The battle for Raqqa, a symbolic city for the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria is underway with ever-increasing dangers to civilian populations caught in the cross-fire of ISIS and the advancing Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by air strikes of the US-led coalition.
The United Nations Secretariat has raised an alarm concerning the fate of families held by the ISIS forces for possible use as “human shields” in the battle for the city of Raqqa held by ISIS since 2014. The use of civilians as “human shields” is a violation of the laws of war set out in the Geneva Conventions. ISIS leaders have been repeatedly warned by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which, by treaty, is responsible for the respect and application of the Geneva Conventions.
In addition to the families which have been rounded up or are prevented from leaving, there are a large number of children trapped in the city and who may be used in military ways, either to fight or as suicide bombers.
The danger from the disintegrating ISIS is that there are no longer the few restraints that existed among some of the ISIS leadership for the laws of war. As troops have drawn closer to Raqqa, they have found mass graves with both soldiers and civilians killed. One of the fundamental aspects of the laws of war is the protection of prisoners of war. Once a person is no longer able to combat, he must be treated as a prisoner and no longer a combatant. Not killing a prisoner is a core value of humanitarian law, and ISIS has deliberately violated this norm.
There is a real danger that, as the Islamic State disintegrates and no longer controls territory, it will increase terrorist actions and deliberate violations of the laws of war. The Association of World Citizens has stressed that the laws of war have become part of world law and are binding upon States and non-State actors even if they have not signed the Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols. Therefore, the Association of World Citizens calls for the re-affirmation of humanitarian international law. The Association calls to the soldiers and militia members in armed conflicts to refuse orders to violate international law by refusing to use weapons outlawed by international treaties such as chemical weapons, land mines, cluster munitions and white phosphorus munitions. We must defend all who use their individual conscience to refuse to follow orders to violate humanitarian international law
World law does not destroy violence unless it is bound up with an organized, stable and relatively just society. No society can be stable unless it is broadly based in which all sectors of the population are involved. Such stability does not exist in either Syria or Iraq. However repeated violations of the laws of war will increase the divide among groups and communities. Only by a wide public outcry in defense of humanitarian law can this danger be reduced. These grave violations by ISIS and others must be protested by as wide a coalition of concerned voices as possible. The time for action is now.
Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens