Syria: Aid finally reaches Eastern Ghouta after death toll rises above 200 in four day assault
As the death toll from a four-day assault on Eastern Ghouta rose above 200 last week, the UN Security Council met behind closed doors on Thursday, 8 February to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis in the country. However, Russia rejected Assistant Secretary-General and UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis Panos Moumtzis’ appeal for a month-long humanitarian ceasefire in Syria as “unrealistic”. The UN has said that since calling for the ceasefire on 6 February, bombings in the country have intensified and the suffering of civilians in Syria has worsened. On Saturday 10 February, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that between 4 – 9 February, Syrian airstrikes, as well as those of its allies, had killed 230 civilians, which, depending on the circumstances, may constitute war crimes. The High Commissioner also called for “urgent international action.” In an official statement released on 12 February, Ali al-Za’tari, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, also described the recent surge in violence as “some of the worst fighting of the entire conflict” and asserted that the “escalation is taking its cruelest toll on civilians… with reports of hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries, massive displacement and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities.” Even though Russia maintains veto power at the Security Council, Sweden has insisted that it must nevertheless try to gain support for a ceasefire. As Sweden has asserted, “when international law, including humanitarian law is violated on a daily basis, it is our duty to act”.
Finally, on 14 February, after weeks of appeals from the UN, the Eastern Ghouta region received its firsthumanitarian aid delivery. However, much more is needed and will be difficult to deliver without a cessation of fighting in the area. In the meantime, the humanitarian situation remains one of the worst the world has seen.
Source for above photo: Reuters/Bassam Khabieh
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Complicity in International Crimes: In an interview on 14 February, UN Special Envoy on Human Rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, expressed the possibility of a future international tribunal finding State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of being complicit in crimes against humanity. Ms. Lee also said that there are clear hallmarks of genocide in the country. The Burmese government has barred Mrs. Lee from entering
entering Burma, citing her alleged bias in favor of the Rohingya minority group.
Killings demand our action and attention: A new report released this week alleges the killing of ten Rohingya Muslims in Burma by Buddhist villagers and government troops. The report draws on interviews with victims as well as with the alleged perpetrators of the crimes. Buddhist villagers and Burmese soldiers admitted to burning and looting the village, arresting the ten men, digging their graves, and subsequently killing them. The report also contains disturbing pictures and accounts of the raid in the city of Inn Din in Rakhine State. In response, Deputy Chief of UN Political Affairs Miroslav Jenca told the UN Security Council that reports of grave human rights abuses “demand our attention andaction.”
Ceasefire Agreement: On 13 February, two armed ethnic groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA), a ceasefire and peace process agreement with the Burmese government first signed by other parties to the conflict in 2015. The new signatories will also participate in the upcoming Panglong Peace Conference, which will focus on federalism and the formulation of new principles for the country.
Referendum on Constitutional Amendments: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has criticized President Nkurunziza’s attempt to make constitutional amendments through a proposed referendum, which would allow the president to hold two seven-year terms and would also change the ethnic quotas required between the Hutus and Tutsis. These requirements were outlined in the hard-won Arusha Peace Accord that ended the civil war and has allowed for ten years of peace in Burundi.
Crackdown on Campaigning: On 13 February, the police force in Burundi posted a video threatening to arrest anyone who prematurely campaigns against the upcoming referendum. The allotted time for campaigning is two weeks before the vote, which it is scheduled to take place in May. Police also reported the arrest of four students and one teacher, who were campaigning door to door for people to vote “no”. Opposition forces condemned the crackdown on campaigning and further claimed police were only arresting those campaigning against the proposed measure.
Central African Republic:
UNICEF Failure to Support Alleged Victims: In early 2017, an award-winning investigation by the Swedish television program, Mission Investigate, exposed the UN Children Fund’s (UNICEF) negligence of its mandate to protect underage victims of alleged sexual abuse by UN Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Following the release of the results of the investigation this week, UNICEF has recognized its failure to provide support to the victims and has announced increased efforts to address the institutional failure.
Constant Attacks: On Monday, a new report detailed how the increasing violence and constant attacks in CAR are indications of a growing general humanitarian crisis. Attacks by armed groups in CAR are increasing dramatically in a reported effort to secure territories before the rainy season begins in April. The violence has directly resulted in record numbers of displaced civilians.
Democratic Republic of the Congo:
Ethnic Violence: As of 13 February, ethnic violence between the Hema and Lendu groups in the DRC’s Ituri Province has reportedly displaced approximately 200,000 people in the past two months. Over 22,000 refugees have fled to Uganda, and many of those fleeing are risking their lives in the arduous journey. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that at least four refugees drowned while crossing Lake Albert, which separates the two countries. Refugees are fleeing the DRC because of people burning houses, pillaging villages, recruiting people against their own will, and kidnapping. Militias are also allegedly raping girls and women. One half of those who have fled are children. The current violence comes in light of the uncertainty surrounding President Joseph Kabila’s decision to stay in power past the end of his previous term.
