4 min read

Red lines everywhere: Indefensible crimes committed in Syria

While US President Barack Obama once drew the “red line” in Syria at chemical weapons, that line has been crossed with impunity. Credible reports show the regime likely used chemical weapons last year. But with over 70,000 people dead, why focus on chemical weapons? Inviolable red lines of other kinds have been decisively laid down by international law and on humanitarian grounds. In Syria, a wide range of such violations have been documented. They demonstrate the true severity of the conflict and could eventually lead to prosecutions for severe international crimes.

“War crimes” and “crimes against humanity” are two of the most severe charges the UN has raised. The killings in Al Houleh, for instance, could amount to crimes against humanity or other international crimes. A UN statement from last month emphasized the scope of serious violations during the conflict.  Insofar as government acts of “murder, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts” are part of a “widespread systemic attack,” they might constitute crimes against humanity. Though the scale of regime violations “significantly exceeds” those committed by rebels, both sides have “perpetrated massacres of civilians.”

Civilians have been targeted repeatedly throughout the conflict, the UN report shows.  The regime has razed entire neighborhoods and used its jets to bombard breadlines at least a dozen times, “often when hundreds of civilians had queued for bread following a protracted shortage.” Some opposition fighters have used “car and suicide bombings, directed at non-military targets.” Nor have children been at all spared from the violence—children have been “killed, tortured, and raped” at the hands of the government. Though deliberately attacking noncombatants is unacceptable, Syrians across the country continue to be victimized.

Health workers and hospitals too, are regularly attacked, even though they should be protected as neutral parties. Stephen Rapp, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, said the “targeting of medical facilities is greater than we’ve seen in modern warfare.” Many suspect the regime’s attacks, which include bombing hospitals, are part of a deliberate campaign against civilians. By the Syrian government’s own estimates, only half of the country’s hospitals can function. Government forces have also targeted opposition field hospitals, while public hospitals have turned away wounded civilians suspected of supporting the opposition. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates the government has arrested 3,000 medical staff and volunteers. Adding to the danger of health workers, the headquarters of the Syrian Red Crescent was attacked in December, and earlier in June a volunteer was shot while in uniform. Syrian Red Crescent workers say they have been targeted by both sides. Such relentless attacks on health workers and hospitals represent a complete disregard for human life and serve as a stark omen of the boundless potential for future violence.

In addition to chemical weapons, the regime has most recently made devastating use of scud missiles, launching them into residential neighborhoods in Aleppo just weeks ago killing over 140 people. Similarly devastating is how the regime is using cluster bombs, dropped from planes and launched from the ground, to deliberately target civilians. Cluster bombs release smaller munitions once launched and are designed to spread out over a wide area before detonating, simultaneously killing several people. So destructive are these weapons that over 100 countries (but not Syria) signed up to ban them in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Though the distinction between chemical and “conventional” weapons is not without basis, the use of scud missiles and cluster bombs to target civilians is a clear violation of any morally founded code of conduct, even during a conflict.

In an attempt to reinforce some of these red lines and prevent fighters from committing such violations, the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria drafted and published a “Code of conduct for combat operations” (in Arabic). The document contains eleven articles in all and addresses important dimensions of conduct in the conflict. It lays out basic rights of civilians and those in custody and prohibits certain actions by armed fighters. The use of “torture, rape and mutilation,” for instance, is forbidden in all circumstances, as is the use of “internationally banned weapons.” Fighters and non-combatants alike enjoy the right to medical attention, and the document mandates “respecting the protection of all medical personnel” and even “providing them with the necessary assistance for the carrying out of their work.” These efforts are important, but the fact that they are so needed, even for the side committing fewer violations, emphasizes the disastrous state of human rights in Syria today.

These violations are so serious, frequent, and diverse that many have called for their referral to the International Criminal Court. But since Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, it will take a vote by the Security Council to bring it under the purview of the ICC, a move that has been blocked by Russia so far. While ICC referral would surely be a positive development, its obvious lateness cannot but undermine the moral authority of that process. In the popular debate, it is unfortunate that a crude preoccupation with chemical weapons or questions of genocide are often invoked as the central yardstick of severity. If a conflict’s severity is based on the scope, scale, and nature of crimes, then Syria is a serious case, to say the least. Credible documentation has proven that much.

Clearly, red lines have been crossed in Syria. They have been crossed, recrossed, and crisscrossed again. A crimson patchwork of indefensible violations now weighs upon Syrian society. Any discussion of the human rights situation in Syria, and the moral imperatives arising from it, must begin by recognizing that truth.

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