On Monday 5 October, Kurdish authorities in northern Syria have once again pressed the international community to commit to an enduring solution for the estimated 65,000 people that are currently held in the al-Hawl camp, near the Iraqi border. Elham Ahmad, the president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), put forward a proposal that would grant general amnesty to all of the 25,000 Syrian detainees that are held in the camp. Ms Ahmad is hoping that this drastic proposal will prompt the international community to undertake action and convince, at the very least, foreign countries to repatriate their own citizens. ACHRS strongly appeals to specifically Western governments to repatriate as this would unload a significant fraction of the unworkable burden that has been put on the northern authorities since they brought about the territorial demise of Da’esh.
Following the successful territorial defeat of Da’esh in March 2019, the refugee camp, which has been operating since the Gulf war in 1991, saw a dramatic increase from its initial 10,000 occupants. A stalemate has been in place ever since the capture of Da’esh affiliates as Western governments have been hesitant to repatriate their citizens, branded, even by their own countries, as foreign fighters. Repatriation is perceived as a controversial political decision that lacks domestic support. Nonetheless, repatriation would be the best policy for legal, moral, and security reasons.
From a legal point of view, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2396 in 2017. This Resolution calls on “Member States to take appropriate action regarding suspected terrorists and their accompanying family members who entered their territories, including by considering appropriate prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration measures in compliance with domestic and international law”. While in some instances domestic courts have corrected their politicians’ disregard of the law, politicians have, on the whole, managed to continue their bickering over what “appropriate action” really means. There are, however, some straightforward moral and security reasons that might reveal the true meaning of “appropriate action”.
Due to an incapacity of the Kurdish authorities to try all Da’esh militants, many detainees have been transferred to Iraq. Accepting or facilitating Western foreign fighters to be prosecuted in Iraq has unequivocal consequences. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) monitored more than 500 terrorism-related criminal court hearings in Iraq between 1 May 2018 and 31 October 2019 and found that fair trial standards were not being respected in terrorism-related trials, not to mention the frequent allegations of torture or ill-treatment. It also stated that a relatively large number of terrorism-related hearings resulted in the death penalty, often building upon an overly broad definition of terrorism that includes minor players and relying on confessions that were later retracted in court.
Western governments should reconsider their support for, and reliance on, unfair trials that will often result in the death penalty. If they fail to do so, they will risk losing global credibility in their fight against the death penalty and the promotion of the rule of law. Besides this strong moral incentive to repatriate foreign fighters, the eagerness of Western governments to keep their hands clean ignores the fact that these foreign fighters are products of their own societies and it is therefore reasonable that they themselves should carry the responsibility of prosecuting these people.
The repatriation of foreign fighters by Western governments would also be the best policy for security reasons. Although Ms Ahmad promised that foreigners facing serious accusations will remain detained, it is always likely that some might escape ‘through the cracks’ as there is an overall lack of information on who is responsible and for what. The practice of relying on a system of tribal sponsorship – over 4000 Syrian nationals have already been returned home from al-Hawl Camp to the Deir-ez-Zor and Raqqa governorates with tribal sheikhs guaranteeing that they will not affiliate with Da’esh – is also questionable. Recent attacks in the region, seemingly undeterred by tribal oversight, have demonstrated Da’esh’s ambition and capability to carry out attacks and rebuild their organisation. Repatriation would at least rule out the possibility of a foreign fighter break-out and therefore deprive Da’esh of a possible restoration of their notorious division.
The Amman Centre for Human Rights Studies urges all Western governments to repatriate their nationals from Syria and Iraq as this would benefit the overall security situation and demonstrate a strong position against the application of the death penalty and the absence of fair trials. Recent developments in the United States and in France have proven that foreign fighters can be prosecuted by Western countries once there is sufficient political courage.