Risking death in the Mediterranean: the least bad option for so many migrants

Patrick Kingsley reports: Sobbing and shaking, Mohamed Abdallah tries to explain why he still wants to risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable boat. He sits in a migrant detention centre in Zawya, Libya, surrounded by hundreds of fellow asylum seekers who nearly died this week at sea.

They survived only after being intercepted, detained and brought back to shore by Libyan coastguards, ending a week in which they went round in circles, starving and utterly lost. But despite their horror stories, Abdallah, 21, says the journey that his fellow inmates barely withstood – and that killed more than 450 others this week – is his only option.

“I cannot go back to my country,” says Abdallah, who is from Darfur, in Sudan. He left for what is now South Sudan in 2006, after he says his village was destroyed in the Darfur war, his father died, and his sisters raped. But in South Sudan, another war later broke out. So he made his way through the Sahara, a journey that he says killed his brother and cousin, to Libya. And there last year, he was witness to his third civil war in a decade – a war that still drags on, its frontline just a few miles from the camp at Zawya.

“There is a war in my country, there’s no security, no equality, no freedom,” Abdallah says. “But if I stay here, it’s just like my country. There is no security, there is violence. When you work, they take your money.”

He worked in a soap shop, and saved up to pay local smugglers for the boat to Europe. But just as he hoped to complete the payment, he was robbed, and then arrested. The recounting of his ordeal brings out first the tears, and then a conclusion: “I need to go to Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Pope urges world to act after new Mediterranean tragedy

AFP reports: Pope Francis on Sunday, April 19, urged world leaders to respond “decisively” after 700 migrants were feared drowned in the deadliest migrant shipwreck yet in the Mediterranean.

“These are men and women like us, brothers seeking a better life,” the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said in his weekly address, urging leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring.”

Urging the faithful in St Peter’s square to pray for the victims, the pope added: “(They are) hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war. They are seeking a better life, they are seeking happiness.” [Continue reading…]

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U.N. confirms new push for Syria talks, Iran to be invited

Reuters: The United Nations said on Tuesday that its Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura planned to consult Syrian factions and interested countries on a new round of peace talks, confirming a Reuters report.

“Starting in May … de Mistura will proceed with a series of in-depth, separate consultations with the Syrian stakeholders and regional/international actors to take stock of their views as of today,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

A U.N. spokesman in Geneva, Ahmad Fawzi, said de Mistura was “heavily engaged” in discussions on the process, which would be based on the Geneva communiqué, the June 2012 document that set out a path to peace and political transition but left unresolved the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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UN: 100,000 new displaced in Yemen since strikes began

Al Jazeera: More than a 100,000 people have fled their homes after Saudi-led coalition air strikes began in Yemen, according to UNICEF.

A spokesman from the UN agency, Rajat Madhok, told Al Jazeera that most of those who have been displaced are women and children.

“Most displacements have taken place from and within al-Dhale, Abyan, Amran, Saada, Hajja. The displaced persons are mostly being hosted with relatives,” Madhok said.

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Chlorine attacks continue in Syria with no prospect of Assad being brought to account

By Brett Edwards, University of Bath and Mattia Cacciatori, University of Bath

For more than a year, there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. This includes reported incidents which occurred in late March, as thousands of Syrians fled the city of Idlib in the face of a government-rebel stand-off. According to witnesses, chemical weapons were used.

These allegations come on the heels of a year’s worth of similar incidents in which rebel and government forces stand accused of using industrial chemicals such as chlorine against civilians and troops alike. A recent report has found with a “high degree of confidence” that chlorine attacks took place in three Syrian villages in the summer of 2014. A UN Human Rights Council Inquiry into Syria also found that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that government helicopters carried out chemical attacks during this period.

The international response has been superficially demonstrative. At the beginning of March 2015, almost a year after those attacks, the UN Security Council finally adopted a resolution that condemns the use of chlorine as a weapon. Steps such as these are to be welcomed for reaffirming the abhorrence of these weapons and the importance of the international prohibition against them.

But resolutions do not imply immediate action. The use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria goes on – and there is so far little evidence that the world’s major powers have the wherewithal to bring those responsible to justice.

[Read more…]

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Poll finds strong majority of Americans support an international climate agreement

Huffington Post reports: A new poll finds an overwhelming majority of Americans support an international agreement to cut planet-warming emissions.

The poll found 72 percent of likely 2016 voters said they support the United States signing on to an international agreement on climate change.

The Benenson Strategy Group conducted the polling for the environmental organizations Sierra Club and Union of Concerned Scientists, and surveyed 1,000 expected voters.

Sixty-five percent of respondents said they thought the United States “should take the lead and make meaningful reductions in its carbon emissions and other gases that may cause global warming.” Even a majority of Republican respondents — 52 percent –- expressed support for the U.S. joining an international agreement on climate change. A much stronger percentage of Democrats, at 88 percent, supported it, as did 73 percent of independents.

John Coequyt, director of Sierra Club’s federal and international climate campaign, argues that the findings support the Obama administration’s pursuit of an international agreement at the United Nations meeting in Paris at the end of this year. [Continue reading…]

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Palestine formally joins International Criminal Court

Al Jazeera reports: Palestine has formally attained membership of the International Criminal Court, a move that could open the door to possible war crime indictments against Israeli officials despite uncertainty over its wider ramifications.

The accession on Wednesday is another landmark in the Palestinian diplomatic and legal international campaign, which gained steam in 2014.

The Palestinians moved to join The Hague-based court on January 2, in a process that was finalised on Wednesday, setting the scene for potential legal action.

“Palestine has and will continue to use all legitimate tools within its means in order to defend itself against Israeli colonisation and other violations of international law,” said senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat. [Continue reading…]

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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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