Four experts from the Iraq Program of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) began a four-day crash course Monday, training Kurdish investigators on everything from unearthing mass graves to protecting and preparing evidence for international presentation.
Some 30 Kurds are receiving instruction on skills that will bolster the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) case of having the world recognize that what the Islamic State did in the Yezidi town of Shingal in August 2014 should be universally recognized as genocide.
“Of course our immediate focus at the moment, because it is the KRG’s immediate focus, is on Shingal, so the skills will be used there first.” Trefor Williams, the head of ICMP’s Iraq Program, told Rudaw English. “The skills that we will be teaching here can be used anywhere on mass graves.”
The four ICMP experts are training the Kurds on data collection, assessment and identification, team safety, documentation and protecting evidence. Participants will also learn the legal aspects of how to collect data and compile reports for international presentation.
“The attendees will become familiar with international standard techniques to prepare reports that are necessary for recognition of a genocide case in international courts,” said Parwin Nuri, head of the mass graves program at the Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs.
ISIS, which is comprised of jihadi fighters and former soldiers and officers of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s crushed military, stormed into the Yezidi Kurdish town of Shingal in northern Iraq in August 2014.
The terrorist group carried out some of its worst atrocities against the Yezidis, whose religious beliefs it regards as heretical, unleashing a campaign of massacre, looting and rape in Shingal. Thousands of women and girls were kidnapped and sold in ISIS markets as sex slaves, many of them still missing.
The atrocities moved the United States to intervene with air bombings against ISIS in Shingal, which is now in the hands of the Kurds. According to the Anfal ministry, at least 25 mass graves have been found so far in Shingal, and 3,500 Yezidis still remain unaccounted for.
Since after the massacres and other atrocities committed by ISIS against the Yezidis, the KRG has been fighting a campaign for international recognition of the brutalities as genocide.
This month, the US government recognized the ISIS atrocities in Shingal as genocide, only the second time it has done so during an ongoing conflict. The State Department’s move followed in the footsteps of Congress and the European Parliament, which already had ruled on genocide in Shingal.
But the British government continues to maintain that it is “not the role of governments to recognize a genocide while it is happening.”
Kurdish officials and human rights activists have been trying to bring the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.
After concluding their course, the Kurdish team will divide responsibilities among investigators from the different government agencies that are taking the course. In the next step, they will prepare a final plan on how to uncover and document mass graves in Shingal in a scientific way, with ICMP experts leading and monitoring the team.
Several ministries and agencies are involved in the Shingal campaign and have investigators at the course. They include the Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal affairs, the Interior ministry, the department of health, demining and medical examiner teams, as well as the Kurdistan Region’s special center for genocide.
Hussein Hasoun, a member of the high governmental commission working on recognition of genocide against minorities, is optimistic that Kurdistan’s campaign to have the Yezidi massacres recognized as genocide, will succeed.
“When this team (ICMP) came to Kurdistan, they started to train our team to follow more professional procedures and they are going to be with us — not only train us — but be with us on mass grave sites and be involved in the legal side of the genocide case,” said Hasoun, who is also lead investigator at mass grave sites in Shingal.
One of the problems of taking the Shingal case to the ICC, with the goal of gaining international recognition of genocide, is that Iraq is not a member of the court.
“It’s a long-term process,” warned Hasoun. “Sometimes, for a genocide case to be internationally recognized can take 15 or 20 years. But I am very optimistic.”
He revealed that, as a last option, the KRG would approach the UN Security Council, asking it to refer the case to the ICC.
But the Kurds also face other challenges in their Shingal campaign.
“We don’t have enough budget and we don’t have advanced equipment,” complained Sirwan Jalal, a course participant and member of the investigation team from the Ministry of Martyrs. He said the financial crisis in Kurdistan was the greatest setback to their work.
“The problems are numerous. The financial crisis is the main problem. There is also concern on the safety of working areas or even inside the mass graves, which usually are booby trapped,” explained Nuri.
The head of the ICMP team shared the same worries.
“Obviously, when you are dealing with mass graves it is different to dealing with a normal crime scene. The scale of the problem is often very complicated. You are working in insecure locations where there are lots of potential dangers,” explained Williams.
Anwar Omar, another course participant, said that dealing with mass graves is a high risk task, especially in Kurdistan, where protection and safety are not taken as seriously as they should be.
“It is important to take these courses, but most important is staying on the job. Many people quit the work before ending the projects, due to the high risks and lack of safety,” he said.