A recent wave of fighting in Syria, especially in the Eastern Ghouta zone near Damascus and in Afrin, a largely Kurdish area near the frontier with Turkey has highlighted the violations of humanitarian international law. Calls from U.N. officials for at least a month-long truce so that food and medical supplies could reach the civilian population have not been honored. The scale of the violations are such that they can be considered as a deliberate policy and not as events of “collateral damage” in the fog of war. These violations of long-established humanitarian international law are evidence that the laws of war are increasingly being undermined with few governmental reactions.
Eastern Ghouta is near Damascus and has been a contested zone since early in the 2011 uprising. Ghouta is close enough to Damascus so that opposition mortars can be fired on districts in Damascus – close enough also so that rockets and barrel bombs from government helicopters can increasingly fall on the zone. Hospitals have been hit, probably deliberately. Eastern Ghouta is one of the de-escalation zones agreed to by Russia, Iran and Turkey. However not all the opposition groups are party to the de-escalation agreement which opens the door to ever-escalating violence.
Afrin is in the Aleppo Governorate and in an area with a large Kurdish population. The Turkish government suspects all organized Kurdish groups to be “terrorists” or potential terrorists. Moreover the demands for independence of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in Iraq linking to a possible similar Kurdish zone in Syria is considered by the Turkish government as an active threat to be countered by force. Thus for the past month, Turkish troops in the mis-named “Operation Olive Branch” have been attacking Afrin and its surrounding area. As an element in complicated Kurdish politics and alliances, a pro-Syrian government Kurdish militia has joined the battle to defend Afrin. The dangers of escalation and greater loss of civilian life are very real. For the moment, negotiations on a resolution of the armed conflict within all of Syria seems to be at a dead point, at least in terms of public negotiations.
With the current impossibility to reach an overall resolution to the conflict, the best we can hope for is an honest application of humanitarian international law and a broader, world-wide re-affirmation of humanitarian international law.
Current armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria-Iraq-ISIS-Turkey, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere have led to repeated and conscious violations of humanitarian international law such as attacks on medical facilities and personnel, killing of prisoners-of-war, the taking and killing of hostages, the use of civilians as “human shields” and the use of weapons which have been banned by treaties.
Thus, there is a pressing need for actions to be taken to implement humanitarian international law in response to increased challenges. Citizens of the World stress the need for a United Nations-led conference on the re-affirmation of humanitarian international law including its application by non-State parties. Non-State actors such as ISIS or the Afghan Taliban, are increasingly involved in armed conflicts but were largely not envisaged when humanitarian international law was being drawn up by governments Thus, the conference would highlight the need to apply humanitarian international law both to States and to non-State actors. (2)
Such a conference would bring together into a coherent synthesis the four avenues of humanitarian international law: (3)
1) The Geneva Conventions – Red Cross-mandated treaties;
2) The Hague Convention traditions dealing with prohibited weapons, highlighting recent treaties such as those on land mines and cluster munitions;
3) Human rights conventions and standards, valid at all times but especially violated in times of armed conflicts;
4) The protection of sites and monuments which have been designated by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage of humanity, highlighting the August 2016 decision of the International Criminal Court on the destruction of Sufi shrines in northern Mali. (4)
I would cite a precedent for this re-affirmation of humanitarian international law from personal experience. During the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, I was part of a working group created by the International Committee of the Red Cross to respond adequately to the challenges of this conflict which was the first African armed conflict that did not involve a colonial power. The blocking of food flows to Biafra and thus starvation as a tool of war was stressed in our work. (6)
One conclusion of the working group was the need to re-
Such a re-affirmation conference would be welcomed by civil society organizations related to relief, refugees, human rights and conflict resolution. A certain number of these organizations have already called attention to violations and the need for international action. There is a need for some governmental leadership for the re-affirmation of humanitarian international law as a basis of world law dealing with the protection and dignity of each person.
2) see Andrew Clapham. Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
3) see Sydney D. Bailey. Prohibitions and Restraints in War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972)
4) see Rene Wadlow “Guilty Plea in Cultural Destruction Case” Peace Magazine (Canada) Oct-Dec 2016
5) see Jacques Freymond. Guerres, Révolutions, Croix-Rouge (Geneva: Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales, 1976) and Thierry Hentsch. Face au blocus. La Croix Rouge internationale dans le Nigéria en guerre (Geneva: Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales, 1973)
6) see as a good example of an action guide Paul Bonard. Les Modes d’Action des Acteurs Humanitaires. Critères d’une Complémentarité Operationelle (Geneva, CICR, no date given)
Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens