On September 21st, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted UNSC Resolution 2379 (2017) of ISIS’ accountability, paving the way for an investigative team to collect evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Iraq. The Resolution potentially opens the way for the militants to be tried under the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ever since it rose to power across Iraq and Syria in 2014, the acts of mass murder and genocide committed by ISIS have shocked the world. In an age of mass-media and interconnection, the militants gleefully filmed their atrocities, uploading them online where they could have maximum impact. For all its claims of fighting against the governments in Damascus and Baghdad, the group’s main victims were often already-marginalised communities of Yazidis, Assyrian Christians, Shabaks, as well as Sunni and Shia civilians.
The sheer number of mass graves and murder sites uncovered since the group has been pushed out of northern Iraq, ranging from victims of milestone events such as the Speicher Massacre to iconic sites such as the Khasfa Sinkhole that is believed to contain some 7000 bodies and to more ad-hoc graves containing people of Mosul who tried to flee the city.
Currently, Iraq is not a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC which would grant the court the authority to deal with ISIS-linked war crimes committed in Iraq. Furthermore, the Iraqi Government has expressed no interest to join the ICC. Instead, the Iraqi courts have sole jurisdiction under the purview of the country’s counter-terrorism law. However, this means that militants who fled Iraq will be subject to lengthy and often-nebulous extradition agreements that are more-often motivated by political goals.
Furthermore, there are concerns that trials under the Iraqi justice system will be viewed as illegitimate or one sided, leading to a quick case of victor’s justice that denies all the victims of ISIS violence a voice. Such concerns were present when the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was hastily tried and executed. Similarly, some parts of the Iraqi public are concerned that the pervasive corruption in the Iraqi criminal system may allow some culprits to run free.
The present resolution does not guarantee that the ICC will be responsible for the trial. But it does open the path to increased cooperation between the Iraqi Government and the international institutions with better resources and reach. The documentation of evidence is particularly important.
Many governments and social media companies looking to clamp down on extremist content have inadvertently helped the militants when they took down videos and images of ISIS war crimes. Furthermore, Iraqis anxious to recover their loved ones have engaged in ad-hoc exhumations, potentially disturbing evidence in the process.
With evidence and memories fading a bit more each passing day, it is vital for international institutions such as the ICC to document the crimes so that victims of the group can find some degree of closure.