Repatriating Foreign Fighters: Upholding Peace and Human Rights

Organized in partnership with the Bulan Institute for Peace Innovations, with the support of the Geneva Graduate Institute’s International Law Department
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Auditorium A2, Maison de la paix, Geneva

Appraising States’ Obligations and Shared Responsibility Towards Foreign Fighters and Their Family Members Detained in Syria

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This event will address the situation of ‘foreign fighters’ and their family members, formerly associated with the so-called Islamic State, many of whom are still currently detained in Northeast Syria. After the defeat of ISIS in 2019, more than 10,000 male fighters were detained, 2,000 of whom were neither of Syrian nor Iraqi nationality, but rather originated from close to 70 different countries, forming the loose category of ‘foreign fighters’. Meanwhile, close to 70,000 women and children were also detained, due to their connection to fighters or their association to ISIS, among whom 11,000 foreigners, most of them children.
The states of origin of these men, women, and children have largely remained elusive as to the prospect of the return of their nationals from the battlefield, when not completely hostile. While individuals who managed to return by their own means have generally been allowed entry in their country of origin, where they often faced prosecution, states have mostly resisted calls to take proactive action to repatriate their nationals detained in the Syrian camps. The arguments raised ranged from practical and logistical concerns to the alleged challenge of prosecuting these individuals far away from the battlefield, potential evidence and witnesses. However, there is a growing consensus that these obstacles, when they exist, are not insurmountable, and that the hesitation of states is probably more the result of reluctant public opinions. Yet, from a security perspective, many actors agree that the repatriation of both male fighters, women and children is the best way to ensure their effective prosecution, when necessary, as well as their disengagement, reintegration, and monitoring. From a humanitarian perspective, reports from the field suggest that the situation in the camps is fast degrading, exposing women and children, in particular, to detention conditions akin to inhuman or degrading treatments. From a human rights and legal perspective, prominent voices, such as that of UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, have called on states not to abandon their nationals merely as a result of their potential connection a terrorist group or under the pretext that they are detained in foreign territory.
While many states have continued to resist such calls, or opted for a case-by-case approach, others have, in fact, taken steps to repatriate large numbers of their nationals. Whether they focused on women and children, or sometimes included male fighters as well, a number of states, most notably Central Asian countries, have now repatriated hundreds of individuals. These operations have proven helpful in gathering information, feedback, and testimonies, and identifying good practices in disengagement and reintegration.
Several years after the defeat of ISIS, experience suggests that the only approach likely to succeed in the long term is one that puts human rights, rule of law, and peacebuilding concerns at the forefront.
Taking place on the margins of the UN Human Rights Council, and in the presence of UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, this event will discuss the various arguments in favor of the repatriation of foreign nationals detained in Syria, including in particular legal considerations, and will take stock of some of the successful experiences and human rights-compliant good practices in this respect. 

  • Professor  Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism
  • Ms. Cholpon Orozobekova, Director of the Bulan Institute for Peace Innovations
  • Mr. Khalid Koser, Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund


The event will be held in hybrid, allowing attendees to join remotely via Zoom and participate in the conversation.
Whether attending in-person or online, attendees are encouraged to register online prior to the event, using the following link : https://forms.gle/LNXFWVk28aRaECtf7



Credit: VOA