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Battle for Mosul: Can There Be Respect for the Laws of War?

In Middle East & North Africa, Human Rights, Current Events, Solidarity, Conflict Resolution, The Search for Peace, United Nations, International Justice, World Law, War Crimes on October 18, 2016 at 7:43 PM

By René Wadlow

On Monday, October 17, 2016, the battle of Mosul began as the troops of the Iraqi army started moving toward the northern Iraq city of Mosul. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, announced the effort to take Mosul, a city of over one million people which has been held by the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh in its Arabic initials) since July 2014. The Iraqi troops are assisted by Turkish troops and tanks, by United States (U. S.) Special Forces who have also been training the Iraqi troops, and by the Kurdish peshmerga militias who have attacked surrounding villages but who, for political reasons, are not likely to enter Mosul.

There are estimates that there are some 4,500 ISIS troops facing some 50,000 on the Iraqi government side. ISIS has been aware that an attack on Mosul was in preparation for a long time and has responded by mining buildings and roads as well as building tunnels. It is likely that some ISIS fighters have slipped away, but it is also likely that the remaining majority of ISIS will fight to the bitter end, preferring death to surrender. In a situation that is confused by the number and nationalities of the groups in combat as well as the very ethnically and religiously mixed population of Mosul, what possibilities exist for respect of the laws of war?


Two Kurdish peshmerga fighters at Mosul Dam in 2014.

The laws of war, now often called humanitarian law, have two wings, one dealing with the treatment of medical personnel in armed conflict situations, the treatment of the military wounded and prisoners of war as well as the protection of civilians. This wing is represented by the Geneva (Red Cross) Conventions. The second wing, often called the Hague Conventions limit or ban outright the use of certain categories of weapons. These efforts began at The Hague with the 1900 peace conferences and have continued since even if the more recent limitations on land mines, cluster weapons and chemical weapons have been negotiated elsewhere than in The Hague.

For the Hague Conventions such as the ban on land mines, the ban is binding only on States which have ratified the convention. Although the Islamic State had some of the markings of a proto-State, it was not recognized as a State by any other State. Basically ISIS can be considered as an armed militia.


ISIS, or Daesh, the self-styled “Islamic State”, only believes in violence. It has always displayed an unmitigated hatred of everything that international law and human rights stand for. It is neither “Islamic” nor a “State” and never will be.

The status of the Geneva Conventions for non-State militias can be debated. When I was involved at the United Nations (UN) with the national minorities of Burma in the 1990s, I encouraged the Burmese militias to study, discuss and then sign the Geneva Conventions, of which the Swiss government is the depositary power. When the Burmese government learned of our efforts, they quickly signed the Geneva Conventions. Once the national minorities had signed, and I sent the document to the Swiss government and to the International Committee of the Red Cross, both the Burmese military and the national minorities released a number of prisoners of war as a mark of good faith which had never been done before. The status of world law for non-State entities and individuals is a crucial question, and there are discussions at the International Criminal Court on this issue.

The current situation concerning refugees and internally-displaced persons can also be considered as part of humanitarian law. The status of refugees is more widely respected than that of the internally-displaced.

ISIS has shown no interest or respect for humanitarian law nor for universally-recognized human rights. ISIS has carried out many summary executions of perceived opponents. There is a real danger that as ISIS disintegrates and no longer controls as much territory, it will increase terrorist actions having “nothing left to lose”.

The violations of the laws of war are not limited to ISIS. On May 3, 2016, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2286 calling for greater protection for health care institutions and personnel in light of recent attacks against hospitals and clinics in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. These attacks indicate a dangerous trend of non-compliance with the laws of war by both State and non-State agents.

To prevent and alleviate human suffering, to protect life and health, and to ensure respect for the human person – these are the core values of humanitarian law. These values may get lost in the “fog of war” of the battle for Mosul. Therefore, there needs to be a wide public outcry in the defense of humanitarian law so that violations can be reduced. As the tanks move ahead, the time for the defense of humanitarian values is now.

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

Ending Marginalization and Exclusion

In Asia, Being a World Citizen, Children's Rights, Human Development, Human Rights, International Justice, Social Rights, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, World Law on October 17, 2016 at 9:31 AM

By René Wadlow

October 17 was set by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in Resolution 47/196 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. October 17 was chosen as the anniversary of a October 17, 1987 meeting in front of the Trocadéro in Paris near where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948. The 1987 meeting was called as a reminder that the victims of extreme poverty, hunger and violence do not enjoy the rights that are set out in the Universal Declaration.

In some ways the 1987 meeting is an indication of how long ideas and values take to be institutionalized in the world society. It took nearly 40 years for awareness to grow that there were people who fell outside the development and welfare provisions of governments. It took another four years for that awareness to be enshrined in a General Assembly resolution. Nevertheless, we must be thankful for resolutions which highlight the obvious. We can build upon that awareness and the resolution.


Somewhere along the line of the growing awareness that poverty exists came the realization that the eradication of poverty was not only the concern of governments but also of the poor and marginalized themselves. To use the most commonly-used image: poverty reduction is not only a “top-down” effort (governments toward citizens) but also a “bottom-up” process (of the poor toward the holders of wealth and the governmental decision-makers.) Thus today, there is an awareness that the marginalized sections of society should be involved in the decision-making process which determines the socio-cultural, economic, and political life of the State. This awareness is often termed “popular participation”, “community organizing” and “grass-roots organizations.”


