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Statements Special Procedures

Preliminary findings by the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries on its official visit to Tunisia – 1 to 8 July, 2015

09 July 2015

First of all, I wish to thank the Government of Tunisia for extending an invitation to the Working Group to visit the country, for its openness in its dialogue with our delegation, and the full co-operation it has provided to us throughout the various stages of our visit. I also wish to thank the Government for accepting this visit during Ramadan.  This shows the willingness of the Government of Tunisia to facilitate our work. I further extend our gratitude to colleagues at the Tunisia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the support and assistance given to this visit.

On behalf of the Working Group, I am presenting today our preliminary findings following the official visit here between 1 and 8 July. During the visit, we held meetings in Tunis and Monastir and visited the prison of Mornaguia. We have had the opportunity to meet with various representatives from the executive, legislative and judicial branches, academics and representatives of civil society organisations including families of persons who have travelled to join conflicts abroad. We also held meetings with representatives from United Nations agencies and other international partners. These meetings have assisted in clarifying our understanding of this complex phenomenon of foreign fighters that is affecting many countries, including Tunisia today. It is clear that efforts to address this phenomenon must be holistic, multifaceted and strategic.

Although the phenomenon of foreign fighters is gripping much of the world, particularly with the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, Tunisia is facing its own set of difficulties in relation to this issue. The period leading up to, and following, the 2011 revolution in Tunisia has been a challenging one, with a history of pre-revolution restrictions on freedoms and high unemployment. The transition to democracy continues, following the adoption of a new Constitution in January 2014 and democratic legislative and presidential elections in October and December 2014.

Following the terrorist acts on the Bardo Museum in March 2015 and the recent one in Sousse in late June, there is a heightened sense of concern across the country.  This is further exacerbated by the negative economic impact of such attacks, notably for the tourism sector. A state of emergency was declared on 4 July in response to these circumstances, in the midst of the Working Group’s visit.

While the phenomenon of foreign fighters is not new, with a number of Tunisians joining conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Bosnia, the current scope is unprecedented in term of the sheer scale.  Additionally, during the period 2011 to 2014, it was reported to us that political instability was prevalent, and strong controls were not being implemented by government on related activities.  Currently, it has been reported that the number of Tunisian foreign fighters is one of the highest among those travelling to join conflicts abroad such as in Syria and Iraq. We received information that there are some 4,000 Tunisians in Syria, 1,000 – 1,500 in Libya, 200 in Iraq, 60 in Mali and 50 in Yemen. Some 625 who have returned from conflict zones are being prosecuted. Most fighters have reportedly joined takfiri or other extremist groups.

One of the elements that the Working Group is particularly interested in understanding is the issue of motivation for those who travel to join the extremist groups abroad. In Tunisia, we have been repeatedly informed that motivational factors responsible for the high number of Tunisian foreign fighters is both complex and varied.  Among these are religious and political ideologies, financial gains, economic and social conditions, sense of purpose, and sense of belonging.  The majority of Tunisians travelling to join extremist groups abroad seem to be young people, usually 18-35 years old. Some of these young persons come from poor socio-economic backgrounds yet there are also some who are from middle class and wealthier parts of society. We have also been informed of professionals who offer their skills to extremist groups and that some seem to have been mistakenly drawn to a life portrayed as brave and exciting. Reportedly, women, present in smaller numbers, may have also joined for similar reasons, as well as for humanitarian or private reasons such as joining their husbands and partners.  The Working Group was also informed of the growing issue of entire families travelling to conflict zones.  Any one or a combination of these may be relevant, thus making for significantly diverse profiles of foreign fighters.  Efforts to address this phenomenon must thus correspondingly be holistic, multifaceted and strategic. 

We have been informed that recruitment is also varied, often quick, and increasingly sophisticated. With respect to radicalisation, we have been informed that local members of extremist groups founded centres that facilitated recruitment and support for groups such takfiri groups such as ISIS. The process of recruitment also reportedly involved foreign terrorist groups establishing themselves in the country. Some claim that funding is significant, with large inflows from some countries, including funding for NGOs and ostensible charitable organizations, some political parties, travel, social media, and families of foreign fighters. Some mosques may have also been financed through the same method. 

The situation of some mosques is of special concern.  We were advised that, despite the existence of a system of registration of the mosques and accreditation of associated imams, some 400 were not under direct state control in the post-revolution phase. In such situations, more radical extremist imams have been reported as ousting the existing imams, and introducing extremist ideology.  We commend the government for its efforts to curb these activities: We have learned that 80 such mosques have been closed down in the aftermath of the Sousse incident, and we urge continued vigilance.

Measures should be taken in line with international standards to address the incitement to hatred content of social media and websites which glorify violence and extremism.

Through both direct physical and online engagement, youth are exposed to extremist ideology and encouraged to join the cause.  We were told that one aspect of this is the instruction to disregard the advice and orders or parents and authorities. The Working Group was also informed of cases of teachers spreading extremist ideology to students, as well as radicalisation in prisons. Vulnerability on many dimensions – physical proximity, socio-economic, psychological and financial – has apparently thereby created fertile ground for manipulation and recruitment. Government measures must thus be tailored to each of these facets, countering extremist ideology, providing alternative channels of support to the Syrian humanitarian cause, targeting marginalized groups for outreach and services, working towards expanded employment or vocational opportunities, and building identity and community at individual, family, local and national levels.

