The United Nations issued a report earlier this month, detailing atrocities linked to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. According to the report, many of the violations of international humanitarian law attributed to IS and associated armed groups may amount to war crimes. Information gathered by the UN through interviews and observation in Iraq suggests that the IS has carried out attacks deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure with the intention of killing and wounding civilians. If corroborated, such actions are a violation of the principle of distinction, forbidding making civilians the object of attack. Moreover, these actions would rise to the level of war crimes, which are serious violations of international humanitarian law or IHL – the law of war – contained in the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute.
The Geneva Conventions of 1949, along with the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (Article 8), provide the legal framework to define war crimes. Certain grave breaches of international humanitarian law were prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and are considered war crimes. An ICRC study best identifies these as serious violations of international humanitarian law which endanger protected persons or objects or breach important values.
The United Nations report details a number of violations of international humanitarian law attributed to IS, such as engaging in “executions and targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children, forced recruitment of children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms.” These actions constitute serious violations of international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes.
Under international law, persons who are individually criminally responsible for the commission of war crimes may be prosecuted. Britain has been financing and supporting investigative efforts aimed at finding evidence for potential future war crime prosecutions. This team of experts is working in Syria to understand the command structure of IS. The chief investigator of this group, who remains anonymous for security reasons, stated that the investigation is seeking “the highest-level members of IS.” In addition to this team, the United Nations also sent its own independent investigators to Iraq to examine crimes allegedly being committed by IS.
A major challenge to the prosecution of war crimes is determining the chain of command within a militant group in order to attribute the crimes to a leader who bears the ultimate responsibility for the crimes committed. This is why the investigation team on the ground in Syria is looking to “understand [IS’s] system, their techniques, their roles, so [they] can build the chain of command.” So far, the investigators have uncovered a great deal of information about the structure and leadership of the IS and has found that IS is a very structured and disciplined organization.
Due to the shrouded command structure of non-state actors such as IS, it is extremely difficult to build a case against those ultimately responsible for violations of international humanitarian law. The work being done by investigators in the field is the first step of many towards prosecution and, ultimately, criminal punishment for the atrocities being committed in Iraq and Syria against the civilian population.