(CNSNews.com) – The top U.N. human rights official called Monday for governments to ensure that the tens of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their family members are put on trial, or released.
Many countries have shown a reluctance to take back citizens who traveled to the region to join ISIS’ jihad. High commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet acknowledged the challenge of what to do about the suspected terrorists and their families was a complex one, but said it must be addressed. Countries must take responsibility for their citizens
Speaking at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Bachelet said that more than 55,000 suspected fighters and families are being held in Iraq or Syria, following the fall of the Sunni terrorist group’s so-called caliphate. The final foothold of ISIS-held territory, al-Baghuz in eastern Syria, fell in March.
Most of those being held are Syrian or Iraqi, but they also include foreigners from nearly 50 countries. The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF estimates there are 29,000 children of alleged ISIS fighters, mostly under the age of 12.
Bachelet said foreign fighters and more than 11,000 family members were being held at a camp called Al Hol in north-eastern Syria, “in deeply sub-standard conditions.”
A U.N. official said in April there were 73,000 people at the displaced people’s camp, which is controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Foreigners are held under guard in a fenced-off section of the camp.
“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,” Bachelet said.
She argued that accountability and fair trials protect societies from future radicalization and violence, but inhumane detention and flawed trials, sometimes ending with the death sentence being handed down, “can only serve the narrative of grievance and revenge.”
Iraqi courts have sentenced more than 150 people, including French citizens, to death for ISIS-related crimes under anti-terror laws, and Bachelet said governments have a duty to ensure that their citizens, if suspected to committing serious crimes in another country, are treated in accordance with international law.
Turning to the issue of family members, she said foreigners should be repatriated, “unless they are to be prosecuted for crimes in accordance with international standards.”
The continued detention of people not suspected of crimes was unacceptable.
For children, who may have been indoctrinated or recruited by ISIS to carry out violent acts, “the primary consideration must be their rehabilitation, protection and best interests.”
On countries refusing to take back their citizens, and in some cases stripping them of their nationality to prevent their return, Bachelet said that it is never acceptable to render people stateless.
“Children who are stateless are often deprived of education, access to health care and other basic elements of dignity,” she said. “To inflict statelessness on children who have already suffered so much is an act of irresponsible cruelty.”
Shortly before the fall of al-Baghuz, President Trump on Twitter urged U.S. allies in Europe to take back and put on trial their citizens among ISIS fighters captured in Syria.
“The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” he added. “The US does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go.”
The State Department has also been urging countries to repatriate their citizens who joined ISIS.
“Repatriating these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin, ensuring that they are prosecuted and detained – that’s the best solution to preventing them from returning to the battlefield,” deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said earlier this year.
“ We view these fighters as a global threat and we seek global cooperation to resolve that threat.”
A French Senate report last year, citing intelligence agencies, estimated that about 5,000 citizens of European Union countries traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, including more than 1,300 French nationals, 800 Brits, 800 Germans, 500 Belgians, 250 Spaniards, and 100 Italians.
They were joined by 4,000-4,500 Russians or Russian-speaking individuals (many from Central Asia and North Caucasus), 2,000-3,000 Tunisians, 1,600-1,700 Moroccans, 700 Indonesians, 600 Egyptians, 200-300 Algerians, and 200 Americans.
“Many of them died in fighting or suicide attacks,” the report said.
According to a study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College London, the legal challenges related to ISIS fighters trying to return home or to go to a third country are significant.
Among others, exactly what constitute membership of ISIS may be unclear, it said, pointing for example to thousands of individuals who did not engage in combat operations but actively participated in its “civilian proto-state project” – the caliphate.
“[S]hould they be charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization even if they only ever performed civil duties?” the study asked. “What about children who were born into the caliphate or were made to join it at a young age – do they constitute one-time members or should they be treated with more lenience?”
Other challenges identified in the ICSR study included whether and how to imprison returnees, who could potentially radicalize other prisoners.
“Beyond that, what happens when these individuals – which may one day number in the thousands – serve their sentences and are released back into society?” the authors wrote.
“Given the lack of knowledge as to ‘what works’ in rehabilitating and reintegrating violent extremist offenders in and after prison, this demographic could well present one of the main challenges to policymakers in years to come.”