U.N. warns of ‘total collapse’ in Yemen as Houthis continue offensive

The New York Times reports: The United Nations’ human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, warned on Tuesday that Yemen was on the brink of collapse, as his office said that heavy fighting in the southern port city of Aden had left its streets lined with bodies and its hospitals full of corpses.

Fierce clashes erupted on Monday as Shiite Houthi rebels, who are allied with Iran, pressed on with an offensive in Aden against fighters loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled Yemeni leader, who is backed by Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states.

“The situation in Yemen is extremely alarming, with dozens of civilians killed over the past four days,” Mr. al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement. “The country seems to be on the verge of total collapse.”

“The killing of so many innocent civilians is simply unacceptable,” he added.

Houthi forces were reported to have pushed their way into Aden’s northeastern suburbs despite airstrikes by the Saudi Air Force and a naval blockade intended to sever the flow of weapons and other supplies to Houthi forces. [Continue reading…]

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U.N. leader warns Iraq not to mistreat civilians after liberation from ISIS

The New York Times reports: Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations used a visit to Baghdad on Monday to warn the Iraqi government to treat civilians decently after it liberates territories like Tikrit, where a government offensive has been supported by heavy American-led airstrikes for the past five days.

“Civilians freed from the brutality of Daesh should not have to then fear their liberators,” Mr. Ban said, in a statement emailed to reporters after Iraqi officials canceled a scheduled news conference with him without explanation. Daesh is the Arabic pronunciation of the initials ISIS, by which the extremists in the Islamic State group are also known.

“One form of violence cannot replace another,” he said. The secretary general was clearly referring to reports, such as one by Human Rights Watch recently, that Iraqi Shiite militias were carrying out abuses in Sunni areas of Salahuddin Province that they had liberated from the extremists.

However, Mr. Ban may have joined his Iraqi governments hosts in speaking too soon about progress in Tikrit. Evidence is mounting that fighters of the Islamic State are much more numerous in the city, and hold much more territory, than the Iraqi government has previously revealed. [Continue reading…]

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Iran stalls U.N. probe into its atomic past

The Wall Street Journal reports: Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block a week before a key deadline because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a United Nations probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past, say people close to the negotiations.

In response, these people say, the U.S. and its diplomatic partners are revising their demands on Iran to address these concerns before they agree to finalize a nuclear deal, which would repeal U.N. sanctions against the country.

“Progress has been very limited,” Yukiya Amano, who heads the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “No more new issues” have been addressed. [Continue reading…]

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New WHO report shows that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller probably causes cancer

Climate Progress: The most popular weed-killer in the United States — and possibly the world — “probably” causes cancer, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Published Thursday in the journal The Lancet Oncology, the report focuses on a chemical called glyphosate, invented by Monsanto back in 1974 as a broad-spectrum herbicide. It’s the active ingredient in Roundup, a popular product used mostly in commercial agriculture production. Roundup is particularly good for genetically modified crops, which can be bred to resist damage from the product while it kills the weeds surrounding it.

In the U.S., glyphosate is not considered carcinogenic. The Environmental Protection Agency’s current position is that “there is inadequate evidence to state whether or not glyphosate has the potential to cause cancer from a lifetime exposure in drinking water.” In the wake of Thursday’s report, however, the EPA said it “would consider” the U.N. agency’s findings.

Note for the Monsanto comment trolls: Don’t bother wasting your time or mine by responding to this post.

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Palestinian leaders see validation of their statehood effort

The New York Times reports: Under most circumstances, an Israeli leader’s frank admission that he would never agree to a Palestinian state would be a disaster for the Palestinian leadership. But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said precisely that in the heat of the recent election campaign, it seemed to have the opposite effect, validating the unilateral approach the Palestinians have decided to follow.

“We will continue a diplomatic intifada. We have no other choice,” said Assad Abdul Rahman, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council and executive committee, its top decision-making body.

