As Nature of Conflict Changes, Is International Humanitarian Law Still Relevant?

After a deadly airstrike in Douma, Syria, men carry a casualty out of the rubble, April 13, 2014. (REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)

Against the backdrop of appalling violence against civilians in Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, along with the persistent obstruction of humanitarian aid around the world, international humanitarian law may appear redundant in the twenty-first century. Initially designed with interstate wars in mind, one of the main objectives of this body of law is to limit the effects of conflict on people who are not, or no longer, participating in hostilities, especially civilians. Nowadays, the lines between combatants and civilians are often blurred, and improving compliance with the law remains a significant challenge.  

However, Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, legal director of Doctors Without Borders and author of the book The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law, has a different take. “If humanitarian law is not respected today, this does not show that it is ill-adapted to conflict,” Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier said in an interview with the Global Observatory. Acknowledging that the law is more often violated than not, Ms. Bouchet Saulnier stressed that “what is important is that [the] law frames what must be respected.”

The issue of protecting civilians is at the center of the humanitarian challenge today because armed groups and armies try to avoid direct confrontation and find soft targets, according to Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier, but the fact that “civilians are the soft target of war” is “not new at all.” As such, “the protection of civilians and humanitarian relief to the civilian population and victims of conflict remains an essential battle, and it has to be fought,” said Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier. “This is as old as the history of conflict,” she said, “Things have never been better before.”

While Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier agreed that there is “a real legal asymmetry” between state and nonstate armed groups in today’s mostly internal conflicts, which creates “practical problems,” international humanitarian law is not only applicable and relevant to international conflicts—for which it was initially developed—but also to those that happen within states.

In Syria, “the fact that you cannot clearly identify the hierarchical chain of command of the opposition and the fact that it’s not one single nonstate armed group fighting with the governmental forces—this is just the reality,” Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier said. “But still, the distinction between civilian and combatant is possible.” 

In addition, the protocols added to the body of international humanitarian law in 1977 “get rid of this distinction between civilian and combatant,” she said.  “What is really of interest is the situation of the victim of the conflict,” and even a combatant can become a victim: “a civilian or a combatant is of interest to international humanitarian law when he has become a victim—meaning he has lost power, because he’s wounded, because he’s sick, because he is detained.” 

Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier also addressed the tension between the growing body of international criminal law, which abides by strict rules of interpretation, and the interpretation of humanitarian law, which should remain “very broad, to make sure it encompasses every situation that has not been envisaged before.” The strict rules of interpretation of international criminal law have nurtured the position promoted by some states, especially in the war on terror, that some of today’s wars—such as in Yemen or the Central African Republic—would fall into a third category of conflict not regulated by international humanitarian law. Such an approach is contrary to the spirit of humanitarian law where “every situation and individual must be covered with a system of mutually exclusive categories.” 

In addition, to be effective, the International Criminal Court needs to be wary of building its cases on “the weakest elements of the system, which are the victims and the humanitarian organizations,” Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier said. In general, she suggested that pressuring humanitarian agencies to hand over evidence as part of a criminal case can negatively impact humanitarian access.

In Lebanon, Clerics Support Efforts to Bring Men on Side of Equality

A woman distributes information about gender sensitivity and gender equality to a man in Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. (ABAAD)

 "In Lebanon, many of the religious leaders seem to have a very negative stigma as being opposed to gender equality or gender issues, things that they do not see themselves as opposed to,” said Anthony Keedi, a program manager at ABAAD, a resource center for gender equality in Lebanon.

ABAAD produced a video last year that features top Muslim and Christian clerics from Lebanon denouncing gender violence and citing religious texts to support these views. Mr. Keedi said the clerics “don't want to be seen as haters of women or people who are against gender equality.”

“Sadly, in our [Lebanese] culture, there's very little awareness of what gender entails, and a lot of the ways that gender has been explained has been misconstrued by a lot of men in our country and our culture,” he said. “They don't even understand how positive feminism is for women, for men, and for society as a whole.” 

Mr. Keedi noted that working with men on gender and equality "will inherently make their lives better, as it will the lives of women in our country, and we're really focusing on that." 

