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August 30, 2013

Caution Urged as Western Powers Mull Military Strikes in Syria

protest in Syria against chemical weapons useEmotions on Syria are running high with the revelation that chemical weapons were used in Ghouta, eastern Damascus, on 21 August, causing between 300 to 1,000 victims. France has indicated that it is ready to punish those responsible and the US has prepared its military for an imminent strike. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have pledged to support military action against Assad. Pressure from the media has been mounting as President Obama’s critics hold him to his “red line” with respect to the employment of chemical weapons in Syria. Yet before America rashly heads into yet another war, the position of international law and a clarification of key facts is called for.

Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons Does Not Necessarily Violate International Law

Before concluding that Syria’s use of chemical weapons violates international law, it is first necessary to recall the character and nature of international law, which is generally only binding on nations that voluntarily commit themselves to it. Chemical weapons are governed by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has not ratified and is therefore not bound by. It cannot therefore be argued that Syria violated international covenants with respect to the employment of chemical weapons.

An argument can be made that the Chemical Weapons Convention, having been signed or ratified by all UN member States except Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, has become so widely accepted as a standard of the law of war that it is binding as customary international law undertaken out of a sense of legal obligation. One may further argue that the use of chemical weapons rises to the level of jus cogens, or non-derogable peremptory legal norms. This latter argument is however problematic because chemical weapons have been repeatedly used in the past (e.g., by Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980-1988 war and against Iraqi Kurds in 1988) with impunity.

The Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria Does Not Constitute a Crime against Humanity, though It May Be a War Crime

Several media outlets have misstated facts with respect to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Many of these misinterpret applicable international law. Al Monitor, for example, stated that “[t]he use of chemical weapons goes beyond being a crime against humanity, given that it violates even the most basic laws currently governing the international system” (“Ghouta Massacre Reactions Show the Region’s Shifting Dynamics,” Al Monitor, 29 August 2013).

However, Syria’s isolated and sporadic use of chemical weapons does not fit neatly into the definition of crimes against humanity. Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court (SICC), certain enumerated acts, including murder and extermination, constitute crimes against humanity when “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack” (art. 7.1 SICC). The use of chemical weapons in small quantities in March and April, and last week, are isolated and sporadic incidents that do not rise to the level of “widespread” or “systemic,” per the SICC’s requirements. The use of chemical weapons, if proven, may be odious and perhaps even a war crime, but is not a crime against humanity.

The Syrian Regime’s Use of Chemical Weapons May Constitute a War Crime

In contrast, the Regime’s use of chemical weapons may constitute a war crime, defined by the Geneva Conventions as a criminal violation or grave breach of international humanitarian law (the law of war). The SICC provides an extensive list of examples of war crimes under its jurisdiction, including the willful killing, murder or ill-treatment of the sick or prisoners of war; torture and inhuman treatment; extensive destruction not justified by military necessity; intentionally directing attacks against civilians or civilian objects including cities, towns and villages; and the employment of poisoned weapons (art. 8 SICC).

Aftermath of Chemical Weapon Attacks in DamascusEvidence in the present case points to the use of chemical weapons, probably delivered by mortars and rockets (see “Special Report on Use of Chemical Weapons in Damascus Suburbs In Eastern Gotas,” Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, 27 Aug 2013; and “Syrian eyewitness accounts of alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus,” The Guardian, 22 Aug 2013, respectively). One may argue that these acts constitute the “employment of poisoned weapons,” though such a broad interpretation would also then prohibit the use of nuclear weapons, which result in “radiation poisoning.”

Yet even if Assad’s use of chemical weapons could be deemed a “war crime” under the SICC, there is currently no prospect that members of Assad’s regime could be prosecuted for war crimes under the International Criminal Court (ICC). In order for the ICC to exercise jurisdiction, one of the following conditions must apply:

(a) The crime must have been committed in the territory of an ICC member State or on board a vessel or aircraft registered with a member State or the accused must otherwise be a national of a member State (art. 12.2 SICC). This condition is inapplicable, as Syria is not a State party to the SICC.

(b) The State in question must agree to jurisdiction. Given the extent of potential war crimes for which Assad’s regime may be accused, it is highly unlikely that Syria will voluntarily agree to the jurisdiction of the ICC at any time in the near future (art. 12.3 SICC).

