28 October 2021, London
On Monday, at the second evidence session of an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficked Britons in Syria, Former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord (Ken) Macdonald described the Government’s treatment of British nationals in NES as “a coward’s form of Guantánamo”, adding that the Government’s policy appears to be “let someone else run your Guantánamo and then have the use of it without dirtying your hands too much”. He described the fact that the UK has not repatriated the “scores of demonstrably innocent people” in Syria as a “blot on our conscience”, including British children and their mothers who were trafficked there, some of whom were trafficked when they were themselves children.
Lord Macdonald added that the fact that the US has prosecuted some British nationals instead of the UK as an “embarrassment”, asking “have we lost so much confidence in ourselves?” He described this “denial of responsibility” as “demeaning” and a “denial of sovereignty”. Where British nationals have committed offences, Lord Macdonald stated he had “no doubt at all” that the British authorities would be able to prosecute them.
Chris Harnisch, former Deputy Coordinator for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, said that a refusal to repatriate nationals from North-East Syria (NES) “plays into the hands of terrorists” and “will make all of us less safe”. Advocating that the UK repatriate its nationals, he added that “the most important single reason why countries should repatriate their nationals from Syria is to prevent a re-emergence of [ISIS]”.
Shahzad Akbar, Federal Minister and Advisor to Prime Minister on Accountability and Interior, Government of Pakistan, described citizenship stripping as a “very self-centered approach to a global problem…it’s a policy of making your problem, someone else’s problem.” Jussi Tanner, Ambassador, Special Envoy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, told the APPG about Finland having repatriated its nationals from Syria, saying “the only choice we really have is when and how, not if”.
Andrew Mitchell MP, co-chair of the APPG, said:
“It’s not just an International responsibility for Britain. It also seems to me to be a moral responsibility, and one that it is wholly inappropriate that our government should shirk, either by refusing to engage in bringing them back, or by trying to deprive them of British nationality and leave them stateless. This is not the way a senior member of the United Nations should behave, nor an upholder of international law.”
Lord Jay, co-chair of the APPG, said:
“The evidence we heard from the UK’s former chief prosecutor and current and former high-level government officials from the US, Pakistan and Finland made clear that repatriation is the only solution to the detention of British nationals in Syria that serves the interests of national and global security. The UK is out of step with our closest security partners such as the US and many European countries which are repatriating their nationals, prosecuting those who have committed offences and providing support to children and victims of trafficking”.
Notes to editors:
Please find key quotes from the experts’ evidence below.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficked Britons in Syria is chaired by Andrew Mitchell MP (Conservative), Lyn Brown MP (Labour) and cross bench peer and former head of the diplomatic service Lord Jay. Its vice chairs include Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (Conservative), David Davis MP (Conservative), Andy Slaughter (Labour), Apsana Begum (Labour) and Stuart C. McDonald MP (SNP). Other members include the Chairs of Parliament’s Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood MP (Conservative) and Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat MP (Conservative), as well as Baroness Hamwee (Lib Dem).
The APPG interviewed four security experts: former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord (Ken) Macdonald, former Deputy Coordinator for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, Chris Harnisch, Federal Minister and Advisor to Prime Minister on Accountability and Interior, Government of Pakistan, Shahzad Akbar, and Ambassador, Special Envoy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Jussi Tanner.
Please find further key quotes from the experts’ evidence below. Transcripts of the experts’ other comments are available on request.
Lord (Ken) Macdonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions:
“We have the Americans trying ‘the Beatles’. I’m very glad they are because we’ve apparently refused to do it. But why are the Americans trying these men? They’re British. Have we lost so much confidence in ourselves? … I think it’s an embarrassment personally…I have no doubt at all that were a serious attempt to be made by the British authorities to assemble a case against many of these individuals, it would be possible to do so.”
“I think it’s demeaning to the British state to be washing its hands of its own citizens, its own residents, people who have more connection with this country than with any other…it’s an extraordinarily bad place for the British state to find itself particularly in circumstances where we have a justice system that is generally reckoned to be as robust as any in the world and something we have always taken pride in. I think we should set our justice system loose on some of these individuals.”
“There are scores of demonstrably innocent people, who ought to be brought back and of course can’t realistically be brought back without their parents. To separate children from their parents without any form of due process is something the state, I would argue strongly, could never countenance…Some of them I suspect are simply individuals who were trafficked to that part of the world and are victims themselves. They are hardly likely to represent a threat if they are repatriated. I think this is something our government has completely failed to grapple with…I think some of these very young girls who were trafficked for sex essentially, who remain in Syria are or should be a blot on our conscience.”
“I think that a nation that has any confidence in itself and any confidence in its own institutions and in particular its institutions of justice would never go down this path of saying this individual who was once a member of our national family we can no longer cope with and we’re going to cast out.
Chris Harnisch, Former Deputy Coordinator for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism:
“We took this approach because it was the right thing to do from a human rights perspective, and because it was the right thing to do from a security perspective. Today I want to focus on the security reasons for why countries should repatriate their nationals from camps run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. Our nations made great sacrifices alongside the SDF in both blood and treasure to destroy the Islamic State’s caliphate… The most important single reason why countries should repatriate their nationals from Syria is to prevent a re-emergence of this caliphate. ISIL leadership has made it very clear that it views the men, women and children in the SDF prisons and displaced persons camps as strategic assets.”
“It plays into the hands of terrorists…Governments must hold terrorists and their supporters accountable in a court of law, but they should think twice about stripping their nationals of citizenship. Europe suffered painful attacks when the Islamic State was at its peak, so the desire of some countries across the continent to protect their homelands by keeping terrorists locked up in Syria is understandable. However such an approach is misguided and will make all of us less safe. The best way to be tough on terror is to ensure that terrorists are held accountable in a Court of law and prevented from ever returning to the battlefield, and that children in the camps in Syria are brought home and given a decent shot at life.”
Shahzad Akbar, Federal Minister and Advisor to Prime Minister on Accountability & Interior, Government of Pakistan:
“Terrorism is a global problem. It’s not limited to one country. It’s not limited within borders. However, citizenship stripping itself is a very self-centered approach to a global problem…it’s a policy of making your problem, someone else’s problem.”
Jussi Tanner, Ambassador, Special Envoy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland:
“It’s safe to say that the local solutions in terms of criminal justice in the region are inevitably failing. We will not see large scale local trials, certainly not in NES, any time soon… Time is a critical factor also – I mean the children have been in those camps two and a half years now and we simply, in my opinion, don’t have time to wait for years and years for potential trials to take place. And there are multiple open questions as to how and under what legislation and whether there’s retroactive applicability of legislation, what’s the role of the death penalty in Syria and indeed Iraq.”
“The fundamental fact is that it is not possible to separate children from their parents. Kurdish-led authority is very resistant to that and they still are, and it’s not possible legally as there is not the child protection service or the like, under Finnish law. To put it crudely, it would only have happened with the aid of assault rifles.”