In March 2016, The European Union and Turkey made an agreement stating Turkey would keep all asylum seekers who arrived on the Greece border in return for billions of dollars. This deal has put many asylum seekers at risk due to the dangerous environment in Turkey. However, this continues to be accepted and there are no signs of change in the future due to Greece’s incomplete assessment of Turkey as a safe third country. In February 2020, Turkey retracted their statement, saying they would not stop refugees going into Europe. Turkey is the country with the most refugees – 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Since the Syrian government started bombarding their citizens with air strikes, no other European country has tried to host Syrian citizens. When Turkey finally opened its borders into other European countries, the asylum seekers were met by armed Greek border guards, tear gas, rubber bullets, and razor wires. Turkey opened its borders to force the European nations to stop ignoring the crisis in Syria. If the international community does not step in more unarmed civilians will continue to face violence in Syria, and the situation in Turkey will worsen.
What is the status in Turkey?
Turkey has been home to over 3.7 million refugees, providing them with free public services, health care, and gainful employment; there are many obstacles Syrian refugees have to go through to get these. For example, Turkey adopted a work permit in 2016, but they must be requested by employers, who are often unwilling to cover the costs and face the administrative hurdles of hiring a refugee. As a result, most refugees work in low-paying jobs, such as jobs in small textile workshops and construction.
Furthermore, Turkey does not sign off on international refugee law. Therefore, they do not allow many refugees to obtain legal status. Many Turkish authorities also force the refugees to go back to Syria, leading them to want to flee to a safer place regardless of the conditions, such as Greece.
Greece’s Response to Turkey Opening Borders
Greece has broken European Union and international law. The government is suspending the registration of any asylum claims and deporting anyone for any reason something that goes against Geneva’s Convention on Refugees. The core principle states that a “refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”Close to 40,0000 migrants are being held in camps with short food supply, poor sanitation, and tensions with locals. Although the United Nations Refugee Agency did urge Greece to address its overcrowding and precarious conditions, not much has improved. Once refugees arrive, they are not allowed to leave until their asylum requests are processed, leading to the 90,000 cases backlog.
What about the rest of the European Union?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned NATO allies and European allies that if they “do not share the burned with us, we will open the gates” . President of the European Commission described Greece as Europe’s shield in migrant crisis. They also proposed financial and material support to prevent people from entering Greece, because once they do they will continue to spread in Europe.
What should Happen next?
Europe should take a new approach to safeguarding the human rights of refugees and start sharing the responsibility for allowing them to live in dignity and peace. Many of the people leaving their countries do it out of desperation, and European governments need to ensure asylum seekers have fair procedures. Also, they must control border control and unlawful acts by authorities. Instead of hoping that the problem goes away by having migrants go to different places, the European Union needs to address the reasons why people are fleeing Syria.
The Netflix documentary, The White Helmets, takes place in the midst of a war zone – on the ground, capturing the horrors of Syria during the present war. The Syrian War is extremely complex, but the documentary gives small amount of insight. The film is important because it peers into the horrifying life of Syrians, living in and through war. The airstrikes are horrifying to watch, taking the lives of innocent people in hospitals, schools, churches, and destroying families. Nowhere is safe in Syria. While the glimpses of children screaming for their parents, or begging them not to leave them in death are blood chilling and heartbreaking, it is impossible to take in all that happens and is happening. Enter The White Helmets, volunteer citizens who train and serve as first responders; normal men who held normal jobs, have families and seek peace while rescuing others. They search through homes and other buildings trying to locate survivors, facing the danger of another strike taking their lives while trying to save others. Since their beginning in 2013, the White Helmets have saved over 58,000 lives but lost more than 130 White Helmets. In light of all the strife their country faces, the White Helmets remain optimistic.
“I am willing to sacrifice my soul for the sake of the people. This job is sacred.”
Why are the White Helmets necessary? They are necessary because there is no protection for Syrians civilians. No one is fighting for and defending them; the White Helmets are doing what they can to preserve life. Without them, the death tolls would be monumentally more. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has a right to life and security of person. This brings me to a two-pronged question. First, where is the justification for protesting Planned Parenthood in honor of “pro-life”, while remaining silent as war, as a result of political policy, decimates an entire country? The pro-life or right to life stance is described as being against abortion, or euthanasia, as those who are pro-life considers a fetus to be a human at fertilization. For those on the pro-life side of the abortion argument, a fetus possesses the same rights and protections as a human outside of the womb. This leads me to my second question: does pro-life apply only to the unborn? In other words, do the same rights apply outside of the womb as inside? Syrians are human beings. Under the pro-life position, they deserve the same protections as the unborn. However, the war in Syria provides evidence that this belief does not apply to all human beings. War and violence do not discriminate against gender, race, or age; they are two sides of the same coin. The infringement on the right to life applied to the unborn is the same infringement that should be applied to the lives of Syrians in a war zone or crossing the borders. It is seemingly the true definition of pro-life.
