Foreign Affairs

The Need to Investigate ISIL War Crimes

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What is ISIL doing?

ISIL, the so-called Islamic State, has brought nothing but pain and destruction since it emerged in 1999. This terrorist group participated in the Iraqi insurgency following the 2003 invasion by Western forces. As a result, these groups were able to control large swathes of Syria and Iraq from 2014 until 2017, and it still exists, committing terror attacks in 2021

ISIL’s brutal interpretation of Sharia Law was so extreme that even other groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda condemned them for their horrific acts of violence. ISIL has also been far more effective than other Islamist groups at encouraging westerners to join them by utilising social media which makes them a global threat and still incredibly dangerous despite their territorial losses.

Some of the acts they committed include, but are not limited to:

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) has stated that the Islamic State: “seeks to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror, indoctrination, and the provision of services to those who obey”.

These severe breaches of human rights and international law have led organisations like the UN, EU, and national governments to find ISIL and its members guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The group has rightfully been branded a criminal organisation – similar to the Nazis towards the end of WW2.

Like the National Socialists, ISIL systematically exterminated “undesirable” ethnic and religious minorities (especially the Yazidis, Christians, the Druze, and Shia Muslims) within its occupied territories. 

Genocide involves not only the whole scale murder of entire communities but also the destruction of their culture in an attempt to eradicate everything about their victims. This is why ISIL militants engaged in the destruction of cultural artefacts in museums, destroyed religious and ceremonial buildings, and pre-Islamic sites such as the ancient city of Palmyra.

Crimes against humanity are so named because they are an assault on the whole of humanity, and genocide is the most egregious of these. The term genocide was first coined by Raphael Lomkin in 1944 as a response to the horrors of the Holocaust and other Nazi Genocides – though the definition he used was based on the Armenian Genocide from WW1. Even though pre-WW2 there were no official laws against genocide, the Holocaust was so horrific that its criminality was self-evident.      

Issues to overcome

There are difficulties with establishing an international tribunal which Anthony Dworkin reviews for the ecrf.eu. For example, where would it be based? One answer would be The Hague itself, similar to the Yugoslav trials and the home of the International Criminal Court. Another potential location would be Iraq or Syria – the two countries most affected by ISIL. 

Syria is still unstable, with non-state actors still controlling large parts of the country, so many European nations consider Iraq a more viable option. But this does present issues. Firstly, Iraq’s 2005 constitution states that “special or exceptional courts may not be established”, so holding an international tribunal in the nation may require constitutional change. Iraq allows the death penalty, which European governments might have a problem with, especially considering that approximately 5,000 European citizens joined ISIL. 

Also, would it be a full international tribunal like those established for the former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan Genocide, or a hybrid domestic-internal body like the Special Court for Sierra Leone?

Progress so far

As early as 2014, the UN started investigating ISIL fighters for war crimes/crimes against humanity. A report by Human Rights Watch that same year brought to light human rights violations in ISIL occupied Derba (Libya) and recommended those responsible for violating the laws of war must be held legally accountable either by domestic courts or by the International Criminal Court. 

In May 2021, the UNITAD team found “clear and convincing evidence” of Genocide against the Yazidis. The UN teams in Iraq have been working closely with the Iraqi government and other world governments (including the UK) to gather evidence, including heart-breaking testimonies from survivors, forensic evidence from mass graves and digital data extracted from ISIL hard drives to build up the most robust case possible to bring ISIL criminals to justice. Mr Khan, who headed the UN investigation until May 2021, told the UN Security Council:   

“Now it is our collective responsibility to ensure that the evidence collected is put before national courts to prosecute those most responsible.” 

and

“Legislation of course is needed to ensure that Iraq has the legal architecture in place to prosecute this haemorrhage of the human soul: not as common crimes of terrorism, heinous though they are, but as acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes,” 

Justice can be slow at the best of times, and investigating crimes against humanity is even slower. After all, crimes committed by those working for Nazi Germany are still brought to trial in 2021, and Ratko Mladic’s (a Bosnian Serb commander responsible for the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre) life sentence was confirmed in June 2021.

Charitable organisations like Yazda are also campaigning to bring ISIL to court, help document the Yazidi Genocide, provide medical support, and preserve their culture. 

Why is it so important?

I know that learning about these horrific events that only happened in the last few years is incredibly upsetting. I understand why you would not want to read any of the articles referenced above, but it is important. Bringing those responsible for the most appalling crimes imaginable have to face justice, whether by national courts, international tribunals, or a combination of both. 

One could argue that one of the reasons the Holocaust is so well-known, at least compared to the Armenian Genocide or the Holodomor, is partially due to the well-publicised Nuremberg and subsequent trials that held the Nazis to account. 

Just as those who commit domestic crimes must be held accountable, those responsible for international crimes must also be held criminally accountable. Not only would it bring some closure to the victims and their friends and families, but it provides are a record of what happened so it will never be forgotten. 


Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash. Children walking through the ruins of the old marketplaces in Shingal, following the war with the Islamic State.

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