Human Rights in War

A new report by Amnesty International contends that Russia may have committed war crimes when it launched an airstrike on a market in Syria last week. According to the report, Russia may have killed as many as 200 civilians since it began using its air power to strike rebel forces in Syria last November. Amnesty International accuses Russia of using cluster munitions—bombs that carry dozens of bomblets—during its airstrikes. Amnesty avoids calling Russian attacks purposeful, suggesting that targets may have been based on faulty intelligence.

Russia responded, stating that the report was “groundless” and “full of lies,” and denies they have used cluster munitions in Syria. The Russian government also pointed out that US airstrikes have also resulted in civilian casualties, most notably in Afghanistan, where a US airstrike accidentally targeted a medical facility run by the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 19 people.

Yet the legality of Russia’s actions in Syria are less than clear. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, transfer, and stockpile of cluster bombs by countries that have ratified the convention. While 107 countries have ratified the agreement, countries that have the largest stockpile of such weapons—including Russia, China, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Brazil—have refused to do so and are thus not subject to the agreement’s provisions. Similarly, the Rome Statute and Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions prohibit the deliberate or indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war. But making the case that Russia deliberately targeted civilians—rather than aiming for a military target but accidentally striking civilians—is a difficult claim to substantiate, and one that Amnesty did not make in the report.

What do you think? Has Russia violated international humanitarian law during its airstrikes in Syria? Has the United States violated international humanitarian law in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan? And if so, what can be or should be done to prevent such violations by Russia or the United States in the future?

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