Evidence of Islamic State atrocities needs to be collected urgently to ensure it is not lost and that those responsible for “the worst crimes of our generation” eventually face justice, the human rights barrister Amal Clooney has said.
Massacres of the Yazidi people, murders, gang rapes, forcing children to become soldiers and the operation of slave markets should not go unpunished by the international courts, she told a conference on accountability for crimes in Syria and Iraq. Clooney is working as counsel to survivors of Iraq’s Yazidi community, which was overrun by Isis fighters in 2014. She is assembling records and testimony with the aim of bringing charges against captured and fugitive Isis soldiers and commanders.
Isis views Yazidis as the “worst type of infidel” because they do not have a holy book, Clooney explained. She added that men were separated from women and executed shortly after Mosul was attacked three years ago. Boys who had hair under their arms and appeared to have entered puberty were declared to be adults and shot too.
Yazidi girls over the age of eight and under the age of 40 were sold through slave markets set up by Isis, she said. Some were sold over the internet. Many were gang-raped. But Islamic State was also a “bureaucracy of evil” and left behind a trail of evidence, according to Clooney. It created documents recording the identity of foreign fighters and certificates of slave ownership.
About 50 mass graves have been discovered, while tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees who can testify have now reached Germany.
“All of this evidence is going to be lost if it’s not collected soon,” Clooney warned. “Mass graves are being contaminated as relatives dig for remains of their loved ones. Documents are not being gathered. Witnesses are being dispersed around the world. They are increasingly reluctant to to speak about these cases.”
Various legal routes are being explored in the hope of bringing Isis fighters to justice, involving lobbying at the United Nations, which has already launched an investigation into war crimes in Syria. “The UK government has been taking the lead,” Clooney said. “They have been making it a priority to launch an investigation and have drafted a resolution.” The Iraqi government, however, has not sent a letter authorising it.
Another possibility is to prosecute former Isis fighters who have fled back to their home countries. As many as 15,000 foreign fighters are believed to come from states that are members of the international criminal court and are therefore within its jurisdiction.
“I believe that the crimes committed by Isis in Iraq are some of the worst of our generation,” Clooney said. “Medieval types of violence were being committed in which there were slave markets. This is a test not just for the Iraqi government, but for the United Nations and international law.”
The lecture was in memory of the international lawyer John Jones QC, who died last year after being struck by a train. Clooney shared offices at Doughty Street Chambers with Jones, who specialised in war crimes tribunal work and death penalty cases. She remembered him as a “close friend who was admired and loved”.
A German federal prosecutor, Christian Ritscher, told the conference that war crimes cases against former Syrian militiamen who had fled to Germany were already being taken through the country’s domestic courts. A warrant for genocide charges against Isis fighters was also being prepared, he revealed.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said a UN-backed investigative unit was already gathering evidence about war crimes in Syria, although it was not preparing criminal charges. He welcomed the decision of a Spanish court this week to assert its right to hear cases relating to Syria under universal jurisdiction.
Iraq has about 5,000 prisoners who have been detained during the conflict, Al Hussein said. Iraqi courts often rely on confessions, and the death penalty is often handed down to defendants who are not even represented in court. It would better, he suggested, if Iraq joined the ICC.