Special Adviser Christian Ritscher Briefing to the UNSC, 04 Dec 2023-11th Report


Security Council


Briefing by Mr. Christian Ritscher

Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh / Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant

December 2023


Mr. President,


Distinguished Members of the Security Council,


I am pleased to present the eleventh Report of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for the Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL, or of UNITAD.


This report, and my update to you today, include significant milestones in the work of the Team, and comes at a critical juncture for the Team itself and its future direction.


As a priority, UNITAD remains committed to delivering on its core mandated tasks as stipulated in Resolution 2379 (2017), conducted in line with the Terms of Reference.


The Team has equally taken steps since September to implement Resolution 2697 (2023), which extends the mandate of UNITAD until 17 September 2024 only and requests it to fulfill additional tasks towards the implementation of both Resolutions.


Over the past weeks, I have been working closely with our counterparts in the Government of Iraq on this and wish to take a moment to specifically acknowledge the time, thought and effort they have dedicated in this regard; their continued support of our work; and the constructive consultations we have started in follow-up of Resolution 2697.


This was apparent during a number of my meetings, particularly with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs; the National Security Adviser, and the Chair of the National Coordinating Committee (NCC). I have also had the opportunity to speak with counterparts in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), who have been equally supportive and forthcoming in their views.


In these meetings and elsewhere, I have sought to underline how UNITAD has adjusted its priorities against the backdrop of these two Resolutions, and articulate the concerns the Team has for its work based on the current timeline ahead of it.




One such priority has been to ensure that our investigations conclude in a deliberate and orderly manner, so that a body of meaningful outputs produced by the Team can be used effectively to serve international criminal investigations and proceedings - both in Iraq and beyond.


To this end, during the reporting period, the Team finalized and shared a comprehensive case assessment report on the development and use of chemical weapons by ISIL with the Iraqi Judiciary. This includes extensive investigative findings based on three years of dedicated fieldwork.


This report is a milestone in our pioneering line of investigations that examines how ISIL developed and deployed chemical weapons in Iraq, including against the Shia Turkmen minority in the town of Taza Khurmatu.


Furthermore, the Team published a comprehensive assessment detailing the heinous crimes of sexual violence perpetrated by ISIL during their brutal reign. The report was published yesterday and highlights the extensive nature of these acts against Iraqi women and girls from all affected communities.


This accompanies case assessments shared previously with Iraqi judicial counterparts focused on ISIL’s financing network; and those that are forthcoming from other investigations, notably the crimes committed against the Yazidi and Christian communities; the attack on Badush prison, and the massacre of unarmed military personnel and cadets at the Tikrit Air Academy, known as Camp Speicher.


It is important to underline that when these assessments are shared, they are delivered in line with our mandate and Terms of Reference.


More broadly, investigative resources of the Team have been shifted to expedite less advanced investigations and their planned outputs. I have aimed to underline this shift in our investigative strategy to my counterparts in Iraq and I formally shared a list of expected investigative reports over the coming months.


However, it is important to keep in mind that, despite a shift of resources and intensifying our efforts, it will likely be the case that - by September 2024 - the Team will not be able to deliver final outputs on all lines of inquiry it has initiated, but will only be able to deliver preliminary findings for those lines of investigations rather than comprehensive reports.


Further, the Team will also be deprioritizing what cannot be completed within one year. This includes some key, but complex investigations, such as the:


  • crimes committed by ISIL in Mosul;
  • ISIL’s destruction of cultural heritage;
  • The pillaging of oil and other natural resources in Iraq by ISIL;
  • The question of ISIL’s genocidal intent against the Shia community; and
  • The Team’s work on Al Hol returnees, a file that is expected to need years of work in Iraq and elsewhere.


Most probably, none of the outputs of these different investigative lines will be designed to be an end outcome.


Mr. President, distinguished Delegates,


I highlighted during my previous briefing in June how the work of the Team should not just establish a record of international crimes committed by ISIL, but must be used to hold ISIL members who committed such crimes to account; through evidence-based trials and before competent courts, in Iraq as well as in third states.


A practical example serving this purpose is what UNITAD has been doing, based on its investigative work, through the Team’s cooperation with the Iraqi judiciary to develop joint case files of alleged ISIL perpetrators in third states.


During the reporting period, the first such joint case file was developed and shared with the concerned third state. This supported investigations into an alleged ISIL perpetrator for international crimes committed in Iraq, and ultimately helped lead to the arrest of this suspect.


