By Andrew Gilmour
Dec. 9, 2019
Children peer out from behind the bars into the light, scarred by intense trauma and uncertain of their future, terrified both of their prison and the outside world. The images and stories of these youngsters, robbed of their childhood by the extreme violence of life under the Islamic State, are harrowing. Many are unaccompanied, the large majority are under 12. They now find themselves abandoned in appalling conditions in rudimentary camps in Syria. Governments have to do better: This is not the way to treat children who are also victims of terrorism. Nor is it effective counterterrorism policy.
Tens of thousands of men, women and children with an alleged connection to the Islamic State are currently held in camps in northeastern Syria. Most are Iraqis and Syrians, but there are also thousands from some 70 other countries. The situation is tense, and fears have grown recently that remnants of the Islamic State will attack the camps in order to free the actual terrorists.
With notable exceptions, most governments have been slow or reluctant to take back their own nationals, citing security risks and the challenges they face identifying nationalities, gathering admissible evidence to prosecute, and developing reintegration programs. Governments clearly have legitimate security concerns: The fight with the Islamic State is not over. And some of those in the camps — men and women — are hardened fighters who have committed horrifying crimes and must be brought to justice.
But it is wrong to leave the countries and communities of this conflict-battered region to bear such a large burden of this fight. Governments in the rest of the world can demonstrate solidarity in countering terrorism by at least taking responsibility for their own nationals.
The response to terrorism also requires a preventive approach. Leaving tens of thousands of people to languish in camps in Syria is deeply short-sighted. The conditions in the camps provide the ideal environment for the nurturing of further extremism and hatred. The lessons from Camp Bucca, the American-run detention facility in Iraq where the Islamic State’s founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was schooled, are clear — grievance and radicalization only deepen the longer people spend there.
Moreover, it should be clear that tarring the children in the camps with the same brush as hardened Islamic State fighters is not right: Born of rape, into detention, indoctrinated into the Islamic State’s cult of cruelty, these children have had little or no agency over their predicament. The situation in Al-Hol camp in Syria is particularly dire: Just getting to the camp, or soon after arrival from late 2018 onward, hundreds of children died from pneumonia, dehydration and malnutrition. Infants — some with shrapnel injuries — are acutely malnourished and many have limited or no access to medical care. These children desperately need care, not further victimization.
Governments should immediately take back their citizens in these camps who are most vulnerable: unaccompanied children and orphans; pregnant girls; persons with disabilities; and children with mothers with no record of violence, taking into account the best interests of the child. Many have been subject to abuses, including sexual violence, and they should be provided with appropriate assistance as well as support with reintegration.
Governments should also allow for the immediate return of terrorist suspects in cases where there is enough evidence to prosecute them in their national courts with fair trial protections without resorting to the death penalty. Where evidence is difficult to obtain, governments should explore if lesser crimes can be prosecuted to allow for some accountability. Risk and, where in doubt, nationality assessments should be undertaken for the remaining categories. Governments should adopt tailor-made security measures depending on the individuals, with a view to a progressive repatriation of all concerned and effective reintegration programs for returnees.
This isn’t utopian thinking. A number of governments have been more forward-thinking: Kazakhstan and Kosovo, for example, have taken back hundreds of women and children, and some men. Other countries, including Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Tunisia and Britain have accepted back individual children, sometimes with their mothers. But this is simply not enough.
In the course of many United Nations postings over 30 years, mostly in countries confronting a terrorist threat, I’ve always been struck by how often governments pursue counterterrorism campaigns in such a brutal way that the result has been to create more terrorists. As we survey the illegalities, barbarities and strategic blunders that marked the ill-named “global war on terror” after the attacks of Sept. 11, there can be little doubt that counterterrorism can only succeed if it is based on human rights. We should start with an approach to foreign nationals in Syria that ensures accountability, while giving these children some hope, dignity and whatever remains of their childhood.
Andrew Gilmour is the United Nations assistant secretary-general for human rights.
Original Headline: The Children of ISIS Don’t Belong in Cages, Either
Source: The New York Times