This series of special reports examines the struggles and path the survivors of ISIS — particularly minority groups in the Nineveh Plains and Shingal — have taken in their quest for justice after the extremist group rapidly controlled large swathes of territory in northern Iraq in 2014. Critical questions were asked: What do survivors want? What are they doing? What is and can be done at the community, governmental and international levels?
Last December Rudaw correspondent Sangar Abdulrahman entered a big house in a newly liberated neighborhood of east Mosul which ISIS had turned into a women’s jail. Strewn around the house were piles of paperwork, prisoner identity documents and ISIS records.
The scene begged the question: Why was this information not collected and examined, or kept for future investigations into ISIS?
“Military intelligence comes in and they collect everything they consider worthy, but everything else is just dumped on the street,” explained Vera Mironova about what happened the moment after ISIS is routed from an area in Mosul. She is a research fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is conducting research on ISIS fighters.
Mironova suggests two reasons for the documents not being collected. “It’s expensive. Someone has to care. No one cares. And no one has money for that.”
While there are some examples of people assuming the burden of gathering the evidence, often learning as they go, there are equally failures — locally
, and internationally
The politicization of the documentation process
Not only are politicians in Baghdad resisting a thorough investigation, they are perverting evidence to their own advantage, alleged one Iraqi member of parliament.
Ashwaq Jaff is a member of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, which has carried out some investigations. But in Iraq, even the parliament’s own committee has problems trusting the politicians.
“We try to do our best to document the crimes of ISIS, but really it is a difficult situation. Why? Because these files, what can we say, the political forces, each one wants to make it their own, not Iraqi,” said Jaff.
Minority groups complain of the same problem. “MPs only work for their own benefit, not the greater good of the country or all people,” said General Amer Shamoun Mousa, commander of the Nineveh Plains Guard Forces, a Christian militia.
He considers the fact that there are only five Christians in the parliament an impediment to pushing the parliament to address Christian concerns.
Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi researcher specialized in security affairs and armed groups, agrees that Baghdad is not serious about an investigation into ISIS. “The government is using this case for media purposes,” he said, noting that they have no database for the evidence and have made no efforts to prepare a complete file or make any submissions to the international community.
Mironova, the Harvard researcher, does not see any legitimate efforts in Baghdad for prosecution either, partly because there will not be many militants to stand trial. The Iraqi Security Forces are “not taking many prisoners… I mean, they’re dead.”
Even identifying the bodies of those killed is difficult, she said, noting that in many cases, “They’re not even bodies. They’re body parts.” Nobody knows who they are, she said, and “no one cares.”
Surviving ISIS members and supporters are, in many cases, dealt with by locals in a form of vigilante justice. Overnight, bodies turn up in the street, Mironova said. Or they float down the river as Reuters reported recently.
The neighbors are happy because it is “one less ISIS” and the family members of the alleged ISIS members go into hiding, said Mironova.
According to MP Jaff, each political bloc is distorting the facts on the number of victims or mass graves. Even a human rights issue, she said, is dealt with as a political matter.
“This is not right,” Jaff declared. “What we do now, it is a human rights topic so we should protect people, the civil people’s rights. But nobody listens to us, really.”
The suggestion of the Human Rights Committee is to form a foundation or institution to collect all the documents, translate them into other languages, and define the crimes as genocide. For that, she has called on international assistance.
International organizations say it is not easy to work with Baghdad because the government is highly fragmented. “The problem is in Baghdad, it’s very hard to know who to work with,” said Bill Wiley, executive director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), which has signed an agreement with Erbil to assist in investigating ISIS but has no such relationship with the central government.
Wiley, a Canadian lawyer, is familiar with Baghdad as he served as an advisor to the special tribunal that tried Saddam Hussein.
Toby Cadman, a British lawyer, also has trained Iraqi lawyers and judges in the field of criminal investigations, working with groups on how to build cases, primarily against the Iraqi government. This was before ISIS.
Cadman is the co-founder and head of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers. He also sits on the board of CIJA.
He said that Iraq lacks both the political will and the capacity to do a proper investigation of ISIS.
Cadman said he tried in the past to get Baghdad to give jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court (ICC), “But it’s very clear that they have no political will to do that.”
The second-best option, says Cadman, would be a special tribunal operating under Iraqi law, something like what Wiley and the KRG are attempting to do
. “But again, I don’t know how much political will there is to do that.”
Cadman places part of the blame on the international community for not exerting enough pressure on the Iraqi leadership.
Amal Clooney, counsel for Yezidi survivor Nadia Murad, has been able to shine a spotlight and bring high profile people to the table. So far, however, “there hasn’t been any reward. That’s worrying,” Cadman said.