The Regime’s Use Chemical Weapons Has Not Been Proven

amer military claims chem weapons used in syriaPresident Obama must avoid the same mistake his predecessor made in rashly heading into war based on faulty intelligence, and should instead carefully study the intelligence he is receiving now. In the case of Syria, the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is not a “slam dunk.” Four US officials told the AP of their confusion as to where the reported chemical warheads are currently being held and whether Assad’s forces or the rebels possess them. Moreover, in satellite images of Syrian troops moving trucks into weapons storage areas and removing materials, US analysts have not been able to track what was moved or to confirm that Assad’s forces were able to remove everything before rebels took over an area where weapons had been stored (“Report: Syria chemical attack evidence not a slam dunk.” FoxNews, 29 Aug.2013).

In May, Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” that rebels seeking to oust Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad had used the nerve agent Sarin (“Syrian rebels used Sarin nerve gas, not Assad’s regime: U.N. official,” Washington Times, 6 May 2013). Moreover, it appears incongruent that Assad’s forces, who were winning on the battlefield since June, would have employed chemical weapons against the rebels last week.

It is key that before President Obama rushes to conclusions, he and his administration allow the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria to complete its invesgtigation of the chemical weapons site and confirm with clear and convincing evidence that: (i) chemical weapons were used; and (ii) the Assad regime—either Assad himself or another state actor—was responsible for their use.

Legal Problems of US Unilateral Military Action

Under International Law

Customary international law as well as the Charter of the UN (CUN) recognize the territorial integrity and independence of States and prohibit military force from interfering with this integrity (see art. 2 CUN). Chapter VII of the UN Charter permits only two exceptions to these prohibitions: when acting pursuant to (i) UN collective security measures (art. 42 CUN); or (ii) self-defense (art. 51 CUN).

The first exception involves the right of the Security Council to employ the use of force in order to secure peace. If the Security Council determines the existence of any threat to or breach of the peace or act of aggression, it may take military action “by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security” (art. 42 CUN). In the case of Syria, the US has been unable to obtain a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of armed force in Syria. Russia has twice vetoed proposals to intervene in Syria and Russian representatives left the UN Security Council session discussing the 28 August draft resolution on Syria. Without a UN Security Council authorization, the first exception to the use of force is inapplicable.

The second exception to the prohibition on the use of force involves States’ inherent right to self-defense. This is a limited exception that only permits States to use military force as a last resort under article 51 of the UN Charter when threatened by armed attacks. Even this use of force is subject to immediate Security Council review and is permitted only until “the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security” (art. 51 CUN). The right of the US to self-defense does not apply in the case of Syria, which has not threatened the US or its territories, possessions, civilians or armed forces.

There is currently a precedent to the use of armed force absent UN Security Council authorization, the most recent example of which is the US invasion of Iraq, based on the purported right of the United States to pre-emptive self defense in cases of imminent attack. This theory suffers from a troubled past and in any case, is inapplicable in the present case, where Syria has never threatened to attack the US and in which no imminent threat to the US exists.

NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo serves as another instance of military action absent a UN Security Council resolution. However, in the case of Kosovo, many observers agree that NATO’s actions were legitimate and justified under international law because of later Security Council votes that seemed to ratify the action, which is highly unlikely to happen in the case of Syria, to which Russia will remain loyal.

Under US Domestic Law

The US Congress is granted the power to declare war under § 8 of Article I of the US Constitution. In addition to this power, Congress, without declaring war, may, under the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (codified at 50 U.S.C. 1541-1548), authorize the President to send US armed forces into action abroad. The War Powers Resolution permits the President to send US armed forces into action abroad not only by authorization of Congress, but also in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

wash post current poll on feelings of americans about interventionThe Syrian conflict has not given rise to a US national emergency and Syria has not attacked the United States, its territories, possessions or its armed forces. Therefore, the only way for the President to legally employ his war power would be through first obtaining congressional authorization. However, there is little evidence that the President intends to obtain congressional authorization for any unilateral military action in Syria. Even if he sought authorization, it would likely be denied given prevalent concerns of inadvertently aiding terrorist opposition groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or of being drawn into yet another costly war.

Just War Theory Considerations

augustine of hippoSince ancient times, nations have explored the philosophical grounds of just war and the legality of the use of force. In the West, just war theory has perhaps been most precisely stated and developed by the Catholic Church, starting with the writings of Augustine of Hippo and later expanded by Thomas Aquinas. The Catholic Church has since extended Aquinas’ just war conditions to include additional conditions that the US would be wise to heed before entering Syria:

Reasonable Prospect of Success

Deaths and injury incurred in a war not having a reasonable chance of success are not morally justifiable. The US has not yet defined its mission in Syria, but precedents in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the challenges inherent to regime change and nation-building.


The use of arms must not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated; the peace established by the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed had the war not been fought. Clearly, the situation in Syria is deplorable. But would a US intervention in Syria make things worse? On the one hand, a US intervention may lead Syria (and possibly Iran) to strike Israel and thus cause a larger spillover conflict. If the US topples Assad, it may be a ten to twenty-year investment in incubating democratic governance or, in the event the US pulls out after toppling Assad, the power vacuum may be filled by ruthless rebel groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which has emerged as the most effective force fighting the Assad regime.

Conclusion: Caution Is Needed Before Striking Syria

aircraft carrier

The intent of any military intervention in Syria must ultimately be to secure peace, but the growing extremist nature of the opposition poses special, new challenges to intervention. Currently, there is no effective opposition group that would credibly support the rule of law and universal rights in Syria. By supporting the opposition, the US may inadvertently put into power extremist groups that seek to impose Al Qaeda-style governance on a nation whose diverse ethic and religious demographic instead demands protection of universal rights and respect for minorities.


August 24, 2013

Youth Peace and an End to Bullying

I am a teacher at Garlandale High School in Athlone, Cape Town. Our students have asked me in a very hopeful and united voice to extend an invitation to you to come and join us next month, September 2013, to celebrate our school’s 30th anniversary. They are hoping with all their hearts that you will come to Garlandale and pray with us for Youth Peace and to help us end the continual bullying that goes on during recess.  In its heyday, Garlandale High was well known as a vibrant school that shared academic and artistic excellence with the community. Sadly, our school has lost that vibrancy and really needs your help to get it back.

I joined the school in January of this year and would like to encourage all other newcomers to the school to embrace the former culture of learning and living life the Garlandale way with an emphasis on a vibrant academic and artistic curriculum again.  Students who are in my First Additional Afrikaans classes, grades 8 through 10, are aspiring and interesting young people eager to learn in a vibrant, exciting atmosphere.

Please bring your loving, peaceful nature to our school this Term and comfort us if only for just one day. Come and inspire our young learners so they can help to make sure Garlandale High School can live for another thirty years with restored vibrancy and excellence. Our students are avid listeners to your voice and teachings of goodwill and were just recently openly discussing how much a prayer can do for the 2013 matriculants before the start of their exams.

As teachers we would love to raise funds to maintain our Private Security Staff at school. Raising this R10, 000 every month has become such a battle that we had to let the security go. The lives of our learners and safety within the school grounds depend on the Security being active and visible throughout the school day.

Thank you so much for considering our invitation.  We would be honored to welcome you.

August 22, 2013

Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

cover mighty be our powersAugust 18th marked the 10-year anniversary of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which officially concluded more than a decade of civil war in Liberia. The Mass Action, a Liberian women’s peace movement, was roundly praised for pressuring Charles Taylor’s government and rebel factions to reach a settlement during these 2003 negotiations. For her role in spearheading this campaign, Leymah Gbowee was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. In Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, Gbowee offers a stirring account of her personal struggles during the conflict and how Liberian women mobilized to help end the war.

The birth of war and the death of innocence

Months before Taylor’s offensive into Nimba County ignited the war, Gbowee had gathered with family and friends to celebrate her high school graduation. Gbowee’s pre-war anecdotes give the impression that she was content with her life, but like most young people yearned for a more prosperous future.

Gbowee reflects on pre-war Liberia through the lens of a young woman with great promise and ambitions, but who was ultimately oblivious to the tensions brewing from her country’s history of political repression and economic inequalities. Gbowee’s life was in full bloom when war descended upon Liberia on Christmas Eve, 1989.

