The Yarmuk camp
The Yarmouk camp was established in 1957, on 211 KM, and aimed at sheltering Palestinian refugees in Syria. UNRWA classifies Yarmouk as an “unofficial refugee Camp”. Yarmouk was home to the largest Palestinian refugee gathering in Syria, where 160,000 Palestinians used to live. Yarmouk is situated 8KM from the center of Damascus and is inside its municipal boundaries. Unlike other Palestinian gatherings in Syria, Yarmouk resembles the city close to it. With time, the camp ceased to be a Palestinian space only and integrated a good number of Syrians.
The camp did not engage in the Syrian movement in the beginning of 2011 and was considered to be a safe zone. Its role was confined to sheltering internally displaced people coming from the environing regions of Damascus and its countryside, which were being bombed. Also the camp was a place where some people, wanted by the Syrian regime, would hide. The situation in Yarmouk remained relatively calm until December 2012, when it was violently bombed, following the advancement of the opposition forces in the South neighborhoods of Damascus. This led to the killing of dozens of people and to the displacement of 140,000 Palestinian refugees in the period going between December 2012 and July 2013.
The camp was put under siege in July 2013, this became a tight siege by September of the same year. 42 cases of civilian casualties, caused by the dire living conditions under the siege, were documented between 18/8/2013 and 3/1/2014. Among the 42 casualties were 3 children and 13 women. 29 fatalities were due to dehydration and malnutrition, among these people was a baby who died of milk shortage, and a person who died of food poisoning. 10 people died due to the lack of medical supplies. 3 casualties resulted from the fuel shortage; among these were the case of two babies who died of suffocation and a third who died from the cold.
The siege of Yarmouk by the government forces amounts to a clear violation of international law principles as well as the principles of International Humanitarian Law since it violates article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.
The siege also violates articles 13 and 14 of the 2nd Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts. Article 13 stipulates:
“1. The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations. To give effect to this protection, the following rules shall be observed in all circumstances.
2. The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.
3. Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this Part, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”
Article 14 stipulates: “Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited. It is therefore prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless, for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”
The siege is also in violation with article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention which states: “no protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Pillage is prohibited. Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”
The continuation of the siege raises concerns as to the crime of genocide, defined by article 6 of the Rome Status as “for the purpose of this Statute, ‘genocide’ means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Article 6.c specifies that “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” amounts to genocide.
The siege also amounts to a war crime according to article 8-b-XXV from the Rome Status “Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions”.
Article 43 of the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 also clarifies this point.
There are multiple conflicting parties inside the camp. The government forces, and Palestinian factions, most prominently the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine - general command, who played a role on camp siege. There are also Syrian opposition forces (which reached the camp from the southern neighborhoods of Damascus), as well as members from Palestinian factions which split from the general command, and other besieged factions.
Since April 2015, the camp entered a new phase with the arrival of IS and their claim of starting a purge, aiming at the elimination of corruption and corrupt people as well as infidelity, before announcing the creation of an Emirate inside Yarmouk camp. IS never showed or declared any intention of evacuating the civilians or lifting the siege. IS had infiltrated the camp through adjacent areas such as Al hajar al Aswad, which they control since 20/7/2014. Clashes, between IS and armed members of Aknaf Beit al Makdes faction, accompanied IS' infiltration while attempting to take control of the camp. These clashes occurred in highly populated civilian areas, these civilian areas don not contain any military target of importance, thus constituting a serious violation of the law of war. Throughout these clashes there were indiscriminate sniping, targeting civilians as well as military targets, which is a crime of war according to the article 8-b of the Rome Status stating: “Other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict, within the established framework of international law, namely, any of the following acts: (i) Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities;
(iv) Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated;
(v) Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives”.
