Bottom Line Up Front
- On November 6, the United Nations stated it had found over 200 mass graves in Iraq in areas once held by the Islamic State.
- The UN assessment of at least 12,000 people buried in these mass graves is likely an underestimate of the murders committed by the terrorist group.
- These people are among the estimated 30,000 people murdered by the Islamic State in the three years it held power, also likely a significantly underestimated total of the carnage inflicted, and a number that fails to take into account the brutality and psychological devastation wrought by the group.
- The mass crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic State require a comprehensive and fully-resourced international war crimes trial of its members and associates, not just foreign fighters, but Iraqis and Syrians as well.
The sheer scale of the murder attributed to the so-called Islamic State during its reign over large parts of Iraq (and Syria) from 2014 to 2017 is still becoming clear, though the full extent will likely never be known. The United Nations, among other international organizations, is dutifully attempting to document the crimes of the Islamic State, at least in Iraq, where the group has been enervated from a proto-state to a powerful guerilla-style insurgency. On November 6, the UN released a report that takes a partial, yet important, step toward holding those responsible for the group’s mass murders. Countless foreign fighters have been captured and now await their collective fate, as they languish in Iraqi jails or at temporary detention sites in Syria, many of them administered by Kurdish fighters and other non-state actors, including the Syrian Democratic Forces. The report, entitled ‘Unearthing Atrocities: Mass Graves in territory formerly controlled by ISIL,’ was commissioned by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the UN Human Rights Office.
Ján Kubiš, Special Representative and Head of UNAMI, said ‘the mass grave sites documented in our report are a testament to harrowing human loss, profound suffering and shocking cruelty.’ Documenting these crimes is vital for the victims’ families and communities, as well as for the international community that must hold those who are now in various forms of detention responsible for the crimes they either committed or abetted. The level of wholesale and systemic barbarity requires a more substantial level of international commitment for a fair and transparent accounting and trial of those responsible for these killings. These murders occurred over at least three years, in many separate instances—some highly publicized spectacles of savagery while others were brutal murders committed surreptitiously. Documenting these crimes is a paramount task and proves that groups like the Islamic State will not be permitted to act with impunity without fear of retribution.
The report found at least 202 mass graves in Iraq, mostly in four provinces: Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din and Anbar. Ninewa is the province where the largest city held by the group, Mosul, is located. It is also the site of numerous mass graves, including one called the Khasfa sinkhole,found to contain thousands of murdered Iraqis. The report indicates that these graves are in fact ‘large‐scale crime scenes’ and ‘are sites of harrowing human loss, profound suffering and shocking cruelty.’ Without justice, the crimes of the Islamic State will fester, along with the irreplaceable loss of so many loved ones. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet noted this lingering and compounding pain when she stated, in the report’s release, that the Islamic State’s ‘horrific crimes in Iraq have left the headlines but the trauma of the victims’ families endures, with thousands of women, men and children still unaccounted for.’ The report seeks further assistance from the international community, both technical and financial, in order to process the mass graves, identify the victims (to the extent possible), and find forensic and testimonial evidence to try those responsible in a court of law.
Unfortunately, the international community is far from unified when it comes to what to do with the thousands of captured foreign fighters. Many countries have resorted to citizenship deprivations and others are deliberately stonewalling requests to deal with the issue, with many countries, including many in the West, reluctant to bring these individuals back to their countries of origin to stand trial. Iraq is simply overwhelmed by the number of captured Islamic State fighters and members, both Iraqi and foreign, leading to serious capacity issues. The situation in Syria is even more precarious. Still, it remains crucial that the international community come together and bring those responsible for the killings—many of whom were foreign fighters—to justice in an international court or criminal tribunal for all to see. The scale of the Islamic State’s crimes requires a Nuremberg-level response, from processing the evidence to trying the accused. Not only is this important symbolically, but it could also serve as a deterrent for terrorists and insurgents in future conflicts, while also providing justice to the victims and their families.