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UN to Syrian Rebels: Behave!

The Syrian rebels have violated the UN’s standards for proper conduct in war, according to a UN report. Based on information from more than 400 interviews inside Syria, the report holds both the rebels and government forces accountable for breaking international humanitarian law. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry is not pleased:

[U.N. investigators] said rebel forces often execute captured Syrian soldiers and militiamen and have established detention centers in Homs and Aleppo. Rebels had also taken up positions in or near densely-populated areas, in violation of international law. […]

“Some groups are exercising or trying to exercise civilian authority without due process of law. So we have allegations for example of sentences being imposed on various people, arrested and captured soldiers and so on, without due process and then being executed, as well as some families,” [commission member Vitit] Muntarbhorn said, noting that these were war crimes under the Geneva Convention.

Rebel wrongdoing is no doubt horrific. “Recruiting boys as young as 12,” using “schools as barracks,” and targeting “typically off-limits groups like medical workers”, as CNN reports, are contemptible actions by any humane standard. But it’s worth remembering that what began two years ago as peaceful protests has become a civil war, and the rebels have begged and pleaded at every step for the international community to assist them. Time and again for nearly 24 months the international community has said “no.” Seventy thousand people are now dead, and more than a million refugees have fled the country.

To refuse the rebels’ pleas for help and then condemn them for violating the Geneva Convention is the kind of dubious moral preening for which the UN has become famous. As in other conflicts, the UN imagines itself in Syria as a visitor from a morally superior universe, objectively judging the ants on the ground on a sliding scale of gentlemanly conduct.

There remains a coherent and legitimate case for not intervening in Syria on behalf of the rebels. But one would think that rejecting their appeals for help would come with a mature understanding that the consequences of that rejection could be ugly.

[UN vehicle image courtesy of]

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