With Mr. Netanyahu having dropped, for now at least, the pretense of seeking a two-state solution, the Palestinians can argue to Europe and the United States that they no longer have a negotiating partner, strengthening their case for full statehood and recognition in the United Nations, as well as membership in important international bodies. They are already members of the International Criminal Court and Unesco.

“If somebody said, ‘We are with two states, and real negotiations,’ we would return to negotiations,” said Assad Abdul Rahman. “But there is no partner for that.”

In addition to considering seeking full statehood at the United Nations, the Palestinians may now curtail security coordination with Israel, reducing Israel’s ability to seize suspected militants in the West Bank, two P.L.O. officials said.

“There is a feeling that if there really is no hope for the peace process, the best thing they can have is an Israeli government that will advance its own isolation,” said Nathan Thrall, senior analyst with the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group. [Continue reading…]

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UN: ISIS may have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide

UN OHCHR: The so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may have committed all three of the most serious international crimes – namely war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – according to a report issued by the UN Human Rights Office on Thursday.

The report, compiled by an investigation team sent to the region by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights late last year, draws on in-depth interviews with more than 100 people who witnessed or survived attacks in Iraq between June 2014 and February 2015. It documents a wide range of violations by ISIL against numerous ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, some of which, it says, may amount to genocide.

It also highlights violations, including killings, torture and abductions, allegedly carried out by the Iraqi Security Forces and associated militia groups.

The report finds that widespread abuses committed by ISIL include killings, torture, rape and sexual slavery, forced religious conversions and the conscription of children. All of these, it says, amount to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some may constitute crimes against humanity and/ or may amount to war crimes. [Continue reading…]

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Israel may lose U.S. protection at the UN Security Council

Politico reports: In the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisive re-election, the Obama administration is revisiting longtime assumptions about America’s role as a shield for Israel against international pressure.

Angered by Netanyahu’s hard-line platform towards the Palestinians, top Obama officials would not rule out the possibility of a change in American posture at the United Nations, where the U.S. has historically fended off resolutions hostile to Israel.

And despite signals from Israel suggesting that Netanyahu might walk back his rejection, late in the campaign, of a Palestinian state under his watch, Obama officials say they are taking him at his word.

“The positions taken by the prime minister in the last days of the campaign have raised very significant substantive questions that go far beyond just optics,” said a senior administration official, adding that recent Israeli government actions were in keeping with Netanyahu’s rhetoric. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s atrocities turned into an exhibition at the U.N.

Josh Rogin writes: The rise of Islamic State has distracted many from the murderous assaults by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on his own citizens. Now advocates for those victims are attempting to shock world leaders into action with a novel approach: Gruesome photos of civilians tortured and murdered while in the custody of the Syrian regime are going on display Tuesday in the halls of the United Nations.

Almost a year after the Syrian defector known as Caesar escaped Syria with 55,000 photos documenting the systematic torture and murder of more 11,000 civilians, there has been little progress in holding the perpetrators accountable. Although the U.S. State Department has called Assad’s “machinery of death” the worst since the Nazis — and evidence emerged that as many as 10 European citizens were among those killed in custody — no prosecutions have moved forward.

So Caesar’s supporters will unveil a display showing atrocities committed by 24 of the regime’s security branches, which UN diplomats will see on their way to and from work each day. It comes just as a UN commission is threatening to release the names of Syrian government officials who are implicated in war crimes, a step toward their prosecution. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. presses U.N. on Syria chlorine attacks

The New York Times reports: The United States is pushing the United Nations Security Council to condemn the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria, and impose unspecified measures against those who use it in the future.

A draft resolution written by the United States, obtained by The New York Times on Wednesday evening, does not specify who used chlorine as a weapon in Syria’s civil war, except to remind the government of Syria that it had agreed to destroy its chemical-weapons arsenal under a resolution adopted in September 2013.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global group that monitors compliance with a treaty banning these munitions, concluded in a report this year that chlorine had been used to make bombs, which witnesses said were dropped from helicopters.

