Why Canada must prosecute returning ISIS fighters

Nadia Murad, co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, listens to a question at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Why Canada must prosecute returning ISIS fighters

Human rights champion Nadia Murad was recently co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In August 2014, Murad’s village in northern Iraq was attacked by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and she was sold into sexual slavery.

She managed to escape, sought asylum in Germany in 2015 and has fought for the rights of the Yazidi minority ever since. Upon becoming a Nobel laureate, she said:

“We must work together with determination — so that genocidal campaigns will not only fail, but lead to accountability for the perpetrators. Survivors deserve justice. And a safe and secure pathway home.”

Accountability has become a key issue. While the United States-led international coalition has dislodged ISIS from the cities it had occupied and controlled, namely Mosul and Raqqa, the group is weakened but not dead.

ISIS remains a force in the Middle East

Both the U.S. Department of Defense and the United Nations estimate that approximately 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in those countries.

At the same time, a significant number of foreign fighters from places like Canada, the U.K. and Australia have fled Iraq and Syria. Numerous countries are struggling to find policy solutions on how to manage the return of their nationals who had joined the group.

The Canadian government has stated publicly that it favours taking a comprehensive approach of reintegrating returnees back into society. Very few foreign fighters who have returned to Canada have been prosecuted.

Things are about to become much more complicated for officials in Ottawa. Stewart Bell of Global News, reporting recently from Northern Syria, interviewed Canadian ISIS member Muhammad Ali who is being held by Kurdish forces in a makeshift prison.

Ali admits to having joined ISIS and acting as a sniper, and playing soccer with severed heads. He also has a digital record of using social media to incite others to commit violent attacks against civilians and recruiting others to join the group.

Another suspected ISIS member, Jack Letts, a dual Canadian-British national, is also locked up in northern Syria. The same Kurdish forces are adamant that the government of Canada repatriate all Canadian citizens they captured on the battlefield.

Soft on terror or Islamophobic

The issue of how to manage the return of foreign fighters has resulted in highly political debates in Ottawa, demonstrating strong partisan differences on policy choices and strategies to keep Canadians safe.

The Liberal government has been accused of being soft on terrorism and national security, while the Conservative opposition has been charged with “fear mongering” and “Islamophobia” for wanting a tougher approach, namely prosecuting returnees.

A member of the Asaish Kurdish security force shows a reporter the inside of an ISIS fighters house in February 2017 in Bashiqa, Iraq. The town in the Mosul district was liberated in November 2016 after being under ISIS control for two years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

But the most important point is that Canada has both a moral and legal duty to seek justice and uphold the most basic human rights of vulnerable populations.

ISIS and other jihadi groups have engaged in systematic mass atrocities against minorities in Iraq and Syria, including Christians and Shiites. ISIS has demonstrated a particular disdain for the Yazidi minority in Iraq. The Canadian government recognized the group’s crimes against the Yazidis as genocide.

As a state party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and a signatory of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Canada has a responsibility to uphold these international legal conventions when formulating carefully crafted policy responses that deal with returning foreign fighters.

Trials can serve as deterrents

Canada has the option to prosecute its nationals in domestic courts using the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.

Open trials can serve as means by which to lay bare ISIS’s narrative and to help counter violent extremism and future atrocities.

They can also serve as a deterrent and warning to other Canadians who might try to join ISIS as it mutates and moves to other countries in the world like Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Philippines, Pakistan or in Mali, where Canadian peacekeepers have just been deployed.

If Canada truly stands for multiculturalism, pluralism, the rule of law, global justice, human rights and the liberal international order, then we must be firm and take a principled stand to prosecute those have fought with ISIS. That includes our own citizens. No doubt Nadia Murad would agree.

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