crimes as well as survivors and non-governmental organisations.

UNITAD formally began its work on 20 August and on 17 October, Khan briefed the 1267/1989/2253 Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. On 29 October, a first group of UNITAD staff deployed to Baghdad.  In line with the 90-day deadline set out in resolution 2379, the first report was published on 16 November. According to the report, UNITAD expects that it will start its investigative activities in the first quarter of 2019.

The report details an “initial strategic vision” for UNITAD’s activities, with an implementation strategy for 2019 forthcoming. A few “guiding principles” will lead UNITAD’s work: primarily, that UNITAD is, as characterised by resolution 2379, an independent and impartial mechanism that also works in line with principles of the UN Charter, UN policies and best practice. That includes the development of “standing operating procedures” (SOP) with regard to the treatment of evidence, witness protection and intelligence sharing, among other issues. The focus of UNITAD will be on those ISIL members who bear the greatest responsibility among the leadership as well as regional and mid-level commanders. Fostering collective support across Iraqi society and spreading understanding of its mandate—including with the government, religious minority groups, non-governmental organisations and survivors—is another guiding principle for UNITAD.

UNITAD will prioritise a number of core activities starting with the collection of existing evidence, identifying gaps and finally field-based investigations. Evidence will be analysed, preserved and stored to be used for proceedings in Iraq and other states (upon request by these states and following approval by the Council).

UNITAD’s physical infrastructure is currently in Baghdad’s Green Zone. It is expected to move to the former premises of the UN Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), which will be refurbished by February 2019. One of UNAMI’s responsibilities is to support the work of UNITAD, including cost-sharing arrangements for support staff embedded in UNAMI as well as security services.

Khan has started to establish contact with other parts of the UN system, UN member states, entities outside the UN system (such as INTERPOL), non-governmental organisations (for example, the Counter Extremism Project) and the private sector.

Key priorities for the next six months, according to the report, will be completing the work on core infrastructure, finalising the SOP and recruiting all staff. One- third of the members of the investigative team will be Iraqi, with the recruitment process aiming at balance in gender, ethnic and religious representation.

The report further lays out the complex operating environment for UNITAD, considering that ISIL is still active in Iraq, some of the affected areas are not under the full control of the Iraqi government or are active crime scenes, and some require the removal of explosives. The next report will be due in May 2019.

On the political level, a Steering Committee has been tasked with coordinating cooperation between the Iraqi government and UNITAD.  Its membership, which consists of members of the Iraqi government and law enforcement bodies, is in the process of partially changing due to recent elections. This may also affect the Iraqi government’s priorities, which may not always overlap with UNITAD’s priorities.

Until the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly approves a 2019 budget for UNITAD (the request stands at around $21.5 million), UNITAD is operating on the basis of the Secretary-General’s authority to commit limited funding for unforeseen expenses as well as a Trust Fund set up according to resolution 2379. The Trust Fund currently consists of contributions made by the UK and Qatar, with the Netherlands pledging earmarked contributions supporting witnesses and victims.

Khan is expected to inform Council members on steps taken by the team to build relationships, progress on the development of the implementation strategy and what sort of support UNITAD would need from the international community. In this connection, Khan may focus on the challenges UNITAD has encountered in the initial setting-up of its operations in Iraq.

Considering that the Iraqi government requested the establishment of the investigative team and that all Council members were in agreement with resolution 2379 that stipulated that ISIL should be held to account, members are expected to express their support for the steps taken by Khan so far. One matter where there may be differing views is that of capital punishment, where some Council members may repeat their concerns that evidence gathered by UNITAD could be used in proceeding leading to the death penalty, while others may point out Iraq’s sovereign right to decide on how it seeks justice for ISIL’s crimes. Some Council members may acknowledge the complex operating environment and encourage UNITAD to start its investigative work in the field as soon as possible.

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