Written Testimony before The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe By Chris Engels, Deput
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability September 22, 2016
Please let me begin by thanking you, Chairman Smith, Co-Chairman Wicker, distinguished Commissioners, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission, for your steadfast support over the decades for the establishment of the rule of law and the promotion of human rights around the world. Let me also thank the Chairman and all the members of this Commission for their continued engagement to address the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, specifically the mass atrocities being inflicted upon the people by their own government as well as by militant extremist groups like the Islamic State. In this regard, I am honored to testify before this august Commission on efforts to combat these mass atrocities through individual criminal accountability.
By way of introduction, my name is Chris Engels and I serve as Deputy Director for Investigations and Operations at the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, or CIJA for short. In my testimony today, I will begin by introducing CIJA, how the organization came about in response to a serious lack of engagement by public institutions, and the intricacies of our atrocity investigative work in Syria and Iraq. Thereafter, I will discuss how CIJA’s work relates to the subject of today’s hearing, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, a much-needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation sponsored by Chairman Smith, with the co-sponsorship of other distinguished Members of the House of Representatives. Finally, I will conclude by putting forth recommendations for U.S. action that support U.S. interests in Syria and Iraq, namely the cessation of atrocities, the establishment of long-term peace and security, and the eradication of terror being unleashed by the Assad regime, the Islamic State, and other parties to this horrid conflict.
This Commission is already familiar with the extent of the mass atrocities occurring in connection with the Syrian civil war and its spill over into Iraq. Some members of this Commission personally heard testimony from the Assad regime defector, known as “Caesar”, who smuggled thousands of images from Syria showing the Assad regime’s systematic torture and murder of individuals – deemed “enemies” – in security centers throughout Syria. By passing House Resolutions 75 and 121 so overwhelmingly, Representatives have denounced the horrific war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide (collectively called atrocity crimes) being perpetrated by the Islamic State, the Assad regime, and others militant actors in Syria and Iraq.
For years now, human rights groups, as well as the United Nations, have sounded alarm bells in the wake of the blatant disregard for humanity and catastrophic displacement occurring in Syria and Iraq. In addressing the Commission, my role today is not to elaborate on these facts which, unfortunately, are known all too well. Instead, I am here to talk about individual criminal accountability for these terrible crimes and the current, as yet untapped, opportunities for the U.S. government to support organizations working to ensure those responsible see the inside of a courtroom. My role is, further, to highlight the concrete steps being taken, as well as additional steps that can be taken, now to secure justice for the victims of the continuing atrocities in Syria and Iraq. Like CIJA, I am sure this Commission and other members of Congress want to see such discussion take the form of concrete action.
So, what is CIJA? In short, CIJA is a non-governmental organization that carries out criminal investigations of atrocity crimes that adhere to the highest standards found in any international or domestic jurisdiction. Its senior leadership is made up of individuals with many years of experience in international and hybrid courts and tribunals as well as domestic war crimes units. Operating in active conflict zones, CIJA’s 130 personnel collect evidence, ensure its safe storage, and undertake legal analysis with a view to preparing trial-ready case files for present-day and future criminal prosecutions in domestic and international jurisdictions. The fact that CIJA does this work as a non-governmental organization, as opposed to a domestic or international legal authority, is truly unprecedented.
With respect to our evidence collection, I would like to emphasize that our analytical interest extends beyond merely documenting the crimes themselves, something the UN Commissions of Inquiry and a number of human rights NGOs already do very well. Rather, CIJA’s focus is on collecting, corroborating, and storing “linkage evidence”, which is information that “links” superiors, national leaders and remote organizers of atrocities to the atrocity crimes committed on the ground.
This “linkage evidence” is the most pivotal part of an atrocity crimes investigation, and as any good prosecutor or criminal investigator knows, criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished, able to commit more crimes and create more instability in the current or future conflicts. Whether in Syria, Iraq or beyond, the goal of this
work is to prevent such mistakes from reoccurring once accountability mechanisms are in place – be it in the short term or in the next ten years.
However, it should be made clear that accountability options exist today and they do not require the establishment of an international court or tribunal to have impact. Evidence collected today is key to facilitating present-day accountability efforts in national jurisdictions where perpetrators can be prosecuted without the need for an international justice mechanism. For instance, CIJA currently assists various countries in their domestic prosecutions of regime officials found in their jurisdictions, Islamic State foreign fighters returning home, and other members of extremist groups who have been apprehended.
This assistance takes various forms.
In Syria, CIJA has roughly 40 investigators on the ground, handling multiple operations throughout the country. The primary mission of these investigators is to collect voluminous amounts of evidence on the Assad regime for later exploitation for evidentiary and legal analysis at CIJA’s headquarters. To date, this operation has resulted in the accumulation and safe storage of over 600,000 pages of regime documentation, including a significant amount of regime military and security intelligence records, all while ensuring chain of custody to a criminal law standard.
With this wealth of information, CIJA has been able to create a names database of over one million regime officials – including individuals from the highest to lowest levels of its military, security intelligence, and political bodies. This type of database has long-term potential as an information resource for countries, such as the United Sates, in support of their criminal accountability, immigration, and targeted sanctions efforts as well as future state-building and lustration efforts.
This evidence is the basis for multiple “pre-trial” legal case files, developed by CIJA’s legal team, which a domestic or international prosecutor could present to judges before trial. For example, the first three case files contain evidence against twenty-five high- ranking Assad regime officials – including President Assad, himself – establishing the role of these governmental officials in the mass torture, the likes of which the House of Representatives saw in the aforementioned Caesar testimony.
In Iraq, CIJA works according to a memorandum of understanding with the Kurdistan Regional Government that provides us with logistical and security support as well as human resources. Approximately 20 CIJA personnel are currently deployed in Iraq, with teams in three different locations. CIJA’s work in Iraq focuses squarely on atrocities perpetuated by the Islamic State, including those against ethnic Yazidis, Christians, and other minority groups in the Ninevah Governorate. In its first Iraq-oriented case file, CIJA identified two dozen suspects involved in orchestrating Islamic State slavery operations that resulted in appalling rates of sexual violence and servitude, primarily against minority women and girls.
Again, the brave victims who have spoken out, as well as the work of NGOs and UN reports, have highlighted the plight of these women and girls. Through our work, we have established the patterns of these crimes and, in turn, have identified a number of responsible individuals. In addition to the abovementioned file, CIJA continues to build a number of legal dossiers against Islamic State fighters and senior leaders behind these atrocities.
In sum, the six case files completed by CIJA to date identify over 60 individual perpetrators, reaching up the hierarchy of the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, who are responsible for a wide array of atrocity crimes. Of course, many more individuals are responsible for crimes in the region, and CIJA continues to investigate and build case files to address ongoing atrocities. However, the number of suspects in our legal briefs is already too high to be addressed by the ICC, even in the case of the referral of both Syria and Iraq. Indeed, prosecuting such cases would keep any future ad hoc or hybrid court busy for many years.
I will now refer to a few, key recommendations for incorporating individual criminal accountability within the international, as well as the U.S., agenda on Syria and Iraq.
Recommendation #1 – Support atrocity accountability efforts despite the lack of an international court with criminal jurisdiction in Syria or Iraq.