ICC opens preliminary examinations into situations in Venezuela and the Philippines
On 8 February, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened preliminary examinations into the situations in Venezuela and in the Philippines. A preliminary examination determines if a situation meets the legal criteria for a full investigation by the ICC. Both the Philippines and Venezuela are parties to the Rome Statute.
The preliminary examination in the Philippines will assess alleged crimes committed since 1 July 2016. Under the slogan of the “war on drugs”, President Duterte’s administration has allegedly committed extrajudicial killings and mass murder against people involved in drug trafficking and drug use. The government reports that the killings are a result of suspects resisting the police. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, however, have concluded that the police murdered suspects when confronting them. President Duterte has previously denounced the Court as useless and has expressed interest in withdrawing as a signatory to the Court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute.
Similarly, the ICC will examine alleged crimes committed in Venezuela since April 2017, when protests and demonstrations swamped the country. Venezuelan forces have allegedly used excessive force against demonstrators, used torture and ill-treatment against political detainees, and arbitrarily prosecuted civilians in civil courts. A group of protestors has also been accused of using excessive force against police, resulting in deaths and injuries
Forced Starvation: On 7 February, Amnesty International (AI) reported that the Burmese military was forcibly starving the Rohingya population. AI asserted that the Burmese military has blocked access to rice fields, burned down local markets, and has also restricted humanitarian aid to northern Rakhine State. Accordingly, AI indicated that one of the main reasons the Rohingya are fleeing is due to the inability to find food and supplies. In a joint meeting with the President of the Swiss Confederation Alain Berset, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on the international community to maintain the pressure on the Burmese government for a solution to the Rohingya situation. The Prime Minister stated that the root of the problem, as well as the solution, lies in Burma. She also urged the implementation of the recommendations made by Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
Regional Conflict: The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, advised that Burma’s continued persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority could bleed into a larger regional conflict. The High Commissioner also asserted that the recent wave of violence which began in August and which sparked the refugee crisis was the culmination of a 50-year history of violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. Zeid also expressed concern as to the weakening state of democracy across Asia.
Politically motivated killings: The human rights group Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH) released a report, in which it detailed cases of disappearances, torture, and killings in Burundi. According to the report titled “Do not Play with Fire”, 500 people were killed in 2017 and 10,000 are still detained. Apparently, some of these people were accused of either practicing witchcraft or were said to have been killed due to land-related issues. However, APRODH is of the view that these allegations were false and that these killings were actually politically motivated. Moreover, in all documented cases, these people died at the hands of the police, military, or Imbonerakure. Head of APRODH, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, also reported on the use of torture and overcrowded prison conditions. Burundi’s Human Rights Minister denied the accusations contained in the report.
Call for National Unity: On the 27th anniversary of the adoption of the Charter of National Unity, whereby different ethnic groups in Burundi agreed to live in peace, President Pierre Nkurunziza called for unity in the country. Unity, he said, acts as a “shield against discrimination”. The Burundian President also indicated that the Burundian government has created, inter alia, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and National Council for National Unity and Reconciliation.
Urgent Funding Needed: The UN warns that Burundi is at risk of becoming a ‘forgotten crisis’. With the number of individuals fleeing on the rise, the UN is attempting to gather more aid partners to launch a funding appeal. The funding would help to ensure those displaced and living in refugee camps would receive food, education, and protection from sexual and gender-based violence. Although the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, does not encourage refugees to return to Burundi at this time, some refugees decided to return home and are facing economic pressure and food insecurity.
Central African Republic:
Conviction: Rodrigue Ngaibona, a former warlord and leader of the anti-Balaka militia, has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Human rights groups describe this as a first step toward justice.
Democratic Republic of the Congo:
Elections: Josh Tshibangu, a colonel who threatened to remove Joseph Kabila from office was extradited from Tanzania and is awaiting prosecution. Josh Tshibangu released a video last month on social media calling on Kabila to step down within 45 days. Kabila’s refusal to step down after his term ended in December of 2016 has sparked violence in the DRC. Tshibangu was detained in Tanzania and will be prosecuted for rebellion. However, on 7 January, DRC’s Minister of Communications Lambert Mende announced that President Kabila would not seek reelection in the elections scheduled for later this year.
