Tag: protection of civilians

The Syrian Conflict: to Internationalize or not to Internationalize

Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that the Obama administration blocked a Pentagon supported plan to provide arms to Syrian opposition forces.  For civilians in Syria hoping  for meaningful intervention to stop the conflict, this must have been difficult news to absorb.  I was reminded of this story yesterday while attending an informative workshop in Amman, Jordan on Islamic law and the protection of civilians. At the time, we were discussing how a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) becomes an international armed conflict (IAC) under international humanitarian law (IHL).   In legalese, this happens when a state becomes “a party to the conflict”, aligning with the rebels in opposition to the government.  This discussion made me wonder whether the United States would become a party to the Syrian conflict if the Obama administration did decide to arm the rebels.  It’s pretty clear that taking part in hostilities on the ground, say dropping bombs on government targets, would make a state a party to the conflict.  But what about more indirect involvement like supplying weapons to rebel forces?  IHL says a state can become a party to an armed conflict if its support of an opposition force is such that the opposition force’s actions can be attributed to that state.  What acts would create this relationship under IHL is subject to debate.  Providing military aid might qualify if it is done so that it enables a state to exert some control over rebel forces.  While the United States has rejected plans to arm the Syrian rebels, some regional countries allegedly have supplied them with arms.  If the weapons transfers enable these states to exert legally sufficient control over the rebels, it may well transform the Syrian conflict from a NIAC to an IAC. Continue reading


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.


Precision Guided Words? Libya and International Law

Guest Post by Betcy Jose-Thota, Assistant Professor, University of Colorado-Denver.

According to al Jazeera’s English language website, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Transitional Council, met on Wednesday to discuss what a post-Gaddafi Libya would look like. After the meeting, Sarkozy told reporters that NATO would continue its military operation in Libya as long as Gaddafi remained a threat, stating:

“We will continue acting within the mandate given to us by the UN to protect civilian forces.”

If President Sarkozy was not misquoted, his pronouncement contains two misstatements about both the NATO mandate and international humanitarian law.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973, the resolution under which NATO is conducting its military operations in Libya, enables

Member States… acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements… to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack…

By its plain language, UNSC Resolution 1973 authorizes member states to use force to protect civilians, not civilian forces as Sarkozy states. “Civilians” and “civilian forces” are two distinct concepts as the following discussion (hopefully) illustrates.

International humanitarian law (IHL), the body of law which regulates armed conflict, obligates belligerents to distinguish between civilians and other belligerents. This is the so-called distinction principle housed within the civilian immunity norm. Once belligerents make this distinction, IHL prohibits them from deliberately targeting civilians. To do so is a war crime.

However, it’s not as simple as that. Not all civilians are protected from deliberate attack under IHL. And this is where Sarkozy commits his second misstep. According to the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions civilians lose the protections of the civilian immunity norm when “they take a direct part in hostilities.” When civilians directly participate in hostilities, they can be targeted. Deliberately targeting such civilians is not a war crime.

So, when is a civilian considered to be directly participating in hostilities? Well, this is a dissertation-worthy question, too complex to be tackled within the confines of a blog post. Suffice it to say that the ICRC offers its explanation for what this phrase means in its Interpretive Guidance for Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law. Based on this document and past practices, civilians engaging in armed resistance, like those in “civilian forces”, would likely lose their protections under IHL. They would not be the civilians for which UNSC 1973 enables the use of force to protect.

So what’s the significance of this legal rambling, you ask. Well, it means that NATO soldiers can use lethal force against civilians who use armed force against them. It also means NATO doesn’t have to put its soldiers in jeopardy to protect civilians who engage in armed force.

Sarkozy isn’t the only one who’s misstated IHL. That the lack of clarity is so widespread on this issue of when civilians can or cannot be targeted during armed conflict is precisely the reason why the ICRC had to issue its Interpretive Guidance. It will be interesting to see whether (and if so, how) this confusion may manifest in the ICC’s investigations into possible war crimes in Libya.


How to Win the War on Terror

It’s not that earth-shattering – people have been saying this for years – but I haven’t seen it put this well, for mass consumption, in a long time. Phil Bobbitt writing in Newsweek:

It is often asked, “How can we win a war against terror? Who would surrender? How can we make war against an emotion (terror) or a guerrilla technique (terrorism), neither of which are enemy states?” These questions assume that victory in war is simply a matter of defeating the enemy. In fact, that may be the criterion for winning in football or chess, but not warfare. Victory in war is a matter of achieving the war aim. The war aim in a war against terror is not territory, or access to resources, or conversion to our political way of life. It is the protection of civilians within the rule of law.

