At least 200 mass graves containing up to 12,000 victims have been discovered in Iraq, a UN report has revealed, as the country struggles to emerge from a four year battle with Daesh militants.
The UN Human Rights Office and the UN Assistance Mission documented the existence of 202 mass grave sites in the northern and western Iraqi governorates, including 95 in Ninevah, 37 in Kirkuk, 36 in Salah Al-Din and 24 in Anbar.
The number of dead in the graves varies widely, with some holding just eight corpses, while one in the Khasfa sinkhole south of Mosul is believed to hold some 4,000. Exact numbers are difficult to establish; only 28 mass graves have been excavated so far, with just 1,258 bodies exhumed.
"Evidence gathered from these sites will be central to ensuring credible investigations, prosecutions and convictions in accordance with international due process standards," the report states.
"Meaningful truth and justice requires the appropriate preservation, excavation and exhumation of mass grave sites and the identification of the remains of the many victims and their return to the families."
The murders are believed to have been committed by Daesh militants, who have lost swathes of territory to the Iraqi army and international coalition forces in the country. The United Nations has said previously that almost 33,000 civilians were killed by the group in Iraq, with more than 55,000 injured.
The report noted the importance of establishing the identity of the victims to aid the recovery process for their families.
"[Daesh's] horrific crimes in Iraq have left the headlines but the trauma of the victims' families endures, with thousands of women, men and children still unaccounted for," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said.
These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to ISIL's [Daesh] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities. Their families have the right to know what happened to their loved ones. Truth, justice and reparations are critical to ensuring a full reckoning for the atrocities committed by ISIL [Daesh].
The report urged the government to take a multidisciplinary approach to recovery operations, and for a public, centralised registry of missing persons as well as a federal Office of Missing Persons, to be created.
Iraq has established a government body to deal with issues related to the mass graves, but the directorate says it is underfunded and understaffed, and cannot adequately protect and investigate the sites which are still littered with unexploded ordinance.
The report also called on the international community to provide resources and technical support to the Iraqi authorities to aid in the process of exhuming the sites.