Russia vetoes United Nations probe of the Syria gas attack

Bloomberg reports: Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that Bashar al-Assad’s government cooperate with an investigation into the deadly toxic gas attack in northern Syria that the U.S. and allies blame on the regime.

Ten nations on the 15-member Security Council voted Wednesday in favor of the resolution condemning the attack. Bolivia joined Russia in voting against the resolution. China, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia abstained.

France, the U.K. and the U.S. introduced the resolution in response to the suspected sarin attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, which killed more than 80 people, including women and children. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in response, and administration officials have said evidence clearly shows that Assad’s forces were behind the attack. But Russia contends the chemicals belonged to terrorists.

A man collects samples from the site of a suspected toxic gas attack in Syria.Photographer: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images
The UN vote came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov on Syria and other issues dividing their countries. Russia wants an international investigation of the chemical attack, Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, but the resolution offered by the U.S. and its allies was aimed “more at legitimizing the arguments against Damascus.”

The abstention by China, which usually sides with Russia in the Security Council, was praised by Trump at a White House news conference. “I think it is wonderful they abstained,” he said.

Russia objected to a paragraph that would have required Syria to provide investigators with flight plans and information about air operations on the day the attack was launched, as well as the names of helicopter squadron commander and immediate access to airbases where it may have been launched.

While Russia says sarin was released when Syrian government forces accidentally struck a building where terrorists were hiding a cache of deadly chemicals, the U.S. says it has images proving the bomb left a crater in a road rather than hitting a building.

It was the eighth time Russia had used its veto power to block a resolution against Assad’s regime since 2011. Most recently, Russia blocked a council resolution in February condemning Syria for chemical attacks using chlorine gas. [Continue reading…]


Why food insecurity ‘over there’ matters right here

Ivo Daalder writes: Earlier this year, one of the world’s leading authorities on famine declared that 70 million people across 45 countries would need food assistance this year. Already 20 million in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen face famine, an unprecedented situation that prompted the United Nations in March to declare the worst humanitarian crisis the world has faced since World War II.

This global calamity needs our immediate and full attention. Yet saving millions from starvation is not only a moral obligation, it is also a national security necessity. We know from past food-related crises that lack of adequate food tends to create cycles of instability. A decade ago, protests over food prices toppled governments in Haiti and Madagascar. Popular grievances over food policy and prices also were a major driver of the Arab Spring and helped catalyze the instability and migration we see today across the Middle East and North Africa.

As the United States debates the appropriate balance of military, diplomatic, and economic levers at its disposal, the link between global food security and global stability has never been more clear, nor more urgent the need for U.S. leadership to confront and mitigate the risk of food insecurity. [Continue reading…]


Nikki Haley says U.S. may ‘take our own action’ on Syrian chemical attack if UN fails to act

“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, addressing the Security Council where she currently holds the seat of president.


Haley’s full remarks:

It was interesting to hear of the talk from my Russian colleague about the independent investigations and the importance of them, because this entire Security Council decided on what the Joint Investigative Mechanism would be and decided what it would do, and it was actually voted on unanimously. And the joint mechanism came back and said that the Syrian government committed chemical weapons acts against their own people three different times. But somehow now we don’t like what the Joint Investigative Mechanism does.

Having said that, I will say in the life of the United Nations, there are times when we are compelled to do more than just talk. There are times we are compelled to take collective action. This Security Council thinks of itself as a defender of peace, security, and human rights. We will not deserve that description if we do not rise to action today.

Yesterday morning, we awoke to pictures, to children foaming at the mouth, suffering convulsions, being carried in the arms of desperate parents. We saw rows of lifeless bodies. Some still in diapers. Some with the visible scars of a chemical weapons attack.

Look at those pictures. We cannot close our eyes to those pictures. We cannot close our minds of the responsibility to act. We don’t yet know everything about yesterday’s attack. But there are many things we do know.