Ethnic Violence: The escalating ethnic violence between the Hema and Lendu groups in the northeastern part of the DRC has left 30 people dead and forced 5,000 to flee, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said. The tension between these two ethnic groups is not new, however; in the late 1990s, the conflict between them caused 400,000 people to be displaced. UNHCR monitors in the region also report the burning of many villages around the area.
Individual Sanctions: The US, as well as the UN and France, have imposed sanctions against DRC general Muhindo Akili Mundos and three commanders of the rebel forces. The general is accused of cooperating with rebel groups and failing to intervene in mass killings and abductions. US sanctions prohibit US citizens and businesses from engaging in commercial activities with these individuals and freezes their assets in US territory.
Gaza / West Bank:
Gaza: The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that critical facilities in Gaza will run out of emergency fuel in the next ten days. The fuel supports generators and vehicles that provide life-saving services, such as water, sanitation, and health facilities. Approximately two million Palestinians, of whom half are children, have electricity for less than eight hours a day. In response, the UAE pledged $2 million dollars, which according to the World Health Organization will help keep facilities running for several months. Egypt also temporarily opened the Rafah Border Crossing (its crossing at the border with Gaza) on 7 February. The Egyptian government has only opened this crossing twice in more than a decade, due to security concerns over Islamist insurgents. The move should help alleviate some suffering in the densely-populated area. However, the border will close again on the evening of 9 February. (AG)
West Bank: On 4 February 2018, Israel announced that it was planning to legalize the settlement outpost Havat Gilad, which is located in the West Bank. This move comes after Rabbi Raziel Shevah, a resident there, was shot to death last month by someone driving by in a car. Israel also demolished a school, which was funded by the EU, in the West Bank. The stated reason for the demolition was that the school was built illegally, without the proper permits.
The United States Reduces Troops: While there are an estimated 7,000 American troops in Iraq, the US has reportedly begun to pull many of them out following Iraq’s declaration of victory over the Islamic State (ISIL). Army Col. Ryan Dillon told the AP that “Continued coalition presence in Iraq will be conditions-based, proportional to the need and in coordination with the government of Iraq”. This move indicates a shift in mission and comes about three months before Iraqi parliamentary election, set to be held on 12 May 2018, in which paramilitary groups closely tied to Iran are believed to play a decisive role. According to US Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, “Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security”. Still, the US appears to be renewing pressure on its allies to establish a formal NATO mission in Iraq to ‘train-and-advise’ Iraqi forces to ensure that ISIL militants do not re-emerge.
Continuing ISIL threat: There are reports that the Islamic State (ISIL) has been rebuilding power in Iraq ever since Iraqi government forces and the Kurdish peshmerga began to fight in October 2017 over the disputed city of Kirkuk. Since then, reports indicate that ISIL has been launching daily attacks and is responsible for killing at least 390 Iraqi civilians. Data collected by monitoring groups also indicates that ISIL or unidentified fighters carried out 440 bombings, clashes, assassinations, abductions, and suicide attacks, over the course of the past 100 days or so. An expert report circulated to the Security Council on 6 February, confirms that, despite having lost most of its territory, ISIL continues to pose a “significant and evolving threat around the world”.” The following day, on 7 February, the Iraqi Armed Forces announced a major operation aimed at clearing ISIL from the country’s northeastern desert region, close to its border with Iran. Iraqi authorities also stated this operation targeted an emerging armed group, named the “White Banners”.
Collective Punishment and Forcible Displacement: On 4 February, ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Iraqi forces were “waging collective punishment on civilians”. In particular, officials, camp management, and three international organizations confirmed that Iraqi forces forcibly displaced at least 235 Iraqi families, suspected of having ISIL relatives, in early January. Moreover, as most of these families were being rounded up without warning and displaced to Duqaq camp (near the city of Kirkuk), HRW also reported that groups within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) forced some parents to leave their children behind and also destroyed some of their homes. Furthermore, some interviewees told HRW that local police working in Duqaq camp have confiscated their families’ identity papers to ensure they cannot flee. A lawyer and a human rights worker in Hawija indicated to HRW that there were no provincial or federal orders to displace these families. It is a fundamental tenet of international law that collective punishment is strictly forbidden – punishment for crimes may only be imposed after a fair trial, which determines individual guilt. Moreover, international humanitarian law strictly prohibits forced displacement of civilians, except in limited cases where it is necessary to protect civilians or for military necessity. Under international criminal law, it is also a war crime to order unlawful displacements during times of conflict. Unlawful forced displacement can similarly amount to a crime against humanity if it is done on a widespread or systematic basis. Iraqi authorities must take immediate steps to investigate these alleged crimes.
