U.S. and China ratify Paris Agreement, upping pressure on other nations

Inside Climate News reports: China and the United States, the two biggest emitters of the carbon pollution that has brought global warming to a crisis point, formally ratified the Paris climate agreement on Saturday. Their move propels the ambitious global pact toward its entry into force by the end of this year.

The leaders acted the day before a meeting in Hangzhou of the G20 group of international economic powerhouses. Those nations account for almost all current emissions, and must all act swiftly to strengthen their commitments if the Paris accord is to meet its objectives.

Appearing together, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping pledged to extend their countries’ Paris commitments to encompass “mid-century, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.” The treaty’s ultimate objective is to bring the whole world to zero net emissions of greenhouse gases as quickly as possible.

For the Paris agreement to take force early, 55 countries representing 55 percent of global CO2 emissions must ratify it. Together, China and the U.S. account for about 38 percent of emissions. According to the World Resources Institute, 24 other parties have already ratified, but together those parties only account for another 1 percent of emissions. The fastest way to hit the 55/55 goal would be for the European Union and a smattering of additional countries to sign on. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: With China, the US and a host of smaller countries signed up, the biggest emitter left outstanding is the EU, which negotiated the agreement as a bloc. The EU is unlikely to be able to ratify the accord any time soon, because of the mechanics of getting legal surety from its 28 member states.

There is a way around this. Nicholas Stern, chairman of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and author of the landmark 2006 report on the economics of climate change, called on EU member states and the UK to ratify the agreement individually, through their national parliaments, to speed up the process. EU members are legally parties to the accord at a national as well as a bloc level, so if enough major countries – including the UK and Germany – were to enact the necessary processes then the accord could pass the final hurdle.

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” Stern told the Guardian. “It’s very important for the credibility of the process [of gaining global agreement on climate action through the UN] to get the treaty ratified this year. EU countries can and should ratify as soon as possible. It’s not sensible to hold back, when they could make a big difference.” [Continue reading…]

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The world may never know if Syria really destroyed all its chemical weapons

Colum Lynch reports: Twelve years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government embarked on a top-secret mission to produce large batches of mustard gas, a crude World War I-era blister agent that Syria manufactured as part of a broader chemical weapons deterrent against militarily superior enemies, including Israel.

Between 2004 and 2007, Syria made some 385 metric tons of sulfur mustard, enough to fill thousands of artillery shells. But Syria has admitted to building only 15 Scud missiles capable of delivering 5 to 6 metric tons of the chemical agent, leaving a yawning gap that has left weapons inspectors questioning whether Syria may have retained a stockpile of tactical chemical munitions it has never acknowledged. That’s the conclusion of a highly confidential, 75-page report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reviewed exclusively by Foreign Policy.

Syria’s claims raised a number of red flags. The OPCW’s inspectors, as members of the watchdog’s Declarations Assessment Team (DAT), initially expressed skepticism over Syria’s claim that it only intended to fill Scud missiles with sulfur mustard; the blister agent “is most effectively delivered through small-caliber [tactical] munitions,” including artillery projectiles and battlefield rockets, they noted, not through medium-range missiles.

“The discrepancy between the amount of sulfur mustard produced and the capacity of its designated munitions could indicate that some munitions and/or delivery means for sulfur mustard have not been declared,” the DAT report stated.

The United States and its allies also expressed alarm over the potential for hidden Syrian stockpiles of forbidden weapons.

“Syria has engaged in a calculated campaign of intransigence and obfuscation, of deception, and of defiance,” Kenneth Ward, the U.S. representative to the OPCW, said at a meeting of the group’s executive council in July. “We … remain very concerned that [the chemical warfare agents] and associated munitions, subject to declaration and destruction, have been illicitly retained by Syria.”

The Assad regime claims it destroyed almost all the munitions. Syria said Branch 450, a secret military department responsible for filling chemical munitions, destroyed the vast majority of the stockpile — some 365 metric tons’ worth of sulfur mustard — in May 2012, about two months before Syria publicly acknowledged for the first time the existence of its chemical weapons program. The remaining 20 metric tons were disposed of under U.N. supervision after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a deal in September 2013 to eliminate the country’s remaining chemical weapons. [Continue reading…]

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UN says 10,000 killed in Yemen war, far more than other estimates

Reuters reports: At least 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s 18-month-old civil war, the United Nations on Tuesday, approaching double the estimates of more than 6,000 cited by officials and aid workers for much of 2016.

The war pits the Iran-allied Houthi group and supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is supported by an alliance of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.

The new toll is based on official information from medical facilities in Yemen, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick told a news conference in the capital Sanaa. It might rise as some areas had no medical facilities, and people were often buried without official records.