We know that yesterday’s attack bears all the hallmarks of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. We know that Assad has used these weapons against the Syrian people before. That was confirmed by this Council’s own independent team of investigators. We know that yesterday’s attack was a new low, even for the barbaric Assad regime.

Evidence reported from the scene indicates that Assad is now using even more lethal chemical agents than he did before. The gas that fell out of the sky yesterday was more deadly, leaving men, women, the elderly, and children, gasping for their very last breath.

And as first responders, doctors, and nurses rushed to help the victims, a second round of bombs rained down. They died in the same slow, horrendous manner as the civilians they were trying to save.

We all also know this: Just a few weeks ago, this Council attempted to hold Assad accountable for suffocating his own people to death with toxic chemicals. Russia stood in the way of this accountability. They made an unconscionable choice. They chose to close their eyes to the barbarity. They defied the conscience of the world. Russia cannot escape responsibility for this. In fact, if Russia had been fulfilling its responsibility, there would not even be any chemical weapons left for the Syrian regime to use.

There is one more thing we know: We know that if nothing is done, these attacks will continue.

Assad has no incentive to stop using chemical weapons as long as Russia continues to protect his regime from consequences. I implore my colleagues to take a hard look at their words in this Council. We regularly repeat tired talking points in support of a peace process that is regularly undermined by the Assad regime.

Time and time again, Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus. Time and time again, without any factual basis, Russia attempts to place blame on others.

There is an obvious truth here that must be spoken. The truth is that Assad, Russia, and Iran have no interest in peace.

The illegitimate Syrian government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people for more than six years. Assad has made it clear that he doesn’t want to take part in a meaningful political process. Iran has reinforced Assad’s military, and Russia has shielded Assad from UN sanctions.

If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it. We need to see them put an end to these horrific acts. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?

The United States sees yesterday’s attack as a disgrace at the highest level, an assurance that humanity means nothing to the Syrian government.

The question members of this Council must ask themselves is this: If we are not able to enforce resolutions preventing the use of chemical weapons, what does that say for our chances of ending the broader conflict in Syria? What does that say of our ability to bring relief to the Syrian people? If we are not able to enforce resolutions preventing the use of chemical weapons, what does that say about our effectiveness in this institution?

If we are not prepared to act, then this Council will keep meeting, month after month, to express outrage at the continuing use of chemical weapons, and it will not end. We will see more conflict in Syria. We will see more pictures that we can never un-see.

I began my remarks by saying that in the life of the United Nations, there are times when we are compelled to take collective action. I will now add this: When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.

For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the Council is finally willing to do the same. The world needs to see the use of chemical weapons and the fact that they will not be tolerated.

Thank you.


World Health Organization: Syria chemical attack likely involved nerve agent

The Washington Post reports: A chemical attack that killed scores of civilians in Syria likely involved a banned nerve agent, top medical groups concluded Wednesday, as the United States and European allies at the U.N. Security Council demanded a full investigation.

But denunciations at the United Nations faced strong obstacles from Russia, a critical ally of Syria’s government.

Before the Security Council’s emergency session, Russia broke with global consensus that blamed Tuesday’s attack on the Syrian regime and instead claimed it was carried out by Syrian rebel groups. A rebel commander called Russia’s assertion “a lie.”

The Russian stance underscored the difficulties of seeking greater international pressure on the government of Bashar al-Assad as it escalates an air campaign against the remaining anti-government strongholds in northern Syria. [Continue reading…]


U.S., France, Britain propose UN resolution on Syria gas attack

Reuters reports: The United States, Britain and France on Tuesday proposed a United Nations Security Council resolution to condemn a suspected deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria, which diplomats said would likely be put to a vote on Wednesday.

The three countries blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for the attack, which killed dozens of people. The Syrian military denied responsibility and said it would never use chemical weapons.

U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura said the “horrific” chemical attack had come from the air.

The draft text, seen by Reuters, says Syria’s government must provide an international investigation with flight plans and logs for Tuesday, the names of all helicopter squadron commanders and provide access to air bases where investigators believe attacks using chemicals may have been launched.