Sexual Abuse by Peacekeepers: On 14 January, the UN reported that it registered 18 cases of alleged sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers in the DRC during 2017. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pledged to take a tougher stance on allegations of misconduct by the blue helmets. Similarly, the South African military opened an investigation into allegations of misconduct and sexual exploitation committed by its peacekeepers in the DRC, indicating that “corrective actions” would be taken if the allegations are found to be true. The UN requested that the investigation be completed within 90 days.
UN Deaths: US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley asked the DRC’s Foreign Minister to deliver a message to President Joseph Kabila regarding the actions taken against individuals on a list provided by the US connected to the murder of two UN investigators in March 2017. A UN Inquiry found that a group of Congolese, likely militia members, murdered the two investigators, but did not rule out the possibility of other suspects. In October 2017, the trial of the suspects in the DRC was suspended, pending the arrival of four UN experts to assist in the investigations. Since then, no serious action has been taken, the US complained.
Gaza / West Bank:
Medical Permits: In a joint statement on 13 February, human rights organizations, including ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch (HRW), condemned the record-low rate of medical treatment permits issued by Israel for Palestinians. In 2017, Israel approved only 54 percent of the requested permits – the lowest rate since the World Health Organization began collecting data. The organizations called on Israel to lift its blockade on Gaza, particularly to allow the freedom of movement for people with health problems.
Reconstruction: Iraqi officials have indicated that it will cost at least 88 billion USD to rebuild Iraq in the aftermath of its three-year war with the Islamic State (ISIL). Jassim Mohammed al-Jaaf, Iraq’s Minister of Migration and Displacement stressed that “The priority now is to bring back normal life to Iraq’s cities” so that the 2.6 million Iraqis who remain displaced can return home – or choose to stay in a new city. At the ministerial meeting of the Kuwait International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq (KICRI), held on 14 February in Kuwait, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asserted that the UN was firmly committed to the reconstruction process in Iraq. Additionally, the government of Kuwait confirmed that Iraq also received $30 billion in pledges to fund its reconstruction efforts. Still, according to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, the funds fall short of what is needed.
Explosives left behind: The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) is also leading efforts to clear massive amounts of explosive material in Mosul and other cities.
Mass Grave: On 8 February, ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that it located a mass grave near the village of Bardiya in Iraq. New evidence suggests that the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Asayish security forces from the West Tigris branch may have carried out mass executions of alleged ISIL detainees, possibly killing hundreds. Authorities must urgently investigate war crimes allegations and hold to account those responsible.
Child Soldiers: A new study conducted by the United Nations University, found that at least 10 major armed groups operating in Syria and Iraq – not just ISIL – have recruited and used child soldiers.
NATO: Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jens Stoltenberg, announced on 15 February that NATO would expand its military training mission in Iraq, which could involve up to 200 personnel.
Illegal Deportation: Kenya’s High Court ruled that the deportation of opposition lawyer Miguna Miguna was illegal. The Kenyan government arrested Miguna and charged him with treason for partaking in the mock inauguration of opposition leader Raila Odinga. On 7 February, Kenya deported Miguna back to Canada, where he maintains dual citizenship. The Court now demands the government present Miguna’s passport to the Court within seven days. The Interior Ministry responded that it will appeal the ruling.
Media Crackdown: On 9 February, Canada expressed its concern over current human rights violations in Kenya, as well as concern over the crack down on the media. The Canadian government also urged the Government of Kenya to respect the law and “uphold its Constitution, to allow freedom of expression and to respect court orders, including those that order the release of those granted bail”. Canada also said that a free media is essential in a democracy.
Further attacks against mosques : On 9 February, an explosive device detonated at the Saad Ben Obadah mosque in Benghazi, killing at least two people and wounding up to 129 more. According to the Libyan human rights group, Human Rights Solidarity (HRS), the preliminary information shows that “the perpetrators of this crime had the intention to inflict the greatest harm on the innocent civilians during the Friday Prayer.” Noting the lack of concern of local authorities to investigate the killings and bombings, HRS called on the United Nations to conduct a thorough international investigation into the bombing.
A potential step towards elections: Earlier this month, Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said he hoped for parliamentary and presidential elections in the country by the end of 2018, but also warned that conditions were not yet ready for polling. Some analysts similarly warned that elections could complicate the situation even further. However, a 14 February ruling by Libya’s Supreme Court could pave the way for a referendum on a draft constitution, which is in turn a part of the UN’s Libyan Political Agreement. While the road forward will not be smooth, this could jump-start a process towards reconciliation in the country.