He said his organization has a psychological center called the Men's Center “where we see men—anonymous, confidential, and free of cost—and we work on issues of masculinity.” His organization is also raising awareness of gender with young people. “Rather than having these discussions of what gender is and moving from there with men aged forty, we'll begin those discussions at age eight through eleven or twelve years old.” 

“We will never be a truly developed society that is fundamentally peaceful without the integration of women into politics, into economy, into decision-making in everyday life—without the integration of men into domestic life and being child caretakers, and being loving partners," he said, adding that this approach includes, "letting each individual live according to what they see fit, [and] especially not infringing upon other people." 

He said this holistic approach might be more difficult, but moving forward is "just not going to happen unless we incorporate these [gender] issues.”

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Religious leaders do not always come to mind as key advocates for women's rights, though they have a very important role to play. In Lebanon and across the MENA region, what brings religious leaders in to work for gender equality?

I think religious leaders do care for the people, and I think one thing that really brings us to work together is that we both want to do things that are beneficial for the people. That has been a very difficult sea to navigate, for lack of a better way of putting it. In Lebanon, many of the religious leaders seem to have a very negative stigma as being opposed to gender equality or gender issues, things that they do not see themselves as opposed to. It's evident that more dialogue is needed to let them understand exactly where we're coming from on a gender perspective and the issues we have with how organized religion is sometimes interpreted to be something that is opposed to gender equality or can be gender discriminate. 

So I believe that a lot of religious leaders are motivated to change that stigma,  which is a very positive thing. They don't want to be seen as haters of women or people who are against gender equality. 

With UN Withdrawal, Sierra Leone Takes Lead of Own Peacebuilding Process

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) marked the completion of UNIPSIL with ceremonies in Sierra Leone. He met with President Ernest Bai Koroma, right. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

The closing of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) on March 31, 2014 was a celebrated milestone in the UN’s work in the small West African country. The UN took over from the Economic Community of West African States in 1999 as a result of the Lome Peace Agreement, and helped end a long civil war; 15 years later, the UN reports that Sierra Leone has shown remarkable achievements in the strengthening of institutions and in safeguarding stability and promoting democracy. 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used Sierra Leone as an example of one of the most successful post-conflict recovery, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding processes in recent years. UNIPSIL showed that steady engagement, assistance in the development of capacities, and engagement with local and national leadership can effectively support peacebuilding in a country. Thus, the withdrawal of the mission is an important indicator that the process is increasingly less in the hands of external actors and more in the hands of Sierra Leone nationals. And for that, there is still a lot of work to be done, as Sierra Leonean actors themselves recognize.

In a previous paper, Cedric de Coning, Leslie Connolly, and I presented some ideas on how external actors can support and contribute to resilience in peacebuilding processes. In that paper, we argued that the peacebuilding environment can be supported by stimulating the development of institutions that are sufficiently resilient, in a process that should be inherently led by national actors. And in this context, we stated that it is important to recognize that peacebuilding is often an irregular process; thus, external actors should identify ways in which to deal with the complexities of its non-linear nature.

In Crucial Afghan Election, Signs Democracy Is Taking Hold

Afghan men wait in line outside a polling station in Kabul to cast their ballots, April 5, 2014. (UN Photo/Fardin Waezi)

On April 13, just over a week after balloting took place in Afghanistan’s crucial 2014 presidential election, the Independent Election Commission released the first batch of preliminary results. Accounting for approximately ten percent of the vote, and covering 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, these results yielded at least three important conclusions. First, Afghans seemed to vote across ethnic lines far more than what was predicted. Second, Ashraf Ghani, who won only 3% of the vote in the 2009 election, is indeed a front-runner. He won 37.6% of the votes in the preliminary count, in second place behind Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai’s main challenger in 2009, with 41.9%. Third, the candidate who was widely presumed to be backed by President Karzai, Zalmai Rassoul, earned only 9.8%, putting him in a distant third place. If no candidate receives 50% in the first round, a run-off between the two top vote-getters will be held.

Rassoul’s poor showing is revealing insofar as it suggests that the presidential palace either did not have the will or did not have the capacity to rig the vote. Given the widespread fraud that took place in 2009 to support President Karzai’s re-election, this dog that did not bark is an intriguing and important development. This is the first presidential election in which President Karzai can’t run. A peaceful handover of power from one democratically elected president to another has never occurred in Afghan history. The mostly positive reports from election day have brought that achievement one large step closer. 

While Seeking Stability, Yemen Builds Momentum Against Child Marriage

Sisters Nana (16 years old) and Zakia (20, at right) in the Abu Shouk camp for displaced people in Darfur, Sudan. Nana was married at 13, and Zakia at 17. (Albert González Farran/UNAMID)

In Iraq, a draft law tabled in the Parliament this week would legalize marriage for nine-year-old girls. In Jordan, Syrian refugees are increasingly pressing their daughters into early marriage—for the economic survival of the family, or with the belief that it might protect their daughters from sexual assault. In Yemen, child marriage captured the spotlight last September when an eight-year-old girl died from internal bleeding on the night of her wedding to a man five times her age. 

In the Middle East and beyond, girls in countries experiencing conflict, instability, or humanitarian crises are most vulnerable to early marriage. While families often perceive early marriage as a protective response in times of crises, its underlying drivers include poverty, weak legal frameworks, gender discrimination, and harmful traditional practices. 

Parents often fail to recognize the implications of an early marriage for their daughters, who are left vulnerable to domestic-based violence and often life-threatening adolescent labor. For society at large, the consequences extend far beyond the child’s physical insecurity: one of the strongest indicators of state security across the globe lies in a state’s treatment of its women and girls. Where women gain more political power and attempt to reverse structural inequalities that threaten their physical security, this could also improve peace and stability writ large.

Yemen, which is ranked as the poorest and most fragile state in the Arab region, could present an interesting case in this respect. Fifty-two percent of women are married before the age of 18 in Yemen, and 14 percent before the age of 15. Efforts to set the minimum age for marriage at 17 years were blocked by the Parliament in 2009. Hardline Islamic conservatives, whose influence grew significantly in Yemen over the past two decades, contended that setting a minimum age for marriage would be contrary to sharia law. At the same time, most child marriages in Yemen happen in rural areas with low literacy rates and high levels of poverty, where tradition and custom are often more powerful than the laws of the state.

But a shift in gender relations following the 2011 Yemeni uprising could have a profound effect on child marriage. Despite Yemen’s traditional conservatism, women led the Yemeni revolution alongside men, toppling the country’s 33-year-old authoritarian regime in a bid to reclaim their human rights. The level of women’s mobilization, participation in public demonstrations, and expression of independent political views was unprecedented. When the president publicly called women’s participation in the demonstrations “un-Islamic,” they continued to flock to the streets in the thousands. 

In some cases, this created a blend of old and new ideologies. For example, the Islamic conservative political party, al-Islah, called on their women supporters to join the public demonstrations, while women who joined agreed to respect tradition and sleep in separate sections of street tents throughout the uprising. 

One female member of the Islah party, Tawakkul Karman, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle for women’s rights, democracy, and peace. Yemeni women rose to prominence on the international stage, and women’s political participation was increasingly viewed with respect. 

In light of their role in the uprising, women were also granted a role in the transitional process that followed. After the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered a deal that saw the departure of Yemen's entrenched president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a 30-percent quota was set for women participants in the National Dialogue that would propose the tenets of a new Yemeni constitution. 

The dialogue lasted nearly a year, and women made up 22 percent of participants in practice. In its final report, the Rights and Freedoms Working Group, which was chaired by a woman and in which 45 percent of the delegates were women, proposed setting a minimum age for marriage at 18 years—a significant acknowledgement of the plight of girls forced into child marriage. 

While considerable efforts will still be required to now get this kind of legislation passed and to transform the landscape of child marriage in society, the shift in gender relations during the revolution and the opening up of the political process thereafter have allowed for this crucial first step. And over the past year, amid newfound political power for women, momentum has been building (reported also here and here).

