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Sarah Osei-Bonsu

HOMEWARD - May 2018 Sarah Osei-Bonsu

The Siege of Eastern Ghouta: Crimes without accountability?

Photo by Cedric Dhaenens

Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu, Staff Writer

For weeks following the chemical weapon attack Eastern Ghouta had been on the front pages and then there was silence…

On Wednesday, May 2nd the silence was broken in a panel discussion called ‘The Siege of Eastern Ghouta: crimes without accountability?’. The conference organised by the War Reparations Centre – Amsterdam Centre for International Law (ACIL), Amsterdam Students Association of International Law (ASA) and the Syria Legal Network (SLN). It sought to revive the Eastern Ghouta discussion with “facts, law and diplomacy”. The panel was made up of Hussam Alkatlaby the director of the Syrian Violations Documentation Centre (VDC), Robin Peeters from the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs, Joost Hiltermann, regional program director of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Middle East and North Africa and Kevin John Heller, professor of public international law at the University of Amsterdam. The discussion was hosted by Frederiek de Vlaming from the Syria Legal Network.

The conference started with a video. It showed, in horrible bluntness, brutal episodes of Eastern Ghouta’s five-year besiegement. The images were shocking but not surprising. I think all of us crowded into this room squinting at the screen asked ourselves: What now? What can be done? The aim of the conference was to answer precisely these questions by seeking accountability for the war crimes, by finding the individuals and prosecuting them. But the video showed a pandemonium of crimes and human rights violations, making the prospect of finding accountability look like an insurmountable task. Before giving the panel the floor, de Vlaming wanted us to know why she showed this video: “it is about facts […] the way Eastern Ghouta was portrayed in the media did not show the facts. If you don’t know the facts you can’t enforce the law. You got the idea from mainstream media that the siege ended and the war was over… this is wrong.”


The suburb of Damascus has been under siege by the Syrian government since 2013, and in 2018 the world was witness to the unspeakable horrors that occurred within it, an ‘alleged’ chemical weapons attack that killed 70 civilians on 7th April, 2018 ensured Eastern Ghouta dominated the news for weeks. The alleged attack sparked international outrage, but this was too little too late. During the 5-year siege thousands of people had already been killed and numerous war crimes were committed. As a result of the attack the Syrian government concluded an agreement with Russia as part of a UN ceasefire and forcibly evacuated over 50,000 civilians from the area – another legally contested action.  The siege was declared over, however, doubts have been raised on the validity of this pronouncement. For instance, humanitarian organizations claim they are
still blocked from supplying aid. The saga was followed up on April 14th by airstrikes on Damascus and Homs by the UK, France, and the USA. The airstrikes targeted sites associated with Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and were a direct response to the attack on Eastern Ghouta.  This attack was widely condemned, but now the dust is settling. Soon we will start forgetting how much has been lost in Eastern Ghouta, that for many people home turned into a graveyard and by the time this war is done the displaced might have nothing left to return to.

The war is far from over in Eastern Ghouta, and according to Alkatlaby, the town is still in acute crisis. The VDC he represents documents all human rights abuses on the ground, based on international human rights law, and human rights violations have not ceased since the siege ‘ended’. The VDC treats the conflict as an international conflict, not a regional one. Within this international conflict, Eastern Ghouta is specifically important, Alkatlaby argued. “What happened in Eastern Ghouta totally reflects the situation of [Syria].” Since the beginning of the Syrian war, which takes roots in the Arab Spring, Eastern Ghouta was an important hub for demonstrations. The besiegement of the town and Assad’s ‘starve and surrender’ tactic is symbolic of the regime’s strategy and force in the rest of the country. The use of chemical weapons here was a deliberate statement to the people of Syria, Alkatlaby argued: “The Syrian government is saying ‘we have the permission to do anything here’.” The international community’s outrage over this singular attack is duplicitous, it says ‘don’t kill your people with chemical weapons, but other methods are fine’ – is killing 150,000 people by barrel bombs not a threat to humanity?

