Iraq: Possible war crimes by Shia militia

Human Rights Watch: Members of Shia militias, who the Iraqi government has included among its state forces, abducted and killed scores of Sunni residents in a central Iraq town and demolished Sunni homes, stores, and mosques following January 11, 2016 bombings claimed by the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS. None of those responsible have been brought to justice.

Two consecutive bombings at a café in the town of Muqdadiya, in Diyala province, some 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, on January 11, killed at least 26 people, many of them Sunnis, according to a teacher who lives near the café. ISIS claimed the attacks, saying it had targeted local Shia militias, collectively known as Popular Mobilization Forces, which are formally under the command of the prime minister. Members of two of the dominant militias in Muqdadiya, the Badr Brigades and the League of Righteous forces, responded by attacking Sunnis as well as their homes and mosques, killing at least a dozen people and perhaps many more, according to local residents.

“Again civilians are paying the price for Iraq’s failure to rein in the out-of-control militias,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries that support Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces should insist that Baghdad bring an end to this deadly abuse.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi bombing campaign — supported by Britain — leaves Yemen’s healthcare system in tatters

yemen-bombing

The Independent reports: When the men and women who worked at Shiara hospital heard the explosion, there was little surprise. Just half an hour’s drive from the border with Saudi Arabia, in Yemen’s mountainous northern region, they were used to the sound of shelling.

What they did not expect 10 months into the Saudi-led campaign of airstrikes was that it would be their own hospital that had been hit. The bombing on 10 January left six people dead, including three staff members. Many more were injured.

“The wounded were hit by shrapnel from the missile, and also by shards of metal from the fence [around the hospital]. The injuries were brutal,” said Teresa Sancristoval, the head of the emergency desk at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which operates in the hospital.

The attack was among 130 on health facilities hit in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in March last year. It was the fourth on a facility supported by MSF – which says it gives detailed co-ordinates for its hospitals to both sides of the conflict. [Continue reading…]

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More Syrian children die as Assad’s sieges intensify

The Telegraph reports: Fresh evidence has emerged of how starving Syrians are being forced to eat grass to survive as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime defies the UN to tighten sieges across Syria.

International aid agencies say that the regime is using humanitarian aid – which is supposed to be delivered freely under both international law and United Nations resolutions – as a bargaining chip.

Aid workers claim the crisis has now spread well beyond the town of Madaya, north west of Damascus, where photographs of emaciated children caused an international outcry earlier this month.

Omar Hakim, a doctor in Syrian capital, reported similar scenes of horror in the south-west suburb of Moadhamiya last week.
“Twelve people died last week, six of them children,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.

“There are 1,500 patients here suffering chronic diseases which require treatment or medicine which is not available. Six hundred children need breast-feeding but their mothers can’t feed them because they’re malnourished too.

“People are eating grass, and rice if it’s available. The aid which has been sent is not enough to keep people alive.”

Sieges have been used as a weapon since the start of the war, but the situation has worsened in recent weeks. [Continue reading…]

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In Syrian town cut off from the world, glimpses of deprivation

The New York Times reports: Nisrine kept teaching school for months as the siege tightened around the Syrian town of Madaya, but had to give up a few weeks ago when her students got too weak to walk to class. A local medic has been surviving on the rehydration salts he gives patients, while a business school graduate picks grass to make soup for his 70-year-old father, consulting shepherds about which ones their long-since-slaughtered flocks liked best.

A dozen women waited anxiously in their doorways one recent evening as an antigovernment activist named Firas trudged slowly up their street handing out small batches of smuggled bulgur wheat.

Firas, though, was in shock. He had taken a meal to the house of Suleiman Fares, 63 and bone-thin, in hopes of saving his life, only to find him already dead. Frustrated, Firas declared that far to the north, rebels allied with those in Madaya ought to resume shelling two pro-government towns — towns full of civilians who are also suffering, tit for tat, a siege from the other side.

“Better to die fighting,” he said that night in one of a series of recent telephone interviews, “than to starve.”

The people of Madaya and neighboring Zabadani have tried, since the siege by pro-government forces began in July, to keep society functioning and adjust to their surreal new set of dynamics. There is the black market across blockade lines, for instance, and the quiet or unexpected ways this type of warfare can kill: heart attacks, stillbirths, a step on a land mine while foraging for food.

