Bombardment of Damascus 90 years later: Two questions around the Responsibility to Protect

France bombed Damascus 90 years ago as a reaction to the Syrian revolt for independence. France held the mandate over Syria under the League of Nations authority. The day after an attack against French troops, France bombed the city for 48 hours. It is said that between 1000 and 5000 people died. Bombardments continued the following months.

France’s intervention was authorised by the Western powers and by the League of Nations. And precisely the endorsement of the League triggered the reaction of Arab critics: Was France allowed by international law to intervene militarily in Syria? Continue reading “Bombardment of Damascus 90 years later: Two questions around the Responsibility to Protect”

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Against the criminalisation of foreign fighters with the discourse of terrorism

chartoftheday_2658_Where_Syrias_Foreign_Fighters_Come_From_nLast week, interior ministers of the 15 countries sitting at the UN Security Council met to discuss foreign fighters. They did so as part of the follow-up of Resolution 2178 (2014), which defines foreign fighters as people who travel or attempt to travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality, and other individuals who travel or attempt to travel from their territories to a State other than their States of residence or nationality, for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts, or the providing or receiving of terrorist training”.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, but foreign fighters are getting more and more attention in relation to Syria and Iraq. The number of foreign fighters in both countries could exceed 20,000, and according to the Director of Europol, between 3,000 and 5,000 of them would come from EU countries.

In Resolution 2178, as well as previous ones since 2001, the Security Council urges states to adopt legislative and criminal measures to prevent terrorism and bring suspects to justice.

With the intention to operationalise the mandate of the Security Council, the Council of Europe is working on a draft protocol to the 2005 European Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism. This text criminalises the action of joining a group and “participating” in its activities “for the purpose of committing or contributing to the commission” of terrorist offenses (Article 2), “receiving training for terrorism” (Article 3), “travelling abroad for the purpose of terrorism” (Article 4), “funding travelling abroad for the purpose of terrorism” (Article 5), or “organising or otherwise facilitating travelling” for that purpose (Article 6).

As noted by Scheinin, the formulation of these provisions relies on the intent (“purpose”) of the person to participate or contribute towards the commission of a terrorist offence.

The draft protocol, therefore, does not call for the criminalisation of travelling to conflict zones, and individual countries have not modified their criminal legislation to punish travelling per se. The subjective element of intent is required.

However, a variety of measures are already being taken in relation to foreign fighters, ranging from passport confiscation (Germany), attempts to bar foreign fighters from acquiring national citizenship (Austria), stripping known foreign fighters of access to social services (Belgium), or revoking naturalised nationality (UK and Netherlands) (see reports here, here and here).

So far, these measures are targeting Islamic foreign fighters travelling to conflict areas with a religious motivation. However, there is no reason why these measures could not be potentially applied to other conflicts. For example, Spanish authorities recently detained eight nationals that had fought in Ukraine on the pro-Russian side. Apparently their actions may have infringed Spain’s neutrality, and therefore compromise the country’s “peace or independence”. Continue reading “Against the criminalisation of foreign fighters with the discourse of terrorism”

International Liberalism and R2P. Have liberalists given up on the ICC?

bashar-al-assad-650x433Granted. The title is a little unfair. The truth is that I am only referring to Michael Ignatieff, but I have the impression that the point is extendible to other international liberals, or rather liberalists. This is pure perception. I would be very happy to be proven wrong. I encourage you to use the space below for that.

The UN inquiry mission on Syria has expanded their list of suspected war criminals. When they presented their report at the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, they assured that their evidence is solid enough to prepare any indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute, but the case could be referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council, as it did unanimously with Libya in 2011 (Resolution 1970).

Michael Ignatieff gave an eloquent lecture at King’s College London on Monday. The title was “Legality, Legitimacy & Intervention After Ukraine”. Initially it said “Syria”, but I guess the organisers (or the speaker) decided to adapt the name to the most current events. In any case, Ignatieff talked about both countries.

At first he assured he was not going to advocate an intervention, but I suppose he could not help it and in the end he supported an action based on the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), a concept proposed in 2001 by the ICISS, a commission he was member of. Continue reading “International Liberalism and R2P. Have liberalists given up on the ICC?”

Intervening militarily in Syria? Many more questions than answers

Kal Syria The EconomistOnly last week, a US-led military intervention in Syria seemed inevitable. Today, the immediate future looks more uncertain. In a historic debate, the UK Parliament refused to endorse a military action. President Obama referred the matter to Congress. NATO Chief announced that they would not be part of a strike. And the Arab League Secretary General said that a military action outside the UN mandate “is out of the question”.

As of this writing, since the UN research team has not announced its findings, there is no official truth about whether chemical weapons were used in Damascus on 21 August. I think we should first wait for this team to complete their job, although I am personally ready to accept that it happened. MSF treated patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” and Amnesty International has gathered information from survivors of the attack. Nevertheless, the scale of the effects remains unknown. France speaks of 281 deaths, MSF counted 355 and so did the UK Government, while the meticulous US intelligence mysteriously raised the number to 1429 victims. (Toby Helm rightly asks: “Why, if UK relations with Washington were so close, and the UK had known it was facing a crucial parliamentary vote, was Cameron not given access to new, higher casualty figures from US intelligence, cited by Kerry?”). The UN team will not be able (it is not in their mandate either) to determine who used or released the chemical agents, but the attack was directed against areas under control of the opposition forces, which gives us a relevant clue.

Future evidence may prove me wrong, but I believe that the Syrian Government used chemical weapons against its own population, which is clearly prohibited by customary international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime (Rules 74 and 156 of the ICRC study on Customary International Humanitarian Law). However, when I am confronted by the possibility of a non-UN sponsored military attack in Syria, I ask myself many more questions than I can answer. Continue reading “Intervening militarily in Syria? Many more questions than answers”

“Human rights at war in Syria”: A response to Tarak Barkawi

In an article published on Al Jazeera English a few days ago, titled “Human rights at war in Syria”, Tarak Barkawi criticises human rights organisations (he pinpoints HRW and Amnesty International) for denouncing the abuses committed by rebels in Syria. Barkawi laments that their reports reveal “a systematic bias favouring the official, uniformed armed forces of states”. In his view, by naming and shaming the abuses committed by the armed opposition, human rights groups create a “moral equivalence between the murderous regime of Assad and those who are fighting against the odds to defeat him”. Barkawi asks his readers the following question: “What are we to make of the idea that the violence of the regime and that of the rebels should be measured against the same standard? Does it make sense to be impartial about a war?” Continue reading ““Human rights at war in Syria”: A response to Tarak Barkawi”

Syria: Diplomacy versus international criminal law?

A fragile ceasefire took hold yesterday in Syria. It is the result of Kofi Annan’s plan, backed by the UN Security Council about a month ago. The plan, it’s important to note, doesn’t demand a regime change in Syria, but only a commitment to an “inclusive Syria-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people”. Russia and China were not willing to go any further.

In the beginning, Europeans’ attitude was rather energetic demanding Assad to step down. However, Europe is softening its line now. After the Libyan experience, and certainly more focused on domestic economy-related affairs, the EU seems frightened of the regional instability that would derive from a prolonged war in Syria. The Union has been struggling to play a meaningful role in the country, and it now openly backs Annan’s diplomatic approach and proposes a political path forward not preconditioned on Assad’s resignation. Continue reading “Syria: Diplomacy versus international criminal law?”