Remarks by Dr. Cordula Droege, ICRC Chief Legal Officer
Thank you for inviting the ICRC to join this important briefing. In my remarks today I will first address the distinct needs and risks experienced by women perceived to be affiliated with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, to ground our discussion in one of the specific contexts where it is most relevant. I'll then turn to where we go from here in efforts towards gender-sensitive prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration in cases where such action is merited.
As a preliminary point, I would like to emphasize that while a great deal of recent media attention has been directed towards the activities and fate of third country nationals, it is imperative to recall that the wider population – Iraqi and Syrians beyond the media's spotlight – also continues to face a deeply complex humanitarian situation, and must not be overlooked.
1. Situation on the ground
Turning first to the situation on the ground. In the view of the ICRC, the situation of women affiliated with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria today is characterized by two things – severity of humanitarian need, and a marked diversity and complexity of individual cases.
The severity of humanitarian need is exemplified by the situation in North East Syria. The current situation in Al Hol– the biggest though not the only camp – is simply unsustainable, and is not comparable to what the ICRC sees in camps in other places in the world. The camp now holds approximately 68,000 people. 90% are women and children, with many children under 5, and about one third are third country nationals. Beyond Al Hol, women facing prosecution in Iraq also require our attention.
The treatment and fate of the thousands of women in these circumstances is too often overlooked. Regardless of their potential culpability under domestic or international law, they have a distinct set of needs and face specific physical and psychological risks. Their distinct needs include basic female hygiene items, and medical care for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and those who have experienced sexual violence. The specific risks they face include retributive violence for their perceived role as IS "brides"; statelessness of their children arising from nationality laws or policies that limit women's ability to confer citizenship; and prosecutions that fail to take account of the broad range of roles of women in the context. Many women are mothers, and some are very young, under-aged mothers who were taken to Syria or Iraq by their parents as children. The prolongation of their uncertain situation continues to exacerbate needs and risks.
Given current developments on the ground, the ICRC is urging all parties to the conflict, irrespective of the time period during which they control specific areas, to guarantee the security within and around camps and places of detention, and to ensure the safety of persons present within them. All parties to the conflict should allow or provide necessary assistance to these persons. In addition, transfers or evacuations of these people must be in accordance with the law – they cannot be moved to places or to powers where their fundamental rights are at risk.
Diversity of Cases
The situation of women is also characterised by the diversity and complexity of individual cases. I emphasise that caution must be exercised to avoid oversimplification of women in this context. Women may have travelled voluntarily to areas where armed groups were active, or may be victims of trafficking; they may be both perpetrators and victims of war crimes (including though not limited to sexual violence); and may have fulfilled a wide variety of roles as members, civilian affiliates, or exclusively family members.
This diversity is nothing new – I recall that Security Council Resolution 2396 (2017) acknowledges that there is a need to distinguish between those involved in terrorism and their accompanying family members, and recognises that women in this context may also be victims of acts of terrorism. But it still merits emphasis that this diversity of individual cases requires assessments of their participation in the conflict on a case-by-case basis.
This brings me to the question of where we go from here with regard to gender-sensitive prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration.
2. Where we go from here: Gender-sensitive prosecution, rehabilitation, reintegration
To answer this question, we must acknowledge that the international community has developed a wealth of guidance and good practice to which we can turn. In short, we have the necessary tools: the Bangkok Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners; the Secretary General's UN Key Principles for the Protection, Repatriation, Prosecution, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Women and Children; the UNODC Handbook on Gender Dimensions in Criminal Justice Responses; the 2018 Madrid Guidelines; and the recently released UN OCT Handbook on Children Affected by the Foreign-Fighter Phenomenon. Together, these provide thorough guidance as to how gender-sensitive prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration can be conducted.
At the ICRC, we have also seen some good examples of integration and policies when people are returned from the Iraq and Syria context, including:
- Mental Health and Psychosocial services: Including individual follow up as well as with groups of family members to support the return.
- Maintaining the family unit: Whereby repatriated mothers have in some cases been placed under house arrest or given suspended sentences until children reach a predetermined age.
But despite this wealth of guidance and instances of good practice, in the view of the ICRC the primary challenges to gender-sensitive prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration in this specific context is the absence of case-by-case individualised screening, the de-humanised language used to describe them, and low rates of repatriation for third-country nationals in Iraq and Syria. The situation in the camps remains unsolved.
This is the immediate challenge.
It is for this reason that the ICRC is encouraging, as a matter of priority, each case to be reviewed by competent authorities on an individual basis. Specifically with regard to third-country nationals, it is the ICRC's view that women (and their children) currently in North East Syria should be repatriated, with due respect for the principle of non-refoulment. Pending repatriation, the ICRC urges States to use their influence to ensure that their nationals are detained in adequate conditions, they have access to basic services, adapted to their needs and age, and transferred in accordance with international law given the acute humanitarian situation in the camps.
We also emphasize that successful reintegration starts early, meaning that preparations for repatriations should not only be dealt with by security services: other national services including social services and child protection services need to be involved.
Preparation is needed with families and communities. It is also critical that these services take account of the specific trauma that some of these women have experienced, including extreme violence, the experience of becoming a mother when still a child yourself, the loss of children, and possible sexual violence.
The ICRC stands ready to support, to the best of its ability, States' efforts in this matter. We particularly encourage States to refer to the available guidance, work together, and exchange good practice examples, including:
- Exchanges on the possibility of individualised screenings;
- On the success of reintegration programs;
- And on positive experiences of repatriating people.