Paper trails

For an update and succinct review of attacks on hospitals and medical facilities in Syria – see also my ‘Your turn, doctor’ here – I recommend the latest fact-sheet from Physicians for Human Rights:

Attacks on health care, in gross violation of humanitarian norms and the Geneva Conventions, have been a distinctive feature of the conflict in Syria since its inception. PHR has documented and mapped 553 attacks on at least 348 separate facilities from March 2011 through December 2018. The reduction in the number of attacks over the past year is a clear reflection of the diminishing intensity of the conflict, which came as a direct result of the Syrian government’s takeover of most opposition-held areas. The systematic targeting of health facilities has been a crucial component of a wider strategy of war employed by the Syrian government and its allies – who are responsible for over 90 percent of attacks – to punish civilians residing in opposition- held territories, destroy their ability to survive, and draw them into government-held areas or drive them out of the country. This strategy of unbridled violence – which in addition to attacks on healthcare has included chemical strikes, sieges, and indiscriminate bombing of predominantly civilian areas – has devastated the civilian population, weakened opposition groups, and translated into direct military gains for the Syrian government.

Of the total number of documented attacks on health facilities, nearly 73 percent were carried out from the air. Nearly 98 percent of attacks on health facilities perpetrated from the air are attributable to the Syrian government and its ally Russian, which entered the conflict in 2015.

The share of attacks on health facilities from the air has grown from 38 percent of the total in 2012 to 90 percent in 2018. The Syrian government became steadily more reliant on airpower as the conflict evolved. Through their air forces, the Syrian government and Russia extended their strategy of collective punishment deep into opposition-held territory and far beyond hardened front lines. The Syrian government and its allies disabled or destroyed hundreds of facilities through aerial bombardment, leaving countless civilians without access to vital medical services.

The latest 20-page report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic to the UN’s Human Rights Council is here.  I’ve drawn on many of these reports for my continuing work on siege warfare in Syria (see for example here, here and here), and this report – based on investigations carried out from 11 July 2018 to 10 January 2019 – makes for grim reading.  Here is the summary (but you really need to consult the full report):

Extensive military gains made by pro-government forces throughout the first half of 2018, coupled with an agreement between Turkey and the Russian Federation to establish a demilitarized zone in the north-west, led to a significant decrease in armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic in the period from mid July 2018 to mid January 2019. Hostilities elsewhere, however, remain ongoing. Attacks by pro-government forces in Idlib and western Aleppo Governorates, and those carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the international coalition in Dayr al-Zawr Governorate, continue to cause scores of civilian casualties.

In the aftermath of bombardments, civilians countrywide suffered the effects of a general absence of the rule of law. Numerous civilians were detained arbitrarily or abducted by members of armed groups and criminal gangs and held hostage for ransom in their strongholds in Idlib and northern Aleppo. Similarly, with the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch by Turkey in March 2018, arbitrary arrests and detentions became pervasive throughout Afrin District (Aleppo).

In areas recently retaken by pro-government forces, including eastern Ghouta (Rif Dimashq) and Dar’a Governorate, cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance were perpetrated with impunity. After years of living under siege, many civilians in areas recaptured by pro-government forces also faced numerous administrative and legal obstacles to access key services.

The foregoing violations and general absence of the rule of law paint a stark reality for civilians countrywide, including for 6.2 million internally displaced persons and 5.6 million refugees seeking to return. For these reasons, any plans for the return of those displaced both within and outside of the Syrian Arab Republic must incorporate a rights- based approach. In order to address effectively the complex issue of returns, the Commission makes a series of pragmatic recommendations for the sustainable return of all displaced Syrian women, men and children.

A report from Elizabeth Tsurkov in Ha’aretz confirms many of these findings.  Describing Assad’s Syria as a police state with rampant poverty’ and a ‘playground for superpowers’, she writes:

Eight years into the crisis, Syria’s economy is in tatters, half of its population displaced, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead, many of Syria’s cities and towns lie in ruins. Yet on top of this pile of ashes Assad sits comfortably, quite secure in his grip on power.
In areas reconquered by the regime — or as the regime euphemistically describes it, areas that “reconciled” and whose residents “returned to the bosom of the nation” — the Syrian police state is back, more aggressive than ever…

In 2011, Syrians took pride in “breaking the barrier of fear.” But fear now prevails, as the various branches of the regime’s secret police launch raids and arrest suspected disloyal elements. Many of those arrested are former activists, rebels, health and rescue workers, and civil society leaders. Syrians who wish to prove their loyalty to the regime, obtain power through it or simply settle personal scores inform on others to the regime. Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian analyst based in Istanbul, told Haaretz that Syrians are informing on each other “because they have been doing it for years or because they need money or favors from the regime.” In areas recently recaptured by the regime, “some locals were always pro-regime and stayed there to work as informants or just could not leave. Now they have the chance to take revenge on the majority of civilians who apparently held a more favorable view of the opposition,” Ghazi explained.

