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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gilmour is the United Nations assistant secretary-general for human rights.
Headline: The Children of ISIS Don’t Belong in Cages, Either
Source: The New York Times