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UN Office of Counter - Terrorism High-Level Conference Side Event

Statement by Ilze Brands Kehris, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

24 June 2021

Sincere thanks to the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT) for convening this High Level Conference. OHCHR is honored to co-host this side event with the USA, Kazakhstan, and OCT on an issue that is critical to all of us.

As is evident in the film “The Return: Life after ISIS,” a clip of which will be shown shortly, the situation of the thousands of third-country nationals who have been stranded in camps in north-eastern Syria and Iraq for two years is urgently desperate.

Not only has the dire humanitarian conditions in the camps worsen, but there has also been an increase in violence—more than 40 residents were reportedly killed in the Al Hol camp—40 adults and two children—in the first quarter of 2021.

The situation of women and children is particularly grave. Women have been subjected to beatings, jailed, and their tents raided. Children in the camps are vulnerable to violence and abuse and exposed to indoctrination. Additionally, it is unhelpful that some States of origin have labelled children recruited by ISIL as terrorists. This impedes repatriation and re-victimizes these children, contrary to the best interests of the child—a principle which must always be the primary consideration when determining the situation of children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Despite the dire situation, repatriation has been piecemeal, and some countries are only repatriating children without their mothers. Some individuals have been stripped of their nationality rendering individuals stateless in some cases— this is not only a form of punishment to these nationals but also voids any claim to a possible obligation to repatriate.

Given the indeterminate status, protracted humanitarian situation, deteriorating security situation in the camps, and the non-viability of prosecuting alleged perpetrators of serious crimes in courts that uphold international standards, repatriation in accordance with international law remains the only human rights compliant option.

OHCHR and UN partners have called upon States to assume responsibility of their own nationals and to ensure solidarity by combining efforts with countries who have been in the frontlines of the conflict against ISIL in the past few years. We are encouraged by recent developments, which suggest a shift in Member States positions on this issue and are hopeful this will lead to larger scale returns and a solution to this urgent problem. In view of the more frequent focus exclusively on repatriation of children, sometimes below a low age, I would like to draw attention to the critical issue of the need to repatriate children with their mothers, when possible, preserving the family unit and based on a thorough consideration of the best interest of the child. We recognize that it is no easy task for Member States to ensure that returns of individuals to their country of origin are grounded in human rights whilst addressing potential security threats that some individuals in the camps could pose.

In recognition of these challenges, the UN has developed an integrated approach designed to support States in the “Global Framework for UN Support on Syria/Iraq Third Country National Returnees”. The Global Framework brings together various UN entities with the objective of leveraging their respective expertise and mandates to support Member States willing to take back their nationals, or who have already done so.

All participating entities have recognized the need for the Framework to be firmly anchored in human rights principles. Under the Framework, support provided by the UN is thus based on human rights and backed by an offer of technical human rights capacity-building—an approach that we encourage across all UN counter-terrorism programming.  

We hope that Member States will take up the UN offer of assistance in this area, and look forward to supporting Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in this endeavour.

Thank you.