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Iraq: UNITAD Briefing

Tomorrow (2 December), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD). Christian Ritscher, the Special Adviser and Head of UNITAD, is expected to brief.

UNITAD was created by resolution 2379 of September 2017, which requested the Secretary-General to establish an investigative team to support Iraq’s domestic efforts to hold the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) accountable “by collecting, preserving, and storing evidence in Iraq of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide”. UNITAD is headed by a Special Adviser who, among other matters, is responsible for developing UNITAD’s investigative strategy and promoting accountability globally for atrocity crimes committed by ISIL. Resolution 2597, which was adopted on 17 September, extended UNITAD’s mandate to 17 September 2022.

On 7 September, the Secretary-General announced the appointment of Christian Ritscher as the new Special Adviser and Head of UNITAD. Ritscher succeeded Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, who held the position from July 2018 to 15 June. Immediately after assuming office on 1 October, Ritscher prioritised engagement with key partners in Iraq, including national authorities, survivor groups, religious authorities, and non-governmental organisations. During his first visit to northern Iraq in early November, Ritscher met with victims, Yazidi civil society representatives, religious leaders, and the prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, Masrour Barzani, among others. He discussed several matters during these meetings, including judicial capacity building, information exchange, and the archiving and digitisation of evidence of crimes committed by ISIL in Iraq.

During his briefing, Ritscher is expected to present the main findings of the seventh biannual report on UNITAD’s activities, which was issued on 24 November (S/2021/974). Council members are likely to be interested in hearing from Ritscher regarding the core investigative work of UNITAD. In November, UNITAD completed its third case-brief, which focused on the mass killing of predominantly Shia prisoners at Badush prison on 10 June 2014. According to the report, evidence collected by UNITAD confirmed that ISIL forces attacked the Badush Central Prison near Mosul on 10 June, separated prisoners based on religion, and executed several hundred predominantly Shia prisoners at various locations.

During the reporting period, UNITAD also continued to gather evidence to strengthen the other case-briefs that it has completed, which relate to the mass killing of unarmed cadets and military personnel at Tikrit Air Academy in June 2014 and attacks against the Yazidi community in Sinjar. In addition to discussing these case-briefs, Ritscher is likely to provide an update regarding UNITAD’s other lines of investigation, which concern crimes against the Sunni, Christian, Kaka’I, Shabak, and Shia Turkmen communities, and the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL. Specialised units of UNITAD have also been investigating sexual and gender-based crimes, crimes against children, and the financing of ISIL.

Council members are likely to be particularly interested in learning more about UNITAD’s investigations into ISIL’s development and use of chemical and biological weapons, which focus on a March 2016 attack against Taza Khurmatu and ISIL’s June 2014 takeover and subsequent repurposing of the University of Mosul as part of its weapons development programme. During the reporting period, UNITAD identified approximately 3,000 potential victims and witnesses of chemical weapons attacks carried out by ISIL, and the report notes that a case-brief regarding this investigation is likely to be completed by the end of the second quarter of 2022. A case-brief concerning crimes committed against the Christian community is also expected to be completed by this time.

UNITAD’s investigation of the financing of ISIL is likely to be discussed during tomorrow’s meeting. The report notes that UNITAD has identified several businesspeople who aided and abetted ISIL’s commission of international crimes from 2014 onwards and that UNITAD has shared these findings with Iraqi authorities. Council members might ask Ritscher about possible prosecutions arising from this work.

Ritscher will probably provide an update on UNITAD’s field-based activities. Despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, UNITAD re-established its full field-based operational capacity during the reporting period. The report describes several developments in relation to its excavation activities, particularly in Ninewa and Anbar Governorates, and notes that UNITAD supported Iraqi authorities in the excavation of a mass gravesite in Bir Hilwat, where 15 members of the Albu Nimr tribe were executed by ISIL in October 2014.  Excavations near the Badush prison recommenced in November and are anticipated to be completed by the end of the year. Council members are expected to welcome these developments and commend UNITAD for its work in this area.

The recent trials of ISIL members in Germany might be discussed during tomorrow’s meeting. On 30 November, following a 19-month trial in Frankfurt, Germany’s Higher Regional Court convicted ISIL member Taha Al-Jumailly for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. This was the first conviction of an ISIL member for genocide. This follows the conviction of Al-Jumailly’s wife, Jennifer Wenisch, in October for crimes against humanity. Reacting to the news, Ritscher commended the work of the Office of the German Federal Prosecutor General and welcomed the landmark conviction of Al-Jumailly as “a significant moment in global efforts to deliver accountability for international crimes committed by ISIL”. Ritscher added that he was pleased the conviction was achieved with the support of UNITAD.

The report also describes UNITAD’s efforts to archive and digitise evidence, as well as its use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and e-discovery tools. During the reporting period, over two million pieces of evidence were archived and digitised in line with international standards. On 6 October, UNITAD won the international award for Enterprise Innovation at the Annual Relativity Conference for its smart application “Zeteo”—a tool that facilitates evidence analysis through automatic transcription and translation, facial identification, video indexing, and by enhancing audio, text, and visual evidence relating to ISIL crimes. Given these developments, some Council members may commend UNITAD for the way in which it uses technology in its work.

Council members are expected to welcome the ongoing cooperation between UNITAD and the Iraqi government at tomorrow’s meeting. During the reporting period, UNITAD worked closely with Iraqi authorities on various capacity-development initiatives, including by providing training in international criminal law to Iraqi investigative judges. The report also notes that Ritscher has expressed a willingness to provide support and guidance to domestic initiatives aimed at establishing a legal basis for prosecuting ISIL members for international crimes under Iraqi law. At present, the international crimes that UNITAD is mandated to investigate have not been directly incorporated into Iraq’s legal system. As a result, offenders who have engaged in conduct that contravenes international criminal law are usually charged with terrorism offences. Under Iraqi law, the death penalty can be imposed for these offences, and this has prevented UNITAD from sharing evidence regarding potential violations of international criminal law with Iraqi authorities. Some Council members may ask Ritscher to provide an update regarding the status of draft legislation addressing this issue, which was introduced into the Iraqi parliament in October 2020, particularly given the report’s concluding observation that “a potential turning point has been reached in delivering justice for the victims and survivors of ISIL crimes”.

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