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ICRD Seminar: Protection of Syrian Civilians – Event Overview

Enhancing the Protection of Civilians in Syria Panel Discussion

Committee Room CR13 Houses of Parliament

11 July 2018 – 5.30-6.30pm

On 11 July 2018, the International Centre for Relations & Diplomacy (ICRD) organised a seminar on the protection of civilians in Syria.

The session was sponsored by Angus MacNeil MP, SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar. MacNeil recently sponsored a private members bill – the Refugees Family Reunion Bill – which if passed would expand the definition of what constitutes as family when considering asylum applications under family reunification rules. ICRD acknowledged that this would have huge repercussions for Syrians civilians trying to flee conflict in Syria as family support networks stretch beyond the traditional definition of a nuclear family. It would thus enhance the legal and safe pathways available for people to leave and seek refuge.

Centring Syrian voices

The first speaker Mohamad Ateek, a Syrian activist, journalist and Director of the Syrian Solidarity Campaign, spoke about the current realities on the ground and the dangers of not representing Syrian voices.

Ateek said this could be looked at from two perspectives: inside Syria and outside.

Ateek spoke about the situation inside Syria in particular, saying:

… inside Syria, not hearing Syrian voices will lead to chaos. That happened in Iraq. [Groups like] ISIS and Al Qaeda appear in one place, they’re [defeated] then they appear [somewhere else]. That happens because the  strategy is to fight the ideology of extremism without looking at the root of extremism.

Ateek said that one has to look at corruption and injustice as part of the root causes of extremism and that the voices that can inform should also be taken into account with regards to reconstruction. Without taking into account Syrian needs for reconstruction then chaos will ensue. He said that lessons can be learned from Afghanistan after billions of dollars were poured into reconstruction without any consultation with the Afghan people.

Ateek cited the example of Darayya  as a good model. Darayya was where the first local council in Syria was set up and military forces in the area were not allowed to do anything without the authority of the local councils, which was elected by the people. So, even though it may be under regime control there is still representation.

Toward a comprehensive strategy on Syria

Sophia Akram, a researcher with ICRD, spoke on what a comprehensive and multi-faceted strategy should look like, veering away from isolated military action (such as the strikes on a chemical weapons facility in May).

Akram mentioned five elements:

  1. Taking in more refugees. The UK government should allow quotas to increase through the will of local councils under the UK’s Syrian resettlement programme and increase legal pathways to avoid dangerous journeys. This includes issuing humanitarian visas from their country of residence, sponsorships, implementing labour mobility programmes and promoting scholarships as well as passing the Refugees Family Reunion Bill.
  2. Getting better humanitarian access. Despite the aid provided to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, there are still major issues over access, which should be tackled including complexities through landmines and pushback from the Syrian government. Programming within Syria should include heavy protection elements including around tackling gender-based violence (GBV), providing psychological support and taking into account the needs of vulnerable persons.
  3. Understanding future scenarios. As learned from previous conflicts in the Middle East, if the regime is toppled, the country is unlikely to see a complete peace due to the remaining security vacuum and persistence of militias. If the regime remains, the country may still not be safe for refugees to return to. Akram said:

A post-conflict Syria under Assad could also result in imprisonment or heavy fines for many returning, having avoided military conscription. And a new law recently imposed by the government means that many may find their properties confiscated. The Home Office has a track record of deporting refugees to Afghanistan and Iraq before it is safe to do so, so we should keep in mind what the future strategy is here.

4. Monitoring our own impact. As part of the US-led coalition, the UK has personnel, equipment and artillery invested in military operations. Reports have emerged of government and Russian objects being hit, allegedly by accident, and could risk an escalation of the war. There is also a wide disparity between the number of civilian casualties reported by coalition partners themselves and other monitors. The UK should look at their methods of investigation and monitoring of civilian harm from strikes.