Joost Hiltermann from the ICG explained that, indeed, chemical weapons are the graver of the two even if the casualties say otherwise. He waved away the notion of “alleged chemical attacks”, saying there are proven cases of chemical weapons. There are two decisive reasons the international community cares more about these chemical attacks than barrel bombs dropped. Firstly, there’s no danger of proliferation of barrel bombs. It’s simple: chemical weapons are a gateway to other biological weapons. It’s a different class of weapon. This is, of course, a meaningless distinction to people on the ground. However, the second reason there was such a foreign fixation on Syria’s chemical weapons is because the Syrian government can be held legally accountable for their usage. In dealing with an international conflict like this, and trying to consign accountability labels are very important. Chemical weapons are objectively not permitted under international law since the First World War. While investigative mechanisms such as the VDC’s essentially don’t work as a deterrent for the regime and rebel groups, this evidence could be used in future prosecution of the attacks. This is a likely outcome, because even Syria’s ally Russia has no interest in chemical weapon proliferation so there may come a time when this evidence collected will be of use to stop chemical weapons.

Chemical weapon attacks are of course not the only war crimes that have been committed in Eastern Ghouta. Other prosecutable crimes under international law include starvation as result of unlawful besiegement and forced evacuations or deportations. Yes, Eastern Ghouta was under siege for five years and siege warfare is in principle lawful, but the systematic criminality within this siege is not. Using a siege to starve a civilian population is a war crime; you need to allow for humanitarian access to food and care for the sick and wounded. That obligation applies to whoever is holding the siege. It’s a categorical obligation under international law and therefore the Syrian government can be held accountable.

So what forms of accountability are there for the crimes committed in Eastern Ghouta? The panel was split on this question. On the one hand, there were the believers in international organizations, and on the other hand, those who saw state-initiative as the only way. Robin Peeters, a Dutch representative at the UN Security Council, belonged of course to the former camp. Decisions at the UN level, he claimed, are always made on the basis of humanitarian considerations. The problem is that Security Council resolutions are often blocked. International rule of law on accountability is the ‘main priority’ – “We don’t think long-term stability is possible without accountability and justice”. According to Peeter’s, the most effective way to attain such justice is on an international level, for instance through a tribunal.

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo

Heller calls himself the “high priest of the futility of international law” and is accordingly pessimistic about the role of international institutions in holding the responsible parties accountable. According to him, the basic lesson of Syria, from an international criminal law point, is that international organizations don’t have access to Syria. An ad hoc tribunal “is simply not going to happen”. The Security Council as a legal body has almost no actual power. In his view, accountability is going to happen on a domestic level, any state in the world can prosecute what is going on in Syria under universal jurisdiction. If evidence collected by international mechanisms is ever going to be useful it will be because states used this in successful prosecutions. Our attention is focused on the wrong things.

I agree with Heller that accountability requires state action, but will France, the UK, and the US do more than authorize airstrikes? There are major issues under international law with this kind of interference. Russia has repeatedly been criticised for its involvement in the Syrian war, while we should be condemning France, the UK, and the USA. The states’ airstrikes on April 14th constituted a breach of sovereignty, whereas “Russia was invited there” (Hiltermann). It’s incredibly important to emphasize that there’s nothing humanitarian about airstrikes to stop chemical weapons. There are more and more efforts by powerful states like these three to make exceptions to international law, by cloaking their abuse of human rights with humanitarian language. That kind of rationale is extraordinarily easy to abuse.

The panel was in agreement that the correct response to what happened in Ghouta is not brute force, but instrumentalizing international law to prosecute those accountable. Although I agree this is the only viable option especially on a state basis, I couldn’t escape the prospect of the futility of finding accountability. It seemed I wasn’t the only one disheartened by this, as the conference ended on somewhat of a somber note. While we debate the possible ineptness of international organisations and the blunders of states, Eastern Ghouta is still a battleground. According to the VDC’s data, before the siege in 2013 there were 2 million people in living in Eastern Ghouta. Now there are less than 30,000. For those who have been forced to leave there is virtually no home to return to, and those that remain have lost any semblances of it. Something must be done to atone for this and the panel raised good suggestions of what this could be legally. I am grateful for their insights and this earnest push for accountability. Accountability is an important way of thinking about international law in the Syrian war. I hope Eastern Ghouta will be the case that finally brings retribution. What has happened in Eastern Ghouta and what continues to happen should not be forgotten or relegated to being a just another episode of the Syrian war.

HOMEWARD - May 2018 Sarah Osei-Bonsu

White Masks

Photo by Trevor Cole

Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu, Staff Writer

I grew up in the most religious country in the world. Ghana is a melting pot of Christian, Muslim and ‘traditionalist’ African beliefs. However, the dominant religion is Christianity and it is fundamentally at odds with the traditional belief systems. Growing up in the city of Kumasi, the cultural center of the Ashanti, Ghana’s major ethnic group, I witnessed this clash between our African spirituality and Christian colonial legacy first hand.

When I was little, I observed a traditional ceremonial dance at a funeral. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the man in the grass skirt kicking up dirt as he swirled in hypnotic circles, every inch of his body twisting, curling and contracting to each drumbeat. His entourage threw white dust as he turned and he was enveloped in white mist, his skin slowly turning grey. His face was already painted in the dust, like a white mask. This man was an Akomfo, an Ashanti priest, his dance a spiritual performance of the traditional belief system, Akom. There was a strangeness about this mystic man, yet one thing wasn’t all that extraordinary. Many Ghanaians today wear white masks. The only difference is that these masks are invisible. They are not symbols of our traditions, but rather tokens given to us by our colonizers.

The white masks conceal our identity, altering the way we saw ourselves. We first wore these masks because we had no choice, but in the centuries since, we forgot what lay behind them. Colonialism damaged Africa’s cultural integrity. One of the greatest and most damaging colonizing tools on the continent was Christianity. The Christian faith itself is not harmful, often it manifests itself beautifully. However, in Ghana it is rooted in the racism and subjugation of our colonial past. The Christianity we initially encountered was that of slavers and murderers. It was spread on the basis of our assumed inferiority and that of our customs. Because of this there is an implicit self-hatred in our history with Christianity, and this is a self-perpetuating system. Not only are we forgetting our culture, but we are actively demeaning and rejecting it.

Just like our colonial masters before, most Ghanaians view traditional religions, like Akom, with hostility and condemnation. These traditional belief systems in our popular culture have become synonymous with words like Satanism, fetishism, and magic. These all fall under an umbrella term: ‘Juju’, by which Ghanaians refer to anything that is neither Muslim nor Christian and is thus by default evil. This stigma is deeply embedded in Ghanaian culture and it directly descends from the colonial roots of Christianity in Ghana.

Today Christianity is a big business in Ghana. New denominations and ambitious pastors (or entrepreneurs) are making their mark across the country with churches overcrowding the cityscape. This is often an aggressive brand of Christianity. The problem with this kind of Christian gospel is that it condemns any other religious beliefs. Given the massive role of Christianity in Ghana, this perpetuates a cycle of self-hatred. Adoring the deity of our colonizers is in conflict with our local culture and tradition and demands their rejection.

Throughout Ghana’s cities you will encounter preachers, condemning everything satanic. Satanic meaning anything spiritual outside the realm of Christianity, such as Akom. In Akom, the belief is that the spoken word holds power. Every word spoken is an evocation. In Ghana, most of the times, that which is spoken and preached is hateful and demeaning of traditional spirituality. These evocations have clearly been realized in Ghanaian society.

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde

Ghanaians are very spiritual people. Pre-colonial beliefs, like Akom, assume that there is a spirit in everything: the earth, rivers, thunder, animals, blood. Our custom, music, and dance, passionately built on this conviction. Christianity in Ghana instrumentalized this spirituality and radicalized it. In modern-day Ghana ‘spirituality’ is seen as something harsh and overbearing, sometimes taking the form of ‘exorcisms’ during lunch breaks at school or, violent ‘possessions’ of my colleagues attributed to some vague spirits.

Akom, has been so misconstrued. Now it is merely juju. I used to believe this too, or at least I never questioned it. When Ghanaians are not actively perpetuating this stigma, we relegate ourselves to ignorance. This might be even more damaging. How have we forgotten the complexity and harmony of our traditions? Most of us don’t know that at its core Akom seeks balance between the physical and spiritual worlds. It claims the immortality and infinity of the earth and our ancestors. We have not only turned our backs on traditional worship, but in the process we have lost much of our identity. Beyond the beautiful rituals that are being lost, we are drawing further and further away from nature. Rejecting our culture builds on the assumption that we’re not cultured and we have filled this void, or rather covered it, with a new one.

