A United Nations team investigating atrocities in Iraq found “clear and compelling evidence” that ISIL (ISIS) “committed” genocide against the Yazidi minority in 2014, its head has said, adding that the armed group successfully developed chemical weapons and used mustard gas.
In a report to the UN Security Council on Monday, Karim Khan said the team had also concluded that ISIL committed war crimes against predominantly Shia unarmed cadets and personnel from the Tikrit Air Academy who were captured, tortured and subjected to mass killings in June 2014.
He said an ISIL video released in July 2015 showing the killings “constitutes a direct and public incitement to commit genocide against Shia Muslims”.
The Security Council voted unanimously in September 2017 to ask the UN to establish an investigative team to help Iraq preserve evidence and promote accountability for what “may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide” committed by ISIL, in Iraq and the Levant region, which includes Syria.
In his sixth report to the council, Khan said the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) rapidly expanded the amount of evidence it has over the past six months.
He said “significant developments” in collecting forensic evidence from mass grave sites, digital data extracted from hard drives that belonged to ISIL, digitisation of case files, and use of advanced technological tools to process and search databases has allowed the team “to establish clear timelines of activities of key ISIL members.”
Khan called it “a landmark moment” that UNITAD had established convincing evidence that ISIL committed genocide “against the Yazidi as a religious group” in the Sinjar region with the intent “to destroy the Yazidi physically and biologically.”
This was manifest in the ISIL ultimatum applied to all Yazidis “to convert or die” and led to thousands killed, “either executed en masse, shot as they fled, or dying from exposure on Mount Sinjar as they tried to escape”, Khan said. “Thousands more were enslaved, with women and children abducted from their families and subjected to the most brutal abuses, including serial rape and other forms of unendurable sexual violence” that for many lasted years, “often leading to death”.
The Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority numbering approximately 550,000 in their heartland of northwest Iraq before ISIL swept through the rugged region in 2014. Their belief combines elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. ISIL, which considers the Yazidis heretics, slaughtered thousands of Yazidi men, abducted women and girls and forced boys to fight on its behalf during the time it controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Khan said crimes against the Yazidis continue, with thousands of women and children separated from their families or missing and some still with their ISIL captors or those to whom they were sold.
Last year, Amnesty International warned that nearly 2,000 Yazidi children and other survivors who were subjected to horrendous human rights abuses at the hands of ISIL were not getting the help they needed to deal with lasting physical and mental trauma, as well as severe debilitating long-term illnesses or physical impairments.
SA @KarimKhanQC in his 6th briefing to the #UNSC: I can confirm to the Council that based on our independent criminal investigations, @UNITAD_Iraq has established clear and convincing evidence that #Genocide was committed by #ISIL against the #Yazidis as a religious group. pic.twitter.com/SBJIIA0FRR
— UNITAD (@UNITAD_Iraq) May 10, 2021
In 2016, the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria also said ISIL was committing genocide against Yazidis, and several NGOs have echoed that conclusion.
But Khan said what UNITAD has done in terms of the Yazidis is more important because the team was mandated to look at a variety of evidence that could stand up in court where the burden of proof is on the prosecution – “and to not just draw brush strokes from a survey of victims”.
Khan further said information from electronic devices that belonged to the armed group also led UNITAD to open a new investigation “into the development and successful deployment of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL in Iraq.”
Evidence collected by UNITAD details how the group used laboratories at Mosul University “as the epicentre of its chemical weapons program, drawing on the expertise of scientists and medical professionals from Iraq and abroad,” Khan said.
Initially, he said, ISIL weaponised chlorine from water treatment plants captured by its fighters in 2014 and subsequently developed “toxic lethal compounds including thallium and nicotine that were tested on live prisoners, leading to death”.
ISIL then developed a system to produce mustard gas, also called sulfur mustard, “that was deployed in March 2016 through the firing of 40 rockets at the Turkmen Shia town of Taza Khurmatu,” Khan said.
Khan, who will become the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court on June 15, said the investigation is rapidly progressing, with initial results anticipated to be completed within five months.
By the end of the year, he said, the team also anticipates initial results “addressing crimes against minority Christians, Kaka’i, Shabak, Shia Turkmen and Sunni communities in Iraq, as well as the massacre of predominantly Shia inmates at Badush prison.”
Khan said the next step is to use the information and evidence collected by UNITAD “to meet the expectations of survivors” and put it before national courts to prosecute those responsible for these “horrific crimes.”
He expressed hope that Iraqi legislators will adopt a legal basis to prosecute ISIL members for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
He welcomed legislation presented to parliament in Iraq’s Kurdistan region last week to establish a court with jurisdiction over international crimes committed by ISIL.