Archive for war

Turkey’s Alarming Regional Intervention Continues to Affect Minority Communities with Impunity, This Time in Azerbaijan

By Guest Contributors Anoush Baghdassarian and Sherin Zadah

Tucked away into the southern caucasus is a region struggling for survival, not against COVID-19, but against yet another offensive by Turkey, this time in Azerbaijan, targeting the region’s minority populations.  

On Sept. 27, 2020, a war broke out in the Republic of Artsakh, also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). The conflict is mainly between Armenia, the ethnic Armenians of NKR, and Azerbaijan, but Turkey is also a player in the conflict; it has pledged support for Azerbaijan, closing its border with Armenia and reaffirming Azerbaijan’s claims to territorial integrity. 

Amid the current crisis, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to “support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always,” including military assistance. This manifested into a coordinated premeditated attack against one of its historic minority communities — the Armenians. This follows shortly after Turkey’s crimes against the Kurds, another one of its repeatedly persecuted ethnic groups. Turkey launched a targeted military campaign in northeastern Syria as confirmed by an August 2020 UN Human Rights Council Report that credibly accused Turkish-backed militias of committing crimes against humanity in Northern Syria against the minority Kurdish population. 

Turkey’s historical oppression of its minority populations such as the Kurds and Armenians has continued with impunity. Today, it has escalated to the immoral mobilization of a sophisticated network of proxy fighters that it deploys abroad, including in Libya, Armenia, and other countries, to fight its wars abroad. 

The Syrian National Army, or SNA, is one of the proxy groups that consists of vulnerable, war-torn Syrians who arguably would not be able to reject Turkey’s lucrative offer of 1,500-2,000 lira per month to fight abroad in Libya and now most recently, in Azerbaijan. 

Turkey has been acting without consequence in Syria, Libya, and now the self-proclaimed  Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, or NKR, located between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but de jure recognized as within Azerbaijan’s borders. For over 25 years the NKR conflict, a stalemated tug-of-war between self-determination and territorial integrity, has been relatively peaceful (with minor skirmishes over the years, the longest lasting four days in 2016). Before the violence erupted, SNA commanders were transferred in late September to southern Turkey, and then transported to Azerbaijan on September 25th.  This occurred two days before the violence began in NKR. 

Turkey, the second largest military power in NATO,  has re-ignited the violence through its unilateral military support of Azerbaijan, and redefined it in alarming ways. This military alliance has been solidified through the Baku-Ankara agreement which prioritizes military cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan. To aid Azerbaijan and to further Turkey’s neo-ottomanism ambitions, Turkey has deployed Syrian foreign fighters to Azerbaijan. 

While it has already been confirmed that Azerbaijan used internationally condemned, and banned, cluster munitions in Stepanakert and Shushi, Turkey’s use of mercenaries adds another element of illegality to the fighting in NKR, according to Articles 2 and 5 of the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, and Article 2(1)(b) of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.  The mercenaries deployed by Turkey are already credibly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Northern Syria, and are also affiliated with well-known terrorist organizations. Even the head of Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service stated that the conflict was attracting “hundreds and […]even thousands of radicals hoping to earn money in a new Karabakh war.” 

Turkey is thus in breach of its obligations under the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, to which it is a member. Furthermore, Azerbaijan and Syria have also ratified the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, making the use of mercenaries on their territory illegal. Since NKR is de jure recognized as within the borders of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani use of mercenaries in the conflict is a violation of their obligations under this Convention. 

Lastly, there is an argument to be made that Turkey is essentially coercing these impoverished Syrians into fighting, as the lack of available economic opportunity in war-torn Syria leaves them with no other option. For example, a Syrian foreign fighter fighting in Azerbaijan described to BBC how “they loaded us into troop carriers, we were wearing Azeri uniforms, and each of us was armed with a single Kalashnikov weapon. Most of the people here are poor civilians who wanted the money, not soldiers, stopped the car and we were surprised that we were in the line of fire. We did not even know where the enemy was.” While this does not preclude accountability for any illegal acts committed by the mercenaries, it is clear that the Turkish military exploited the economic and social needs of some individuals. 

While this war is too new to have thorough assessments of international law violations on the ground, we do have evidence of such violations committed by Turkey in Northern Syria. 

Turkey’s crimes against humanity against Kurds in Northeastern Syria have been well documented by the recent UN-HRC-45-31 report released in August 2020. The report documents the property theft, torture, sexual violence, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, and severe deprivation of liberty, of people “primarily of Kurdish origin” living in Afrin by the Syrian National Army. These severe human rights abuses of Kurdish civilians should be immediately condemned and acted upon by the international community, including the United Nations Security Council. 