The United Nations human rights office said last week that 3,799 civilians have been killed in the conflict, with air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition responsible for some 60 percent of deaths. [Continue reading…]

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UN pays tens of millions to Assad regime under Syria aid programme

The Guardian reports: The UN has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, as part of an aid programme that critics fear is increasingly at the whim of the government in Damascus, a Guardian investigation has found.

Businessmen whose companies are under US and EU sanctions have been paid substantial sums by the UN mission, as have government departments and charities – including one set up by the president’s wife, Asma al-Assad, and another by his closest associate, Rami Makhlouf.

The UN says it can only work with a small number of partners approved by President Assad and that it does all it can to ensure the money is spent properly.

“Of paramount importance is reaching as many vulnerable civilians as possible,” a spokesman said. “Our choices in Syria are limited by a highly insecure context where finding companies and partners who operate in besieged and hard to reach areas is extremely challenging.”

However, critics believe the UN mission is in danger of being compromised.

They believe aid is being prioritised in government-held areas and argue UN money is effectively helping to prop up a regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. [Continue reading…]

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UN’s $4bn aid effort in Syria is morally bankrupt

Reinoud Leenders writes: When confronted with criticism of their failure to address Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, UN officials routinely blame a lack of resources. As Stephen O’Brien, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, put it, the UN system is broke, not broken.

Yet UN aid agencies, since stepping up operations in Syria in 2012, have handed lucrative procurement contracts to regime cronies who are known to have bankrolled the very repression and brutality that helped cause the crisis in the first place.

The revelation is as perverse as it is unsurprising, and points to the moral bankruptcy of the UN’s $4bn (£3bn) Syria aid effort to date. It is perverse that UN agencies, which are mandated to reach out to the most vulnerable in Syria’s vicious and protracted civil war, are throwing a lifeline to a regime that has no qualms about burning the entire country just to stay in power.

The UN may not be legally bound to the sanctions imposed on Syrian regime incumbents by the EU or US; it may even argue that such unilateral sanctions are illegal. Yet when several Syrian suppliers of humanitarian goods and services are blacklisted for “aiding the regime’s repression” or for “being close to key figures of the Syrian regime”, UN procurement officials must have known whom they were dealing with. Genuine Syrian businessmen could have told them that some of the UN’s key business partners were, in fact, the regime. [Continue reading…]

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Airstrike in east Aleppo apparently targets funeral procession

The Washington Post reports: Syrian warplanes appeared to target a funeral Saturday morning in east Aleppo, killing dozens of civilians who had come to mourn the deaths of at least 13 people days earlier.

The attack on Bab al-Nairab, a Syrian suburb named after one of the city’s ancient gates, took place in waves, activists said. The first barrel bomb hit a funeral procession, the second landed as rescue workers arrived. Doctors said the preliminary death count was 25.

Aleppo is one of the Syrian war’s most important battlegrounds, divided by government forces in the west and armed opposition groups in the east. According to monitoring groups, more than 300 civilians have been killed in fighting there this month.

The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has urged warring parties to state by Sunday whether they will commit to a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire across the city. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. plans to ‘corner’ Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons

Christopher Dickey and Noah Shachtman report: Syria continues to develop chemical weapons it is supposed to have destroyed, and to use chlorine gas it agreed not to use on the battlefield. This, according to reports from United Nations agencies that have been leaked in recent days by Obama administration officials and were confirmed in part by public statements from U.S. officials on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It is now impossible to deny that the Syrian regime has repeatedly used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people,” said a statement from U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price. (Chlorine was the first gas used in the trenches of World War I. When it mixes with the moisture in human eyes and lungs, it turns to acid with potentially fatal effects.)

Also very disturbing is the conclusion in the same report that the so-called Islamic State has used sulfur mustard gas, which causes skin and lungs to blister painfully, or fatally.

These leaks and statements are part of an administration effort to put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers before an Aug. 30 meeting by the U.N. Security Council to look at the issue of chemical weapons in Syria, a U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast.

Why now? According to this official, the answer goes back to 2014, when the Assad regime was accused of repeated chlorine attacks, and the world shrugged its shoulders.

“We weren’t getting enough political oomph when the chlorine attacks first came to light. So we figured the best option was to work through the slow UN process, get the Russians to a place where they’re cornered diplomatically,” the intelligence official said.

Plus, the official added, finger pointing by the United States alone wouldn’t be nearly as effective as collective action.

“You know the way the Russians treat anything Syria-related,” the official said. “If we bring it forward, the Russians would reject it out of hand. So we helped OPCW [the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] uncover it on its own.”

In fact, the timing is politically problematic for President Barack Obama, and potentially for his favored successor, Hillary Clinton, since she is so closely identified with his administration.

