Evidence of Isis crimes handed over to Iraqi government

UNITAD mission ends in Iraq amid tensions with Baghdad

BAGHDAD — The United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh (UNITAD), acknowledged the termination of its operations in Iraq was at the directive of the Iraqi government, a move that “poses a setback for victims still seeking justice.”

Christian Ritscher, head of UNITAD, hinted at the premature cessation of the mission, which had yet to fulfill its intended objectives. The next phase is anticipated to involve discussions between the U.N. and Iraq regarding the handling of the team’s archives.

UNITAD, an independent accountability mechanism authorized by the U.N. Security Council, was established to assist local efforts in holding the Islamic State (Isis) accountable by collecting evidence of its genocide and war crimes in Iraq. The team’s creation was a direct response to a request for assistance by the Iraqi government, which recently petitioned the U.N. Security Council to end the mission’s mandate.

In an interview with Al-Sabah newspaper, Ritscher emphasized that the Iraqi government holds the ultimate decision-making authority, asserting that UNITAD’s presence was intended as support from the U.N. and the international community, without undermining Iraq’s sovereignty. “Despite the operational halt, the mission’s goals remain unachieved, with more years possibly required to conclude ongoing investigations,” he said.

He also highlighted the comprehensive scope of the team’s endeavors in Iraq, extending well beyond mere investigations. Ritscher elucidated the multifaceted efforts involving archaeological excavations of mass graves and the digital conversion of millions of documents related to ISIS crimes, all currently under the custody of Iraqi judicial bodies.

Underpinning these efforts, the initiative “to train Iraqi counterparts and experts is set to continue until September, as per the Iraqi government’s request.”

This move aims at leveraging the groundwork laid by UNITAD to further the investigative and legal proceedings against ISIS perpetrators. However, Ritscher noted a limitation: post-September, UNITAD will no longer contribute to the ongoing or new investigations related to these crimes.

“The team has delivered to the Iraqi judiciary a series of encrypted and secured hard drives containing a vast array of information and data sourced from Iraqi entities. This handover also includes reports on mass grave sites to relevant Iraqi counterparts, along with a series of investigative reports to the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council,” he added.

These reports encapsulate the analytical outcomes derived from UNITAD’s investigations into several major crimes perpetrated by ISIS, including financial crimes and the development and use of chemical weapons, “all grounded in foundational evidence.”

Ritscher emphasized the critical importance of transitioning this information into actionable “legal evidence within the framework of specific cases,” aiming to hold ISIS members accountable for their international crimes.

He pointed out that the bulk of this information comprises documents, images, lists, and ledgers left behind by ISIS. “The team has compiled an extensive amount of information on atrocities committed by ISIS, categorizing many as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and in some instances, genocide,” he explained.

The UNIATD chief noted the need for obtaining consent from various sources, including witnesses, third countries, and non-governmental organizations, to use some of the collected evidence. “This requirement, aligned with United Nations standards, applies universally, not just within Iraq, ensuring that all involved parties adhere to strict ethical guidelines in handling sensitive information.”

Looking ahead, a crucial phase of dialogue between the U.N. and Iraq will focus on managing the team’s archive after its mission concludes. “UNITAD’s relationship with various Iraqi authorities, both from the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, has been characterized by robust collaboration and ongoing support, even as the Iraqi government decided to conclude the team’s mission,” he said.

Previously, Farhad Alaaldin, foreign advisor to the Iraqi prime minister, expressed concerns over the team’s cooperation with Iraq.

Speaking to 964media, Alaaldin emphasized Iraq’s demand for the submission of all evidence and archives to Baghdad before the team’s departure.

Alaaldin informed 964media that Iraq submitted a request to the Security Council at the end of last year to terminate UNITAD’s mission after seven years of operation initiated by Iraq itself.

“UNITAD worked to collect and archive evidence in an electronic system, but it did not cooperate as required, despite repeated requests from the Iraqi government,” he added.

The mission, established in 2017, is set to conclude in September, according to Alaaldin.

UNITAD’s Ritscher told Reuters, “Is the work done? Not yet, this is pretty clear. We need more time… If you look at an end-date of September 2024, we will not achieve a completion of all investigative lines.”

Isis perpetrated multiple massacres in Iraq during its four-year reign between 2014 and 2018, including the genocide of members of the Yazidi community in northern Iraq and the Camp Speicher massacre, where hundreds of Iraqi Shia military cadets were executed.