Raising The Necessity for Permanent Support to Fulfil UN Investigative Mandates


Over the past decade, there has been a marked increase in the willingness of UN bodies – such as the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the Security Council – to establish entities to investigate alleged human rights violations including those of a criminal nature in mass atrocity situations. The extension of mandate calls for a careful appraisal of the way in which criminal investigations are conducted by UN mechanisms to ensure the highest standards are applied in the collection, preservation, storage and analysis of information and evidence.

The “Anchoring Accountability for Mass Atrocities” report researched and produced by the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict of Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government in partnership with the International Bar Association and the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide[1] makes significant recommendations as to how permanent and effective support to fulfil UN investigative mandates in the future should be developed.

Described in the report as an “accountability shift”, in recent years there has been a significant widening of the mandate of UN bodies to investigate not only human rights violations, but to also investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, thereby taking on “criminal case-building responsibilities”. This is evident in the recent mandates of the Human Rights Council’s investigative missions on Syria, North Korea, South Sudan, Myanmar, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, Libya and most recently Ethiopia.

The report explains that this shift has been further entrenched by the setting up of a new generation of UN independent investigative mechanisms to carry out international criminal investigations and build cases to prosecute violations committed by Da’esh/ISIL in Iraq,[2] as well as by parties to the conflicts in Syria[3] and Myanmar.[4]

While the mandates, staff, access, resources and operational realities differ as between the newly-established mechanisms, their experiences, along with those of the ‘traditional’ human rights investigations, emphasise the growing need for higher standards in the collection, preservation, storage and analysis of information and evidence.

The report considers these needs and provides a real opportunity for reflection on what has succeeded to date, the potential lessons to be learned and what is required in the future to ensure the highest standards are applied in the fulfilment of investigative mandates.

As its main recommendations, this study presents two chief options for building permanent support for UN mandated investigations and their contributions to international justice:

“Option 1, the establishment of a standing, independent UN investigative support mechanism (ISM) empowered to provide a range of services to all UN investigative mandates concerned with accountability as a way to maximise efficiencies moving forward, as well as to receive from relevant UN bodies and itself fulfil investigative mandates focused on case-building, similar to the investigative mechanisms created for Syria, Myanmar and ISIL/Da’esh; and Option 2, the establishment of a permanent investigative support division (ISD) within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to assist Human Rights Council-mandated investigations and to provide support where relevant to case-building mandates when these are conferred independently of OHCHR.”[5]

This report grapples with issues such as how to (i) ensure a secure and consistent approach to the collation, preservation and analysis of information and evidence, (ii) overcome increasingly fraught budgetary and bureaucratic challenges, (iii) provide appropriate technological infrastructures and expertise, and (iv) ensure the highest levels of professionalism and effectiveness in building working relationships and cooperation with prosecuting authorities and international justice actors. Founded on extensive research over a period of 2 ½ years, it provides a rare insight into the question of how future investigative mechanisms might be supported in an ever-evolving “international justice ecosystem.”

Considering the expanding nature of UN investigative mandates into international crime, tackling the issues raised in this report should help to ensure a consistent approach in the future to the collation, preservation and analysis of information and evidence as a core component of the criminal case-building responsibilities being placed on UN mechanisms. An example of the dire consequences for States and individuals of failing to fulfil such responsibilities are addressed in a recent 9BR report “Pushing the Reset Button for South Sudan.”

To read the Anchoring Accountability for Mass Atrocities report in full, click here.




Gillian Higgins

Head of International Practice Group, 9BR Chambers



[1] Authored by Kirsty Sutherland from 9BR Chambers, Federica D’Alessandra, Stephen J Rapp and Sareta Ashraph.

[2] UNITAD – UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL.

[3] IIMM – International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011.

[4] IIMM – the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.

[5] P.1 of the Anchoring Accountability For Mass Atrocities report.

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