Most of Syria’s population now lives below the poverty line. Across all parts of Syria unemployment rates are high, as the normal economy has been disrupted by years of war and the mass flight of businesspeople and capital out of the country. Syria’s middle class has largely disappeared — many of them fled to neighboring countries or Europe, while others are now living in abject poverty, along with most Syrians.
A small group of war profiteers linked to the various armed groups have been able to enrich themselves by trading in oil, weapons, antiquities, stealing aid, and smuggling people and goods in and out of the country and into besieged areas, while most Syrians struggle to survive. Nearly two-thirds of Syrians are dependent on aid for their subsistence. Basic services like electricity, cooking gas, clean water and health services are lacking in many parts of the country.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a resident of Latakia — an area where many of the regime’s leadership and their relatives reside — told Haaretz: “You have corruption everywhere. Bribing was common before the war, but now it is endemic.”
He described the ostentatious displays of ill-gotten wealth: “High-ranking officials, they and their families, have more rights. They roam the city in fancy cars and do whatever they want. Half of the country is dying from hunger, while the sons of officials are arrogantly showing off their wealth. With money you can do everything. This is not new, but it has become more obvious because of the lawlessness prevailing in Syria.”

At the sub-regional scale Enab Baladi filed a revealing report last month on conditions in the Ghouta (which it describes as ‘military-ruled ruins’):

Today, Ghouta is living in a state of siege similar to that it witnessed between 2013 and 2018 at the service, relief and security levels, but the difference is that food is available.

With dozens of announcements about the restoration of electricity to areas east of the capital, as well as the restoration of water and communication services, the needs of civilians are still not covered by those services repeatedly announced by the regime.

Enab Baladi spoke to five people from the eastern Ghouta who returned to it, all of whom refused to be identified for fear of the regime prosecution. They described the service situation as “miserable”, especially with regard to the water and electricity services.

According to the five sources, the electricity is continuously cut for five hours, operates for only one hour, and then it is cut again, while water reaches homes one hour a day, and people rely on submersibles and artesian wells which they dug during siege in the previous years to get water.

Some areas of Ghouta also lacked many of the services that were the top priorities of organizations before the regime forces controlled the region, while food today enters without manipulated prices, unlike in the past….

The report describes Eastern Ghouta as riven by checkpoints; an emphasis on demolition rather than reconstruction; and continuing arrests and detentions.

In early August [2018], al-Assad forces launched a campaign of arrests, which has been considered as one of the largest security operations since the regime took over Ghouta, for it has targeted the regime dissidents and activists in the Syrian revolution. The campaign was carried out in the cities and towns of Saqba, Hamuriyah, Duma, Mesraba, and Ein Tarma.

The regime also subjected local activists, civil society workers, and former media professionals, as well as members of local councils and relief agencies, to investigations into the aids they received when the area was held by the opposition.

Security branches launched arrest campaigns targeting members of the former “local council” and other members of Rif-Dimashq Provincial Council in the city of Kafr Batna in central Ghouta, according to Enab Baladi referring to local sources.

Sources affiliated to the council told Enab Baladi that Syrian security forces raided the houses and workplaces of the detainees before taking them to an unknown destination. Other local council members, who preferred to stay in Ghouta rather than go to northern Syria, are detained for the same reasons.

In the face of all that, it’s not easy to find grounds for optimism, but there is a glimmer of hope in a report from Maryam Saleh at The Intercept:

Syrian activists and lawyers are testing the bounds of international law, making two new attempts to bring the government of Bashar al-Assad before the International Criminal Court.

Syrian refugees in Jordan, through London-based lawyers, sent communications to the office of the ICC prosecutor, asking her to exercise jurisdiction over Syria based on a precedent set last year in a case involving Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims. The communications are the latest push by Syrian civilians to hold accountable the government whose brutality upended their lives. In recent years, Syrian lawyers and human rights activists have experimented with rarely utilized aspects of international law, succeeding in getting European and American courts to weigh in on atrocities committed in Syria.

“Because of how politicized the war in Syria became, lawyers and those fighting for accountability really had to be creative,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The most recent ICC Article 15 submissions” — a reference to communications with the ICC on information about alleged international crimes — “are evidence of this, that there is space for creativity in the accountability space.”

She continues:

Even when the evidence of potential crimes exists, investigations into crimes committed in states that have not ratified the Rome Statute are near impossible because of jurisdictional issues, and U.N. Security Council members are quick to use their veto power to block investigations into crimes potentially committed by their allies.

That’s what makes the various avenues Syrians are pursuing so significant. As of last March, more than two dozen cases had been filed in European courts regarding atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, rebel fighters, and the Islamic State and other fundamentalist militant groups. The family of Marie Colvin, an American journalist killed in 2012 while reporting from the city of Homs, sued the Syrian government in a U.S. district court; in January, the court found Syria responsible for killing Colvin.

Many of the cases in Europe were brought under a legal doctrine known as universal jurisdiction; application of the doctrine varies from country to country, but it essentially allows for courts to prosecute cases regardless of where the crime was committed or whether the accused party has any links to the prosecuting state.

The biggest success so far has been in Germany, where authorities last month arrested a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer and two others who are accused of crimes against humanity for torturing detainees in Syrian prisons. Other cases remain pending in France, Sweden, and Spain….

These attempts are possible in part due to an unprecedented level of documentation of crimes in Syria. The victims in some of the cases were identified from a trove of 28,000 photos of people killed in Syrian detention centers, smuggled out of the country by a military defector codenamed Caesar. The U.N. General Assembly, in December 2016, took the step of creating the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to investigate crimes in Syria since 2011. The IIIM, as the body is known, does not have independent prosecutorial authority, but it exists to collect information that could later be provided to courts or tribunals with jurisdiction over the crimes. Last year, 28 Syrian nongovernmental organizations committed to collaborating with the IIIM on its work.

This is heartening in its way, but whenever I’ve been asked about attempts to enforce accountability in relation to the systematic attacks on hospitals, I’ve had to say that the hideous intimacy between torturer and tortured allows for an identification and assignment of culpability that is much more difficult in the case of the extended ‘kill-chain’ involved in bombing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible: we know, from the courageous work of activists cited in Maryam’s report, that Assad’s security apparatus fetishized record-keeping, and that many of those records have been smuggled out of Syria so that they can now serve as testimony and evidence  (For other testimonies, see the work of Forensic Architecture on Saydnaya Prison that I described here: scroll down).  To sharpen the point, hare some of the slides from a presentation I once gave around precisely these questions:

If my work on bombing in other theatres of war is anything to go by, there will also be extensive trails (paper or digital) that animated the air strikes: though how they can ever be exposed is another question.

Islands of Sovereignty

When so many eyes are on the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers making the ever dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean, it’s important to attend to the wider geographies of marine migration and its policing.  So I really welcome news from Jeff Kahn of an intriguing and important new book, his Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire (forthcoming from Chicago later this year).

In Islands of Sovereignty, anthropologist and legal scholar Jeffrey S. Kahn offers a new interpretation of the transformation of US borders during the late twentieth century and its implications for our understanding of the nation-state as a legal and political form. Kahn takes us on a voyage into the immigration tribunals of South Florida, the Coast Guard vessels patrolling the northern Caribbean, and the camps of Guantánamo Bay—once the world’s largest US-operated migrant detention facility—to explore how litigation concerning the fate of Haitian asylum seekers gave birth to a novel paradigm of offshore oceanic migration policing. Combining ethnography—in Haiti, at Guantánamo, and alongside US migration patrols in the Caribbean—with in-depth archival research, Kahn expounds a nuanced theory of liberal empire’s dynamic tensions and its racialized geographies of securitization. An innovative historical anthropology of the modern legal imagination, Islands of Sovereignty forces us to reconsider the significance of the rise of the current US immigration border and its relation to broader shifts in the legal infrastructure of contemporary nation-states across the globe.

My own early work on Guantanamo [in ‘The Black Flag’: DOWNLOADS tab] nibbled at the remote edges of some of these issues, but Jeff makes them front and centre (as they should be), and the wider resonance of his argument in the face of  Trump’s wretched views on  immigration needs no gloss from me [though what Trump will do when someone tells him the US has maritime borders too is anyone’s guess].

Here is Jeff’s elaboration (taken from the book):

One of the overarching arguments of the book is that one must understand the valorization of law’s reign and the simultaneous desire for its evasion as two forces that have produced a potential dynamism within liberal sovereignty. That dynamism, having been activated through the historical conjuncture of Haitian migration, has reconfigured the spatiality of one of modernity’s core political forms–the nation-state itself. The goal is not to identify and typologize illiberal accretions on liberal political forms (R. Smith 1997) or to reveal the centrality of empire to American republicanism (Rana 2010) but to examine how the dialectics of the liberal rule of law continue to produce new geographies into the present. In this sense, the book is not just a dissection of liberal cosmology but a revelation of a liberal cosmogony of a kind by which state forms have been partially recreated as valued entities, both aesthetic and instrumental.