5. Pursuing better legal pathways and diplomacy toward peace. The UK’s approach to transgressors of international law should be consistent and non-militarised in the first instance. We should refuse arms licences to those states accused of war crimes and impose sanctions on arms companies providing arms to the aggressors in question. It’s important to note that the UK has also picked a side in the conflict, which will have compromised the ability to create or even operate within a humanitarian space in Syria. In terms of diplomacy, the Syrian government is accusing the UK of supporting terrorists, making it difficult to pursue the careful diplomacy needed here.

Addressing GBV in the context of the Syrian conflict

Dr. Zara Ramsay, a lecturer in International Development Studies at the University of Portsmouth, addressed the issue of GBV in extreme crisis situations with particular reference to the Syrian context.

Despite GBV being prevalent outside of crisis situations, its propensity increases in crisis with existing forms of violence becoming more common and then new forms of violence arising.

Ramsay spoke about how crisis situations trigger GBV. The use of rape as a weapon of war entered the mainstream consciousness after the mass rapes took place in Rwanda in the 1990s. Since then it has been documented in a number of other conflicts including Syria. Ramsay said that in March of this year the Independent Inquiry of Syria reported that the Syrian Government and other militias in Syria were regularly using sexual violence as part of a systematic attack against the civilian population. The government is reportedly using sexual violence against women and girls in house-to-house searches at checkpoints and places of detention. Substantial patterns of rape and other forms of sexual violence were also found to be used against boys in detention; and one study found 30-40% of men and boys in a particular refugee camp in Jordan has experienced sexual violence whilst in Syria. It is therefore, not an issue that is experienced by women and girls alone.

The most widespread form of GBV is perpetrated by partners and families however in crisis situations, Ramsay said:

… when people are displaced from their homes their abilities to conform to traditional norms of gender expectations get hugely disrupted. So, women find themselves unable to manage traditional expectations around domestic duties, for example. And men are [under stress] to provide for their family in accordance with traditional roles. These factors can lead to a heightened stress when husbands and partners then go on to perform violence against women in their families.

Ramsay also said that studies show that this can lead to GBV against female children often in the form of child marriage with girls at around the age of 12 getting married. In some situations it is a case of an opportunity to marry your daughter to a wealthy man who can offer money for rent.

The rebuilding of community and traditional support networks, particularly in refugee camps, is important as young girls can feel particularly vulnerable having lost these.

Responses should involve a two-pronged approach, said Ramsay.

  1. Supporting GBV survivors. Attention needs to be paid to psychological damage of extreme violence with culturally appropriate ways that are guided by Syrian women in programming. Survivors should have access to services and referral mechanisms inside emergency contexts and once they leave those contexts as well. Guidelines exist for this – see Marie Stopes guidance. It is important to ensure trusted support networks are in place however, which can be achieved through women-only spaces.
  2. Preventing violence. Cultural values that place men higher in a patriarchal hierarchy need to be tackled otherwise GBV levels won’t be reduced. This applies to contexts all over the word to just Syria, including after the  2011 earthquake in Japan and Hurricane Katrina in the United States. In the latter case displaced women were 16 times more likely to experience GBV than other women. Where violence against women is concerned, men are integral to effective interventions.
International legal pathways to policy and the adherence of international law

Sarah Pritchett, the spokesperson for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, spoke about the legality of airstrikes on the Syrian chemical weapons factory and also potential legal mechanisms to holding those responsible for war crimes to account.

Pritchett was clear that the airstrikes were illegal, looking at the justifications for them. The enforcement of the convention on chemical weapons was primarily used as justification citing a humanitarian argument i.e. to prevent Syrians and civilians from further attacks and claiming that it also constituted self-defence. Pritchett said the latter would set a dangerous precedent if it was ignored and broke down key elements to consider.

Under the UN Charter, Pritchett said there were two limited circumstances where a state can lawfully use force against another state; one was with the permission of the UN Security Council or in self-defence:

Self-defence can only be used in the case of an imminent and definite threat against that state. It can’t be a future threat, it can’t be an ambiguous risk, it has to be a certain direct threat.