The impact of violence in the molding and shaping of a generation is, I believe, overlooked. On the one hand, children in Syria are able to tell the difference between a warplane and a normal aircraft, just by listening to them. They are growing up and associating much of the world with destruction, alienation, and isolation. For many, war is the only life they have known. The terrors of the Holocaust reveal, through research, that traumatic experiences are generational, meaning it transcends those experiencing the horrors and is passed down through DNA into future generations. It is theorized that generational trauma is responsible for the rapid growth in radicalism. The children who grew up seeing that the world is against them have been conditioned to be radical to feel like they have to fight to preserve themselves and survive. Therefore, it is of little surprise that if they grow up believing that some in the world despise their existence, they may feel the need to join together and fight back, in order to protect themselves. On the other, some children in America can hardly tell the difference in a helicopter and an airplane. Syrian children are found buried beneath the debris of buildings and are lucky if they are found; American children are found playing on a playground with their friends and are lucky if they find a four-leaf clover.
Governments create a façade of complete falsehood. They say they are doing something notable or acting in their country’s best interest but are killing citizens – other human beings – every day. These governments include our own in the US, along with several other first-world governments. Just two weeks ago, the US was responsible for performing an airstrike on Mosul. The attack resulted in killing over 100 civilians in the attempt to attack ISIS. In a statement issued from the US-led coalition, they said, “Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods.” At what point does one become the object of their vengeance or hate? We say that we are fighting terrorists, stamping every Muslim or Middle-Eastern with a scarlet letter of terrorism, shouting that they are the terrorists; yet, Syrians are not flying over our cities and dropping bombs on us.
“They say they are fighting ISIS, but they are targeting people.”
The horrors faced by the people of Syria transcend this documentary. Syrian civilians are not ISIS. ISIS is a child born of fear and hatred, oppression and violence; a factor in the loss of 200,000 lives. It is not a religion. The Islamic faith, taken in context, promotes peace and forgiveness, not murder and destruction. The fractured infrastructure of the cities, the tear-stained faces, and wailing of children over the parents and parents over their children reveal the unimaginable suffering. Earlier this month, a chemical attack on the province of Idlib has killed at least 70 civilians, mostly children. Following the Holocaust, nations declared “Never Again“, then there was Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, Kosovo, among others. And now Syria.
The United Nations has declared that children possess their own set of rights. Originally drafted as a declaration under the League of Nations in 1924 and amended in 1959, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was codified in 1989. The CRC maintains the rights of children are universal, indivisible, and inalienable – the same as adults. Vanessa Pupavac states that the CRC gives children protective welfare rights as well as enabling rights. Both of these rights are infringed upon in Syria. Their welfare is threatened each day, and have no opportunities for escape or growth. The Convention recognizes children as autonomous rights holders; however, the meaning of their rights is problematic. They are seen as incompetent and unable to exercise their rights, forcing them to pay for the sins of extremists such as ISIS. The global model “seeks to empower the children but fails to recognize the rights of autonomous self-determination,” according to Pupavac. This goes against exactly what the Convention stands for by denying their autonomy.
Article 2 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child asserts, “The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity.” Governments have failed to uphold this protection for the children of Syria, as facilities like hospitals and schools are destroyed. Article 6 of the CRC, State Parties must recognize that every child has the inherent right to life, and must ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child; while Article 9 states that “State Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will”. The requirements of these articles are not met for Syrians. A child with the inherent right to life is losing their life; children are found under the debris of buildings without a chance for survival; parents are being killed, leaving their children alone in a war-torn country. If children are seen as human beings by the United Nations, then the children who are suffering daily in Syria are experiencing an infringement of their collective rights.
To show exactly what happens when we infringe upon the rights of the children of Syria, CJ Werleman, columnist for the Middle East Eye, shared this tweet on April 8th:
US dropped 26k bombs on Middle East last year. KSA dropped 5k on Yemen, & Russia/Assad bombs Syria into dust.
