International Humanitarian Law and the Syrian Civil War

Story by Cody Austin, Western Washington Region, International Services Coordinator

The man above, obviously hurt, is not crying for himself. He is crying for his injured son and his dead 8 year-old daughter. She was killed during one of the Syrian military’s many bombings of Aleppo.  

March 15th, 2014 marked the third anniversary of the Syrian revolution. The revolution in Syria began when security forces arrested and tortured teenage boys for spraying anti-Assad graffiti on government buildings.  Peaceful protests for their release were met with gunfire from the Syrian government. A cycle of protests and violent repression continued to escalate and now, three years later, violence has forced more than 2.4 million Syrians to flee the country and internally displaced over 6.5 million people.  Well over 140,000 people have been killed, and over 70,000 of the dead are children.  Countless others face continued violence, torture, disease, and outright starvation as the conflict grinds on with little hope for a quick resolution. 

It is desperately obvious that the people of Syria need a political solution to a tragedy of apocalyptic proportions.  While the Syrian people wait for such a solution, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement remains committed to meeting the humanitarian needs of all parties.  Awe-inspiring work is being done by the Syrian Red Crescent and the ICRC.  Volunteers risk their lives to help fellow Syrians in their time of greatest need. Since the beginning of the conflict, 34 Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff and volunteers have been killed and many others have been wounded while carrying out their humanitarian mission.

The courage of these volunteers is astounding; however, they never should have been forced to make the ultimate sacrifice.  The Geneva Conventions, a binding treaty signed by every country on earth, prohibits armed groups from targeting humanitarian workers wearing the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems.  These emblems signify a commitment to providing impartial and neutral assistance to all people and must be respected by all parties.  The Geneva Conventions and related treaties are referred to as international humanitarian law (IHL).  Simply put, international humanitarian law is the law of war.  It defines what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior during armed conflict.  Specifically, it focuses on limiting the tactics and weapons used by armed groups and defining who these armed groups can target. IHL protects civilians, medical personnel, and those who have left the battlefield, as well as cultural, religious, and humanitarian buildings.

In addition to respecting these rules during times of armed conflict, all signatories are required to educate their armed forces and the general population about IHL.  The law charges every Red Cross and Red Crescent society around the world to carry out this task, including the American Red Cross.   As the International Services Coordinator for the Western Washington chapters, I work to educate the community about IHL in several ways.  Last fall, with support from the United States Institute of Peace, the Red Cross and Antioch University partnered to provide a course and lecture series.  Participants received instruction in the fundamentals of IHL and heard from a variety of speakers about how IHL is implemented during times of armed conflict.  One speaker, Rita Zawaideh, spoke about her organization Salaam Cultural Mission and their work providing medical care to Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

This month, we organized a workshop in partnership with Seattle University School of Law.  The workshop instructed local law students in the basics of IHL and also provided them with the opportunity to learn from legal professionals in the field.  By educating law students about IHL and each signatory’s obligations to respect the law, we are influencing the next generation of world leaders.  Today’s law students will be tomorrow’s politicians, military professionals, UN officials, and political decision makers. 

All of these programs are designed to increase respect for IHL and the humanitarian values embedded in the Geneva Conventions.  The American Red Cross is joined in this mission by the ICRC, the Syrian Red Crescent, and hundreds of national societies around the world. By educating people about the importance of IHL, we hope to make war less terrible for those who suffer through it. By insisting that all parties observe their legal and moral obligations under IHL, we fulfill our mission to advocate for the protection of lives and human dignity.  The devastation in Syria today proves this mission is more important than ever. 

If you are interested in learning more about IHL or in taking a free class in your community, please visit our website or contact