For policymakers concerned with Yemen’s security, capitalizing on this momentum could also offer some relatively low-hanging fruit. Half of Yemen’s population lives on less than $2 a day, democracy will take a long time to build, and religious extremists are likely to remain in the picture for the foreseeable future. But if there’s any truth to the statistics, it’s not wealth, democracy, or religious identity that makes the strongest predictor of a society’s peacefulness—it’s how well women are treated. So where better a place to start than with girls?

Waleed Alhariri is a Research Assistant in the Middle East program at the International Peace Institute. Marie O’Reilly is associate editor at the International Peace Institute.

Dancing With the Word “Genocide”

A flower arrangement outside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali, Rwanda.

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, and despite so many pledges from states, multilateral institutions, and nongovernmental organizations, there is no real sign the world would step in quicker and more determined if genocide were to happen today. To be clear on this, there has not—fortunately—been another genocide since Rwanda, if genocide is understood as targeting an identifiable group with the aim of destroying it, as defined by the international convention. There have been numerous conflicts, wars, and other instances of organized and/or political violence, and many of them have certainly been comparatively cruel, devastating, and deadly for victims, survivors, refugees, and even bystanders to some extent. But the Darfurs, Colombias, Congos, Sri Lankas, Yugoslavias, Afghanistans, and others have not had the very same surgical precision that genocide had in Rwanda. The last time genocide, as so defined, happened before that was most certainly the Holocaust. So, what are the implications?

First of all, it does not mean that these acts are less cruel if we do not label them “genocide.” Terminology helps us to develop an understanding of conflicts and their respective specificities, and this is particularly true in the case of Rwanda, where Hutu extremists killed at least 800,000 people in 100 days.

Second, there have been numerous incidents that seemed very similar to genocide in the past two decades—Srebrenica, Makobola, Bouaké, Bojaya, just to name a few. Darfur has been called genocide by activists for over ten years. Eastern Congo has been termed a counter-genocide by many. It is beyond debating that these horrific episodes of violence must have been as cruel and deadly for the human beings involved as the genocide in Rwanda. The same holds true for the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. But genocide is not a term that describes how the people exposed to such measures feel. It is a technical-judicial-political term that explains how action needs to be shaped in order to be classified as such within a framework of various legal definitions for circumstances of organized violence.

What Makes a Refugee? As Impact of Natural Disasters Grows, Definition Leaves Gaps

An aerial view of La Piste, a displacement camp of 50,000 Haitians formed after the 2010 earthquake. (Timo Luege/IASC Haiti Shelter Cluster)

The president of the Dominican Republic faced a tough question after the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti and left hundreds of thousands of Haitians homeless—should he open his borders to them? There was no international law to guide the president’s decision, said Walter Kälin, former Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, because the displaced “were not protected as refugees” by international law. There is a gap in international norms.

Mr. Kälin said every year between 12-45 million people are displaced by sudden onset disasters; this number doesn't include those displaced by slow-onset disasters. “Displacement is one of the biggest challenges we are facing right now,” he said.

Mr. Kälin described another case where 100,000 people fleeing drought in the Horn of Africa showed up at the border to Kenya, saying they had lost their crops and animals and would die if they weren't allowed in the country. 

“And again, the question: are they refugees? How should they be treated? Do they have a right to access neighboring countries?” he asked.

Mr. Kälin said displacement is not just a humanitarian issue, and mitigation should include investing in development. “Development interventions can help to stabilize, to prevent displacement,” he said. “And I think that's a big enough issue to be worthwhile to be included in this sustainable development agenda, into the focus areas, the goals and targets. And I very much hope that this will happen.”

He said another crucial way to mitigate displacement is to listen to climate change scientists. These scientists model climate and can show areas vulnerable to rising seas, drought, and desertification—places where displacement is likely. “People will move, and it will be increasingly large numbers. We can wait and do nothing. But we also can be prepared, because it's foreseeable,” he said.

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Research Fellow for Humanitarian Affairs at the International Peace Institute. You can follow him on Twitter: @jeremie_labbe.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Jérémie Labbé: I am here with Professor Walter Kälin, Envoy of the Chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative and former Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, a position that you held from 2004–2010. Walter, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory today.

First, could you tell us what the Nansen Initiative is?

