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UN Human Rights Council Reaffirms the Safeguards for Civilians in Times of War

In Being a World Citizen, Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, The Search for Peace, United Nations, War Crimes, World Law on July 5, 2015 at 7:33 PM

UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL REAFFIRMS THE SAFEGUARDS FOR CIVILIANS IN TIMES OF WAR

By René Wadlow

“Accountability for breaches of international humanitarian law and for human rights violations, as well as respect for human rights, are not obstacles to peace, but rather the preconditions on which trust and, ultimately, a durable peace can be built.”

– Navanethem Pillay, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2009.

On July 3, 2015, the concluding day of its summer session, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council welcomed the report of the “Gaza Conflict Commission of Inquiry” which indicated that the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups may have committed war crimes during the Israeli “Operation Protective Edge” campaign. 47 member States of the Human Rights Council voted in favor of the resolution, 5 States abstained: Kenya, Ethiopia, Macedonia, India and Paraguay; the USA was the only Member State to vote against the resolution.

The Gaza Conflict Commission of Inquiry was led by the New York Judge Mary McGowan Davis with Doudou Diène of Senegal, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism (2002-2008), as the other ranking member. The Commission was to study the legal implications of an earlier UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. The Commission was not established to evaluate the results of the Fact-Finding Mission which had largely confirmed the death tolls provided by the Gaza Hamas administration, some 2,250 Palestinians killed of which 1,462 civilians. Rather the Commission had the task of setting out the world law applications of the facts collected earlier.

Judge Mary McGowan Davis (left) and Doudou Diène (right).

Judge Mary McGowan Davis (left) and Doudou Diène (right).

Thus the focus of the Commission was the “Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War” of August 12, 1949. The Geneva Conventions, for which the International Committee of the Red Cross is responsible, grew out of deliberations started in 1947 in the shadow of the abuses of the Second World War. By 1949, the negotiations among governments led to the 1949 Red Cross Conventions. The emphasis was on the principles of protection and not on the punishment of wrong doers. The International Committee of the Red Cross is not an international court. It bases its protection efforts on the belief that all sides in a conflict have an interest to follow the laws of war as its soldiers or civilians could meet the same fate. If there is to be any action on trials and punishment, such trials should be done in national courts.

From 1974 to 1977, as a result of the war in Vietnam, there were subsequent laws of war negotiated to cover “civil wars” − wars within a State where the parties involved may not be States. (1)

Today, however, there is the International Criminal Court which can investigate as well as having the mandate to hold court trials and pass judgment. Investigations and trials can also be carried out at the national level. The Israeli argument has always been that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) can and does carry out investigations and that there is a functioning national court system. The Hamas-led administration of Gaza makes the same argument.

Unfortunately, both Israel and Hamas have dismal records of investigating their own forces. I am unaware of any case where a Hamas fighter was punished for deliberately shooting a rocket into a civilian area of Israel − on the contrary, some Hamas leaders repeatedly praise such acts. While Israel has carried out investigations into alleged violations by its forces, the emphasis has been on the unauthorized actions of individual soldiers, not on policy makers. Yet the Gaza Conflict Commission stressed that “military tactics are reflective of a broader policy approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest levels of the Israeli government.”

A demonstrator raises the Palestinian flag during a July 2014 rally in Paris against the Israeli attack on Gaza. (C) AWC/Bernard J. Henry

A demonstrator raises the Palestinian flag during a July 2014 rally in Paris against the Israeli attack on Gaza. (C) AWC/Bernard J. Henry

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) active in UN human rights bodies, including the Association of World Citizens, have long stressed the importance of fact-finding carried out by the UN, intergovernmental bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and NGOs themselves. (2)

There are now two follow-up steps set out by the Human Rights Council resolution:

1) A request is made that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (and thus the Secretariat) prepare a report on implementation measures;

2) A recommendation that the UN General Assembly take up the matter “until it is satisfied that appropriate action is taken to implement its recommendations.”

The Israeli government has replied angrily to the resolution, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN in Geneva calling it an “anti-Israeli manifesto” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying “the UN Human Rights Council cares little about the facts and less still about human rights.”

Rather, I would say that the resolution is an important procedural advancement in the respect of world law in times of conflict. In the past, there have been UN-authorized fact-finding missions with the reports going directly to discussion in the UN Commission on Human Rights (as it was then) and then to the UN General Assembly. With the Gaza Conflict Commission of Inquiry we have a useful intermediary step. First there is a fact-finding effort as close in time to the events as possible to interview victims, to see the physical damage and to interview the military and other combatants. Such fact-finding is done, as it were “in the heat of the action”.