It asks U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to report monthly on whether the Syrian government is cooperating with an international investigation and a fact-finding mission into chemical weapons use in Syria.

The draft resolution “expresses its outrage that individuals continue to be killed and injured by chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, and expresses its determination that those responsible must be held accountable.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian notes: Tuesday’s strike came days after the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said the Trump administration was no longer prioritising the removal of Assad, and that the Syrian people would ultimately decide his fate.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, made similar comments on Monday, affirming a shift in US policy that began under the Obama administration.

Critics of the stance have said that the absence of a credible threat has given the regime licence to commit war crimes with impunity as its backers, Iran and Russia, steadily claw back years of battlefield losses. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s chemical weapons horror

Ahmad Tarakji writes: Doctors in my group on the ground in Syria [Syrian American Medical Society] have been reviewing the symptoms of the affected patients and medical personnel from the recent attacks. We are worried that a new phosphorus chemical agent is being used in chemical weapons, in addition to the identifiable chlorine. Some of the patients have exhibited symptoms similar to the effects of a nerve gas: pinpoint pupils, foaming at the mouth and the loss of consciousness, slow heart rate, slow breathing, vomiting and muscles spasms.

In these unimaginable situations, doctors often face a terrible decision: Should I run for my life or stay with my patients? As doctors, we have one duty: saving lives, even under the worst and most dangerous conditions.

Dr. Darwish [a victim of a chlorine attack in Hama on March 25] and many medical personnel and emergency workers have been killed in line of duty. They are heroes, and their stories are a testament to the courage and dedication of Syrian health workers. How many more stories must we hear before decisive, meaningful action is taken to end these crimes?

The world has done little to protect civilians and health workers crying out for action and attention. We, as civilized communities, must rethink how to match our values, principles and stated goals with our actions.

Over the past six years, humanitarian organizations have relentlessly pursued comprehensive documentation of war crimes. They have trained our staff to collect and catalog samples of fabric, water, skin and dirt. They have taken countless photographs and collected testimonies of many victims. Despite countless resolutions, international meetings and documentation, attacks on the people of Syria continue with impunity.

Humanitarian groups may offer to send antidotes and personal protective equipment to health workers in Syria. These are needed items — but they are not enough. The constant violation of humanitarian law in Syria, the undermining of the United Nations as a diplomatic platform, and the starving and gassing of people in order to negotiate a political outcome are not acceptable. It is time that the international community stands up and says enough. We want protection. We want accountability. We want action. [Continue reading…]


Americans’ right to protest is in grave danger under Trump, United Nations warns

Amanda Erickson writes: The right to protest is fundamental to American democracy. The country was born, after all, out of decades of civil disobedience by people angry about taxation without representation. (In Washington, FWIW, we are still angry.)

But according to United Nations human rights investigators, this very basic principle is under attack. Over the past few months, on the heels of a fresh wave of organizing by liberals, at least 19 states have introduced measures that would criminalize peaceful protest. In places such as Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa, Republican lawmakers have proposed laws that would stiffen penalties for demonstrators who block traffic. In North Dakota, GOP leaders are pushing a bill that would allow motorists to run over and kill agitators, as long as the crash was accidental. In Indiana, conservatives want to instruct police to use “any means necessary” to remove activists from a roadway. Opponents worry this could lead to more brutal police response.

Colorado lawmakers are considering a big increase in penalties for environmental protesters. Activists who tamper with oil or gas equipment could be, under the measure, face felony charges and be punished with up to 18 months behind bars and a fine of up to $100,000. A bill pending in the Virginia state legislature would dramatically increase punishment for people who “unlawfully” assemble after “having been lawfully warned to disperse.” Those who do so could face a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

In Missouri, some lawmakers want to make it illegal to wear a robe, mask or disguise (remarkably, a hoodie would count) to a protest. Lawmakers in North Carolina want to make it a crime to heckle lawmakers.

