What to do with IS-fighters in Syria and Iraq, a debate

October 3, 2019

‘You´ll lose your credibility if you don’t do this’ a man in the audience states. He has been quiet all night, letting other people answer when the audience is asked questions. But when asked if there are any Syrian attendees present who are willing to share their opinion, his hand shoots up. He is not emotional, but his tone is sharp and his position is clear. The man accuses the Dutch government, situated in the ‘city of peace’, of avoiding their responsibility to the victims of the Syrian war by advocating for a separate international tribunal in Iraq to try IS-fighters. He argues that the Dutch IS-fighters got radicalized in the Netherlands and that the country of origin should be held accountable for the repatriation and conviction of these criminals.

The hall in the Humanity House in The Hague is packed. Around a hundred people have gathered on this rainy September night to see the debate between two members of parliament, one from the Labor Party (PvdA) and one from the Christian Democratic Party (CDA), about a pressing issue: how do we end impunity in Syria and Iraq? As the evening is taking place, Foreign Affairs Minister Stef Blok is in New York City to meet with his Iraqi counterpart, Ali Alhakim, at the United Nations General Assembly to advocate for a separate international tribunal in Iraq to try IS-fighters. They are doing so even though the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs has questioned the practicality of such a tribunal in a recent report.

Inhumane circumstances

The two political parties present tonight are at opposing sides of the debate. Martijn van Helvert (CDA) argues for an International tribunal and the danger of Dutch IS-fighters returning home to be tried in the Netherlands. And Lilianne Ploumen (PvdA) states that she would like to see Dutch IS-fighters be returned home to be tried in Dutch court. She feels that children of IS-fighters are living in camps under inhumane circumstances.

Until now the tone of the debate has been polite. The MPs have been emphasizing points of agreement, even though they have clashed many times in the past. They have been jokingly repeating the phrase ‘at least we can agree on that’ all evening. The only hint of a heated debate occured during an exchange between Van Helvert and PAX’s Middle East expert Marjolein Wijninckx. Marjolein’s critical questioning regarding an international tribunal seems to irk Van Helvert. But then Ploumen soothingly stated that “those of us in the room are not the bad guys” and that the question of how and where to try former IS-fighters is a difficult one.

She has a point. The questions we are asking tonight are complex. Now that the Islamic State has largely been defeated, at least militarily, questions arise of how, where and by whom former IS-fighters and their sympathizers should be tried and how to end the reign of impunity in Syria and Iraq. How do we ensure that those who have committed crimes against humanity are punished? How do we grant justice to the victims and their relatives? But also: how do we prevent sham processes? Should we look into national jurisdiction or is international jurisdiction the way to go in this case? If so, should we be working with partners, like the Iraqi government, who have committed war crimes in the past? Is an international tribunal practically feasible? And if not, does the Netherlands have the resources to convict people who have contributed to genocide? Do we even have enough proof to convict them of any crime at all?

Lively debate

The Syrian audience member’s remark kicks off a much more lively debate. Multiple hands shoot up. Professionals in the field and lay people all voice their opinion. As the debate takes form, it’s interesting to note that various groups can be distinguished. We have the politicians and PAX, the latter being represented by Marjolein Wijninckx. But also people from Syrian origin, represented by speaker Akram Alsaud, and a group of people from Iraqi origin. These groups all have their own  perspective, ask different questions and emphasize different aspects of the debate. This makes for such an interesting melting pot of opinions that moderator Harm Ede Botje has a hard time putting a stop to it. He says the time is up multiple times before people stop raising their hands to have the last word.

Sources of evidence

All groups make a valuable contribution to the debate. The Syrians make clear to the Dutch politicians that they are counting on the Netherlands to take responsibility for the Dutch citizens who went to IS-territory to join their cause. They don’t have any faith in the Syrian and Iraqi government, who are without jurisdiction and infrastructure, or the international community, who they see as constantly evading responsibility for the actions of the allied forces in Syria. the Iraqis call for immediate action, arguing that IS-fighters are tried in Iraqi court every day and are given the death penalty. This leads to the loss of important sources of evidence.

In the end there is no agreement on the course of action the Netherlands should take. But it doesn’t matter, because we achieved what we came here for: an important and interesting dialogue between multiple stakeholders affected by what is being decided. And in the end everybody agrees that the Netherlands has a responsibility to take action regarding the Dutch IS-fighters in Syria and Iraq. ‘At least we can agree on that’.

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