Part II – Child Perpetrators in SDF and Iraqi Custody
This brief is the second in a two-part series which aims to answer the question of how national, regional, and international authorities should engage with individuals who committed crimes in Syria as minors. The first brief focused on child perpetrators in Europe. This brief focuses on child perpetrators currently in SDF-held Northeast Syria and Iraq, highlighting key considerations for navigating the complicated dynamics surrounding these children.
Since ISIS’s defeat in 2019, the SDF and Iraqi authorities have detained thousands of children of ISIS affiliates. In Syria, some 60,000 family members of suspected ISIS affiliates are indefinitely detained in the Al Hol and Roj camps in inhospitable conditions, where many children have died due to otherwise preventable causes. Reports estimate over 300 boys have been separated from their mothers and transferred to other detention facilities, incommunicado. Outside of these camps, more than 800 children were held in SDF custody as of 2021.
By the end of 2021, over a thousand children were held in Iraqi custody on terrorism charges related to their alleged affiliation with armed groups, particularly ISIS. Most of these children were boys between the ages of 15 and 17 years old, but children as young as nine years old were also detained on the basis of questionable evidence and, in some cases, confessions obtained under torture. While the creation of a special judicial committee to adjudicate ISIS-related juvenile cases was a notable start, it was disbanded shortly thereafter. Consequently, children continue to be indefinitely detained in “youth rehabilitation schools” tantamount to adult detention facilities.
The link between children and crimes committed by armed groups is tenuous. Some children were recruited to fight, while others were cooks, drivers, or were simply relatives of those involved in armed groups. Yet, Iraqi and SDF authorities have treated these children like adults, despite the varying degree of their involvement in hostilities and international legal standards – including the Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups (“Paris Principles”) – that provide that children should not be criminalized for mere affiliation with a terrorist group. Instead, authorities should consider the circumstances surrounding a child’s participation in the conflict and the severity of the alleged crimes to determine which children should be held accountable and to what extent.
First, when dealing with detained children, authorities must commit to reviewing children’s profiles and conducting risk assessments on a case-by-case basis, then detain children only as a matter of last resort. Authorities should have a compelling reason to believe that a child was involved in a serious crime in order to keep them detained, and they should apply international juvenile justice standards. Based on risk assessments, children deemed not to have been involved in serious crimes should be released. As part of the assessment process, authorities should work with psychosocial support professionals with cultural awareness to consider the child’s emotional and behavioral state to determine whether the child should enter into a de-radicalization and reintegration program.
Second, authorities must employ cooperative interrogation practices to extract credible testimonies and respect the rights of children enshrined in international legal standards. Documentation collected by various organizations from detained children indicate that they are regularly subjected to torture to coerce their confessions. Under no circumstances should children be tortured, and Article 19 on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”) on the prohibition of mental or physical violence against children must be respected as well as the UN Convention Against Torture.
Third, authorities must allow children ages 14 and under to remain in the custody of their parents or primary caregiver absent a compelling reason to believe that the child poses an imminent threat to their community while remaining with their custodian. In both Iraq and Northeast Syria, children have been separated from their parents and placed in detention centers, often without contact with their custodians, and where they risk radicalization by other inmates. Yet the CRC stipulates that children should not be separated from their parents or primary caregivers unless separation is the least intrusive measure for securing the best interest of the child.
Children are detained without a formal charge in both territories. Regardless of the status of their indictment, they are held in inhumane environments characterized by overcrowding, inadequate food and water, and poor sanitation. They are also denied contact with their custodians and have “no practical means to challenge the legality of their detention” because of legal aid restrictions. Authorities should take the following steps to safeguard the due process rights of detained children.
First, children should be held in separate facilities from adults to limit physical violence, sexual exploitation, psychosocial trauma, and exposure to indoctrination by extremist ideologies. Housing children in cells within the same wing of an adult facility is insufficient. Rather, children should be held in separate wings to ensure that exposure to adults is minimized.
Second, personnel should be trained on detention practices tailored to the needs of children and that incorporate juvenile justice standards. These include providing children with daily time spent outdoors, frequent and regular contact with their family members, psychological and medical care, opportunities for educational, vocational, and recreational activities, and other provisions to protect their overall wellbeing. International monitors should be granted access to facilities to evaluate their treatment and detention conditions.
Third, children should be adjudicated as juvenile offenders in accordance with international juvenile justice standards. As such, children should be afforded their due process rights, including expeditious pre-trial proceedings, access to counsel, and fair adjudications. When adults are tried for crimes they committed as children, punishment should be proportional to the perpetrator’s age when the crime was committed, the circumstances of the crime’s occurrence, and the gravity of the crime.
Minors who are tried and either convicted or released in Iraq and Syria face particular logistical and societal challenges within the under-resourced social services and judicial systems in each respective territory. Many children born to ISIS members, especially those who have spent most or all of their lives in detention camps, are effectively stateless. In Syria, nationality only passes through the father, and while Iraqi nationality can be conferred through the mother, many camp residents lack the necessary documentation to establish citizenship.
Furthermore, in Iraq and Syria, the reintegration of children of ISIS affiliates means entry into communities still grappling with violence and the collective trauma of ISIS’s control, where local residents may be hostile or unaccepting towards them. While attitudes towards reconciliation with former ISIS members and their families differs across communities, rehabilitation programs must be established that provide local authorities with the necessary resources to ensure that children do not face re-traumatization or further violence upon reentry into society. International donors and members of the Global Coalition should allocate resources for the SDF and organizations on the ground to facilitate such programs.
Lastly, local, non-punitive rehabilitation and accountability processes should ensure that services provided to children who participated in armed conflict provide a holistic approach to the local community, and do not appear to unfairly advantage former fighters or affiliates of armed groups at the expense of children who lack such an association. Actors working to assess and integrate children held in custody should consider the holistic impact of their services on the local communities to reduce intercommunal strife and child re-traumatization and ensure a just approach.