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

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid