After two years of painstaking investigations, the head of the UN’s ISIS war crimes unit said his team is on the cusp of bringing justice to victims’ families.
British lawyer Karim Khan, QC, was given the task of exposing ISIS crimes in Iraq and holding terrorists accountable, on behalf of the UN team investigating ISIS violations.
More than 200 mass graves containing about 12,000 victims have been identified, revealing the scale of the group’s genocide campaign against the Yazidi community.
Mr Khan’s team investigated 17 of the burial sites, and six years after the atrocities occurred some of the families will finally have the remains of their loved ones returned in January.
Mr Khan has spent his time in Baghdad championing the cause of victims and has vowed to bring them justice.
"We have to get justice and do right by all of the victims," he told The National.
“Communities have been broken and yet they have come together again, they have this yearning for justice.
"They have been tremendously generous and supportive of Unitad but at the same time, they have real concerns because the crimes took place in 2014 to 2016.
“I was appointed in 2018. We came to the ground within three months.
"They will say, ‘Look, 2014, where is my mother? We are now almost in 2021, where is my child?’
“It is extremely painful. They have been let down by the international community.
"Now the international community has promised them justice and we have to make sure we do not disappoint them again.
“Everywhere I go I’m absolutely stunned by the dignity of the victims I have met.
"I find it hugely inspirational that despite suffering such haemorrhages to the soul, they still have this belief that justice has value and we have to deliver it to them.”
Mr Khan said the exhumations enabled victims to be identified and ensured vital evidence was recovered so those responsible could be held accountable.
The UN team has now found evidence linking more than 350 ISIS fighters to the war crimes.
“Our priority is to make sure that we hold those members of ISIS accountable for the acts committed,” Mr Khan said.
“Victims who have been enslaved, raped, who have had loved ones killed and their religious places mosques, churches, temples destroyed, have a right to have their suffering properly acknowledged in a court of law.”
Using more than two million items of data from mobile phones, investigators were able to place ISIS members at the scenes of the atrocities.
The unit has been training Iraqi investigative judges in developing case files for the prosecution of ISIS members for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The team has been working with Iraq to implement a war crimes law, which is expected to be adopted in the next year.
“A new bill is before Parliament at the moment, that bill will allow Iraq to prosecute ISIS not just for acts of terrorism, but for international crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity,” Mr Khan said.
“This is one of the key requirements that the victims and survivors want. This is really important to victims who lost everything.
"I’m hoping that Iraq will be able to pass this law in the first part of next year.”
His team are now compiling case files of evidence to enable prosecutions of those responsible to begin next year.
Despite the positive steps taken, Mr Khan said that the world still needed to be alert.
“Great vigilance is needed. We shouldn’t just think Mosul has been regained,” he said.
“What happened was not ad hoc or spontaneous, but some of the darkest moments we have witnessed in humanity and they were committed by ISIS.
“People were burnt and thrown off buildings, the sexual slavery, putting a weapon into the hands of a toddler who probably could not even speak and making them shoot somebody for no other reason than because ISIS wanted a propaganda video to scare the living daylights out of humanity.
“Accountability is necessary to show their ideology is un-Islamic, it is without any proper basis and is contradictory to all of humanity, and they failed because rather than dividing Iraqis, Iraqis came together.
“But as long as that virulent ideology abounds and it is not properly exposed as having no connection with humanity and Islam, those who are feeling marginalised or have not had education can be seduced by the way that people were seduced previously.
“Our mandate is to expose the shallowness and hollowness of that whole contention and show that there is no basis whatsoever that can justify these type of crimes.
"They are repugnant to all of us.”