What's In Blue

Posted Fri 2 Dec 2022

Iraq: UNITAD Briefing

On Monday (5 December), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh (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 2651, which was adopted on 15 September, extended UNITAD’s mandate until 17 September 2023.

As Special Adviser and Head of UNITAD, Ritscher is responsible for developing UNITAD’s investigative strategy and promoting accountability for international crimes committed by ISIL, among other matters. During his briefing, Ritscher is expected to present the main findings of the ninth annual report on UNITAD’s activities, which was issued on 7 November. The briefing will be the third delivered to the Council by Ritscher since his appointment on 7 September 2021.

Council members are likely to be interested in hearing Ritscher’s analysis of UNITAD’s core investigative work. According to the ninth annual report on its activities, UNITAD continued to advance its investigations into international crimes committed by ISIL in Iraq during the reporting period, including by preparing one additional case assessment report on crimes against the Christian community. The report notes that the evidence collected by UNITAD to date has bolstered preliminary findings that ISIL committed crimes against humanity and war crimes against Christians in Iraq, including forcible transfer, persecution, sexual violence and slavery, forced conversions, and intentional destruction of cultural heritage. In this context, UNITAD has also identified prominent members and leaders of ISIL who participated in an attack against three predominantly Christian towns in Nineveh Plains in August 2014. Some members may welcome the completion of this case assessment report during tomorrow’s meeting.

Ritscher is likely to provide an update regarding UNITAD’s other lines of investigation, including its work investigating crimes against the Sunni, Kaka’I, Shabak, and Shi’a Turkmen communities. With the completion of the case assessment report on crimes against the Christian community, UNITAD has now completed six case assessments. The five assessments finalised during previous reporting periods focused on addressing crimes committed against the Yazidi community in Sinjar from August 2014; the mass killing of military cadets and personnel from Tikrit Air Academy in June 2014; crimes committed by ISIL in and around Badush prison near Mosul in June 2014; the Al-Rawi network and facilitation of ISIL financing; and the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL in Iraq. The report also notes that case assessment reports to be completed in the next few months address the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIL in Iraq; ISIL leadership and hierarchical structure in Mosul and Tal Afar; and crimes committed by ISIL against other communities in and around Sinjar.

Another possible topic 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 “greatly expanded” its evidence base against the money service business networks that provided material support to ISIL and drew “substantive links” between such networks in Iraq and those based throughout the wider Middle East and Gulf region. UNITAD also continued to devote significant resources to its investigation of sexual and gender-based crimes against the Yazidi community and has “significantly advanced” its investigation into crimes carried out against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people by ISIL.

Ritscher might discuss UNITAD’s ongoing cooperation with Iraqi authorities. 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 Iraq’s government.

Despite this hurdle, UNITAD has nonetheless pursued several initiatives that are designed to facilitate information sharing with Iraq in other areas. The report notes, for example, that UNITAD has focused on negotiating a memorandum of understanding with Iraqi authorities that would “enable UNITAD to share its information to support UN sanctions application packages”. In addition, UNITAD has continued to utilise “a pre-existing modality” that allows it to share information concerning the financing of ISIL “with select investigative judges”. Some Council members might welcome these initiatives at tomorrow’s meeting. Other members, however, may argue that Iraq bears primary responsibility for determining how to prosecute those who have committed crimes on its territory and encourage UNITAD without delay to share with Iraq all the evidence it has collected.

Ritscher may mention UNITAD’s ongoing support to domestic legal proceedings in jurisdictions outside Iraq in his briefing tomorrow. The report says that sixteen member states have requested assistance from UNITAD with respect to ongoing investigations and prosecutions, several of which are anticipated to lead to judicial proceedings. It also notes that UNITAD’s ability to collect testimonial evidence from witnesses, together with its capacity to identify corroborating internal ISIL documentation from digital battlefield evidence, has provided “significant assistance” to national investigative authorities.

Ritscher may update Council members on UNITAD’s efforts to transition from investigation to case-building. According to the report, “an increased focus on transitioning from investigation to case-building” defined UNITAD’s work during the reporting period and UNITAD will now dedicate its efforts to promoting “evidence-based trials and large-scale accountability for ISIL”. The report also describes case-building and information sharing as “a new phase of operational work for the team” and refers to several examples of UNITAD’s work in this area, including the delivery of training on international humanitarian law and international criminal law to more than twenty investigative judges across Iraq during November.

UNITAD’s fieldwork is also likely to be discussed during tomorrow’s meeting. According to the report, UNITAD continued to support the excavation of “ISIL mass grave crime scenes” in Iraq and the return of remains identified by DNA analysis to the families of victims. Some Council members may commend UNITAD for its work in this area in their statements tomorrow.

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