With the interior under their control, rebel forces made a final push into Monrovia during the summer of 1990. When the fighting reached Gbowee’s home area, her family was forced to move to a Lutheran compound in Sinkor, a section of Monrovia. By July 1990, fighting in Monrovia intensified: Atrocities mounted on both sides, electricity and water were cut, buildings looted, roads demolished, and people began to starve. Suddenly, rice became known as “gold dust” and cooked flour served as porridge.

Gbowee would also witness the aftermath of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre, in which hundreds of internally displaced people were slaughtered by government troops. Gbowee remembers seeing dead bodies lining the main boulevard, in particular a father’s still holding onto his dead child in one hand and clutching a baby bottle in the other. Reflecting on these scenes of horror and at such a young age, Gbowee writes: “When you move so quickly from innocence to a world of fear, pain and loss, it’s as if the flesh of your heart and mind gets cut away, piece by piece, like slices taken off a ham. Finally, there is nothing left but bone.”

An uprooted nation

Shortly after the St. Peter’s Church massacre, Gbowee and several of her family members managed to secure entry to Buduburam, a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. The war had uprooted an entire nation, gradually dismantling the extended family network so integral to Liberian culture. Gbowee’s family was no exception, those who had survived were now scattered throughout different countries.

Life in Buduburam was bleak. There were no bullets flying, but people still went hungry, there were little opportunities for employment, and disease was rife due to unsanitary living conditions. Within a year, Gbowee would return to Liberia alone. With little family supervision, Gbowee was reduced to fending for herself in a country where everything had been destroyed and was still volatile.

It wal  gbowee aug 2013s at this juncture in her life that Gbowee began a courtship with Daniel, the future father of her children. While Gbowee describes in painful detail the years of abuse, humiliation, and neglect she suffered with Daniel, she does not regret having met him. The four children she bore to Daniel, at least two of whom were forcibly conceived after Daniel had beaten her, made the pain and suffering somehow more bearable.

For the next several years, Gbowee would spend her life between Ghana and Liberia, fleeing from continued fighting in Monrovia, attempting to provide for her children, and being battered by her husband in the process.

The dream that ended the nightmare

With time, Gbowee mustered the courage to leave her abusive husband. Together with her children, Gbowee returned to her parent’s home outside Monrovia where she began volunteering as a social worker for traumatized populations and re initiated her university education.

Gbowee found her calling working at the grassroots level with Liberian women who, just like her, were exhausted from years of war. After being tapped to be the Liberian coordinator for the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), Gbowee began establishing herself as a prominent figure in an evolving women’s peace movement.

Charles-TaylorIn 1997, Liberians voted overwhelmingly for Taylor as president. Many hoped that appeasing Taylor’s insatiable thirst for power might finally bring peace to Liberia. By 1999, however, Liberia had slipped back into civil war.

It was during this stage of the conflict that Gbowee had a dream compelling her to organize Liberian women to pray for peace. Her dream culminated into the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative (CWI). What began as a group of Christian women meeting every week to pray for peace snowballed into a mass movement encompassing thousands of women from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dressed all in white, these women would organize demonstrations, sit-ins, and audiences with warring factions to lobby for a peaceful resolution to the war. Gbowee and her cadre of women peace activists were the subject of the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Women as agents of peace?

Gbowee’s memoir provides a rare window into the harsh realities that ordinary Liberians experienced throughout the war. It is a testament to the human spirit’s indelible will to survive; it is both raw and inspirational. However, it also endorses the false assumption that women are inherently more “peaceful” than men. Through the work of women, Gbowee believes that “in the end, tyranny will never succeed, and goodness will always vanquish evil.”

This romanticized vision of women could not be further from the truth, particularly in Liberia where many women in positions of power have been implicated in some of the same corrupt policies and practices that helped plunge the country into war in the first place. Instead of working for peace, many Liberian women in authority are working to enrich themselves and maintain their patronage systems, not unlike the male warlords that preceded them in power.

Ellen Johnson SirleafPresident Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a case in point. Gbowee ends her book by heaping praise on the Liberian President for becoming Africa’s first female head-of-state and entertains a future political career herself. This honeymoon period of goodwill between two of Liberia’s most iconic female peace crusaders was short-lived, however.

Recently, Gbowee made headlines for her abrupt resignation from the National Peace and Reconciliation Initiative, to which she had been appointed by Johson Sirleaf in 2011. Gbowee cited the President’s unconvincing campaign against corruption and engagement in nepotism as reasons for her departure.

