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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Audio Top 5 Songs for Week Ending May 23

This week's lineup can be summed up like this: 'It's The Same Old Song' - but they're great songs - featuring Walk The Moon, The Weeknd, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmakingi
X
Bernard Shusman
May 24, 2015 2:55 PM
According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.
Video

Video Effort Underway to Limit Damage from California Oil Spill

Cleanup crews are working around the clock to remove oil from the waters off the coastal city of Santa Barbara, in California. About 380,000 liters of oil may have leaked out before a rupture in an onshore, underground pipeline was discovered Tuesday. The environmental disaster hit the popular West Coast resort area before the Memorial Day weekend. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports investigators have yet to determine what caused the incident.

VOA Blogs