Inside Geneva's Secret "Guerrilla Convention"

A Swiss NGO convenes representatives of 35 rebel groups in Geneva to talk about the mechanics, and great difficulties, of respecting humanitarian laws when fighting civil wars.

Geneva Call worker discussing humanitarian international norms with Somali authorities
Geneva Call worker discussing humanitarian international norms with Somali authorities
Simon Petite

GENEVA — Kurdish, Syrian, Burmese, Somali and Sudanese rebels were among 70 delegates from 35 guerrilla groups from around the world who met in Geneva last month to discuss not peace exactly, but more humane and lawful methods of warfare in what are often protracted, and very ugly, civil conflicts.

The three-day meeting convened by Geneva Call was discreet enough that it wasn't reported on until days later, once the participants had already left Switzerland.

Switzerland was the only real possible location for such a complicated encounter, as it is the only Western country that has not listed any of these groups as terrorist organizations. The participants included members of groups such as the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and People's Protection Units (YPG) from neighboring Syria, which Turkey labels as terrorists.

Most of the groups in Geneva had already signed one of the three Deeds of Commitment proposed by the NGO, the norms applicable to armed non-state actors banning anti-personnel (AP) mines, use of minors in war and sexual violence.

"The participants shared their experience and difficulties," says Elisabeth Decrey Warner, president of Geneva Call.

Despite ongoing fighting with jihadists, the YPG, for example, recently demobilized 150 child soldiers, she notes. "But without a rehabilitation project, they are tempted to take up arms again. How do we recognize the age of a youngster who wants to fight for the cause? The question recurred many times in the discussions."

A YPG spokesperson with a Geneva Call member — Photo: Geneva Call

Warner says that recent studies show that child soldiers forcibly taken from their families represent less than 10% of cases. "Most of the time teenagers enlist voluntarily because it seems to them the best option," she says.

Two reasons for low profile

Because its government has no list of terror groups, Switzerland must abide only by the United Nations list, whose limited list includes organizations linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS.

"It is part of its diplomatic richness, which it has to maintain, even if the international trend is toward getting tougher on terrorism," the head of Geneva Call adds. "The representatives of rebel groups know that by coming here they are not running the risk of getting trapped."

The meeting was kept secret both to protect the safety of the participants, and to avoid it being used as a platform to promote causes the rebel groups are defending. If it had been publicized, it could have damaged Switzerland's diplomatic corps, which facilitated the conference, and its government, which issued visas. Gathering so many rebel groups is already a logistical and administrative headache.

Orwa Zaid, the head of the military academy of the SPLM-N — rebels fighting the government in Sudan — was one of those attending the Geneva meeting. From his base in the Nuba mountains, he had to walk three days with an escort to the frontier with South Sudan, then travel to its capital Juba before flying to Europe. "I have a Dutch travel permit, without which it would be almost impossible to travel," he said on the phone from Amsterdam.

"We are going to destroy our AP mine stocks, which were stolen from the enemy. We have never used these arms because they would have affected our population," he insists.

Zaid, a former Sudanese air force pilot, fled to the Netherlands in 1998 after being accused of fomenting a coup. Four years later, he joined the SPLM-N in the Nuba mountains, a region historically hostile to the Khartoum government and currently besieged by the Sudanese army.

"I came to Geneva seeking humanitarian aid, which the Nuba population needs desperately," he says.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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