Aftermath of Raila Odinga’s unofficial swearing-in ceremony:
Two of the four television stations, which were suspended on 30 January ahead of the mock inauguration of Raila Odinga, were back on air as of Monday 5 January. This comes after a Kenya High Court Ruling on 1 February, which ordered the government to lift the suspension on all independent tv stations.
Miguna Miguna, a Kenyan-born lawyer who swore in Raila Odinga at his unofficial inauguration on 30 January, was apprehended and charged with treason. After his arrest, ICRtoP partner Human Rights Watch called upon Kenyan authorities to obey a court order and urgently produce Miguna before a court, since he had already been in custody longer than 24 hours, in violation of Kenyan law. The court also ordered that Miguna be bailed after his hearing. Instead ,however, on 7 February, Kenya deported Miguna back to Canada, where he maintains dual citizenship. Kenyan authorities have since issued a statement claiming that under the old constitution Kenyans couldn’t hold dual citizenship, thus when Miguna obtained a Canadian passport in 1998 he renounced his Kenyan nationality. However, Article 17 of the Constitution, which was updated in 2010, is very clear: a Kenyan born citizen cannot have their citizenship revoked unless it was acquired by fraud, if they or their parents were already a citizen of another country, or if the person was older than eight when they were found in Kenya.
Human Trafficking: The Panel of Experts on Libya submitted a confidential report to the Security Council on 5 February, in which it found human trafficking to be on the rise in Libya and raised concern “over the possible use of state facilities and state funds by armed groups and traffickers to enhance their control of migrations routes”. The Panel of Experts is currently assessing whether the Special Deterrence Force (SDF) leadership was “aware of the collusion and trafficking being conducted within its ranks”. The report appears to indicate however, that the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has not been able to assert authority in eastern Libya. A minister of the GNA also admitted that “the armed groups are stronger than the authorities in handling the flow of migrants”.
ICC: Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a Libyan commander wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) ever since August 2017 and most recently sought for the alleged summary execution of dozens of people, turned himself into the Libyan military police on 7 February. This move apparently came about as a result of ICC pressure on his leader, General Khalifa Haftar. However, al-Werfalli was released on Thursday 8 February, after protesters demonstrated on the streets against any legal action being taken against him.
Proliferation of Weapons and DDR: In an interview in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday 2 February, Mahamet Saleh Annadif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali and Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), said that the explosives, mines, shells and weapons that they are currently seeing in Mali are more developed than they have been in the past. The violence in Mali and has not ceased despite French and American military forces involvement in the area. In fact the violence has increased since January. Clearly then, civilians in Mali continue to face danger due to the proliferation of armed groups and widespread availability of weapons. To achieve peace in Mali, the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process must be a priority. Armed groups must comply and renounce violence. While continuing terrorist threats also raise concerns over the feasibility of implementing DDR, it is not an excuse to indefinitely postpone a vital step in the peace agreement. Among other consequences, the failure to comply with DDR has kept Mali in a cycle of violence and undermines social cohesion in the country. Progress must be made to implement the 2015 peace agreement, and international actors could use different means of pressure to unlock the DDR process, including sanctions.
Terrorism: There is also evidence of Islamic State (ISIL) and Al-Qaeda activity in West Africa’s Sahel region. According to local officials, at least four civilians were killed in northern Mali on 4 February, in a suspected terrorist attack.
Boko Haram: On 5 February 2018, the Minister of Defence Mansur Dan Ali announced that troops conducting a military operation of Lafiya Dole in the Sambisa Forest rescued at least 30,000 women and children, who had been held hostage by Boko Haram for the past two years. In addition, the troops seized arms, ammunition, and a bomb-making factory from the territory Boko Haram was occupying. However, on 7 February, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Sheku, released a new video in which he threatened further violence in the northeastern region of Nigeria.
