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ICRC Confirms International Humanitarian Law Applies to Conflict in Syria

From Eric C. Sigmund, Legal Advisor, International Humanitarian Law Dissemination

On Sunday, Hicham Hassan, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), announced that hostilities in Syria amount to a full scale internal conflict – in legal terms, an “armed conflict not of an international character” or what the media has been referring to as a “civil war”. News outlets and social media have jumped on this news and made it a headline, but what does it really mean? Since April, the ICRC has been using these words to refer to violence in parts of the country, but this is the first time they have applied this classification to the entire country.

The phrase, an “armed conflict not of an international character,” has significant legal ramifications since it means that international humanitarian law (IHL) now applies. International humanitarian law limits the conduct of parties to a conflict in order to protect vulnerable populations, such as civilians. For instance, the laws prohibit attacking civilians, the use of child soldiers, as well as torture and cruel treatment. Mr. Hassan stressed that while some locations within Syria remain untouched by hostilities, the spread of violence from Homs, Hama and Idlib, into other regions of Syria, meant the conflict had escalated.

As a lawyer, this announcement sparked my curiosity to dig deeper into the law and dissect the major IHL treaties. Just how big does a conflict need to be for this body of law to apply? For the purposes of the Geneva Conventions, “armed conflicts not of an international character,” or what we would call internal conflicts, are conflicts which occur between a national government and organized opposition groups within a particular country. While there are no clear cut criteria for determining when fighting rises to the level of an armed conflict, we have to consider two factors: the intensity of the conflict and how the groups fighting are organized. In contrast to riots, general law enforcement operations, or sporadic acts of violence, international humanitarian law only applies in situations that look like international war. Moreover, whether an opposition group operates under a clear chain-of-command and controls territory are strong factors in deciding if it is “organized” enough to be classified as a internal conflict.

I also started to reexamine the principles which apply during civil wars like Syria. The Geneva Conventions do not have a lot to say about internal conflicts, since they focus on traditional conflicts between nations. Since Syria has not ratified Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, which expands the protections during civil war, only Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to the situation in Syria. Common Article 3 provides a minimum set of protections during conflict, mandating, in part, that warring parties treat civilians and all wounded combatants humanely and further that the wounded and sick be provided medical care.

These principles are great in theory but what do they really mean in practice? While it is unclear whether announcing that IHL applies will change behaviors in Syria, it opens the door for the international community to hold violators accountable for war crimes committed during the conflict. Human rights observers in Syria have estimated the death toll from the conflict to be near 15,000; the majority of which they say are civilians. Reports from human rights organizations also alleged that the regular Syrian military, as well as government sponsored militant groups, have targeted civilians during combat, used children as human shields, and tortured suspected opposition sympathizer. All of these acts are prohibited by international humanitarian law and, if evidenced, may amount to war crimes prosecutable under international law. The Syrian government denies these accusations.