Taken together, the United Nations warns, these bills represent an “alarming and undemocratic” trend that could have a chilling effect on activism. [Continue reading…]


Drought and war heighten threat of not just one famine, but four

The New York Times reports: First the trees dried up and cracked apart.

Then the goats keeled over.

Then the water in the village well began to disappear, turning cloudy, then red, then slime-green, but the villagers kept drinking it. That was all they had.

Now on a hot, flat, stony plateau outside Baidoa, thousands of people pack into destitute camps, many clutching their stomachs, some defecating in the open, others already dead from a cholera epidemic.

“Even if you can get food, there is no water,” said one mother, Sangabo Moalin, who held her head with a left hand as thin as a leaf and spoke of her body “burning.”

Another famine is about to tighten its grip on Somalia. And it’s not the only crisis that aid agencies are scrambling to address. For the first time since anyone can remember, there is a very real possibility of four famines — in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen — breaking out at once, endangering more than 20 million lives.

International aid officials say they are facing one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II. And they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

One powerful lesson from the last famine in Somalia, just six years ago, was that famines were not simply about food. They are about something even more elemental: water.

Once again, a lack of clean water and proper hygiene is setting off an outbreak of killer diseases in displaced persons camps. So the race is on to dig more latrines, get swimming-pool quantities of clean water into the camps, and pass out more soap, more water-treatment tablets and more plastic buckets — decidedly low-tech supplies that could save many lives.

“We underestimated the role of water and its contribution to mortality in the last famine,” said Ann Thomas, a water, sanitation and hygiene specialist for Unicef. “It gets overshadowed by the food.”

The famines are coming as a drought sweeps across Africa and several different wars seal off extremely needy areas. United Nations officials say they need a huge infusion of cash to respond. So far, they are not just millions of dollars short, but billions.

At the same time, President Trump is urging Congress to cut foreign aid and assistance to the United Nations, which aid officials fear could multiply the deaths. The United States traditionally provides more disaster relief than anyone else.

“The international humanitarian system is at its breaking point,” said Dominic MacSorley, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, a large private aid group.

Aid officials say all the needed food and water exist on this planet in abundance — even within these hard-hit countries. But armed conflict that is often created by personal rivalries between a few men turns life upside down for millions, destroying markets and making the price of necessities go berserk. [Continue reading…]


UN seeks inquiry into deadly assault on migrant boat near Yemen

The New York Times reports: The United Nations on Monday called for an inquiry into an aerial assault on a boat of migrants last week off Yemen’s Red Sea coast that left at least 42 people dead.

The attack on the boat, believed to be carrying 145 people leaving Yemen, was among the most horrific episodes of deadly violence on asylum seekers there since Saudi Arabia and its allies entered the country’s civil war and began an air campaign against the Houthi rebels two years ago.

The boat assault also illustrated the vibrant trade in people-smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a congregation point for tens of thousands of Africans fleeing their own countries.

Most of the passengers aboard the vessel were believed to be Somalis who had been staying in Yemen and were trying to reach Sudan.

United Nations officials have registered nearly 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen, mostly from Somalia. [Continue reading…]


Why Trump’s plan to slash UN funding could lead to global calamity

Amy B Wang writes: For 16 days, Stephen O’Brien, the United Nation’s undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, traveled from one afflicted country to another, talking to people who were traumatized. Starving. Desperate for peace.

Many had been displaced, the victims of airstrikes and constant fighting, of drought and imminent famine.

By the time O’Brien returned to the United Nations, the humanitarian chief had committed several statistics to heart, each one illustrating a deep gash the agency needed to address in its efforts around the world.

In Yemen, he said, more than 7 million people are hungry and do not know when they will eat again. That represented a staggering increase of more than 3 million people since January.

In South Sudan, more than 7.5 million needed assistance, including 1 million malnourished children.

In Somalia, 6.2 million were in need of aid.