Arms Sales: Human rights groups have raised concerns over the Canada-Philippines helicopter deal, after the Philippines announced the helicopters would be used in international security operations. Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine’s Defence Secretary, stated, however, that the government would only use them for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. During an event in the US, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented that Canada has clear laws regarding the sale of arms and military vehicles to other countries. Canada said it would review the deal and ensure that the deal abides by those rules.
Peace Talks: Despite the boycott from the government delegation, the South Sudan Peace Talks began in Addis Ababa on Monday 5 February. At first, the South Sudanese government decided to be present and demanded more representation in the talks, after receiving only 12 seats. However, on 7 February, the government ended its boycott, after the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the body brokering the talks, allowed the entire delegation to participate. The IGAD urged the parties to come together and find long-term solutions to the conflict. The Talks will focus on the implementation of a permanent ceasefire, as well as developing a realistic timeline for elections in the country. The government also reaffirmed its rejection of a plan that enables a two army system in the country.
Arms Restrictions: After the US imposed an arms restriction on South Sudan last week, the South Sudanese government recalled its ambassador to the United States. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman told South Sudan in Focus, however, that the move was not a final recall. First Vice President Taban Deng Gai warned that the arms restrictions could weaken the government and help armed groups in the country. The Vice President also reminded the US of Russia and China’s willingness to block any similar measures in the UN Security Council.
Child Abductions: In South Sudan children are being abducted and trafficked without consequences. The UN child protection team confirmed that there have been child abductions in Unity, Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Western Equatoria. An opposition governor blamed the government for the increased kidnappings, accusing the government of attempting to advance its military agenda by creating a wedge between clans. South Sudan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits abductions and trafficking. Tut Bangout, an aid worker in Akobo, does not think the violence will stop because no one is working or earning money, and children are being used for trade.
Child Soldiers: On 5 February ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on the continuous recruitment and use of child soldiers, some as young as 13 years-old, by government forces and rebel groups in South Sudan. During November and December 2017, HRW interviewed two dozen current and former child soldiers, who reported on the harsh conditions and traumas of their experience. While both parties once again promised UNICEF that it would demobilize child soldiers by the end of January 2018, HRW indicated that neither had followed through on this commitment. However, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), reported that rebel groups released approximately 300 child soldiers on 7 February in the city of Yambio. This is only the first phase of a project lead by UNMISS in partnership with UNICEF that plans to reintegrate more than 700 children into civilian life.
End of Cholera Outbreak: On a positive note, on 7 February South Sudan announced the end to its longest cholera outbreak, after seven weeks of no new cholera cases. The outbreak started in June 2016, with 20,000 reported cholera cases and 436 deaths by the end of 2017. The government partnered with several regional and international organizations to provide vaccines, treatment, and clean water. World Health Organization Acting Representative to South Sudan, Evans Liyosi, commended South Sudan for its efforts but warned of the many risks factors that remain in the country.
Peace Talks: On 3 February 2018, Sudan’s Envoy for the Diplomatic Contact and Negotiation Amin Hassan Omer, arrived in Addis Ababa to meet with the African mediation to discuss the Roadmap agreement. The talks are meant to broker peace between the African government and the SPLM-N rebels in the Blue Nile and the South Kordofan, also known as the Two Areas. A government spokesperson said the mediation developed a consolidated documented, which reconciled the views of both parties.
This week, Syrian civilians have experienced some of the most frightening days of the seven-year-long war. Dozens of people are missing and the dead are still being counted.
Chemical weapons attack: One day after the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that one of its warplanes was shot down over rebel-held Idlib province, for which former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham reportedly claimed responsibility, a bomb believed to contain chlorine was dropped on Idlib on Sunday 4 February. Afterwards, at least nine people were treated for breathing difficulties. The Syrian opposition claims the bomb was dropped by a government helicopter, has condemned the “barbaric onslaught by the Russian occupation and the Assad regime forces targeting mainly civilians and residential neighbourhoods” and has called upon the Security Council to take immediate action. On Monday 5 February, the Security Council met to discuss the situation in Syria. Nikki Haley, United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told Council members that it had “reports that the Assad regime had used chlorine gas against its people multiple times in recent weeks, including just yesterday”. UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamit, also briefed the Security Council and asserted that the Security Council must meaningfully respond to evidence of the use, or likely use, of banned chemical weapons in Syria and affirmed our “collective responsibility to ensure that those responsible are held to account”. By contrast, Russia dismissed the recent allegations of chlorine as propaganda. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria is currently probing multiple reports that bombs containing weaponized chlorine have been used against civilians.
