Should Christians Advocate for the Respect of International Humanitarian Law in the Syrian Conflict?

*By Wissam al-Saliby

The cornerstone principle in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is the principle of distinction: You can only attack military targets and persons directly participating in the war; you can never attack civilians. The violation of this principle, such as indiscriminate attacks, would amount to a war crime.[1] In Syria today, just as in Lebanon’s (un)civil wars between 1975 and 1990, the principle of distinction is not respected, nor are IHL principles limiting the methods and means of warfare.[2]

In the past 5 years, I have given dozens of trainings on IHL to lawyers and human rights advocates in Lebanon and the Arab World. In 2011, I established with colleagues the Summer School on Law and Armed Conflict, an annual 2-week program on IHL for Arabic speaking law graduates.[3]

In my post here, there are two question related to IHL and to the principle of distinction that I would like to raise, and for which I seek answers. The purpose of asking these questions is to reconcile my rights advocacy with my values. The questions are:

  1. Should Christians advocate for the respect of IHL at all?
  2. In seeking an end to suffering in Syria, should Christians include International Humanitarian Law in their approach?

IHL as IHL

All academic textbooks claim that IHL is anchored in Christian, Jewish and Muslim civilization and tradition. However, reflecting on Biblical ethics, can we as Christians really endorse a law that authorizes and justifies the killing of a man only because this man directly partakes in armed hostilities? The protection of civilians in war is vital, but are we compromising with our faith and values when we declare that it is lawful to kill armed combatants? Aren’t we encouraging the violation of the commandment “thou shalt not kill”.

Knowing that the principle of distinction shifts the responsibility to the individual – i.e. if the individual decides to take part in the hostilities, he accepts the corresponding risk of death – would this render this cornerstone principle of distinction compatible with Biblical values?

A complicating factor is that military service is mandatory in Syria. Men who flee Syria to avoid the draft are among the refugee population in Lebanon and neighboring countries. But fleeing is not an option for many. In this case, would we still advocate for the respect of IHL with the underlying assumption is that the death of these men is acceptable?

Moreover, regardless of the decision to be a combatant, what about the opponent, the potential killer?

We believe that all people are created in the image of God, whether military or civilian, whether participating in war willingly or by force. Therefore can we advocate for the protection of civilians and persons hors de combat while simultaneously giving a license to kill combatants and persons directly participating in hostilities?

IHL as a tool among many

If we take a step backward and reflect on the bigger picture, would we choose to disseminate IHL and advocate for its respect, or choose other forms of interventions if we had the option to do so?

For a faith based organization in Lebanon whose members adhere to Kingdom values, what would be the ideal intervention in Syria that would bring relief to the suffering of Syrians? Would you choose either to:

  • Work on respecting IHL to protect the civilian population in Syria?
  • Work for peace by addressing the root causes of the conflict knowing that it is tantamount to Mission Impossible because many States are fueling the conflict?
  • Work on humanitarian aid and assistance knowing that this alleviates the suffering  but does not heal the wound? or
  • Work on securing a safe refuge for the population affected by the conflict in another country, pending their return?

These options are mutually exclusive. You cannot document IHL violations and provide aid at the same time. Because criticism of the warring parties’ actions (i.e. advocating for respect of IHL) will deny you (the perception of) impartiality, a prerequisite for providing humanitarian aid. Moreover, you certainly cannot work for peace (addressing the causes of conflict or jus ad bellum) and, simultaneously, for respect of IHL rules during conflict (jus in bello), as criticism of warring parties instigating and perpetuating the conflict will deny you (the perception of) impartiality.

In answering our call to ministry, how do we respond? Which option brings us closer to the Kingdom of God?


[1] An Arab War-Crimes Court for Syria, New York Times Op-Ed by ARYEH NEIER, April 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/05/opinion/an-arab-war-crimes-court-for-syria.html; Time to refer Syrian war crimes to ICC – U.N. inquiry, The Daily Star (Lebanon, February 18, 2013, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Feb-18/206914-un-identified-individuals-in-leadership-positions-responsible-for-syria-war-crimes.ashx

[2] For relevant reports and briefs, consult Human Rights Watch Syria page: http://www.hrw.org/middle-eastn-africa/syria

[3] Call for Participation in the 2013 edition of the Regional Summer School on Law and Armed Conflict, 19 April 2013, http://amelhumanrights.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/call-for-participation-to-the-2013-edition-of-the-regional-summer-school-on-law-and-armed-conflict-4/

* Wissam al-Saliby is the Development and Partner Relations Manager at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) and is actively involved with IMES. He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East.

2 thoughts on “Should Christians Advocate for the Respect of International Humanitarian Law in the Syrian Conflict?

  1. Wissam this is exactly the sort of situation where we function as the body of Christ, with each part doing an appointed task. There’s definitely a place for all of the ministries you mention, including support for IHL.

    We must support justice for the orphan and widow in distress (the best example of non-combatants). We must be peacemakers. We must feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We must offer refuge to the alien.

    While they may seem mutually exclusive, we simply cannot adopt one at the expense of another. Every Christian cannot do all of these things, but together as a body we can and must do them.

    • Yes. Various organizations can have various mandates that would complement each other, each working separately and in one of the stated fields of work (Legal advocacy, aid, peace making, refugee support, etc.). To a certain extent, this is already happening with secular organizations (Human Rights Watch reporting on violations; UN agencies providing aid; other international organizations providing aid and supporting refugees; UN missions attempting to find a political solution to the conflict; NGOs pursuing capacity building to Syrian civil society; etc.).

      With regards to Humanitarian Law, I would like to direct you to the work of Geneva Call. They produced a series of adverts advocating for the respect of IHL in Syria that are available on this Youtube channel http://youtube.com/ihlsyria. This is quite a unique approach.

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