White Helmets accomplishes the first step into fighting against situations like this: bringing it to public attention. Civic responsibility is a social force that morally binds you to an act. Therefore, it is our civic responsibility to fight for the rights of those who cannot fight for them themselves. While we may not be there physically, we can join their fight. We have seen that through diligence and passion, civil societies can change the world. Without movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the present day would be entirely different. The White Helmets, on their own, are a civil society, which is here defined as a group of people with similar interests acting together. These interests include protecting the lives of their spouses, children, brothers, sisters, and friends; interests we all support. They are not fighting back, they are simply trying to preserve what little they still have.
As a part of a marginalized group that confronts the complexities of a loss of personal security as a results of threat or attack, due to fear-based hatred, I find that I can identify with the Syrians, in a small way. I am in no way placing a comparison; I simply recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere because all oppression is connected as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.points out. We are all connected.
We can all be White Helmets.
The White Helmets’ website (https://www.whitehelmets.org/en) has an open letter to the UN for anyone to sign. If you are moved by this documentary, or just feel it necessary to support them, please go to the website and sign it. It reads:
“Barrel bombs – sometimes filled with chlorine – are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today. Our unarmed and neutral rescue workers have saved more than 85,228 people from the attacks in Syria, but there are many we cannot reach. There are children trapped in rubble we cannot hear. For them, the UN Security Council must follow through on its demand to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a ‘no-fly zone’ if necessary.” – Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defence.
One of the worst chemical attacks turned a rebel-held area in the north of Syria into a death zone. Bombs were dropped from war planes in the early morning of April 4, 2017 and the spread of poisonous gas started shortly thereafter. Close to 70 people died, with pictures of dying children and grieving relatives going around the world. The Syrian military accused insurgents, but it seems clear that only the Syrian government has the ability to carry these types of bombings. Shock and condemnation was the reaction of governments and the public around the world. Two days later, President Trump ordered airstrikes, his first military action while in office.
Why this outcry and action now? People have been dying in Syria for months and years – think Aleppo – and the response has been, for the most part, fairly limited. We have seen dying children and assaulted women, airstrikes on civilian areas, and death and suffering everywhere. I would argue there are three reasons for this strong response, both in the public and in the political realm.
The footage of the attacks themselves.
The violation of most important rules of international law.
A new administration in the White House.
Let me explain.
First and most obviously, it is the footage of children and older adults struggling to breathe, frothing at their mouths, and lying motionless in the mud as aid workers desperately try to help. It is the incredible grief by a father, who lost 22 members of his family in the attack, and who can be seen clutching the bodies of his 9-month-old twins. It is the level of individual suffering that most of us can relate to as human beings with families of our own, and the gruesomeness of the attack shakes us to the very core.
However, there is a second reason why this attack is cause for special consideration. The use of chemical weapons rises to the most serious violation of fundamental principles of international law: (1) the deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime against humanity, the “worst of worst crimes” and on par with genocide, and (2) the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in warfare is one of the most widely acknowledged and respected rules of the international law of war.
Crimes against humanity are deliberate, systematic attacks against civilians or a significant part of the civilian population. Crimes against humanity were first described and prosecuted in the Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of WWII and have since entered international criminal law as one of the major crimes for prosecution of individuals. While there is no international treaty specifically dealing with crimes against humanity, the Statute of the International Criminal Court lists mass murder, massacres, dehumanization, genocide, human experimentation, extrajudicial punishments, death squads, forced disappearances, recruiting of child soldiers, kidnappings, unjust imprisonment, slavery, cannibalism, torture, mass rape, and political or racial repression (e.g., apartheid) as crimes that reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.
The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons has its origins in the late 19th century. Shortly after the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1864 – the institution that oversees international humanitarian law, also known as the “law of war” – states decided to regulate and ban weapons that inflict excessive and unnecessary harm to the people affected by war (e.g., the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases of 1899). The horrific injuries sustained by soldiers from poisonous gas in WWI and experiences of both combatants and civilians in later conflicts (e.g., in Vietnam) accelerated these efforts, which resulted first in the Geneva Gas Protocol (1925) and then in the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of chemical weapons in all circumstances, which means in both international (meaning between states) and non-international war (any other type of conflict, including civil wars). Only 13 states have not signed either the Geneva Gas Protocol or the Chemical Weapons Convention (Syria is not one of them). The prohibition of chemical weapons is a universal norm, which means that it binds all parties to armed conflicts, whether state or non-state actors, as a rule of international customary law.