That report also did not say who was to blame, although the Syrian military is the only faction in the conflict that has helicopters. Activists have previously collected video of aerial bomb attacks, in which yellow gas is seen being released. [Continue reading…]

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UN’s plan to ‘freeze’ the conflict in Syria is a gift to Assad

Emile Hokayem writes: Military and diplomatic efforts in Syria are converging in Aleppo, once the country’s largest city and commercial center. Last week, U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura reported to the Security Council that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to suspend for six weeks all aerial and artillery bombardment of the besieged city, which is divided between the regime and rebel groups.

The supposed agreement, however, does not represent much of a breakthrough, especially when compared with the diplomat’s initial ambitions of a broad “freeze” over the whole province of Aleppo, which would then be replicated in other regions later. Behind closed doors and in front of the media afterward, de Mistura sought to lower expectations, saying he had “no illusions” about the difficult task ahead. He also did not explain how a limited freeze in Aleppo could change the calculations of the various local and regional players or create new incentives for a political negotiation among the warring sides.

De Mistura’s New York briefing coincided with a large-scale regime offensive to fully encircle Aleppo from the north. Regular military units, the paramilitary auxiliaries of the National Defense Force, and Hezbollah fighters sought to press their advantage in the areas of Handarat and Malaah, north of the city, with the intention of seizing three important villages and breaking rebel groups’ siege of the Shiite towns of Zahra and Nubl. Controlling these villages and connecting roads would sever the links between the Aleppo countryside and the vitally important border with Turkey.

But the initially rapid advance of the pro-regime forces was stopped and rolled back in several areas. Bad weather grounded Assad’s helicopters and aircraft during much of the battle — overcast weather, a rebel commander quipped to me, imposed the no-fly zone that the Americans had denied the rebellion since 2011. After capturing important territory in surprise attacks over two days, Assad’s forces were surrounded by Syrian rebels who killed well over 100 soldiers and captured dozens more, making this time among the costliest days for the regime since the beginning of the armed uprising. [Continue reading…]

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Syria defies UN, carrying out hundreds of barrel bomb attacks

Human Rights Watch: The Syrian government has carried out hundreds of new indiscriminate attacks over the past year with air-delivered munitions, including improvised weapons such as barrel bombs. The attacks have had a devastating impact on civilians, killing or injuring thousands of people.

Human Rights Watch documented the attacks in Aleppo governorate in northern Syria and in Daraa governorate in the south based on witness statements, satellite imagery analysis, and video and photographic evidence. Although the United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks in a resolution adopted a year ago, it has not responded directly to the new wave of attacks.

“For a year, the Security Council has done nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad’s murderous air bombing campaign on rebel-held areas, which has terrorized, killed, and displaced civilians,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Amid talk of a possible temporary cessation of strikes on Aleppo, the question is whether Russia and China will finally allow the UN Security Council to impose sanctions to stop barrel bombs.”

In an interview with the BBC on February 10, 2015, President Assad claimed that his forces were not using barrel bombs in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt seeks UN backing for air strikes against ISIS in Libya

The Guardian: Egypt has called for a UN-backed international intervention in Libya after launching air strikes on Islamic State targets following the murder of 21 Egyptian Christians.

The country’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, said in an interview aired by France’s Europe 1 radio that there was no choice but to create a global coalition to confront the extremists in Libya.

Egypt’s top diplomat is in New York to seek backing for military intervention from UN security council members. On Monday Egypt’s armed forces announced F-16 strikes on Isis weapons caches and training camps – the first time Egypt has acknowledged any kind of military intervention in its increasingly chaotic and violent western neighbour.

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Libya: To intervene, or not to intervene, that is not the question

The New York Times: Largely overshadowed by the crises in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, Libya’s unraveling has received comparatively little attention over the past few months. As this oil-rich nation veers toward complete chaos, world leaders would be wise to redouble efforts led by the United Nations to broker a power-sharing deal among warring factions.

