Trauma Mental Health

UN psychologists support the criminal investigation of ISIL

Speaker at a podium with panelists and attendees seated around a table

United Nations clinical psychologists Nenna Ndukwe, Sarah Alcalay, and Chinedu Ezemokwe recently joined the Center for Human Rights and International Justice for a talk co-hosted with the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies entitled “Ensuring a Trauma-Informed Approach to Accountability for Crimes Committed by ISIL in Iraq.” Moderated by Daryn Reicherter, the Director of the Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program (HRTMHP) and clinical professor in Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, the panelists delivered a presentation on their work within the Witness Protection and Support Unit of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote the Accountability of Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD). The HRTHMP has been working with UNITAD for the past three years, advancing a trauma-informed approach to human rights investigation that adequately acknowledges trauma’s long-term impact on individuals, families, and communities while centering the dignity and agency of trauma survivors.

Dr. Nenna Ndukwe, lead psychologist within the Witness Protection and Support Unit of UNITAD, opened the presentation by explaining the role of utilizing psychological expertise in investigating human rights abuses. Offering context to UNITAD’s creation and scope of action, Dr. Ndukwe explained that Security Council Resolution 2379 (2017) established the UNITAD mandate, creating an investigative team into crimes committed by ISIL in Iraq. The Witness Protection Unit provides psychological support to its operations, creating an emotionally supportive environment, promoting witnesses’ mental fitness to proceed, and defending the dignity of survivors of trauma. The team offers assistance to witnesses, psychological assessments, recommendations of special measures for the investigative team, and referrals for specialist interventions. Emphasizing the role of critical psychological analysis in understanding the impacts of distress, Ndukwe stressed the unit’s work to center trauma (its diagnoses and implications), memory, and witnessing. Their work seeks to be “trauma sensitive, trauma aware, trauma informed, and trauma responsive”, with each step drawing upon the previous step’s prioritization in order to advance toward more impactful trauma solutions.

Clinical psychologist Sarah Alcalay built upon the mission outlined by Dr. Ndukwe, detailing the practical steps taken by the unit to advance victim-centered approaches to the work of UNITAD. Motivated by the understanding that victim-centered approaches can both protect survivors from re-traumatization and enhance the quality and credibility of testimony, the Witness Protection and Support Unit engages with grassroots organizations, community groups, local government, international NGOs, and the United Nations to implement practical steps for recovery from trauma. The unit initiates referral to specialized psychological services, offers capacity-building, implements training for local partners, provides technical assistance to governments for returns of remains, mass grave excavations, and commemorative events, and undergoes inter-agency coordination with NGOs.

United Nations volunteer clinical psychologist Chinedu Ezemokwe expanded upon the unit’s work to facilitate capacity-building within various stakeholder organizations engaged in UNITAD’s mission to create accountability for crimes committed by ISIL in Iraq. The unit takes on a multi-level, multi-sectoral approach that seeks to invest in sustainable mental health and psychosocial support interventions. UNITAD’s psychological team offers capacity-building guidance among legal staff in local organizations documenting human rights violations, non-specialist staff in NGOs, volunteers in survivor networks, mental health practitioners in government institutions, judicial authorities, and academic institutions. Safeguarding the well-being of individuals engaged within the work of UNITAD in addition to survivors of trauma defines more long-term sustainable best practices to continue the critical work of accountability seeking. Recognizing the impact of “vicarious trauma” and “compassion fatigue” is critical to centering personal care and institutional well-being on individuals directly engaged with victims and with legal workers focused on evidentiary analysis of psychologically upsetting materials.

In the future, these UNITAD clinical psychologists hope to anchor these principles locally in Iraq by cooperating with academic institutions to offer internships for local psychology students. They also seek to continue advocating for trauma-informed approaches to government activities, especially within legal systems. Dr. Reicherter described trauma-informed victim-centered legal processes as a “win-win” that address psychological impacts on victims, connect them with critical resources, and produce accurate information for a “smoothly functioning justice process.” Given the institutional wisdom gained by psychological practitioners working for UNITAD, they hope to be useful consultants for related efforts and that their efforts can lead to future adoption of trauma-informed best practices.

The Stanford and Iraq-based teams collaboratively launched a Trauma-Informed Investigations Field Guide in 2021 that explains the role of trauma-informed approaches to working with witnesses and survivors. The teams will soon publish an accompanying reference manual that details applicable evidence-based practices for each stage of mass atrocity investigative work, as well as guidance on self and community care for investigators. They see this as a critical step toward fundamentally shifting the way legal advocates, investigators, first responders, and mental health practitioners understand trauma related to human rights abuses, both in how they are trained to work with survivors and how they guide justice systems’ understanding of the impact of these harms.

Watch the video of this talk here.