[Haitian] Interdiction [operations] emerged initially as a search for spaces of flexible bureaucratic intervention unburdened by the dense layers of proceduralism iconic of law’s rule. But what accounted for this urgent turn to the relative freedom of the seas? When Haitians began arriving in South Florida in the early 1970s, they encountered what was then an embryonic asylum-processing regime that granted the INS frontline screeners and district directors nearly unreviewable discretion to dispose of Haitian claims, which were, in almost every instance, denied as being merely “economic” in nature. The litigation and political organizing that emerged out of these early cases developed into a coalition of Haitian exiles, leftist activists, mainstream religious networks, and tenacious civil rights attorneys who would, through an unprecedented process of what I call “siege litigation” (chapter 2), effectively shut down the INS’s capacity to expel Haitians from South Florida for the better part of a decade. A space-producing dynamic would soon emerge around an energetic polarity of opposing litigation camps, each focused in different ways on the dilemma of what in government circles had already by that time become known as “the Haitian problem.” This book examines the ways new geographies were fashioned in these contests and what such space-making processes can reveal about existing cosmologies of law’s rule, including their shifting aesthetic and moral geographies.

You can get a taste of Jeff’s arguments about those legal geographies in his brilliant essay,  ‘Geographies of discretion and the jurisdictional imagination. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 40 (1)  (2017) 5-27.

The modernist ideal of liberal constitutionalism affords jurisdiction a special place as the organizing principle behind the distribution of official state power. Nonetheless, little attention has been paid to the intricate spatial infrastructures that give jurisdiction its form.  In this article, I argue that the complex architectures that undergird various jurisdictional registers combine to segment material and virtual landscapes into historically specific, multilayered geographies of discretion, dictating where, when, and to whom various institutions are permitted to speak the law. Looking to politicized litigation and advocacy over the rights of Haitian asylum seekers in the United States, I demonstrate how battles over jurisdictional cartographies can both instantiate and remake the spatiality of nation-states and the cosmologies of liberal sovereignty on which they rest.

 

Here’s the main Contents list for the book:

1 • The Political and the Economic
2 • Border Laboratories
3 • Contagion and the Sovereign Body
4 • Screening’s Architecture
5 • The Jurisdictional Imagination
6 • Interdiction Adrift

And, as I’ve noted before, since this comes from an American scholarly press the price of the paperback and e-book is eminently reasonable.  Commercial behemoths (oh, please let them soon become mammoths) take note!

Another Grey Zone

New from Bloomsbury – though, desperately sadly, at a ruinous price, a collection of essays edited by Mark Lattimer and Philippe Sands, The Grey Zone: The Grey Zone
Civilian Protection Between Human Rights and the Laws of War:

The high civilian death toll in modern, protracted conflicts such as those in Syria or Iraq indicate the limits of international law in offering protections to civilians at risk. A recent conference of states convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross referred to ‘an institutional vacuum in the area of international humanitarian law implementation’. Yet both international humanitarian law and the law of human rights establish a series of rights intended to protect civilians. But which law or laws apply in a particular situation, and what are the obstacles to their implementation? How can the law offer greater protections to civilians caught up in new methods of warfare, such as drone strikes, or targeted by new forms of military organisation, such as transnational armed groups? Can the implementation gap be filled by the growing use of human rights courts to remedy violations of the laws of armed conflict, or are new instruments or mechanisms of civilian legal protection needed?

This volume brings together contributions from leading academic authorities and legal practitioners on the situation of civilians in the grey zone between human rights and the laws of war. The chapters in Part 1 address key contested or boundary issues in defining the rights of civilians or non-combatants in today’s conflicts. Those in Part 2 examine remedies and current mechanisms for redress both at the international and national level, and those in Part 3 assess prospects for the development of new mechanisms for addressing violations. As military intervention to protect civilians remains contested, this volume looks at the potential for developing alternative approaches to the protection of civilians and their rights.

 

I’ve written about attempts to ‘eliminate the grey zone’ before, but this is a different one, as the Contents make clear:

 

Part I: Rights
1. Who Is a Civilian? Membership of Opposition Groups and Direct Participation in Hostilities
Emily Crawford
2. The Duty in International Law to Investigate Civilian Deaths in Armed Conflict
Mark Lattimer
3. Protection by Process: Implementing the Principle of Proportionality in Contemporary Armed Conflicts
Amichai Cohen
4. Regulating Armed Drones and Other Emerging Weapons Technologies
Stuart Casey-Maslen
5. The Globalisation of Non-International Armed Conflicts
Pavle Kilibarda and Gloria Gaggioli
6. Administrative Detention in Non-International Armed Conflicts
Françoise J Hampson
7. The Crime of Rape in Military and Civilian Jurisdictions
Lois Moore and Christine Chinkin

