Are the laws of war working in Syria?

from Australian Red Cross
Published on 21 Apr 2017 View Original

The conflict that caused the largest refugee crisis since WWII and killed over 400,000 people has been littered with violations of international humanitarian law (IHL).

In the last few weeks, the world has seen gruesome examples of such violations. From an alleged chemical attack in Idlib that killed over 80 civilians, to the suicide bombing that killed at least 126 civilians, including 68 children while they were waiting to be evacuated from the town of Rashidin.

The law clearly prohibits the use of chemical weapons, and the targeting of civilians. These two incidents, however, are only the latest examples in a depressingly long list of violations.

Some might wonder: what's the point of having international laws at all?

Despite these violations, international humanitarian law, or the 'laws of war' as they are commonly referred to, have saved lives and reduced suffering in Syria.

One of the fundamental principles of the 'laws of war' is the protection of civilians. Civilians and civilian objects must never be the object of an attack and all parties to a conflict must take "feasible precautions" at all times to protect and limit the impact of war on civilians.

We saw the application of this in Aleppo just last year.

In December 2016, after months of calling for a humanitarian pause in the conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) negotiated and conducted one of the largest and most complex evacuations of civilians in recent history. More than 35,000 Syrians were evacuated to safety over eight days.

Earlier in 2016, after six months of intense negotiations, life-saving aid - food, blankets, medical items and water - reached 40,000 civilians who were trapped and starving to death in the besieged town of Madaya.

Parties to the conflict don't just allow aid into besieged areas out of the goodness of their hearts; they grant it because access to humanitarian relief for civilians is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and in customary international humanitarian law. Parties to conflicts understand that it is an obligation under the law.

The fact that this access was granted undoubtedly saved many lives.

These are just two examples of what is possible when the laws of war are followed.

As long as violations continue to occur in conflicts throughout the world, it is incumbent on the international community to take urgent steps to improve compliance with the law in all conflicts. The Australian Government's commitment to the resolution reached at the 2015 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to work with the international community in the development of a process to strengthen respect for IHL is a laudable step in this direction.

So, while it is important to call out violations, it is equally as important to call attention to those times that the laws of war are followed, because they do more than simply provide a legal framework in times of conflict. They protect our lives, our history, our cultures and ultimately our common humanity.

*Yvette Zegenhagen is the National Manager for International Humanitarian Law, Advocacy and Movement Relations at Australian Red Cross

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