What's In Blue

Posted Tue 7 Jun 2022

Iraq: UNITAD Briefing

Tomorrow afternoon (8 June), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD). Special Adviser and Head of UNITAD Christian Ritscher is expected to brief.

UNITAD was created by resolution 2379 of 21 September 2017, which requested that the Secretary-General 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”. Resolution 2597, which was adopted on 17 September 2021, extended UNITAD’s mandate until 17 September.

As Special Adviser and Head of UNITAD, Ritscher is responsible for developing UNITAD’s investigative strategy and promoting accountability for atrocity crimes committed by Da’esh, among other matters. During his briefing, Ritscher is expected to present the main findings of the eighth annual report on UNITAD’s activities, which was issued on 26 May (S/2022/434). The briefing will be the second delivered to the Council by Ritscher following his appointment on 7 September 2021.

Council members are likely to be interested in hearing about the core investigative work of UNITAD. According to the eighth annual report on its activities, UNITAD achieved a series of landmarks across its different investigative lines of inquiry during the reporting period. A particularly notable development concerns UNITAD’s investigation into the development and use of chemical weapons by Da’esh. The report notes that an initial UNITAD case assessment report has identified internal Da’esh communications demonstrating that leadership figures were involved in providing financial rewards for the use of chemical weapons by Da’esh fighters. UNITAD has also found evidence of Da’esh misappropriating Iraqi infrastructure to produce chemical weapons, including at the University of Mosul, as well as evidence which suggests that Da’esh used chemical weapons in an 8 March 2016 attack in the town of Taza Khurmatu.

Ritscher may update Council members regarding UNITAD’s other lines of investigation, which relate to crimes committed against the Yazidi, Christian, Sunni, Kaka’i, Shabak, and Shi’a Turkmen communities; mass executions of inmates carried out at Badush prison on 10 June 2014; and the mass killing of unarmed cadets and military personnel at the Tikrit Air Academy and additional crimes perpetrated in the Tikrit area. To date, UNITAD has finalised case briefs regarding crimes against the Yazidi community, Tikrit Air Academy personnel, and inmates at Badush prison. The report notes that UNITAD has now pivoted toward identifying the perpetrators of these crimes and working with the Iraqi judiciary to build targeted case files now that these briefs have been finalised. Some Council members may welcome this development during tomorrow’s meeting.

Another possible area of discussion is the work of UNITAD’s specialised units, which have been investigating sexual and gender-based crimes, crimes against children, and the financing of Da’esh. During the reporting period, UNITAD “significantly advanced” its investigation of sexual and gender-based crimes committed by members of Da’esh, including by interviewing Yazidi women and girls who were sexually enslaved and conducting screenings with female Shi’a Turkmen survivors of sexual violence.

UNITAD’s investigation of Da’esh financing is also likely to be discussed. The report notes that UNITAD has nearly completed a draft case assessment regarding this issue and says that the initial findings of this assessment demonstrate how “Bayt al Mal”, Da’esh’s central treasury, provided material and financial support to the group, including by managing payments to fighters alleged to have committed international crimes. UNITAD has identified evidence regarding linkages between “Bayt al Mal” and certain money service businesses, as well as evidence of material support provided by banks, notably those taken over by Da’esh, to “Bayt al Mal” and to the group as a whole.

Ritscher may provide an update regarding UNITAD’s fieldwork. According to the report, UNITAD has returned to full-scale regular field-based activities during the first half of 2022 and is now engaging in such activities more frequently than it did before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, UNITAD has continued to support the excavation of Da’esh mass graves sites, such as the mass graves near Harden Junction in Sinjar, and has also aided efforts to identify victims and return their remains to their families, including by donating a laboratory information system with DNA matching software to the Iraqi government. Council members may commend UNITAD for its work in this area.

The report describes UNITAD’s use of technology in its work. UNITAD has now preserved and digitised more than 4.5 million physical pages of documentary evidence and has used the software application Zeteo to process and index over 1,223 hours of video and audio evidence. By using Rampiva, an e-discovery software application, UNITAD has also cleared its evidence processing backlog and significantly reduced the lead time for providing collected evidence to its team of reviewers. Some Council members might note these developments and welcome UNITAD’s uses of technology in implementing its mandate.

The 4 March conviction of a Swedish woman for international crimes committed during her time with Da’esh might be discussed during tomorrow’s meeting. A Swedish court found the woman guilty of war crimes for failing to prevent her 12-year-old son from being recruited and used by Da’esh in Syria. According to the report, UNITAD supported the Swedish Prosecution Authority by providing expert testimony concerning Da’esh’s practices regarding the enlistment, conscription, and use of child soldiers.

Council members are expected to welcome the ongoing cooperation between UNITAD and the Iraqi government at tomorrow’s meeting. Among other matters, UNITAD continued to support Iraqi investigators in building case files for the prosecution of Da’esh members for international crimes and provided training to a select group of investigators concerning international criminal law and international humanitarian law during the reporting period.

The report notes that UNITAD remains ready to support any domestic Iraqi initiative that seeks to establish a legal basis for the prosecution of Da’esh members for international crimes. It also says that UNITAD has continued to receive updates on the progress of such initiatives, while also participating in relevant technical and legal discussions concerning this issue. 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, in accordance with UN best practices, this has prevented UNITAD from sharing evidence regarding potential violations of international criminal law with Iraqi authorities. In light of this issue, some Council members may be interested in receiving an update from Ritscher on the progress of initiatives to establish a legal basis for prosecuting members of Da’esh for international crimes in Iraq and the discussions that UNITAD has participated in regarding these initiatives.

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