On the evening of the 15th of June, the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies (CHS) hosted Fadel Abdelghany, Executive Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and Oleksandra Matviichuk, Head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, for the symposium, "Indiscriminate Attacks on Civilians as a War tactic in Syria and Ukraine." Moderated by former U.N. official and current researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Dr. Aicha Elbasri, the discussion focused on the use of indiscriminate attacks as a warfare tactic in Syria and Ukraine and possible avenues for the accountability of these war crimes. The symposium arises from CHS' guiding principle of achieving justice and its commitment to enabling sustainable recovery in conflict-afflicted societies. It saw the wide attendance of diplomats, development and humanitarian practitioners, scholars and experts, and students.
Following a brief introduction to the event, Fadel Abdul Ghany began by making clear that indiscriminate attacks violate, among many legal principles and customs, the rule of distinction, which mandates conflict parties' discrimination between military and civilian objects. Though all conflict parties in Syria committed human rights violations, the Syrian government and its allies perpetrated the most violations with vast differences from others. Based on the data gathered by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, over 70% of documented victims are victims of the Syrian government. He added that no single investigation has been launched against the Syrian government and Russia, and that although it will not happen anytime soon particularly due to Russia's permanent membership, the Security Council must refer the Syrian case to the International Criminal Court.
Oleksandra Matviichuk proceeded to provide the Ukrainian perspective on the issue at hand. She provided insight on three main trends of indiscriminate attacks in Ukraine: Russia's systematic attacking of civilian infrastructure using human shields; Russia's imposition of sieges, most notably in Mariupol; and Russia's objective to liquidate Ukrainians' ability to peacefully resist, such as through arbitrary killings and forced disappearances. These trends make evident the fact that Russia is using war crimes as a method of warfare in order to occupy Ukraine by crushing the spirits of its people. She clearly stated that, based on her extensive experience working in international and regional legal and diplomatic bodies, the law "does not work" when it comes to Russia. She affirmed that efforts must be united to realize justice for victims in Syria and Ukraine.
The presentations by both speakers were followed by short remarks from the Ambassador of Ukraine to Qatar, Andrii Kuzmenko, and the charge d'affaires of the Syrian Embassy in Qatar, Bilal Turkiah. A former military officer, Mr. Kuzimenko stated that the use of indiscriminate attacks demonstrates a lack of sophistication in war tactics and weaponry, as it resembles war tactics of previous centuries instead of the 21st century. He affirmed that a military defeat of Russia, alongside the issuance of comprehensive sanctions against the state and its eventual political demise, will stop the violence. Providing the Syrian perspective, Mr. Turkiah described the peaceful nature of the Syrian uprisings that were immediately met with violence by the Syrian government. He underscored the fact that Russia became the Syrian government's lifeline during the conflict, especially following its formal military intervention in 2015 – who were also the only two conflict parties with access to airpower.
In a question-and-answer session with a live audience, the panel engaged with the audience on questions surrounding: the effectiveness of sanctions; pathways for justice in a context marked by the decreasing significance of international institutions such as the U.N.; comparisons between Syria and Palestine in terms of war crimes and the lack of accountability; the inability of the deconfliction mechanisms to stop the targeting of civilian infrastructure; and hope for official accountability.
Overall, the session highlighted the failure of international legal mechanisms and the international community more generally to effectively put a stop to the employment of indiscriminate attacks in both contexts, including by punishing its main perpetrators, Russia and its allies in Syria and Ukraine. Though the picture of the crimes and the perpetrators is clear, achieving accountability for the systematic, indiscriminate targeting – a practice that violates key legal principles and customs of warfare – in Syria, Ukraine, and beyond, international legal mechanisms must be creatively reformed in order to fulfil their intended aim of achieving justice. To that end, the symposium's moderator, Aicha Elbasri, cited the most recent report from Michael Lynk, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, which frankly stated that the crimes committed by Israel along with the U.N. Security Council's inability and lack of willingness to enforce its own resolutions in 74 years led to a complete lack of accountability. It is this lack of accountability that resulted in the system of apartheid in Palestine today.
The conversation is available to watch in English and Arabic on our Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube