Briefing by Mr. Christian Ritscher, Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh / Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, 2 December 2021

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Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

I am honoured to be able to address you this morning for the first time as Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh / Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and to present to you the seventh Report on its activities.

In the two months since my appointment, I have had the opportunity to engage with survivors, national authorities, non-governmental organizations and international partners, as well as with all parts of our Team in Baghdad, Dohuk and Erbil. I have seen first-hand the work being conducted across Iraq, in collaboration with our national partners, to secure vital evidence capable of building a comprehensive legal basis for international-standard trials fully reflecting the nature of the crimes committed by ISIL against Iraqi communities.

Knowing from experience the challenges national authorities face in pursuing justice for these crimes, I believe we now stand at a turning point, a moment of perhaps unexpected hope.

Through the establishment of structural case-briefs addressing crimes committed against all impacted communities in Iraq; through the development of detailed case-files tying the actions of specific ISIL members to these crimes; and by harnessing advanced technology to serve this purpose, we can now envision a new landscape in which those who believed themselves to be out of reach of justice are held accountable in a court of law.

If we maintain our collective commitment, if we strengthen our unity in addressing the inherent challenges that the scale of ISIL criminality presents, I believe we have the opportunity to turn the tide from impunity to justice.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

A week ago, I stood at a mass grave outside Mosul containing the remains of the victims of executions carried out by ISIL at Badush Central Prison in June 2014. I listened to the story told by one survivor who had to go through this horror, and now has to carry its magnitude as he seeks to move on with his life. I also saw the commitment demonstrated by the national authorities and our team members as well as other partners, working in this remote location, despite the security challenges, to support the collection of evidence that may lay the foundations for justice, and to ensure that families will be able to bury the remains of their loved ones.

Together, we recommenced work to exhume the bodies of those killed and collect forensic evidence for use in identifying those ISIL members responsible. By working with survivors and empowering them to provide their testimonies, we have established an account of these attacks that bears the hallmarks of ISIL’s violence against many communities of Iraq.

Evidence collected shows the detailed preparation of the attack by senior ISIL members, followed by the launch of the assault on the morning of 10 June. Prisoners captured were led to sites close to the Prison, separated based on their religion and humiliated. At least one thousand predominantly Shia prisoners were then systematically killed.

Through our analysis of digital, documentary, testimonial and forensic evidence, including internal ISIL documents, we have identified a number of individual ISIL members responsible for carrying out these crimes. Through the synthesis of this data, I can also announce to the Council today that we have finalized our initial case-brief in relation to this investigation, detailing our conclusion that crimes committed by ISIL members at Badush Central Prison constitute crimes against humanity of murder, extermination, torture, enforced disappearances, persecution and other inhumane acts, and the war crimes of wilful killing, torture, inhumane treatment, and outrage upon personal dignity.

By establishing this comprehensive structural analysis of crimes committed at Badush prison, as we have previously with respect to attacks in Sinjar and Tikrit, we seek to strengthen the basis on which justice can be built together with national authorities.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

Evidence collected on the Badush Prison attacks serves to underline the detailed planning undertaken by ISIL in carrying out their atrocities. This methodological and strategic approach is seen even more clearly in two other key lines of investigation that have accelerated in the last six months: the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL, and the financial mechanisms through which it sustained its campaign of violence. Forensic analysis of battlefield evidence made available to us by Iraqi authorities has shown that ISIL’s development and deployment of chemical weapons was not an opportunist exploitation of fortunate circumstances. It was a strategic priority implemented in line with a long-term vision.

Our evidence shows that ISIL clearly identified and then seized chemical production factories and other sources of precursor material, while also overtaking the University of Mosul Campus as a hub for research and development. Small teams of qualified technical and scientific experts, some brought in from abroad, worked to adapt and enhance the programme. Through analysis of internal ISIL manuals on chemical weapons production, we see the programme diversify and become more sophisticated as new expertise arrives.

The results can be seen in more than 3,000 victims of chemical weapons attacks carried out by ISIL that our Team has identified to date. Investigations in relation to attacks in Taza Khurmatu show the successful use of multiple rocket artillery projectiles containing a sulphur mustard agent. Medical records from local hospital facilities show children and adults submitted for burns, skin infections and respiratory problems, as well as longer-term effects including harms to reproductive health of both men and women, birth defects, miscarriages, stillbirths and long-term health consequences for children born to exposed parents.

As with all of ISIL’s activities, its confidence that its documents and internal structure would never be uncovered forms the basis for the hope of accountability. Through the analysis of detailed records ISIL left behind, we have identified individual ISIL members who are allegedly responsible for leading the development of the programme and the implementation of major attacks.

I can inform the Council today that in my next briefing I will present the results of a structural case-brief detailing our findings in relation to ISIL’s use of chemical weapons including legal characterization of the crimes committed in its implementation.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

It is essential that those who financially supported and profited from ISIL crimes are also brought to justice. This imperative, combined with a drive to understand the economic mechanisms at the heart of ISIL’s operations, have guided the work of our dedicated Financial Crimes Unit.

