(Re-published from The Hill | Oct. 20, 2019) While Turkish-backed fighters may have been committing potential war crimes in Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia—which the United Nations also has accused of committing international crimes in Syria’s proxy war—is pulling out of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which protects combatants and others found on the battlefield, particularly civilians who are “especially to be protected.” Not doing so is per se a war crime.
A compilation of law, policy and customary international law, the Geneva Conventions have been a cornerstone in controlling the horror of conflict and containing its impact to the battlefield. Modern armies have been bound by the “law of armed conflict” since 1949. The Geneva Conventions is the only international treaty that all nations signed, and many have incorporated its principles into their own domestic law.
The Protocol Additional (1977) clarifies the nuances of armed conflict, essentially incorporating non-international armed conflict into the limits on the use of force highlighted in the Geneva Conventions. This was an essential move, because most of the conflict of the Cold War and the “dirty little wars” of the 21st century are of non-international character. Up to that point, the Geneva Conventions covered only international armed conflict. Though several countries, including the United States, have not ratified the Protocol Additional, all note that it’s evidence of customary international law and routinely follow its parameters.
No country ever has quit this important international paradigm until Russia’s announcement on Thursday. Putin’s decision is a troublesome addition to the movement away from various international legal regimes that promote peace and security, a hallmark of the tenets of the United Nations. In this evident “Age of the Strongman,” the movement away from a global approach to the rule of law is overshadowed by populist and nationalistic views in many parts of the world.
The rule of law stabilizes the interaction of states; it enhances peace and security, and encourages stable global trade, financial and information systems that benefit all. Despite this, a majority of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have blocked and weakened U.N. efforts to perform its mandate — and even have mocked and prevented the International Criminal Court from seeking justice for victims of atrocity crimes …
David M. Crane is a Syracuse University College of Law Distinguished Scholar in Residence.