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Switzerland

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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