Syria: Latest round of peace talks between government and opposition begin in Geneva
On 23 February, the Syrian government and opposition delegations gathered in Geneva to launch the fourth round of UN-sponsored intra-Syrian peace talks, led by the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. The discussions are aimed at finding a stable and viable political solution to a conflict which has already claimed the lives of more than 450,000people within the last six years.
The Geneva peace process, which takes place on the heels of the Russian, Turkish and Iranian co-sponsored multilateralmeetings held in the Kazakh capital of Astana, resumes after three unsuccessful diplomatic attempts that failed to end the Syrian crisis in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Moreover, renewed disputes over the agenda and long-standing disagreements between the warring parties have pushed de Mistura to downplay expectations for any major progress.
Difficulties in reaching a comprehensive solution also stem from the differences in political weight that the parties bear in the current diplomatic process. While sitting at the same table for the first time in six years, the opposition delegations could not be more distant from one another across a broad range of topics. The Assad delegation, headed by Syria’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador Bashar Al-Jaafari, has gained a considerable military and political advantage following significant victories on the ground in 2016, namely the recapture of rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo. On the other hand, the opposition, bitterly divided by infighting, has continuously failed in presenting a united front in Geneva. However, both parties purportedly decided to add two fundamental issues to the agenda: the Syrian political transition, proposed by the opposition, and the fight against terrorism, proposed by President Bashar al-Assad’s negotiators.
In the meantime, on Tuesday, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution aimed at imposing sanctions on the Syrian government over the alleged use of chemical weapons, claiming that it contradicted “the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence before the investigation is over”. It is the seventh veto Russia has put up against UNSC resolutions in the past five years in an effort to save its Syrian ally. China has also joined Moscow in vetoing six resolutions on Syria since the war began.
The following day, a UN Commission of Inquiry released a report accusing the Syrian government and its Russian ally of systematic destruction of healthcare facilities in east Aleppo, between July and December 2016. Moreover, the report held both the regime and opposition accountable for “war crimes of forced displacement,” due to the imposed the evacuation of the city for “strategic reasons” and “not for the security of civilians”. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, approximately 876 civilians were killed in Syria in February alone.
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The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has urged the Burmese government to take action to stop human rights violations against the Rohingya population in the country. Lee met with members of the Rohingya community during a four-day visit to parts of Bangladesh, including the capital Dhaka and the town of Cox’s Bazar, after which she recounted allegations of terrible attacks against the Rohingya people, including indiscriminate shooting, gang rapes, and other sexual violence. Ms. Lee is set to release her full report to the UN Human Rights Council on 13 March.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called upon all political stakeholders in Burundi to fully commit to peace negotiations led by the East African Community (EAC). Mr. Guterres also warned President Nkurunziza against seeking a fourth term in office, as doing so risks escalating the current political conflict and sabotaging all current efforts to find a durable solution.
The UN has removed Burundi army officer Major Nicolas Budigi from MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic, following allegations that he committed human rights violations in Burundi in 2015.
On Tuesday, the Burundi government rejected a new report recently submitted to the UN Security Council on the political and security crisis in the country, arguing that it states unproven facts.
On 24 February, women from the East African Community (EAC) established the East African women’s solidarity movement for peace and security in the region. Their objective in the setting up of this movement is advancing African women’s solidarity and seeking peace for Burundi.
Central African Republic:
MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic, has successfully forced Ali Darrass, a warlord from the Muslim-majority Seleka region, to withdraw from Bambari. However, clashes among armed groups in the country has continued to hinder the delivery of aid to thousands of displaced civilians, especially in the Ouaka province.
Democratic Republic of Congo:
The Democratic Republic of Congo has said it will investigate a video that apparently shows government troops massacring civilians in the Kasai region, but only “as a precautionary measure”. On Thursday, another UN report stated that the DRC has used excessive force against people protesting President Joseph Kabila’s stay in office. The report also claimed that 40 people were killed during this protest.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) alleged in their weekly report that Israel launched a total of eight airstrikes, involving roughly 23 separate missile strikes, throughout their reporting period, damaging six houses, one mosque, and injuring one civilian along with three Palestinian officers. PCHR also reported a total of 47 civilians arrested in military operations and raids, including four children and six individuals at a student-organized protest. Other incidents involving civilians alleged in the report include the wounding of an eleven-year old child by a rubber-coated bullet to the neck, the wounding of a child by the detonation of a bomb remnant, and the bulldozing of civilian properties. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reportedly conducted several raids into the occupied West Bank areas around Hebron and East Jerusalem overnight and early morning on Monday and detained 21 Palestinians, including one woman and at least one minor under the age of 18. IDF spokespeople did confirm Tuesday that operations were taking place in the area when they announced the wounding of a soldier in a the settlement of Efrat.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report strongly criticizing Israel’s Unlawful Enemy Combatants law that was first introduced by the Knesset in 2002 and amended in 2008 as a violation of international humanitarian law and general legal norms of due process and rule of law. The law gives the IDF the ability to incarcerate any individual, based on the “reasonable cause” that they pose a threat to Israeli security, or if he or she is a member of “a force perpetrating hostile acts against the State of Israel.” The law provides little practical ability for judicial review and reverses the traditional burden of proof and presumption of innocence, obligating the accused to prove they are not a threat. HRW cited the case of Munir Hamada, the only one of the 16 Palestinian residents of Gaza incarcerated by Israel after its 2005 disengagement with Gaza under the law, as evidence of the weakness of judicial review available to interned civilians under the law. In the last review of his detention in December, which resulted in the court ruling in favor of another six month continuation of his indefinite incarceration, the decision was allegedly reached based on confidential intelligence reports that were not made available to Mr. Hamada’s legal counsel. In June of last year, the UN Committee Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment referenced Mr. Hamada’s case while urging Israel to repeal the law.
On Sunday, ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces have detained over 900 displaced men and boys fleeing ISIS since 2014. When interviewed, the detainees’ families said that KRG and Iraqi forces did not inform them of the detainees’ whereabouts nor facilitate any communication with them. Depriving detainees of any contact with the outside world and refusing to give their families useful information is a key indicator of the occurrence of enforced disappearances, which are violations of international human rights law, and can be international crimes.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) agency said that more than 750,000 civilians living in the western sections of Mosul are facing an extremely dire humanitarian situation. The WFP’s Iraq Representative and Country Director, Sally Haydock, said families complain of skyrocketing food prices and the lack of access to food at all. So far, WFP has provided ready-to-eat food for more than 6,000 people, but has called on all parties involved in the conflict to “facilitate immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to all Iraqis in need of assistance”.
The Iraq Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Thomas Lothar Weiss, said on Tuesday that thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are arriving at Iraqi sites after fleeing Mosul, where government forces are fighting the Islamic State (SIL). Over 28,000 people have been displaced in the zone since the battle began on 19 February, the UN stated. According to Iraq’s Ministry of Migrations and Displacement (MoMD), the number should be put at 31,000.
The Director of the European Union (EU) border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, accused NGOs of encouraging smugglers who profit from dangerous Mediterranean crossings. By rescuing migrants “ever closer to the Libyan coast”, Leggeri asserted that those groups allow traffickers to force more migrants onto “unseaworthy boats with less sufficient water and fuel than in previous years”. Aurélie Ponthieu, the humanitarian adviser on displacement at Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), said that as a humanitarian agency, they could not wait “20 miles out to sea for boats that may pass by chance” because, she states, “there will be many more deaths”.
Earlier this month, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) published a report calling on Libya to protect children who are suffering from violence and sexual abuse at the hands of smugglers during their journeys towards Europe. The UN agency says that almost 26,000 children, most of them unaccompanied, have crossed the Mediterranean last year. In its report, UNICEF says violence is “widespread and systemic” at crossings and checkpoints.
In a positive sign for the peace process in Mali, armed groups in the north of the country have reportedly agreed to allow interim authorities to be installed in three key towns in the north, including the town of Gao, which has been the center of the joint patrols.
UN forces have adopted a strategy of local cooperation in order to address the threat of extremist forces linked to al-Qaeda in the still-volatile north. Fighters linked to al-Qaeda are using suicide bombs, landmines, and car bombs to attack the peacekeepers and the Malians living in the town of Kidal. A commanding officer with the UN force has said cooperation between UN troops and local people has significantly improved the security situation and has already been helpful in preventing an attack which could have killed many.
A military spokesperson claimed Wednesday that nearly 8,000 people had been rescued or arrested from Boko Haram strongholds through the month of February during the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign. As civilians have fled or been extracted from areas formerly controlled by Boko Haram, allegations of abuses and atrocities committed by the military have begun to proliferate. Survivors have reported arbitrary executions and the destruction of entire villages by soldiers ostensibly searching for Boko Haram fighters hiding among unarmed civilians. The reports have added to the growing record allegations against the Nigerian military for human rights abuses.
According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), roughly 32,000 South Sudanese have entered Sudan since the start of 2017, with tens of thousands more expected to arrive due to fleeing the famine. Eugene Owusu, the UN humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, urged all parties in the conflict to ensure immediate, safe, and unhindered access across the country, a week after famine was declared in parts of the country.
Rebecca Garang, former Presidential Adviser of South Sudan, urged President Salva Kiir to step down, saying he is responsible for the famine that hit the country and war crimes. According to a prominent member of the Jieng Council of Elders, South Sudan’s Transitional Government of National Unity could remain in power until 2021, as it still requires the restoration of national security and a permanent constitution (among many other things) before any elections can take place. South Sudan’s opposition People’s Liberal Party expressed its full support of the national dialogue plan that was set forth by President Kiir in December of last year.
The reported whipping and deportation of refugees in Sudan has reinforced calls on the European Union (EU) to halt its cooperation with the Sudanese government under President Omar al-Bashir. Members of the European Parliament, including the Vice-Chair of the Sub-Committee on Human Rights, have raised concern over the incident and called for a formal inquiry, noting the EU’s responsibility to not be complicit in state crimes and violations of human rights.
Hassan Saleh, First Vice President of Sudan and longtime ally of President Omar al Bashir, was appointed to the newly created position of Prime Minister by the President on Wednesday. The position of Prime Minister was created as part of the constitutional amendments negotiated by some of the opposition groups in December in an effort to dilute the presidency’s near complete political powers. It is the first time Sudan has had a Prime Minister since Bahir’s 1989 coup. Saleh is the last of the original group of officers who aided Bashir’s coup to remain by his side and is thought to be the most likely successor to Bashir if he keeps his promise to step down in 2020. Saleh will be retaining his post as First Vice President.
The joint African Union-UN assistance mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has launched a new campaign in a camp in West Darfur for displaced persons, entitled “No Child Soldiers – Protect Darfur”, in order to prevent the exploitation of children as combatants by the armed forces fighting for control of Darfur.
The inaccessibility for humanitarian aid groups in Yemen has continued to harm civilians. IRIN News visited a makeshift camp of displaced persons driven from Taiz city by the recent fighting; two elderly adults and three children have already perished in the camp from the cold, dehydration, and starvation. Stephen O’Brien, the UN emergency relief coordinator for Yemen, met with both sides of the ongoing war during a tour of the country, and proceeded to call upon both to allow more access to the country’s ports for humanitarian aid. Mr. O’Brien’s convoy was denied access to the contested city of Taiz on Tuesday due to security reasons, despite previous assurances of safety from all parties.
On Tuesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it has had to halt deliveries of aid to the contested Red Sea port city of al Hudaydah due to a lack of security assurances and the increased bombing of the city by Saudi-led coalition warplanes. Yemeni government and coalition forces have been pushing the frontline towards al Hudaydah after taking the port city of Mokha to the south several weeks ago. Yemen is almost entirely dependent on foreign supplies, as it imports 90% of its food, and the lack of security for aid agencies and importers in the ports as well as significant infrastructure damage has almost completely cut the country off from receiving food. This shortage is occurring while some 19 million are already in need of humanitarian assistance. Numerous voices have called on both sides of the conflict to allow access for food supplies, including the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen and now the ICRC.
Also on Tuesday, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) urged all parties in the conflict in Yemen to immediately release child soldiers. The UN has asserted that between 26 March 2015 and 31 January 2016, 1,476 children have been recruited into the armed conflict. The spokesperson for OHCHR, Ramina Shamdasani, said that, according to new reports, children are recruited without the knowledge of their families and that they join the fighting after “either being misled or attracted by promises of financial rewards or social status.” Amnesty International also reported on the recruitment of young boys as soldiers by the Houthi faction, citing several eyewitness accounts of recruitment.
According to the Pentagon, the US hit supposed al-Qaeda positions with over 20 airstrikes early morning Thursday. The Pentagon spokesperson did not comment on the expected death toll, but sources on the ground estimated roughly four to nine men, whom are believed to have been members of the al-Qaeda group in Yemen. The strikes come a month after the US raid on 29 January that killed multiple civilians, including several young children.The conditions created by the ongoing war in Yemen, including sectarian tensions, unrest, criminal enterprises, and a major security vacuum, have led some to suggest it may be the ideal haven for Islamic State (ISIL) elements pushed out of Syria and Iraq.
What else is new?
The ICRtoP is one of 26 organizations urging Ambassador Nikki Haley, the US Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, to support conflict prevention and peacebuilding in a joint letter by the Prevention and Protection Working Group. To read the letter, please click here.