Five-year-old Amira is finally out of Syria and back to Canada, the result of a long battle for her extended family. Orphan since March 2019 following a bombing that killed her Canadian parents who left to join the Islamic State group, she languished in an orphanage after wandering the streets alone.
The Canadian government at first hesitated at her uncle’s urgent demands for her niece to be saved. Ottawa cited the complexity and danger of such an operation as well as the lack of diplomatic representation in Syria. These arguments quickly lost their effect, however, when around 20 other countries began to repatriate their orphans and sometimes their mothers. These include Great Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway and the United States.
This happy ending for Amira, however, cannot make us forget that there are still Canadians in makeshift Kurdish prisons and camps reserved for the families of captured combatants. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), they are at least 46, comprising 8 men, 13 women and, now, 25 children, most of whom are six years old or younger.
During the announcement Monday of Amira’s return, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne insisted that the child’s case was exceptional and that it was not no way to do the same for other Canadians. Neither has offered a real explanation for this differential treatment, although it is suspected that legal actions taken by Amira’s uncle have weighed in the balance.
Canada’s resistance is not unique, however. Repatriating people who have left to support a particularly cruel terrorist organization is unpopular, Agnès S. Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, told my colleague Hélène Buzzetti on Monday. But for Mme Callamard, “there is no doubt that leaving these children there in these camps constitutes a violation of the international obligations of these States”.
In the case of children, it is easy to speak of a humanitarian duty. This may be the case for some adults, but the obligations are of another order vis-à-vis those who have been complicit in atrocities or even committed them. In their case, we speak of the obligation not to leave such crimes unpunished. In a report released in June, Human Rights Watch said that repatriating adults, especially combatants, would be the best way to hold them to account and bring them to justice, which is still impossible in Syria.
The Canadian government’s refusal is guided by domestic policy considerations, but it thus contradicts certain fundamental principles of our foreign policy, including that of ending impunity for crimes against humanity.
Without a recognized state, the Kurds, Canada’s allies in the fight against the Islamic State group, say they are incapable of keeping and judging these fighters and their families. For two years, they have been asking the various countries of origin to repatriate their citizens to do this essential work.
The question is complex, as Ottawa says, because we are talking about de-radicalization, re-education and reintegration of non-combatants, including children. In order to judge combatants, you must have the necessary evidence in hand for the judicial process to succeed. So we have to bring them together and make sure they meet our legal standards.
However, it is not impossible, at least in the eyes of the United States. Last week, the Justice Department announced that it had repatriated all Americans detained in Iraq and Syria who are being sued for supporting the Islamic State group. Washington intends to bring them to court and has been pushing for a while for all countries to do the same with their jihadist citizens.
Canada has always known that prosecuting someone for a crime against humanity or a war crime committed in another country would not be easy. This did not prevent it in 2000 from incorporating into its national law the obligations to this effect arising from the statute of the International Criminal Court. It was even the first country to do so.
On Monday, Farida Deif of Human Rights Watch Canada reminded my colleague that even Yazidis who fled to Canada to flee the abuses of the Islamic State group are asking for these repatriations. “They want [les responsables de] these crimes are brought to justice. “
There is no legal obligation for Canada to repatriate its nationals, but not to do so in a case like this would not be consistent with our past stances against impunity. It is not by looking the other way that Canada will help ensure justice. Leaving children and non-combatant mothers to their fate will not ensure his long-term security. Canada, like other rule-of-law countries, cannot wash its hands of it.