Pritchett pointed out that the chemical weapons convention is a legal test, which can be enforced if you have signed up to it. It does not however claim you can act aggressively or punish another state because they did not adhere to the convention, and if it did then there may not have been as many states that signed up to it.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is also a big part of the humanitarian use of force. However, this is only legal in few cases where it is objectively clear that there is no practical alternative to the use of force in order to protect civilians. Where the attacks on facilities after the chemical attacks in May took place, there was no evidence supplied by any of the allied states involved that that was the case. The ambiguity of the death toll in relation to civilian casualties i.e. the fact that the question has to be asked of whether there were civilian casualties, indicates that the strikes conducted were not a clearly objective case of R2P.

A Security Council deadlock is not grounds to use an ‘illegal and legitimate’ argument for the use of force and Pritchett said that one can note that this is an argument also used by the Syrian regime. The UK should set itself apart.

Pritchett pointed out several underused tactics or legal pathways where the UK can act:

  1. Humanitarian visas. They offer swift, orderly and safe transportation for most people to apply for asylum from the country they are already residing in. It also prevents exploitation in the form of trafficking. They are neglected because there is not enough information out there on them.
  2. Private sponsorship. This method enables communities to take on responsibility for pathways and the state issues the visa. This has already worked in a number of states.
  3. The International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM). The mechanism is designed to look at gross violations committed in Syria since March 2011. It is voluntarily state-funded and suffers from acute under-funding – the UK supports it and is contributing to the mechanism in a marginal way. The IIIM has made it further than any other mechanism in getting past the Security Council blockage.
  4. Uniting for Peace Resolution 377. Under this resolution the General Assembly can consider an issue when the Security Council fails to take appropriate measures.

Pritchett also pointed out that there needs to be reforms with regards to veto power of the P5 members on the Security Council. One way to do this is to focus on increasing the powers of non-permanent members.

Civilians inside Syria

Anna Chernova is a Conflict Sensitivity Advisor with the Conflict Fragility Team at Oxfam. As a international organisation that has considerable experience in the field Chernova highlighted some of key issues affecting civilians in Syria.

Chernova said that in particular, the failure of the UN response has been felt by Syrians. This encompasses everything from the actions of the Security Council to humanitarian access, issues around justice, women and various other issues.

Chernova also mentioned that refugees who reached the border were now being pushed back. Neighbouring countries are struggling and under pressure to reduce the numbers they take in. Those fleeing are being returned to areas considered safe in Syria, whether or not those people are from there. There is also no differentiation between those who have political risk to return or for instance those avoiding military conscription, so on and so forth.

Chernova said that the situation is the same everywhere – Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – and it’s a basic form of protection that is lacking:

To give a specific example, if you are a Syrian refugee who has attained some sort of protection in Europe you will get access to all kinds of services or to legal protection … That kind of protection does not exist anywhere in the region. So when Bashar Asad says that they’re creating a lot of safe havens for refugees in the region, we have to remember that a lot of Syrians who escape do not have that legal protection …That relates to the fact that none of this countries have signed the 1951 convention for refugees and also the fact that due process is not to the same standard an degree that we would find in Europe.

Chernova said that there’s no reason why the UK cannot give additional support to the humanitarian aid it provides such as in the form of resettlement and family reunification.

The situation inside Syria does not look the same but humanitarian access has many obstacles and some humanitarian actors have an easy time while others don’t. Chernova noted that money coming in from overseas and in particular other Syrians, has gone a long way in assisting Syrians inside Syria. However, it is very difficult for money to get through: typically, any money or resources from here to anything that says Syria on the transfer will be extremely difficult. Specifically, Chernova said the UK could ease this process regarding bank transfers because it also disproportionately affects civil society actors inside Syria. One example she cites was in terms of the women’s rights agenda, which has always been contentious as the government wants to say it controls that agenda.

Chernova concluded by saying that neither peace processes – in Geneva or Kazakhstan – have been fruitful and one of their disadvantages is that they have not been inclusive.


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