Part II: Remedies
8. The Right to Reparation for Victims of Armed Conflict
Carla Ferstman
9. Arguing International Humanitarian Law Standards in National Courts-A Spectrum of Expectations
Sharon Weill
10. The Death of Lex Specialis? Regional Human Rights Mechanisms and the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict
Bill Bowring
11. Extraterritorial Obligations under Human Rights Law
Cedric Ryngaert
12. What Duties Do Peacekeepers Owe Civilians? Lessons from the NuhanovicCase
Liesbeth Zegveld
13. Civilian Protection and the Arms Trade Treaty
Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh

Part III: Developments
14. A Path Towards Greater Respect for International Humanitarian Law
Valentin Zellweger and François Voeffray
15. The Responsibility to Protect and Non-State Armed Groups
Jennifer M Welsh
16. Protecting Civilians by Criminalising the Most Serious Forms of the Illegal Use of Force: Activating the International Criminal Court’s Jurisdiction over the Crime of Aggression
Carrie McDougall
17. Elements and Innovations in a New Global Treaty on Crimes Against Humanity
Leila Nadya Sadat

Mark introduces the project (and en passant makes clear its relevance to my continuing work on Syria) over at Justice in Conflict here:

As armed conflicts continue to metastasize in many world regions, is the existing international law protecting civilians fit for purpose, or are there gaps in protection? The answer of most lawyers of armed conflict to this question has long been that the gap lies not in the substantive law but in its implementation.

While the need for implementation is plain, it is also clear that the contemporary face of conflict presents aspects which the framers of the Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Protocols – as well as the major human rights treaties – could hardly have envisaged. The growth of transnational armed groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS means that a ‘non-international armed conflict’ can now be fought in many states simultaneously or even, according to some proponents, globally. New technologies in warfare, from armed drones to autonomous weapons systems, radically alter the circumstances under which information is made available to commanders and with it the scope and accountability of decision-making….

Just looking at the fundamental conflict activities of killing and detaining, the grey areas appear to be wide. With conflict conducted in areas of high population density, there are a number of practical problems in distinguishing civilians from combatants or fighters, but also legal ones. Civilians lose their immunity from attack when directly participating in hostilities, but how is direct participation defined and how long does it last? In Iraq and Syria individuals have been targeted on account of their membership of ISIS or Jabhat al Nusra. But what of members of armed groups who do not engage in combat? What of the driver, the cook, or the recruiter? The treatment of ISIS members and their families is a sensitive subject in Iraq, but it appears to encompass the targeting and/or punishment of those who had no combat function.

The growth in armed conflict jurisprudence from human rights and monitoring bodies has in many cases recast the headline question: rather than identifying gaps in the law, the challenge is to determine which set of laws or legal regimes apply. Should it be human rights law or the international humanitarian law (IHL) applicable in armed conflict? Or indeed both?

Deathscapes: mapping race and violence in settler states

A preview of a remarkable website from the Deathscapes Project directed by Suvendrini Pererand Joseph Pugliese:

With the ultimate aim of ending deaths in custody, the Deathscapes project maps the sites and distributions of custodial deaths in locations such as police cells, prisons and immigration detention centres, working across the settler states of Australia, the US and Canada, as well as the UK/EU as historical sites of origin for these settler colonial states.

It presents new understandings of the practices and technologies, both global and domestic, that enable state violence against racialized groups in settler states. Within the violent frame of the settler colonial state, centred on Indigenous deaths as a form of ongoing clearing of the land, the deaths of other racialized bodies within the nation and at its borders–including Black, migrant and refugee deaths–reaffirm the assertion of settler sovereignty.

To focus on Indigenous deaths and other racialized deaths is not to collapse the differences between racialized groups, or to ignore the presence of other racialized populations in these states, but to address some of the shared strategies, policies, practices and rationales of state violence deployed in the management of these separate categories.

We situate deaths in custody within the shared contexts and interrelated practices of the settler state as they are embedded within contemporary global structures. By working across the major Anglophone settler states, as well as the United Kingdom and European Union, the project seeks to move away from the nation as the primary analytical unit to consider forms of governance and social relations that are transnationally linked.

The project adopts a transnational and cross-disciplinary approach to racialized state violence, mapping racialized deaths in custody in all their visual, analytical and geographical dimensions.

Deathscapes seeks to ‘humanise what has been dehumanised’ by incorporating the aesthetic as part of the infrastructure of the site. The artworks on the site offer testimony of what otherwise would remain unsaid and unrepresented; they offer graphic examples of acts of protest and resistance; they instantiate agency in contexts in which it is often so brutally denied; they amplify, through their visual languages, the key analytical and political concerns articulated in the various case studies of racialised deaths. More on the aesthetics of the site can be accessed here. Notes on teaching with the Deathscapes site can be accessed here.

