9 March 2017, UN, New York, USA
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank the sponsors of this event for inviting me to address you once again at the United Nations. Six months ago, I came here to discuss the need for accountability for crimes committed by ISIS. I spoke to you as the lawyer for a group of victims of ISIS’ crimes, including Nadia Murad, who as a 21-year old girl was enslaved and raped by ISIS militants in Iraq. My message to you was that ISIS is a global threat, which requires a global response. And that the response should not be limited to the battlefield: the UN should also investigate ISIS’ crimes and make sure that those responsible are brought to justice.
Since my last address I have supported the United Kingdom’s initiative to have the Security Council set up an investigation into ISIS’ crimes in Iraq. This would allow the UN to work alongside Iraqis to collect evidence of crimes on the ground and identify specific individuals who are responsible for them. Over the last few months, I have met with Iraqi, EU and UN officials and members of the Security Council, including the Russian and US Ambassadors, to discuss this initiative. All of them expressed support for the idea of a UN investigation to be established by the Security Council with Iraq’s cooperation. So the UK took an admirable leadership role, and drafted a short resolution to make this a reality. This draft was presented to Iraq many months ago and Iraq has since repeatedly and publicly expressed its support for the initiative. As recently as October Foreign Minister Jaafari confirmed Iraq’s commitment to “a Campaign… led by the UN… [that would] include action to gather and preserve evidence of [ISIS’] crimes”. The Iraqi government is aware that a one-page letter to the Security Council requesting the investigation would be sufficient to trigger a vote on the resolution.
But months have passed, deadlines set by the UK have come and gone, and the Iraqi government has declined to send the letter. So there has been no vote, no resolution, no investigation. The Council could of course act without this letter. It could establish the investigation without Iraq’s consent, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. It could refer the case to the International Criminal Court. The General Assembly could establish an accountability mechanism, as it did for Syria in December. Or the Secretary-General could launch an investigation. But none of this has happened yet. Instead, mass graves in Iraq still lie unprotected and un-exhumed.
Witnesses are fleeing. And there is still not one ISIS militant who has faced trial for international crimes anywhere in the world. So I am speaking to you, the Iraqi government, and to you, UN member states, when I ask: Why? Why has nothing been done? Could it be that these crimes are not serious enough to warrant an international investigation? NO – ISIS is today the most brutal terror group in the world, representing what the Security Council has called an “unprecedented threat” to international peace and security.
ISIS has carried out or inspired attacks in more than 31 countries that have killed over 2,000 people outside Syria and Iraq in the last 3 years alone. Inside Iraq, ISIS has attacked victims from every community including Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Christians. And ISIS has made clear that it intends to destroy Yazidis, like Nadia, completely: through killings, forced conversions, and rape. The UN has concluded that ISIS is committing genocide against this group, and there can be no more serious crime. The UN was created as the world’s way of saying ‘never again’ to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. And yet here we are, 70 years later, discussing the UN’s inaction in the face of a genocide that we all know about, and that is ongoing. So is it that the political interests of powerful states stand in the way of accountability? Is that why, over two years after the genocide began, not one ISIS member has been brought to trial for it? No – this is not it either. As a human rights lawyer I am often told that my cause, while commendable, cannot succeed because of political realities. We have seen the Security Council paralysed over Syria, or the road to the International Criminal Court obstructed when powerful states block Council action. But here, ladies and gentlemen, we are dealing with ISIS. No one claims to respect or protect them. No veto-wielding member of the Council is on their side. And yet we are no closer to justice than when I addressed you last year.
Could it be, then, that crimes of this nature will be too difficult to prove? No — this is not a reason for inaction either. ISIS is a bureaucracy of evil leaving a trail of evidence behind it that no one is picking up. It has kicked bodies into uncovered mass graves. It set up a ‘Committee for the Buying and Selling of Slaves’ and courts to ‘legalise’ the purchase of women as property. It has kept detailed forms about its recruits, including their name, phone number, address and previous terror experience. ISIS militants have even sent messages to Nadia from their phones, taunting her that they still have her family members in captivity… They don’t bother to hide their phone number when they do so: they know no one is looking for it.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen: what is shocking here is not just the brutality of ISIS but how long those who know about it can remain passive. If we do not change course, history will judge us, and there will be no excuse for our failure to act. We cannot say that ISIS’ crimes were not serious enough; we cannot say that the interests of powerful states stood in the way; or that these crimes are too hard to prove. That’s why I am asking you today: to stand up for justice. Every conflict reminds us that there can be no lasting peace without justice. A lack of accountability simply leads to continuing cycles of vengeful violence. So killing ISIS on the battlefield is not enough: we must also kill the idea behind ISIS by exposing its brutality and bringing individual criminals to justice. Justice is also what the victims want – ask the families of the American hostages Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff who were beheaded by the ISIS militant known as Jihadi John. When Jihadi John was reportedly killed by a drone strike in Syria, the hostages’ families said they would have preferred it if he had been arrested instead. Steven’s family said they wanted to “sit in a courtroom, watch him sentenced and see him sent to … prison”. Yazidi women like Nadia say the same: they want the chance to face their abusers in court; they want legal judgments to be published, to prevent their genocide later being denied. And they deserve nothing less. But justice will forever be out of reach if we allow the evidence to disappear: if mass graves are not protected, if medical evidence is lost, if witnesses can no longer be traced.
Excellencies, it is not too late to turn things around. I believe there is a common will among those in this room, among leaders in Baghdad and capitals around the world that ISIS should be held accountable in a court of law for its crimes. What is needed now is moral leadership to make it happen. Last week’s US State Department report on Iraq reminds us that the vast majority of serious human rights abuses being committed today in Iraq are committed by ISIS, and that all Iraqis – Sunni, Shia, Christian, Yazidi, and others - are its victims. So today, I wish to speak directly to Prime Minister Abadi: on behalf of all of ISIS’ victims, I call on you to send the letter to the Security Council requesting an investigation into ISIS crimes. Getting the UN involved was initially Iraq’s idea, and finally taking action to make it a reality would silence those who doubt your commitment to bring Daesh to justice.
And finally, to all UN member states: if this road to accountability through the Security Council is blocked, you must take the initiative to secure accountability in other ways available to you under the UN Charter. Don’t let this be another Rwanda, where you regret doing too little, too late. Don’t let ISIS get away with genocide.