The cornerstone principle in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is the principle of distinction: You can only attack military targets and persons directly participating in the war; you can never attack civilians.
The violation of this principle, such as indiscriminate attacks, would amount to a war crime.

In Syria today, just as in Lebanon’s (un)civil wars between 1975 and 1990, the principle of distinction is not respected, nor are IHL principles limiting the methods and means of warfare.

In the past five years, I have given dozens of trainings on IHL to lawyers and human rights advocates in Lebanon and the Arab World. In 2011, I established, with colleagues, the Summer School on Law and Armed Conflict – an annual two-week program on IHL for Arabic-speaking law graduates.

There are two question related to IHL and to the principle of distinction that I would like to raise here, and for which I seek answers. The purpose of asking these questions is to reconcile my rights advocacy with my values.

The questions are:

â—     Should Christians advocate for the respect of IHL at all?

â—     In seeking an end to suffering in Syria, should Christians include International Humanitarian Law in their approach?

All academic textbooks claim that IHL is anchored in Christian, Jewish and Muslim civilization and tradition. However, reflecting on biblical ethics, can we, as Christians, really endorse a law that authorizes and justifies the killing of a man only because this man directly partakes in armed hostilities?

The protection of civilians in war is vital, but are we compromising our faith and values when we declare that it is lawful to kill armed combatants? Aren’t we encouraging the violation of the commandment “Thou shall not kill.”

Knowing that the principle of distinction shifts the responsibility to the individual – that is, if the individual decides to take part in the hostilities, he accepts the corresponding risk of death – would this render this cornerstone principle of distinction compatible with biblical values?

A complicating factor is that military service is mandatory in Syria. Men who flee Syria to avoid the draft are among the refugee population in Lebanon and neighboring countries. But fleeing is not an option for many.

In this case, would we still advocate for the respect of IHL with the underlying assumption that the death of these men is acceptable? Moreover, regardless of the decision to be a combatant, what about the opponent, the potential killer?

We believe that all people are created in the image of God – whether military or civilian, whether participating in war willingly or by force.

Therefore, can we advocate for the protection of civilians and persons hors de combat while simultaneously giving a license to kill combatants and persons directly participating in hostilities?

If we take a step back and reflect on the bigger picture, would we choose to disseminate IHL and advocate for its respect, or choose other forms of interventions if we had the option to do so?

For a faith-based organization in Lebanon whose members adhere to Kingdom values, what would be the ideal intervention in Syria that would bring relief to the suffering of Syrians?

Would you choose either to:

â—     Work on respecting IHL to protect the civilian population in Syria?

â—     Work for peace by addressing the root causes of the conflict knowing that it is tantamount to “Mission Impossible” because many states are fueling the conflict?

â—     Work on humanitarian aid and assistance knowing that this alleviates the suffering, but does not heal the wound?

â—     Work on securing a safe refuge for the population affected by the conflict in another country, pending their return?

These options are mutually exclusive.

You cannot document IHL violations and provide aid at the same time because criticism of the warring parties’ actions (that is, advocating for respect of IHL) will deny you (the perception of) impartiality, a prerequisite for providing humanitarian aid.

Moreover, you certainly cannot work for peace (addressing the causes of conflict or jus ad bellum) and, simultaneously, for respect of IHL rules during conflict (jus in bello), as criticism of warring parties instigating and perpetuating the conflict will deny you (the perception of) impartiality.

In answering our call to ministry, how do we respond? Which option brings us closer to the Kingdom of God?

Wissam al-Saliby is the development and partner relations manager at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a master of arts in international law and blogs at Ethiopian Suicides and Lebanonesia. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. 

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