Tag: humanitarian access

War Crimes and the Arab Spring. Again.

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.


Update: Caucasus Humanitarian Sit-Rep

Latest numbers on humanitarian needs in the region. International Medical Corps is now echoing the 30,000 estimate of refugees fleeing north to Russia from S. Ossetia, UNHCR’s estimates remain more conservative but have risen from 5,000 Saturday to between 10,000-20,000 today.

Like other agencies IMC is emphasizing its assistance efforts for “women and children.” This is troubling given what it suggests about a) the number of elderly who likely weren’t as easily able to flee urban areas before bombardment and b) the possibility that large numbers of adult civilian men are either missing from these populations or are simply being denied aid in a misplaced bid to protect the appearance of humanitarian “neutrality.”

Reliefweb is reporting that the International Committee of the Red Cross is emerging as the lead agency in the region, but their zone of access has been limited to N. Ossetia. Given that Russia now controls both North and South Ossetia, this raises questions about how serious Russia is about the “humanitarian” dimensions of the conflict for their own sake.

You can’t infer humanitarian ideals from their efforts north of the border: the “humanitarian catastrophe” (i.e. refugee crisis) there is propaganda fodder for Russia so it coincides with their interests. The litmus test is whether they will allow aid agencies access to civilians fleeing in the opposite direction or remaining in S. Ossetia even though

a) it may implicate them in war crimes if the ICRC determines that they’ve targeted civilians directly as they entered Georgia and

b) it means that Georgian civilians will receive the aid they need from the outside, rather than by putting pressure on Georgia’s own resources.

Under international humanitarian law, Russia is obligated to provide access to neutral agencies to all civilians in areas under their control.

The ICRC is also “working to gain access to people detained in connection with the conflict, including two Russian pilots who were wounded and are being held by the Georgian authorities.” No mention by the ICRC of allegations that the Russians have captured any Americans in connection with the fighting.


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