We are looking at the third anniversary of Obama’s Great Syria Failure, as many of his critics see it: the debacle in which he drew a red line against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and the regime stepped right across it, killing more than a 1,000 men, women, and children with sarin nerve gas on Aug. 21, 2013, in a Damascus suburb called Ghouta. [Continue reading…]

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Syria used chlorine in bombs against civilians, UN report says

The New York Times reports: Syrian military helicopters dropped bombs containing chlorine on civilians in at least two attacks over the past two years, a special joint investigation of the United Nations and an international chemical weapons monitor said on Wednesday in a confidential report.

The report also found that militants of the Islamic State in Syria had been responsible for an attack last year using poisonous sulfur mustard, which, like chlorine, is banned as a weapon under an international treaty.

The 95-page report, based on a yearlong investigation, represents the first time the United Nations has blamed specific antagonists in the Syrian conflict for the use of chemical weapons, which is a war crime. Previous inquiries have determined that chemical weapons were used, but did not specify by whom.

A panel of investigators from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons submitted the report on Wednesday to members of the United Nations Security Council. It was not made public, but a copy was viewed by The New York Times. [Continue reading…]

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1.2 million Iraqis could be uprooted in Mosul battle, UN says

The New York Times reports: The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday that it was bracing to accommodate as many as 1.2 million displaced Iraqis when the battle begins to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants, who overran the northern city more than two years ago.

A spokesman for the agency, Adrian Edwards, said it was scrambling to build encampments in six locations in northern Iraq to handle such an influx, which could inflate the country’s displaced-person population by more than a third. Mr. Edwards also said that “other shelter options are being prepared.”

His announcement, at a regular news briefing in Geneva, the refugee agency’s headquarters, did not necessarily signify an imminent military operation to seize Mosul, about 250 miles north of Baghdad.

But the announcement provided detail on the efforts to prepare for enormous new pressure on the Iraqi government to house and feed hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents when the fighting starts.

“The humanitarian impact of a military offensive there is expected to be enormous,” Mr. Edwards said in remarks posted on the refugee agency’s website.

The Iraqi government has been warning for months that the battle to retake Mosul is coming. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq said at a news conference in Baghdad that “Mosul will be liberated in 2016.” [Continue reading…]

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The Mideast conflict Obama still could solve

Politico reports: Just days ago, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations famed for her searing work on genocide, tweeted an image of a bridge in Yemen that had been destroyed, likely in a Saudi airstrike.

“Strikes on hospital/school/infrastructure in #Yemen devastating for ppl already facing unbearable suffering&must end,” Power wrote. The bridge was a crucial piece of infrastructure for Yemenis desperate for humanitarian aid amid a war that has killed more than 6,600 people and uprooted millions.

But Power’s tweet was awkward, given that the United States has backed Saudi Arabia’s military offensive in Yemen for nearly 18 months, supplying Riyadh with intelligence and logistical support to fight Houthi rebels linked to Iran.

The backlash was swift. “Thank you. Now how about cutting off US military aid to the Saudi campaign?” replied one activist focused on refugee issues. [Continue reading…]

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UN relief official calls crisis in Aleppo the ‘apex of horror’

The New York Times reports: The top aid official at the United Nations gave a gloomy assessment of the Syria relief effort on Monday, saying no convoy deliveries had been made to besieged areas this month and that the suffering in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial epicenter, was the “apex of horror.”

In a briefing to the Security Council, the official, Stephen O’Brien, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said that while he welcomed Russia’s support last week for a 48-hour cease-fire in Aleppo — as he had proposed earlier in the month — there had been no assurances from other combatants.

“This cannot be a one-sided offer,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Plans are in place, but we need the agreement of all parties to let us do our job.”

United Nations officials have said that the fighting in Aleppo — pitting Syrian government forces and their Russian backers against an array of insurgents, including Islamist militants — has left 275,000 people in rebel-held eastern Aleppo completely cut off from food, water and medicine, and has severely limited aid deliveries to 1.5 million people in government-held western Aleppo. [Continue reading…]

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An epic Middle East heat wave could be global warming’s hellish curtain-raiser

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The Washington Post reports: Record-shattering temperatures this summer have scorched countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond, as climate experts warn that the severe weather could be a harbinger of worse to come.

In coming decades, U.N. officials and climate scientists predict that the region’s mushrooming populations will face extreme water scarcity, temperatures almost too hot for human survival and other consequences of global warming.

If that happens, conflicts and refugee crises far greater than those now underway are probable, said Adel Abdellatif, a senior adviser at the U.N. Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Arab States who has worked on studies about the effect of climate change on the region.

“This incredible weather shows that climate change is already taking a toll now and that it is — by far — one of the biggest challenges ever faced by this region,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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