An earlier version of this piece was published in the Daily Observer.
By Shyikh Mahdi
As a continuation of the growing political unrest and power battles in the Middle East, the deadliest and worst forms of human rights violation are taking place in Syria for the last six years. At this moment, the Govt. forces had surrounded Aleppo, the stronghold of the rebel forces which also implicates the victory for the Assad regime. As the forces have started to penetrate the outskirts of this historic city, reports of executions, rape and plunders have started to surface in social media.
While a hundred thousand civilians are surrounded by an army in ghettos of Aleppo, and the fear of mass-execution and genocide is evident, it is not quite timely to dissect the issues of humanitarian law and climate change at this moment. Yet, the irreparable loss and its everlasting traumatic impact need to be fought well since the remaining traces of chemical warfare can still be very harmful of the lucky ones who survived.
Syria: Dead pool of International Humanitarian Law
The ongoing civil war between the pro-Assad groups and different factions of his enemies has resulted in approximately 470,000 fatalities (till February 2016) and has brought enormous destruction of cities and towns all over the country. About 20% of the Syrian populations (7,600,000, UNHCR estimate) are displaced within and beyond their own country borders. With the appalling pictures of severe humanitarian crisis that triggered the influx of refugees, health and environmental problems are also emerging as crucial factors that deserve immediate and long term attention.
With the indiscriminate bombings in Hospitals, Refugee Camps and other protected areas in Aleppo and some other regions, the civilian population all around Syria became the key victim of inhumane atrocities. Both the parties of the war have violated numerous principles of war, basic humanity and general conscience. Formerly rare infectious diseases have spread in rebel-held areas brought on by poor sanitation and deteriorating living conditions. The diseases have primarily affected children, and include (but not limited to) measles, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and the disfiguring skin disease leishmaniasis.
A panel of three IHL experts opined that Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the “systematic killing” of about 11,000 detainees. The panel consists of Sir Desmond de Silva QC (former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone), Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević) and Professor David Crane (indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court). According to their report, most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.
The Environmental impact: Situation before the civil war
The key reason behind the conflict is without question, political; The Assad regime has denied the basic freedoms and democratic rights (i.e. free and fair election) of the Syrians for too long. Thus, the fuming anti-govt. insurrection ended up in bloodshed and civil war. However, there are many other factors that triggered the violence, and one of them is Water, or more broadly, ‘climate change.’
Between 2007 and 2010, Syria has been hit by a severe drought, which was registered as the worst drought in the country over hundred years. It left a million farmers unemployed and as a result, the poor rural population started to migrate towards the cities in search of jobs and living. This influx of rural population started to create dissatisfaction and problems to the social and economic structures of the city, which was already fragile due to corruption and authoritarian rule.
American researchers in Columbia University noted that, the water crisis – caused by the increased temperature and decreased rainfall has been probably worsened by human-driven climate change, and with many other factors, it ultimately helped to kick things over the threshold into open conflict.
The Environmental impact: During the conflicts, with long term implications
The war leaves behind a toxic footprint resulting from the military origin contamination, such as heavy metals in munitions, chemical residues from bombs and shells like TNT and RDX, use of the infamous ‘Barrel Bombs’ along with the massive destruction of buildings, water resources and industrial zones. Most alarmingly, confirmed use and stockpiling of chemical weapons like nerve agent Sarin gas, Mustard Sulfur and neurotoxic VX caused severe sufferings to the poor victims. The remnants of these destruction will have a long term toxic legacy for the environment and can contribute to widespread public health problems for the years to come.
At this point however, it is too early to assess the full scope of hazards to human and environmental health across Syria. The situation is deteriorating with the new wave of air strikes from France and Russia. But early mappings of some studies have revealed a range of problems in certain areas.
The chemical weaponry, fragments of bombs and shells and toxic waste from destruction of homes, industries and military bases with stockpiled weapons are creating hazardous situations. Another aspect of environmental hazards is unfolding at the oil-producing zones of Syria, where a new wave of illegal oil industry is flourishing. Unskilled civilians, children and rebels are now working in extraction and refining process of that oil in the most primitive way, exposing themselves to oil pollution by spreading toxic gases, polluting soil and water thus affecting the local communities. The reports started to come about the adverse impact of such crude oil refinery industries, where the common ailments among the population include coughs, chemical burns that have potential to lead to tumors. It is apparent that, civilians in that region will face severe health problems from this toxic exposure, and the vast areas of land will be unsuitable for agriculture.
Climate Change might affect economic and political stability: a lesson for the free world
Syria is now a glaring example of the situation where environmental degradation can affect the political stability of a country, which might spread in regional or even global level.
The recent International Meeting on Environmental Justice and Climate Change in London has highlighted that climate change will have negative consequences on the efforts made to reduce poverty, causing an increasing malnutrition and most alarmingly, creating up to 250 Million climate refugees over the next few years. And it is obvious, trying to solve the causes of migration is better than to contain them. The environmental causes and impacts of wars shouldn’t be underestimated, since food and water will play crucial roles in coming years.
Only hope is to restoring the natural system of the countries with implementing the concepts of climate justice and accountability in a global level, it will stabilize the economic and political situation of countries, thus reducing poverty and conflicts. At the same time, the activities of ICC needs to strengthened beyond political rhetoric and stunts so that the perpetrators of war crime and genocide can be brought to justice.
Shyikh Mahdi is a trainee lawyer and blogger based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected]