Photo Source: © International Committee of the Red Cross
Photo Source: © International Committee of the Red Cross

Atrocity Alert No. 167: Syria, Afghanistan and the 70th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

14 August 2019

Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

More than 100,000 people detained, abducted or disappeared in Syria

Last Wednesday, 7 August, the UN Security Council was briefed on the recent findings of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI), with UN Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo arguing that “accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights is central to achieving and maintaining durable peace in Syria.” The COI has documented more than 100,000 arbitrary detentions, abductions or disappearances in Syria, most of which have been carried out by the Syrian government. Armed extremist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, have also been responsible for the widespread arbitrary detention and disappearance of civilians.

A number of civil society representatives briefed the Security Council, calling for an immediate end to arbitrary detention and the torture and mistreatment of detainees. Amina Khoulani, co-founder of Families for Freedom, emphasized to Council members that, “It is your responsibility to protect Syrians from a system that kills, tortures, and illegally detains its own citizens, in systematic violation of international law.”

Since 2011, the COI has documented how the Syrian government has “perpetrated the crimes of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture and imprisonment in the context of its widespread and systematic detentions of dissidents as well as those perceived to be sympathetic to armed groups.” Following the regime’s recapture of areas previously held by non-state armed groups, the UN has received widespread reports of civilians being arbitrarily detained or disappeared. After extensive fighting, on 11 August the Syrian army captured the strategically important town of al-Hobeit in Idlib, raising the fear of further cases of arbitrary detention or disappearance and placing the entire civilian population at risk of reprisals.

The connection between protecting civilians and the issue of missing persons in armed conflict was established in Security Council Resolution 2474, adopted unanimously in June 2019. Previously in Resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), and 2254 (2015), the Council also called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained in Syria. All parties to the Syrian conflict must move beyond ad hoc prisoner exchanges and uphold their obligations under International Humanitarian Law. This includes establishing a timetable for identifying and releasing all detainees.

The civil war in Syria has now lasted more than eight years and killed half a million people. Given the scope of the detainee crisis and the pervasiveness of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, the Security Council should immediately refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court for investigation.

Taliban threatens to target civilians ahead of Afghanistan elections

Last Tuesday, 6 August, the Taliban denounced the upcoming Presidential election in Afghanistan, threatening to attack election rallies. The warning came amidst a rising number of suicide attacks and car bombings carried out by the Taliban, including a truck bomb in Kabul on 7 August that killed 14 people. On 1 August the UN Security Council condemned the recent spate of attacks that have resulted in dozens of civilians being killed.

According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), more than 1,500 people were killed and injured during July, the highest monthly total since March 2017. UNAMA condemned the increase in “disproportionate and indiscriminate Taliban attacks in urban areas against Afghan military and security objects and personnel,” noting that improvised explosive devices were responsible for more than 50 percent of civilian casualties during July.

According to UNAMA, there were 3,812 civilian casualties (1,366 deaths and 2,446 injured) during the first six months of 2019. UNAMA attributed 52 percent of civilian casualties to the Taliban and other anti-government armed groups. Children comprised almost one-third of civilian casualties.

The rise in attacks over the past two months puts into question the commitment of the Taliban to a negotiated solution to Afghanistan’s armed conflict, despite ongoing peace talks with the United States. The US currently has approximately 14,000 troops in Afghanistan supporting the internationally-recognized government. The UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, called “on all parties not to ramp up military operations thinking that doing so will give them a stronger position in talks about peace… Now is the time to demonstrate restraint and real respect for the lives of ordinary Afghan civilians.”

The most recent round of peace talks between representatives of the Taliban and United States ended on 12 August. Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing negotiations, all parties to the conflict must meaningfully reduce civilian casualties and consistently uphold International Humanitarian Law. The international community should assist the government of Afghanistan in ensuring that Afghan civilians are able to safely participate in the upcoming election.

70th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

Monday 12 August marked the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva Conventions. Developed in the aftermath of the Second World War – and later extended via three Additional Protocols – the Geneva Conventions form the core of International Humanitarian Law. The Conventions regulate the conduct of armed conflict and protect those who are not taking part in hostilities (civilians, medics, aid workers), as well as those who can no longer fight (including prisoners of war and the wounded).

Despite the universal applicability of the Geneva Conventions and their ratification by all states, in many conflicts around the world today warring parties continue to attack civilians, perpetrate sexual violence, deliberately block humanitarian aid, bomb hospitals and schools, target humanitarian workers, use food as a weapon to starve besieged communities, and intentionally destroy civilian infrastructure.

Last year Syria recorded the highest number of attacks on schools and medical facilities since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. During South Sudan’s recent civil war, rape was used as form of collective punishment against rival ethnic communities. Meanwhile Somalia remains the country with the highest number of child soldiers, and in all lands occupied by ISIL between 2014-2017 the armed extremist group systematically set about the destruction of what it considered to be deviant aspects of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Palmyra. All of these violations of International Humanitarian Law constitute potential war crimes.

Notwithstanding progress in international law, over the past 70 years the international community has struggled to end impunity and ensure accountability for all those who commit war crimes. On the 70th anniversary, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect calls on all UN member states to uphold and enforce the Geneva Conventions and consistently protect vulnerable populations.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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