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Experts call for more action after girls’ return from Syrian camp

UN experts say conditions inside two camps, Roj and Al Hol (pictured) for people suspected of terror links and their families are precarious, with shortages of clean water, food, medicine, and adequate shelter and security. Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Human rights experts have welcomed the repatriation this week of two Swiss girls from a camp in northeast Syria. But they say Switzerland should be doing more about suspected Swiss combatants who remain detained in the Iraqi-Syrian conflict zone.

This content was published on December 10, 2021 - 12:00

The two girls, aged 9 and 15, were brought back without their mother, who was stripped of her Swiss citizenship after taking her daughters with her to Syria, where she planned to join the Islamic State (IS) terror group, in 2016. A third daughter, the youngest, remains with her in one of two Kurdish-controlled camps for people suspected of links to IS. The United Nations has described humanitarian conditions in the camps as “dire”.  

“Obviously I welcome this development, but I think allowing Swiss citizens to return to Switzerland really is the least they can do,” said Nils Melzer, the Swiss UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism, also welcomed the girls’ return but expressed concern that their mother had not been repatriated and had been stripped of her citizenship. “States should always place the child at the centre of considerations, and help ensure their rights, even when the child’s interests conflict with the State’s perceived security interests,” she told SWI swissinfo.ch. 

The rapporteurs were among a group of UN experts who wrote to the Swiss government in April this yearExternal link urging the girls’ return on human rights’ grounds. Also key was pressure on Bern from the half-sisters’ fathers in Geneva and negotiations with their mother, who initially refused to let them go.  

Marco Sassoli, an international law professor at the University of Geneva, said the girls’ return was “good news, but it's an insufficient step”.  

“The impression is that only citizens who behave well should be repatriated,” he told SWI swissinfo.ch. He added that Switzerland should take responsibility for all its citizens, even if they were suspected criminals. 

Three children, out of an estimated total of 15 Swiss nationals (men, women and children), remain in detention in northern Syria, according to figures from the Federal Intelligence Service. Swiss policy since 2019 places priority on national security, so the government does not actively repatriate adults who left the country to join a terrorist group, and repatriates children only on a case-by-case basis.  

Humanitarian and security risks 

The two girls, originally from Geneva, are the first citizens to be repatriated to Switzerland from the camps. Because Kurdish authorities do not allow mothers and children to be separated unless the mother consents, the Department of Foreign Affairs worked on a strategy over many months to convince the mother to let her children leave the camp, said Johannes Matyassy, director of consular affairs. This included regular phone contact between the girls and their fathers and visits by Swiss consular officials to the camp, Roj, where the family was detained.  

For Melzer and other UN experts, repatriating the girls means they are now protected from exposure to potential human rights violations inside “squalid” camps. Leaving people in the camps can also increase national security risks in the long-term, as they are more likely to be radicalised and remain so, according to Melzer. 

Matyassy, however, said that conditions in Roj were relatively good for the family – with running water, electricity and access to medical care – and so far there were no indications that the children had been radicalised. The two were in good health, with the older girl having recovered from a shrapnel wound, and both will follow a reintegration process, he added. 

Rather than seeing the minors as security risks, Olivier Peter, the lawyer representing the girls’ fathers, said: “We must remember that these children are victims and they were exposed to trauma.”  

Besides the girls, two other Swiss children left northern Syria this year. In July two siblings, aged four and five, born to a Swiss father who had joined IS, were repatriated to Belgium with their Belgian mother. 

Adults 

With the girls’ return to Geneva, attention is also turning to the fate of adult detainees. According to Melzer, there are only two possible sanctions under Swiss law for the crime of supporting a designated terrorist organisation: deprivation of freedom or a fine.   

“There is no sanction where we basically expose people to risks of grave human rights violations for something they have done,” he said. “Legally it is not permissible.”  

All the Swiss nationals should be brought back and tried if appropriate, he said, “and if there's not sufficient evidence for a crime but they still represent a threat to public security, I think the Swiss authorities should give themselves appropriate regulations and legislation to deal with the problem”. 

Switzerland is among nearly 60 states that have an estimated 12,000 nationals (not counting Iraqis and Syrians) detained in the camps. Some, like Belgium, have actively repatriated children and their mothers and detained adults who present a security risk on arrival.  

Support for local trials 

Switzerland, however, has indicated it prefers to see its detained nationals prosecuted locally.  

“The argument often made by Switzerland is that justice must be close to the victims,” explained law professor Sassoli. But getting the necessary evidence on crimes committed in Iraq or in parts of Syria controlled by the Syrian regime would be as difficult for a Kurdish judge in northern Syria as it would be for a judge in Switzerland, he argued.  

After Kurdish forces took control of north-eastern Syria and detained suspected IS combatants in 2019, European states led by Sweden discussed the possibility of an international tribunalExternal link to try foreign fighters. Switzerland took part in a conference on this in June 2019, but since then states have made no progress, a Swiss foreign ministry spokesperson told SWI swissinfo.ch. 

The self-proclaimed Kurdish authority has started some trials of IS fighters under its own system. But it lacks resources and international support. The Kurdish authority is not internationally recognised.  According to a foreign ministry spokesperson, Switzerland does not offer support to “a non-state actor to exercise judicial authority”. To date no Swiss national has been tried in northern Syria. 

“No state wants to prosecute their own citizens in their own country, although this is clearly possible under Swiss and international law,” said Sassoli. “If they really don't want to take their own citizens back, they should help the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria to improve their judicial procedures.” 

For now the Swiss are sticking to their policy of not repatriating any adults. As for the three children that still remain in Syria, there is currently no active plan for their repatriation, says the foreign affairs department.  

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