Defeating Islamic State with justice, not just guns

The fall of the militant group’s last enclave also brought a plea for an international court to try the captured foreign fighters. The U.N. must heed the plea.

A man evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State is frisked by a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter near Baghouz, Syria.

Much of the world barely took notice last weekend when the last stronghold of Islamic State fighters finally fell. The capture of a small village in Syria by local Kurdish forces marked an end to a four-year international campaign to destroy the group’s self-declared caliphate, which once stretched across large parts of Iraq and Syria.

But the territorial win came with a special plea. The victorious Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) asked that some 900 foreign ISIS fighters be tried in an international tribunal for horrific crimes against ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Yazidis.

The foreign militants hail from countries as far-flung as the United States, Tajikistan, and Germany. Most of the countries refuse to take back their own citizens. Yet the SDF cannot keep holding the prisoners in makeshift jails, especially with their wives and children.

Meanwhile, thousands of other captured militants from neighboring Iraq are steadily being returned to stand trial in overworked courts that largely fail to meet international standards of justice.

The request for the international trials is worth a serious consideration by the United Nations. In a region rife with mass atrocities against innocent people, applying universal ideals of justice to the terrible crimes of ISIS would send a signal about the moral standards of humanity. Such trials might also bring healing closure and restored dignity to the victims and, perhaps, force some militants to reckon with their actions and repent.

The U.N. already took a step in this direction in 2017. The Security Council voted to investigate evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed by ISIS in Iraq. The next step is to decide whether to establish a special tribunal or to authorize the International Criminal Court to take the cases.

As difficult as it might be to collect evidence and hold a trial, the attempt at justice could be as impactful on world thinking as the trials held after World War II. And with thousands of ISIS militants still at large in the Middle East and elsewhere, the struggle against the group and its ideology must include the world taking a stand on the highest ideas of justice.

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