Despite US Veto, Desperate ISIS Suspects and Families Remain at Risk

There is good news and bad news from the Aug. 31 United Nations Security Council vote on a dangerously flawed draft resolution on so-called “foreign terrorist fighters,” the council’s catch-all phrase for members and affiliates of groups like the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS). The good news is that the United States vetoed the draft, rightly dismissing it as “worse than no resolution at all.”

The bad news is that all other 14 Security Council members voted “Yes”—not one was sufficiently embarrassed to abstain—though the resolution would have undermined the rights of desperate children and women locked inside squalid camps for ISIS families, the rights of terrorism suspects to appear before a judge, and the U.N.’s own Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Given that wanton disregard, the risk remains that some of the more troubling provisions in this draft may yet find their way into a future counterterrorism resolution.

The draft resolution on the prosecution, rehabilitation, and re-integration of foreign terrorism suspects  and their families aimed to guide national responses to what has become a global crisis: the arbitrary,  indefinite detention of thousands of foreign ISIS suspects and their families in prisons and camps in northeast Syria, in conditions I’ve confirmed to be deeply degrading and often inhuman and life-threatening.

According to the U.N. under-secretary-general for counterterrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, 700 people have died in recent months because of dire conditions in al-Hol, the largest camp for families of ISIS suspects in northeast Syria, holding 65,000 women and children. At least six cases of coronavirus infection have been confirmed in the camp — one al-Hol resident and five aid workers. The U.N. has said the actual number probably is much higher. Aid groups call the horrific conditions in the camps for ISIS suspects and family members an ideal breeding ground for the virus.

Many ISIS suspects and family members detained in northeast Syria are Syrian. But about 30,000 are Iraqis, while nearly 14,000 are from more than 60 other countries —12,000 women and children in camps and about 2,000 men and older boys in prisons. They have been held by a Kurdish-led armed force allied with the U.S.-led Global Coalition Against ISIS for at least a year and a half, without being brought before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention. More than half are children under age 12, with most age 6 or younger. With rare exceptions such as Russia and Kazakhstan, their home countries have at best brought home only a token few of their citizens, primarily young orphans. Indonesia, which introduced the resolution, has issued a blanket ban on returns.

Security Council members supported the flawed resolution despite private warnings from human rights and humanitarian groups and public warnings from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in countering terrorism about the damage it could inflict, much of it on children. As purported champions of human rights and the rule of law, council members such as Belgium, France, Germany, Tunisia, and the U.K. should have known better. (All of them, shamefully, have stalled on repatriating most of their own nationals held as ISIS suspects and family members in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria, Iraq, or Libya.) U.N. sources say even the welcome U.S. veto may have been prompted by Security Council maneuvering as well as principle.

A New Way to Separate Children from Families

One of the draft resolution’s most troubling provisions called on countries to address the “foreign terrorist fighter” threat through such measures as “facilitating the return of the[ir] children to their countries of origin, as appropriate and on a case by case basis.”

The provision made no reference to preserving family unity. Had it passed, governments could have portrayed it as a Security Council stamp of approval to systematically repatriate these children, most of them severely traumatized, without their mothers. That would violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says states parties should not separate children from their parents against their will, except in exceptional circumstances when competent authorities determine that such separation “is necessary for the best interests of the child.”  The Security Council should press member states to promptly bring these children home—and their mothers with them. If the mothers are suspected of crimes, they can be prosecuted at home as appropriate and serve sentences where their children can regularly visit them.

Indeed, the draft resolution did not call on member states to facilitate the repatriation of any adult citizens held as foreign terrorism suspects or family members, although all are being held indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge the legality and necessity of their detention, a violation of international law. And there is no plan in sight for local prosecutions of suspects. The omission of stronger repatriation language is particularly glaring in light of repeated calls by U.N. officials, including Secretary-General António Guterres and U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet, for member states to bring their nationals home.

Officially, the absence of the “R” word is also what prompted the “No” vote from the U.S., which has repatriated several of its own nationals and warned of the security risks of indefinitely leaving foreign ISIS suspects and family members in northeast Syria. “This resolution was meant to address the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of terrorists … and their accompanying family members. And yet it fails to even include reference to the crucial first step – repatriation to countries of origin or nationality,” said Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Unofficially, U.N. sources suggest that the veto may also have been retaliation for the Security Council’s near-unanimous defeat on Aug. 14 of a U.S. proposal to indefinitely extend the arms embargo on Iran.

In a flagrant understatement, the draft resolution said children associated with terrorism groups merely “may be” victims. Under the Paris Principles on children associated with armed groups or forces, even child soldiers should be treated first and foremost as victims. The draft also intentionally omitted language from a preceding resolution on foreign terrorism suspects, Security Council resolution 2396 (2017), which recognized the fact that women associated with terrorist groups may also be victims of those groups. That language on women was one of the few safeguards in resolution 2396, which is replete with its own flaws.

Defying the U.N.’s Own Strategy

The proposed resolution also flouted the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which calls respect for human rights and the rule of law the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism. Last-minute improvements, such as calling on member states to not revoke terrorism suspects’ citizenship if it would leave them stateless, and conceding that any use of battlefield evidence must comport with international fair trial standards, were too little, too late.

The resolution would have been binding on member states under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, allowing it to potentially shape counterterrorism strategy for the worse on a global scale. Yet it was circulated, like the overreaching resolution 2396 that preceded it, during a period when many U.N. delegates and staff members are on vacation, with minimal transparency. It was introduced in a climate of increasing tolerance within the U.N. system for sidelining fundamental rights in the name of countering terrorism and excluding civil society voices concerned about the perils of this path.

Guterres, Bachelet, and U.N. member states should do their utmost to ensure the Security Council does not resuscitate the Indonesia proposal with a few palatable flourishes. So should U.N. entities including the Office of Counter-Terrorism, the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, U.N. Women, UNICEF, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in countering terrorism, and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on children and armed conflict. Even if the U.N. counterterrorism apparatus continues to largely exclude civil society from its decision-making processes, we will be watching. 

About the Author(s)

Letta Tayler

Senior Terrorism and Counterterrorism Researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of two reports on U.S. targeted killings in Yemen. Follow her on Twitter (@lettatayler).