Admissible evidence, competent courts, critical to ensuring justice for ISIL victims in Iraq
Competent courts, admissible and reliable evidence, and an appropriate legal framework are needed to ensure that ISIL extremist militants can be prosecuted for the atrocities they committed during their reign of terror in Iraq, the UN Security Council heard on Wednesday.
Ambassadors were briefed by Christian Ritscher, Special Adviser and Head of the UN Investigative Team to promote accountability for these crimes, UNITAD, established five years ago.
The Islamist group declared a self-styled caliphate across parts of Iraq and northern Syria in 2014, before being militarily defeated and driven from Iraq in December 2017.
Commitment stronger than ever
Presenting UNITAD's 10th report, he informed of progress to date, including supporting the digitization of millions of documents which are now in the possession of the Iraqi judiciary.
Investigators have also produced a case-assessment on ISIL’s development and use of chemical weapons. Further details will be outlined during an event at UN Headquarters in New York on Thursday, co-hosted alongside Iraq and India.
“Today, the commitment of the Iraqi Government, in partnership with UNITAD, to advance the fight against impunity, seek justice in the name of victims and survivors - most of whom are Iraqis - and to address the remaining threat posed by ISIL, is stronger than ever,” he said.
Mission not over
However, the mission is far from over. Mr. Ritscher stressed that “UNITAD’s work is to not simply establish a record for ISIL crimes, but to hold ISIL members who committed such heinous international crimes accountable, through evidence-based trials and before competent courts.”
“International crimes” refers to the serious violations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The UN team is already working closely with competent Iraqi investigative judges who support their investigations, he said.
“In turn, UNITAD is enhancing their capacities and ensuring that Iraqi courts are ready to hold ISIL perpetrators accountable for their international crimes, when the moment comes,” he added.
Mountains of evidence
Mr. Ritscher assured the Council that there is no shortage of evidence of ISIL crimes, describing the terrorist group as “a large-scale bureaucracy that documented and maintained a State-like administrative system.”
“What we aim to do is to ensure that this evidence is admissible before any competent court, whether in Iraq or in other States where prosecutions of ISIL members for international crimes are taking place,” he said.
Archiving digitized documents
In this regard, UNITAD has been leading a largescale project to digitize “considerable volumes” of ISIL records and battlefield evidence. So far, eight million pages from the holdings of the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities have been digitized.
“Senior Iraqi Judges have informed me that their response times in relation to case files and requests for information have significantly improved, signalling lasting change because of these innovative efforts,” he said.
As a next step, UNITAD is establishing a central archive that will be the unified repository of all digitized evidence against ISIL. The archive will be located at the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq and launched in the coming days.
“This central repository will play a key role to support prosecutions of ISIL perpetrators for their international crimes in Iraq. Moreover, it could be a milestone to founding a comprehensive e-justice system in Iraq, which can be upheld as a leading example, not only in the region, but also globally,” he said.
Legal framework key
Meanwhile, adopting an appropriate domestic legal framework remains the main challenge, Mr. Ritscher told the Council.
He underlined UNITAD’s committed to supporting the Iraqi-led process towards a legal framework that enables national courts to prosecute ISIL criminal acts as international crimes.
He pointed to the recent establishment of a joint working group bringing together Government, legal and judicial representatives, as well as key parliamentarians, as an important step forward.
“Once an appropriate domestic legislation on international criminal law has been adopted, the way forward will be clearer. I remain hopeful that this will happen sooner rather than later,” he said.
Preparing for future trials
In parallel, UNITAD has already begun to contribute to the preparation of future trials.
The Team has intensified cooperation with counterparts in the Iraqi judiciary, to jointly build cases against specific persons of interest and alleged perpetrators, prioritizing those living outside Iraq.
Investigators are currently supporting some 17 countries, by conducting witness interviews, as well as providing expert testimonies and technical analysis in criminal proceedings against alleged ISIL members and supporters.