Despite ISIS crimes being condemned and decried by the UN Secretary General and the UN High Commissioner, the international community has no leverage to compel Baghdad into action, Cadman argued.
The risk of getting drawn into some sort of judicial institution with Syria, given the cross-border existence of ISIS, is also a deterrent for Iraqi involvement, he explained.
“So, unfortunately I think, as with many things related to that region, we’re stuck in a vacuum,” he said.
Cadman’s suggestion is to keep pushing internationally and look for an incentive, namely money to pay for the court, and offer guarantees that any prosecution would be limited to ISIS crimes.
He also suggests handpicking a few individuals to be properly trained in criminal investigation, “because I do agree that one of the concerns is that those that are actually documenting, don’t necessarily know how to do it according to standards.”
In the Kurdistan Region there is a concerted effort to conduct proper investigations to international standards but politicized relationships with minority groups are affecting coordination.
The most high profile organization gathering evidence and advocating for justice is Yazda. The Yezidi NGO, along with survivor Nadia Murad, is being represented by Amal Clooney in their efforts to bring a case to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Yazda and the Kurdistan Regional Government have an uneasy relationship. In January the office of the organization was briefly closed by Kurdistan authorities alleging registration issues. Kurdish authorities accused Yazda of overstepping their mandate as an NGO and getting involved in political activities. Charges denied by Yazda.
This kind of dispute is a hindrance in the overall efforts to bring justice to ISIS victims.
In collecting evidence of ISIS crimes the Erbil government has no coordination with Yazda, KRG authorities stated.
There is also distrust between Erbil and Baghdad, though that appears to have compelled Kurdistan authorities into action.
“The political situation is now unsettling and Baghdad has not forwarded a hand to start a court to investigate these crimes and what happened,” said Baravan Hamdi Hussen, General Director, Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs.
“Our proof with our evidence is Mosul liberation - it’s a big case, but they’re just liberating Mosul, they don’t have a team that works to investigate what’s happened in Mosul itself.”
The KRG wants to see international attention brought to the case and they are coordinating with international groups like CIJA and the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) to ensure the investigatory stage meets required standards for international justice.
The problem is that, while Baghdad and Erbil do not have a unified approach and political forces look for their own advantage, evidence is being lost and, once again, victims suffer.
Civil society's role after ISIS
“In the Middle East you have these minority groups who have been so fragmented, the question remains of how to reconstitute them into society,” said Dr. Maria Rita Corticelli.
She is the director of the Center for Genocide Studies at the International University of Erbil and believes that the lack of civil society in the Kurdistan Region contributes to a failure to investigate genocidal crimes, past and present.
"If you have a society where the civil society is strong, you have these groups actually fighting to find the things... it's much easier. There is much more cohesion. And here I see it's very difficult to get that. You have different organizations; there is no collaboration because everything is very segmented. So it's much more difficult to work in a situation like this," she explained about her efforts to research previous genocides against the Kurdistan populations.
Corticelli believes the sectarian nature of most conflicts in Iraq is contributing to the lack of a cohesive effort to document and investigate the crimes committed during the conflicts.
Even before ISIS came minority groups remained suspicious of each other.
Kakai, for example, are famously secretive about their religion and their culture for fear of persecution from some Muslims.
Kurds consider Shabaks part of their people though many Shabaks see themselves as distinct from both Kurds and Arabs. This puts them under pressure from both governments.
“The crimes committed against minority persons by ISIS have only further complicated an already difficult situation,” stated a 2015 report on Iraq’s minorities from Heartland Alliance International and the Masarat Foundation.
The Middle East could learn a lot from the Colombian example about the importance of a vibrant civil society, argued Dr. Antonio Barrios Oveido, professor at the Universidad Latina in Costa Rica who has studied Colombia’s conflict and peace process.
Colombia saw decades of conflict between the government and the rebel group FARC. In 2016, the government of Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace agreement with the group, ending 52 years of armed conflict, and earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
The turning point that finally forced both sides to the table was popular pressure, “because they were the ones that really suffered the consequences of the war in a direct way,” said Barrios Oveido, speaking at a recent conference on genocide at the International University of Erbil.
“It was the precise moment in which the common people, the civil society began to march in the streets, demanding peace - that’s what happened in Colombia. In any moment, the traditional political structures, the economic structures, did not guarantee anything in Colombia and it was the civil society that organized and began demanding peace.”
This is Part VII in a Rudaw English series of special reports on what is being done to document ISIS atrocities and achieve justice for survivors. The authors thank all at Rudaw who contributed including Zhelwan Zeyad and Salim Ibrahim for their editing and translations.