Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that the Obama administration blocked a Pentagon supported plan to provide arms to Syrian opposition forces. For civilians in Syria hoping for meaningful intervention to stop the conflict, this must have been difficult news to absorb. I was reminded of this story yesterday while attending an informative workshop in Amman, Jordan on Islamic law and the protection of civilians. At the time, we were discussing how a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) becomes an international armed conflict (IAC) under international humanitarian law (IHL). In legalese, this happens when a state becomes “a party to the conflict”, aligning with the rebels in opposition to the government. This discussion made me wonder whether the United States would become a party to the Syrian conflict if the Obama administration did decide to arm the rebels. It’s pretty clear that taking part in hostilities on the ground, say dropping bombs on government targets, would make a state a party to the conflict. But what about more indirect involvement like supplying weapons to rebel forces? IHL says a state can become a party to an armed conflict if its support of an opposition force is such that the opposition force’s actions can be attributed to that state. What acts would create this relationship under IHL is subject to debate. Providing military aid might qualify if it is done so that it enables a state to exert some control over rebel forces. While the United States has rejected plans to arm the Syrian rebels, some regional countries allegedly have supplied them with arms. If the weapons transfers enable these states to exert legally sufficient control over the rebels, it may well transform the Syrian conflict from a NIAC to an IAC.
I am currently at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin to present a paper on norm suppression. While here, I had the opportunity to learn more about some of the work being done by the Civil Society, Conflicts, and Democracy research unit. Listening to these folks talk about the stability of authoritarian regimes reminded me of some thoughts I had when I recently travelled to Cuba to present another paper.
Last Tuesday, Rwanda’s high court sentenced Victoire Ingabire to eight years in prison for conspiring to harm the country through war and terror and minimizing the 1995 genocide. Some of the evidence used against her include questioning why no Hutu victims were mentioned in a genocide memorial. While the case raised controversy in Rwanda because it called into question the independence of the domestic judiciary and the freedom of political movement under a president seen as increasingly authoritarian, the case also raises interesting questions for international law.
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) recently determined that the situation in the entire country of Syria can be classified as a non-international armed conflict. While this may not have been news to many watching events unfold there, what makes this statement interesting is that this position differed from the position advanced in May 2012 by then ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger. At that time, Kellenberger claimed that parts of Syria could be classified as an “internal” armed conflict, particularly in the area around Homs and in the Idlib district. The difference may appear inconsequential, but may in fact have some significant impact on the ground. The difference between whether an entire country is embroiled in a non-international armed conflict versus specific locations within that country has bearing on what constitutes a violation of international law. The two main bodies of international law relevant to armed conflict are international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL). IHL is the body of law which governs armed conflict and is only triggered when there is an armed conflict. IHRL generally applies in peacetime, although it can apply during war time as well. What is interesting about Kellenberger’s statement is that it is a departure from how IHL has traditionally understood territoriality within the context of non-international armed conflict.