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Syria military action vote: our view on the UK ISIS strategy

Update 3 December: Last night MPs voted in favour of UK military action against ISIS in Syria, after a 10-hour debate in Parliament. Just hours later, the RAF have begun airstrikes on oil fields under ISIS control. Our call remains the same: the UK must make sure civilians are protected.

As parliament votes whether the UK should join the coalition to launch airstrikes inside Syria, this has become the latest political football, with strongly held views on both sides.

I wonder how the people of Raqqa are feeling at the prospect of more civilian casualties.

UK military strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) positions inside Syria could start within days. But is enough really being said about what this may mean for civilians in Syria, or the prospect of long-term stability? I don’t believe so.

There is no doubt that ISIS is a major threat and Amnesty has reported on their atrocities in Syria for some time and called for comprehensive action against their foot soldiers, funders and facilitators.

No matter how horrific the actions of ISIS are, international humanitarian law is clear that scrupulous care must be taken to ensure civilians are protected from harm at all times.

The protection of civilians is a key priority for Amnesty and that's why we call on all parties who could be involved to fully comply with international humanitarian law.

In particular, those involved must:

  • Refrain from targeting civilians or civilian objects
  • Refrain from carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks
  • Refrain from using weapons which are inherently indiscriminate or otherwise prohibited under international humanitarian law, including cluster munitions
  • Take all necessary precautions in attacks to spare civilians, including by issuing warnings to civilians wherever feasible, and paying particular heed to the fact that detainees may be being held in ISIS facilities

ISIS for its part, despite having already terrorised numerous local communities, still have responsibilities (yes, they really do) and should itself be taking precautions to protect civilians under their control against the effects of military strikes.

This would include avoiding locating military objectives within or near densely-populated areas, and removing civilians from the vicinity of military objectives.

ISIS should also refrain from using civilians to render military objectives immune from attack (that is, as human shields).

Arming Syrian opposition groups

The very serious risk of contributing to human rights abuses is a major factor in considering whether to scale up arms transfers to armed opposition groups in Syria. Rightly, it’s been a major factor for many governments since day one.

There are many questions about safeguards the UK government should take very seriously to ensure any arms transferred would not be used to commit human rights abuses.

For instance: How would the UK government assess and determine which armed opposition groups would receive any transfer of arms, and can they name these groups?

What measures would be put in place to prevent the theft, diversion or movement of an arms transfer from the designated group to an unauthorised end-user (such as a different armed group)?

How would the UK government ensure adequate training is provided to the designated end-users to ensure the arms are used in accordance with international law?

There are many more questions, including ones relating to future stabilisation plans in Syria; Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) for instance – look at the poorly thought-through planning from the UK and others regarding Libya for an example of how interventions and arming can cause major instability and civilian protection issues if laws of war and human rights considerations are not central to short-, medium- and long-term planning.

There will of course be many rebuttal questions such as: How are people meant to defend themselves and build a better Syria when ISIS is rampaging through the country?

That’s a fair question – the bottom line though is long-term civilian protection and stability according to the laws of war and human rights safeguards must be a central factor in the planning and delivery of any armed operations or lethal assistance to armed groups in Syria.

It’s only in the interests of arms dealers and those that benefit from instability, such as ISIS and other similar groups, and the Syrian government for that matter, if UK operations in Syria are as ill-conceived as they have been in previous interventions.

I can’t help feel that less politicking and more safeguards may be preferable to the people of Syria.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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