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

Contributing to Social Justice through Restoring Family Links

World Day Social Justice - Cody.jpg

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

Today is World Day of Social Justice.  Simply put, social justice exists when people are allowed to obtain their due. Human dignity, a fair and compassionate distribution of resources, and the elimination of discrimination and oppression are all part of social justice.  Through programs such as Restoring Family Links (RFL), the American Red Cross contributes to social justice around the world.  As a staff member with this program in Seattle, most of my casework involves the Certificate of Dentition program, which helps Iraqi refugees obtain what is rightfully theirs.  

In the months immediately following the First Gulf War, Iraq was engulfed by a revolution. On March 2nd, 1991, an army commander in Basra fired a tank shell through a massive portrait of Saddam Hussein hanging in the town square.  His act served as the spark for a rebellion that would see rebel forces take over 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.  When much-anticipated help from the United States never arrived, the rebellion was brutally crushed by Hussein and the Republican Guard. 

Thousands fled south to try and escape merciless bombing campaigns and barbaric assaults from the regime’s helicopter gunships.  Violent repression forced men, women, and children to abandon their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.  They left behind their possessions, their homes, their careers, and their dreams for the future.  Over 33,000 people, many of them former soldiers, crossed into Saudi Arabia seeking refuge. 

After escaping tremendous violence, Iraqi refugees faced the incredible challenge of surviving desert conditions without the assistance of the Saudi government.  Saudi Arabia denied victims official refugee status, leaving them without the most basic necessities until international NGOs and the UN intervened.  Once official camps were established, the refugees were visited and registered by representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). After the war, thousands of these individuals resettled in the United States.

Since then, the government of Iraq has established a program to provide reparations to Iraqi nationals who fled to Saudi Arabia.  The key document required to apply for this reparations program is a Certificate of Detention from the ICRC proving their status as a refugee who fled Iraq following the First Gulf War.  Iraqis living in the U.S. apply for these certificates through their local Red Cross chapter.  The reparations offered by the Iraqi government are a vital move towards establishing social justice.  Payments and benefits will never make up for what was lost and the pain experienced, but reparations are powerful because they offer recognition of past injustices and show that a government is taking steps to restore human dignity and make things right. 

Every week, I meet men and women looking for certificates and help them file a request with the ICRC.  These individuals have made wonderful lives for themselves in Western Washington, but they are also victims of a great crime: the theft of their hometowns, careers, and futures. Some left behind family members and fiancées.  All have had to wait over 20 years for some kind of justice, in addition to the long months of wondering when documentation from the ICRC will arrive.  When the certificates finally do arrive, all anxiety melts away and is replaced by an incredible sense of relief and gratitude.  As a member of an organization committed to protecting humanitarian values and social justice, I consider it a great privilege to help Iraqi refugees obtain their due and restore their human dignity.