U.S. calls for end to airstrikes in Yemen while it continues to provide Saudis with military support

The Guardian reports: The US has called for an end to airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen at a UN security council meeting, but critics pointed out that Washington continues to supply arms and provide other military support to Saudi Arabia.

The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, condemned missile attacks by Yemeni Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia and said the kingdom had a right to defend itself.

But she added: “It is also incumbent on the Saudi-led coalition and the forces of the Yemeni government to refrain from taking steps that escalate this violence and to commit to the cessation of hostilities.

“After 19 months of fighting, it should be clear that there is absolutely no military solution to this conflict. Airstrikes that hit schools, hospitals and other civilian objects have to stop. In many cases these strikes have damaged key infrastructure that is essential to delivering humanitarian aid in Yemen.”

Despite severe criticism of Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK continue to supply it with munitions and provide airborne refuelling for its warplanes. Over eight years, the Obama administration has offered a total of $115bn (£94bn) in arms sales to the kingdom.

Louis Charbonneau, the UN director of Human Rights Watch, said: “The US ambassador’s call for an end to indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen would be more compelling if the US didn’t provide Saudi Arabia with some of the weapons that end up being used in these strikes.” [Continue reading…]

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UN hires Assad’s friends and relatives for Syria relief operation

The Guardian reports: The UN has hired scores of friends and political associates of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, as part of its relief operation in the country, according to documents leaked to the Guardian.

The staff lists show that relatives of high-ranking ministers have been on the Damascus payroll of UN agencies, including the refugee agency UNHCR and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

One former UN manager told the Guardian that every UN agency had at least “one person who is a direct relative of a Syrian official”.

The UN asked the Guardian not to identify any individuals on the staff lists to protect their safety.

A spokesman said “family connections are not taken into consideration nor investigated” when hiring staff, and the UN did not question prospective workers about their political affiliations. [Continue reading…]

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UN chief calls security council’s failure on Aleppo ‘our generation’s shame’

The Guardian reports: In a blistering indictment, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien called the failure of the UN security council, and Russia in particular, to stop the bombing of eastern Aleppo as “our generation’s shame”.

The Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, reacted by denouncing O’Brien’s vivid account of the humanitarian toll in the besieged city as “unfair and dishonest”. In one of the most pointed attacks against a top UN official by a permanent council member in recent times, he told O’Brien to leave his comments “for the novel you’re going to write some day”.

Envoys from the US, UK and France came to the UN’s defence and heaped blame for the mass killing of civilians in Aleppo on Russia and its ally, the Syrian regime, as the Syrian conflict drove ever deeper divisions in the paralysed security council, and alienated Russia, currently president of the council, further from the UN relief and human rights agencies.

O’Brien, the under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, invited the envoys at the security council to imagine themselves among the 275,000 people trapped in eastern Aleppo and under bombardment by Syrian regime and Russian planes.

“Let me take you to east Aleppo this afternoon,” O’Brien said. “In a deep basement, huddled with your children and elderly parents the stench of urine and the vomit caused by unrelieved fear never leaving your nostrils, waiting for the bunker-busting bomb you know may kill you in this, the only sanctuary left to you but like the one that took your neighbour and their house out last night; or scrabbling with your bare hands in the street above to reach under concrete rubble, lethal steel reinforcing bars jutting at you as you hysterically try to reach your young child screaming unseen in the dust and dirt below your feet, you choking to catch your breath in the toxic dust and the smell of gas ever-ready to ignite and explode over you.”

“These are people just like you and me – not sitting around a table in New York but forced into desperate, pitiless suffering, their future wiped out,” O’Brien said, describing himself as “incandescent with rage” over the security council’s passivity, said. “Peoples’ lives [have been] destroyed and Syria itself destroyed. And it is under our collective watch. And it need not be like this – this is not inevitable; it is not an accident … Never has the phrase by poet Robert Burns, of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ been as apt. It can be stopped but you the security council have to choose to make it stop.” [Continue reading…]

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Inquiry finds Syrian government forces responsible for third gas attack

Reuters reports: An international inquiry found Syrian government forces responsible for a third toxic gas attack, according to a confidential report submitted to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, setting the stage for a showdown between Russia and western council members over how to respond.

The fourth report from the 13-month-long inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical weapons watchdog, blamed Syrian government forces for a toxic gas attack in Qmenas in Idlib governorate on March 16, 2015, according to a text of the report seen by Reuters.

The third report by the inquiry in August blamed the Syrian government for two chlorine attacks – in Talmenes on April 21, 2014 and Sarmin on March 16, 2015 – and said Islamic State militants had used sulfur mustard gas.

The results set the stage for a Security Council showdown between the five veto-wielding powers, likely pitting Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France over how those responsible should be held accountable. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: Aleppo attack ‘pause’ ridiculed by rebels

Al Jazeera reports: The Syrian military said on Thursday a unilateral ceasefire backed by Russia had come into force to allow people to leave besieged eastern Aleppo, a move rejected by rebels who say they are preparing a counter-offensive to break the blockade.

Rebels say the goal of Moscow and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to empty opposition-held areas of civilians so they can take over the whole city.

“They talk about humanitarian corridors, but why are they not allowing food into besieged eastern Aleppo to alleviate our suffering? We only need the Russian bombers to stop killing our children. We don’t want to leave,” said Ammar al-Qaran, a resident in Sakhour district.

Syrian state-owned Ikhbariyah television said rebels had fired a mortar barrage near to where ambulances had been heading to take patients from the besieged parts of the city for treatment in government-held areas.

Also on Thursday, a UN aid official for Syria said Russia agreed to extend daily pauses in military action against rebel-held eastern Aleppo for four more days. [Continue reading…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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