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Thursday, 20 June 2019

Rukban camp: A case study in reviewing the UK’s protection of civilians strategy



Dr Kate Ferguson

Excerpted from Preventing While Protecting: The UK’s Protection of Civilians Strategy in review, a report by Protection Approaches.

Rukban camp, Southern Syria

Rukban is a camp of tens of thousands of displaced Syrians who have fled violence elsewhere in the country but have been prevented from crossing over the nearby border into Jordan. The camp lies next to the Tanf US military base and falls within a 55 kilometre radius ‘de-confliction zone’ controlled by the Global Coalition against Daesh. The UK helps to defend the Tanf zone. While the UK may not consider itself singularly responsible for Rukban, those inside the de-confliction zone nonetheless fall within the care of the UK’s broader protection of civilian commitments.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation inside Rukban has led to growing concerns about the safety and well-being of Syrians within the camp, as well as those who have now left for temporary regime-run shelters in Homs via ‘humanitarian corridors’ set up by Russian forces in February 2019. Assad’s forces and allies are deliberately blocking food and medical aid from reaching Rukban, effectively forcing thousands of vulnerable people—including women and children—to leave the camp. There are reports that some of these civilians face conscription, arrest, torture, or death once entering regime-controlled territory.

Rukban is a civilian protection crisis for the international community. The level of humanitarian suffering experienced by those remaining within the camp, and the fate of many of the thousands that have left, illustrate the limits of current protection frameworks. Even when vulnerable populations reach the apparent safety of the Coalition zone of military control, there is a singular lack of clarity about the extent to which these forces and their partners are able or willing to uphold their responsibilities to protect civilians from identity-based violence, torture, and direct or indirect forced displacement.

The UK’s commitments to the people in Rukban, and the Syrian people more broadly, cut across its stated responsibilities to help protect populations from mass atrocities and to protect civilians in armed conflict. Given the widespread, systematic, and deliberate nature of the targeting of civilians throughout the crisis, any POC activities which the UK engage in require the additional analytical framework of atrocity prevention.

If the UK were to integrate the concept of ‘preventing while protecting’ into its analytical and decision-making framework in Rukban, it would at the very least assist UK POC actors in ‘doing no harm’ and inadvertently leaving Rukban populations vulnerable to future atrocities.

Immediate prevention could include: Prioritising the direct delivery of aid by UK and international Coalition forces and/or Jordan to alleviate the desperate conditions that force many back to territory where atrocities are ongoing.

Mitigation prevention could include: Investing in medium-term safeguarding of Rukban camp against further possible incursions by Syrian and Russian forces, and working with Jordan to facilitate asylum and resettlement in order to prevent de facto refoulement.

Long term prevention could include: Supporting community and capacity-building within the camps and Jordanian communities at the border including peace education, trauma support, and other safeguarding.

Download the full report from Protection Approaches.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Come to the Freedom Across Borders conference, 6 July in London



Freedom Across Borders is a conference on 6 July in London being organised by Syria Solidarity UK with Amnesty International UK, the Syrian Legal Development Programme, Dawlaty, Migrants Organise and others.

We’re going to be talking about refugee experiences in the UK, in Europe, and in the countries neighbouring Syria.

We’ll be talking about surviving trauma, and seeking justice.

We’ll be looking to connect Syrians’ experiences with others in the UK who have been forced to cross borders in their search for freedom.

Rouba Mhaissen of Sawa for Development and Aid will tell of their work with refugees in Lebanon. Reem Assil of Common Purpose will talk about their diaspora leaders programmes, including with Syrians, and Zrinka Bralo will talk about bringing her experiences as a Bosnian refugee to her work with Migrants Organise.

In our Survivor Strategies workshops, we’ll be talking to people from Freedom From Torture and Art Refuge UK about surviving trauma, and we’ll have a discussion on security challenges for activists.