Right to vote at UNGA: For the third year in a row, Libya has lost its right to vote within the UN General Assembly (UNGA) as a result of unpaid dues amounting to approximately $6.6 million. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has indicated that once Libya pays its debts, it will regain its right to vote.
Civilian landmine deaths: On 9 February, a passenger vehicle hit a landmine while travelling between Dera and Konna, killing five civilians and wounding 18 more. This incident occurred just two weeks after 26 civilians were killed in a similar incident in the same central Mali area.
Sahel Region: Spain is concerned about the possible influx of Islamic State (ISIL) fighters into the Sahel Region, which is made up of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger. These countries suffered attacks, which have claimed thousands of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more. According to Alfonso Dastis, Spain’s Foreign Minister, “It’s clear that the security situation in … Mali is not improving.” In December, Spain increased the number of military personnel in Mali from 140 to 292.
Boko Haram releases hostages: According to the Nigerian government, Boko Haram released three university lecturers and ten women, who it had kidnapped in 2017. This release comes after President Muhammadu Buhari authorized the International Committee of the Red Cross to facilitate negotiations. All 13 people are now in the custody of the Department of State Security Services and will be provided healthcare assistance.
Incitement to Commit War Crimes: In a press briefing on Friday, 9 February, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would train members of the indigenous community as paramilitary fighters and pay an amount of $384 per each communist rebel they successfully kill. Human rights groups, such as ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch, as well as indigenous activists have denounced the statement as inciting the military to perform war crimes.
Calls for Gender-Based Violence: In last week’s speech in Malacañang, President Duterte ordered soldiers to shoot female guerrilla fighters “in the vagina,” a statement that reportedly drew laughter from the crowd. Unfortunately, this is not the first comment Duterte has made supporting sexual or gender-based violence. In 2016, President Duterte joked about wishing to have had participated in the rape of an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and killed in a prison riot in 1989, as well as allegedly telling soldiers that even under martial law, he will protect them if they committed rape.
Body Cameras for Police: On 14 February, the Philippine police announced the adoption of body cameras and other measures in an effort to reduce violence in anti-narcotic operations. The announcement comes after the International Criminal Court launched a preliminary investigation into the alleged crimes committed by President Duterte’s war on drugs. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency also reported in the conference that more than 4,000 individuals had been killed between 1 July 2016 and 8 February 2018 by police forces in anti-drug raids and operations.
Increasing Numbers of Refugees: The Chairman of the Technical Coordination Committee for Refugee Affairs in Sudan’s White Nile State has reported that the number of South Sudanese refugees in that state reached 150,000. Currently, the state accommodates refugees in 8 camps, with two in the Al-Gabalain area and the rest in Al-Salam. However, he also called for more camps due to the increased refugee flow.
UN-Mandated Force Grows: More troops have arrived in South Sudan’s capital to form part of the Regional Protection Force (RFP), a UN Security Council mandated-force to provide protection for Juba’s routes and facilities. 270 Rwandans joined RFP’s existing personnel numbering 600 on Saturday, 10 February. The spokeswoman for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) announced that the force will eventually grow to 4,000 people. Policy analyst Ting Mayai has said that the new troops should be deployed in other parts of South Sudan, rather than the relatively stable Juba. However, the UNMISS chief stated that the growth of the RFP will free existing UNMISS peacekeepers to cover areas outside of Juba.
James Gatdet Dak Sentence: On Monday, South Sudan sentenced James Gatdet Dak, the former spokesman of rebel leader Riek Machar, to death for treason and incitement against the government. His former lawyer said the sentencing violated the ceasefire signed in December, which called for the release of all prisoners and detainees.
Peace Talks Deteriorate: On 9 February 2018, the South Sudanese government refused to agree to terms requiring punitive measures for officials deemed to be undermining the peace process. The government representatives refused to sign the Declaration of Principles, which is meant to be the guiding force for the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) talks to reinstate the 2015 peace agreement. Additionally, on 12 February, the country’s opposition party allied to Riek Machar boycotted the peace talks, stating that the alleged attacks by the government against opposition forces on Monday in the town of Nyatot constituted a violation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. The government’s spokesperson responded that the blame falls on the opposition for instigating the clash.
Permanent IDP Camps: The government in South Darfur State has announced plans to transform International Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps into permanent towns. While speaking about the El-Sereif Camp in particular, the governor of South Darfur said IDPs would have access to residential plots inside the camp, while maintaining the right to stay or return to their villages of origin. Since 2003, there are 2.7 million people living in displacement camps.
Arrests of Opposition Leaders: The Sudanese government has continued to arrest opposition leaders, the Sudan Tribune reports. Hours after opposition calls for more protests against the rising prices of goods in the capital city of Khartoum, security forces arrested a member of the Ba’th party and a member of the Civil Society Initiative. The EU has condemned the detention without charge of opposition leaders and activists, calling for their immediate release or trail. The US Embassy in Sudan has also expressed concerns over the arrests.
