UNITAD–Stanford University Collaboration; Promoting Best Practices for Working with Survivors of Severe Trauma

The United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for ISIL/Da’esh Crimes (UNITAD)’s mandate is to assist in holding members of ISIL accountable for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide committed in Iraq through collecting, preserving, and storing evidence in line with international standards. Given the traumatic experiences that victims and witnesses of ISIL crimes have encountered, UNITAD’s Witness Protection and Support Unit (WPSU) has adopted a victim-centered approach, in line with international practices and standards, in its strategy to ensure that no further harm is caused to witnesses as part of the collection of testimonial evidence.

Stanford University’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program (HRTMHP) is one of the partners UNITAD is collaborating with to support its investigative work through a series of activities including training of investigators on best practices for working with survivors of severe trauma, provision of specialist assessments as needed, and gathering of mental health data. This falls in line with the victim-centered strategy UNITAD’s WPSU has adopted in carrying out its activities.

“There is an overwhelming number of communities affected by the traumas of human rights abuse across the globe,” said Professor David Cohen, Director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice. “Combined with growing evidence demonstrating that such trauma is a primary contributor to major physical and mental health disorders, as well as significant negative life outcomes, the Program’s mission of promoting accountability, informing justice processes, and advocating for the victims and survivors of human rights abuses is all the more important.”

UNITAD, in collaboration with the faculty of Stanford University’s HRTMHP, held a 7-module contextualized training course primarily for investigators, analysts and interpreters focusing on best practices for working with survivors of severe trauma. The training, held between April 30 and May 8, 2020, was led by Stanford’s core faculty and UNITAD senior staff members. The training was co-facilitated by UNITAD’s Lead Clinical Psychologist and mental health expert and core faculty from the HRTMHP, including Dr. Daryn Reicherter, Dr. Ryan Matlow, Dr. Lisa Brown and Dr. Beth Van Schaack. Specialist input to the training included guest lectures from UNITAD’s Director of Investigations and Head of the Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes and Crimes against Children Unit. We also had a special guest Dr. Nagham Hasan, Gynecologist and Yazidi Activist, along with the Gender Advisor and Child Rights Advisor from the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM).

The seven training modules discussed Effects of Trauma on Human Psychology; Trauma Psychology Through the Lens of Culture and Language; The Interview – Using Trauma Informed Techniques for Interviewing Vulnerable Witnesses; Special Populations: Working with Child Witnesses; Special Populations: Working with SGBV Witnesses; Special Populations: Working with Prisoners and Perpetrators; and Secondary Trauma and Self-Care for the Investigative Team. Reading material to support these courses was provided by Stanford University and UNITAD. Each training module was set for 1hr 20 minutes, and the sessions adopted an active learning approach, part didactic and discussion based. The modules were designed to encourage contributions from investigators and analysts’ own practical experiences and those gained in the field. They provided UNITAD team members with different opportunities to discuss issues of importance, sharing of knowledge and gaps relating to investigative work with survivors of traumatic events. The contributions enriched discussions and were mutually beneficial to the overall learning experience.  The training was initially planned to take place in Iraq. However, due to the extraordinary circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic, the trainings were conducted virtually.

Over the past 9 months, UNITAD’s WPSU mental health experts have worked with the HRTMHP team to support the provision of specialist assessments (psychiatric and psychological screening of witnesses) and contributed to discussions on best practices for the collection and analysis of mental health data. UNITAD takes into account the needs of witnesses in a holistic manner where adequate measures are incorporated to protect the safety, physical and psychological well-being, confidentiality and dignity of victims and witnesses, respect, appropriate assistance, sensitivity to special needs, consent and right to information. UNITAD has also developed working practices and methods for interviewing victims of conflict related sexual and gender-based violence, and violence against children, and continues to update them further as investigations progress. In collaboration with relevant Iraqi authorities, the Team explores ways and methods by which protection measures are implemented and adapted in the Iraqi context

The Team’s clinical psychologists are experienced mental health specialists who work with vulnerable people and groups, such as victims of sexual violence, traumatized children and adults, within the criminal justice system. They play a crucial role in identifying and recommending measures to facilitate the testimony of witnesses to the fullest possible extent in emotionally safe and reassuring environment without suffering further harm. They also train UNITAD staff members on issues relevant to witnesses' and victims' mental health and psychosocial support, secondary victimization and trauma, especially with regard to children and adults, survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and other vulnerable groups.

The mental health outcomes and welfare of survivor communities – whether Christian, Kakai’i, Shabak, Shia, Sunni, Turkmen, or Yazidi – are at the center of UNITAD’s efforts. “I have been consistently impressed with the expertise and professionalism I have seen from HRTMHP faculty and staff under the leadership of Dr. Reicherter, including in the time we spent together in Baghdad last year,” said Special Adviser and Head of the Investigative Team Karim A. A. Khan QC. “Addressing trauma psychology is a critical part of UNITAD investigations given the serious implications for victims and survivors, as well as investigators themselves. UNITAD’s team of psychologists bring a wealth of experience in mental health, expertise in trauma, and cross-cultural psychology. The collaboration with HRTMHP has strengthened the assistance provided to the investigations and reflects our survivor-centered approach implemented from the outset of our investigations.”

The partnership with HRTMHP will continue throughout the year, including the drafting of a field guide for investigators that reflects international best practices for working with survivors of severe trauma, with a focus on children and survivors of sexual and gender – based crimes.