Conventional weapons attacks: This week, Russian and Syrian forces have also intensified conventional weapons attacks in the region, apparently targeting civilian neighbourhoods, including hospitals. Several sources reported that airstrikes launched on Sunday 4 February killed at least 20 people in Idlib, 24 people in the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, nine civilians in the town of Arbin; seven civilians in the town of Beit Sawa; and six civilians in the town of Kafranbel. Paulo Pinheiro, head of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that “These reports are extremely troubling, and make a mockery of the so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ intended to protect civilians from such bombardment”.
United States Engagement: On the front lines in Syria, the US and Turkey – NATO allies – may be heading for possible armed confrontation. Two senior American generals arrived at the front line, just outside the city of Manbij on 7 February. Turkish forces were just 20 yards away, on the other side of no-man’s land. Overall coalition commander, Lt. Gen. Paul Funk has stated “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves”. On 7 February, the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve coalition against ISIL also accused pro-government forces in Syria of initiating an “unprovoked attack against well-established Syrian Democratic Forces headquarters” in Deir al-Zour province. In response, the US-led coalition bombed pro-Syrian forces, killing more than 100 fighters.
Assault on Afrin: This week, Turkey was also accused of recruiting and training thousands of former ISIL fighters to aid with its military assault against Kurds in Afrin. To date, Turkey’s cross-border offensive, which includes uncompromising airstrikes against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has displaced approximately 16,000 people. Some Syrians are calling the offensive a “massacre” and are pleading with the international community to “stop the killing of the civilians”, to “stop the airstrikes and war against us”, and hope the international community will hold Turkey accountable.
Elections: The Venezuelan election commission announced the 22 April as the new date for the 2018 snap presidential election. The date came about as a result of negotiations between the government and opposition forces, President of the electoral commission Tibisay Lucena said. The government also announced that only three weeks would be allotted for campaigning, between 2 April and 19 April. President Nicolás Maduro announced his desire to run for reelection, while many opposition leaders are still in jail or banned from participating in the election. (AG)
Humanitarian Aid: Venezuela’s health care system is in deteriorating conditions. The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela estimates a medicine shortage of approximately 85 percent. The hyperinflation and the scarcity of goods drive numerous Venezuelans to acquire medicine in the black market, where many medicines risk being expired. Head of the public health advocacy group Codevida Francisco Valencia reported that many hospitals have no electricity and thousands of doctors have left the country to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. President Maduro continues to refuse entry of humanitarian aid into the country.
Control of Aden: On 31 January, a day after forces loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized control of Aden, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent delegates to defuse hostilities and put a cease-fire in place. Still, in Aden, many residents are suspicious of the UAE’s growing presence. Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi researcher at the University of Exeter, believes that Yemen’s government-in-exile is also partly to blame for the violence in Aden and “should submit its resignation if it is unable to manage the battle against the Houthis and provide services to the citizenry at the same time”.
Control of Hodeidah: On 6 February, after two weeks of intense fighting against the Houthi rebels, the Yemeni military, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, reportedly recaptured the key town of Hays, located in the Hodeidah province. Speaking on condition of anonymity, Yemeni officials say that the fighting killed at least 85 people. Two days later, it appears as though the Yemeni military has also retaken control Mount Dharawiya, located in the Baqim district of Saada province, which will enable government forces to control a crucial supply route from Hodeidah to the northern front.
Military Occupation: On 8 February, in an exclusive interview with Reuters, Yemeni Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman, called for an end to the “military occupation” in her country by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She told reporters that “The Saudi-Emirati occupation … betrayed the Yemenis and sold them out, exploiting the coup of the Houthi militia backed by Iran on the legitimate government, to exercise an ugly occupation and greater influence”. The Saudi-led coalition and the UAE have not yet responded to requests for comment.
On 3 February, ICRtoP’s Steering Committee member Gus Miclat was elected as chair of the East Asia Democratic Forum (EADF), a regional network of civil society organizations and individuals dedicated to promoting democracy.