The strength of Gbowee’s memoir lies not in her particular political views and the arguably lopsided credit she gives to the women’s peace movement for ending the war, but the lessons that can be drawn from her personal history. It is this personal narrative that makes this book required reading for any student of Liberian political history.

August 6, 2013

Meet the Rotary Peace Fellows – Caterina Becorpi

Meet Caterina Becorpi, our next Rotary Peace Fellow from Class 12.  She is based at The Rotary Peace Center, Bradford University, West Yorkshire, England.

Caterina tells us that, “Since I can remember I have always been fascinated by the African continent and African cultures, so I traveled south as soon as I could after finishing my first degree, a BA in Peace Operations, Conflict Management and Mediation in 2005.

In the area surrounding Johannesburg, SA, I volunteered for about one-and-a-half months in a center for HIV-affected children. Then I went back to Italy to finish my studies, earning an MA in International Cooperation and Non-violent Conflict Transformation in 2008.

While working on my MA, I cooperated with a Togolese NGO (non-governmental organization) in Lomé, Togo, called The Precious Hands, helping them with project design and short assessment missions.  I eventually moved to Lomé where I followed the start-up phase of a project dealing with women’s empowerment through food processing and cooperative work.

After Togo I moved to Zambia where I worked as a project manager for one-and-a half years for an Italian NGO called SVI.  We promoted sustainable development at the grassroots level through agro-forestry techniques and women’s empowerment (literacy classes and income generating activities); we were working hand-in-hand with the local communities, and I spent much of my time in the bush facilitating meetings and coordinating activities and trainings. During this experience, I applied for the Rotary Fellowship to refine my skills in terms of conflict management rather than pure development work.

Before joining the Rotary Peace Fellowship Program in September of this year, I was able to fit in a year, starting in September of 2012, as Head of Delegation for the Italian Red Cross in Haiti, which provided me with an opportunity to gain more knowledge. The challenging environment required me to balance the performance of my tasks relating to capacity building activities within the Haitian Red Cross and its projects in Community Health and Psychosocial Support on one hand, while developing successful working relationships with partners and beneficiaries on the other hand.

We asked each Peace Fellow two interview questions.  Here are Caterina’s answers:

1.  What is your opinion about the prospects of an end to armed conflict in the next 50 years?

Future developments, in general terms, are quite difficult and tricky to foresee, especially when it comes to such composite fields like conflict. This phenomenon is highly complex, multifaceted, and multi-causal. Its presence or absence is then inevitably the result of the interaction among multiple factors, such as local socio-economic and political structures, global power relationships, regional security, perceptional dynamics, and many others. Optimism is crucial to continue working in peace-related sectors, but it needs to be constantly balanced with factual results.

2.  What do you believe are the three most important contributing factors to fostering peace within and among nations?

a)    Genuine engagement with and involvement of local actors and resources in building positive peace;

b)    Complementarity among initiatives aimed at building peace in order to consistently address the different dimensions affecting conflict outburst;

c)     Training and education, especially of youth, to mainstream non-violent techniques of conflict transformation.

Caterina summarizes her ongoing interests as, “…combing my skills in mediation with my capacities in training and my passion for Africa in order to enhance local peacebuilding potentials and resources in one of the most challenging actors of the next future: the African continent.

It is amazing that Cate, as she prefers to be called, still has time for what she describes as “extracurricular” activities.  These activities and interests that are also important in her life include:  volunteering for the Red Cross (first aid trainer, ambulance rescuer, lifeguard, International Humanitarian Law Qualified Advisor), reading, fire-walking, parachuting, bungee-jumping, and white water rafting.

Thank you, Cate, for sharing the story of your very exciting path in life so far which has brought you currently to service as a Rotary Peace Fellow.  Your life is rich with interest and inspiration, particularly about being a proactive learner both in and out of the academic environment.   We hope you will keep us apprised of your work and insights as you go through the Rotary Peace Fellowship and beyond, most probably in, as you describe it, “one of the most challenging actors of the next future:  the African continent.”

Your comments are welcome.  Send them directly to our Managing Editor at:
rebecca.popham@tutufoundationusa.org, or use the “Post a Comment” box below if you prefer.