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Syria: Could making 'domicide' a war crime bring justice?

January 31, 2024

Calls are growing to classify the deliberate destruction of homes in Syria's civil war as "domicide," a distinct war crime. Advocates argue that this classification is crucial for justice and reconstruction efforts.

Destroyed houses are seen in the east Aleppo neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab, Syria.
Around half of all housing units in the Syrian city of Aleppo were destroyed during and after fighting in the civil warImage: Hassan Ammar/AP/picture alliance

About a year after his family fled their hometown in Syria, Hisham Ibrahim was able to get some pictures of his house.

"When I left, it was not destroyed," the 52-year old told DW. But after the Syrian government took back control of the small northwestern town of Khan al-Sabil in 2020 from anti-government opposition, Ibrahim's home looked like it had been demolished.

It's a common story in this area, where looters work together with the Syrian military to strip the abandoned buildings of any valuable materials.

"I think they wanted to sell the iron with which the house was built. But they also cut off our hope of returning," Ibrahim said, showing DW satellite pictures of his house and explaining that those responsible also punched holes in his roof for no apparent reason.

The same was done to his neighbors, Ibrahim recounted, and over two-thirds of the houses in Khan al-Sabil are now uninhabitable.

"I used to have eight kilometers (5 miles) of olive trees too, some trees more than 50-years old. They uprooted all these as well," says Ibrahim, who now lives in a displaced persons' camp west of Idlib city in an area still controlled by anti-government forces. "They seemed to want to systematically destroy the whole village."

Hisham Ibrahaim shows DW a satellite picture of his hometown. Khan al-Sabil, and points out his destroyed home..
Displaced Syrian man Hisham Ibrahim has been watching his house using Google maps and satellite picturesImage: Omar Albam/DW

Fatima Muhammad confirms this. The 45-year old also comes from Khan al-Sabil and she told DW that when she left town because of Russian bombing four years ago, her house had been damaged but not badly. "But later when I started updating Google Maps, I saw it had been demolished," she says angrily.

No return home for displaced Syrians

These are not the only such cases in Syria. Rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have documented how the Syrian government, led by authoritarian Bashar Assad, and other affiliated groups there have weaponized housing during the country's now-stalemated, 13-year-long civil war. The Assad regime has looted, demolished or otherwise destroyed homes, especially in areas where anti-Assad opposition was known to have lived. The Assad regime has also passed new laws giving it broad powers to requisition land and property.

Recently, calls to make the destruction of homes and dwellings a distinct crime under international human rights law have been growing.

"The widespread or systematic destruction of homes has long been a feature of modern warfare," the United Nation's special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week. "It is for this reason that the systematic and indiscriminate leveling of entire neighborhoods through explosive weapons — as happened in Aleppo, and Mariupol, and Grozny, and towns in Myanmar, or most acutely these days, in Gaza — should be considered a crime against humanity."

Such a crime, he and others have suggested, would be called "domicide," a word that contains the Latin words "domus," or home, and "caedo," or killing. 

Location of Hisham Ibrahim's house in Khan al-Sabil, northern Syria
After air attacks and shelling of the rebel-held town of Khan al-Sabil, it was retaken by the Syrian government in 2020Image: Omar Albam/DW

Increasing recognition of domicide 

The Syrian situation, where houses are deliberately damaged to make them uninhabitable, would certainly fall into that category, confirmed Bree Akesson, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Toronto, Canada, and co-author of the 2022 book, "From Bureaucracy to Bullets: Extreme Domicide and the Right to Home."

"In the cases of domicide that we documented in our book we talk about domicide as being total or partial destruction," she told DW. What's happening in Gaza now, where houses have been reduced to rubble, counts as total destruction, she said.

"But domicide can also involve partial destruction, where people have been displaced and, as in the case of Syria, their homes are either occupied by somebody else or have been intentionally damaged in order to ensure that they do not return," she noted.

Akesson has been studying domicide for a decade now and, when she began, many people had no idea what it was. Now, thanks to more media coverage of conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Gaza and Myanmar, as well as improved technology — for example, drones and satellites that capture domicidal destruction from above — it is more widely recognized, she said.

Despite this, it's unclear whether calls to make domicide a crime under international human rights law will be heeded or exactly how domicide could be prosecuted.

How to prosecute domicide

Another relatively "new" addition to the list of war crimes recognized by the International Criminal Court, or ICC, offers some comparisons.

Since 1977, the Geneva Conventions, which define international legal standards for humanitarian treatment during a conflict, have said starvation is prohibited as a weapon of war. But it was not until 2019, that the ICC added starvation to its list of war crimes under the Rome Statute. The latter is the treaty that countries sign when they agree that the ICC has jurisdiction over them.

However, to date starvation has never been prosecuted as a war crime. 

Smoke rises on the outskirts of the city during a Russian missile attack on Kyiv.
Russian attacks on Ukrainian residential areas have also been described as potential domicide by researchersImage: Gleb Garanich/REUTERS

Should a case of starvation ever get to the ICC, Dutch legal advisory firm, Global Rights Compliance, says prosecutors would have much to prove, including intention to starve, the existence of a common plan to starve, the chain of command for those who did the starving and the exclusion of any other factors that might have caused starvation.

Additionally some of the countries where starvation has been used as a weapon are not even signatories to the Rome Statute. That includes Yemen, Syria and South Sudan.

Should it ever be added to the Rome Statute, those sorts of challenges are likely to arise when it comes to domicide too.

What would justice look like?

Akesson can imagine domicide being prosecuted as part of a larger case, where other related human rights violations have also been committed. Domicide can be part of other violations like apartheid and persecution or forced displacement, Akesson, the UN's Rajagopal and other experts have noted. It is also often a precursor to genocide, they say. 

What reparations a prosecution would bring victims of domicide is even more difficult to imagine, Akesson told DW

"One of the main takeaways from our book is that nothing can ever be done to replace a home," Akesson concluded after interviewing people from Syria, the Palestinian Territories and Myanmar who had lost their homes. "Not all the money in the world. The home will never be the same, the community is never the same."

A destroyed house in Kahan al-Sabil as a result of air attacks by Syrian government in 2019.
In 2019 and 2020, the rebel-held town of Khan al-Sabil came under aerial attack, causing many locals to fleeImage: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa/picture alliance

"There will be no sustainable peace without justice and this should be reflected in any reconstruction project," argues Ammar Azzouz, a Syrian researcher at Oxford and author of the 2023 book, "Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria."  

"People should be given the right to home and the right to return safely when they wish to," he told DW. "They might get their material culture back but home is more than the physical structures. It's about the people who were lost, and the people who were uprooted and the everyday familiar life that was damaged."

Asked how he felt about possible reparation for domicide, Ibrahim, the former resident of Khan al-Sabil, said he "would certainly demand [financial] compensation," should someone accept their complaint against the regime.

"But really nothing can replace our homes. If we had money, we could go back and rebuild, but that requires a lot and it's not just financial. We can never feel safe there," he said.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

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