Baraa Zayani, a 4-year-old Tunisian boy, has been held for the past two years in a militia-run prison in Libya. In 2016, a bullet tore through his stomach during clashes between armed groups that killed his father, a member of the Islamic State. He has had five operations and needs one more.
“We have asked every Tunisian authority we can think of to bring him home,” Baraa’s uncle, Moncef Abidi, told me last week in Tunis. “I keep begging them, ‘Save Baraa. He needs more surgery to survive.’ But nothing.” The Libyan authorities say that Baraa and his mother can go home, but Libya and Tunisia are deadlocked on terms, Abidi said.
Children like Baraa should be a top priority when the United Nations Security Council meets Thursday to review guidelines for countries whose citizens have joined transnational extremist armed groups such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
More than 2,000 children and 1,000 women from more than 20 countries are estimated to be detained in Syria, Iraq and Libya because their fathers are known or alleged ISIS members. The family members come from countries as disparate as France, Russia and Tunisia. While many foreign spouses and offspring are being prosecuted for ISIS-related offenses – often in procedures that miserably fail fair trial standards – the majority have not been accused of any crime.
Most of these children, including infants and toddlers, are crammed with their mothers into overcrowded prisons and camps. Some are orphans. Many lack sufficient healthcare or food.
“My sister told me they suck on olive pits to stave off hunger,” Abidi said of Baraa’s mother Wahida, who is detained with Baraa in Tripoli’s Mitiga prison, notorious for ill-treatment and inhumane conditions.
Another Tunisian man said his daughter told him two of her children got sick from eating garbage in Roj, a camp controlled by Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria. Other family members in Tunisia told me that tents in the northeast Syrian camps leak in the rain or blow over in the wind. Schooling, they said, is almost non-existent.
Governments have repeatedly stalled on bringing home these children, even those with clear proof of citizenship, claiming that they may be future terrorists or that their returns will prompt a popular backlash.
Meanwhile, the plight of these children receives only one passing reference in the 2015 Madrid Guiding Principles, which were designed to help countries carry out binding UN Security Council resolutions to counter the foreign fighter phenomenon. The Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee is expected to update these guidelines on Thursday.
As of now, only guiding principle 30 acknowledges the fate of these children, but it merely calls on UN member states to “develop and implement strategies for dealing with specific categories of returnees, in particular minors, women, family members and other potentially vulnerable individuals.”
Few national governments have developed such strategies, and fewer still have taken any action to help these children.
The most recent binding Security Council resolution on foreign fighters, adopted in December 2017, goes further than Madrid principle 30. It rightly notes that women and children related to armed extremists may themselves be victims of those family members and emphasizes the need for their “timely” reintegration and rehabilitation. But genuine rehabilitation cannot take place in squalid camps abroad, which one Western diplomat in Tunis described to me as “potential incubators” rather than deterrents of violent extremism. Nor is it as likely to succeed if these children are brought home without their mothers—an option that families in Tunisia told me their government has contemplated.
The Security Council should use Thursday’s Counter-Terrorism Committee meeting to begin swiftly amending the Madrid guidelines to spell out UN member countries’ human rights obligations toward child victims of armed conflict. These obligations, which are detailed in international treaties including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as in recent guides by the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, make clear that authorities should detain children only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. They also make clear that countries should prevent children from becoming stateless, a risk for many of those trapped in Syria, Iraq and Libya. They note that children should not be separated from their parents unless it is in the child’s best interest and that they should be provided with education and health care.
The revised Madrid guidelines should also emphasize that countries should not punish children for the crimes of their parents. The same goes for spouses who committed no crime; many of these women contend their husbands threatened or duped them into joining or following them abroad.
Bringing these children home is a complex task. Some children were born in ISIS-held territory and lack identity papers that their home countries would recognize. In many cases, their governments do not have diplomatic relations with the governments holding them. These children are likely to be traumatized and will need counseling. Moreover, the prospect that some children or their mothers may pose a security threat should not be brushed aside.
But the biggest hurdle is home governments’ political will. Many children have birth certificates from their home countries. Other children’s identities could easily be established through DNA tests. And the children, along with their mothers, could be evaluated upon returning home and, if appropriate, monitored and, if necessary, prosecuted in line with international fair trial and juvenile justice standards. In such cases, however, children should not be prosecuted for membership in groups like ISIS absent evidence of violent acts.
The Security Council should add detailed human rights guidelines to the Madrid principles to address other abuses as well; for example, to protect activists and journalists who are unjustly prosecuted as terrorists in the name of security. The Security Council should also demand human rights benchmarks and review. But children and their mothers should not get lost in the mix.
“He is just a little boy,” Abidi said of his nephew Baraa. “Why should he be punished for the crimes of his father?”