The Government should not find it too difficult to meet its responsibility in facilitating the return of former Air Corps corporal Lisa Smith and her child from Syria, UN special rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has said.
Prof Ní Aoláin, who is UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, also said her office is “deeply concerned” at the arrest of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange in London.
Ms Smith, 37, widow of an Islamic State (IS) fighter, left Ireland several years ago and is now being held with her two-year-old daughter in al-Hawl refugee camp in north-east Syria, close to the Iraqi border.
Her repatriation and that of her child is “not insurmountable”, given that “hundreds” of Europeans and other nationals who left to join IS are now being returned to their own countries, said Prof Ní Aoláin at the Cúirt international festival of literature in Galway.
She said that while she was not directly involved in this case, her office is engaged with the issue of returning fighters and their partners, such as British teenager Shamima Begum, who has been rendered stateless by Britain.
Ms Smith is “one of thousands of women and dependent children held in appalling conditions”, and Ireland has an obligation to protect her and her child, she said.
Irish citizens arrested in other circumstances such as drug trafficking when abroad are offered consular assistance, and this does not involve condoning actions, she said.
Countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, and Morocco are taking back hundreds of individuals and dealing directly with the Syrian Democratic Forces to do so, she said.
States including Ireland are obliged to prosecute persons who travel to join these groups under UN Security Council resolutions, and Irish prosecutors would be within their rights to assess if charges are appropriate, she said.
However, this would depend on evidence of military involvement, which Ms Smith has denied in a recent interview with the Mail on Sunday.
Ireland has witnessed demobilisation and reintegration of people involved in armed groups as a result of the Troubles, and this learning is critical in handling current situations, she said.
Mr Assange’s arrest is “deeply concerning”, she said, outlining two main concerns — the undermining of the principle of diplomatic protection, and Mr Assange’s ability to have a fair trial if extradited to the US.
The increasing tendency of states to target human rights defenders, environmental activists, development and medical aid staff, and other members of civil society in the name of so-called counter-terrorism is also concerning, she said.
The single largest rise in violence last year was among white nationalist groups, many supported by “recalcitrant white right-wing governments”, she noted.
Too many governments spend time thinking about defeating terrorism rather than examining the causes, and there is a “high degree of misplaced confidence in the use of military force”, said Prof Ní Aoláin.