Much has been written about the gender of terrorism, and counterterrorism, including by myself. In much of that writing, there is a tendency to elide “gender” analysis with the experiences and harms of women and girls. When we think gender, we forget that men and boys are also a gendered category, and that they experience terrorism and counterterrorism in distinct ways.
I have been particularly struck by the lack of attention being paid to boys and young male adolescents in conflict and post-conflict settings. Specifically, the harms being experienced by young boys and adolescents on the threshold of adulthood in northeast Syria have largely been ignored in humanitarian and human rights discussions, which have tended to focus on the specific vulnerabilities of women and girls, particularly those detained in al-Hol and Roj camps.
In a recent position paper I wrote in my role as a United Nations special rapporteur, I argue that young boys and adolescents are in a particularly vulnerable situation subject to unique harms, precisely because of the assumptions being made about their gender (male), the parentage (presumed association with ISIL), the geography (Syria), and their religious beliefs (Muslim). U.N. human rights experts have found that multiple human rights violations are being experienced by those being detained at al-Hol and Roj camps in northeast Syria. They include torture; inhuman and degrading treatment, including sexual violence and reproductive harm; arbitrary detention; right to life infringements; freedom of movement restrictions; erasure of the right to family life; fundamental infringements on right to health; abrogation of the right to education; denial of the right to non-discrimination; lack of the right to clean and safe water alongside multiple violations of the rights of the child. For young boys and adolescents, there are additional and specific violations of their human rights and humanitarian law protections being violated.
Specifically, in parallel to al-Hol and Roj, a number of detention-like facilities have been operating in northeast Syria in which men, boys, and a small number of women are being held in dire prison-like conditions. I am aware of a number of formal detention facilities holding boys in abhorrent conditions including inadequate shelter, no bedding provision, unmanaged overcrowding, no access to sunlight, insufficient latrine access, and virtually no shower access. Malnourishment is rife. Boys held in these facilities suffer from scabies and other skin conditions. They are also vulnerable to HIV, tuberculosis, and Covid-19 exposure. Boys in these detention facilities endure untreated war injuries, missing limbs, and severe trauma. These conditions meet the threshold for torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law, and no child should have to endure them. The de facto culling, separation, and warehousing of adolescent boys from their mothers is an abhorrent practice inconsistent with the dignity of the child and inconsistent with the most essential of rights any child is entitled to in any circumstances. There is stark silence about the separation of these boys from their mothers and sisters, compared with the global outrage that took place over the separation of families at the U.S. border in recent years.
It also appears that a sizeable number of adolescent boys are being held in such prison facilities as de facto adults on what appears to be multiple spurious grounds. At least one of these detention facilities has been described as a “rehabilitation” camp. It states the obvious to say that this nomenclature is deeply problematic. None of the children held in this camp have had any or adequate legal basis to justify their detention; none were legally represented in any administrative process placing them there; no “best interest” test was or could have been adequately applied to place them there; no assessment of their protection or other needs has been conducted; no child has meaningful exit from this camp unless and until he is repatriated to his country of citizenship. Moreover, children of Syrian and Iraqi origin, to whom the principle and practice of non- refoulement applies, languish with no clear international or regional interest in protecting them or advancing their best interests in the short, medium, or long-term. The stigma of detention, notwithstanding that it is arbitrary and capricious, may make the prospect of their return more difficult by the circular stigmatizing logic of having been detained. There is no legal or policy basis to describe any such site as a “rehabilitation” facility, and its existence stands in per se contravention of the human rights and humanitarian law duties due to highly vulnerable children in a situation of conflict.
Children in these camps and detention facilities should, first and foremost, be viewed as victims. As such, they are entitled to protection. But instead of protection there appears to be multiple rationales being advanced to justify the detention of boys and adolescents including: 1) some unaccompanied/orphaned boys being placed in detention based on conjectures of their presumed association with ISIS or other groups; 2) some boys being detained based on family ties, i.e. on the presumptions of the affiliations of their parents; 3) some boys being claimed as child ISIS affiliates and being detained for unspecified/presumed crimes or security reasons; 3) some boys having crossed an arbitrary age threshold and then being separated from their mothers who are held in the main camps al-Hol and Roj and thereafter being brought to separate detention facilities. The detention of these boys in these conditions is distinctly gendered; the predetermination applied to them occurs only because they are boys and not girls and thus deemed outside of the ambit of meagre protection that applies to children being detained in these camps. In all of these contexts, not a single human rights- and rule of law-compatible determination has been made to justify the detention of children in inhumane conditions, many of them the citizens of Western States who have abandoned them, their mothers, and their sisters entirely. It remains obvious and uncontrivable to say that the only human rights and humanitarian law complaint response to the situation of these children is to ensure their protected return to countries of nationality, or secure third country settlement when they cannot safely return home.
It should be obvious that the starting point to contextualize and address the situation of these boys is to treat them primarily as victims of terrorism consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We should remember that these children were primarily brought to Syria or Iraq by parents or other family members considered or suspected of affiliation with ISIS and did not or could not provide meaningful consent to being brought to the territory. Or, they were born to an individual from Syria or a foreign national considered or suspect of affiliation with ISIS (F(T)F). An unknown number of children were conceived from acts of rape and sexual coercion during the conflict or forced marriage. No child is responsible for the circumstances of his birth and cannot be punished, excluded, and deemed unworthy of human rights protection by virtue of the status or acts of his parents. Children do not enjoy the independence, agency and range of choices open to adults. Even in cases where boys may have travelled to Syria to join ISIS or were not otherwise forcibly recruited, most child association with terrorist groups involves some form of coercion or constraint.
All to say, it is time to pay attention to the boy child as a victim of terrorism, and to avoid the reproduction of out-of-date tropes that fail to recognize the boy and the rights that accrue to him. Paying specific attention to the vulnerability of boys in northeast Syria is long overdue. Acting now is particularly important given the specific, distinct, and measurable harms being experienced by boys, using their gender as a defining trait to subject them to family separation, detention without process, and all the harms that follow. When we describe the rights of the child as universal, it is long past time that we recognize boys as children in situations of armed conflict, and protect them accordingly.