In recent months, our investigations have uncovered the inner workings of the central ISIL treasury, Bayt al-Mal or “House of Money”, the central department responsible for the collection, storage, management, and movement of its wealth. We have identified a network of senior ISIL leadership that also acted as trusted financiers, diverting wealth that ISIL gained through pillage, theft of property from targeted communities and the imposition of a systematic and exploitative taxation system imposed on those living under ISIL control.

This work has underlined the extensive financial exploitation by ISIL of the most vulnerable communities of Iraq for the personal benefit and profit of its most senior members.

Given the scale of damage inflicted on Iraq through this economic exploitation, I am pleased to inform the Council that our work with Iraqi authorities in support of prosecutions of those responsible has deepened significantly. This is reflected in our recent sharing of a comprehensive case-brief with the Iraqi judiciary, in line with our mandate and Terms of Reference, detailing the use by ISIL of money service businesses as key facilitators of their financing. I look forward in the coming months to expanding this type of cooperation to hold those who wished to profit from ISIL crimes accountable.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

This enhanced engagement with Iraqi authorities has been reflected across our work in the last six months. It also reflects a personal priority for me as I take up leadership of this Team to identify additional channels through which we can deliver meaningful assistance to our Iraqi counterparts in the highest spirit of cooperation.

I am also cognizant that our work in implementing our mandate will not be satisfied through the collection of evidence alone, or through the establishment of an archive or historical record, as valuable as that may be. To deliver on the promise made through Security Council resolution 2379 (2017) we must put this evidence to work before competent courts.

Reflecting this imperative, we have redoubled our efforts to share knowledge with national authorities in areas that may ultimately support the development of joint casefiles and the conduct of proceedings in Iraq. This includes the implementation of a digitization project under which 25,000 documents are now being processed each day, as well as ongoing assistance in the excavation of mass graves and the exploitation of digital evidence.

In taking forward our collaboration with Iraqi authorities, I am conscious of the leadership demonstrated by the Government of Iraq in seeking the assistance of the international community through Security Council resolution 2379 (2017). Our goal must be to repay that commitment by providing tangible assistance in the conduct of international-standard trials that reflect the profound impact of ISIL atrocities on all communities of Iraq.

As I indicated in my Report, I believe the steps to deliver this are clear and achievable. By the end of 2022, UNITAD will have established a cross-cutting and comprehensive legal basis for the prosecution of ISIL members for international crimes committed against a broad range of communities, as well as its chemical weapons programme and financial support systems.

Through our effective engagement with survivors and witnesses, and by exploiting the extensive digital fingerprints left behind by its members in battlefield evidence, we can already tie the actions of individuals to the commission of these crimes. The evidence collected pursuant to our mandate is now capable of supporting trials.

Building on this momentum and in line with our Terms of Reference, I wish to underline my commitment, at the request of the Government of Iraq, to work with all partners in establishing a domestic legal framework that allows us to harness this evidence in prosecuting ISIL members for international crimes in Iraq. I am grateful for the positive discussions I have already held with Iraqi counterparts in this regard since my appointment.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

This week, we have seen what comprehensive justice means to communities and survivors. Two days ago, a landmark moment was reached in the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, Germany, through the first ever conviction of an ISIL member for the crime of genocide.

The facts of this case resonate deeply, both because of their brutality and because of their relative normality under ISIL. A Yezidi girl of 5 years old, purchased along with her mother as part of ISIL’s enslavement of their community, left to die chained outside in 50-degree heat in Fallujah.

It was with a deep sense of responsibility that I led the Team in charge of prosecuting this case in my former role, and I am delighted that the foresight shown by this Council and the Government of Iraq has led to the provision of meaningful support by UNITAD, assisting German prosecutors in securing this conviction.

For the first time, the Yezidi community have seen an ISIL member prosecuted in a court of law for the genocidal acts committed against them. The words of Nadia Murad, Yezidi survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate following the judgement yesterday should underline our collective responsibility as we continue this work. I quote: “When survivors seek justice, they look for someone to give them hope that justice is possible”.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates

In concluding, allow me to underline the key message I wish to share with you today. We now have the chance, collectively, to make such prosecutions the norm, not a celebrated exception. In cooperation with Iraqi authorities and those of the Kurdistan region, together with survivors and with the support of this Council, we are building the evidence that can deliver meaningful justice for all those who suffered from ISIL crimes in Iraq. If we maintain our unity, we can capitalize on the opportunity that is now before us.

Next week, I will return to Iraq to attend a return of remains ceremony at Kocho village, Sinjar, where UNITAD is supporting the dignified burial of victims of mass killings carried out by ISIL fighters in August 2014. To the survivors and families of victims present, I will bring the same message as I have to you today: Justice has been slow, but there is now hope.

I underline my commitment to you today to do everything in my power to deliver on the promise we have made to these families, and all those impacted by the crimes of ISIL in Iraq. Thank you.