GENEVA (AP) — Thousands of relatives of former foreign fighters in the Islamic State group should be repatriated, the U.N. human rights chief said Monday, insisting children in particular have suffered “grievous violations” of their rights — a challenge to European and other countries that have been reticent about taking back jihadis and their kin.
Michelle Bachelet said more than 55,000 suspected IS fighters and their families have been detained in Iraq and Syria. Most are in the custody of the Iraqi government and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and the alleged fighters come from over 50 countries. More than 11,000 relatives are being held at the Al Hol camp in northeastern Syria alone.
Bachelet appealed to the relevant countries to uphold their responsibilities under international law, even with regard to members of an extremist group infamous for beheadings and other grave violence. Many European countries have been reluctant to take back their nationals, led by France, which saw more of its citizens join IS than any other European country.
“Foreign family members should be repatriated, unless they are to be prosecuted for crimes in accordance with international standards,” Bachelet told the Human Rights Council as it opened its summer session. “Children, in particular, have suffered grievous violations of their rights — including those who may have been indoctrinated or recruited by ISIL (Islamic State) to perpetrate violent acts.”
Putting European jihadis on trial in their home countries is considered problematic, as little evidence that would survive judicial scrutiny directly links them to crimes in Syria and Iraq.
Bachelet said some existing cases haven’t met international standards, noting that Iraq has sentenced to death more than 150 men and women in trials “which have not afforded adequate due process guarantees.”
In her wide-ranging speech, Bachelet also expressed “regret” at Saudi Arabia’s “dismissal” of a report last week by an independent U.N. human rights expert criticizing the kingdom over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As for China, she commended a “sound decision” by Hong Kong authorities to delay a bill on extradition that fanned mass protests.
But her biggest focus was on thousands of former IS members, saying many at Al Hol lived in “deeply sub-standard” conditions.
The U.S. has been urging European countries to bring back their nationals and put them on trial but most EU countries have refused. Russia and Kazakhstan have been most active at repatriating foreign fighters and their families.
Earlier Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that eight children of two slain Islamic State group fighters had been removed from Syria to an unspecified location before planned repatriation to Australia. It would mark the country’s first organized repatriation from the conflict zone.
Groups of French children were returned to France earlier this month, along with at least three adults who were immediately detained for questioning. A dozen Frenchmen have been sentenced to death in Iraq.
There has been a recent push for an international tribunal to try former IS fighters, but it has yet to gain tangible backing.