Sophisticated travel networks operate to take recruits across the porous borders, and sometimes through areas where trafficking in people and illicit goods may not be effectively controlled.   Testimony has documented that the routes taken entail travel through Libya, then Turkey and its border at Antakya, and then Syria.  Less frequently there is reportedly direct travel to Turkey from Tunisia. We have been informed that the Tunisia to Libya transit is diminishing, while more fighters are going through Morocco, Algeria and Serbia, in so far as these countries do not have visa requirements for Tunisians.

It was reported to us that recruiters in these networks are well paid – one figure given is that of $3,000 to $10,000 per new recruit, depending on the person’s qualifications. The role of money thus apparently varies according to the stage of recruitment and foreign fighter activity: This is of particular relevance to the work of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries.

We were told repeatedly that many foreign fighters undertake training in Libya before going to Syria, and that the instability in Libya has fuelled a lot of the support activities for the growth, training,  and travel for foreign fighters.  Resolution of the conflict and political impasse in that country would thus benefit Tunisia’s counter-terrorism efforts considerably. Every effort should be made at dialogue and resolution to confront what is increasingly thus a regional issue. In conflict zones, we are told that many foreign fighters are involved in direct hostilities or combat, and are thus reported as perpetrators of human rights violations such as the right to life, physical integrity, and torture.

We were informed that some foreign fighter returnees come back to Tunisia secretly, with a number falsely declaring themselves dead.  Some might have returned in order to conduct terrorist activities on behalf of extremist and takfiri groups based in Libya, Syria or other countries. The Working Group also learned of cases of returnees who, having regretted their decision to join conflict abroad, seek to return, or do return, home to Tunisia.   We were told that many of these are traumatised and isolated.  We were thus very pleased to hear of the efforts of authorities to consider alternatives to prosecution for returnee fighters, including social, cultural and religious approaches.  In this vein, we recommend a balance of punitive and social measures by the government, in order to address immediate and deeper root and structural causes of the phenomenon of foreign fighters. Such returnees could also usefully be engaged in providing testimony and counter-narratives to the incitement messages disseminated by recruiters, using sophisticated communication channels and social media as well.

We have been made aware throughout our meetings that there is as yet no specific national strategy and plan of action for countering the phenomenon of foreign fighters.  The step taken by the Tunisian government on 4 July to declare a state of emergency, for a renewable period of 30-days, is one immediate measure to ensure security and greater control.  Given the suspension of some freedoms encompassed by this declaration, including potential restrictions on the freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression as well as the possible application of the death penalty, we urge that authorities implement these measures in conformity with international norms and standards.

We were pleased to learn of efforts to strengthen airport and border control, including detention of members of recruitment networks.  The efforts of the government with respect to rooting out extremist groups operating in Tunisia is also commendable. Decree-law No. 2011-88 of December 2011 is also valuable as an initiative to target extremist organizations operating under the guise of charitable organizations. We urge the active participation of civil society in a holistic approach to countering the foreign fighter phenomenon. 

In the course of our visit, we have also been informed that, in responding to the threat, some state authorities have undertaken extensive surveillance, and other significant measures and procedures. We urge full application of national legislation and international human rights standards by the government. In this respect, we note with appreciation reported efforts at human rights training for law enforcement officials.

We understand that a Draft Organic Law Against Terrorism and Money-Laundering is currently being debated by parliament and due to be passed by 25 July.  We hope that the content of this bill and other related draft legislation, such as the Draft Organic Law pertaining to the prevention and countering of human trafficking, will reflect the comprehensive consultation with all stakeholders and full application of international human rights standards, including with regard to excessive use of force, torture, arbitrary detention, fair trial, and right to privacy. The process should not be unduly influenced, however understandably, under the pressure of public, political and international actors.

Indeed, the international level is important in countering this transnational, global threat.

We have learned from government officials that consideration is being given to domestic application of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178 on Foreign Terrorist Fighters. We were especially encouraged to hear one official observe that the Resolution should be more clear and specific, a position shared by the Working Group.  In this respect, we strongly advise that any application of the Resolution is undertaken with full respect for all international human rights standards while countering terrorism and ensuring security.

It was brought to our attention that the prosecution of individuals arrested on charges related to their activity as foreign fighters is often stymied by the lack of evidence.  We believe that a framework of international cooperation on the sharing of evidence among countries will be a critical step in ensuring accountability for those active in, or supportive of, foreign fighter networks.

Similarly, we have been advised that the government lacks the necessary material resources and equipment to upgrade and modernize its services to respond effectively to the terrorist threat.  We would thus recommend continued, amplified, and coordinated efforts by the international community to provide support, technical assistance and capacity building to the government of Tunisia in its efforts.

We would thus end by reiterating that given the complexity of the foreign fighter phenomenon, efforts at addressing it must be global, holistic, multi-dimensional, and strategic.  A national strategic plan, as the framework for the Draft Organic Law Against Terrorism and Money-Laundering, should thus respond to the diverse profiles and recruitment methods, have immediate, medium and long-term impact, balance punitive against social measures, and ensure the comprehensive adoption of human rights standards in all its elements.