As an Asian Committee for People’s Organization states in its manual for organizers Organizing People for Power, “It is the oppressors who, after all, control corporate decision-making, the government apparatus, the media, and the police. Although the people vastly outnumber the oppressors, in their disorganized conditions they lack the power to oppose their enemy. By themselves, the poor farmers, workers or slum dwellers are no match for the oppressors in terms of money or resources … The transfer of power from the hands of the oppressors to those of the oppressed is not easily accomplished at one fell swoop. Part of the difficulty lies in the ‘culture of silence’ that has been inculcated into the people’s consciousness by centuries of domination. By slow degrees, the oppressed have internalized a subservient mentality that is reinforced by their daily experience. They find it difficult to see their liberation in terms of their own strength, and look instead outside themselves to an external force to come and save them. The oppressed cannot imagine that the power they await lies within them, and therefore, they lapse into a state of passivity awaiting liberation from heaven or a messianic leader.”


However, there are growing efforts by which people are released from their culture of silence and demand a meaningful participation in society through socio-economic projects which enhance their bargaining power. Such approaches involve tensions and conflicts, but conflicts can have a potential for creativity. As a set of notes for workers engaged in rural development and adult education written by the Xavier Institute of Social Service in Ranchi, India states, “Projects should be the result of a process where people have perceived the need for them. This will require a clear-cut vision and manifestation of a just society. Projects can be undertaken as instruments for social transformation, and development programmes must make the conscious effort to translate these projects into useful tools to hasten the establishment of a just society.”

Today, different social conditions, identities, religious beliefs shape our one humanity. We share the responsibility to ensure the dignity of each individual. We need to find creative ways of ending marginalization and exclusion of groups and individuals. October 17 should stand as a time of re-dedication to finding creative paths to this goal.

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

October 10: Abolition of the Death Penalty

In Being a World Citizen, Human Rights, International Justice, United Nations, World Law on October 9, 2016 at 10:04 PM

By René Wadlow

“I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I am not on his payroll. I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either.”

-Edna St Vincent Millay.

October 10 is the International Day Against the Death Penalty, set by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Since the end of World War II, there has been a gradual abolition of the death penalty with the rather obvious recognition that death is not justice. In some countries, executions have been suspended in practice but laws allowing executions remain; in other cases, there has been a legal abolition.

The clear words of the American poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) have been a credo for those of us who have opposed executions on moral grounds:

This is a man
He is a poor creature
You are not to kill him
This is a man
He has a hard time
Upon the earth
You are not to kill him.

There are also those who oppose the death penalty on the practical grounds that it has little impact on the rate of killing in society.

October 10 can also be a day to oppose all organized killings. In addition to State-sponsored official executions, often carried out publicly or at least with official observers, a good number of countries have state-sponsored “death squads” — persons affiliated to the police or intelligence agencies who kill “in the dark of the night” — unofficially. These deaths avoid a trial which might attract attention or even a “not guilty” decision. A shot in the back of the head is faster. The number of “targeted killings” has grown. In many cases, the bodies of those killed are destroyed and so death is supposed but not proved. This is what the UN called “enforced or involuntary disappearances.” Attacks by drones are also a form of State-organized executions without trial or the possibility of appeal.

There is also a growth in non-governmental targeted killings. Attention has focused recently on the drug-trade-related death of Mexico’s “drug lords”. These groups of organized crime have many of the negative attributes of States. Their opponents are designated for killing and executed by those on the payroll of death. These groups are not limited to Mexico. In addition, there are a good number of countries where non-governmental militia groups exist and carry out executions. A most dangerous example is these days in the Philippines where both police and death squads are killing persons accused of selling (or even using) drugs.


“Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun, you have my support,” stated President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines recently, urging his fellow citizens to kill any drug dealer they may know of, without prior arrest or trial. “Shoot him and I’ll give you a medal.”

Thus our efforts against executions need to be addressed both to governments and to those State-like non-governmental armed groups. The abolition of executions and the corresponding valuation of human life are necessary steps to building a just society. As the late Robert Muller, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and a member of the Association of World Citizens wrote in his essay The Right Not to Kill “In every epoch of history there are a few exceptional human beings who are blessed with a correct vision of the place of the human person on earth. This vision is always basically the same:

“It recognizes the oneness and supremacy of the human family, irrespective of race,, sex, creed, nation or any other distinctive characteristics;

It recognizes each individual human being as a unique miracle of divine origin, a cosmos of his own, never to be repeated again in all eternity;

It rejects all violence as being contrary to the sanctity and the uniqueness of life, and advocates love, tolerance, truth, cooperation and reverence for life as the only civilized means of achieving a peaceful and happy society;

It preaches love and care for our beautiful and so diverse planet in the fathomless universe;

It sees each human life and society as part of an eternal stream of time and ever ascending evolution;

It recognizes that the ultimate mysteries of life, time and the universe will forever escape the human mind and therefore bends in awe and humility before these mysteries and God;

It advocates gratitude and joy for the privilege of being admitted to the banquet of life;

It preaches hope, faith, optimism and a deep commitment to the moral and ethical virtues of peace and justice distilled over eons of time as the foundations for further human ascent.”

Robert Muller

Robert Muller

Muller went on to add “We must restore optimism and continue to sharpen our inborn instincts for life, for the positive, foe self-preservation, for survival and human fulfillment at ever higher levels of consciousness. We must conquer the duality, the negative, the suicidal. These all contain dangerous self-finding processes of destruction. We must turn instead to the mysterious self-generation powers of hope, creative thinking, love, life affirmation and faith.”

Thus, as we mark on October 10 our opposition to the death penalty, let us stress the dignity of all persons and the strength of the affirmation of life. The “marching orders” for those of us working for the abolition of executions remains the letter written by Bartolomeo Vanzetti on the eve of his death in 1927 to Judge Thayer who had condemned to death Nicola Sacco and Vanzetti, “If it had not been for these things, I might have live out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words – our lives – our pains – nothing! The taking of our lives – lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler – all! That last moment belongs to us – that agony is our triumph.”


Joan Baez, “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti (Here’s to You)”

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

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