War Crimes and the Arab Spring. Again.

Feb 23, 2012

The direct targeting of actors protected under the laws of war has been one of the most disturbing trends arising out of the Arab Spring. For example, the targeting of medical workers and ambulance drivers was well documented and reported on last year. Additionally, here at the Duck we’ve been following the issue. In recent months Dan Nexon wrote about the targeting of doctors who treated protesters in Bahrain and I’ve bloged about the growing concern of the ICRC who have seen themselves and their workers targeted. Unfortunately, this trend has continued into 2012. In January, the vice-president of the Syrian Red Crescent Abdulrazak Jbeiro was shot and killed in circumstances described as “unclear” – an act that was widely condemned by the the ICRC and officials world wide.

The deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik are an example of another neutral actor in wartime that has frequently been targeted – the press. Accredited journalists are protected under the laws of war, specifically the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I. If they are wounded, sick (GCI 13(4)) or shipwrecked (GCII 13(4)) they are given protections. If they are captured, accredited correspondents are to be given POW status. (GCIII 4A(4)). Additional Protocol I devotes an section to the protection of journalists:

Art 79. Measures or protection for journalists
1. Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians within the meaning of Article 50, paragraph 1.
2. They shall be protected as such under the Conventions and this Protocol, provided that they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians, and without prejudice to the right of war correspondents accredited to the armed forces to the status provided for in Article 4 (A) (4) of the Third Convention.
3. They may obtain an identity card similar to the model in Annex II of this Protocol. This card, which shall be issued by the government of the State of which the Journalist is a national or in whose territory he resides or in which the news medium employing him is located, shall attest to his status as a journalist.

(A good and longer summary of the rules may be found here.

It is true that these rules in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and API are for international (and not internal) armed conflict. But as non-combatants the direct targeting of these individuals would also be illegal under any legal framework. Further, it can be argued that directly targeting aid workers and journalists is a clear violation of customary international law for both international and non-international armed conflict.

This is, of course, on top of the relentless shelling, bombing and targeting of civilians by Syrian forces. While the deaths of these journalists once again highlight what is going on, we should not lose sight of the fact that it would seem, at best, thousands of civilians have died in the conflict since last year. The methods employed by the Syrian armed forces come nowhere near the standards by which we measure the conduct of hostilities.
Worse, it is clear that civilians are suffering great deprivations as a result of the uprising and crackdown. This has lead the ICRC to specifically request access to the civilian population in order to deliver food, water, medicine and fuel.

Last year the ICRC launched a campaign about that which impedes the delivery of assistance and aid in areas of hostilities and armed conflict. Certainly, a consequence of the Arab spring has been to highlight how fragile many of these international norms are. I am not going to pretend that I have any amazing solutions to the crisis in Syria – everything seems like a pretty terrible option. But there can be no doubt that we should be standing up for the laws of war and demanding that Syria’s ‘allies’ (Russia and China) place pressure on Syria to respect international law. At a minimum this is the very least we – and they – can do. The right to deliver humanitarian assistance and the protection of aid workers has long been established in international law. And significantly, this includes UN Security Council Resolution 1502 which (having been adopted unanimously) both Russia and China voted for in 2003.

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard