Tag Archives: Syria

International Humanitarian Law more clear and more debated than ever – updated

by Rhodri C. Williams

The immediate inspiration for this post was the fact that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) recently put online its vast and expanding database on which norms of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are now deemed to have attained the status of customary international law (CIL), binding on all parties to armed conflicts whether or not they have ratified (or otherwise assented to be bound by) the treaties that give rise to these rules.

The database consists of both a comprehensive listing of the rules now deemed applicable and a compendium of practice, both that which supports the emerging rules and objections against its validity (anyone want to take some wild guesses on what states frequently feature in the latter category?) In the new online version, the practice of some seven further states and a number of international tribunals have been added. The new database constitutes a highly accessible and useful tool alongside ICRC’s additional databases on treaty ratification and application by States Parties.

The good news is that there has been considerable progress in this area. I have written on this blog and elsewhere about the role of soft-law documents like the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in consolidating a human rights based approach that has transformed humanitarian action in the post-Cold War period. This transformation has brought new possibilities for advocacy by pairing the cautiously phrased and state-centric provisions of IHL with the less ambiguous and more individual-oriented rules of international human rights law (IHRL).

Moreover, because advocacy for the Guiding Principles has focused on engaging willing states (at the risk of to some extent being co-opted by them), they have been far more successful than most soft-law standards, to the extent of having been incorporated in numerous national laws and policies (compiled by the Brookings Institution here) as well as a groundbreaking regional convention adopted by the African Union. This, in turn, has provided support for customary IHL to more vigorously address areas such as the prohibition against arbitrary displacement (including in internal conflicts), the right of voluntary return for internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as the state obligation to respect their property rights.

However the new force and reach that a rights-based approach has given to IHL has brought new risks as well. Most obviously, by encouraging humanitarian actors to condemn violations of human rights (such as forced displacement) and demand accountability and remedies (such as restitution), the rights-based approach may create dangerously high expectations on the part of beneficiaries of aid while simultaneously undermining the perceived impartiality of humanitarian actors. In the worst cases – and we do not have to look far to find them – this limits the access of humanitarian actors to vulnerable populations and puts their own security at risk.

As a result, this ongoing retrenchment of the rules of conflict has opened up new policy debates, most recently in the extremely difficult humanitarian arena of the Syrian conflict. The latest iteration came with the 28 April 2014 publication of an open letter signed by 35 eminent legal scholars. The letter noted that 3.5 million civilians – over a third of those in urgent humanitarian need in Syria – are living in areas accessible only from neighbouring countries. However, because Syria has denied consent to humanitarian actors operating in Syria to send cross-border aid, these civilians face a catastrophe.

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Talks collapse in Geneva, reconciliation blooms in Syria?

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is hard to read Syria these days. Hard to look as one horror rolls into another. And hard to understand the dynamic this creates in a population that knows something better, wanted something more and did nothing to deserve what they ultimately got. So, predictably, the day after I speculated that the Geneva talks risked become a pretext for a final ethnic cleansing of Homs in the guise of a humanitarian ceasefire evacuation, the talks collapsed and the ceasefire apparently continued.

Subsequent reporting, particularly by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, has provided a much clearer picture of how the humanitarian operation in Homs went, with UN personnel and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) showing both courage and ingenuity in the face of direct targeting, most likely by pro-Assad regime militias:

Sources confirmed these attacks were the work of a local paramilitary group known as the National Defence Force determined to scupper a deal it saw as feeding and freeing their enemies. “All the devils in this crisis will always try to hinder our work,” Sarc’s head of operations, Khaled Erksoussi, told me on the telephone line from Damascus with a voice tinged with exhaustion and anger.

There are no angels in this war, only what one aid official called “good people in a very bad situation” on both sides of a bitter divide were determined to carry on.

By Wednesday, lessons had been learned. On the edge of the Old City, bundles of food and medicine were unloaded from lorries, and passed along a chain of Sarc volunteers on to two trailers. Supplies would be towed in by the UN’s armoured vehicles.

One of the most sensitive aspects of the operation involves the fate of about 300 “fighting age” men who left the besieged Old City of Homs along with the rest of the civilians evacuated. The willingness of the UN to go forward with the evacuation without guarantees of the humane treatment of fleeing men has been controversial from the outset. This issue, along with the failure of the regime to guarantee humanitarian access to other besieged areas and detention centers, led the ICRC to publicly withhold its support for the operation in Homs:

Evacuations are not the solution to every humanitarian problem, although the Syrian authorities and opposition groups must allow civilians to leave for safer areas. Those who, for whatever reason, choose to stay in their homes remain protected by international humanitarian law and must not be attacked. ….

