Trefor Williams, the Head of ICMP’s Iraq Program, describes the steps that have been taken to coordinate administrative and technical resources in Northern Iraq and engage families of the missing, as efforts get underway to identify thousands of victims in the Sinjar area, recaptured from Islamic State at the end of 2015.
The capture of territory in northern Iraq, including the town of Sinjar and the surrounding area, by Islamic State in August 2014 was followed by mass executions: several thousand people, mostly belonging to the Yezidi community, were killed. When Islamic State was driven out of Sinjar in November 2015 the incoming troops immediately reported the discovery of multiple mass graves.
ICMP has worked in Iraq since 2003 and established offices in the country in 2008. It has helped the authorities to set in place a legal framework, including the creation of the Iraqi Law on the Protection of Mass Graves, that will support a systematic and effective effort to account for the huge numbers of missing persons in the country. During this period ICMP has also trained more than 550 Iraqi professionals from institutions and ministries engaged in the process of accounting for the missing. Training promoted a better understanding of the complex series of steps required to investigate mass graves effectively, in accordance with international norms and standards of forensic best practice. Courses examined the overall purpose of the effective investigation of mass graves, as well the value of evidence gathered for criminal tribunals.
In coordination with the domestic authorities and in line with the Law on the Protection of Mass Graves, ICMP has assisted the authorities in implementing a phased approach in Sinjar.
Protecting the Graves
ICMP has undertaken a series of assessment visits to Sinjar to ensure that its advice and technical assistance are tailored to the operational realities on the ground.
An initial visit was conducted on 2 March, which highlighted the fact that the gravesites were unprotected and human remains were lying on the surface in several of the locations. In addition to the threat of losing valuable evidence, the lack of protection amounted to a lack of respect for the victims.
While there was an urgent need to protect the gravesites, ICMP advised that any actions related to mass graves should be in accordance with the law and that procedures should be conducted to a standard that would ensure the preservation of evidence and demonstrate respect for the deceased.
ICMP worked to ensure the installation of fences around known mass gravesites in Sinjar, beginning on 21 March. This was the first time that any form of protection had been provided. Signs warning against entry and providing a contact telephone number for anyone wishing to provide information were attached to the protective fences. The area around the gravesites was cleared by a mine clearance group prior to the fences being erected.
The visits to Sinjar have enabled ICMP to assess the situation and advise authorities on an overall strategy for dealing with the mass graves. Now that protection is in place, the priority is to collect the surface lying human remains. Further training will then be required before exhumations can begin. This whole process will be closely mentored and monitored by ICMP.
At the request of the authorities, from 28 to 31 March ICMP gave an introductory training course in conducting mass graves investigations. The course also underscored the necessity of effective institutional cooperation in the successful planning, organization and implementation of such investigations. More intensive training will be given ahead of the more complex exhumation work.
ICMP has also reached out to NGOs representing the families of the missing, and those working closely with them. It has focused on developing an understanding of the situation of surviving Yezidi families including how they are organized and represented, the nature of their interaction with the authorities, and their potential role in the process of locating and identifying missing family members.
In its discussions with the authorities, ICMP has stressed that the investigation of mass graves, especially the recovery and identification of human remains will not be possible without the participation of the families. Technical competence has to be underpinned by public confidence in the process and transparency on the part of the authorities.
The situation of Yezidi families highlights issues facing tens of thousands of families of the missing in Iraq. In the spring of 2015, ICMP organized roundtable conferences in Baghdad and Erbil, bringing together stakeholders from government institutions, civil society, the media and the academic and scientific community. Speakers highlighted the need for a comprehensive “roadmap” on accounting for missing persons through legal and judicial means. There was broad support for this initiative from representatives of all communities and all parts of the country. There was also broad support for greater coordination on the issue of the missing among government institutions in different parts of the country, and for the establishment of a common database in which information on missing persons can be listed comprehensively. Such a database could also allow families to record and access information online, a system that ICMP already operates in other countries.
An overwhelming majority of those who are missing in Iraq are male. Consequently, ICMP is focusing on helping the authorities to improve the social and economic rights of women who have a family member who is missing. It is also highlighting the importance of government outreach and information; the need to counter suspicion and mistrust; the need for effective civic organization and the key role that established civil society organizations can play.
In its training and in its engagement with the authorities, ICMP has emphasized the importance of correct recovery and chain-of-custody procedure in light of the fact that evidence from mass graves may be used in subsequent criminal and war crimes trials. This is a key aspect of the role that accounting for the missing can play in restoring the rule of law and removing the impunity that can serve as an obstacle to long-term social and political recovery.
The steps that have been taken by ICMP in relation to the mass graves in and around Sinjar prefigure a strategy that can be applied throughout the country as circumstances permit. The legal framework is highlighted; institutional and civil society stakeholders are engaged and their efforts coordinated as much as possible; training is provided; and circumstances are created in which systematic efforts to locate and identify the missing can begin.
There are significant challenges ahead, not least in securing the resources that will be required to address the issue of missing persons in Iraq. This is painstaking work that does not deliver results quickly, but over the long term it will facilitate a large number of reliable identifications throughout Iraq. The experience of other countries dealing with a legacy of mass disappearances shows that systematically accounting for the missing is an indispensable component of sustained post-conflict recovery.