And in northern Kenya, the number of people who were “food insecure” was likely to reach 4 million by April.

In all, more than 20 million people in those four countries faced starvation and famine, O’Brien said in a lengthy address to the U.N. Security Council on Friday.

O’Brien’s grim report came as President Trump proposed slashing U.S. spending on the United Nations by more than half, as reported by Foreign Policy.

“We’re absolutely reducing funding to the U.N. and to various foreign aid programs,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said during a news conference Thursday, according to Fox News. When asked by how much, he replied simply: “A lot.”

The United Nations warned against the proposed cuts Thursday. “Abrupt funding cuts can force the adoption of ad hoc measures that will undermine the impact of longer-term reform efforts,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres’s spokesman said in a statement.

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said the cuts could result in instability worldwide. [Continue reading…]


Study describes the ‘weaponisation’ of healthcare in Syria

The Guardian reports: The “weaponisation” of healthcare in Syria, involving the targeted destruction of medical facilities and the killing of hundreds of healthcare workers, is unprecedented and has profound and dangerous implications for medical neutrality in conflict zones, according to an authoritative study.

“Syria has become the most dangerous place on earth for healthcare providers,” say the researchers involved. Their study of the attacks on healthcare in Syria since 2011, published by the Lancet medical journal, reveals that the death toll among medical workers is at least 814. Some of those health workers were tortured and executed.

There were nearly 200 attacks on healthcare facilities in 2016 alone, say the researchers in their first report for the Lancet Commission on Syria, led by the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut.

The authors define what they call the weaponisation of healthcare in Syria as a situation “in which healthcare facilities are attacked, workers are targeted, medical neutrality is obliterated and international humanitarian laws are violated to restrict or prevent access to care as a weapon of war”.

They criticise UN agencies and the international community for failing to hold the aggressors, who are breaking international conventions, to account. [Continue reading…]


Syrian military, not rebels, severed Damascus water supply, UN finds

The New York Times reports: Syrian military airstrikes on rebels were responsible for severing water supplies to 5.5 million people in the Damascus region for weeks starting last December, the United Nations said on Tuesday, rebutting government claims that insurgents were to blame.

In a bombing campaign to drive rebel forces from the Barada Valley north of Damascus, Syrian air force jets launched multiple strikes on their positions around the al-Feijeh spring, which supplied water to the capital, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry monitoring the conflict in Syria said in a report.

The airstrikes amounted to a war crime, the commission said, because the effect of the attack — denying water to so many people — was “grossly disproportionate” to the military advantage that the government could have anticipated or achieved.

When water supplies to the capital were halted in late December, the government blamed rebels, first saying that they had poisoned the water and later that they had damaged the infrastructure. Water service was not restored until February.

The United Nations investigators said video of the bombings, witness testimony and satellite imagery showed the water supply system had been damaged in at least two airstrikes using high-explosive bombs. [Continue reading…]


UN accuses Turkey of killing hundreds of Kurds

The New York Times reports: Turkey’s military and police forces have killed hundreds of people during operations against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey, the United Nations said on Friday in a report that listed summary killings, torture, rape and widespread destruction of property among an array of human rights abuses.

The report, by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, details how operations by the Turkish infantry, artillery, tanks and possibly aircraft drove up to half a million people from their homes over a 17-month period from July 2015 to the end of 2016.

Though the report is focused on the conduct of security forces in southeastern Turkey, the 25-page document underscores the deepening alarm of the United Nations over the measures ordered by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since a failed coup attempt last July.

The state of emergency Mr. Erdogan imposed after the coup attempt appeared to “target criticism, not terrorism,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said here on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]


UN details Assad and Putin’s war crimes in Aleppo

Michael Weiss reports: In a report released today on the recapture of East Aleppo by pro-Syrian government forces, the United Nations Human Rights Council concludes that the much-touted “evacuation” of civilians from the rebel-enclave last year was actually a “war crime of forced displacement” because it was carried out for strategic reasons rather than any regard for protecting non-combatants or for military necessity. The population transfer had in fact been overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The 37-page report, based on the work of a Commission of Inquiry, lays blame on both sides of the conflict for failing to take sufficient safeguards against against the loss of life or the destruction of vital infrastructure, although it finds that the Syrian and Russian air forces wrought a particularly devastating toll.

