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World Citizens - People's Congress




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René Wadlow

Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens
Editor of "Transnational Perspectives"
Elected Delegate at the People's Congress

Syria Conflicts Highlight Violations of Humanitarian International Law

A recent wave of fighting in Syria, especially in the Eastern Ghouta zone near Damascus and in Afrin, a largely Kurdish area near the frontier with Turkey has highlighted the violations of humanitarian international law. Calls from U.N. officials for at least a month-long truce so that food and medical supplies could reach the civilian population have not been honored. The scale of the violations are such that they can be considered as a deliberate policy and not as events of “collateral damage” in the fog of war. These violations of long-established humanitarian international law are evidence that the laws of war are increasingly being undermined with few governmental reactions.

The Association of World Citizens again calls for respect of humanitarian international law and for a world-wide effort for the re-affirmation of humanitarian international law.(1)

Eastern Ghouta is near Damascus and has been a contested zone since early in the 2011 uprising. Ghouta is close enough to Damascus so that opposition mortars can be fired on districts in Damascus - close enough also so that rockets and barrel bombs from government helicopters can increasingly fall on the zone. Hospitals have been hit, probably deliberately. Eastern Ghouta is one of the de-escalation zones agreed to by Russia, Iran and Turkey. However not all the opposition groups are party to the de-escalation agreement which opens the door to ever-escalating violence.

Afrin is in the Aleppo Governorate and in an area with a large Kurdish population. The Turkish government suspects all organized Kurdish groups to be "terrorists" or potential terrorists. Moreover the demands for independence of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in Iraq linking to a possible similar Kurdish zone in Syria is considered by the Turkish government as an active threat to be countered by force. Thus for the past month, Turkish troops in the mis-named "Operation Olive Branch" have been attacking Afrin and its surrounding area. As an element in complicated Kurdish politics and alliances, a pro-Syrian government Kurdish militia has joined the battle to defend Afrin. The dangers of escalation and greater loss of civilian life are very real. For the moment, negotiations on a resolution of the armed conflict within all of Syria seems to be at a dead point, at least in terms of public negotiations.

With the current impossibility to reach an overall resolution to the conflict, the best we can hope for is an honest application of humanitarian international law and a broader, world-wide re-affirmation of humanitarian international law.

Current armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria-Iraq-ISIS-Turkey, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere have led to repeated and conscious violations of humanitarian international law such as attacks on medical facilities and personnel, killing of prisoners-of-war, the taking and killing of hostages, the use of civilians as “human shields” and the use of weapons which have been banned by treaties.

Thus, there is a pressing need for actions to be taken to implement humanitarian international law in response to increased challenges. Citizens of the World stress the need for a United Nations-led conference on the re-affirmation of humanitarian international law including its application by non-State parties. Non-State actors such as ISIS or the Afghan Taliban, are increasingly involved in armed conflicts but were largely not envisaged when humanitarian international law was being drawn up by governments Thus, the conference would highlight the need to apply humanitarian international law both to States and to non-State actors. (2)

Such a conference would bring together into a coherent synthesis the four avenues of humanitarian international law: (3)

  1. The Geneva Conventions – Red Cross-mandated treaties;
  2. The Hague Convention traditions dealing with prohibited weapons, highlighting recent treaties such as those on land mines and cluster munitions;
  3. Human rights conventions and standards, valid at all times but especially violated in times of armed conflicts;
  4. The protection of sites and monuments which have been designated by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage of humanity, highlighting the August 2016 decision of the International Criminal Court on the destruction of Sufi shrines in northern Mali. (4)

Such a re-affirmation of humanitarian international law should be followed by efforts to influence public consciousness of the provisions and spirit of humanitarian international law. This can be done, in part, by the creation of teaching manuals for different audiences and action guides. (5)

I would cite a precedent for this re-affirmation of humanitarian international law from personal experience. During the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, I was part of a working group created by the International Committee of the Red Cross to respond adequately to the challenges of this conflict which was the first African armed conflict that did not involve a colonial power. The blocking of food flows to Biafra and thus starvation as a tool of war was stressed in our work. (6)

One conclusion of the working group was the need to re-affirm the Geneva Conventions and especially to have them more widely known in Africa by writing Africa-focused teaching manuals. Thus, as at the time I was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Geneva, I collaborated with Professor Jiri Toman, Director of the Institut Henri Dunant on the creation of such a manual to be used in Africa. Today, such culturally-sensitive manuals could be developed to explain humanitarian international law.

