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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

Justice on pause

A public accounting for ISIS war crimes is overdue

Justice on pause

An Islamic State document from Mosul, Iraq, detailing tax revenues (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times/Redux)

Long before Americans knew the full extent of Nazi atrocities, President Franklin Roosevelt was thinking about what to do with the war criminals of World War II. “The time will come when they shall have to stand in the Courts of Law in the very countries that they are now oppressing and answer for their acts,” FDR said in August 1942.

More than 18 months since ISIS was defeated in Iraq, clarion calls for bringing its leaders to justice are few. Two years ago the terrorist group controlled territory the size of Great Britain and a population estimated at 12 million, yet its fugitive leaders face no concerted hunt, no organized campaign to try and punish them.

ISIS less and less makes headlines, but we are learning more and more about the scope of its war crimes. We have their names and their addresses, in some cases. Thanks to its own media savvy, some evidence is clear: videotaped beheadings of men in jumpsuits, the burning alive of captives in cages, Yazidi and Christian women chained and force-marched into sexual slavery. The work of Nadia Murad—the Yazidi spokeswoman who herself escaped ISIS—and her 2017 book The Last Girl have done much to document atrocities. But the architects of the atrocities for the most part remain free, or in captivity awaiting an unclear fate.

The Islamic State’s capacity to govern … was perhaps as dangerous as its capacity to terrorize.

A public accounting is needed, and territory recently liberated from ISIS is yielding more evidence of war crimes hidden in the minutia of Islamic State bureaucracy. Rukmini Callimachi, reporter for The New York Times, recovered on her own 15,000 documents during five reporting trips to Mosul, a city under ISIS control for three years. Those documents chronicle atrocities—teenage boys arrested for “fooling around during prayer” and girls sold at auctions to ISIS emirs.

But the paper trove also reveals how ISIS monetized terrorism, “taxing every bushel of wheat, every liter of sheep’s milk and every watermelon sold at markets they controlled.” Plundering in some cases church and monastery land, ISIS made agriculture more lucrative than oil sales. In one 24-hour period, according to the ledgers Callimachi retrieved, ISIS collected $1.9 million from the sale of barley and wheat. The Islamic State’s capacity to govern, she discovered, was perhaps as dangerous as its capacity to terrorize.

Failing the formal oversight of an international tribunal, these and other discoveries take place across a haphazard landscape and thus far without consequence. An Oxford researcher, a Yale scholar, a team of West Point analysts, and some Catholic-funded NGOs are among those collecting data, racing the clock to secure evidence. Yet it’s unclear how such variously collected material will be deployed.

Two years ago Iraq formally requested the UN Security Council’s help in prosecuting ISIS perpetrators—asking for “a specific international legal mechanism for investigating and bringing to justice the criminals.” More than a year passed before the Security Council authorized a team to investigate ISIS war crimes. It has a two-year mandate, but will hand material to “competent national-level courts, with the relevant Iraqi authorities as the primary intended recipient.”

There are significant problems with leaving ISIS justice to the Iraqis. The country is stretched and riven by its long battle with ISIS. A tribunal may further divisions. Even now Kurdish authorities and the central government each plan differing forms of war-crimes courts. Also, an Iraq-based tribunal won’t cover ISIS atrocities in Syria, or foreign fighters among ISIS ranks.

Already time and momentum are running down. The Nuremberg tribunal for Nazi war criminals got underway just six months after Germany surrendered. It was an unprecedented international undertaking with its own headaches—the four Allied powers each had their own legal systems and agendas to overcome.

The Nuremberg trials faced controversy but prosecuted military and civilian Nazi war criminals, brought to light the scope of Nazi atrocities, and helped Allied and Axis powers alike put the war behind them. The women sold and raped by ISIS; the men beheaded; the concertgoers and churchgoers, the shoppers and commuters all cut down in ISIS terror attacks, plus those forced to grow its melons, demand and deserve the same.