John Gittings

Syria and Yemen: a single standard
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November 2016

All war is a crime and our task is to struggle against all war. But we have to acknowledge that within war some actions are regarded as legal and others as illegal, and that the distinction is an important one. On the positive side,  international  law is moving in the right direction. The Rome Statute of 1998 which established the International Criminal Court has extended the definition of war crimes beyond earlier international agreements of which the most recent were the Geneva Conventions of 1949. These and other legal principles and judgments now form a substantial bundle of international customary law, which applies not only to states but to non-states and other combatants, whether or not they have signed a particular treaty or agreement.  This may seem a tiresome preamble, but it is important to establish clearly the legal grounds for condemning certain actions as war crimes if our protest is to be effective. At the present time those which concern us most immediately are

i)  the bombing of civilians by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, particularly the airstrike on a crowded funeral ceremony in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, on October 8, 2016, which killed at least 140 people and wounded more than 500, but also including the bombing of medical facilities, markets etc.

ii) the bombing of civilians by the Syrian and Russian air-forces in eastern Aleppo and elsewhere, particularly airstrikes on hospitals and clinics, but also including indiscriminate bombing with barrel bombs which has destroyed entire buildings containing civilians.

  In both cases the perpetrators (the Saudi-led coalition and the Russian/Syrian commands) have advanced very similar arguments. First,  that they are acting on behalf of the internationally recognised government of Yemen/Syria.  This is irrelevant: international law does not allow one side in a conflict, whatever its legal character, more latitude than another in observing the rules of law.

  Second, that while the loss of civilian life is regrettable, it results from their opponents (the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the anti-Assad rebels in Syria) locating themselves within these civilian facilities. So the Saudis have claimed that the bombing of the funeral was a "mistake", because they had been given incorrect information that the mourners included high-ranking Houthi officials. And the Russians regularly claim that the rebels in eastern Aleppo are using civilians as a human shield or that there are rebel facilities within hospitals.

  Here we should refer to Article 8 of the Rome Statute, which defines as a war crime:

Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.

  In other words, if the destruction of civilians and civilian facilities is clearly disproportionate to any military gain, this is a war crime. This may seem to some too weak a definition, but even within its terms no reasonable person could regard the bombing of assemblies of civilians, hospitals etc. in Yemen or Syria as justified. The claim would only be tenable if the hospitals concerned were predominantly military bases masquerading as hospitals, or if the funeral or market gatherings were predominantly armed assemblies.

  That is why the Saudi bombings should be condemned without argument as war crimes (and the British government urged to stop supplying weapons to the perpetrator).  All other claims -- that the Houthis also commit atrocities or that Iran is supporting them -- are irrelevant. And we should recognise that the same applies without argument to the Russian/Syrian war crimes. The fact that anti-Assad rebels are supported by foreign powers, or that many rebels are extremists, may be deplored but it is equally irrelevant. Condemnation of a war crime should never be followed by a "but" or "however" clause.

  We in the peace movement and on the left often complain of double standards by our governments, and we condemn attempts to explain away atrocities as accidents or collateral damage.  We have to be scrupulous in clinging to a single standard ourselves, and to avoid the easy route of relativism. A war crime, once defined as such, is, quite simply, a war crime.

  Oxford CND Newsletter, Nov.-Dec. 2016