Not only does Turkey’s use of mercenaries amount to international law violations, it also poses a threat to global security. What is especially concerning about Turkey’s use of mercenaries in furthering its foreign policy interests is that its goals are against global interests, such as combating Islamist extremism. As stated by Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Turkey’s active and passive support for ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups has been “very well documented.” Similarly, the  French President Emmanuel Macron expressed  his concern with “Turkey’s “warlike” rhetoric  which was encouraging Azerbaijan to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh and that was unacceptable.” 

This has become a pressing global issue given that two world powers, Russia and Turkey, are on opposite sides of several major world conflicts such as in Syria and Libya and now in NKR, where Russia is trying to broker a ceasefire, and Turkey is fueling further fighting. The threat of these rising tensions risks further instability in a rapidly destabilizing region. What we see unfolding now follows an unsettling trend of Turkey’s complete disregard for the rights of minorities and raises a critical question of if Turkey will have a stopping point.

 

About the Authors

Anoush Baghdassarian is a JD Candidate at Harvard Law School. She has a Master’s in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, and a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Genocide Studies from Claremont McKenna College. She is Co-founder of the Rerooted Archive, documenting over 200 testimonies from Syrian-Armenian refugees who have fled Syria in the last ten years.  She has a career focus on transitional justice and international criminal law and some of her work experiences include interning as an advisor to the Armenian Permanent Mission to the UN, and serving as an upcoming visiting professional at the International Criminal Court.

Sherin Zadah is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College and has worked on international development issues in Jordan and Turkey. Sherin is a humanitarian activist and former State Department intern. She has contributed to the WSJ, has been a guest speaker on NBC San Diego’s political talk and featured on national broadcasts, such as NPR where she spoke on the crisis in northeastern Syria. She is the founder of Kurdish Refugee Relief, a 501c3 non-profit organization committed to serving the needs of Kurdish refugees while creating a growing network of support. 

Non-Violence in Communal War in Central Nigeria

By James Courtright, Staff Writer for RightsViews

On January 30th Dr. Jana Krause came to speak with students and faculty at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs about her new book, “Resilient Communities: Non-Violence and Civilian Agency in Communal War.” Her work centers on communal conflict – non-state armed conflict between identity groups – in Plateau state in Nigeria and Maluku province in Indonesia. In both places the violence tended to be simplistically referred to as Christian against Muslim, but upon further investigation she found it was deeply rooted in local political and economic dynamics and narratives. After explaining how communal violence was organized, she then delved into neighborhoods in Nigeria and Indonesia where violence did not occur, analyzing how the choices of civilians and their collective efforts to prevent fighting saved the lives of hundreds of people.

Conflict in Jos

When she first visited Jos, Nigeria in 2010, Dr. Krause had to pass through multiple checkpoints along the road from the capital Abuja before entering a city where half-destroyed houses lined the streets and every major traffic junction was accompanied by a heavy military presence. As she started comparing her interviews with journalistic accounts, data sets, and human rights reports she realized that conflict in the city of Jos and rural Plateau State claimed more than 7,000 lives between 2001 and 2010. This violence, she concluded, was not sporadic clashes – it was war.

Dr. Jana Krause. Photo from her website.

Dr. Krause builds on the work of political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, whose work has advanced the idea that what civilians do in conflict matters. Unlike the journalistic shorthand of “neighbors killing neighbors,” she explained, violence is usually perpetrated by militias formed in surrounding neighborhoods. These militias would mobilize after hearing rumors that their perceived enemies were arming themselves, and then travel to where they believed clashes were occurring or where they had planned to attack. When they arrived in other communities, some residents there would collaborate with militias to identify “the enemy” based on their identity or hyper local grievances. Thus, communal violence results from rumor, threat assessment, mobilization and information sharing, grievances linked to previous violence, and local conflicts.

After delving into these dynamics, she began asking if residents knew an area that was vulnerable and religiously and socio-economically mixed, but where violence did not occur. She was pointed to Dadin Kowa, a community that sits in the southern suburbs of Jos. As she spent more time with residents of Dadin Kowa, she came to better understand how they managed to maintain an uneasy and tense peace while thousands of people were being killed or forced to flee their homes in surrounding neighborhoods.

How to avoid or forestall violence?