A few of the Islamist groups vying for control in Libya have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and carried out the type of barbaric executions that have galvanized international support for the military campaign against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. The growth and radicalization of Islamist groups raise the possibility that large parts of Libya could become a satellite of the Islamic State.

“Libya has the same features of potentially becoming as bad as what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria,” Bernardino León, the United Nations envoy to Libya, said in an interview. “The difference is that Libya is just a few miles away from Europe.” [Continue reading…]

Jenan Moussa sardonically observes:

Now as always, those who reflexively argue against all forms of intervention will maintain the conceit that to do nothing is to do no harm. The unspoken assumption is: if we do nothing, we will suffer no harm. It’s not so much a mind your own business, live and let live, philosophy. More like, live and let die.

But as Richard Haass points out, intervention does not simply involve a binary choice:


When Barack Obama reluctantly led from behind in 2011, joining in the NATO intervention which toppled Gaddafi, his attention was much more keenly focused on domestic politics and an upcoming election, than it was on the fate of Libya. He placed higher value on the intervention ending than on what might follow. That Libyan oil quickly started flowing again looked like a success — from a Western and myopic vantage point.

But even though Libyans understandably did not want to see international powers controlling what essentially amounted to the construction of a new state, it seems like the international community missed an opportunity to use oil revenues as a political tool. If revenues had been paid into a UN-controlled account instead of directly to the National Oil Company, their release to the central bank and government could have been made contingent on a set of political milestones being passed such as disarming the militias.

The Libyan economy is totally dependent on oil and the desire to continue selling oil is the one common interest that unites all political factions. Left to their own devises, each will vie for control of the oil supply and revenues. But the power to determine whether oil is a source of division or unity could rest in the hands of the buyers. The world can manage without Libyan oil but Libya can’t survive without selling oil.

No one — apart from ISIS — has an interest in Libya becoming an irretrievably failed state.

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Top UN official says ‘Global War on Terror’ is laying waste to human rights

Thalif Deen reports: The United Nations, which is the legal guardian of scores of human rights treaties banning torture, unlawful imprisonment, degrading treatment of prisoners of war and enforced disappearances, is troubled that an increasing number of countries are justifying violations of U.N. conventions on grounds of fighting terrorism in conflict zones.

Taking an implicit passing shot at big powers, the outspoken U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein of Jordan puts it more bluntly: “This logic is abundant around the world today: I torture because a war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because terrorism, repulsive as it is, requires it.

“I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity or my way of life is being threatened as never before. I kill others, because others will kill me – and so it goes, on and on.”

Speaking Thursday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Zeid said the world needs “profound and inspiring leadership” driven by a concern for human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people. [Continue reading…]

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Why the Palestinians are finally giving up on Obama and the U.S. peace process

Zack Beauchamp writes: “If you want,” PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi offered, “I can call him right now.” The “him” in question was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This was mid-November 2014; I was with a group of journalists in Ashrawi’s Ramallah office, and we were all asking her about the dramatic flameout of John Kerry’s effort to produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in late April. Ashrawi decided to phone a friend — President Abbas — to answer our questions. And Abbas, as it turned out, was in a talkative mood.

Abbas told a story about Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed peace talks that differed greatly from what other participants have said publicly. But what was in many ways more important than the details of his story was the attitude it conveyed toward the US: a total collapse in trust. The senior Palestinian leadership has come to believe that the United States is utterly incapable of budging Israel in negotiations and thus of bringing peace. Long-simmering Palestinian frustration with America, which Palestinians have always seen as hopelessly biased towards Israel, has finally bubbled over.

