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.
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.