While many community leaders across Jos strove to avoid violence during this painful decade, Dadin Kowa’s leaders were arguably the most successful. One of the main reasons for this, Dr. Krause argued, was that both Christian and Muslim community leaders and everyday residents painstakingly created a broader identity as ‘being a resident of Dadin Kowa’, overcoming the fractious Berom Christian and Muslim Jasawa political agendas. From early on there was a tacit agreement, and later a more formal one, between religious leaders that they would preach to their respective congregations to avoid violence. People were still politically polarized, but when it came to violence, leaders constantly stressed a deeper fealty to their shared humanity and their neighborhood of Dadin Kowa.

Women’s groups also played a key role. At one point, tensions at the market became so serious that women began to travel out of the neighborhood to buy their vegetables and staples from their own religious group, dividing the community further. As tension at the market became a serious hindrance in their lives, women across the religious divide began meeting and sharing their stories, fears, and aspirations. As Dr. Krause writes in her book these meetings “fostered determination that their neighborhood would not be devastated by clashes.”

However, creating a unifying identity was not enough in and of itself. Dr Krause pointed out how civilians consolidated social control of the neighborhood. Women’s groups and other informants would pass information about suspicious activities or rumors to community leaders, who at times used open threats and even violence against people in the community to maintain order.

Young men in the community were told that under no circumstances were they allowed to go and fight with groups outside the community, and at the first sign of trouble they should return home. A clear communications network was built by community leaders so whenever trouble appeared on the horizon leaders on both sides of the religious divide could call and coordinate their actions to calm tensions. Mixed youth patrol groups were even created to guard the neighborhood and coordinate with the military and police.

In addition to dense networks built within Dadin Kowa, to deter attacks leaders in the community engaged in extensive negotiations and coordination with leaders in neighboring communities as well as the police and military. They even paid thinly veiled bribes to facilitate good relations and regular police patrols. For example, some of the women’s groups cooked lunch for the soldiers in order to maintain good relations. Both Christian and Muslim community leaders from Dadin Kowa went to mosques and churches in neighboring suburbs of Jos and publicly presented their agreement not to fight in Dadin Kowa.

In at least one case violence was averted by the actions of a single individual. In January 2010 when two external Christian militias threatened Dadin Kowa a community leader identified as Timothy in Dr. Krause’s book went out and single handedly negotiated with the militias, telling them that they would not be allowed into the neighborhood and no one would collaborate with them. He slowed their advance until they could hear the gunshots of the military nearby, and the militia turned around without harming anyone in Dadin Kowa. Timothy had lived through the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s and understood the dynamics of how violence happened and how and when to intervene.

In some cases, peace was only maintained with the credible threat of violence. One of Dr.  Krause’s interviewees, a Christian resident of a nearby neighborhood identified as Abraham, revealed that not only was the agreement not to fight in Dadin Kowa well known outside the neighborhood, it was also understood that the agreement would be enforced with violence. “If the boys from outside want to overcome them, then the Dadin Kowa boys will fight them,” Dr. Krause quotes Abraham saying in her book. “If you go there to fight, they will kill you. That’s the agreement.”

However, Dr. Krause stressed that Dadin Kowa was not an oasis of harmony during these episodes of violence. The community was tense as people fleeing violence sought refuge and leaders struggled to exert control over rebellious youth. Tensions within women’s groups over rumors and unfair burdens of labor also created problems. In some cases, as in the January 2010 episode mentioned previously, people in Dadin Kowa agreed it was the fateful intervention of a single person which averted catastrophe.

What can Dadin Kowa teach the world?

After her presentation Dr. Krause was asked about the implications of her work for practitioners. She responded by saying that we need to complicate the “islands of peace” idea that non-violence is isolated from outside forces. Instead, she pointed out, Dadin Kowa was deeply enmeshed in the conflict environment and political dynamics. The leaders of Dadin Kowa who were most effective at averting violence were those who understood exactly how the violence was organized because they had seen it before. Before foreign organizations rush in to “sensitize” people about conflict dynamics, she continued, it is important to recognize that foreigners arriving and starting programs has its own political and economic implications for the community and its neighbors.

While her findings from Nigeria and Indonesia shared some basic similarities, Dr. Krause stressed that knowledge of local contexts should be foremost in the minds of outsiders seeking to work on these issues. She concluded her talk by pointing out that in both Dadin Kowa and Indonesia non-violence is less connected to pacifist attitudes but a desire to survive and partly results from direct threats of violence and coercion against those most likely to engage in killings. Acknowledging this uncomfortable reality is essential in designing local and international peace building efforts.

