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Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria: an argument for protecting humanitarian law in US politics

Gregorio Borgia/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.US
presidential candidate Donald Trump recently added international humanitarian
law to his growing list of people, places, and things he disdains and thinks
America would be better off without – including the entire Muslim-American
population, all women who undergo abortions, and a diverse range of public
figures from Heidi Klum to Arianna Huffington. On the law of armed conflict, he
stated, “The problem is we have the Geneva conventions, all sorts of rules and
regulations, so [US] soldiers
are afraid to fight.” These words are no
surprise coming from the man who promised to “bring back a hell of
a lot worse
than waterboarding” at a Republican debate
back in February.

Like
so many of Trump’s statements, beyond the initial ludicrousness and falsehood,
there is a lot of dangerous thinking – and potential for dangerous action – behind
these provocations. But with his racist, misogynistic ideologies, Trump is far
too easy a target for yet another social justice-minded, New York writer to
simply tackle. So this piece is not about Trump. Rather, it is about the
significance of humanitarian law, and its relevance for some of the world’s
most marginalized and repeatedly victimized populations, one of which – Palestinian
refugees fleeing Syria – I will shed light on in what follows. But first and
foremost, thank you, Mr. Trump, for bringing this important issue under the
political spotlight.

The
notion that US soldiers are “afraid to fight” must be refuted. The supposedly
‘timid’ US military has been responsible for an estimated
10-15
million deaths worldwide since World War
II’s end. The law of armed conflict has not slowed down global catastrophe from
war, nor has it stymied the US’s military might. The Geneva Conventions, though
often ignored by many nations since their inception in 1864, contain essential
ideals for international law, and critical protections for civilians in
conflict zones. Protocol I, Article 54,
for example, includes key protections such as, “Starvation of civilians as a
method of warfare is prohibited” and, “It is prohibited to…destroy…objects
indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as…drinking
water installations”.

The
extremist goals of Donald Trump and his supporters who seek to abolish such
laws reflect a deeply problematic ideology, in which guilt by association or
guilt due to geographic proximity to conflict is a celebrated norm. Refugees
displaced and victimized by the Islamic State are conflated with the terrorists
of the Islamic State, Mexican victims of drug cartel violence are deemed
interchangeable with the cartel operators themselves, and so on.

Dismantling humanitarian law is bound to breed more violence, more violations, and more suffering for the world’s most vulnerable.

Though
humanitarian law is imperfect, this body of law needs to be revised,
strengthened, and protected—not shrunk, destroyed, or viewed as “the problem.”
One group knows too well the experience of victimization by violations of
humanitarian law, and they are a group that, over the past five years, has been
displaced en masse for the second time in world history. In 1948, an estimated
750,000
Palestinians were expelled from their homes,
becoming refugees. Children of these refugees, and their children’s children,
are now legally classified as refugees themselves, and 560,000 of these
refugees resided in Syria
prior to the civil war. Over 110,000 of
them have
fled the combined violence of the Islamic State and the Assad regime in the
past five years, while another 450,000 have been internally displaced. Many are making dangerous journeys now all too familiar
to the western public – journeys in unsafe, flimsy boats across the
Mediterranean to make it to Greece to achieve a better life – a safer, less
brutal life – within the borders of EU nations.

As
of March 2016, Abeer al Hosary, a mother of three, was forced to flee
Syria, and was stranded
on the Greece-Macedonia border, praying that entry
into the EU would soon be possible. Following the EU-Turkey deal, which
mandates that refugees attempting to enter the EU from Greece by way of Turkey
must now be deported back
to Turkey, it does not seem that Abeer’s dream of
safety in Europe – nor the dreams of countless others like her – will become
reality. Palestinian refugee-Syrians, refugees yet again, are only eligible for
“temporary protection” in Turkey, as opposed to the full asylum status that
they could seek in the EU.

Members
of this group, one of many vulnerable refugee groups, are living reminders of
the undeniable significance of humanitarian law. Palestinian refugees regularly
suffer from violations of the Geneva Conventions in Syria, Gaza, the West Bank,
and beyond. The 2014
war on Gaza which resulted in 1,462 civilian
deaths and seemingly deliberate destruction of water and electricity
infrastructure, and the recent killing by an
Israel Defense Forces soldier of an unarmed, wounded Palestinian suspect lying
on the ground (and numerous other killings
like this), are just a few examples of blatant humanitarian law violations. In
Syria, violations of humanitarian law, including chemical
weapon attacks on civilians, have significantly
contributed to displacement. These attacks are violations of the very laws that certain US
presidential candidates are framing as “the problem.”

Humanitarian
law could certainly stand for improvement. It needs to be better equipped to
deal with protracted conflict that fluctuates unexpectedly in intensity, as in
Gaza and the West Bank. Now, sadly, it seems Syria has become a protracted
conflict – not a short-term burst of violence – as well. Humanitarian law also
needs to be pushed into meaningful dialogue with other bodies of international
law, such as environmental, criminal, and human rights legal frameworks.
Facilitating these dialogues through intergovernmental development and
legislation will be time consuming, and much of the work may even be futile.
But one thing is certain—dismantling humanitarian law is bound to breed more
violence, more violations, and more suffering for the world’s most vulnerable.
It also will not serve the US, which already has ghosts to deal with regarding accusations
of Geneva
Convention violations during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a troubling track record on international criminal
law, given that the US
is not a party to the International Criminal Court's Rome Statute.

Though
efforts to strengthen the protection of humanitarian law must be global, the US
could make major strides domestically by grappling with its historically vexed
relationship with humanitarian law, and by respecting it without question going
forward. Though this issue transcends any one presidential campaign… preventing
Donald Trump from getting anywhere near the presidency might also
be a good way to protect humanitarian law.

And,
though I promised this wasn’t an article about the US presidential election, I
will conclude by (not so) subtly quoting a certain Brooklyn-born US senator
from Vermont, who has courageously stated, “We
will not turn our backs on the refugees who are fleeing Syria and
Afghanistan. We will do what we do best and that is be Americans—fighting
racism, fighting xenophobia, fighting fear.” Sanders’
attitude is precisely the kind of attitude that will promote maximum safety and
security for marginalized people in the US and abroad. This kind of approach is
compatible with ushering in a new era in US policy. This could be an era in
which international humanitarian law (inextricably intertwined with a respect
for human rights and, “indispensable to the survival of the civilian
population,” as Article 54 states), would be respected to the fullest extent
possible.

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