And there is the relentless physical and psychological contraction of their communities, only an hour’s drive from Damascus, Syria, and two from Beirut yet suddenly sealed off from the outside world. [Continue reading…]

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UN war crimes investigators gathering testimony from starving Syrian town

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Reuters reports: Residents of a besieged Syrian town have told U.N. investigators how the weakest in their midst, deprived of food and medicines in violation of international law, are suffering starvation and death, the top U.N. war crimes investigator told Reuters on Tuesday.

An aid convoy on Monday brought the first food and medical relief for three months to the western town of Madaya, where 40,000 people are trapped by encircling government forces.

Another United Nations official who oversaw the aid delivery described on Tuesday how he saw malnourished residents, particularly children, some of whom were little more than skeletons and barely moving.

The U.N. commission of inquiry documenting war crimes in Syria has been in direct contact with residents inside Madaya, the commission’s chairman Paulo Pinheiro said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions.

“They have provided detailed information on shortages of food, water, qualified physicians, and medicine. This has led to acute malnutrition and deaths among vulnerable groups in the town.” he said in the email sent from his native Brazil.

The U.N. inquiry, composed of independent experts, has long denounced use of starvation by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a weapon of war, and has a confidential list of suspected war criminals and units from all sides which is kept in a U.N. safe in Geneva. [Continue reading…]

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Russia/Syria: Extensive recent use of cluster munitions

Human Rights Watch reports: The military offensive that the Russian and Syrian government forces opened against armed groups opposed to the government on September 30, 2015, has included extensive use of cluster munitions – inherently indiscriminate and internationally banned weapons.

The use violates United Nations resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, which demanded that all parties involved in Syria end “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch said. It also contradicts a statement issued by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates on November 9, 2015, in which it insisted that the Syrian Arab Armed Forces do not and will not use indiscriminate weapons.

“Syria’s promises on indiscriminate weapons ring hollow when cluster munitions keep hitting civilians in many parts of the country,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director. “The UN Security Council should get serious about its commitment to protect Syria’s civilians by publicly demanding that all sides stop the use of cluster munitions.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia bombs schools in Yemen

Amnesty: Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have carried out a series of air strikes targeting schools that were still in use, in violation of international humanitarian law, and hampering access to education for thousands of Yemen’s children, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today. The coalition forces are armed by states including the USA and UK.

The briefing ‘Our kids are bombed’: Schools under attack in Yemen, investigates five air strikes on schools which took place between August and October 2015 killing five civilians and injuring at least 14, including four children, based on field research in Yemen. While students were not present inside the schools during the attacks, the strikes caused serious damage or destruction which will have long-term consequences for students.

“The Saudi Arabia-led coalition launched a series of unlawful air strikes on schools being used for educational – not for military – purposes, a flagrant violation of the laws of war,” said Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International who recently returned from Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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Government attacks on Syria’s health care system

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Michele Heisler, M.D., M.P.A., Elise Baker, B.A., and Donna McKay, M.S., write: In July 2015, a 26-year-old pediatrician described to our team of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) investigators his experiences in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city. When he was a medical student in 2012, government forces detained and severely beat him. He now works as an emergency medicine physician and surgery resident in a hospital that has twice been bombed by the Syrian government. He lives in fear of being killed by bombs on his way to work or while there. His family wants him to leave Syria as they did, but he explained, “It’s our country, and if we leave, it will fall apart. At times, I think maybe I will leave and specialize and come back with better skills, but then I see how much the people need me. Maybe that’s the biggest thing that’s keeping me inside.”

Media coverage of Syria has focused on the exodus of refugees fleeing the sectarian warfare and the atrocities committed by the Islamic State. Less attention is paid to the Syrian government’s destruction of hundreds of hospitals and clinics in opposition-controlled areas and deaths of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel. Since the conflict began in 2011, PHR has documented the killings of 679 medical personnel, 95% of them perpetrated by government forces. Some personnel were killed in bombings of their hospitals or clinics; some were shot dead; at least 157 were executed or tortured to death.