A Living Text? Dr. Hugo Slim on War, Humanity, and the Geneva Conventions under the ICRC’s Mandate

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews

The International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) reverence for its mandate to the Geneva Conventions was obvious as Columbia students welcomed Hugo Slim, ICRC’s Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy Division, to speak on “War and Humanity: Challenges and Trends in the 70th Year of the Geneva Conventions” on November 6.

Photo by Michelle Chouinard

From its founding in 1863 in Geneva, the ICRC has been committed to the provision of international humanitarian aid, embedding itself as one of the core players in international humanitarian law (IHL) as it developed over time to regulate jus in bello, or the “conduct of war.” It was the ICRC that convinced states in 1864 to adopt the very first Geneva Convention, creating a universal obligation of care for all wounded soldiers. From that moment on, it was also the ICRC that ultimately headlined what the IHL community now holds as some of its most fundamental texts: the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two 1977 protocols. These texts are the ICRC’s mandate, and as an organization, it holds them near and dear. 

Dr. Hugo Slim, with a copy of the Geneva Conventions. Photo by Rowena Kosher

Dr. Slim, a renowned figure in the humanitarian world, began his presentation by holding up a book: a dog-eared, well-worn, coffee-stained text containing the language of the Geneva Conventions. This book, he began, started in 1949 with only 60 states having ratified it. Now, in 2019, 197 states have acceded to the Geneva Conventions, and many parts of it have become so intuitive that states understand them as pieces of customary, binding law. “[This book] is a moral, legal, and political achievement,” he articulated, “and a real high point of humanitarian multilateralism.” 

And yet, although the Conventions are both an achievement and existing law, they are no less relevant today than they were during the World Wars. Slim described that these are texts that focus on violence and our response to violence—a reality that “continues to mark the human species in the present day.” Indeed, both the Conventions and the international environment face a changed world: one with more states parties, with more technology, with new mechanisms of warfare. All of this, he claimed, is vital to the ICRC fulfilling and furthering international humanitarian ethics. 

To accomplish this task, Slim believes in beginning with a return to the text, asking “what does humanity look like in the Geneva Conventions?” If the ICRC is mandated to protect humans in wartime, who does it serve, to what ends, and in what philosophical conception? 

On the most basic level, Slim said, the Geneva Conventions conceive of four groups of “protected persons:” the wounded and sick, the wounded at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians. These are the explicitly articulated classes of the legal text. Yet, the Conventions go beyond this to articulate protection of certain human relationships and human objects; relations or things that the texts deem “necessary to be fully human.” The relationships that the Conventions protect include family and the idea of “being with others in this world and not just being alone.” Objects essential to human survival, such as food, water, medicine, and business, also get recognition. On a cultural level, Slim argued that the Conventions protect objects essential to human meaning, from religious objects and sites to cultural property, such as libraries and historic art. To go even further, he noted that the environment enjoys protections of its own in the Conventions, receiving a legal personality by virtue of the fact that in order to be human, one needs the environment. 

Humanity, then, in the Geneva Conventions, is holistic. Slim said “To be alive is a matter of biology, but to live a life of dignity, one that is truly human, requires relationships and means of survival.” The Conventions move beyond the physical life into the communal life, beyond the human into the earth. He claimed that humanity becomes physical, emotional, and spiritual as the Conventions likewise function as a combination of law, military manual, social work guidance, and administrative guidance. Under their five action distinctions (precaution, distinction between soldier/civilian/object, proportionality, impartial relief, and human treatment), the Geneva Conventions enact their vision of humanity within the context of armed conflict. 

Slim’s main priority as the policy director of ICRC requires that he operationalize the Conventions’ vision of humanity in the present day, addressing the trends and challenges that have cropped up in our changing world. In this lecture, he listed several major strategic shifts worldwide that he sees as most pressing for the ICRC and the Geneva Conventions, as they attempt to accomplish their goals for humanitarian aid. 

Political Change

Photo by Michelle Chouinard

A total of 133 new states have acceded to the Conventions since 1949. The vast majority of these new parties are formerly colonized nations taking their rightful places on the world stage. This has challenged the “older” approach to global policy in which negotiations were a discussion among “like-minded states.” Now, Slim said, we live in a multipolar political environment. As such, the ICRC must answer with “multipolar diplomacy,” focusing on extending its network with a “multipolar footprint” and “network of multipolar relationships.” 

 

A Radical Conservative Wave

In recent years, a radical conservative wave has swept through many parts of the world, from the US to the UK to India. Slim recognized that it can be tempting to dismiss conservative nations, however,  the ICRC must find new ways of relating with conservative nations when it comes to international aid. In order to fulfil its mandate, the ICRC hopes to practice “humanitarian diplomacy” so as to find areas of ethical overlap between the principles of the Geneva Conventions and traditional conservative values. We need to “find a genuine humanitarian contract,” he argued. 

