The Death of an EU official in Syria: When the humanitarian principles are at stake, arming the rebels is it a panacea?


Wednesday, March 13, 2013, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, has announced that Ahmad Shihadeh, an EU policy officer, was killed during a rocket attack on Daraa, the south-west Damascus suburb.

This death raises concerns over the application of the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence of humanitarian workers. Ahmad Shihadeh, died while providing humanitarian help to the community, said Ashton.

The humanitarian principles are instrumental to secure acceptance by parties to a conflict and to ensure access to the victims and acceptance of relief workers especially in conflict situations. The distinction between humanitarian aid and the global EU external policy under the Lisbon Treaty has the objective of preserving these principles. However, the history of crisis management shows that these principles are rarely met. In Somalia, for example, attacks against humanitarian delegations have forced many Humanitarian agencies and civil society organisations to suspend their programmes and withdraw staff despite the urgency of the crisis.

This targeting of humanitarian workers is linked to the fact that they are perceived by either side as being “with or against”. The situation in Syria is more worrying given the extent of arming of civilians. The currently envisaged political solutions towards this issue are very weak and do not provide any measure against the spread of weapons within civilian communities.

The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, has announced on Thursday, March 14 that France and the United Kingdom will ask the EU to lift the arms embargo on Syria and that in the absence of a favorable response; the two countries will deliver weapons to the Syrian opposition. “The position we take, and which is also British, is to ask the Europeans to lift the embargo now so that the resistants could have the opportunity to defend themselves” said Laurent Fabius. “Lifting the embargo is one of the remaining ways to make the situation move politically,” he added.

Mr. Fabius has contested the arguments of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that arming the opposition would be a violation of international law. He argues that Russia and Iran are supplying weapons to Bashar al-Assad. Hence he would like to precipitate the EU meeting on the embargo scheduled for May in order to strengthen the opposition. This issue is also being discussed within the EU summit of this week.

Arming the rebels is it a panacea?

Firstly, the life of civilians must be one of the top priorities. As argued by the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Didier Reynders, the respect of international humanitarian law by all parties must be strengthened to ensure the protection of civilians and to improve access to medical care in Syria.

Secondly, the political interest should not replace the lives of millions of innocents. As stated by Madam Ashton herself,the situation reflects the inability of the international community to find a coherent, united way to respond to the horror that is being perpetrated and to act collectively to protect the people. Therefore, what is needed is not a polemic around who delivers weapons to whom. There is an urgent need of a structured and coordinated political action to coerce the departure of Al -Assad and to ensure a lasting peace in Syria. This action can’t be efficient if the major actors including the European Union, USA, Arab countries, Members of the UN Security Council, Russia, China etc. are not aware that division will only favor the deterioration of the situation.

Finally, as stressed by the UN peace envoy to Syria; Lakhdar Brahimi upon the meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, the “Assad-must-go” slogan is not a substitute for a political process. A process is what is needed to get out of the current impasse.

Marie Chantal Uwitonze

Specialist in diplomacy and conflict resolution



  1. Very good description of the situation. The author has highlighted issues without deciding, too diplomatic. It is true that arming rebels is not an efficient solution. Have we already forgotten Libya?

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