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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Marie Colvin and the War Correspondents who Give Their Lives to Expose International Atrocities

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


It was February 20th of 2012 when the ravaged war zone of Syria faced the wrath of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces.[1]The civil war between the Free Syrian Army and the people’s dictator had turned the city of Homs into a bloodbath whilst NATO and the United Nations took no action.[2]In a cruel bombardment of the city to flush out rebel forces, the murderous dictator’s bombs flew from the air and his snipers lay hidden across the city, shooting starving civilians on sight.[3]Freezing rain and snow dealt the civilians an even harder blow and many were either killed in explosions or had died of starvation in Syria’s coldest winter on record.[4]


In the face of incredible danger, war correspondent Marie Colvin was travelling by tunnel on a mission to Baba Amr, where the fighting was the most extreme, alongside members of the Free Syrian Army and photographer Paul Conroy.[5]Now 56 years old, Colvin hobbled around slowly in the darkness with the vision of only one eye, the other having been lost to a grenade in Sri Lanka on assignment in 2001.[6] It was almost too difficult for her to make it through. By nightfall she and her team finally reached Baba Amr, where almost every other war correspondent had long fled by now.[7]Although she had been warned that the dictator was directly targeting journalists including herself, she had gone to the center of the fighting against the advice of other journalists and her editors at The Sunday Times.[8]


Marie Colvin (middle) and her friend and fellow war correspondent Lidsney Hilsum (right) on assignment. Lidsney would later write a book about Colvin named ‘In Extremis’.


From the view of the makeshift media center they had set up in Baba Amr, she could see the mutilated bodies of civilians and fighters that lay in the carnage below. Those that were lucky to have survived the shelling were carried away to clinics to fight for their lives without proper medication.[9]Children and women alike either starved to death or had been shot by the dictator’s forces, and at one point, Colvin had witnessed the death of a baby after being hit by shrapnel.[10]Never had she witnessed such brutality in the long history of her career reporting from the front lines of major political conflicts. She described the attack as ‘the worst we’ve ever seen’.[11]Desperate to expose the striking cruelty of the dictator’s war on his own people, she and her team reported back to the rest of the world by satellite phone.[12]


At 6AM the next morning, everyone was suddenly awoken by shelling.[13]The outer wall of the building they were in was shaking – they had been struck, and the building was crumbling on top of them.[14]Everyone screamed, rushing to get out, but it was too late[15]. Colvin’s photographer Paul Conroy, who had taken a blow to his leg but otherwise survived, found her through the rubble. Pressing his ear to her chest, he heard nothing. She was gone.[16]


Paul Conroy (left) and Marie Colvin (right) on assignment. Conroy survived the attack that killed his longtime friend.


Colvin’s death sent shockwaves around journalists around the world. She ws yet another in a long line of journalists who had lost their lives on the front lines of battle, and as a particularly acclaimed war reporter of her generation, her tragic loss was a blow to the effort towards mounting international pressure onto both the preparators of the ongoing cruelties in Syria and the international legal organizations bound to protect innocent civilians. Her death further unraveled the failures of international mechanisms to protect the journalists that risk their lives.


It would later be revealed that Colvin’s reporting in Baba Amr was the first accurate and influential report about the ensuing genocide that would take place in Syria by their dictator.[17]The ensuing legal battle to seek justice for Colvin’s death saw the Syrian government found guilty in a civil lawsuit in a US court for her deliberate targeting and murder.[18]

Although the US Court demanded the Syrian government pay Colvin’s family over $300 million USD in damages, Colvin’s family is unlikely to ever touch this compensation.[19]

Given the importance of Colvin’s work towards exposing the atrocities that international law is meant to persecute, the lack of justice received on behalf of Colvin and her family exposes the bitter irony of the limited justice available to those who contribute so much to the pursuit of justice itself.


Although Article 79 of Additional Protocol 1 of the Third Geneva Convention provides journalists with the same entitlement to protection in international armed conflicts[20], the Syrian conflict reveals the ugly truth about the international bodies supposed to seek justice for the vulnerable. Even in clear violations of international humanitarian law, our world organizations cannot effectively protect vulnerable citizens or war correspondents like Colvin, and neither can they seek true justice for them as long as they continue to take little action. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of international crimes in ongoing conflicts around the world continue to target and silence war correspondents.


Although Colvin is gone, her legacy remains intact. In her decades of serving as a foot soldier of international justice she brought vividly to life the excruciatingly brutal details of war and the heartbreaking human stories that go unacknowledged.


Louise Lau

Feature Writer

International Law


SOURCES


[1] Wood, P. (2020). Syria's slide towards civil war. [online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16984219 [Accessed 21 Feb. 2020].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brenner, M. (2020). Marie Colvin’s Private War. [online] Vanity Fair. Available at: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/politics/2012/08/marie-colvin-private-war [Accessed 21 Feb. 2020].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hilsum, L. (2018). In Extremis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nytimes.com. (2019). Opinion | A Bill Comes Due for Marie Colvin’s Death. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/05/opinion/marie-colvin-syria-assad-court-judgment.html [Accessed 21 Feb. 2020].

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Article 79 of Additional Protocol 1 of the Third Geneva Convention

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