Changing Warfare

The security situation in 2019 is marked by several differences compared to 1949. To start, Slim explained, militaries as of the past few years have developed so-called “near peer conflict worries,” concerned about growing threats from fellow Great Power “peers” developing into another Great Power conflict. Such a conflict would change the field of humanitarian aid immensely. 

In addition, the ICRC has observed increased salience of coalition warfare, resulting in a complicated mix of states and armed groups as partners in armed conflicts. This has repercussions for the Geneva Conventions. Not all partners may be party to the treaty, leading to inconsistent adherence to IHL amongst coalitions themselves. The ICRC is currently working on an initiative to ensure IHL respect by all partners to a collation, Slim said, although it is not yet clear that it will succeed.

Lastly, the ICRC is paying close attention to the implications of the rise in urban warfare, which brings along with it particular worries about technology and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas. There are unique concerns to think about when a method of war may involve the ability to sabotage entire electrical grids or stop entire cities. In order to protect civilians, the ICRC has an initiative asking states to agree to a policy of non-use of explosive weapons in highly populated areas unless under real military necessity. 

Weapons old and new

The ICRC has had strong stances on the use of highly destructive weapons of war since its founding. Of the “old” weapons the ICRC has always, since 1945, advocated for the abolition of nuclear weapons. “There is no way to use a nuclear weapon which is in compliance with this book,” he noted, holding up his copy of the conventions. Just because they have been around for a while, we cannot let nuclear weapons slip into history, he added. The ICRC will maintain its anti-nuclear position.

New weapons, however, also need to be addressed. The ICRC is particularly concerned about digitalization, autonomy, artificial intelligence, and deep learning technologies, which have put weapons systems on “the cusp of a major revolution,” according to Slim. Great powers are in a technological arms race, and the unfortunate paradox of this is that no one wants to begin anti-proliferation negotiation until they have already become the proverbial “winner”; thus the present day finds us in an utter freeze of negotiations. For the ICRC, Slim described a present focus on ethical arguments, attempting to articulate what the proper use of these weapons would be. Slim sees the policy of maintaining human control as key to addressing future high tech weapons. 

Protracted Conflict and Fragility

Many conflicts today have been going on for decades, not to mention the continued effects felt from post colonization, he said. Short- and long-term work is important in protracted conflict. He believes the ICRC should stay aware of the nexus between humanitarian development and peace, along with the fact that this requires dedication to a multi-year investment so as to have “sustainable humanitarian impact.” 

Climate and Conflict

Slim noted that the ICRC sees a growing trend in the number of people who are dealing with simultaneously conflict and climate shocks. “What does it mean to live with both these profound risks at one time? What does this mean for ICRC’s actions?” he asked, and then noted the ICRC’s intent to green itself as an institution. 

People’s participation and a shift in humanitarian agency

Photo by Rowena Kosher.

Humanitarian aid has a history of a colonial mindset on the part of aid-givers to aid-receivers. Recognizing the ICRC’s complicity in this history, Slim articulated the need to change the grammar of aid. Rather than the patriarchal, patronizing “subject-verb-object” form of WE help YOU, humanitarian grammar must become more prepositional: “YOU are surviving, YOU are the subject of your lives, YOU are amazingly surviving with help from us.” This new approach, beyond grammar, is intersectional in intent, with the goal of giving more power to people in organizing and discussing what is best for them, rather than imposing assumed needs. 

In addition to participation from those receiving aid from ICRC, Slim noted that donors increasingly want a say in how their funds are distributed by the organization. Trust, which will be the main focus at the ICRC’s upcoming December conference in Geneva, takes on two forms: operational trust and accountability. The ICRC must find a balance between compliance systems and a principle of trust with its donors, remembering that at the heart of this relationship is risk-sharing. “If you want to be in the game of helping people,” Slim said, “you will have to risk something.” 

What does it matter that these trends be examined? How do the Geneva Conventions translate to today’s day and age? These are crucial questions that interrogate the philosophical, practical, and human implications of war. Despite the forward progression of time, war and violence remain as high as ever, though somewhat changed in modality and nature. Humanitarian aid remains necessary. The Geneva Conventions are certainly well-worn, but they are also a living document, requiring the constant re-investigation and re-interpretation by states, parties to conflict, and aid providers like the ICRC.