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The Protection of Civilians and Persons with Disabilities During the Syria Conflict

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

This blog post is based on a speech I gave at “The Protection of Persons with Disabilities During Armed Conflicts” workshop in Lund, Sweden in October 2019, supported by the Science for Peace and Security Programme of NATO.

International law as it stands today does not offer protection on the ground to civilians in general, or to people with disabilities in particular. International agreements do contain provisions that protect civilians, but to ensure that these agreements are respected on the ground, protection is needed for observers and investigation groups sent to document abuse or breaches. Similarly, journalists, civil society organisations and NGOs working for disability rights and the respect of human rights generally play a key role in documenting abuse and promoting the respect of international humanitarian law. Their protection is therefore also essential.

During the Syria conflict, humanitarian actors have not been well protected or had access to all zones where assistance was needed. Fighting on the ground, the economic destruction of war, as well as the deliberate use of blockades of humanitarian supplies as a means of political pressure have limited vital access to medical supplies. Medical service providers and medical facilities have lacked adequate protection throughout the conflict, with particularly dire consequences for people with disabilities. The protection of humanitarian actors and medical facilities is thus a key aspect in preventing disproportionate impacts on people with disabilities in situations of armed conflict. Another important issue is that there is little or no monitoring of the quality of medication, equipment, or the care offered by humanitarian actors, which can lead to life-threatening situations for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities may be less mobile, have more difficulties obtaining vital information, may have fewer financial resources as well as a greater need for expensive treatment or medication. They are less able to fight their way through crowds if food or other resources are distributed and are less able to escape quickly from areas that have become dangerous. The question of gaining access - both to information and material assistance - for people who are less able to move is a key issue. Civil defence organisations, combatants, and humanitarian actors all need training and special provisions to take into account the needs of people with disability.

Throughout the conflict, countless individuals have lost arms and legs, and require prosthetics and adaptations to the built environment, institutions and workplaces to work and live normal lives again. Unexploded devices will claim casualties for many decades, and from other contexts we can see that minimal attention is placed to making a country safe again - even in Germany, dangerous material from the Second World War continues to surface. The question of long-term costs, liability, damages, and responsibility is a legal issue that is intimately tied to disability in areas that have experienced armed conflict.

Beyond the obvious physical disabilities, armed conflicts, as in Syria, generate another huge category of disability: those who suffer what has sometimes been labelled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This affects the ability to focus, think, learn, sleep, or cope with unexpected situations. Often it is accompanied by debilitating pain. In many countries, PTSD has led not only to silent suffering and incapacitation in education or the workplace, but also to extended substance abuse and increase in crime.

In Syria, torture, slavery and other forms of captivity have been deliberately used. Children have been slaughtered in front of their parents, and others kidnapped to sell their organs. As in other contexts, rape and sexual violence is prevalent. These are memories that cannot be healed, and many have been exposed to the generalised terror such practices are intended to inflict. Hostages and so-called "human shields" have been used systematically, blurring the distinction between military and civilian targets, a fact that has been systematically exploited by all parties to the conflict.

Given the massive long term consequences of armed conflict, discussing the protection of people with disability during active conflict is insufficient: equally important is the question of disability rights concerning disabilities caused by conflict. The thorny question of liability needs to be addressed, to finance the best possible rehabilitation and adaptation of social structures to deal with long-term consequences in the post-conflict period.

For the displaced outside Syria, priority has been given to provide quota refugee status to vulnerable individuals and families, including people with disabilities. However, the process has been slow, many countries have not respected their commitments to accept quota refugees, and only a small fraction of people with disabilities benefit from this measure. There is therefore also an important issue to be considered in the protection of the rights of displaced people with disability in camps or informal settlements in host countries, particularly since such situations are likely to become protracted.

To obtain better conditions, there is much work to be done in terms of drafting new texts and in arguing for more effective interpretations of existing documents. However, we are living in a period of history when little attention appears to be given to binding international agreements. International organisations intended to ensure their implementation are losing credibility, support from contracting parties to these agreements, and the funding needed for their activities. The tangible benefits of these agreements therefore need to be clarified to all, and the integrity of persons active in international organisations generally must be improved.

Chavia Ali

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