Notes on Rukban Camp

29 JUNE 2021

Last week, Stuart McDonald, a Scottish National Party member of the Westminster Parliament, asked a detailed question on the situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon in a short Westminster Hall debate. Syria Notes had been asked by his SNP colleagues, Anne McLaughlin MP and Councillor Graham Campbell, to provide some information in advance on the situation in Rukban camp.

While Rukban camp is located in territory on the Syrian side of the Syria-Jordan border that is under the control of Coalition forces, the existence of the camp is due in large part to the policies of the Jordanian government in restricting cross-border movement since 2013.

The situation is worsened by the refusal of the UK and US to fulfil the Coalition’s legal duty to bring aid to civilians in an area under its military control as demanded by Geneva Convention IV Article 55.

In his question in Parliament on 22 June, Stuart McDonald said:

“I should also mention in particular the situation just over the border in Syria at the Rukban camp, where humanitarian workers are prevented from accessing 12,000 refugees who are stranded there. I understand that those restrictions have been contributed to by the Jordanian Government, as well as by the Assad regime and Russia. The presence of coalition forces in the area around the camp and border crossing means that they could be well-placed—they may even be required—to ensure that aid is delivered, and it would be useful to hear the Minister’s response on that.”

And in his summing up of his key points, Stuart McDonald again brought up Rukban camp, asking the Minister:

“Will he also comment on the issues relating to the Rukban camp and humanitarian access?”

Responding was James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa. In the 1,390 words he delivered in reply, there was not one mention of Rukban camp.

The Minister’s reticence on Rukban was disappointing, but not surprising. As we noted in our briefing to Stuart McDonald, the UK Government appears to have adopted a policy of silence on Rukban camp.

In a 2019 article, former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and Carolyn O’Connor argued that the US-led Coalition has a legal and moral responsibility to protect civilians at Rukban. The legal responsibility is grounded in Geneva Convention IV Article 55 and depends on understanding the Coalition presence in the Tanf Zone as a military occupation.

In an earlier 2019 email, the then UK Special Representative for Syria had declared that “the Global Coalition Against Daesh, and by extension the UK, is not an occupying force in Syria.” This assertion was repeated to us by two other UK Foreign Office officials in separate meetings in 2019.

Earlier this year we wrote to Professor Marco Sassòli of the University of Geneva to ask his opinion as an expert in this area of International Humanitarian Law. He replied as follows: “If the facts are those reported by Ambassador Ford (US troops hinder Syrian forces to exercise control in the Tanf Zone), I agree that it is a coalition forces occupied territory.” He continued, “in addition, if Coalition forces control the area since 3 years, as Ambassador Ford reports, I would have no hesitation to consider Art. 55 applicable.”

As Professor Sassòli is well respected, and a Special Advisor on international humanitarian law to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, we shared his opinion with the current UK Special Representative for Syria. We received no reply.

Read our full briefing here.

Video: Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, Westminster Hall debate, Tuesday 22 June 2021.

Read the Hansard transcript.