chemical weapons inquiry in Syria
On 17 November, the mandate of the Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM), the impartial investigation set in motion to find those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, created jointly by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), will expire. The investigation was created in August 2015. However, Russia has recently threatened to veto the extension of the JIM’s mandate. Russia supported the creation of the JIM in 2015 and has supported the extension of its mandate in the past, which is why it would be inconsistent for them to veto this time. However, Russia, along with China, has vetoed matters in the UNSC related to the use of chemical weapons before, and has allegedly been increasingly critical of the findings from the investigations. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the JIM still has a lot of work to do, and, in May, the organization reported the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons as being widespread and systematic, thereby possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. As of 15 September 2017, 114 States have expressed support for the Accountability Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Code of Conduct, and furthermore, 96 States support the French and Mexican initiative, which proposes that States in the UNSC refrain from the use of veto in cases of mass atrocities. Ole Solvang, the deputy emergencies director at HRW, expressed fear that a Russian blockade of the mandate would send a signal of impunity to those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria and lead to further use of the banned weapons.
On Tuesday, Russia nonetheless chose to veto the extension of the JIM mandate. This was the ninth time Russia vetoed action to be taken against the Syrian government. Russia has previously rejected a report conducted by UN human rights investigators, which found the Syrian government responsible for the chemical attacks in Khan Sheikhoun in April. Reportedly, Russia continually pushed for an extension of the vote on the mandate until after the findings from the JIM had been assessed, but had insufficient support, leading to the veto of the extension of the JIM’s mandate. Sherine Tadros, Head of Amnesty International’s UN office in New York, commented on this calling it a “routine abuse of the veto,” which is the “equivalent of a green light to war crimes.”
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After reviewing the situation in Burma, the United States (US) is set to withdraw its military assistance to Burmese units and officers who have been involved in the violence related to the ongoing Rohingya crisis. The imposition of sanctions on Burmese authorities is also being considered. In an official statement, the US State Department called for accountability for all crimes committed in this context.
On 24 October, ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch published their submission to the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee outlining the crisis. The submission listed specific accounts of the atrocities including multiple accounts of sexual violence against women and children. The submission called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and UN Member States to take action without delay.
France and the UK have circulated a draft resolution calling on the Burmese government to cease military operations in the Rakhine State and grant immediate access to UN agencies and other aid partners working to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. The draft condemned the violence occurring on both sides, including references to the 25 August Rohingya rebel attacks. However, the draft has been met with opposition from China, a neighbor and ally of Burma.
Switzerland has increased aid to Rohingya refugees from 1.8 million to 8 million Swiss francs. The Humanitarian Aid Department of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has provided tents, emergency supplies, and funding to operations run by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme, and other non-governmental organizations.
Bangladesh sent a delegation to initiate talks with Burmese officials regarding the safe return of over 600,000 Rohingya migrants on 23 October. This delegation will seek the safe return of the Rohingya migrants to their homes in Rakhine State as quickly as possible.
The European Union (EU) has renewed sanctions against Burundi until 31 October 2018. These sanctions include asset freezes and travel bans against four people whose actions, according to the EU, undermine democratic governance and obstruct the search for a peaceful solution in Burundi. Since the beginning of the crisis, the EU has called on parties to refrain from committing violent acts and to tackle impunity for perpetrators. The European organization considered the continued deterioration of the situation in the country as justification for the sanctions renewal.
In a recent visit to the country, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned about the existing religious divide in the CAR and has called for the engagement of the international community to solve the crisis. He restated the need to strengthen the UN Mission in the country (MINUSCA) and to ensure a thorough reconciliation process, while calling on religious leaders to spread a message of peace. During UN Day, the Secretary-General also honored peacekeepers who were recently killed in attacks in the CAR.
The UN has declared a Level III Emergency in the DRC along with Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. This activation recognizes the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the country and aims to ensure that the aid system scales up its response. As the Norwegian Refugee Council stated, the recognition of a Level III Emergency remarks that the humanitarian assistance provided to date has been insufficient.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned that the number of internal displaced persons (IDP) in the country since 2015 has risen to 3.9 million, and approximately 428,000 have been displaced in the last three months alone. With the state of current militia activities and ethnic and political violence in the country, the agency has said that the risk of further displacement remains high. The security situation has made sustaining livelihoods very difficult for the population, and many are becoming increasingly dependent on aid. UNHCR also noted that out of the 236.2 million USD needed to provide assistance to refugees and IDPs, only a fifth of it has been received.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found that confrontations on 16 October in Tuz Khurmatu, a town near Kirkuk, between the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) Peshmerga forces and forces from the Iraqi government conducted indiscriminate firing, which resulted in the injuring of at least 51 civilians and the deaths of 5 others, according to three medical workers located in a Turkish-run hospital. According to the same reports, civilian dwellings were hit by mortars and projectiles. It was not possible for HRW to get information on possible civilian casualties from any other areas close to Kirkuk. HRW called on the Iraqi authorities to investigate allegations of civilian properties being destroyed and to prosecute those responsible. Reports from Amnesty International supported these findings and showed evidence of broad scale impacts on civilians and their properties from the violent confrontations in Tuz Khurmatu. Satellite images, photos, videos, and testimonies reportedly demonstrate evidence of civilian houses being looted, burned, and demolished, causing tens of thousands of people to flee, now in fear of returning. The direct attacks on civilian properties allegedly took place predominantly in Kurdish areas of the multi-ethnic city. While the witnesses interviewed by Amnesty were unable to determine if the indiscriminate attacks they witnessed were attributable to Kurdish or Iraqi forces, attacks have reportedly also been launched on Kurdish refugee crowds.