Such a re-affirmation conference would be welcomed by civil society organizations related to relief, refugees, human rights and conflict resolution. A certain number of these organizations have already called attention to violations and the need for international action. There is a need for some governmental leadership for the re-affirmation of humanitarian international law as a basis of world law dealing with the protection and dignity of each person.


  1. Hilaire McCoubrey and Nigel D. White. International Law and Armed Conflict (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1992)
  2. see Andrew Clapham. Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
  3. see Sydney D. Bailey. Prohibitions and Restraints in War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972)
  4. see Rene Wadlow “Guilty Plea in Cultural Destruction Case” Peace Magazine (Canada) Oct-Dec 2016
  5. see Jacques Freymond. Guerres, Révolutions, Croix-Rouge (Geneva: Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales, 1976) and Thierry Hentsch. Face au blocus. La Croix Rouge internationale dans le Nigéria en guerre (Geneva: Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales, 1973)
  6. see as a good example of an action guide Paul Bonard. Les Modes d'Action des Acteurs Humanitaires. Critères d'une Complémentarité Operationelle (Geneva, CICR, no date given)

Action against human trafficking

The US Senate designated 11 January as the National Human Trafficking Awareness Day in 2007 and the day has been marked each year since as a time to develop both awareness but especially action. There is a world-wide need to dismantle trafficking networks and to help survivors to rebuild their lives. Citizens of the World welcome the US Senate call to action but no country can meet this challenge alone, and thus on a world-wide scale, we need to address the underlying conditions of poverty, discrimination and ignorance that push so many into bondage.

traf1_400One of the most destructive forms of oppression is that of trafficking in persons. Such trafficking is done in total disregard for the dignity of the person and his welfare. The recent increase in the scope, intensity and sophistication of crime around the world threatens the safety of citizens everywhere and hinders countries in their social, economic and cultural development.

The dark side of globalization allows trans-frontier criminal syndicates to broaden their range of operations from drugs and arms sales to trafficking in human beings. Some gangs are involved in all three. In other cases, agreements are made to specialize and not expand into the specialty of other criminal groups.

Basically, there are two main sources of international trafficking in persons. The first are refugees from armed conflicts as we see today with refugees from the armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The second category are people leaving their country for economic reasons – sometimes called “economic refugees”. Migration for better jobs and a higher standard of living has a long history. Poverty, ethnic and racial tensions and gender-based discrimination are all factors in people seeking to change countries. The smuggling of wc00migrants and the trafficking of human beings for prostitution and slave-like labor have become two of the fastest growing worldwide problems of recent years. From Nepal villages to Eastern European cities women and girls are attracted by the prospect of a well-paid job as a domestic servant, waitress or factory worker. Traffickers recruit victims through fake advertisements , mail-order bride lists, casual acquaintances, and even family.

The lack of economic, political and social structures providing women with equal job opportunities also contributed to the feminization of poverty, which in turn has given rise to the feminization of migration, as women leave their homes to look for viable economic solutions. However, trafficking in human beings is not confined to the “sex industry”. Children are also trafficked to work in sweatshops, and men to work in the “three D jobs “ - dirty, difficult, and dangerous.

The pattern of trafficking in persons will continue to grow unless strong counter measures are taken, especially by non-governmental organizations who help build the political will for action. We must not underestimate the difficulties and dangers which exist in the struggle against trafficking. It is a task which requires cooperation and action to change attitudes, overcome apathy and root out deep-set corruption.

There is also an important role for psychological healing. Very often women and children who have been trafficked into the sex trades have a disrupted or violent family life. They often have a poor image of their self-worth. Thus it is important to create opportunities for individual and group healing.

11 January can serve as a day of re-dedication to work for the respect of human dignity, to understand the causes of migration and to counter the trafficking in persons.



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