Anyone detained after an evacuation must be treated humanely at all times and be allowed to contact their families. In addition, our delegates should be allowed to register detainees so that we can follow up on their fate and whereabouts and restore and maintain family contact whenever necessary. We continue to negotiate with the Syrian authorities and other parties to have access to places of detention across the country.

However, as reported by both Doucet and the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher, events took an unexpected turn early, beginning with a decision to release nearly one third of the detained men who signed “a pledge never to bear arms against the state”. As Dagher notes here, such leniency flows from the highest levels of the regime and involves a willful effort to recast the traumatized detainees as born again-Assad supporters, graciously spared the consequences of their own foolishness:  Continue reading

The Bosnia dilemma: What are the implications of the Homs “humanitarian evacuation” in Syria?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The evacuation of civilians trapped, shelled and nearly starved by the Assad regime’s siege of the center of Homs is an operation that will undoubtedly save many innocent lives. Not incidentally, it is also one of the few areas of concrete progress that appears to have emanated from the Geneva talks between the regime and the opposition, which just entered a laborious second round. But it is hard to avoid a sense of unease about the operation and the signals it sends about the course of the conflict in Syria.

Tellingly, the evacuation deal was rolled out between Geneva I and II, with the opposition apparently caught unawares. This ambiguous start might reasonably be seen as signaling yet another iteration of a high stakes game being played by a discredited regime with its back to the wall. As in the case of last summer’s chemical weapons attack – which made the Assad regime the ‘partner’ in an international effort to dispose of its own illegal weapons – there is a whiff of deliberate atrocities in Homs being used to gain leverage.

Concerns have been expressed on at least three levels. First, the evacuation presents the remaining ‘fighting age’ men trapped in Homs with a Hobson’s choice – remain in the besieged center after the ceasefire expires and continue to face starvation and shelling, or surrender to the tender mercies of the regime’s intelligence forces, who continue to hold some 200 men arrested as they joined the humanitarian exodus from the city. This against the backdrop of continued unresolved questions questions about the fate of men starved out of the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya last year:

Rebels have rejected offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of concerns, based on experience, about what might happen to men who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained and disappeared after a similar deal made last year in Mouadamiya, near Damascus.

In light of graphic recent evidence that a single detention center in Syria had tortured 11,000 imprisoned men and boys to death, it is hardly surprising that comparisons have been made between the evacuation of Homs and the 1995 fall of Srebrenica in the Bosnian conflict. As in Srebrenica, the means and motive exist. Moreover, the international humanitarian community is caught in a similarly impossible role, trying to protect civilians in a situation where it will not have the power to do more than act as a witness if the regime is determined to seek a final reckoning with its opponents in Homs.

Which leads to the second concern. Continue reading

Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: The durability of Middle Eastern Civil Codes and durable solutions to displacement

by Dan E. Stigall

Dan E. Stigall is a Trial Attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of International Affairs. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of International Law at the The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (U.S. Army). He previously served on active duty in the U.S. Army JAG Corps from 2001-2009. Any opinion expressed in this Article is solely that of the author and not necessarily that of the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice.

Stigall wrote on “ Refugees and Legal Reform in Iraq: The Iraqi Civil Code, International Standards for the Treatment of Displaced Persons and the Art of Attainable Solutions” in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and provides an update in this guest posting.

Even on something so small as a blog post, it is always a privilege to be able to collaborate with Rhodri Williams, whose work I have been citing and whose friendship I have valued since my time as Captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps.  As an Army officer, I served in Iraq – mostly in Tikrit – during the era of the Coalition Provisional Authority.  That assignment gave me my first exposure to the problems associated with displaced persons, housing, and land issues attendant to conflict and post-conflict environments.  That assignment also permitted me to work closely with Iraqi jurists and Iraqi civil law, and intensified my interest in Middle Eastern legal systems, comparative law, and the nexus between comparative law and the myriad issues relating to post-conflict reconstruction.

Years after that initial experience in a conflict zone, a wave of social and political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa has now resulted in new areas where state security governance is lacking and nascent democracies (or crumbling autocracies) find themselves unable to cope with new sources of instability.  Libya and Syria, in particular, have been profoundly impacted by this phenomenon, which has come to be known as the Arab Spring.  Both Libya and Syria have experienced the collapse of their governments’ key institutions and, in the wake of enormous political upheaval, each country now contains ungoverned spaces which are attracting and incubating a variety of unsavory and destabilizing transnational actors, such as terrorist organizations.

