How the international community responds to human rights in times of conflict has always been an issue when judgments are made about differential levels of culpability for war crimes.
In Iraq — a conflict I covered between 2003 and 2007, when the Shiite death squads first began their campaign of murder — there was a resistance among US and UK officials to acknowledge that a problem existed. When they would acknowledge it, some — shamefully — chose to depict it as a natural consequence of the brutality of the Saddam era. While it is true that periods of brutality can condition the time that follows, it is not something that should be tolerated.
In Syria, a similar process is occurring. Human rights abuses by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have not attracted the same levels of opprobrium as those committed by Al Assad’s regime.
To state the obvious first: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad regime’s abuses have been on a far wider scale and conducted over a longer period of time. Regime forces have murdered demonstrators and tortured minors. The regime has used indirect and direct fire indiscriminately on civilian centres, amounting to war crimes.
When atrocities attributed to regime forces or militias have emerged they have rightly been condemned by British political leaders. But when the FSA or its allies, some of them jihadi groups, have committed war crimes and human rights abuses, the condemnation has been far less vocal or has sought to mitigate the acts by characterising them as an inevitable byproduct of the ugliness of war or the responsibility of the Assad regime itself by being the first to abuse.
The reality, as both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have made clear, is that there is no excusing war crimes, whoever commits them.
As Amnesty’s Kristyan Benedict noted after the murder of bound captives from the notorious Berri clan by FSA fighters in Aleppo at the beginning of this month: to cheer that murder while claiming to want a new Syria where human rights are respected “is a gross hypocrisy”.
The extrajudicial murders of the Berri clan members has not been an isolated incident. A growing number of abuses by the FSA had been visible in the previous weeks, including ‘deliberate and unlawful killings’ as well as the ‘torture of captured security force members’.
Nor is there evidence that there has been an active effort by local commanders to prevent abuses. Indeed, in recent days fresh evidence has emerged of groups breaching international law, including the kidnap and execution of a journalist with Syrian state television.
These issues have been debated more thoroughly among members of the Syrian opposition, including those who are appalled, than among some of those western countries that have given support to Syria’s armed opposition.
Both the US state department and Britain’s Foreign Office, which recently announced increased support for the rebels, need to be unequivocal in their condemnation of all abuses. So far, however, there is little evidence that abuses by rebel fighters have appeared on the radar of British Foreign Minister William Hague, who has announced an extra £5 million in aid to the Syrian opposition for non-lethal assistance.
That announcement should have been used to make clear that murder, kidnapping and torture by any parties will not be tolerated: a message underlined with a warning that further human rights abuses by opposition fighters will not only endanger the support they are receiving but that those responsible will be pursued and prosecuted for their crimes.
If humanitarian law is to have any real meaning, it must be applied both thoroughly and even-handedly.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd