UN announces 72-hour ceasefire in Yemen starting Thursday

Middle East Eye reports: A 72-hour ceasefire in Yemen will go into effect starting Thursday, the United Nations announced on Monday.

A cessation of hostilities that first went into effect in April “will re-enter into force at 23:59 Yemen time on 19 October 2016, for an initial period of 72 hours, subject to renewal,” the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said in a statement.

The ceasefire opens the door for negotiations to find a political solution to the conflict. April’s truce was followed by repeated rounds of talks in Kuwait between the warring sides, which did not come to fruition.

Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi had agreed to the truce earlier in the day. [Continue reading…]


If we don’t act now, all future wars may be as horrific as Aleppo

Paul Mason writes: To single day of fighting in June 1859, among the vineyards and villages near Lake Garda, left 40,000 Italian, French and Austrian soldiers dead or wounded. The Battle of Solferino might have been remembered simply for its carnage, but for the presence of Henry Dunant. Dunant, a Swiss traveller, spent days tending the wounded and wrote a memoir that led to the founding of the Red Cross and to the first Geneva convention, signed by Europe’s great powers in 1864.

Solferino inspired the principle that hospitals and army medical personnel are not a legitimate target in war. Today, with the bombing of hospitals by the Russians in Syria, the Saudis in Yemen and the Americans in Afghanistan, those who provide medical aid in war believe that principle is in ruins.

So far this year, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 21 of their supported medical facilities in Yemen and Syria have been attacked. Last year an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was destroyed by a US attack, in which those fleeing the building were reportedly gunned down from the air, and 42 patients and staff died.

A UN resolution in May urged combatants to refrain from bombing medical facilities. MSF says that the resolution “has made no difference on the ground”. Four out of the five permanent members of the UN security council, it says, are actively involved in coalitions whose troops have attacked hospitals.

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles. [Continue reading…]


Vladimir Putin just won an international peace prize

Max Bearak writes: The past few weeks have been rough for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international image.

Putin has been blamed for airstrikes in Syria that have killed hundreds of civilians, including children, dooming a cease-fire his government helped foster but may have never intended to abide by. A Dutch investigation said the antiaircraft missiles that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing all 298 people aboard, came from Russia. And the Obama administration accused his government of a hacking campaign to interfere with this year’s U.S. presidential election.

But Friday, the day the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, brought him some welcome news: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro bestowed on Putin the Hugo Chávez Prize for Peace and Sovereignty of the Peoples. Putin can put it on his mantel beside China’s Confucius Peace Prize, which he won in 2011.

Maduro, whose South American nation has been reeling amid a massive economic crisis, announced the prize during the unveiling of a statue (designed by a Russian artist) of his deceased predecessor, Chávez, in the latter’s home town of Sabaneta.

Referencing Putin, Maduro said the prize should be given to “a leader that I believe is the most outstanding there is in the world today, a fighter for peace, for balance, and a builder of a pluripolar, multicentric world.” [Continue reading…]

Josh Rogin writes: There is clear and abundant evidence the Assad regime and the Russian government are committing crimes that include, but are not limited to, deliberate attacks on civilians, collective punishment, starvation as a tool of war, torture, murder, inhumane treatment of prisoners and the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, no near-term accountability seems likely. Last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, a step dozens of countries have endorsed. But Russia would surely veto such a move and, since neither Syria nor Russia has ratified the ICC’s founding Rome Statute, the court’s power is limited without Security Council action.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria fecklessly refuses to assign blame for atrocities — such as, for example, when a U.N. aid convoy was attacked last month, which the United States attributed to Russia and which was yet another violation of international humanitarian law. Congress has a sanctions bill that would punish the Syrian government, Russia and Iran for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the White House opposes that legislation.

Justice for the innocent victims in Syria will likely take years, if not decades, to be realized. But there is both precedent and a legal path forward for such prosecutions.

Russian soldiers bear criminal responsibility not only for participating in the war crimes but also for aiding and abetting the Syrian regime, said Cherif Bassiouni, who led the U.N. investigations into crimes in Yugoslavia, Bahrain and Libya and helped create the ICC. And, he said, due to what’s known in international law as the doctrine of command responsibility, senior Russian military and political figures could also be prosecuted for the actions of their subordinates.

“The criminal responsibility applies to all of those in the chain of command who know of the commission of these crimes, all the way up to Putin,” said Bassiouni. “The law is not only applicable to he who gives an order, but he who knows it’s a war crime and does nothing to stop it.”

Under the Geneva Conventions, any state can assert what’s known as universal jurisdiction and bring prosecutions against Syrian and Russia leaders for war crimes.

“Every country if it wanted to could assert its jurisdiction if it could grab the person,” said Bassiouni. “Every Russian officer involved should know they are exposed to it.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Russia should be investigated for war crimes in the Syrian city of Aleppo and risks becoming a pariah nation, Boris Johnson has said, taking the unusual step of calling for demonstrations by anti-war protesters outside the Russian embassy in London.

The British foreign secretary said “the mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind small” as he predicted those responsible for war crimes in Syria would eventually face charges before the international criminal court.

Johnson’s remarks underline the degree to which relations between Russia and the west have deteriorated to levels not seen since the end of the cold war. [Continue reading…]


UN chief condemns airstrike on Yemeni funeral and dismisses Saudi denials

The New York Times reports: The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on Monday condemned a weekend airstrike on a funeral ceremony in the Yemeni capital, Sana, as well as the Saudi-led bombing campaign believed to be responsible for it.

Mr. Ban said he supported demands for an international inquiry into whether the attack, which killed at least 140 people, was a war crime.

“Despite mounting crimes by all parties to the conflict, we have yet to see the results of any credible investigations,” he said. “This latest horrific incident demands a full inquiry.”

Brushing aside Saudi Arabia’s initial denials of responsibility, he said reports from the site of the attack indicated that it was carried out by the Saudi-led coalition.

According to witness accounts cited by United Nations human rights investigators, two airstrikes struck the Al Kubra community hall in Sana, seven to eight minutes apart. It was packed with families attending the funeral of a leader of the Houthi rebel movement, which is battling the Saudi-backed government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi for control of the country. Many prominent military and political leaders associated with the Houthis were in the hall and were killed in the assault, the United Nations said. [Continue reading…]

The Intercept reports: Fragments of what appear to be U.S.-made bombs have been found at the scene of one of the most horrific civilian massacres of Saudi Arabia’s 18-month air campaign in Yemen.

Aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition on Saturday bombed a community hall in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, where thousands of people had gathered for a funeral for Sheikh Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the rebel-appointed interior minister. The aircraft struck the hall four times, killing more than 140 people and wounding 525. One local health official described the aftermath as “a lake of blood.”

Multiple bomb fragments at the scene appear to confirm the use of American-produced MK-82 guided bombs. One fragment, posted in a picture on the Facebook page of a prominent Yemeni lawyer, says “FOR USE ON MK-82 FIN, GUIDED BOMB.” [Continue reading…]


Russia vetoes UN demand for end to bombing of Syria’s Aleppo

Reuters reports: Russia vetoed a French-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution on Saturday that would have demanded an end to air strikes and military flights over Syria’s city of Aleppo, while a rival Russian draft text failed to get a minimum nine votes in favor.

Moscow’s text was effectively the French draft with Russian amendments. It removed the demand for an end to air strikes on Aleppo and put the focus back on a failed Sept. 9 U.S./Russia ceasefire deal, which was annexed to the draft.

British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin: “Thanks to your actions today, Syrians will continue to lose their lives in Aleppo and beyond to Russian and Syrian bombing. Please stop now.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian war planes and Iranian support, have been battling to capture eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of Syria’s largest city, where more than 250,000 civilians are trapped.

“Russia has become one of the chief purveyors of terror in Aleppo, using tactics more commonly associated with thugs than governments,” U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations David Pressman told the council. [Continue reading…]


UN Syria envoy offers to escort Nusra fighters out of eastern Aleppo

The New York Times reports: The top United Nations diplomat for the Syria conflict proposed a new truce on Thursday, in hopes of averting what he called the destruction of rebel-held eastern Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces. He offered to personally escort the jihadist fighters in the area to safety if the bombing is halted.

The proposal by the diplomat, Staffan de Mistura, reflected his despair over the relentless bombardment by the Syrian military and its Russian allies in the past few weeks, following the collapse of a cease-fire negotiated by Russia and the United States.

But Mr. de Mistura’s proposal also was seen as part of a possible new diplomatic effort to press the Russians over their role in the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Aleppo, the divided Syrian city that was once the country’s commercial capital and is now a sprawling urban kill zone.

Roughly 275,000 people in the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo have been subjected to indiscriminate aerial bombing that has killed hundreds, including many children. Outside access to that part of the city has been cut off.

Russia, which has been supporting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad for the past year with airstrikes and other military assistance, has said it is not responsible for the killing of civilians.

In Aleppo, the Russians have said, their targets are the radical jihadist fighters of the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda that is also known as the Levant Victory Front. Those fighters are regarded as enemies by the United States and its allies as well as by the Syrian government and Russia.

Speaking to reporters at the United Nations offices in Geneva, Mr. de Mistura said opposition groups had a total of no more than 8,000 fighters in eastern Aleppo, including roughly 900 to 1,000 Nusra members. Their departure from the city, Mr. de Mistura said, would remove any justification by Russia and Syria for the ferocious bombardments. [Continue reading…]


Israel brushes off criticism of settlement policy as U.S. assumes increasingly tough posture

The Washington Post reports: The Israeli government pushed back Thursday against the latest U.S. condemnation of its settlement enterprise as commentators called it another sign of fraying relations between the Jewish state and its most steadfast ally.

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement reacting to the unusually sharp language in the State Department’s “strong condemnation” of Israeli plans to build new settler housing “deep in the West Bank,” closer to Jordan than Israel. The Foreign Ministry said the 98 housing units approved for the Shilo area do not constitute “a new settlement.”

Ayelet Shaked, Israeli’s justice minister and a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said Washington should train its condemnation on Syria “rather than criticizing where Israel builds houses.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Thursday that “we must give our lives” for the cause of annexing the West Bank to Israel.

The Israeli government’s ire was piqued by statements Wed­nesday from the White House and State Department that further ratcheted up the Obama administration’s criticism of Israel’s settlement policy.

The tone began changing late last year, when Secretary of State John F. Kerry told a gathering at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum that Israel’s settlement expansion was closing off possibilities for a two-state solution. He said Israel would not be able to maintain itself as a Jewish and democratic state if the trend continued.

Since then, in what seems a deliberate calibration, the State Department has spoken out strongly almost every time Israel has announced new housing, not only in the West Bank but also in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to have the capital of an independent state. In July, the State Department called Israeli construction over the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border, “provocative and counterproductive.” In August, the White House said “significant settlement expansion” poses “a serious and growing threat to the viability of a two state solution.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition fear that between the presidential election in November and Inauguration Day, President Obama could seek a way to try to enshrine U.S. parameters for a future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Far worse in Netanyahu’s mind would be U.S. support for a resolution along those lines in the United Nations.

“There is no doubt in Israel that Obama wants to leave a legacy,” said former Israel diplomat Jacob Dayan, who was chief of staff to two foreign ministers. “A legacy is created in two ways — a comprehensive speech on the issue, which I am sure Israel will accept because speeches are nice and memorable, but not more than that, or an American U.N. Security Council Resolution on the issue. . . . That is Israel’s biggest fear.” [Continue reading…]


Eastern Aleppo faces ‘total destruction’ in two months

BBC News reports: Rebel-held eastern parts of the Syrian city of Aleppo may face “total destruction” in two months, with thousands killed, the UN’s envoy says.

Staffan de Mistura told reporters that he was prepared to personally accompany al-Qaeda-linked jihadists out of the city if it would stop the fighting.

He also appealed to Russia and Syria’s government not to destroy the city for the sake of eliminating militants.

Troops have been besieging the east, where 275,000 people live, for a month.

“The bottom line is, in a maximum of two months… the city of eastern Aleppo at this rate may be totally destroyed,” Mr de Mistura told a news conference in Geneva.

“Thousands of Syrian civilians, not terrorists, will be killed and many of them wounded.” [Continue reading…]


António Guterres: Refugees have the right to be protected


BBC News reports: The nomination of Antonio Guterres as next UN secretary general came despite efforts by some politicians for the role to go to a woman, or to someone from eastern Europe.

He is widely expected to select a woman as deputy secretary-general, having said that “gender parity” is crucial at the United Nations.

Speaking earlier this year, Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said insiders believed Mr Guterres, from Portugal, “could give the UN the kind of kick up the backside it needs”.

Mr Guterres was born in Lisbon in 1949. He studied engineering and physics at the Instituto Superior Tecnico, before going into academia after graduating in 1971.

But academia only held the fervent Catholic’s interest for a couple of years. He joined the Socialist party in 1974 – the same year five decades of dictatorship came to an end in Portugal – and soon became a full-time politician.

In 1995, three years after being elected the Socialist party’s secretary general, he was voted in as prime minister, a position he held until 2002.

Then Mr Guterres, fluent in Portuguese, English, Spanish and French, turned his attention to the world of international diplomacy, becoming the UN’s high commissioner for refugees in 2005. [Continue reading…]


Yemen famine feared as starving children fight for lives in hospital

The Guardian reports: Dozens of emaciated children are fighting for their lives in Yemen’s hospital wards, as fears grow that civil war and a sea blockade that has lasted for months are creating famine conditions in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country.

The UN’s humanitarian aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, described a visit to meet “very small children affected by malnutrition” in the Red Sea city of Hodeida. “It is of course absolutely devastating when you see such terrible malnutrition,” he said on Tuesday, warning of “very severe needs”.

More than half of Yemen’s 28 million people are already short of food, the UN has said, and children are particularly badly hit, with hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation.

There are 370,000 children enduring severe malnutrition that weakens their immune system, according to Unicef, and 1.5 million are going hungry. Food shortages are a long-term problem, but they have got worse in recent months. Half of children under five are stunted because of chronic malnutrition. [Continue reading…]


Besieged Aleppo has descended into a ‘merciless abyss,’ UN warns

The Associated Press reports: Syrian government forces continued their push into rebel-held districts of Aleppo on Thursday as international officials issued dire warnings of an ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria’s largest city.

The U.N.’s humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council that the conditions in eastern Aleppo, which is besieged and assaulted by all sides by government forces, had descended into the “merciless abyss of humanitarian catastrophe.”

Speaking to the Security Council via video link from Geneva, O’Brien painted a grim picture of the conditions in the war-wracked eastern part of the city, where at least 320 civilians including 100 children have been killed in the past week. An additional 765 have been wounded.

O’Brien’s report noted that the U.N. now calculates that 861,200 Syrians are trapped in sieges — a nearly 50 percent increase from the last estimate of 586,200. The new figure reflects the government’s protracted blockade around eastern Aleppo, where an estimated 250,000 people or more live. [Continue reading…]


Libyan general in east rejects UN-backed government

The Associated Press reports: A powerful Libyan general whose forces recently captured several key oil facilities has rejected a U.N.-brokered government and said the country would be better served by a leader with “high-level military experience.”

In a series of written responses to questions from The Associated Press this week, Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter said his army only recognizes the authority of the Libyan parliament based in the east, which has also rejected the U.N.-backed government in the capital, Tripoli.

Libya was plunged into chaos by the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi, and for the last two years has been split by rival authorities based in the far east and in Tripoli, in the west.

The two sides are deeply divided on Hifter’s future role in the country. In the east, he is seen as the kind of strong, experienced military leader who can defeat Islamic extremists and restore order to the oil-rich North African country. In the west, where powerful Islamist militias hold sway, he is seen as remnant of the Gadhafi government — which he once served — and an aspiring strongman.

Hifter said little to put such fears to rest.

He cited generals who went on to lead Western nations, as well as President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in neighboring Egypt, who led the military ouster of an elected Islamist president in 2013 and has presided over a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

“Military people who were elected to lead their country achieved remarkable success,” Hifter said. [Continue reading…]