The new Palestinian approach is a sharp break with the past. For over 20 years since the historic 1993 Oslo Accords between Israelis and Palestinians, there’s been one dominant strategy on all sides for achieving peace in the Holy Land: direct, American-mediated talks between the two sides. The US-led negotiations of 2014, known as the Kerry talks, were in part a last-ditch effort to keep that process alive. The Palestinians had already begun moving away from the old model of talking directly with the Americans and Israelis and towards a campaign to isolate and pressure Israel internationally. But it looked to many like the Palestinians were bluffing, or only hedging — trying to bring more pressure to direct peace talks, not sidestep them. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. signals policy shift on how to end war in Syria

The New York Times reports: American support for a pair of diplomatic initiatives in Syria underscores the shifting views of how to end the civil war there and the West’s quiet retreat from its demand that the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, step down immediately.

The Obama administration maintains that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s exit. But facing military stalemate, well-armed jihadists and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is going along with international diplomatic efforts that could lead to more gradual change in Syria.

That shift comes along with other American actions that Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents take as proof Washington now believes that if Mr. Assad is ousted, there will be nothing to check the spreading chaos and extremism. American planes now bomb the Islamic State group’s militants in Syria, sharing skies with Syrian jets. American officials assure Mr. Assad, through Iraqi intermediaries, that Syria’s military is not their target. The United States still trains and equips Syrian insurgents, but now mainly to fight the Islamic State, not the government.

Now, the United States and other Western countries have publicly welcomed initiatives — one from the United Nations and one from Russia — that postpone any revival of the United States-backed Geneva framework, which called for a wholesale transfer of power to a “transitional governing body.” The last Geneva talks failed a year ago amid vehement disagreement over whether that body could include Mr. Assad.

One of the new concepts is a United Nations proposal to “freeze” the fighting on the ground, first in the strategic crossroads city of Aleppo. The other is an initiative from Russia, Mr. Assad’s most powerful supporter, to try to spur talks between the warring sides in Moscow in late January. Diplomats and others briefed on the plans say one Russian vision is of power-sharing between Mr. Assad’s government and some opposition figures, and perhaps parliamentary elections that would precede any change in the presidency.

But the diplomatic proposals face serious challenges, relying on the leader of a rump state who is propped up by foreign powers and hemmed in by a growing and effective extremist force that wants to build a caliphate. Many of America’s allies in the Syrian opposition reject the plans, and there is little indication that Mr. Assad or his main allies, Russia and Iran, feel any need to compromise. The American-backed Free Syrian Army is on the ropes in northern Syria, once its stronghold, and insurgents disagree among themselves over military and political strategy.

And perhaps most of all, the Islamic State controls half of Syria’s territory, though mostly desert, and it has managed to strengthen its grip even as the United States and its allies try to oust it from neighboring Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Rapid deterioration in living conditions of Syrian refugees in Jordan

UNHCR: UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres says large numbers of Syrian refugees are sliding into abject poverty, and at an alarming rate, due to the magnitude of the crisis and insufficient support from the international community.

He made the statement at the launch of a new UNHCR study, Living in the Shadows, which reveals evidence of a deepening humanitarian crisis. High Commissioner Guterres is on a two-day visit to Jordan, where he will meet refugees profiled in the study in Amman and others at the Za’atari refugee camp.

“I am here to express my solidarity with Syrian refugees, as the impact of snowstorm Huda is still tangible and posing an even greater strain on their already dire living conditions.” Guterres is also meeting with Jordanian officials and with donors to coordinate efforts to improve living conditions for Syrian refugees and support the communities hosting them.

Conducted by UNHCR and International Relief and Development (IRD) the study is based on data from home visits with almost 150,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps in Jordan in 2014.

According to the study, two-thirds of refugees across Jordan are now living below the national poverty line, and one in six Syrian refugee households is in abject poverty, with less than $40 per person per month to make ends meet.

Almost half of the households researchers visited had no heating, a quarter had unreliable electricity, and 20 per cent had no functioning toilet. Rental costs accounted for more than half of household expenditures, and refugee families were increasingly being forced to share accommodations with others to reduce costs.

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Palestinian statehood: a lost cause?

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