November 2, 2015
In the news:
In a joint statement, both the U.N. and ICRC condemned states for exhibiting “disturbing paralysis” in relation to armed conflicts, emphasizing that the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen are being conducted in defiance of “humanity’s most fundamental norms.” The leaders of the two organizations called on states to take action in six areas: redoubling efforts to find sustainable solutions to armed conflicts; wield influence over parties to armed conflict to respect the law, investigate IHL abuses, and hold those conducting these violations accountable; condemn violators of IHL; ensure unhindered access to medical and humanitarian aid; protect internally displaced people and refugees; and, stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in urban areas.
Nineteen stakeholders in the Syrian armed conflict began to address this first goal in Vienna last Friday. Negotiations between the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Italy, Egypt, the UK, Germany, Lebanon, Qatar, France, China, the UAE, Jordan, Oman, the EU and the UN led to a commitment by the parties to U.N.-backed peace talks, but the parties notably refrained from making any determinations on Assad’s future in Syria. Noticeably missing in Vienna were representatives from the Syrian political and armed opposition. Associated Press provides a timeline of the discussions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has decided to send special forces into Syria to train, advise, and assist rebel groups fighting ISIS. These forces will operate similarly to those the U.S. has already deployed in Iraq, although, unlike in Iraq, they will not accompany rebel forces into the field. This move threatens to alienate Turkey, which continues its fight against Syria’s Kurdish rebels, who Turkey believes are affiliated with the PKK. Russia has also condemned the move, emphasizing that no state can engage in military force in another state without consent, and warning that it might lead to a “proxy war” between the U.S. and Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry has emphasized that the U.S. is not entering the Syrian armed conflict in support of the rebels.
The U.N. special envoy to the situation in Yemen has also emphasized that peace talks are the only way to end the armed conflict, and noted that he is currently in contact with both the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels to facilitate these negotiations. Saudi Arabia has declared that it was open to a ceasefire in the country, but warned that the Houthi rebels could not be trusted to maintain it.
In ensuring access to humanitarian aid, the U.N. and the ICRC also called on states to protect medical workers and facilities, which have increasingly come under threat. Médecins Sans Frontières (“MSF”) reported that unspecified air strikes attacked at least twelve MSF hospitals in Syria, and Saudi-led coalition planes targeted an MSF hospital in northern Yemen. It has characterized all of these attacks as violations of IHL. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for “a prompt, effective, and impartial investigation in order to ensure accountability” for the Yemen strike.
The E.U. is struggling to address the U.N. and ICRC’s fifth area for international action. Increased death tolls following the beginning of Russian airstrikes has had a detrimental impact on efforts to stem the refugee/migrant flow into Europe. At least 9,000 arrived in Greece every day in the past two weeks, and over 120,000 have been displaced in total. The crisis caused tensions between Croatia and Slovenia, when the former sent refugees/migrants to the latter’s borders without warning. The EU, prompted by these tensions, agreed in an emergency meeting to set up 100,000 reception centers on the route from Greece to Germany. Refugees/migrants from Afghanistan are also increasing in number. This interactive map dramatically illustrates the growing flow of refugees in the last year.
Around the web:
Investigation and condemnation. Commentators are seemingly echoing the U.N. and ICRC’s call for condemnation of violators of IHL, and increased efforts to hold them to account. At Lawfare, three experts assess the legality of the MSF bombing in Kunduz, arguing that the forces who called for the attack on the hospital’s belief that it was being controlled by the Taliban does not affect the illegality of the action. At Just Security, one commentator focuses on the ability to hold ISIS to account under IHL for its rumored use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the African Union has published the Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan’s report, which highlights the atrocities allegedly committed during the height of the civil war in South Sudan. These atrocities include rape, widespread killings of civilians, and even forced cannibalism. Fortify Rights has also published a report investigating the abuses against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and calling on the U.N. to set up a commission to investigate whether these abuses amount to genocide. Again at Just Security, another scholar proposes that the U.S. set up a “Drone Court” to ensure “meaningful judicial review” of drone strikes.
U.S. obligations to abide by customary international law. Legal memos that government lawyers drafted to justify to raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound have posed questions about the U.S.’s relationship with customary international law (“CIL”). The New York Times reports that the memos, not available to the public, suggest that the lawyers believed that Obama had the right to disobey CIL in “covert” actions. In response, one commentator at Opinio Juris argued that the U.S. is obligated to abide by the treaties it signs on to, including the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Charter, even if they are not self-executing. Another has noted that no other administration has dared to make such an argument in the past. In a related piece, another commentator on Lawfare, emphasized that federal courts, in determining CIL norms, assess a very narrow scope of custom, largely focusing on U.S. and Western state practice and opinio juris.
Freedom of navigation or a violation of territorial sovereignty? The U.S. recently launched what it claimed was a freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea, twelve nautical miles away from China’s chain of artificial islands. Commentators at Opinio Juris and Lawfare have addressed the legal implications of this maneuver. The Lawfare article emphasizes that the U.S. was attempting to demonstrate that it did not recognize China’s “excessive maritime claims.” China, as the Opinio Juris article noted, has claimed that the U.S. has violated its territorial sovereignty, an argument that the commentator believes lacks legal strength.
On the blog:
Help: Humanitarian Education. The IHL Unit’s latest live-stream event gathered representatives from the global Red Cross network to discuss the Humanitarian Education Learning Portal (“HELP”), which aims to provide Red Cross youth, volunteers, and educators with access to interactive projects and national society initiatives worldwide. A list of the Unit’s future live-stream events can be found here.
Conflicts & Conventions: Government Accountability on Torture. On November 16, 2015, renowned experts in the field of human rights and torture, including Stephen Rapp, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, Juan Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman & Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and Naureen Shah, Director of Security & Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA, will discuss existing and future government accountability measures to combat torture. The event will take place at the American Red Cross National Headquarters from 9:00-11:00am. Please RSVP here.
Impacting Communities at Home and Abroad. Maria Monberg, a Youth Volunteer for the American Red Cross recounts her experiences volunteering at a small Romanian orphanage. She explains how the lack of adequate medical care at the orphanage inspired her to study medicine, and to become involved with the International Humanitarian Law Action Campaign to “extend human dignity and respect through education and healthcare.”