Belgium: UN expert group calls for robust integrated action to address risks posed by foreign fighters
Belgium / Foreign fighters
16 October 2015
BRUSSELS / GENEVA (16 October 2015) – Belgium needs to develop an inclusive national vision and action on the issue of foreign fighters at federal, regional and community, and local levels, the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries* has said today. “The threat to the country is otherwise significant,” they warned.
“The number of Belgian foreign fighters is reportedly the highest in Europe per capita among those travelling to join conflicts abroad such as in Syria and Iraq,” said human rights expert Elżbieta Karska, who currently heads the expert group. “The need to tackle this problem through robust collective efforts which engages all sectors of Belgian society is critical in finding solutions to this phenomenon.”
Ms. Karska and fellow expert Patricia Arias were in Belgium from 12 to 16 October 2015 to gather information on the activities of foreign fighters going from the country to conflict zones abroad, as part of a comprehensive study on foreign fighters and their impact on human rights, including on possible links to mercenarism.
During their visit, the experts received information that there are some 207 Belgianin Syria, 77 casualties, 128 returnees, and 62 persons who failed to get to Iraq or have been brought back. Of these, 46 foreign fighters have been prosecuted, all associated with the group Sharia4Belgium.
Recruitment is reportedly through extensive informal networks of friends and family, and through social media, with friends and family in Syria paid on the basis of the number of persons they recruit and whether the recruits subsequently marry. This follows previous waves in 2010, related to Sharia4Belgium, and in 2012, through peer recruitment.
“The profiles of foreign fighters are varied, with an average age around 23 years and decreasing,” Ms. Karska noted. “Women are also increasingly leaving.”
“Motivational factors are diverse, and, to some degree, individualized,” she said. 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. “Clear profiles of foreign fighters are thus not possible to identify,” the expert stressed.
The Working Group’s delegation welcomed a number of initiatives that have been undertaken at the federal, regional and community, and local levels, to deal with issues relating to the foreign fighter phenomenon.
“These initiatives are timely and imperative in ensuring that this problem is at the forefront of its national priorities and that the discourse resonates throughout Belgian society,” Ms. Karska said. “This same, very elaborate, system must also serve to bring together all the actors in a more collaborative, effective way for a sustained solution.”
The Working Group recommended strengthening the national vision and strategic plan, to be fully integrated, with the broadest possible participation, and informed by multi-disciplinary in-depth research and analysis. Roles must be clear and programmes fully resourced, with a focus on preventive over punitive measures. The experts also urged the government to adopt a human rights based approach, with particular attention paid to the inclusion of especially affected communities.
During the visit, the delegation met with stakeholders from the government, academics and representatives of civil society organizations including families of persons who have travelled to join conflicts abroad.
The expert group will present their first report on the issue of foreign fighters to the UN General Assembly on 2 November, which will include facts gathered during country visits, and the information shared by UN Member States and other actors. The Working Group will present a comprehensive report on its visit to Belgium to the Human Rights Council in 2016.
The UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries was established in July 2005 by the then Commission on Human Rights. The expert Group is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to study and identify emerging issues, manifestations and trends regarding mercenaries or mercenary-related activities and their impact on human rights, particularly on the right of peoples to self-determination.
The Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.