Support for Demobilization and Reintegration: The Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) Commission has announced that the US will join their donor country list supporting its programs in Sudan. The DDR’s main goal is to demobilize and reintegrate current and former combatants to civilian life. For example, it has established a camp for rebel fighters and Sudanese army forces in South Darfur.
Child Soldiers: A new study conducted by the United Nations University found that at least 10 major armed groups operating in Syria and Iraq – not just the Islamic State (ISIL) – recruit and use child soldiers.
Human Rights and Fair Trials: Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have recently detained Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee el-Sheikh, two British nationals suspected of torturing and executing western hostages. HRW stressed that the capture of these ISIL suspects should “jump-start international discussions on ensuring justice for [ISIL’s] horrific crimes” but cautioned that the trials must be fair and respect due process, as well as permit genuine victim participation. HRW also argued that the men should be prosecuted in foreign countries that are able to exercise jurisdiction, as local courts in Syria are not currently able to ensure basic due process. To date however, no country has agreed to prosecute the foreign fighters.
Brazil Braces for an Increase in Refugees: Brazil has announced an increase in funding and army presence at its northern border to control the influx of Venezuelan refugees. The local government reported that around 40,000 Venezuelan refugees currently live in the Brazilian capital of the northern state of Roraima.
Escalation in fighting takes toll on civilians: On 12 February, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, voiced alarm at the escalating hostilities in Yemen and the resulting civilian casualties that continue unabated. The High Commissioner reported that at least 5,974 civilians have been killed and nearly 10,000 injured since the civil war began in March 2015. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) acknowledges that the number of civilian deaths could indeed be higher. The same day, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported that in Yemen, there have been a total of 9,245 conflict-related civilian deaths and 52,807 injuries to since the beginning of the civil war. Between 1 and 8 February alone, OHCHR verified that at least 27 people had been killed and 76 were injured. The High Commissioner expressed particular concern over this “upsurge in fighting in the south-western Governorate of Taizz”, where “civilians are under fire on all sides” and where “the conflict is not just escalating but inescapable”.
Humanitarian Assistance: On 12 February, MSF reported that an estimated 22.2 million Yemeni people are in need of humanitarian or protection support. On 13 February, Col. Turki Al-Maliki, a spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, indicated that between March 2015 and February 2018, the coalition gave permission a total of 18,557 times to allow for evacuation and humanitarian operations by land, sea and air. The same day, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, also welcomed Saudi Arabia’s and the United Arab Emirates’ pledge of $1 billion to support humanitarian action in Yemen.
Peace Talks: On 9 February, the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) reported that Oman would host a new round of Yemeni peace talks once the new Special Envoy to the Secretary-General on Yemen was appointed. Col. Turki Al-Maliki, while asserting that the coalition “seeks peace,” , also maintained that the coalition would not change its peace strategy under any circumstances, including following the appointment of the new UN envoy. Muhammad Al-Bukhaithi, Deputy Dead of the Department of External Relations of Houthis and member of the group’s political bureau, also confirmed Houthis were “open for negotiations with all parties to the conflict” and reportedly also confirmed in an interview with MEMO in October 2017 that Oman could “play a key role in stopping the war if they have the will to play a neutral and frank role with the Saudi regime.” On 14 February, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismaïl Ould Cheikh Ahmed, held a rare meeting in Abu Dhabi with leaders of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) to encourage them to join peace talks.
Child Soldiers: During a press conference in Riyadh on 13 February, Col. Turki Al-Maliki accused Houthis of recruiting child soldiers, despite international condemnation and in violation of international law.
Human Rights and Fair Trials: Amnesty International reported on 15 February, that a woman and two men were forcibly disappeared, ill-treated, and then sentenced to death in a grossly unfair trial by a court in Houthi-controlled Sana’a for allegedly aiding an enemy country. Amnesty argued that these sentences must be quashed immediately as “Sentencing anyone to death after such deeply flawed proceedings is a clear violation of international law”. Furthermore, according to Amnesty, the trial also followed several grave violations and crimes under international law, some of which may amount to war crimes.
Violence following Guinean elections: Following eight years of delays, on 4 February 2018, Guinea held its first local elections since the end of military rule. However, violence erupted soon after the elections, and young people reportedly took to the streets after opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo denounced “massive fraud” in the vote. While the electoral commission has not yet announced the election results, at least seven people have been killed in post-election clashes and over 70 arrests have been made. On 12 February, Guinea’s government warned against ethnic violence between the Malinke and Peul groups, and the Minister of National Unity and Citizenship claimed the government would “create a commission to identify anyone inciting ethnic hatred and violence.”