In late July 2014 Gazan doctors saved the life of little Shaima, an unborn child, by extracting her from the womb of her mother who was killed in an Israeli airstrike. Two days later, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the sole existing power plant in Gaza, thus stopping Shaima’s life support system and eventually killing the baby too.

In late July 2014 Gazan doctors saved the life of little Shaima, an unborn child, by extracting her from the womb of her mother who was killed in an Israeli airstrike. Two days later, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the sole existing power plant in Gaza, thus stopping Shaima’s life support system and eventually killing the baby too.

Then there is a calm, legal review of the fact-finding reports. In the past when I have been present at debates on fact-finding reports in the Commission on Human Rights, the debates were anything except calm and legal. They were political exchanges which reflected the evaluations of the original conflict. In this case of the Gaza Commission, we have an orderly presentation of facts, avenues to strengthen protection, and suggestions on the role of the International Criminal Court. There is no guarantee that the discussions in the next UN General Assembly will be calm and focused on legal procedures, but at least there will have been this useful intermediary step.

As things now stand, world law is not created by the decisions of a world parliament. World law is basically the “common law of mankind”’ based on small advances. Usually the first step is to set out the basic values in widely agreed-upon texts such as the Red Cross Geneva Conventions. This is followed by a recognition that there are repeated violations of these values in the practice of war, the torture of individuals, massive aggression against minorities. After repeated violations, there is the very slow realization that such violations are not acceptable and if nothing is done, the values themselves will be permanently undermined.

We are now at this last stage as concerns Gaza. The repeated bombings of the Gaza Strip do not bring peace, security or socioeconomic development. In fact, each bombing campaign creates a more difficult situation. It is not a function of world law to say what socioeconomic-political measures should be taken, though as NGO representatives we can and have made suggestions. The function of world law is to set out clearly the value basis of the law, to set out fair procedures to deal with possible violations and ultimately to see if there can be sanctions or punishment for wrong doers.

I believe that we still have many miles to go on the path for the respect of world law, but I believe that the direction is now set.

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

Notes

1)      See Hilaire McCoubrey and Nigel White, International Law and Armed Conflict (1992)

2)      See B. G. Ramcharan (ed), International Law and Fact-Finding in the Field of Human Rights (1983)

For NGO Fact-finding, see Hans Tholen and B. Verstappen, Fact-Finding Practice of Non-Governmental Organizations (1986)

Iraq: Yazidis’ Genocide?

In Cultural Bridges, Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, Religious Freedom, Uncategorized, United Nations, War Crimes, World Law on August 11, 2014 at 7:05 PM

IRAQ: YAZIDIS’ GENOCIDE?

By René Wadlow

 

A mix of United States (U. S.) humanitarian airdrops of food and water to the stranded displaced people on Mount Sinjar as well as U. S. military air strikes against some of the positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has focused international attention on the area. The Christian Peacemaker Teams have had a group working toward human rights protection and reconciliation in the Iraq Kurdistan for some years and are now posting daily updates on their website and Facebook [i].

I will not deal here with the broader issues of the impact of the ISIS on the possible geographic fragmentation and re-structuring of Iraq and Syria.

As a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) representative to the United Nations, Geneva, and active on human rights issues, I had already raised the issues of two major religious minorities in Iraq at the UN Commission on Human Rights: the Yazidis and the Mandaeans. Here I ask if their fate can be identified as genocide under the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. My concern with the Yazidi (also written as Yezidi) dates from the early 1990s and the creation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Many of the Yazidis are ethnic Kurds, and the government of Saddam Hussein was opposed to them not so much for their religious beliefs but rather that some Yazidis played important roles in the Kurdish community seen as largely opposed to the government. The Yazidis also had some old ownership claims on land on which oil reserves are found in northern Iraq.

My concern with the Mandaeans (also written as Sabean-Mandeans) came in the early 2000s after the U. S. invasion when the Mandaeans were persecuted as being supporters of Saddam Hussein and most fled to Syria. A word about the faiths of the two groups which helps to explain their special status. Although both are called “sects” and are closed religious communities which one can only enter by birth, they are faiths even if the number of the faithful is small.

The Mandaeans are a religious group formed in the first centuries of the Common Era in what is now Israel-Palestine-Jordan. Over time, they migrated to southern Iraq in the area of Basra as well as to what is now the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of their distinctive signs is the frequent purification by running water − baptism. They honor John the Baptist, described in the Christian Gospel of Luke, but are probably not direct descendents of his followers. At the time of John and Jesus, there were a good number of movements which had purification by water as one of their rituals. The Mandaean scripture The Book of John is probably a third-century collection. The Book of John was used in Mandaean rituals and services but was never published to be read by others. Given intellectual and historic interest in the Mandaeans, the Mandaean leadership authorized the publication of their scriptures. As a sign of respect, the first printed copy was given to Saddam Hussein as President of the country. In the confused situation after the U. S. occupation of Iraq, the book presentation was enough to have some accuse the Mandaeans of being Saddam Hussein supporters. Under increasing pressure, the vast majority of Mandaeans left Iraq for Syria (the frying pan into the fire image). Now they are caught in the Syrian civil war, unable or unwilling to return to Iraq. A small number of Mandaeans have been granted refugee status in the US and Western Europe.

