As It Happens

Canada has 'a legal obligation' to repatriate citizens who left to fight for ISIS, says UN rapporteur

Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, says it's time for Ottawa to stop dragging its heels and repatriate its citizens who fought for ISIS and are now being held in Syria and Iraq.

At least 13 Canadians are being held in Syria following the collapse of the Islamic State in 2017

Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, says it's time for Ottawa to stop dragging its heels and repatriate its citizens who fought for ISIS and are now being held in Syria and Iraq. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)
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A UN official says it's time for Ottawa to stop dragging its heels and repatriate its citizens who fought for the Islamic State (ISIS) and are now being held in Syria and Iraq.

Several Canadians are currently being held by Kurdish authorities in Syria, following the collapse of ISIS in 2017.

So far, the federal government has said it has no obligation to repatriate them, and that it is ill-equipped to put them on trial.

Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, says the opposite. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.

Ms. Callamard, why do you believe that Canada has a duty to bring these people home, those who fought alongside the Islamic State?

I believe it has a legal obligation to do so, if those foreign fighters are currently held in Syria by a non-state actor in this case a Kurdish group. That group has currently no international legitimacy, and probably neither does it have the capacity to undertake fair trials. That's one reason as to why those individuals should be sent back to Canada.

As far as Iraq is concerned, if they are Canadian foreign fighters detained in Iraq they are tried under Iraqi counter-terrorism law. It's an extremely problematic law that has been denounced by myself, and by the UN as well. Under the law, many foreign fighters can be sentenced to death.

It is a legal obligation placed upon Canada ... to take all the necessary measures to ensure that its citizens do not confront or face death penalty. And frankly, the best way to do that in Iraq is to repatriate them for trial in Canada.

British-Canadian Jack Letts, as seen in a Facebook photo at age 20, went to Iraq and Syria in 2014, and is now in a Kurdish jail in northern Syria. He was dubbed 'Jihadi Jack' in British media, a label his parents feel has hurt his case. (Facebook)

When you say that they should be brought to justice in Canada, the difficulty of actually prosecuting them would be the difficulty of gathering evidence, of protecting witnesses who have to be brought, of translating, of all kinds of things on the ground ... in hostile territories. The chances of prosecutions, many would argue, is extremely fraught, and so perhaps bringing them back is not going to bring successful prosecutions. Doesn't that fail the victims of these crimes?

Well, first of all, the victims of the crimes currently are completely failed. Let me be very clear: You just have to listen to the [winners of the] Nobel Peace Prize that has just been allocated, and you will know that there has been no accountability for anything that has been committed against the Yazidi community, whether we are talking sexual violence or mass massacres.

Why do you think Canada could do any better? Canada would fail them too, would they not?

At the moment, there is no accountability. That's the first thing. The second is that of all countries that currently have the legal and technical capacity to undertake the challenging task, I believe that some of those governments, including Canada certainly, are far better placed to do so.

I'm not denying the complexity of the investigation. What I am suggesting is that after World War II we took on the challenge, and the international community brought to account those that had committed genocide and killed six million people — and far more, in fact.

After the Rwandan genocide, we took our responsibility and the international community together took action. After what happened in the former Yugoslavia, we did the same.

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What happened in Syria and Iraq is very similar to all the atrocity crimes I have highlighted. Why is it that those crimes, currently, we are not responding to them with the equal vigor and equal courage — including technical courage, and including legal capacity to ensure accountability for what is probably multiple genocide crimes against humanity and war crimes?

There are politics in Canada, as you know, and we have tremendous opposition to the Liberal government if it even considers bringing the ISIS fighters back. And Canada's statement we received today said there is no plan or deal in place to bring any Canadians who are in Syria to Canada. They are insisting that the ones who have returned, some will be prosecuted. But it doesn't seem as though they're interested in your idea.

So far every government, for the last four or five years, have brandished IS as enemy number one around the world. None of those governments are now prepared to take their responsibilities and put IS to trial. None of them.

So it's not a particular problem with Canada. It characterizes all of the Western governments that have participated in the war in Syria and Iraq.

A Canadian who fought for ISIS in Manbij, Syria, and who has now returned home goes by the nom de guerre Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi (Abu Huzaifa the Canadian). (John Lancaster/CBC)

I am persuaded that at some stage they will have no other option but to be realistic and take an international responsibility for the next stage in the fight against extremism.

My suggestions, my strong recommendations, is that governments including Canada must do the right thing legally, and must do the right thing in front of historians.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Q&A edited for length and clarity. Segment produced by Kate Swoger.