Syrian rebels given Geneva Conventions training in Alps

Rebels accused by human rights group of destroying religious buildings

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – A group of 15 Syrian rebel leaders were brought to Switzerland by the Foreign Affairs Department in November for Geneva Conventions training, RTS (Swiss public broadcasting) has learned. The group’s week-long courses, shrouded in secrecy for security reasons, took place in Glion in the Vaud Alps, above Montreux. Mario Carera, who headed the project for the office, told RTS that it was “simpler here, where we can manage the situation and ensure their safety.”

The federal ministry will continue to encourage training in humanitarian principles to other Syrian opposition group fighters, but in Syria, and through NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) who are working on the ground, in particular Geneva Call and HD Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Geneva Call has asked Lebanese cartoonist Armand Homsi to provide illustrations to get across the basics of humanitarian principles, and a mobile phone game is reportedly under development.

Carera, citing Switzerland’s long history of defending and promoting international humanitarian law, told RTS that the central message of the Glion sessions was that “war doesn’t make everything acceptable. You have to protect civilians and the wounded, and you have to treat prisoners humanely. Hospitals, schools and mosques cannot be targets.”

Opposition leaders called on to discipline fighters, citing war crimes

The need to get that message across was underscored Wednesday by Human Rights Watch, which issued a lengthy statement detailing evidence that opposition fighters have

“destroyed a Shia place of worship in Idlib governorate, and two Christian churches in Latakia governorate were looted. In all three cases evidence examined by Human Rights Watch suggests, and witnesses stated, that the attacks took place after the area fell to opposition control and government forces had left the area.

“While some opposition leaders have pledged to protect all Syrians, in practice the opposition has failed to properly address the unjustified attacks against minority places of worship, Human Rights Watch said. The opposition also has failed to rein in gunmen engaging in looting and other criminal activities, like kidnappings.”

The findings come after the group earlier documented the destruction and vandalization of a mosque in Taftanaz, Idlib by Syrian government forces, pointing to the need for both sides to respect humanitarian law and to be held accountable if they do not.

“Under international humanitarian law, parties in an armed conflict have a responsibility not to intentionally attack religious buildings that are not being used for military purposes. They are prohibited from seizing, destroying, or doing willful damage to religious buildings or institutions and from theft, pillage, or vandalism directed against important cultural property. Deliberate attacks on religious sites that are not military objectives are war crimes.”