And you can follow the project on twitter here.

Gender, war and technology

Christiane Wilke writes with news of a fascinating special issue of the Australian Feminist Law Journal (441, 1) on Gender, War, and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.

Gender, War, and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century:  Emily Jones, Sara Kendall & Yoriko Otomo

Targeting, Gender, and International Posthumanitarian Law and Practice: Framing The Question of the Human in International Humanitarian Law: Matilda Arvidsson

How International Law Learned to Love the Bomb: Civilians and the Regulation of Aerial Warfare in the 1920s: Christiane Wilke

Technology, Dead Male Bodies, and Feminist Recognition: Gendering ICT Harm Theo:  Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

War’s Perpetuity: Disabled Bodies of War and the Exoskeleton of Equality: Gina Heathcote

A Posthuman-Xenofeminist Analysis of the Discourse on Autonomous Weapons Systems and Other Killing Machines: Emily Jones

The Architecture of Slow, Structural, and Spectacular Violence and the Poetic Testimony of War: Helene Kazan

The editors explain in their Introduction:

As the following articles illustrate, triangulating gender, war, and technology as a field of inquiry produces a wide domain of analysis, with topics ranging from human enhancement technologies to autonomous weapons systems, surveillance and aerial bombardment, artificial intelligence, and big data. The three terms themselves invite interpretation and debate.

The first term, ‘gender’, has been used in the context of international humanitarian law to signify vulnerability; women are treated as a group that may require further protection, where gender operates as a qualified identity that supplements the category of civilian (or indeed, comes to define the category of civilian). Yet some of the articles considered here adopt a more reflexive approach informed by feminist scholarship, considering issues of agency, difference, and intersectionality, and contesting gendered constructions that presuppose femininity, ethnicity, and passivity. The gendered subjects of law and war are at the same time subjects embedded within political economies of race, class, ability, age, and other factors. While gender serves as the primary focus of many articles within this special issue, gender theory’s commitment to intersectionality can be seen throughout, with articles considering issues of race, colonialism, ability, masculi- nity, and capitalism (and thus, implicitly, class). Beyond this special issue, the field would benefit from analysis of the broader range of intersectional concerns that emerge from recent technological developments in warfare.

The second term, ‘war’, is understood through drawing on existing feminist and gender critiques of war and armed conflict. Our point of departure is Cockburn’s well-known ‘continuum of violence’, whereby war and peace are noted to be part of a shared continuum as opposed to distinct (legal) categories. Such an outlook dis- rupts legal categorisations of conflicts by acknowledging that when a conflict ends as a matter of law, it has not necessarily ended for people living through it.  Not only do the place and time of ‘armed’ conflict then become questions, but presumptions about who produces, participates in, and is affected by conflict are also revisited and critiqued.

The final term, ‘technology’, has been defined within the context of conflict in the twenty-first century, following the post-war ideological movement described above. We are aware of the vast amount of literature which seeks to define technology broadly, with Heidegger defining technology to include things such as art and law, roughly defining technology as a tool and theorising how it is technology which helps humans become human. This special issue focuses on technology specifically within the context of twenty-first-century armed conflict, such as military technologies and/or algorithmic decision-making and data collection. In light of the multiple ways in which technology is changing conflict, we argue that the focus on these technologies reflects the ways in which technology is impacting on and changing the global order and conflict. This special issue seeks to draw attention to the urgent need for gendered perspectives on the interrelationships between war and technology.

The Airspace Tribunal

News of a project dear to my research (and my heart):

Towards a new human right to protect the freedom to exist without a physical or psychological threat from above

by The Wapping Project

Doughty Street Chambers, 54 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS

21st September 2018, 10.00 AM – 4.30 PM

Over the last century, humans have radically transformed airspace: chemically, territorially, militarily and psychologically. Technological developments mean that this transformation is accelerating and growing in complexity. There is widening disparity in the global landscape of power, with civilians increasingly subject to expanding commercial and military exploitation of technology in airspace and outer space and to the consequences of environmental change. The associated threats are not adequately addressed by the contemporary legal framework. There is an urgent need for new thinking.[1]

The Airspace Tribunal invites representations from experts across a broad range of disciplines and lived experience, such as human rights, contemporary warfare, new media ecologies, environmental change, neuropsychology, conflict and forced migration, to discuss the challenges and consider the case for and against the recognition of a new human right to protect the freedom to exist without physical or psychological threat from above.

Speakers include:

  • Nick Grief –  member of the legal team that represented the Marshall Islands and took the UK, India and Pakistan to the International Court of Justice for violating their nuclear disarmament obligations;
  • Conor Gearty – professor of human rights law who has published extensively on terrorism, civil liberties and human rights;
  • Andrew Hoskins – media sociologist known for his work on media, memory and conflict;
  • Martin A. Conway – cognitive neuropsychologist and expert on human memory and the law;
  • Shona Illingworth –  artist whose video and sound installations investigate memory, cultural erasure and structures of power in situations of social tension and conflict;
  • Maya Mamish – psychologist researching integration and well-being of Syrian youth affected by armed conflict and displacement;
  • Melanie Klinkner – transitional justice scholar majoring in international criminal justice with a background in philosophy, anthropology and biology;
  • William Merrin, a specialist in digital media and author of ‘Digital War’.

Conceived and developed by Nick Grief and Shona Illingworth, the Airspace Tribunal’s judges will include members of the public, challenging the traditional state-centric view of how international law is created. The hearings will be recorded and transcribed to document the drafting history of this proposed new human right.

The Airspace Tribunal is part of Topologies of Air, a major new artwork by Shona Illingworth, extract above, commissioned by The Wapping Project, that will be exhibited at The Power Plant, Toronto, in 2020 (more here: scroll down).

The London hearing of the Airspace Tribunal is supported by the University of Kent, The Wapping Project and Doughty Street Chambers.

[1] See Nick Grief, Shona Illingworth, Andrew Hoskins and Martin A. Conway, Opinion, ‘The Airspace Tribunal: Towards a New Human Right to Protect the Freedom to Exist Without Physical or Psychological Threat from Above’, European Human Rights Law Review, Issue 3 (2018) , pp 201.  You can download the brief via the War & Media Network (to whom I owe all this info) here.

Space is limited and booking is essential here.

Scenes of crimes

I’m still on the road, but my series of essays on siege warfare in Syria has not ground to a complete halt: far form it.  Expect more soon, but in the meantime, two reports from the New York Times of considerable importance.

First, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria confirmed that the siege of eastern Ghouta was marked by war crimes and crimes against humanity:

Dramatically escalating their military campaign to recapture the besieged enclave between February and April, pro-Government forces carried out aerial and ground bombardments which claimed the lives of hundreds of Syrian men, women, and children. By April, numerous homes, markets, and hospitals had been all but razed to the ground, amounting to the war crimes of launching indiscriminate attacks, and deliberately attacking protected objects.

In an effort to avoid the bombardments, terrified civilians relocated to makeshift basement shelters in February, where they subsisted for months underground in dire circumstances.

“It is completely abhorrent that besieged civilians were indiscriminately attacked, and systematically denied food and medicine,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “What is clear from the terminal phase of this siege is that no warring party acted to protect the civilian population”, he continued.

Through the widespread and systematic bombardments of civilian inhabited areas and objects in eastern Ghouta, and the continued denial of food and medicine to besieged civilians during the period under review, pro-Government forces perpetrated the crime against humanity of inhumane acts causing serious mental and physical suffering, the report finds.

Between February and April, besieged armed groups and terrorist organisations also relentlessly fired unguided mortars into neighbouring Damascus city and nearby areas, killing and maiming hundreds of Syrian civilians.

“Even if pro-Government forces are bombing and starving the civilian population of eastern Ghouta into submission, there can be no justification for the indiscriminate shelling of civilian inhabited areas in Damascus”, said Commissioner Hanny Megally. “Such actions by armed groups and members of terrorist organisations also amount to war crimes.”

The report notes that, by the time Government forces declared eastern Ghouta successfully recaptured on 14 April, some 140,000 individuals were displaced from their homes, tens of thousands of whom are being unlawfully interned by Government forces in managed sites throughout Rif Damascus.

“The blanket internment of all civilians who fled eastern Ghouta through humanitarian corridors, including women and children, is reprehensible,” said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “In many instances, the on-going internment of these individuals amounts to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and the unlawful confinement of tens of thousands of individuals,” she continued.

Pursuant to local truces and “evacuation agreements”, up to 50,000 civilians from eastern Ghouta were displaced to Idlib and Aleppo governorates, none of whom were provided aid by the Syrian Government.

The report also states that the cumulative physical and psychological harm wrought by the five-year siege continues to impact negatively hundreds of thousands of Syrian men, women, and children countrywide.

I’ve taken that summary from a press release on 20 June; the full report will be presented today, and you can download it here. (scroll down).

I’ll have more to say about this report when my series resumes, but what is important for now is that – according to a report by Maggie Haberman and Rick Gladstone for the New York Times – details of two chemical attacks were drastically reduced:

At least twice this year, the Syrian military fired Iranian-made artillery shells filled with a chlorine-like substance that oozed poison slowly, giving victims just a few minutes to escape.

