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

Video Indiana Controversy Points to Divergent Notions of Religious Freedom

Gay-marriage opponents are looking for ways to maintain their beliefs in face of changing culture, one writer says More

UNICEF Denies North Korean Measles Outbreak

Agency dismisses Russian media report after government, WHO assurances More

Turkey Seen Taking Harder Stance Against Militant Kurds

Stance comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being seen as moving closer to generals More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedomi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 01, 2015 1:41 AM
Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Welcome Buhari's Return to Power

Crowds of jubilant Nigerians nationwide have celebrated the return to power of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The retired army general won this year's presidential election with more than 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari's supporters hope he can strengthen the country's economy and security once he takes office in late May. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Gamma Ray Observatory to Open Soon in Mexico

American and Mexican scientists have completed construction of the world's largest gamma ray observatory, situated high in central Mexico’s Sierra Negra Mountain. The observatory's huge array of water-based detectors will soon start discovering secrets about black holes and supernovas. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More