Canada is condemning citizens in Syrian camps to ‘life sentence,’ UN rapporteur says

The UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights says Canada is putting the lives of its citizens at risk by not helping to return them from prisons in Syria.

“It is inconceivable for any country, including Canada, to leave its vulnerable children in these camps for a day longer than they should be,” said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin in an interview airing Saturday on CBC’s The House.

The UN special rapporteur also accused the Canadian government of hypocrisy, arguing that its actions on citizens in Syria devalued other efforts on the international stage.

“Canada is the leading state on the children-in-armed-conflict agenda at the UN. But actually those words ring hollow when you’re telling other countries to look after their children in other conflicts and you’re not prepared to look after your own,” she said.

A number of Canadian citizens have been detained in Syrian camps, suspected of links to the ISIS terrorist group. They haven’t faced charges or been given a trial. The camps are controlled by Kurdish-led authorities.

The House14:17‘There’s no place like this on Earth’: UN official says Canada must bring citizens home from Syria

For the first time, an independent human rights observer has been allowed inside some of the detention camps and prisons in northeastern Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin describes the dire conditions some Canadians are living in and says despite security concerns, Canada must bring its citizens home.

Ní Aoláin visited a series of the camps and prisons during a visit to the region last month, and she told guest host Ashley Burke that she was devastated by the conditions, especially in what’s known as the Panorama prison.

“It is, in my view, the worst prison we have on Earth at this time, simply because of the scale of mass arbitrary detention of children,” she said.

“There’s nothing like this place on Earth.”

Ní Aoláin painted a picture of life in which children are regularly torn away from their families without notice or recourse. Boys as young as 12 years old were in one camp her group visited, and there are 700 male children in the Panorama prison, she said.

“I know people are tired of hearing about the conditions in northeast Syria, but the conditions worsen by the day.”

The Canadian government has been embroiled in a federal court lawsuit launched by families of citizens detained in the camps. The families’ lawyer argues it’s against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for Canada to let these citizens “rot over there” and not bring them home. The government has argued it’s not a citizen’s right to expect the government to go to extraordinary measures and put officials at risk to rescue and return them if they’re in trouble abroad.

As part of a last-minute deal, the government agreed to repatriate 19 women and children that are part of the lawsuit, but not the four Canadian men.

The families were initially successful in court, but the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the decision that four men were entitled to have the federal government make a formal request for their release “as soon as possible.” The lawyer for the families said he plans to take the case to the Supreme Court.

2 people in black burquas walk in the foreground of a tent encampment. A barefoot child is in the background.
Women walk in the al-Hol camp in Syria on May 1, 2021. The camp houses some 60,000 refugees, including families and supporters of the Islamic State group, many of them foreign nationals. (AP)

In a statement to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) said it has a process in place to provide a framework for how it assesses “complex cases of Canadians in Syria.”

“Due to privacy concerns, the Government of Canada cannot publicly comment on the assessment process as it relates to any specific case,” the statement said.

One Canadian who has not been returned is a Quebec mother, who along with some of her children remains in Syria. The woman’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said the government told him that they believe she adheres to an extremist ideology.

The government has said it is willing to repatriate the children separately from her mother. Ní Aoláin called that idea “profoundly unconvincing, inconsistent with international law.”

Ní Aoláin said that after meeting with the woman, she concluded that she is severely disabled and has a “sweltering, swollen wound” that appears to be untreated. Ní Aoláin said the woman relies on her children to help her bathe and perform other basic necessities of life.

Ní Aoláin also said security experts she had spoken to argued that countries like Canada had the capability to mitigate any security concerns and give citizens due process while still upholding their responsibilities.

“I recognize there’s little sympathy for individuals who went overseas, even where people have been trafficked, even where people have had demonstrated mental illness, even where children were brought without their consent,” Ní Aoláin said.

“But again, I would say civilized society don’t separate women from children. Canada has had a long and terrible history of that, and I wouldn’t suggest we start again with women and children in northeast Syria.”

Ní Aoláin also spoke about the situation of Jack Letts, a Canadian who travelled to Syria and is now believed to be held in the Panorama camp. Ní Aoláin said she visited the camp but wasn’t able to speak with Letts.

WATCH | Jack Lett’s mother discusses her son’s situation:

Mother of Canadian detained in Syria asks why others ‘are receiving the justice my son is being denied’

1 month ago

Duration 1:33

Sally Lane is the mother of Jack Letts, who has been imprisoned in Syria for more than four years after allegedly joining ISIS. She asks why other people are being repatriated, including a group of Canadian women brought home earlier this year. ‘For what reason, because he’s male?’ Lane asked. ‘The [Charter of Rights] is for everyone, it’s not just for children, it’s not just for women. It’s for everyone.’

Letts, a former British citizen, admitted in a 2019 interview to joining ISIS in Syria, according to an interview with U.K.-based ITV News. His mother denies the allegation and said he gave the interview under duress. His family also has said he was imprisoned by ISIS three times and has denied being part of the terror group.

In a letter to Lane from GAC director general of consular operations Victoria Fuller, sent earlier this year and obtained by CBC News, Fuller said the Canadian government has not received confirmation from Kurdish authorities that Letts is alive. 

Ní Aoláin said the Panorama prison is currently experiencing a massive and untreated epidemic of tuberculosis. When untreated, TB results in an approximately 50 per cent mortality rate.

“What you’re essentially doing by not bringing [Canadians] home is condemning them to a life sentence, because that’s what it is. People will not survive these kinds of conditions unless their governments take the responsibility of bringing them home.”


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