Warplanes targeted hospitals, bakeries and schools in a non-stop bombing campaign that lasted for months, beginning in September 2016. ”Approximately 300 people — including 96 children — were killed in the first four days of the offensive alone,” the report states. [Continue reading…]


Syrian peace talks flounder as participants ask: Where is America?

The Washington Post reports: The vacuum in U.S. policy on Syria is being keenly felt at the latest round of peace talks aimed at negotiating a political solution to the Syrian war — talks that seem destined to wind down this week without meaningful progress.

Five days into a round of discussions intended to take place between delegations representing the Syrian government and the opposition, government and opposition negotiators still have not met. Instead, the talks, due to end Friday, have become snarled in debates about procedures and process without yet addressing the major issues surrounding the remote possibility of finding a political solution to the nearly six-year-old war.

These talks, known as Geneva IV because they represent the fourth round of discussions aimed at securing a political settlement on the basis of a communique drafted in Geneva by the United States and Russia in 2012, are taking place against the backdrop of a new regional balance of power in which Russia has the leading role in Syria.

For the first time, the United States is not taking the initiative in pushing for a negotiated settlement. The rout of rebels from their stronghold in eastern Aleppo in December was a defeat for U.S. policy as well as for the Syrian opposition, and it effectively left a vacuum of U.S. decision-making on Syria that has yet to be filled by the new Trump administration. [Continue reading…]


Why Americans don’t win wars anymore

Mark Perry writes: President Trump bemoans the fact that when it comes to wars, America’s best days are behind her. “We never win, and we don’t fight to win,” he said on the same day that he declared his new budget would include a 10-percent increase for military spending. But there is an example of American victory — and in the Middle East , no less — that the new commander-in-chief would do well to study because it provides a lesson wholly at odds with Trump’s muscle and menace style.

The lesson comes from an actual war hero who was — somewhat amazingly — branded a wimp when he landed in the Oval Office.

On September 2, 1944, Lt. j.g. George H.W. Bush’s TBM Avenger was shot down on a bombing run over Chichi Jima, a Japanese held island. As his aircraft spun seaward, Bush ordered his gunner and bombardier out of the plane, then climbed onto the wing and parachuted into the sea. Afloat on a life raft, Bush admits he feared the Japanese would find him and deliver him to Chichi Jima’s commander who, after the war, was executed for murdering captured American pilots and eating their livers. Bush later joked that he would have made a modest meal, as he was “a skinny wretch.”

It takes a lot of sand to fly into the teeth of enemy fire, but Bush’s reputation for courage didn’t stick. Forty years later, in October of 1987, he was labeled a “wimp” by Newsweek, which questioned whether he was “tough enough” to succeed Ronald Reagan as president. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had doubts. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 1, 1990 and Bush seemed to waver, Thatcher bucked him up: “Don’t go all wobbly on me, George,” she said. In fact, Bush wasn’t about to.

In the weeks following Saddam’s aggression, Bush recruited an international coalition of countries to oppose him, gained the approval of the U.N. to condemn his invasion, deployed hundreds of thousands of U.S. and coalition of troops to defend Saudi Arabia, then fought a 100- hour ground war (preceded by a 900-hour air war), dubbed Operation Desert Storm, that expelled Saddam’s army from Kuwait. “We set the goal, formed the coalition, did the diplomacy, gave peace a chance, had the fight, defined the mission of the battle, fought and won,” as Bush succinctly put it. The “mother of all battles” (as Saddam bragged) was “the mother of all victories” — the last clear and decisive military triumph in American history. [Continue reading…]