This ban of chemical weapons is strengthened by the fact that it is illegal under international humanitarian law to use weapons that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets. So-called indiscriminate weapons are those that cannot be directed at a military objective or whose effects cannot be limited. Similar to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, this rule is not only international custom, but has also been affirmed in various international treaties, including the statute of the International Criminal Court and the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention. The UN General Assembly and other UN organs have supported this principle in multiple resolutions and the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world, reaffirmed the principle of distinguishing between civilian and military targets in the Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion (ICJ, Nuclear Weapons case, Advisory Opinion). While there is no definite list of indiscriminate weapons, the ICRC generally cites chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, anti-personnel landmines, mines, poison, explosives discharged from balloons, cluster bombs, booby-traps, certain types of rockets and missiles, and environmental modification techniques.
In other words, the chemical attacks by the Syrian regime on its own population broke two fundamental rules of international law.
Third, we have a new administration in the White House whose policy towards Syria and the Middle East is most likely to be very different than the one of its predecessor (it is too early to tell for sure). President Trump expressed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way in which he views the Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad. The decision to use airstrikes against Syria was made shortly thereafter. President Trump’s words, and in some way, his actions, remind us of President Obama’s reaction to the use of chemical gas against civilians in Syria in 2013. President Obama, who used the word “red line” in connection with the 2013 attack, also contemplated air strikes. However, in an unexpected turn around, Obama decided to seek congressional approval for military action against Syria. The proposed bill never received a floor vote because the Syrian government accepted a U.S.-Russian deal to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile and sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Conventions.
What does this mean? Were the airstrikes legal? What are the political consequences? From a legal point of view, the situation is complicated, but more easily explained. Under international law, the use of force against another state is illegal, unless it is in self-defense, authorized by the UN Security Council, or on the invitation of the state affected. Security Council authorization is unlikely to happen considering that Russia is a veto-power holding member of the Security Council and has made it clear that it does not see the need for a condemnation of the attack. The U.S. has not given any indication that the airstrikes were in self-defense. Syria has certainly not invited the U.S. to strike its airbase. So, in most interpretations of international law, the airstrikes are illegal. President Trump said in a press conference in the evening of April 6 that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” which could hint at a future justification of the airstrikes within framework of self-defense. There is some discussion over whether the unilateral use of force on behalf of civilians, also known as humanitarian intervention, should be seen as legitimate, if not legal. However, considering the situation in Syria and the U.S. military involvement against the Islamic State, Russia’s engagement, and the geopolitical situation, it would be very difficult for the U.S. to argue for a purely humanitarian justification of U.S. action. While the airstrikes authorized by President Trump were very limited – hitting a somewhat remote airbase – and no formal declaration of war has been made, Syria could very well see the airstrikes as an informal act of war.
Under U.S. law, the President may authorize military action for defense, but not for offensive wars. Offensive wars require congressional approval. Congressional approval was given for military action after the 9/11 attacks, which gives the President far reaching authority to combat terrorism. The Obama administration has interpreted this rule to include and authorize the fight against the Islamic State, and so far, the Trump administration seems to go along with this interpretation. Regardless, a war against Syria, a state, not a non-state actor, is a completely different beast. A war against Syria would most certainly need congressional approval, and members of Congress have already called for the administration to bring any future military action before Congress.
In terms of political consequences, it’s too early to tell if this was a one time engagement and what the Trump administration will do next. Russia’s involvement in Syria complicates matters as not only U.S.-Syrian relations, but also U.S.-Russian relations are at stake. Russia has reacted strongly and called the airstrikes a “significant blow to Russian-U.S. relations.” Either way, an in depth discussion of strategy will be important, especially considering that interventions tend to be much more complex and complicated endeavors than they first appear. America, as many countries before her, has learned this the hard way. And if we really want to help the “beautiful babies” in Syria, as President Trump claims, we need to open our borders to allow Syrian refugees to find safety.
However, while these discussions over legality and Russia-U.S. relations are certainly important, they are not sufficient. What we need to focus on is the question over what the consequences of military action will be. We cannot be distracted from what has to be the end goal: a political settlement of the conflict. Only a termination of violence and war will end the tremendous suffering of Syrian children, women, and men. Any military action has to be judged on whether it advances or hinders an end to the conflict.
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