Christianity, this religion we have tied all our hopes to is not an innocent faith in the African case. These masks we wear, have worn, and will continue to place on our children are harming our society. I want to remind you again, that my issue is not with Christianity itself, but with the denial and self-hate which afflicts our practice of it. Like Frantz Fanon explained:

“The Church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor. And as we know, in this matter many are called but few chosen.”

Christianity was a central underpinning of imperialism and the slave trade. How can we worship the same tool used to subjugate us? In the slave castle of Cape Coast, above the dungeons in which slaves were held stands a proud church. By the time the colonial era was over, the mask was already firmly in place. Just like Cape Coast, modern, independent Ghana, has built churches above its disturbing history with Christianity. Now Christianity is deeply embedded in the fabric of Ghanaian society. We once worshipped in nature and then we were herded into Churches. The community used to be a family, now we clash because we belong to different denominations. The business of Christianity is unnatural, and it cannot be sustained.

There is a popular symbol in Ashanti culture called Sankofa. It means ‘go back to that which you have forgotten’. I hope that as Ghanaians, and Africans, we can return to our roots. That Christianity in Ghana will no longer sustain itself on the suppression of our traditions and customs but can coexist with them. Religion should not be dependent on conversion and dominance, but should cohabit with spirituality and a pride in our traditions. I think of the Akomfo, his vigorous dance a memory of our traditions and the pride that once was. The white mask a reminder of where we are now. It is time to take off this mask.

POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018 Sarah Osei-Bonsu

We Are Humans; Let’s Act Like It

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter

Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu, Staff Writer

The Jungle is no place for humans. We know this of course, we are the civilized world. Imagine humans living in a jungle of makeshift tents, crossing streets of mud to crude churches and mosques because God might be the only one who’ll listen. Imagine waiting six hours for the chance to shower, and waiting even longer to eat. Voicing your frustration and being beaten down by police. This sounds like an unpleasant fiction – humans have more dignity than that, especially in the European Union.

“We are humans, not animals,” said Karzan, a refugee who lived in the Jungle, right here in the EU, in stark contrast to the human rights Europe preaches.

In October 2016, the Jungle was demolished after being deemed illegal. 7,000 people were forcefully resettled. Now we speak of the Jungle in past tense. A brief lapse in our beloved union which so prides itself on social welfare. Reporting on the Jungle is not popular anymore, the hashtags are no longer trending. The world watched this shameful spectacle unfold and now the world can forget again.

Humans not animals… Europe needed that reminder.

The refugee camp in Calais, France, known as the Jungle, was the horrific climax of Europe’s ‘migrant crisis’, where conditions for refugees were deplorably inhuman. Informal camps have been continuously appearing in the area around Calais since 1999.  The town’s connection to the Channel tunnel, as well as its position as Europe’s informal border with Britain, has made it a popular transit-location for migrants looking to enter the UK. When Europe’s migrant crisis recently came to a head, the Calais camp festered and expanded like never before, becoming ‘the Jungle’. The Jungle received increasing scrutiny due to its lamentable conditions. Unparalleled by any other encampment it became the horrific symbol of the migrant crisis. By May 2016, an estimated 7,000 migrants were living in the Jungle, in brutal conditions, in improvised shelters lacking proper sanitary facilities. As an informal camp, the Jungle enjoyed none of the proper amenities or state assistance mandated for refugee settlements within the EU. Aid was supplied only by NGOs and other private donors and was, therefore, nowhere near enough.

Unable to meet basic human needs, with its crowded conditions and limited medical care, the Jungle took many lives, while those who survived did so in the most hopeless conditions. For the living, the Jungle was a hell. Despite these dismal conditions, the population continued to grow, with migrants increasingly foregoing EU asylum procedures and seeking out the ‘border-town’ with hopes of entering the UK rather than claiming asylum elsewhere in the EU. Numerous attempts were made daily to cross the UK border, often ending fatally. Hoping against hope, the people of the Jungle persisted. Aside from the occasional visits of masked policemen and police dogs the EU did not intervene.

There were outcries across Europe, voices that condemned the Jungle’s existence and the fact that nothing was being done. A dog that barks but doesn’t bite. Alas, nothing was done, for two reasons; because legally nothing had to be done and because the people of Europe refused to forge a way where the law would not.