But Newsweek’s editors seem to have taken a different message from his argument – that it’s impossible to define victory. Instead of taking seriously the idea of how to measure victory on Bobbitt’s terms, their latest issue features a long, admittedly interesting but ultimately distracting conversation about how ambiguous the concept of “victory” is today. That whole discussion misses Bobbitt’s point, I think. Victory on conventional terms is no longer possible in asymmetric wars. Instead of belaboring that, let’s redefine our terms and create some valid metrics to go with them.

More ruminations on that score at Current Intelligence.


Instead of Heading to the Mall Today, What Say We Nudge the EU to Protect Congolese Civilians?

If you’re like me (or Dan) and you live in the U.S., you spent much of yesterday’s holiday feeling lucky to be living in America and not in Goma (or Mumbai. Or Darfur.) Well, in the spirit of Dan’s suggestion in his last post, note this appeal from Avaaz.org.

The brutal war in Congo is escalating, as a terrified Congolese people plead for Europe to send peacekeepers to protect them. European leaders are wavering as their council meeting approaches – we have just one week to persuade them to act.

We know how to do it — last week, Avaaz ran a hard-hitting advertisement in The Times of London, pressing UK leaders to support a European force or risk responsibility for genocide — their Africa minister called us immediately, and their position has shifted — the UK has moved toward supporting a European force!

The Congo has languished for too long, with unspeakable suffering. It now has a brief window of the world’s attention – let’s seize that window to bring peacekeepers who can help achieve lasting peace.

Instead of either shopping today or “buying nothing,” I think you should join me in buying a shot at action on this one (just click here!) The ads will make a difference in agenda-setting, if not in immediate policy, and even if it’s a long shot it’s the right thing to want to do.

Besides, If EU troops can do some good anywhere right now, the DRC is probably as good a place as any. The escalating situation in DRC’s North Kivu province is being compared to Srebrenica 1995 and Rwanda 1994. MONUC, the existing UN operation in DRC, is vastly outmatched and lacks the capacity or rules of engagement to implement its mandate to protect civilians; though the Security Council just authorized 3,000 more troops, it could take months before they materialize. If the EU has the capacity, its members should pony up, and people around the world should take the trouble to encourage them to do so.

But I also think that organizations like Avaaz should stop referring to such an interim force as “peacekeepers.” There’s currently no peace to keep in DRC, and what is needed is soldiers willing and logistically able to prevent atrocities. Let’s be very clear about that, and ask the EU to do the same.


An Interesting New Case of Global Norm Entrepreneurship

A DC-based NGO is promulgating a novel idea: that states should compensate civilians that they legally harm during combat operations.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict(CIVIC) has launched a “You Harm You Help” campaign. Having succeeded in convincing the US Government to create a trust fund for victims of collateral damage in Afghanistan and Iraq, the organization is now trying to figure out how to turn this practice into a global norm.

The idea is important because the existing laws of war don’t require governments to compensate war victims.Governments are often required to pay reparations for war crimes, but hitting civilians by accident is perfectly lawful. And a right to humanitarian assistance is widely recognized for all civilians, but the architecture for it constitutes little more than organized charity.

CIVIC wants to make compensation for deaths and maimings an obligation of warring governments, rather than a charity act by random donors and NGOs. And because the focus is on the outcome not the intention, CIVIC argues states should pay up whether they mean to hit civilians or not.

“In the past century, we’ve seen marked improvements in how we treat each other. Nations have made legally binding commitments to respect women’s and children’s rights, to abolish torture, and protect free expression. Through the Geneva Conventions and treaties banning weapons like landmines, nations have also promised to protect civilians when they go to war. But no treaty, custom or norm requires nations to help those they fail to protect. No matter how many civilians are killed in a war, no matter how many are left homeless, no matter how much property is destroyed, those who do the damage have no legal duty to help.

We hear time after time “war is war” – the standard explanation for overlooking harm to innocent people. It’s time for a change.”

I see CIVIC as a fascinating example of norm entrepreneurship. Fascinating in particular for my new book on advocacy campaigns because CIVIC hasn’t got very far yet, unlike most of the norm entrepreneurs identified in the advocacy networks literature who got attention because their campaigns succeeded.

What remains to be seen is whether CIVIC will become a failed campaign – whether its issue will fizzle, die or end up coopted by others’ issue agendas, or whether we are witnessing the first stages in a future global norm. Stay tuned.


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