There has been some intellectual mutual interplay among the Mandaeans and the Yazidis, but they are separate faiths and located in different parts of Iraq. The structure of the Yazidi worldview is Zoroastrian, a faith born in Persia proclaiming that two great cosmic forces, that of light and good, and that of darkness and evil are in constant battle. Man is called upon to help light overcome evil.

Sabean Mandeans perform baptisms for the faithful, in Iraq's Tigris River. (C) The Washington Post

Sabean Mandeans perform baptisms for the faithful, in Iraq’s Tigris River.
(C) The Washington Post

However, the strict dualistic thinking of Zoroastrianism was modified by another Persian prophet, Mani of Ctesiphon in the third century CE who had to deal with a situation very close of that of ours today. Mani tried to create a synthesis of religious teachings that were increasingly coming into contact through travcl and trade: Buddhism and Hinduism from India, Jewish and Christian thought, Helenistic Gnostic philosophy from Egypt and Greece as well as many smaller, traditional and “animist” beliefs. He kept the Zoroastrian dualism as the most easily understood intellectual framework, though giving it a somewhat more Taoist (yin-yang) flexibility, Mani having traveled in China. He developed the idea of the progression of the soul by individual effort through reincarnation − a main feature of Indian thought combined with the ethical insights of Gnostic and Christian thought. Unfortunately, only the dualistic Zoroastrian framework is still attached to Mani’s name − Manichaeism. This is somewhat ironic as it was the Zoroastrian Magi who had him put to death as a dangerous rival.

Within the Mani-Zoroastrian framework, the Yazidi added the presence of angels who are to help man in his constant battle for light and good, in particular Melek Tawis, the peacock angel. Although there are angels in Islam, angels that one does not know could well be demons, and so the Yazidis are regularly accused of being “demon worshipers” [ii].

The faravahar is one of the best-known symbols of Zoroastrianism, the state religion of ancient Iran.

The faravahar is one of the best-known symbols of Zoroastrianism, the state religion of ancient Iran.

With the smaller Mandaean faith, originally some 60,000 people, now virtually destroyed in Iraq and unable to function effectively in Syria, the idea of ridding a country of the near totality of a faith is not for the ISIS an “impossible dream”. There are probably some 500,000 Yazidis in Iraq. Iraq demographic statistics are not fully reliable, and Yazidi leaders may give larger estimates by counting Kurds who had been Yazidis but had been converted to Islam. There had been some 200,000 Yazidis among the Kurds of Turkey but now nearly all have migrated to Western Europe, Australia and Canada.

Already in the last days, some 150,000 Yazidis have been uprooted and have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus most Yazidis could be pushed into an ever-smaller Kurdish-controlled zone of Iraq and Syria. The rest could be converted to Islam or killed. The government of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq has done little (if anything) to help the socio-economic development of the Yazidis, probably fearing competition for the Kurdish families now in control of the autonomous Kurdish government and society. Now the Kurdistan government and civil society groups are stretched well beyond capacity with displaced persons from Iraq and Syria.

Thousands of Yazidis previously trapped by Isis have been rescued by Kurdish peshmerga forces. (C) Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Thousands of Yazidis previously trapped by Isis have been rescued by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
(C) Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If one is to take seriously the statements of the ISIS leadership, genocide − the destruction in whole or in part of a group − is a stated aim. The killing of the Yazidis is a policy and not “collateral damage” from fighting. The 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide allows any State party to the Convention to “call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” Thus far no State has done so by making a formal proposal to deal with the Convention.

With the incomplete evidence at hand, I would maintain that the ISIS policy is genocide and not just a control of territory. Although the UN “track record” of dealing with genocide is very mixed, the first immediate step is for a State to raise the issue within the UN in order to set a legal approach in motion [iii].

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

 

[i] See the website of the Christian Peacemaker Teams: www.cpt.org.

[ii] A Yazidi website has been set up by Iraqis living in Lincoln, Nebraska. The website is uneven but of interest as a self presentation: www.yeziditruth.org.

[iii] See the very complete study: William A. Schabas, Genocide in International Law (Cambridge Univesity Press, 2000).

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