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Syrian Crisis Vs International Law

- Pukar Wagley

Mar 28, 2018-

After seven years, the Syrian war has reached the level of atrocity and barbarity rarely ever witnessed in the history of civilisations before. The indiscriminate use of lethal weapons has turned Damascus, the Syrian capital, into a hell on earth. The scale of humanitarian crisis it has brought has qualified this conflict as one of the biggest crimes against humanity. The crisis has been precipitated by the interest of the big powers resulting in severe breach of international laws and established rules of war engagement.

The Syrian civil war started after president Bashar al-Assad cracked down on the Arab spring, and escalated after the Russian government backed al-Assad, while the US was bent upon overthrowing him. In a tussle designed to maintain their military supremacy, the US and Russia have formed alliances dividing the gulf countries into two groups. This  power politics is a realm outside the day to day  concern of the people but the death of approximately 400,000 innocent civilians and 1.9 million wounded civilians has left  the world mourning in grief.

The war in Syria has not only brought a serious humanitarian crisis, it has also suspended many norms of international relations and principles of international humanitarian laws.     

On March 23, 1976, Syria ratified International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 22 (1, 2) of ICCPR mentions the right to freedom of associations which are necessary in democratic societies. However, the government of Syria and Allied forces including the two foreign powers have made brutal air strikes on civilians violating the obligation of the convention. The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime has devastated life and property of the people. Furthermore, the war has breached the guidelines of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)—an arm control treaty that prohibits the use of chemical weapons in any armed conflict or war. This shows that the regime and other concerned actors have committed war-crime, and international community has failed miserably in resolving the problem.

Harbouring retributive justice in war doesn’t guarantee a win. After the purported use of chemical weapon  by Assad regime, America launched military air strikes and bombarded buildings in the government controlled area. After a series of senseless strikes, many innocent children have either died or have become orphans. Recently an attack was made in Ghouta where images of Syrian children covered in dust and blood spattered around has drawn attention of the world population. Human rights activists and experts are in a state of desperation because the entries of human rights organisations have been put under surveillance.

Every UN member must abide by the regulations set up by the UN. The article 2(4) of the UN charter prevents all the nation from using force against territorial integrity and independence of any state. Article 51 requires the use of force only for collective security upon authorisation from UN Security Council. Thus there is not any legitimate ground for attacking Syria by any nations if the Charter of the United Nations is to be followed.

Prior to the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949 August 12, there were no clear laws to speak for the protection of the civilian population and their human rights. In 1993, the United Nations Security Council passed it as a body of international customary laws binding to the member states of the UN. The Geneva Convention (IV) Part II Article 18 envisages that under no circumstance parties involved in the conflict can attack on hospitals where injured civilians and children are being treated. Similarly Article 15 stipulates that any party to the conflict can demand the establishment of neutralised zones where injured combatants or non -combatants as well as people taking no part in hostilities can take shelter. Likewise Article 24 prohibits taking hostage to anyone. Nevertheless, during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure, the  USA did not ratify Additional (Protocol 1) to the Geneva Convention of 1949 which was related to the protection of victims of International armed conflicts. Thus, such feeble implementation of the statutes exemplifies Roscoe Pound’s theory—“Law in books and law in action.”

Woodrow Wilson gave idea of establishing league of Nation to end all wars but the league was unsuccessful in maintaining territorial integrity of weaker nations. There were many reasons behind its failure and absence of great powers in the world organisation was one of them. Similarly, the limiting view of  nationalism that was in prevalence  then was another significant cause behind the failure of the League of Nation.

Regrettably, the United Nations, too, is moving along the same trajectory. The UN is time and again  made scapegoat and the P5 ( Veto exercising UNSC members) have put spokes in the wheel of the UN by exercising veto whenever the world body tries to implement policies to restore peace. Gradually neutral states are losing faith on the United Nations. From implementation of security policy to management of grave violation of human rights, efforts put by the UN members are sorely inadequate.

Grave crimes against humanity have taken place in Syria time and again.  However, since Syria is not the member of International Criminal Court (ICC) statute, cases cannot be filed against it, unless the United Nations Security Council refers it to ICC. Russia and China vetoed the Security Council’s draft to move Syria to ICC in 2014. Therefore, expecting formal legal remedy to this warfare is, for the time being, only  a pie in the sky.

 To restore order out of turmoil is what is needed at present. An approach of alternative dispute resolution can be the best tool to address the present situation. Diplomatic dialogue and table talks among the conflicting stakeholders can help identify the common interest. In such situation a third party mediation/ arbitration could be availed of if the conflicting sides agree on such impartial justice dispensers.

The ground realities, however, make us pessimistic about involving external stakeholders in the dispute settlement process.

On the whole, natural law guarantees right to life of every individual. Even if somebody kills a criminal as an act of vengeance he/she becomes a murderer; the act being against the doctrine of justice. World powers are enjoying impunity despite the existence of a host of international legal provisions against crime against humanity.

The credit for formulating International laws goes to the big world powers. For that very reason, they have supreme obligation to abide by these laws in order to give essence to the rule of law.  The genocide is tearing apart the entire fabric  of  the civilisation of Syria.  Only effective mediating role of big powers can help save the situation.

Pukar Wagley  is studying law at Kathmandu School of Law

Published: 28-03-2018 08:44

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