The Team intends to carry forward with this joint modality as it represents a framework through which the Team and Iraq can meaningfully and closely cooperate, share information, and put to use their respective evidence and knowledge to hold ISIL members accountable for their international crimes.




In parallel, UNITAD remains committed to supporting Iraq establish a legal basis domestically to investigate and prosecute international crimes.


During the reporting period, the Team worked hand-in-hand with Iraqi counterparts through this Iraq-led process, and provided a series of technical comments on a proposed draft legislation and its alignment with international and customary law. Just in September of this year, UNITAD organized a workshop for Iraqi lawmakers and legal experts, which was hosted by the Iraqi Council of Representatives. Two prominent international law experts presented and discussed with national stakeholders details regarding the needed legal framework and principles relevant to this process of a domestication of international criminal law in Iraq. 


The establishment of such a legal basis for international crimes would open new horizons for Iraq as it paves the way for trials against ISIL perpetrators on such charges, with the participation of Iraqi victims and witnesses. This is not only what UNITAD is meant to support, but also the main demand of victim and survivor communities in Iraq: to see their day in court. 




Mr. President, distinguished Delegates,


The work of the Team is not only about investigations, but also about evidence management. One of our priorities in this regard during the reporting period has been to position our evidence collection, preservation and management capabilities to support what will be agreed in light of the upcoming report of the Secretary-General and the roadmap, which UNITAD will develop in consultation with the Government of Iraq as requested in Resolution 2697.


UNITAD holdings currently contain 39 terabytes of information that has been collected over the last five years from a diverse range of sources - a substantial amount of data. This includes records collected from Iraqi authorities – which is the vast majority –, from civil society organizations, and open sources as well as statements and other materials collected from individuals in Iraq, mostly witnesses.


A large majority of this reservoir of evidence has been processed onto the ‘electronic discovery platform’ of the Team, and is accessed daily by its investigators, lawyers and analysts for their work; some of this data that has been collected by the Team, however, has yet to be processed onto this platform.


During this reporting period, additional evidence was added to these holdings notably through cooperation with the Iraqi judiciary in the area of digital forensics, digitization and archiving, as well as forensic data obtained through the excavation of a dozen of new mass graves in support of the Iraqi Mass Grave Directorate and Medico-Legal Directorate.


What will happen with these holdings and how it can be shared with Iraq remains at the heart of Resolution 2697.


The Team looks forward to further guidance to this end in the upcoming report of the Secretary-General next month, and intends to further develop the roadmap, in consultation with the Government of Iraq, based on this.


During those consultations, the Team stands ready to articulate the core principles that have guided its evidence collection, storage, and respective sharing with counterparts. UNITAD adheres to these principles to ensure the broadest possible use and admissibility of evidence before national courts and by national investigative and prosecutorial authorities, as set out in its Terms of Reference.


Over the past years, the Team has successfully maintained and managed this reservoir of evidence holdings, and provided support accordingly. We have worked on specific requests for assistance to support specific investigations, and shared tailored information, in line with the Team’s mandate. When it comes to sharing, the Team examines whether the requesting national judicial authority has the jurisdiction and competence to hold ISIL accountable for acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.


This is done on a case-by-case basis, and support has been provided when there is a prospect for international crimes charges, and the information provider grants consent to such sharing.




Mr. President, distinguished Delegates,


When I assumed my responsibilities as Special Adviser, my firm belief was that Iraq is the main ally and partner of UNITAD. This has not changed at all.


This Council knows best that the consent of the Host Government in any given context is key for a UN mission to conduct its work. But I would like to stress that it is even more crucial for an investigative team with a unique mandate, such as UNITAD.


Since the beginning, the Team has been working in Iraq, at the request of its government, and in partnership with Iraqi counterparts, to investigate ISIL crimes against all affected communities in the country. We have conducted our work accordingly with full respect to the sovereignty of Iraq and will continue to do so. It remains up to Iraq to exercise its sovereign right to decide on the future of this mission.


However, let me stress that a premature and abrupt ending of UNITAD can only mean a loss for all those concerned. This is why I urge the Government of Iraq and the esteemed members of this Council to give due consideration to the end state of our mandate more than the end date.


Over the next weeks and months, I will continue to work closely with all Iraqi counterparts to furnish possibilities and present different scenarios. It will be up to Iraq to choose an option, we will of course abide by that choice.


