In a groundbreaking case last month the UK Supreme Court ruled that Shamima Begum, a former ISIS bride, cannot return to the UK to appeal her citizenship deprivation. But who is Shamima Begum and what does this case mean for other former ISIS members?
Shamima Begum, born and raised in the UK, left for Syria in 2015 to join the Islamic State. She married a recruiter there at 15 – below the legal age of marriage in the UK and Syria – before she spent the last few years in a refugee camp where three of her children died due to poor living conditions. Then, in 2019, the Home Secretary decided to strip her of her British nationality on national security grounds. This was the moment when her case gained more popularity and the debate about the rights of former ISIS members became a much-discussed topic.
Now, in order to effectively fight that decision, Begum requested to return to the UK – a request which has been denied by the Supreme Court, again on grounds of national security. However, prioritizing national security over the right to a fair trial could set a dangerous precedent for the UK and other countries alike.
Some would argue that the Supreme Court’s decision was justified based on the circumstances of the case. After all, she had decided to go to Syria on her own and should now bear the consequences. Nonetheless, we should not forget that she was only a teenager then – below the legal age to make such decisions herself. Moreover, most of the teenagers who leave their homes to join ISIS are victims of human trafficking and online grooming, so the burden of her mistake cannot fall entirely on her.
Another argument in favor of the decision is the common law nature of the British legal system. Precedents are crucial for law-making there and this case could help decide how future similar cases will be treated. If Shamima Begun had been allowed to return to the UK, other ISIS members could also do so. The deprivation of citizenship has been used as a tool to prevent ISIS fighters from returning to the UK, so setting a precedent that allows them to return for the pretext of legal proceedings could be a dangerous path to follow. Nonetheless, prosecution would be much more effective in fighting terrorism, and for that nationality, stripping is of little use. In fact, 139 people had lost their citizenship between 2016 and 2018 in the UK for the public good. This, however, does nothing to help prevent terrorism in general, as these people are still able to commit terrorist acts abroad.
Even if the arguments presented above are considered as justifying the Supreme Court’s decision, they cannot outweigh the human rights guarantees by which the UK is bound. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights both protect Shamima and others like her. By not allowing her to return to the UK for the proceedings, the Supreme Court ultimately strips her of the rights to a fair trial and effective remedy. The Syrian camp where Shamima is currently located does not allow for visits of her lawyer, nor does it have access to a telephone or internet. This leaves her with no possibility to effectively participate in the proceedings until she finds a safer location, which puts an indefinite pause to her legal fight for citizenship.
In addition, leaving her in the camp threatens her right to freedom from torture, as the conditions there have been proven by UN experts to amount to inhuman or degrading treatment. The fact that she had lost her children due to these poor conditions reaffirms this position.
However, the most serious issue in the whole case remains the citizenship deprivation that Shamima faces. The UK is obliged by the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness to avoid leaving people stateless. To justify their decision, the state argues that she remains a Bangladeshi citizen due to her parents’ origin, but Bangladesh does not agree. Therefore, Shamima is left stateless, which strips her of many rights, such as education, healthcare, employment, housing, freedom of movement, and political participation. Overall, citizenship deprivation of former ISIS members seems to cause more harm than good, because it does not prevent terrorism but only leads to human rights breaches.
Depriving Shamima Begum of her citizenship with no adequate safeguards and means to appeal the decision sets a dangerous precedent in British law, which prioritizes national security over human rights. The effect this could have on future cases in the UK and other countries which decide to follow this example would be detrimental for the protection of human rights. At least now that the highest court in the UK has issued a ruling on the case, the European Court of Human Rights could be appealed. This seems to be the only reasonable step at the moment to protect Begum’s rights and set a human-rights-based precedent for other former ISIS members.
BBC, Who is Shamima Begum and how do you lose your UK citizenship?, 2 March 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-53428191.
BBC, Shamima Begum cannot return to the UK, Supreme Court rules, 26 February 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-56209007.
Independent, If we deny Shamima Begum her human rights, we should all fear for our own, 16 July 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/voices/shamima-begum-high-court-isis-british-citizenship-fair-trial-human-rights-a9622536.html.