By Kristyan Benedict, Crisis Response Campaign Manager at Amnesty International UK
In recent days, several governments, including the UK, USA and France have signalled their intention to take military action against the Syrian government, which they hold responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attacks of 21 August. The horrific scenes in the dozens of videos I have watched from those incidents are some of the most haunting I have witnessed during this long and brutal conflict.
So now the spectre of an international armed conflict looms between the Syrian government and foreign military forces.The protection of civilians is a key priority for Amnesty International and that is why we call on all parties who could be involved to comply with international humanitarian law. In particular, those concerned absolutely must:
- Refrain from targeting civilians or civilian objects;
- Refrain from carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks;
- Refrain from using weapons which are inherently indiscriminate or otherwise prohibited under international humanitarian law, including cluster munitions;
- Take all necessary precautions in attacks to spare civilians, including by issuing warnings to civilians wherever feasible, and paying particular heed to the fact that detainees are being held in military bases and facilities;
- Take precautions to protect civilians under their control against the effect of attacks, including avoiding, to the extent feasible, locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas, and removing, where feasible, civilians from the vicinity of military objectives;
- Refrain from using civilians to render military objectives immune from attack (that is, as human shields).
Meanwhile, the joint UN and Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been trying to convene an international conference based on the Geneva Communiqué to resolve the crisis. However, deadlock at the UN Security Council has so far prevented attempts to resolve this brutal and bloody conflict. The Syrian government has felt free to carry on committing the most sickening violations of human rights, such as launching ballistic missiles at civilian areas, seemingly confident that they will be protected by allies such as Russia and China, two countries which appear to be mistaking callousness for high principles. Unless that dynamic changes and effective pressure is applied on all parties, it is extremely difficult to see how negotiations alone will resolve this crisis.
Targeted sanctions, namely a freeze on the assets of President Assad and others who may be involved in ordering or perpetrating crimes under international law, a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court and the deployment of an effective international human rights monitoring mission would, however, go some way to contributing to conditions for meaningful negotiations aimed at a solution that respects the human rights of all Syrians.
The international community also needs to take urgent steps to ease the crippling humanitarian situation inside the country, where more than 4.25 million people are believed to be displaced. In particular, it should ensure that all parties to the armed conflict in Syria allow unfettered access to humanitarian organizations and agencies to provide assistance to a civilian population desperate for relief. As for the Syrian government, they really need to allow cross-border access, as well as cross-line access, and they need to do that quickly.
As my colleague Cilina Nasser recently said, “We are beyond hand-wringing on Syria. Civilians continue to be targeted or killed indiscriminately. The time for action is now.” That action must include actively prioritizing the human rights of all Syrians.
Syria: Possible international armed intervention after alleged chemical weapons attack (Q&A, 29 August 2013)
Enough hand-wringing on Syria (Op-ed, 22 August 2013)
Syria: UN team must get full access to investigate ‘chemical weapons’ claim (News story, 21 August 2013)