Walter Kälin: The Nansen Initiative is an intergovernmental process outside of the United Nations that aims at building consensus from the bottom-up on one of the key challenges this world is facing, namely people displaced by natural disasters, including and in particular from the effects of climate change.

JL: Could you be a bit more specific? What kind of effects does climate change or disasters have on people, and why do they move?

WK: Let me give you some examples. Back in 2010, Haiti was hit by one of the most devastating earthquakes, and hundreds of thousands who were displaced within the country immediately found refuge in makeshift camps. But many showed up already during the very first night—the first few days after the earthquake—at the border of the neighboring Dominican Republic. The question for the president was: should he open the borders or should he keep them closed? And he couldn't get any guidance from any kind of international law because these people, even though they didn't have any opportunity at that time for their wounded family members to access medical assistance (this came only later), they were not protected as refugees or in any other kind of quality by international law. A gap.

To Bring More Women Into Peace Processes, They Need to Stand Up Everywhere: Interview with Akinyi Walender

A delegate to the UN Special Envoys for Sudan Retreat, October 20, 2011. (UNAMID/Olivier Chassot)

To increase women's participation in peacebuilding, they need to be encouraged to stand up and take on leadership positions in every sphere of their lives, said Akinyi Walender, director of women's leadership at Cordaid, an international development organization. 

"Very often, leadership is defined mainly within the sphere of politics," said Ms. Walender. "Yet there are so many women who are taking the lead and doing amazing things in their lives. "

Ms. Walender said local women should be given the space and voice to become leaders. “There are lots of women who are engaged in peacebuilding, driving reconciliation, and also preventing conflict in their communities. They need support,” she said. “One of the ways that the UN—and, actually, international organizations and civil society—can be more responsive to local women in peacebuilding is to just give them support, give them the voice, and the recognition.”

“We need to create space for them to engage in political participation, because the more women we actually get into the legislature—this is where laws are made—the more we will begin to see a friendlier environment for women to engage in,” she added.

In the negotiations that led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, “They were at the table, and they managed to negotiate for a 25-percent affirmative action [quota] for women, but they went on also to mobilize women for the referendum,” Ms. Walender said. “And that particular referendum was actually really decided by women, because they came out in large numbers and they voted for a new country.” 

Another way to increase the numbers of women in peace processes, said Ms. Walender, is to create "very clear, specific numbers that are defined for women to participate in, and if this does not happen, I think that our donor countries should not fund the processes.”

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Andrea Ó Suílleabhaín: You've worked in Juba in South Sudan for the last three years and before that were deeply involved in different initiatives, even before South Sudan's independence referendum. What roles have women played in peacebuilding at the local and national level since South Sudan's independence?

Akinyi Walender: South Sudanese women have been very, very involved in the peace process. They were a very big part of the negotiations on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and before that in initiatives to bring and end to war in their country. They were at the table and they managed to negotiate for a 25-percent affirmative action [quota] for women, but they went on also to mobilize women for the referendum, and that particular referendum was actually really decided by women because they came out in large numbers and they voted for a new country. After that, the South Sudanese women also continue to engage on the constitution-making process. Now they have women who are now sitting on the constitution review committee.

AOS: After the recent outbreak of conflict, a group of South Sudanese women came together to call for greater representation of women and civil society in the current peace negotiations in Ethiopia. How can they gain a larger role?

AW: Well, the outbreak of the war in South Sudan was a real big jolt and a very unfortunate occurrence because so many women have died, so many more of them displaced, and others lost their children. South Sudanese women have basically had enough because they bear the brunt of every conflict when it happens.

But on the other hand, women are also very strong. If you look at South Sudanese women over the years, they are the ones who really supported this war despite all the challenges that they experienced; they carried guns, fought alongside the men, bore children, and cultivated food for the soldiers. And that is why women mobilized and decided that they needed to be in the peace process in Addis Ababa. They needed to share the experience they have been going through because of the war, but more importantly, they needed to make sure that their interests are actually on the table and included in the outcome of the peace process. South Sudanese women, of course, can gain a larger role by articulating their messages, having a common agenda and actually getting space to participate within the peace process to be able to put their perspectives and demands forward.

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