News / Middle East

Civil War Designation for Syria Would Trigger Humanitarian Protections

Syrian security forces officers hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad from the windows of their building, which was destroyed after a car bomb exploded near the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, June 14, 2012.Syrian security forces officers hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad from the windows of their building, which was destroyed after a car bomb exploded near the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, June 14, 2012.
x
Syrian security forces officers hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad from the windows of their building, which was destroyed after a car bomb exploded near the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, June 14, 2012.
Syrian security forces officers hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad from the windows of their building, which was destroyed after a car bomb exploded near the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, June 14, 2012.
Margaret Besheer
This week a senior U.N. official said the situation in Syria could be characterized as a civil war, adding his voice to that of several foreign ministers and other diplomats.  

U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous' remarks to two reporters made news worldwide.

Asked if the situation in Syria is a civil war now, Ladsous replied, "Yes, I think one can say that."

Last week, U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan made a similar assessment.

"Given the level of violence and the actors on the ground, you could say we are drifting, if we are not already, in a sort of a civil war," said Annan.  "All efforts are being made to ensure that if it were to become a full-blown civil war, it doesn't spread to the neighbors."

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syria is "spiraling toward civil war," while the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said "if you cannot call it a civil war, there are no words to describe it."

But what changes if the world deems the 15-month-old conflict a civil war?

Georgetown University Law Center adjunct professor Gary Solis says a civil war designation would trigger the Geneva Conventions on conducting war, specifically protections in Common Article 3.

"And Common Article 3 provides basic protections for those who are out of the combat, for example, soldiers who have surrendered or who have been wounded and are captured; for civilians; for any non-combatants. Common Article 3 provides basic protections and that is why it is so important. And so to say there is a civil war suggests that Common Article 3 now applies and that is significant of course for the victims of the civil war," said Solis.

But Solis adds a very important caveat.

"The problem, however, is that there is no supra-national body, including the U.N., that can say with authority, 'all right this is a civil war; this is not a civil war.' There is no international body which can give a binding opinion that this is indeed a civil war," Solis explained.

He says the international community needs to establish a united consensus through the United Nations and organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to credibly designate conflict a civil war.

The U.N. Security Council has been divided on the Syrian situation. Russia and China have resisted calls for stronger measures such as international sanctions to help end the violence. But the council is united in its support for Kofi Annan's mediation efforts and voted unanimously to dispatch 300 unarmed U.N. observers to monitor the conflict.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) does not use the term "civil war" in describing armed conflicts. It uses the legal term, which is "non-international armed conflict."

ICRC Middle East spokesman Hicham Hassan says the ICRC uses two criteria to assess whether a conflict qualifies as a non-international armed conflict - the intensity of fighting and the organization of armed groups.

"If we take intensity, for example, it means the means and methods that are used in the combat, it means the casualties, it means what kinds of weapons are used - all those things go inside the intensity factor," said Hassan.  "And if we talk about the organization of the armed groups, what we look at, the question we ask ourselves is, 'Is there one armed group operating across the country or across certain areas with one determined leadership?'"

In April the ICRC assessed that a state of non-international armed conflict exists in parts of Syria, but not across the entire country.

"Why is it important to determine what kind of situation it is? It is simply to determine what rules apply. And why is it important to determine what rules apply? It is simply to afford people and potential victims of armed conflict the best protection possible. That is the aim of this classification the ICRC gives," said Hassan.

He says the ICRC has notified both the Syrian government and opposition of its assessment and reminded them of their obligations under international humanitarian law.  He adds that the ICRC has access to "almost all" areas affected by the fighting.

The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 Syrians have been killed since government forces began to suppress opposition protests calling for political reforms last year. The United States and other governments have repeatedly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt the fighting and step down.

You May Like

At Khmer Rouge Court, Long-Awaited Verdict Approaches

First phase of trial, which is coming to an end, has focused on forced exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975 - and now many are hopeful justice will be served More

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities More

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

Downing of Malaysian airliner, allegations of cross-border shelling move information war in war-torn country to a new level More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
July 31, 2014 8:13 PM
The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.

AppleAndroid