On Wednesday, the KRG proposed to install an immediate ceasefire, to freeze the results of the recent referendum, and to begin an open dialogue with the federal government, based on the Iraqi constitution. However, the Iraqi Prime Minister has ordered his forces to retake all disputed territory, signaling the military offensive is likely to continue regardless of these recent Kurdish efforts to resolve crisis peacefully.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat have released a joint statement calling for peace during this week’s Kenyan presidential election re-run. The statement said that authorities must refrain from using violence and respect civil rights. The AU and the UN said they will also monitor the situation.
Diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, among others, have also warned of insecurity ahead of the presidential election re-run and have called for an end to the violence and multiple threats targeting electoral commissioners. Opposition leader Odinga has called for a mass protest on Thursday, the day of the elections.
On Wednesday, 25 October, a day before the election, the Supreme Court failed to take a petition to postpone the election re-run. The petition, filed by three Kenyan citizens, including a human rights activist, said that officials were not able to ensure that the election was free, fair, and credible. The Supreme Court did not take the case because only two out of the seven judges attended the meeting, while at least five judges are required for a quorum. Some judges who did not attend claimed to have not been in attendance due to insecurity.
With the presidential election re-run taking place at the time of publication, there have already been reports of clashes taking place between police officers and protesters.
The European Union (EU) has reported this week that President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has deteriorated the human rights situation in the Philippines tremendously. The EU has cited Duterte’s statements that incite the police to take aggressive approaches when dealing with drug users and pushers.
The Syrian government regime has tightened its siege in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus in recent months, reportedly blocking access to around 400,000 civilians from receiving essential goods, such as food and medicine. Consequently, the number of infant deaths has risen dramatically, with children as young as one month old dying from lack of milk and food. Eastern Ghouta is one of the de-escalation zones created by a Russian- and Turkish-brokered deal, however, the Syrian government continues to impose and tighten blockades on the area. Activist Raed Srewel referred to the situation as “the worst kind of criminality” and expressed that a UN initiative to solve this is needed to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.
The city of Al-Qaratayn, which had previously been retaken from Islamic State (ISIL) by Syrian forces, was retaken by ISIL early this month, which controlled the city for nearly three weeks. Since then, an alarming number of casualties have been documented. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SORH) has reported that at least 128 persons, both soldiers and civilians, were executed by ISIL during its 20-day long siege of Al-Qaratayn. ISIL executed the victims under the charge of “communication and espionage in favor of the regime forces.” These numbers have been confirmed as Syrian government forces managed to retake the city over the weekend. Further information released Tuesday suggested that children were among the casualties. According to reports from civilians, government forces performed the same patterns of action, executing civilians due to suspected collaboration with ISIL during their control of the city. The city has reportedly shifted hands many times during the year.
On Monday, The Russian Defense Ministry reportedly compared the recent military offensive to retake Raqqa from ISIL by the US-led coalition to the bombing of the German city of Dresden in 1945. According to the Ministry, more than 200,000 people lived in Raqqa before the conflict, while only 45,000 remain today. The US-led coalition said it takes all possible precautions to avoid civilian casualties, but has previously accepted responsibility for the deaths of more than 600 civilians in Syria and Iraq since 2014. However, as previously reported in the ICRtoP weekly, this number has been reported to be much higher by human rights groups, among them the SOHR (for more information please click here).
This week, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed met with senior Saudi Arabian and Yemeni officials during a four-day visit to the Saudi capital of Riyadh to discuss his initiatives to end the violence in Yemen through a political solution. By the end of his visit, Mr. Ahmed commented that the parties were “exploring significant steps that each side can take to restore confidence and move towards a viable negotiated settlement.” These steps include a renewed ceasefire and a return to diplomatic negotiations.
What else is new?
ICRtoP member HRW, along with the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and the Fondation pour l’égalité des chances en Afrique, have launched a campaign to bring former President Yahya Jammeh from the Gambia to justice for his alleged human rights abuses during his presdency in the country. Jammeh ruled the country for 22 years before losing the elections in December 2016 and seeking exile in Equatorial Guinea. His government has allegedly been implicated in arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture. Targeted killings also reportedly occurred during his rule, including the alleged killings of opposition leader Solo Sandeng in April 2016 and newspaper editor Deyda Hydara in 2004.
On 9 November, ICRtoP member the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation will be launching the latest entry in its Sheri P. Rosenberg Policy Papers in Prevention series, entitled, “A Shifting Paradigm: Social media and the changing nature of conflict and conflict response,” featuring author Christopher McNaboe. Please click here for more information on the event and how to RSVP.