IS combatants seized public facilities, without taking into consideration if these belonged to the Syrian Regime (Services) or to humanitarian organizations. One of the most important of these facilities, Falastin hospital, saw its medical team leave the camp and medical work, following harassment by ISIS, in a time the camp is in need of medical assistance. IS also took control of food supply warehouses, thus highly aggravating the situation of the besieged civilians. This is a clear violation of articles 10 and 11 of the 2nd additional protocol to the Geneva Convention.
Article 10 states: “1. Under no circumstances shall any person be punished for having carried out medical activities compatible with medical ethics, regardless of the person benefiting therefrom.” Article 11 protects medical units and transports “Medical units and transports shall be respected and protected at all times and shall not be the object of attack.” Attacking medical units and transports is considered a crime under article 8-b of the Rome Status which considers the following to be war crimes:
“(iii) Intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under the international law of armed conflict;”
“(ix) Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives”.
According to article 8-e of the Rome Status, “Other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in armed conflicts not of an international character, within the established framework of international law, namely, any of the following acts:
(ii) Intentionally directing attacks against buildings, material, medical units and transport, and personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law;
(iii) Intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under the international law of armed conflict;
ISIS followed the same policies it uses in other regions under its control: the execution of detained political prisoners, the persecution of people working in the media and defenders of Human Rights, leading to their execution or forcibly conducting them to unknown places. ISIS also harassed humanitarian workers, torturing them in order to pressure them into working with the IS and according to its policies. These practices amount to crimes against humanity according to article 7 from the Rome statute: “‘Attack directed against any civilian population’ means a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack”.
“For the purpose of this Statute, ‘crime against humanity’ means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:” (a) “Murder” and (h) “Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court”.
And although IS had taken over, the joint operation room for Yarmouk did not take any concrete step for the protection of the civilians trapped inside the camp, nor have they put forward any plan to evacuate them. Instead, several “security” measures were adopted, including the interdiction of access of food to the camp, and the strict surveillance of all its accesses. The above constitute crimes of war according to article 8.b XXV of the Rome Statute “Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions.”
The reaction of the besieging powers, amongst which are, as previously stated, the Syrian government and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP – GC), was to evacuate some families from the camp to the Hilaliya school. These families are detained inside this school with no connection to the outside world, since they were stripped from their valuable belongings and mobile phones when evacuated to the school. These practices, as well as not lifting the siege, amount to a violation of article 17 of the second additional protocol to the Geneva Convention, which reads: “1. The displacement of the civilian population shall not be ordered for reasons related to the conflict unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. Should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition. 2. Civilians shall not be compelled to leave their own territory for reasons connected with the conflict.”
The governmental forces have also intensified the bombing of the camp, mainly through aviation, and the dropping of barrel bombs. The air strikes are concentrated on agricultural areas, which are practically the only source of food production in the besieged camp. The barrel bombs have also targeted civilian areas inside the camp.
Bombing the camp constitutes a clear violation of article 48 (First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention), which states that “In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”
According to the Rome Statute, deliberately bombing civilians, or individual civilians, not directly participating to the conflict is considered a war crime. It also is a violation to article 51-4 of the First Additional Protocol which prohibits the indiscriminate attacks, defined as “(c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.”
The air strikes by barrel bombs committed by the Syrian Government constitute war crimes according to article 8.b.XX which states: “Employing weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering or which are inherently indiscriminate in violation of the international law of armed conflict, provided that such weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare are the subject of a comprehensive prohibition and are included in an annex to this Statute, by an amendment in accordance with the relevant provisions set forth in articles 121and 123”.
Bombing agricultural lands amounts to crimes against humanity according to article 7.2.b which states that “‘Extermination’ includes the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population”.
It is important to note that Statutory Limitations are non-applicable to crimes of war and crimes against humanity according to the General Assembly resolution 2391, adopted in 1968.
It is also important to note that no side to the conflict can justify the bombing of civilians using the argument of the presence of combatants amongst civilian population. According to article 50 of the additional protocol to the Geneva Convention “in case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.”
We also emphasis that all parties to the conflict have violated the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, adopted in 2014 by the Security Council in its 7116th session.