Repatriating Lisa Smith risks sending the wrong message to victims of Isis
Sense of responsibility should be felt as much for victims of our citizens’ conduct abroad as for our citizens
Lisa Smith: Ireland can claim to have shown leadership in offering to repatriate her
Ireland can claim to have shown leadership in offering to repatriate Lisa Smith from the once gentle green plains of Mesopotamia. The proposal came long before Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan began table-thumping about Europe “not taking its citizens back”.
Most commentators seem to approve, though a certain amount of competitive liberalism is, of course, involved. It’s easy to be honourable when dealing with just one or two people as opposed to hundreds, but the arguments for repatriation display plenty of good principles and an admirable amount of moral courage.
Yet they also display a lack of regard for the vast majority of Isis’s victims – the ordinary people of Syria and Iraq.
Predictably enough, arguments against her repatriation demonstrate even less concern for those once trapped under Isis, including as they do such nuanced views as “if she likes Syria so much let her stay there’’ and “how much is it going to cost to have the Special Branch sit outside her house for the next 10 years?’’
Whoever ends up doing the nation-building would, quite sensibly, want to be rid of Isis members
Three main arguments for her repatriation stand out.
The first is that as it has not been, and possibly never will be, proven under Irish law that she, not even to mention her innocent child, has committed any crime, we cannot strip away her legal rights on the basis of morally dubious behaviour.
This would be an erosion of principles which should be cleaved to through thick and thin lest, in some dystopian scenario, a future “regime” uses this softening of attitude to strip a progressively broader category of “morally dubious” citizens – any one of us potentially – of our legal rights.
Adherence to the guiding principle should thus remain steadfast even in the knowledge that, once returned to their homelands, the possibility of most Isis detainees being tried and prosecuted for serious wrongdoing is fairly minimal. The vast majority will effectively have escaped justice, and some, even under careful supervision, may do wrong again. Yet it is a test of our principles, and in the long term our societies will be all the stronger for it.
The second point is that the authorities in place in the areas where Isis members are currently imprisoned might not have the resources, in the short or long term, to keep control of these people indefinitely, especially when the job of nation rebuilding should take priority.
Some prison camps are already seen as effectively under Isis internal control, with reports of makeshift courts, judgments and executions. The argument goes that other countries, from where most of the extreme ideologues hail, should be doing the region a favour by escorting them away from the scene.
This second point both came to the fore, and became a little murky, following Turkey’s recent invasion of Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, a place where many Isis members are detained (former Isis members as some media outlets quite hopefully refer to them).
What do the people who were forced to live under Isis make of all these reasonably solid arguments?
The fact that some of these camps might now be under at least semi-Turkish control – and indeed reports say that our own Ms Smith is now in de-facto Turkish custody – allowed its president to make that typically spirited attack on Western countries for not removing their citizens.
Turkey has got its hands full with a demographic busting plan to thwart a new Kurdish state on its southern border by resettling Syrian Arab refugees there. This is as wildly ambitious as it sounds, and so they rightly figure they could do without also having to feed and shelter thousands of foreign extremists in the same area at the same time.
Indirectly aiding such a shady ventures may be seen as less than noble, but even in such circumstances the presence of large numbers of Isis members, former or not, and locked up or not, does no one, Turkey, the Syrian Kurds or the Syrian Arabs, any favours. Whoever ends up doing the nation-building would, quite sensibly, want to be rid of them.
The third point is that once home, whether they can be prosecuted or not, they can at least still be interrogated, something which can lead to intelligence on other Isis members who may possibly pose a greater threat to their country. A reasonably solid argument too.
Yet what do the people who were forced to live under Isis make of all these reasonably solid arguments? Especially when the thing that united the vast majority of them was a particular abhorrence for the foreign adventurers who were drawn to the regime. People who were by all accounts the most extreme and perversely idealistic.
Talk of a humanitarian rescue operation for Ms Smith, one which allows her and her child to return to the comfort and freedom of a life in Europe, is obviously galling for the civilians of north and east Syria who waited years to be freed from Isis control; something which involved great violence and a lack of concern for the health and welfare of local civilians.
And even now many of them are still languishing in refugee camps in conditions that may be only marginally more humane than those being endured by their foreign passport-holding ex-overlords.
And of course there is no question of a humanitarian rescue for them.
Although they are undoubtedly used to far greater indignities than merely being ignored, most of these people would like to have their stories heard, and to see some sort of justice served.
Thus, with a guiding philosophy that we should feel a sense of responsibility as much for the victims of our citizens’ conduct abroad as for our citizens themselves, can we hope that Western adventurers don’t get to act out psychopathic fantasies on the luckless inhabitants of failed states without some sort of determined European level recourse for the victims?
If Ireland were also willing to push for that, that would be real leadership.
Ronan Dockery is a writer based in Beirut