In another attack, Syrian forces dropped a chemical bomb on the top-floor balcony of an apartment building, killing 49 people, including 11 children. Their skin turned blue.

These details and others blaming Syria for atrocities in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, were uncovered by a United Nations commission investigating and documenting possible war crimes in the seven-year-old conflict. But when the commission issued a report on Wednesday, the details were omitted.

Seven pages that had been in an earlier draft, provided to The New York Times, were summarized in two paragraphs in the final document…

The materials in the leaked draft paint a far more frightening picture of chemical weapons use in eastern Ghouta than had been previously reported. And they assert without qualification that Syrian forces and their allies were responsible, rebutting repeated denials by Mr. Assad’s government and his backers in Russia and Iran.

One of those attacks was the assault on Douma on 7 April that I discussed in detail in Gas Masques.  The NYT report explains:

On April 7, the draft said, an improvised explosive delivered from the air hit a multistory residential building roughly 200 yards from the Rif Damascus Hospital, the last functioning hospital in Douma.

The draft described the explosive as a “single industrial gas cylinder” with fins that struck the top-floor balcony and appeared to have “rapidly released large amounts of a substance into the interior space of the residential apartment building.”

“Positions and physical symptoms displayed by victims of the attack support witness claims that the agent acted rapidly,” the draft stated, “and likely indicate that a high concentration of the chemical sank downwards.”

Based on witness statements and “material evidence received and analyzed by the Commission,” the draft stated, the dead showed “an array of symptoms consistent with exposure to a choking agent, including signs of foaming at the mouth and nose, blue skin indicating impaired blood circulation, meiosis (constriction of the pupils), as well as some cases of dilated (wide open) pupils.”

“Statements and material evidence received and analysed by the Commission in relation to the deceased within the apartment building revealed an array of symptoms consistent with exposure to a choking agent, including signs of foaming at the mouth and nose, blue skin indicating impaired blood circulation, meiosis (constriction of the pupils), as well as some cases of dilated (wide open) pupils. Numerous victims unable to flee the building collapsed shortly after exposure.”

You can download those missing pages here.

All of this is a vital preface to a second report from the New York Times: a reconstruction of the attack on that apartment building presented in Augmented Reality here.

The still above will probably look familiar to regular readers, because the reconstruction relies in large measure on the work of Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture agency and contributions from Eliot Higgins‘s Bellingcat (the image at the head of this post is taken from one of its tweets. ) The NYT again:

We were unable to visit Douma. But to get to the truth of what happened, we forensically analyzed the visual evidence unwittingly provided by the Russian reports. Combining those pictures with other videos filmed by Syrian activists, we reconstructed a 3-D model of the building, the balcony and the bomb, in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London research agency, Forensic Architecture.

The reconstruction brought a virtual crime scene to us. We could inspect how the bomb related to the trove of visual evidence around it, the debris strewn across the balcony, the bomb’s design, the architecture of the rooftop, the damage inscribed on the bomb’s casing, the hole punctured in the roof, and how the bomb penetrated into the room beneath.

Key pieces of evidence indicate that this bomb was not planted, as officials claimed, but dropped from a Syrian military helicopter. The evidence supports chlorine was involved. And it affirmed when it happened — on the evening of April 7, a time frame that is consistent with witness reports and interviews of that day.

The analysis confirms the narrative I set out in Gas Masques, but adduces several other evidentiary or inferential details.  In particular, it reveals that the apartment building (lower left in the diagram below) was located on a street that was regularly used by ambulances ferrying casualties to reach an underground tunnel that gave access to the only functioning hospital in Douma (upper right) – and may have been attacked for that very reason.

The reconstruction that follows included: geo-locating the building and plotting the locations of 34 victims on two floors and the stairwell (below) –

– analysing imagery of the bomb and its residues and fragments from cellphones and from video broadcast by Russian and Syrian agencies to show that the bomb had been rigged to fall from a helicopter (a standard tactic), a finding that reinforces the observed flightpaths from Dumayr Air Base that evening –

– and, finally, devastating film of the victims whose bodies, so experts confirmed, exhibit signature symptoms of exposure to chlorine gas at highly concentrated levels.  They do not rule out the use of other chemical agents, but they also conclude that the casualties did not die from a conventional weapons attack (see my discussion of Robert Fisk‘s reporting in Gas Masques) and neither were they somehow staged (I also discuss this in detail in that same essay).

Many of the victims had been sheltering the in the basement from the bombardment; smelling chlorine, the report concludes, they ran up the stairs towards the top floors of the building – the usual response, since chlorine is heavier than air – not knowing that the gas had been released from a bomb on the roof….

It’s an appropriately corrosive report, and you can watch the full 12-minute video here.  Please do.