The Swedish government is seeking support from European allies for a new international tribunal to prosecute Isis fighters and military personnel for war crimes perpetrated in Iraq and Syria.
Mikael Damberg, the country’s interior minister, has visited counterparts in London and the Netherlands to lobby support for the proposal, ahead of a summit in Stockholm in early June to discuss the plan. He has suggested that the tribunal — which would be based in Iraq — could be modelled on the international courts established to prosecute perpetrators of the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
“This is a moral and symbolic issue — will the world and Europe just treat this [Isis] as another thing that happened?” Mr Damberg said in an interview with the Financial Times in London. “Or shall we have it written in the history books that we considered these as very serious crimes?”
The proposal could find support in countries such as the UK that are resisting the call to repatriate their own nationals who have spent several years fighting in the Middle East, and present a significant security risk on return.
British home secretary Sajid Javid, who met Mr Damberg on Wednesday, has attracted particular criticism for his treatment of a London teenager who travelled to Syria four years ago to marry an Isis fighter. Shamima Begum, now 19, was deprived of her UK citizenship by Mr Javid and is still being detained in a Syrian camp where her three-week old son died of pneumonia this year.
Of the 900 Britons who left the UK to fight with Isis, about 400 have come home to the UK, according to British police. But those who have continued to the end of the conflict pose the greatest threat if they return to the UK, one security official said.
Establishing an Iraq-based tribunal would be one effective way of keeping the most dangerous fighters out of Europe — at least in the short term. But Mr Damberg insisted that was not his primary objective.
“We would be closer to witnesses, closer to the Kurdish regional forces who have arrested [Isis fighters]. So of course it is easier in the region,” he said. “A local court in a Swedish small town does not really know realities in Iraq or Syria, actually, and it is difficult for them to gather any evidence in the region.”
However, Sweden’s own dedicated war crimes unit — which secured the landmark conviction of a Syrian soldier who came to Sweden as a refugee for degrading treatment two years ago — is already pursuing prosecutions.
Mr Damberg said the unit was working on five separate prosecutions of fighters “with links to Sweden”. He said there were only a “handful” of Swedish nationals being detained in camps in the Middle East. In the meantime, there are questions over how long an Iraq-based tribunal might take to establish, and how it would be funded.
“We understand [a tribunal] is complicated, it is not easy to do. But we have a moral obligation to see if it is possible to make it happen,” he said.
The UK Home Office is expected to send a representative to next month’s Stockholm summit. A department spokesman confirmed it was interested in seeking a collective solution.
“People from around the world travelled to fight with [Isis] in Syria and Iraq. This is an international issue requiring a united response,” he said.
“We want to see foreign fighters brought to trial in the most appropriate jurisdiction, which will often be in the region where offences have been committed, and will work with our international partners in pursuit of this.”
However, H A Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, accused European governments of attempting to foist troublesome Isis recruits on to a court system based in the Middle East.
“An international tribunal in the region raises all kinds of questions, and the only one it seems to answer is this one: how do we as Europeans manage to keep our own suspected criminal citizens away from Europe, and offload the issue to a country that never wanted those citizens, never asked for them, and have suffered already tremendously as a result of them?”, he said.
“Investigations should certainly take place in the region, because that is where all alleged criminal activity took place: but the trials, convictions and burden of imprisonment should not be laid at the doors of Iraqis or Syrians. They have suffered enough.”