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Preliminary findings of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries – Mission to Belgium, 12 - 16 October 2015

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16 October 2015

We wish to thank the Government of Belgium for its invitation to the Working Group to visit the country, and for the full co-operation extended to us by its various representatives during our visit. I also wish to thank the European Union Counter Terrorism Coordinator and partners of the Radicalization Awareness Network whom we were able to meet. We also appreciate the support of our colleagues at the Regional Office for Europe of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in the preparation and conduct of this visit.

On behalf of the Working Group, we are presenting today the preliminary findings of our official visit to Belgium from 12 to 16 October. During the visit, we had the opportunity to meet with stakeholders including government officials, academics and representatives of civil society organisations including families of persons who have travelled from Belgium to join the conflict in Syria. These meetings have assisted us in expanding our understanding of the complex phenomenon of foreign fighters, particularly in the Belgian context.

The visit coincided with a time of heightened concern in Belgium following a series of terrorist attacks and terrorism-related incidents, namely, the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, May 2014 attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the January 2015 raids in Verviers, which have led to the recent adoption of a number of measures by the Government.
The current context is also framed by the political and socio-economic circumstances particular to Belgium, whose complex state structure consists of several levels of governance: the federal state, the regions and communities, and the cities and municipalities, each having different powers and responsibilities but equal legal validity. Belgians of non-European heritage are over-represented in the lower socio-economic strata, and face particular difficulties in accessing employment.. These individuals are also more likely to experience discrimination in their workplace and have a lower level of education. There is a high level of youth unemployment (24% of the population under 25 years).

The Working Group was informed of a number of initiatives that have been undertaken at the federal, regional, andcommunity, and local levels to deal with issues relating to the foreign fighter phenomenon. It welcomes these initiatives as timely and imperative in ensuring that this problem is at the forefront of its national priorities, and that the discourse resonates throughout Belgian society.

Given the constellation of actors and proliferation of initiatives on foreign fighters, the complex political context, the afore-mentioned socio-economic disparities, as well as the potential threat posed by the prolongation of the phenomenon, the Working Group deems it critical to ensure effective collaboration between the various entities addressing this issue in moving towards a sustained solution. In this regard, we recommend the strengthening of the national strategic plan, to be fully integrated through the broadest possible participation and informed by multi-disciplinary in-depth research and analysis. Such a plan should yield a clear understanding of respective roles, and attract the necessary resources for full implementation in the immediate, medium, and long-term. It must adopt a human rights based approach, and particular attention should be paid to the inclusion of especially affected communities, with clear indicators, monitoring and evaluation of related programs.

In light of the information it has received, there are number of issues that the Working Group would like to raise. The Working Group learned during its meetings and other interactions that an estimated 500 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria have originated from Belgium. We were informed that the departures proceeded in waves, characterised in the first wave by association to Sharia4Belgium in 2010, then peer recruitment in 2012 and, from 2014 to the present time, the key method of recruitment is reportedly through informal networks of friends and family, and through social media. It is noteworthy that information also indicates that a significant degree of recruitment currently occurs through friends and family in Syria, who are also paid on the basis of the number of persons they recruit and on whether the recruits subsequently marry.

We were advised that the profiles of foreign fighters are diverse, yet a basic assertion can be made that their average age is around 23 years and decreasing.. Women are also increasingly leaving. Motivations, which are of particular concern to the Working Group, are reported to be similarly varied, and to some degree, individualised. Among the motivations identified are religious convictions, humanitarian reasons, the need for a sense of belonging and acceptance, the search for a livelihood, escaping a criminal background, and adventure.
It was brought to the attention of the Working Group that a number of measures have been taken by authorities at all levels to counter the issue of foreign fighters. Among these are twelve measures announced on 16 January 2015 by the Federal Government covering, inter alia, inclusion of a new terrorism offence in the Criminal Code, extension of the use of specific methods of investigation, broadening the scope of withdrawal of nationality and passports, revised monitoring procedures, exchange of information, and addressing radicalisation in prisons. The Working Group urges application of, and respect for human rights in the implementation of these measures, notably for the rights to privacy, to freedom of expression and movement, and to a nationality.

The Working Group was advised of the policy and administrative efforts underway at the federal, regional and community, and local levels. These reportedly emphasise prevention and criminal law, research and enhanced communication for capacity building and strengthening of resilience. We were also told that financial support has been provided to 109 cities and municipalities, who determine their own priorities, with annual additional subsidies to 10 more. Initiatives included a helpline for parents, inter-faith dialogue, and training of front-line professionals to identity development for Muslim youth and support to families or peers. The Working Group commends these efforts to respond, and urges more expansive study to better inform current and future measures, as well as the need for the adoption of longer-term structured frameworks and approaches.

Against the backdrop of this spectrum of measures, the Working Group emphasises that focus must be placed on preventive as well as rehabilitative measures that respond to immediate and root causes of the foreign fighter phenomenon, with full respect for human rights. Punitive measures should be followed up by magistrates, in order to ensure the right to a fair trial, and confidence in the justice system.

The Working Group notes the lack of structured reintegration and rehabilitation programmes for returnees. In this vein, we commend the application of good practices of mentorship employed in programmes as the Danish Aarhus model, in municipalities such as Vilvoorde and the French speaking community.

We stress that greater social cohesion will mitigate long term security risks, and that focus on strong support to communities and families can also lay the groundwork for the optimization of measures. Similarly, education has been consistently raised as a crucial vehicle for awareness raising and dialogue. The Working Group supports raising awareness in schools and related platforms where student dialogue can take place, particularly from the primary level of education.

Coordination was a recurring theme among our interlocutors. Local authorities and others noted that institutional coordination was crucial for the effectiveness of programmes, as was a clear understanding of one’s level and role in the larger federal system.

In terms of action at the European and international level, the Working Group promotes improved coordination, including within the European Union and, crucially, between foreign fighter origin and transit countries. It also strongly recommends effective cooperation for information sharing and evidence gathering, to support legal proceedings.

In conclusion, the Working Group believes that Belgian society is at a moment of significant opportunity to move forward towards addressing the complex phenomenon of foreign fighters. The Working Group urges every effort at integration in this process.