The EU has one of the world’s most sophisticated human rights systems. It adheres to a collection of human rights charters and conventions, forming a complex legal framework to protect asylum seekers. Wherever they find themselves in the asylum process, their human dignity is to be safeguarded. This guarantee is not extended to the ‘illegals’. Those who forgo the asylum process, who want to exercise their own agency instead of being relegated to asylum centres (which resemble prisons more than refuge), who insist on reuniting with their families instead of being detained by their country of ‘first entry’ (the only country legally required to take responsibility for them).

Precedents exist outside the asylum procedure to unequivocally safeguard all humans  – they are fundamental human rights and should be inviolable in any state. They clearly stipulate that no human should be exposed to degrading treatment. Was France somehow incapable of meeting its duties? French nationals continued to enjoy their rights while the people in the Jungle suffered, meaning that protection was applied hypocritically, and so, as a governing body, the EU should have intervened.

Photo by Anthony Delanoix

In the debate over the Jungle, the popular consensus was that the EU had failed to act, and Europe was duly appalled. Yes, it is important to acknowledge that the law is faulty if it is unable to protect the rights of the vulnerable, and that the EU’s failure to uphold its own laws is one of the main reasons for the tragedy of the Jungle. But instead of being satisfied with criticising the application of the law, it is better to change it. The EU has a democratic system sophisticated enough to correct its own shortcomings. The absence of legally-mandated action does not have to mean the absence of change. If we cannot rely on the law as it stands then something else must be done. We need to go beyond the mere displeasure of knowing injustices exist and demand change collectively.  

I want to propose a break in the trend of political and social idleness. We live in a great time of accessibility, transparency, and freedom of information. Yet, for a lot of us it is a one-way road from informed to disinterested. The Jungle is one unfortunate case of this. In the midst of our interest and shock in the story we forgot, or didn’t realize, that we had the power to impact a change.

Despite its shortcomings, the EU is a democratic body. A willing public can propose and urge legislative changes. The EU recognizes, and values, protests, and petitions. The European Citizens’ Initiative, for instance, stipulates that Europeans can propose new legislation with at least 1 million signatures (only 0.2 percent of the EU population). This is more than just logistics, it means we can exercise direct democracy on an EU level. What it requires, is a driven, well-informed public sphere. We need to insist on knowing what is happening in the world around us, especially in our own political space. I believe, a lot of us are already informed and mentally engaged enough to care.

In the Calais case, it was not enough to know the atrocities going on, but to recognize our own power to change them. To avoid another Jungle we should insist that asylum is expanded to all refugees within EU territory who live in degrading, inhuman situations, even when they forego asylum procedures. We must remove clauses in the asylum regulations which delay refugees receiving the aid they need, leaving them in limbo. Let’s get rid of the ‘first entry principle’ and instead demand that all states claim legal responsibility for refugees within their borders regardless of their ‘legality’. A state that fails to protect the lives of refugees and fails to accommodate their basic needs,  should not be able to excuse its failure on the basis of law. That defeats the purpose of the law – to protect us. Let us not be satisfied with criticising the asylum system that allowed the Jungle to happen, when we have the power to amend the law to better suit our beliefs. By creating and contributing to discourses we care about we become connected and can be active in the change we want. We have the numbers. Now what we need is the action to make change happen.

Unfortunately, we were too late to prevent the Jungle. Europe built a fortress, reluctant to let anyone in. A jungle on the peripheries was a nuisance, nothing more. Instead of addressing the institutional problems it represented, the EU’s solution was to burn it down. Out of sight, out of mind.

The Jungle was an ecosystem breeding hope and despair. Where predators wore uniforms and wielded batons. Where humans were treated like animals as we watched on. The Jungle is not an anomaly. It tested Europe’s human rights system and, unfortunately, Europe failed. We failed too. The Jungle and other examples like it will continue to fall through the legal web if we, the people, don’t take up our role in weaving it. The Jungles will not stop until we demand the EU recognize in practice, without prejudice, that all humans are equal and deserve dignity irrespective of their circumstances and origin. The Jungle deserves redemption. Let us not forget. Let us not fall silent. We must fight for what we believe, for we are humans.