posted on Fri 12 Jul 2019 4:46 PM
Iraq: Briefing on ISIL/Da’esh Accountability (UNITAD)

On Monday (15 July), the Security Council is scheduled to hear a briefing by Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, the Special Adviser and head of the UN Investigative Team for Accountability of Da’esh (UNITAD). This will be Khan’s second briefing to the Council. It is expected that his statement will focus on his second report (S/2019/407) and further developments since its publication in mid-May.

On 21 September 2017, the Council adopted resolution 2379, which requested the Secretary-General to establish an investigative team to support Iraqi domestic efforts to hold the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) accountable for crimes it committed in the country “by collecting, preserving, and storing evidence in Iraq of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.” Additionally, UNITAD is tasked to promote accountability globally for atrocity crimes committed by ISIL in order to counter ISIL narratives that have led people to join the terrorist group. UNITAD is characterised by resolution 2379 as “impartial, independent, and credible”, operating within its Terms of Reference (ToR), the UN Charter, UN best practices and relevant international law including international human rights law.

In his briefing on Monday, Khan may describe the implementation strategy that was laid out in the second report and is based on an initial strategic vision outlined in his first report. The strategy entails three initial areas for investigation, with monthly benchmarks for progress. The three areas are: attacks committed by ISIL against the Yazidi community in the Sinjar district in August 2014, crimes committed by ISIL in Mosul between 2014 and 2016, and the mass killing of unarmed Iraqi air force cadets from Tikrit Air Academy (also known as “Camp Speicher”) in June 2014.

He may also detail the recruitment process for and operating procedures of UNITAD. In this regard, he anticipates that over 80 percent of the investigative and analytical positions will be filled by August. At the time of the report’s publication, women accounted for over 50 percent of senior management positions, and Iraqi nationals for more than one third of professional staff. UNITAD moved into its official premises in April. Facilities for evidence storage and analysis are expected to be completed in a few months. Initial standard operating procedures have now been developed, and arrangements put in place with Iraqi national authorities for the transmission of evidence.

Recent developments regarding UNITAD’s excavations, collection of testimonial evidence, and research on ISIL’s command structure may feature in the meeting. UNITAD has started with the collection from mass grave sites in Iraq of forensic, physical and biological material. The first excavation took place from 13-20 March in Kojo, a village in the Sinjar district. During the reporting period, twelve excavations were completed. The collection of testimonial evidence began in May. UNITAD’s investigations are focusing on those ISIL members who bear the greatest responsibility among the leadership as well as regional and mid-level commanders. For that purpose, UNITAD has completed an initial mapping of the ISIL command structure as it existed between June 2014 and June 2016.

In order to build national and international partnerships and engage all elements of Iraqi society for a successful implementation of its mandate, UNITAD continues to cooperate with the Iraqi government, religious minority groups, non-governmental organisations, survivors, victims’ groups representing communities affected by ISIL, UN member states and groups of states, the UN system, other international organisations, entities from the private sector and academia.

The challenges faced by UNITAD may also be addressed in the meeting. These include the continuing threat posed by ISIL, the cross-border nature of former ISIL territorial control, and how those detained in Syria and other countries in connection with crimes committed by ISIL can be provided with a fair trial.

The international crimes that UNITAD is mandated to investigate are not incorporated into the domestic legal system of Iraq and are currently prosecuted as terrorist crimes. According to the report, UNITAD is in conversation with Iraqi authorities with regard to mechanisms for the domestication of those crimes, and potential specialised forums for respective cases.

Council members are expected to express support for the ongoing work of Khan and his team. In this regard, they may reiterate messages conveyed in the press statement issued following their recent visiting mission (SC/13869), in which they underscored their support for UNITAD and its importance, as well as the need for UNITAD’s operations to respect Iraq’s sovereignty. In that statement, they further stressed the importance of UNITAD’s independence and impartiality, and that UNITAD should “make every effort to share knowledge and technical assistance with Iraq.”

One issue where members may differ is the interpretation of resolution 2379 and the ToR (S/2018/118). Members who oppose capital punishment may again voice their concern over evidence collected by UNITAD that could lead to the application of the death penalty. Other members may stress that this issue falls under Iraq’s sovereign right to decide how to use the evidence gathered by UNITAD in their domestic proceedings, a point also emphasised by the representative of Iraq in his statement at the 4 December briefing by Khan.

Khan’s appointment as Special Adviser and head of UNITAD was announced by the Secretary-General on 31 May 2018, and UNITAD formally began its work on 20 August 2018. In line with the 90-day deadline set out in resolution 2379, the first report (S/2018/1031) was published on 16 November 2018, and Khan briefed the Council for the first time on 4 December 2018 (S/PV.8412). Resolution 2379 establishes a 180-day reporting cycle for subsequent reports. In late December 2018, the Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly approved a 2019 budget of around $19.5 million for UNITAD. Apart from these assessed contributions, UNITAD continues to rely on voluntary contributions made to the trust fund established by resolution 2379. According to Khan’s second report, contributors to the trust fund are Cyprus, the Netherlands, Qatar, Slovakia, the UK, and the US. The countries who have committed to providing expert personnel are Germany, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Turkey. Resolution 2470, renewing the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), maintains as one component the support of UNITAD.

Looking ahead, in Monday’s meeting Khan may outline priorities for the Investigative Team for the upcoming months, which include establishing three fully operational field investigation units, mapping the ongoing Iraqi domestic proceedings related to ISIL and identifying common evidentiary gaps faced by states that are prosecuting ISIL members.

As for the next steps, the mandate of UNITAD will have to be reviewed ahead of 21 September 2019, having been authorised for an initial period of two years by resolution 2379.