Moreover, as TerraNullius has reported, both Libya and Syria are each now experiencing destabilizing and significant displacement crises.  The number of internally displaced persons in Libya at the end of August 2012 was between 65,000 and 80,000, a population composed mostly of minorities who are unwilling or unable to return because of potential reprisals.  With regard to Syria, it was estimated that, as of early June 2013, as many as 4.25 million Syrians have been internally displaced and more than 2 million Syrians have fled and are living as refugees in neighboring countries.  This has prompted UNHCR to note, “Syria is haemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs.”

The acute problems facing Libya and Syria were, in part, the catalyst for my forthcoming articleThe Civil Codes of Libya and Syria: Hybridity, Durability, and Post-Revolution Viability in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring.  My research into Libyan and Syrian civil law systems follows as something of an extension of my work on Iraqi civil law, but was also inspired by a comment in Chibli Mallat’s masterful text on Middle Eastern legal systems in which he notes that:

Civil codes in the Middle East are peculiar in two ways: they have proved more resilient than their public law counterparts, and modern civil codes function as stable institutions offering legal anchors which transcend political changes.

This observation is an important one – especially as it relates to post-Arab Spring countries and countries in turmoil – because of the fact that international actors seeking to create the conditions for peace and stability in the post-conflict environments of Libya and Syria must ultimately support or enable durable legal institutions.  Experience has taught that the durability of organic legal institutions is central to the task of restoring order and government functionality in post-conflict states.

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Syria is hemmorrhaging

As the Syria crisis reaches yet another crescendo, the UNHCR comes out with a really quite astonishing tweet:

Whether born of calculation or desperate spontaneity, the composition of the thing effectively conveys a seasoned humanitarian agency that is on its knees in the face of unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. It will be a hard act to follow. Lets hope it never needs to be.

For a glimpse of the pressure cooker life in a camp in Hatay province, Turkey, see Robin Yassin Kassab’s latest in Foreign Policy. The manner in which camp life produces hyper-compressed vignettes of the windy discourses we are all so familiar with now is striking – and worth quoting at length:

Part of the problem is Western fear of the opposition’s greatly exaggerated Islamist-extremist element. The irony is that the longer the tragedy lasts, the greater the empowerment of once minor and irrelevant jihadi forces.

Atmeh village, on a hill behind the camp, has been turned into a barracks for the foreign Islamist fighters of Hizb ut-Tahrir. These men are not, apparently, fighting the regime, but waiting for “the next stage” — in other words, the coming struggle between moderates and Islamist extremists after the fall of the regime. Syrians, including democratic Islamists, refer to them derisively as “the spicy crew” and shrug off the risk they represent. One assured me it would take “two minutes” to expel them once the regime falls.

But sectarian hatreds — stoked by the regime’s propaganda, its Alawite death squads, and assaults on Sunni heritage — are certainly rising. I met a man whose wife and 11 children were killed in an airstrike and who plans to marry again and produce 11 more children, “just so I can teach them to kill Alawites.” There’s a teenager who boasted, “Afterwards, we won’t leave a single Alawite alive.”

This deliberate attack on the social fabric is perhaps the regime’s greatest crime. When tyrants light the fuse of sectarian war, they are unleashing passions that extend beyond politics. They are killing people who have not yet been born.

Yassin-Kassab’s account is included in a recent list of articles on Syria recommended by Syrian activists. See also the Guardian here for a description of the effect of the conflict in neighbouring Syria – as well as dubious sectarian populism by the Turkish government – on the  mixed but traditionally tolerant population of Hatay province.

Meanwhile, for a refreshingly clear explanation of the dynamics behind the latest, mysterious wave of Syrian Kurd refugees that broke over Iraq two weeks ago (and which for UNHCR must have been the final straw), see Hugh Eakin in the NYRB blog.

And finally, a new Oxfam report, written together with the ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality, shows that women refugees are both disproportionately represented in and impacted by displacement, going hungry to feed their families and facing heightened domestic violence.

Cleaning up the maps? Portents of unilateral partition in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

One of the chilling by-products of the wars in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago was the development of antiseptic terminology like ‘ethnic cleansing’, a neologism that managed to obscure the most visceral and intimate fratricide Europe had seen in decades behind a whiff of wiper fluid. Personally, I was always most disturbed by the related idea of ‘cleaning up the maps’, a notion that departed entirely from any notion of humanity (at least the cleansing was admittedly ‘ethnic’) and equated living communities with any other natural barriers that might impede the march of progress.

