Burma: New evidence of mass graves in Rakhine State
The Associated Press (AP) has reported the presence of at least five mass graves in the village of Gu Dar Pyin in Rakhine State in Burma. AP interviewed Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and examined their reportedly clandestine photos and videos from their experiences. Refugees from the village made claims of an attack by government forces on 27 August 2017, which survivors have described began when soldiers stormed the village and opened fire arbitrarily. The soldiers allegedly carried weapons, as well as shovels and containers filled with acid. Later, when survivors came back to look for their families, they reportedly found a village burned to the ground with corpses strewn across the area, as well as impromptu mass graves with burned bodies in an assumed attempt by military forces of covering their actions. Mohammad Karim, a Rohingya man from Gu Dar Pyin, also presented AP with a time-stamped video showing the described destruction and killings. The video purportedly shows one corpse with the skin melted away and limbs scattered around it, according to AP reports. Survivors allegedly discovered three mass graves in the north part of the village, including a pond with the capacity for about 80 people. The other mass graves were reportedly smaller and located on former latrine holes. The Burmese government has denied access to Rakhine State, but satellite images of the area have confirmed the destruction of the village. Furthermore, AP’s latest investigation is not the first to assert the presence of mass graves. In December, Burmese authorities confirmed one mass grave in the village of Inn Dinn, but claimed that the bodies within the grave were of terrorists and pledged accountability for the perpetrators.
Since 1982, the government has continued to deny citizenship to the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist country of Burma. In 2012 and 2016, violent clashes between Buddhist nationals and the Rohingya forced many to flee. However, the situation escalated in mid-August 2017, when members of the resistance group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked 20 Burmese police post, leaving 71 people dead. The government responded with systematic violent attacks against Rohingya villages, resulting in a massive influx of Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh. Estimates suggest that at least one-third of the 1.2 million Rohingya people from Burma are now considered refugees.
The Burmese government has denied the mass killings and the burning down of villages in Rakhine State. However, it has not rejected the use of force against Rohingya terrorists. For example, on 14 September 2017, the government reported 40 percent of Rohingya villages are empty, but stated that the people who left were terrorists or were connected to terrorism. Several human rights groups, the United Nations, and the European Union have condemned the treatment of the Rohingya and urged the Burmese government, which includes Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, to act responsibly. They have also requested access for observers and humanitarian aid workers to the area. The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has called the situation in Burma a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Still, UN officials are hesitant to call the actions of the Burmese government forces genocide until an international tribunal investigates the facts. However, the UN has warned that all the signs of genocide are present.
In September 2017, the Burmese government created the Rakhine Advisory Commission, led by Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with a mandate to find solutions to the ethnic conflict in Rakhine State. The Commission concluded with a report carrying 88 recommendations, such as calling for the freedom of movement of the Rohingya and for an end to forced segregation, but also stressed the citizenship issue as the main obstacle. The government said it will comply with the Commission’s recommendations, but no tangible actions have been taken.
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Gaza/ West Bank
On 31 January, CARE International warned that the wellbeing of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh would deteriorate in the upcoming rainy season. Refugee camps could face floods and landslides. Approximately 900,000 people are estimated to live in the refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar region.
Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, outlined in his Interim Report the need for a comprehensive humanitarian and political solution to the plight of the Rohingya. Rae also urged members of the international community to actively improve the conditions of refugee camps in Bangladesh. He further called on the Burmese government to ensure the safety of the Rohingya once repatriated and to allow neutral observers into Rakhine State. Lastly, Rae advocated for accountability, and for those who have committed crimes to be brought to justice.
Central African Republic:
On 26 January, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) reported that peacekeepers were working with authorities in the CAR to alleviate suffering from the displacement crisis.
According to MINUSCA, fierce fighting in the CAR’s northwest region has forced 65,000 people, mostly women and children, to flee to the city of Paoua. The number of internally displaced persons in the country reportedly 60 percent higher than it was last year. Adrian Edwards of the UN refugee agency said that these numbers are the highest they have been in the past four years.
On 30 January, the UN Security Council unanimously renewed an arms embargo against the CAR for another year, and also set out new criteria that could potentially lead to new sanctions. In the French-drafted resolution, the Security Council also condemned incitement to violence on religious or ethnic grounds, and indicated that anyone who perpetrates such crimes would face sanctions. Accordingly, this resolution could lead to targeted sanctions against those involved in anti-Muslim or anti-Christian violence in the country.
Democratic Republic of the Congo:
Violence in the DRC that began in December 2017 has forced more than 10,000 people to flee to neighboring Uganda. Upon arrival, some of these refugees have claimed that in the DRC men are being killed and women are being raped. In the past week alone, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that more than 8,000 people have fled from the eastern part of the DRC to neighboring countries. In particular, almost 7,000 Congolese have fled to Burundi, while 1,200 crossed over to Tanzania. The UNHCR has expressed its gratitude for those countries who have taken in refugees, but is also concerned about the effect that the high influx of refugees is placing on the limited resources of camps.
The UNHCR is also concerned about the impact that violence is having on the civilian population in the DRC. Notably, violence in the DRC is impacting children in horrific ways. Militias have recruited more than 3,000 children to fight. Moreover, UNICEF has documented 800 accounts of sexual abuse against children. Tajudeen Oyewale, acting head of UNICEF in the DRC, stressed that “it is simply a brutal situation for children with no end in sight”. UNICEF is attempting to ensure that humanitarian aid still reaches children in the DRC. The UN stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has also reported that in the Kasai region there has been an alleged increase in summary executions. Allegedly, 64 percent of the summary killings have been carried out by state actors.
On 27 January, armed men ambushed a group of MONUSCO peacekeepers, killing one Pakistani peacekeeper. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the killing and urged all armed groups to lay down their arms.
President Joseph Kabila stated that he would not step down before the 23 December 2018 elections, despite protests calling for his resignation. After September 2016 protests resulted in several deaths, protests in the DRC were officially outlawed. MONUSCO has repeatedly reminded authorities in the DRC of the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. President Kabila indicated that in the near future he would introduce a law to “reframe” the right to protest for “those who wish to express themselves”.
Gaza / West Bank:
Israel’s defense forces warned that funding cuts to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) could threaten Israeli security. Military officials fear that the lack of funding could add to the already growing unrest. The military officials believe that UNRWA workers aid, more than they damage, Israel’s security.
Even after the declared defeat of the Islamic State (ISIL), the stability of Iraq remains fragile. In addition to government corruption and economic despair, the country continues to cope with an ever-increasing threat of violent sectarianism between the Sunni and Shiite populations. Accordingly, the upcoming 12 May elections present a pivotal moment for Iraq, but could also threaten to unravel hard-fought gains in the country. As of now, it seems that the two main candidates standing for election are current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, both from the same Shi’ite Dawa party.
Airstrikes continued in Iraq this week as well. According to reports, a botched US-led coalition airstrike allegedly killed eight Iraqi people and injured 20 more in Al-Anbar province on Saturday 28 January. Local police claim that the Coalition wrongfully targeted civilians and police after Iraqi forces confused police vehicles as part of a terrorist convoy. On Thursday 1 February, Turkey’s armed forces also reported that airstrikes conducted earlier in the week against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq killed 49 militants.
On 26 January, Kenya’s opposition released what it claimed to be “authentic” evidence showing that Raila Odinga, Kenya’s opposition leader, was the rightly elected President. Odinga’s team did not release any information as to how they received the results. Furthermore, the electoral commission in Kenya did not validate these results. According to the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, 92 people were allegedly killed during the political unrest after the election in August 2017.
Raila Odinga swore himself in as the “people’s president” on 30 January at Uhuru Park. His candidate for Deputy President Kalonzo Musyoka, however, was not present. The highly controversial ceremony comes after the National Super Alliance (the opposition movement known as ‘NASA’) boycotted October’s rerun presidential election, in which current President Kenyatta won with a low voter turnout. Officials from Kenyatta’s government warned on 28 January that no gathering could take place; yet, police forces did not intervene in the event. After the inauguration, Kenyatta issued a statement declaring the ceremony illegal. Hours after his inauguration, Odinga took to Twitter to thank his supporters, saying that “We have arrived in Canaan; thank you for staying course with us.”
In response to the ceremony, Al Jazeera reported that the government took independent TV stations off the air ahead of the ceremony on Tuesday morning. The chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild also stated that the government cautioned senior editors not to cover the event. However, on 1 February, Kenya’s High Court suspended the government’s ban for 14 days until the Court addresses the case. The shutdown has lasted for three days, but there are no signs of compliance by the government with the Court’s decision. The three shut-down TV stations manage two-thirds of all Kenya’s TV audience.
Two days after the twin car bombing in Benghazi killed 35 people and injured dozens more on 23 January, reports began to emerge on social media that 10 people had been summarily executed outside the mosque where the bombing took place. Moreover, Libyan residents reported that five bodies were found in Benghazi’s Laithi neighborhood on 26 January, and medical sources similarly reported that three people who appear to have been summarily killed were found in Derma. On 27 January, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) announced that it was “appalled” by the alleged retributory killings, and further stated that “The brutal pattern of violence must end. Those in effective control of fighters and those ordering, committing such crimes are liable under international law.”
The UN is also attempting to revive the stalled 2015 peace plan for Libya, as reported on 29 January. While recognizing the complex legislative, political, and security challenges, UN officials, including special representative Ghassan Salame, have said they nevertheless want to assist Libya in holding elections by the end of 2018. Smail Chergui, Commissioner of the African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council, stated that the UN and the AU would work together to promote reconciliation and prepare the necessary conditions for elections. However, the AU warned against rushing to elections.
Nearly two months have elapsed since videos began to emerge showing refugees being sold as slaves in Libya. On 29 January, Moussa Faki, Chairperson of the AU, reported that more than 13,000 migrants have been repatriated from Libya since the beginning of December 2017. It appears that Niger and Rwanda have also offered refuge to those who cannot be returned to their countries of origin. However, on 31 January, for no apparent reason, Libya’s Illegal Immigration Agency decided to shut down four immigrant reception centers in western Libya, housing thousands of mostly African migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.
On 1 February, ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that armed groups in Benghazi were preventing at least 3,700 internally displaced families from returning to their homes, accusing these people of either “terrorism” or “supporting terrorism”. Additionally, HRW interviewed several displaced people, who said that groups affiliated with the Libyan National Army forces (LNA) have tortured, arrested, and forcibly disappeared family members who remained in Benghazi.
This week, the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reported that 378,000 children were in need of humanitarian assistance and that the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate. UNICEF is appealing for 20 million USD to scale up its humanitarian assistance response. On 29 January, unexploded ordinances also appear to have killed three children.
On 25 January, a civilian vehicle ran over a landmine in central Mali, killing 26 people, including children. The victims were traveling from northern Burkina Faso to Mali for a weekly market. A Malian security source said that “terrorists use these mines to spread fear”. However, no one has claimed responsibility for the blast. On 27 January, the UN Security Council strongly condemned the “barbaric and cowardly terrorist attack”. The Security Council also stressed the need to increase efforts to combat terrorism and violent extremism, and urged all States, in accordance with their international legal obligations, to cooperate with the Governments of Mali and Burkina Faso to bring the perpetrators to justice. On 29 January, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita also canceled plans to attend an AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and declared three days of mourning “in tribute to all those who have lost their lives in the last few days in terrorist attacks”.
On 29 January, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a report in which it had recorded 133 cases of humanitarian access constraints in Mali in 2017. This was the highest number OCHA had ever recorded in Mali.
BBC Monitoring tracked Boko Haram’s attacks in 2017, and on 25 January, the BBC reported that Boko Haram killed more than 900 people last year. Furthermore, in 2017, Boko Haram was allegedly responsible for 90 armed attacks and 59 suicide bombings. The group targeted villages, militaries, mosques and internally displaced people fleeing the violence.
Since the beginning of the year, fighting between farmers and herdsman over land in five states of Nigeria has killed over 168 people and has resulted in thousands being displaced. In an attempt to combat this growing violence, Nigeria’s military has launched air raids, reportedly killing at least 35 people on 30 January. Amnesty International’s Nigeria Director, Osal Ojigho, has condemned the unlawful use of deadly force and declared that “The government must overturn its response to these deadly clashes to avoid the crisis getting out of control”.
On Monday 29 January, the Philippine Justice Department charged three police officers with the murder of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a 17-year old boy, who was killed in August 2017, in the midst of a drug war. Allegedly, the officers killed him because they believed he was a drug pusher. After his death, the Catholic church led the opposition against President Duterte’s brutal drug policy. In response to the protests that erupted after Mr. delos Santo’s killing, President Duterte installed a civilian-led drug enforcement officer. However, in December 2017, the police once again regained control of the drug war.
The UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng called on the governments of Uganda and Kenya to stop contributing to the conflict in South Sudan. Dieng also stated that there were large quantities of weapons flowing through Kenya and Uganda into South Sudan. He warned that although the primary responsibility for the protection of populations lies with the government, the international community also has a duty to prevent atrocities.
On 24 January, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stated that the conflict in South Sudan is deteriorating because of the country’s the leaders. She called on the Security Council to implement an arms embargo against South Sudan in an attempt to slow the violence. Ambassador Haley also called on the African Union (AU) to establish a hybrid court for South Sudan, and also for Uganda and Kenya to work harder to facilitate peace. She called South Sudan an unfit partner to the UN Security Council. In the following days, the AU also called for sanctions against those disrupting the peace process in the country. South Sudan called on the envoy from the United States to discuss the comments.
The violent crackdown by government forces on peaceful protests continues in Sudan. The Sudan Tribune reported the use of teargas and batons against civilians in the latest protest on Wednesday. The protests reportedly began over price hikes and the implementation of austerity measures.
Consequently, the European Union (EU) urged the Sudanese government to release opposition leaders and human rights activists arrested during the protests. Sources estimate that more than 170 activists have been arrested. The EU also called on the government to respect the freedom of the media and to stop the seizures of newspapers.
On 30 January, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/North (SPLM-N al-Hilu), one of the two factions of the rebel group SPLM-N in Sudan, extended the cease-fire for four more months starting on 1 February in the areas of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. The leader of the SPLM-N al-Hilu Abdel-Azizi stated that the extension is a show of goodwill for the upcoming peace talks with the Sudanese government in Addis Ababa. The talks will take place at the beginning of the February, however, SPLM-N Agar, the other faction of the rebel group, will not participate in the talks.
Attacks on rebel-held territory continued this week in Syria. Since Sunday 28 January, suspected Russian-backed airstrikes by Syria’s government reportedly killed at least 35 people. Fighting also continued in Afrin. As of 31 January, Turkey claimed to have killed at least 712 fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and ISIL since the beginning of Operation Olive Branch. Turkey further claimed that 63 members of YPG and ISIL were ‘neutralized’ on 30 January alone. The city of Manbij is also on edge. Indeed, if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan follows through with his pledge to clear Turkish forces from all of the northern Syrian border, Turkey would likely have to face confrontation with the US, it’s NATO ally. On Sunday 28 January, General Joseph L. Votel, commander of the US Central Command, stated that the US would not withdraw from Manbij. Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the American coalition confirmed General Votel’s remarks. This week, French President Emmanuel Macron also warned Turkey that its operation should not become an excuse to invade Syria.
Accordingly, violence in Syria overshadowed the Russian-sponsored “Congress of Syrian National Dialogue”, which took place in Sochi from 29-30 January (the ‘Sochi talks’). Furthermore, the majority of Syria’s rebel groups boycotted the Sochi talks, and a group of opposition delegates who had decided to come ultimately refused to leave the airport after taking offense at the event’s logo which featured only the flag of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. While the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, attended the Sochi talks, on the condition that the constitutional drafting process would remain in Geneva, the majority of the 1,500 delegates in attendance were pro-Assad. The Sochi talks ended with a few vague resolutions. Delegates agreed to set up a 150-member constitutional drafting committee that would be based in Geneva, put forward names of people to they would like to see on the Committee, invited absent groups to name representatives as well, and endorsed a democratic path forward through elections. Ultimately, however, a final agreement will need to be reached in Geneva, with UN support, regarding the constitutional committee’s powers and procedure, as well as criteria for selecting its members. According to Vladimir Putin, the Sochi talks were designed to break the impasse in negotiations and end the seven-year civil war. However, analysts believe that Russia’s real goal was to reshape the diplomatic process to fit the political and military reality (that Assad is still in power) and replace the US as the most engaged global power.
Venezuelan opposition groups will be meeting with their government in the Dominican Republic to demand electoral safeguards for the elections that are scheduled to take place in April. They are demanding a “balanced” election counsel and want Venezuelans living abroad to be able to vote. The opposition is also demanding that their members be allowed to run. Opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles are not allowed to run in the elections. Lopez’s party will not be involved in the talks.
On 26 January, the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) warned of increasing malnutrition rates among children in Venezuela. The economic crisis in the country severely limits the amount and quality of food of Venezuelan families. Due to limited official data, the agency could not provide precise numbers. However, the organization Caritas reported in August 2017 that 15.5 percent of children suffered from some level of wasting, while 20 percent were at risk. UNICEF urged for a short-term response to counter malnutrition.
Migrants and refugees continue to use Yemen as a transitory hub, despite the prevalent armed conflict and humanitarian crisis in the country, which exposes these people to a heightened risk of human rights violations. For instance, on 26 January, the UN reported that at least 30 refugees drowned, when a boat carrying 152 people, including 101 Ethiopians and 51 Somalis, capsized off the coast of Aden, Yemen. Allegedly, smugglers who were operating the overcrowded vessel also opened fire on the passengers.
On 25 January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed a $1 billion pledge by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to support humanitarian action in Yemen, as well as their pledge to raise $500 million more from regional donors. Additionally, Secretary-General Guterres welcomed the Saudi-led coalition’s delivery of 180,000 liters of fuel to the northern province of Marib.
However, infighting between former allies of the Saudi-led coalition (which have been fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in northern Yemen) came to a head this week. Previously, on 21 January, southern leaders, aligned with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) had set a one-week deadline for Yemen’s President, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to dismiss the cabinet. As the deadline neared, fighting erupted on Sunday 28 January, between armed separatists aligned with the STC (backed by the UAE) and forces loyal to President Hadi (backed by Saudi Arabia). As the STC seized several government offices in the strategic port city of Aden that day, Yemen’s prime minister, Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, accused the STC of staging a “coup”. Then on Tuesday 30 January, after two days of clashes, separatists loyal to the STC appear to have seized control of Aden, including the area around the presidential palace. Some news reports also suggested that Yemen’s Prime Minister and several senior government officials that were holed up in the palace were preparing to flee to Saudi Arabia. According to hospital sources, the fighting killed at least 10 people, and wounded 30 more. On 30 January, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters that the UN’s relief officials were “extremely concerned by the violence that [they’d] seen over the last couple of days”, called on “all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law” and indicated that “it’s paramount that civilians are protected and that the wounded are afforded safe medical care and that all sides facilitate life-saving access”.
On 29 January, UN agencies reported that conflict is the underlying common factor of countries suffering from food insecurity. The report, which monitors 16 countries, emphasized the presence of acute hunger in South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria. The UN agencies highlighted the importance of access for humanitarian support to the affected areas.