UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Monday that more than 55,000 suspected ISIS fighters and their families held in Syria and Iraq cannot be detained indefinitely without trial.
At the outset of the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council, Bachelet, the former president of Chile, called the detentions “a question that is currently not being given adequate consideration by many actors.”
The majority of detainees at the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, are Syrian or Iraqi, but include foreign fighters from nearly 50 countries and more than 11,000 family members. Bachelet called conditions at the camp “deeply sub-standard” and stressed that UNICEF estimates there are 29,000 children of foreign fighters in Syria and 20,000 from Iraq, most under age 12.
“It must be clear that all individuals who are suspected of crimes – whatever their country of origin, and whatever the nature of the crime – should face investigation and prosecution, with due process guarantees,” she said. “Accountability, with fair trials, protects societies from future radicalization and violence. Betrayals of justice, following flawed trials – which may include unlawful and inhumane detention, and capital punishment – can only serve the narrative of grievance and revenge.”
“And the continuing detention of individuals not suspected of crimes, in the absence of lawful basis and regular independent judicial review, is not acceptable,” she added.
“Well over” 150 men and women have been sentenced to death in Iraq under that country’s anti-terrorism law; Bachelet said those trials did not include “adequate due-process guarantees.”
“States have important responsibilities for their own nationals. If citizens are suspected of committing serious crimes in another country, or detained on any grounds, the state of origin should make all efforts to ensure that they will be treated in accordance with international law,” she continued, adding that ISIS family members “are largely not being held for prosecution purposes.”
“The majority are Iraqi and Syrian. Many are at risk of revenge attacks, and are unwanted by their former communities. There is a great need for programs to assist their rehabilitation and reintegration,” Bachelet said. “Foreign family members should be repatriated, unless they are to be prosecuted for crimes in accordance with international standards. Children, in particular, have suffered grievous violations of their rights – including those who may have been indoctrinated or recruited by ISIL to perpetrate violent acts. The primary consideration must be their rehabilitation, protection and best interests.”
The UN chief said that “to inflict statelessness on children who have already suffered so much is an act of irresponsible cruelty.” States “should provide the same access to nationality for children born to their nationals in conflict zones.”
“I strongly encourage member states to act in line with the guidance note prepared by my office, in consultation with other UN entities, regarding human rights-based responses to the situation of foreign fighters and their families,” Bachelet concluded. “I urge all states to assume responsibility for their nationals, and to work together to provide resources to help the relevant authorities and actors in Syria and Iraq to address urgent humanitarian needs.”