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‘Turning point’ reached for survivors of ISIL crimes in Iraq, Security Council hears

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Elias and his family, Yazidis who were heavily persecuted under ISIL, sit on the floor of their home in Zakho, northern Iraq (file photo).

The international community has reached a “turning point” in pursuing justice for atrocities committed by the ISIL terrorist group in Iraq, the new head of a special UN investigative team told the Security Council in New York on Thursday. 

Delivering his first briefing to ambassadors, Special Adviser Christian Ritscher said evidence collected so far is capable of supporting trials. 

“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,” he said. 

A new landscape 

The team, known as UNITAD, works to secure evidence of ISIL’s crimes against various Iraqi communities, which include mass executions and use of chemical and biological weapons, committed during its reign of terror from June 2014 to December 2017. 

“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,” Mr. Ritscher told the Council. 

“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.” 

Working with authorities

Mr. Ritscher reported on recent activities carried out by UNITAD and Iraqi authorities to exhume bodies from a mass grave outside the city of Mosul, located in the north of the country. 

The victims were executed by ISIL at Badush Central Prison in June 2014. They were separated based on their religion and at least a thousand predominantly Shia prisoners were killed. 

Analysis of digital, documentary, testimonial and forensic evidence, including internal ISIL documents, has led to the identification of several individual ISIL members responsible for these crimes. 

Having finalized the initial case-brief, Mr. R Ritscher said the conclusion is these actions constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes. 

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The evidence from the Badush Prison attacks further underlines the detailed planning undertaken by ISIL in carrying out atrocities. 

Chemical weapons programme 

This also applies to the group’s development and use of chemical and biological weapons which Mr. Ritscher said was “not an opportunist exploitation of fortunate circumstances” but rather “a strategic priority implemented in line with a long-term vision.” 

“Our evidence shows that ISIL clearly identified and then seized chemical weapon production factories and other sources of precursor material, while also overtaking the University of Mosul Campus as a hub for research and development,” he said. 

“Small teams of qualified technical and scientific experts, some brought in from abroad, worked to adapt and enhance the programme.” 

The arrival of new expertise also led to the chemical weapons programme becoming more diversified and sophisticated.  More than 3,000 victims have been identified to date. 

Furthermore, analysis of detailed records left behind by ISIL has led to the identification of those members allegedly responsible for leading the development of the programme, and implementing 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,” said Mr. Ritscher. 

Follow the money 

It is also essential that those who financially supported and profited from ISIL crimes are brought to justice, he added, and investigations have uncovered the inner workings of the group’s central treasury. 

“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,” said Mr. Ritscher.  

“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.” 

From impunity to justice 

Mr. Ritscher highlighted the opportunity to “turn the tide from impunity to justice” through maintaining international commitment and unity. 

He pointed to a landmark conviction in Germany this week, where an ISIL member was prosecuted for the crime of genocide in a case involging a young girl from Iraq’s Yazidi community. 

“We now have the chance, collectively, to make such prosecutions the norm, not a celebrated exception,” he told the Council. 

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