We will be talking about preserving Syrian memory, about Dawlaty’s work archiving Syrian oral history and about Qisetna’s work with Syrians on telling personal stories, and about Positive Negatives’ work with survivors of several conflicts, presenting personal testimony in the form of comics.

Syrian refugees who reach the UK are survivors of perhaps the biggest crime scene this century, so we are working together with the Syrian Legal Development Programme on legal accountability issues. Women Now for Development will talk about justice and accountability from a feminist perspective. Airwars will be explaining their work on reporting casualties from international military interventions in Syria.

To see the latest on Freedom Across Borders, visit the website.

To join us on 6 July in London, register via Eventbrite.

Below: From Khalid’s Story, one of a trilogy of short comics collectively titled A Perilous Journey, illustrated by Lindsay Pollock for Positive Negatives in 2015.

Friday, 3 May 2019

UK failure to protect: Barrel bombs are back in Syria



Photo: A vehicle streaked with blood after Syrian regime aircraft targeted civilians fleeing bombing in northwest Syria on 1 May 2019. Two men and a woman were killed.

What can the UK do?

1. The UK can act to protect civilians by striking Assad’s helicopter fleet on the ground.

2. The UK can make a case for targeted EU sanctions in response to Russian attacks on hospitals.

Putin and Assad are escalating bombing of civilians in Syria’s northwest.

Russia has once again been targeting hospitals, and the Assad regime has again started dropping barrel bombs—improvised high-explosive weapons—on residential areas.

Just over a year ago, the UK joined with the US and France to strike Assad regime targets in response to a chemical attack in Douma.

That chemical attack was carried out by a helicopter dropping a chlorine weapon onto a residential building where civilians were sheltering.

The UK part of that April 2018 joint response targeted the Him Sinshar chemical weapons storage site, located some fifteen miles west of Homs.

The UK Government’s legal justification for the 2018 strike was based on the concept of ‘humanitarian protection’. But because the Government’s action only focused on chemical weapons and not on other weapons causing suffering to even greater numbers of people in Syria, the action cannot be judged a true humanitarian intervention. A more comprehensive strategy of civilian protection by the Government is necessary to qualify.

In particular, the joint action by the UK, US, and France failed to act against Assad’s helicopter fleet, used not just to deliver the weapon in the Douma chemical attack, but used in several other chemical attacks in Syria, and used in several more attacks with high explosive bombs against residential areas, and against prohibited civilian targets such as hospitals.

Hospital attacks have been a central feature of the Assad regime campaign against civilians. These have been carried out by Assad regime helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, and by Russian aircraft. There has been no direct action taken by the UK to stop them.

Assad’s use of chemical weapons needs to be understood as part of the Syrian regime’s wider strategy of waging war directly against civilian populations in areas outside regime control, to kill, maim, and starve them, to make them flee or surrender.

Civilian casualties of Assad’s bombing are by design, not by accident. Hospitals ARE a target for the Assad regime. Refugee movements are not a side effect but a deliberate objective of Assad’s campaign to make life unliveable in areas of Syria beyond his rule.

The UK’s minimal response wholly failed to address this strategy of death, destruction, and displacement. The UK has failed to protect civilians.

What can the UK do?

1. The UK can act to protect civilians by striking Assad’s helicopter fleet on the ground.

Nobody likes this option, but it is there. It is just as real an option now as at any other point in these years of mass-murder in Syria.

The legal basis is the same as used by the UK in responding to the 2018 chemical attack, and the case is stronger, as Assad’s helicopter fleet is responsible for many more civilian deaths than his chemical weapons programme.

2. The UK can make a case for targeted EU sanctions in response to Russian attacks on hospitals.

In the past week, four medical facilities were bombed in four days:

Kaston Primary Health Care Centre, Hama, 1 May.
• Alhbeit Primary Health Care Centre, Idlib, 29 April.
Al Latamna hospital, Hama, 28 April.
Al Madiq Hospital, Hama, 28 April.

There are zero—ZERO—sanctions by the EU on Russia for its actions in Syria, despite years of targeting hospitals, targeting rescuers, targeting aid workers.