Map-cleaning emerged as a term of art at the time of the fall of Srebrenica, one of a number of embattled enclaves in Bosnia that presented both logistically and strategically challenging anomalies in the territorial carve-up then viewed as an essentially inevitable outcome of the war. Get everybody on the right side of defensible lines, so the theory, and the map becomes a blueprint for a durable peace. The problem, as demonstrated in Srebrenica in July 1995, is that the tidying can take the form of flight, or forced removal, or mass murder, depending on the circumstances. Whatever capacity maps may have to be tidy, wars rarely are.

For some time now, the specter of partition has hung over Syria, albeit in a context in which it was not seen as a desired option for any of the parties to the conflict. Rather, as described by Jim Muir at the BBC, de facto partition of the country is likely to result as an inevitable status quo from a situation in which no side is likely to be able to achieve a complete victory over any other. Meanwhile, commentators such as Robin Yassin-Kassab (here) and Marwa Daoudy (in Open Democracy) remain at pains to point out that the Syria conflict is only sectarian to the extent that the Assad regime has made it so in a bid to consolidate and militarize its most reliable constituencies and demonize peaceful protesters.

As described by Daoudy, this tactic may have taken on a dynamic that the regime may now no longer be able or willing to control: Continue reading

If it’s broke, destroy it? The partition debate arrives in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

Almost inevitably in appalling situations like the conflict in Syria, there comes a moment when inhibitions seem to drop among certain sectors of the commentariat and a note of petulant, provocative resignation enters the debate. They can’t live together, goes the standard line, and they have well and truly proved it now. Why should liberals in the West be indulged in their Benetton fantasies? Why spend blood and treasure to preside over the shotgun remarriage of nations so fundamentally unable to tolerate each other’s presence that they engage in fratricide?

The infuriating thing about such ‘partitionist’ arguments is not (only) the curiously visceral satisfaction some commentators seem to take in espousing a vision of humanity unable to accommodate difference by any other means than forced assimilation or strict separation. Nor is it the fact that such arguments tend to rely on speculation about what ordinary people actually want, often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Nor the way that they play into the hands of unprincipled and frequently undemocratic elites and conflict entrepreneurs. It is the fact that they may in some cases be right but for all the wrong reasons.

My first brush with ‘partitionist’ lines of argument came in Bosnia where my initial receptivity to them was challenged not only intuitively (by my unreconstructed persistence in the belief that people can find ways to rub along together) but also structurally (by my job specifically seeking ways to support Bosnians in doing so). However, my best efforts notwithstanding, the partition bandwagon rolled along, perhaps in most raucous form when splitting Bosnia looked like a real option, yet gaily undeterred long after it was clear that partition was neither particularly feasible nor especially desirable.

Perhaps as a result, there was a certain satisfaction in having worked on something as seemingly pollyanna-ish as property restitution in post-conflict Bosnia and seen it succeed. Granted, not everyone returned, but the result was segregation based largely on individual and household choices, rather than partition based on a political sew-up. And, safe in an unprovable negative, I will propose that the brute fact of restitution – the resolution of 200,000 claims that intimately affected many of the families most victimized by the conflict – cannot but have had a calming influence that has helped keep Bosnia’s notorious post-war ethnic politicking from spilling over into new bloodshed.

One can even argue that the pollyannas have been vindicated once again by the recent post-nationalist demonstrations in Bosnia. Perhaps the new generation we have all been going on about so long has now come of age. If this is the case, a new politics could result. Certainly not a politics that transcends nationalism (not even Sweden can manage that), but one that could at least reveal the hollowness at the core of the ‘inevitability’ discourses surrounding partition proposals in places like Bosnia.

Nevertheless, in 2004, the very year that I left Bosnia convinced that partitionism was en route to the dustbin of history, ethnic riots in Kosovo sent carefully orchestrated plans for national reconciliation there into a tailspin. A familiar call and response ensued, with aggrieved international observers eager to wash their hands of the mess and earnest liberal interventionists arguing that the preservation of a multiethnic society was not only possible but necessary.

At that point, my former Bosnia colleagues Marcus Cox and Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) were prompted to mount one of the most spirited defenses of ‘post-partitionism’ to date, contrasting the integrity of international efforts to hold places like Bosnia together with the cynicism of an earlier generation of peace agreements in which population transfers were as routine as border demarcations. But in 2004, one year into the US invasion of Iraq, the partition debate had barely begun. Two years later, the festering dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the region surrounding Kirkuk and the spiraling sectarian violence in Baghdad placed partition squarely on the international agenda.

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