No one gains from ignoring humanitarian law in Syria
A handout picture released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) shows residents of Syria's besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, gathering to receive food aid on February 1, 2014. © UNRWA/AFP/File
No one gains from ignoring humanitarian law in Syria
Last updated: February 19, 2014
No one gains from ignoring humanitarian law in Syria

"The tactic of starve or surrender is as abhorrent as it is illegal"

Banner Icon All parties to the conflict in Syria must immediately allow, and where possible facilitate, unhindered access to civilian populations by independent and neutral humanitarian actors, writes Dominic Bowen.

The current crisis in Syria again highlights the need for all parties to respect international humanitarian law. As we wait to see what, if any, progress may be achieved by a still to be confirmed third round of Geneva II discussions, all parties to this conflict would achieve great benefit from reviewing and respecting well-established laws of armed conflict.

Many international and Syrian non-government humanitarian organisations have been providing assistance to affected communities throughout Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Most of these organisations are known for delivering aid and assistance in some of the most dangerous contexts around the world.

Now, many of those same organisations have had to significantly curtail their efforts to assist the civilian population because of direct attacks, threats and intimidation. It has become virtually impossible for international aid workers to function safely inside Syria.

But Syrian born doctors, nurses and other aid workers are not immune from this danger either. We have seen the efforts of medical personnel attempting to provide assistance to civilian communities thwarted time and again because of the actions of armed groups on all sides of the conflict.

"The nature of combat is rarely simple. This does not however excuse the extreme and repeated violations by all sides of this conflict

The main victims of this inability to provide independent humanitarian assistance are civilians. It is not surprising that measles and polio are on the rise in Syria. Forced population displacement, increasing rates of malnutrition, and decreasing access to water and sanitation are all contributing to the deteriorating health of many communities. Women, children and the elderly are again the biggest losers in this war.

All parties to a conflict, whether they are state or non-state actors, are obliged to adhere to international humanitarian law. Providing meaningful and safe access to civilian populations under their control is a fundamental responsibility of an occupying or controlling authority. With the power of authority, comes responsibility to protect those civilians under your control.

If a controlling group is unable to provide this protection to the civilian population, there is a responsibility to allow unhindered access to neutral organisations that can provide this humanitarian assistance. Independent aid organisations continue their desperate efforts to find ways to provide assistance to communities across Syria, but more needs to be done.

Regardless of political or religious believes, the non-derogable nature of much of international humanitarian law means there is no justification for the continued and repeated breaches of humanitarian law. Many aspects of international law are absolute and can never be ignored or breached, regardless of the nature or conduct of war.

The right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is one such rule. There have been countless instances of extreme torture and cruel punishments inflicted by many actors within Syria, and even more cases of systematic inhuman and degrading treatment of the civilian population. The tactic of “starve or surrender” is one such tactic that is as abhorrent as it is illegal; as is the deliberate targeting of aid workers.

The prohibition on prolonged arbitrary detention is another absolute human right that is non-derogable. Whether Sharia law, Syrian national law, or international law, it is the right of all people to be brought before a relevant judicial authority as soon as practical to hear the charges against them. Detaining civilians for prolonged and unreasonable periods is a breach of so many different laws. The nature of war is complex, but this does not excuse arbitrary and prolonged detention of civilians.  This must cease immediately and is a prerequisite for the provision of independent humanitarian assistance.

No one doubts the complexity and challenges within Syria. The nature of combat is rarely simple. This does not however excuse the extreme and repeated violations by all sides of this conflict. International law is deliberately simple. The principles are clear. The definition of a combatant is not disputed, neither is that of a civilian. Similarly, the rights and responsibilities of combatants and civilians are equally clear.  Any declared ambiguity is a deliberate attempt to cloud and misuse a well-established body of law.

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Whether we talk about besieged, occupied, liberated, or controlled areas within Syria, the stories are so often the same: continued violence, savage reprisals, threats, executions and intimidation. The conflict in Syria is clearly far from its end, but all actors must remember that all of their actions today will affect how the conflict evolves, and what Syria will resemble after the eventual cessation of hostilities.

All parties to the conflict in Syria must immediately allow, and where possible facilitate, unhindered access to civilian populations by independent and neutral humanitarian actors. Typically, aid organisations do not used armed escorts, thus we rely on the guarantees and agreements provided by all sides to a conflict. Humanitarian personnel must be given safe passage and circumstances created where we can provide necessary, and very often life-saving assistance, which is needed by so many people throughout Syria.

As aid organisation continue to pursue opportunities for the delivery of independent assistance based on need, conflicting parties must remember and adhere to their obligations to provide humanitarian access to all civilian populations.

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