The international community has reached a crucial moment in the pursuit of justice for the atrocities committed by the ISIL terrorist group in Iraq, according to the new head of a special UN investigative team who addressed the Security Council in New York on Thursday.
Special Adviser Christian Ritscher, delivering his first briefing to ambassadors, explained that the evidence collected thus far is substantial enough to support trials. He stated, “Through our effective engagement with survivors and witnesses, and by exploiting the extensive digital footprints left behind by its members in battlefield evidence, we can already connect the actions of individuals to the commission of these crimes.”
The UN investigative team, known as UNITAD, is tasked with gathering evidence of ISIL’s crimes against various Iraqi communities, which encompass mass executions and the use of chemical and biological weapons. These crimes occurred during ISIL's reign of terror from June 2014 to December 2017.
Mr. Ritscher stated, “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.” He further emphasized that a new landscape is emerging in which individuals who believed themselves to be beyond the reach of justice could be held accountable in a court of law.
Mr. Ritscher provided an overview of UNITAD's recent activities, including working with Iraqi authorities to exhume bodies from a mass grave near the city of Mosul. These victims were executed by ISIL at Badush Central Prison in June 2014, with a focus on their religion. The analysis of evidence, such as digital records, documents, testimonies, and forensic findings, has identified several individual ISIL members responsible for these crimes. The conclusion is that these actions constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The evidence from the Badush Prison attacks underscores the detailed planning undertaken by ISIL in carrying out these atrocities.
In addition to documenting crimes, Mr. Ritscher addressed ISIL's chemical and biological weapons program. He emphasized that this program was not an opportunistic use of fortunate circumstances but rather a strategic priority that aligned with a long-term vision. The evidence showed that ISIL clearly identified and seized chemical weapon production facilities and sources of precursor materials. Additionally, the University of Mosul Campus was overtaken as a hub for research and development. Teams of technical and scientific experts, including those brought in from abroad, worked to adapt and enhance the program. New expertise led to a more diversified and sophisticated chemical weapons program, resulting in over 3,000 victims identified to date.
Moreover, the investigations have revealed the inner workings of ISIL's central treasury. Mr. Ritscher stressed the importance of holding those who financially supported and profited from ISIL's crimes accountable. The investigation has identified a network of senior ISIL leaders who also acted as trusted financiers, diverting wealth gained through pillage, property theft from targeted communities, and the imposition of a systematic and exploitative taxation system on those living under ISIL control.
Mr. Ritscher called for continued international commitment and unity to shift from impunity to justice. He cited a landmark conviction in Germany in which an ISIL member was prosecuted for the crime of genocide involving a young girl from Iraq's Yazidi community. He encouraged making such prosecutions the norm rather than a celebrated exception.