While UNITAD was never meant to last forever, we all have a collective responsibility to ensure that the work it has done will not be lost.


I was particularly encouraged to hear from the Chair of the National Coordinating Committee, recently that we are on the same page. Our shared goal is to ensure that the work of the Team can be used to support accountability efforts in Iraq and throughout the world.


We also agreed that the capacity building and support the Team is providing to Iraqi authorities must not only continue, but also intensify, to ensure that national capacities remain sustainable and operational over the long-term.


This includes areas such as digital forensics; evidence preservation and management; and mass grave excavations as well as technical assistance to the Witness Protection Department within the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, and trainings to local NGOs and the Ministry of Health in the area of psychological support.


All this support which UNITAD provides, has continued to progress during the reporting period. The Team has relentlessly endeavored to better enable national counterparts to conduct their work independently and without the involvement of the Team in the future.




Mr. President, distinguished Delegates,


One of the most tangible outputs of UNITAD is its support to third state investigations and prosecutions. This ensures that the gap in global accountability does not expand, and further allow impunity to persist.


The Team has supported 209 requests from 20 third states to date, and the demand for this support has been growing, and can only be expected to grow.


Whether with regard to ISIL foreign fighters who have returned to their countries of origin; ISIL spouses who claim they had no idea about ISIL’s reign of terror, or perpetrators who have fled Iraq to seek safe haven abroad - the large number of ISIL perpetrators around the globe will only fuel this demand. We must not forget that many of those perpetrators were very young when committing their crimes, and may face investigation and charges for international crimes in the decades to come.


This function that UNITAD here fulfills - cross-checking against its evidence holdings; identifying witnesses and taking testimony - to support third states is a concrete measure of global accountability by any stretch, and a monumental step in combatting impunity. To a large extent, investigations and trials against ISIL perpetrators who tried to escape justice would not be possible in these countries if my Team hadn’t provided legal assistance. It has always been our goal to close impunity gaps throughout the world. ISIL perpetrators who committed heinous mass atrocities against Iraqi citizens must not remain unpunished wherever they try to hide. I personally in my former capacity as Federal Prosecutor and Head of a War Crimes Unit in Germany was glad to benefit from the expertise of a responsive investigative team. UNITAD has always been able to close the gaps within the chain of proof. Thus, the Team significantly contributed to convictions of ISIL defendants throughout the world.  


Let me stress here that I commend the commitment of Iraq to support our cooperation with third states. With the approval of the Chief Justice, Foreign Minister and the Chair of the National Coordinating Committee, I am pleased to note that an agreed modality which better outlines the Team’s evidence sharing with third states has been concluded, per Resolution 2697.


The Team also worked during the reporting period to better communicate to the government of Iraq what previous evidence has been shared with third states, again as per Resolution 2697, and remains engaged with all relevant counterparts to this end.




Mr. President, distinguished Members of the Security Council,


Let me conclude my remarks with a reflection based on my recent engagements with affected communities in Iraq - those who are the victims and witnesses of ISIL and its heinous crimes.


They are the ones who see the work of UNITAD as a beacon of hope, and an opportunity to have their voices heard, their suffering acknowledged, and their stories told.


They are the ones demanding that the crimes from which they suffered are adjudicated as international crimes, whether it concerns alleged acts of genocide, of war crimes or crimes against humanity.


I was reminded of this during a recent discussion with a father of a Camp Speicher victim who founded, with other impacted families, an NGO dedicated to serving justice for their beloved ones, who are the victims of that atrocious massacre. 


I was reminded of this during a mission to Anbar where I stood together with local officials, tribal leaders, survivors, and civil society representatives at the crime scene of ISIL massacres against Sunnis who refused to pledge allegiance.


The completion phase of the Investigative Team should not mean that their hope for justice and their quest for accountability dims with it. A meaningful completion of our mandate and an orderly transition must be a guarantee for them.


We must ensure that those who had the courage to speak-up against ISIL crimes are not let down or left behind;


We must make certain that their security is assured, that they are protected, and that the trauma they have endured because of what they have experienced and seen can be addressed;


And we must ensure that those who have not spoken up yet, but want to exercise their right to come forward, can do so of their own accord in a safe and welcoming forum.


We must keep the common goal of serving justice for those victims and survivors in our heart and mind as we continue to implement the resolutions of this esteemed Council and our collective work.


I thank you kindly for your attention and continued support.