The UK thinks it can’t get sanctions on Russian entities or individuals passed by other EU states.

The UK has evidence from multiple sources of Russian responsibility for attacks on hospitals, from the Sentry Syria early warning system which is supported by the UK, and from the Coalition air campaign in Syria which monitors Russian and Assad regime aircraft for deconfliction.

The UK should now publicly make the case for EU sanctions on Russian officers with command responsibility for crimes such as hospital attacks. And the UK should back up that case by publishing evidence to whatever level of detail is compatible with security concerns.


We have been here before.

Turn the sound on for the above video and you will hear the distress of the couple looking at the ruins of their home, bombed by an Assad regime helicopter.

We have been here before, through the siege and assault on Baba Amr, on Daraya, on Aleppo, on Madaya, on so many Syrian communities. Routine statements now from UK politicians and officials are worse than meaningless. Only actions count.

Below: Words from a UK official: “Monitoring…” “grave concern…” “must stop…”



Monday, 15 April 2019

Rukban camp: A new Srebrenica



On 11 July 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army entered Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina that had been declared a ‘safe area’ by the UN Security Council. Six hundred Dutch soldiers were stationed in Srebrenica as UN peacekeepers. Civilians who sought refuge in the UN base were forced to leave and handed over to Bosnian Serb forces by the Dutch soldiers. 8,372 men and boys were shot over the course of the next few days, with the majority being murdered between 11–13 July.

In 2013, after over five years of trials, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands found that the Netherlands had been in control of Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica, and was liable for the deaths of civilians whom they had forced to leave and who were then murdered.

A few days ago, on Friday 12 April 2019, Syria Solidarity UK received a report about the killing of three civilians by Assad regime forces. The three people killed were amongst thousands forced in recent weeks to leave Rukban camp because of hardship and starvation caused by the blocking of humanitarian aid. Russia, the Assad regime, and UK ally Jordan, are all blocking or restricting humanitarian access to the camp.

The three young men were killed at an improvised detention facility in a school in the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs, where several people transferred from Rukban camp had been taken by Russian and Assad regime forces. According to EA WorldView’s account, one source said that “everyone, even women and children, witnessed it.”

We cannot know if others forcibly transferred from Rukban have also been killed. We cannot know if more will be killed in the coming days.

There are clear parallels with Srebrenica. Rukban camp is within an area militarily occupied by the US-UK Coalition. Rukban camp is next to Tanf base, occupied by US troops. A zone of 55 kilometre radius around Tanf base is patrolled by US and UK military aircraft. Under Geneva Convention IV, the US and UK both have clear legal duties to civilians in Rukban camp which is within their area of military occupation. In particular the UK and US have a legal duty to provide humanitarian aid.

The UK, US, and Jordan are all complicit in the forcible transfer of population from Rukban camp by Russia and the Assad regime, and are complicit in the killing of forcibly transferred people by the Assad regime.

The UK and its allies must deliver needed aid NOW to civilians in Rukban camp, whether by RAF airlift to Tanf base, or by airdrop, or by land via Jordan.

It took eighteen years for a court to find the Netherlands liable for killings in Srebrenica. Syrians and their friends won’t rest. We will seek to hold legally accountable all those responsible for this unfolding crime against civilians in Rukban.

Image from a UN video of their last aid delivery to Rukban camp in February 2019.



Above: Tweet by Refik Hodzic, former spokesperson for International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, on forced transfer and reported killing of civilians from Rukban camp.

Friday, 12 April 2019

REPORT: Three executed in Russian forcible transfer of displaced people from Rukban camp

According to a report received from a source in Rukban camp, three young people who were amongst those transferred from the camp in a Russian-organised displacement have been executed by Assad regime forces.

The three people executed were in a group taken to a school in the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs. Women in the group were released and men were detained. The three executed were killed in the school.

Syria Solidarity UK is unable to verify this report, but the source has been reliable in the past.