In July, a PHR team investigated the state of the health care system in eastern Aleppo.3 Though Aleppo does not reflect the worst of the destruction in Syria today, conditions there illustrate the consequences of these repeated attacks: the city’s medical facilities have been attacked nearly 50 times since opposition groups gained control of eastern Aleppo in 2012. The government has rained rockets, missiles, and since 2013, “barrel bombs” (100-to- 1000-kg barrels filled with explosives, shrapnel, nails, and oil that are dropped from helicopters and break into thousands of fragments on impact) on homes and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals. The number of barrel-bomb attacks reached an all-time high between April and July 2015. These bombs, which obliterate everything they hit and inflict head-to-toe injuries on anyone in their large blast radius, have had a devastating impact on life in eastern Aleppo. Only a quarter of the city’s 1.2 million residents remain, more than two thirds of the hospitals have stopped functioning, and roughly 95% of doctors have been killed or have fled. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli expert: Trump’s call to kill terrorists’ families immoral, ineffective

CNN reports: A leading Israeli counter-terrorism expert says Donald Trump’s call to “take out” the families of terrorists would run afoul of international law and degrade the moral standing of the U.S.

“Any deliberate attacks aimed against civilians is a war crime, regardless if they are family members of terrorists or presidents or presidential candidates,” said Boaz Ganor, a former consultant to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Adopting this policy is immoral and against the common liberal democratic values,” added Ganor, the founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. “Deliberate attacks against the terrorist families is blurring the moral differences between the terrorist organizations and the state which is fighting terrorism. This by itself might benefit the terrorists which are trying to claim that they are fighting a moral war against relentless and immoral entity.”

On Wednesday, Trump responded to a question on Fox News about minimizing civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS by saying the U.S. should hit the kin of enemy fighters.

“You have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump said. “When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.” [Continue reading…]

It’s a shame Ganor wasn’t pressed to provide clarification on Israel’s long-standing policy of destroying the family homes of suspected terrorists. It’s immoral to kill family members but it’s ok to send in bulldozers to flatten their homes? Even Trump might find that confusing.

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MSF hospital in Syria hit by ‘double-tap’ barrel bombing

The Guardian reports: A hospital supported by Médecins Sans Frontières in Homs has been partially destroyed in a “double-tap” barrel bombing, a signature tactic of the Syrian air force.

The strikes on the hospital in Zafarana, a besieged town in northern Homs, killed seven people including a young girl, MSF said in a statement, and prompted the movement to nearby field hospitals of many wounded, some of whom died on the way.

Saturday’s strikes were the latest in an apparent pattern of escalating attacks on medical facilities and doctors in the Syrian civil war, according to human rights organisations.

MSF, which operates and supports a number of health centres and field hospitals in Syria, said the attack bore the hallmark of a double-tap strike, whereby the first bombing is followed by a second one after paramedics have arrived to help the victims. “This double-tap tactic shows a level of calculated destruction that can scarcely be imagined,” said MSF’s director of operations, Brice de le Vingne. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. official says use of chemical weapons is ‘routine’ in Syria

Reuters reports: Recent attacks with chlorine and mustard gas on the battlefield in Syria show that the use chemical weapons in the civil war is becoming routine, a U.S. official said on Monday.

A confidential report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Oct. 29 provided the first official confirmation of use of sulphur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, in Syria since it agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, two years ago.

While the OPCW did not specifically say which of the many sides in the war used the chemical, diplomatic sources said it had been used in clashes between Islamic State and rebel fighters in the town of Marea in August, as well as in rebel-held areas under attack by Syrian government forces.

That raised the possibility, diplomatic sources said, that Islamic State had gained the ability to make it themselves, or that it may have come from an undeclared stockpile.

“The sad reality is that chemical weapons use is becoming routine in the Syrian civil war,” Rafael Foley, representing the United States, told a special session of the OPCW’s Executive Council, in remarks sent to Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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MSF calls for independent and impartial investigation of U.S. attack on Kunduz hospital

BBC News reports: A US aircraft attacked a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic in the Afghan city of Kunduz because of “human error”, a US military inquiry said.

The investigation found the crew of the AC-130 gunship mistook the clinic for a nearby government building that had been seized by Taliban fighters.

At least 30 civilians were killed in the 3 October attack, amid a campaign to retake Kunduz from Taliban forces.

MSF said the report demonstrates “gross negligence” by the US military.

The group said the incident constituted “violations of the rules of war” and reiterated calls for an “independent and impartial investigation into the attack”. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS suspected of using chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq

Reuters reports: Chemical weapons experts have determined that mustard gas was used in a Syrian town where Islamic State insurgents were battling another group, according to a report by an international watchdog seen by Reuters.

A confidential Oct. 29 report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a summary of which was shown to Reuters, concluded “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulphur mustard” in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo, on Aug. 21.

“It is very likely that the effects of sulphur mustard resulted in the death of a baby,” it said.

The findings provide the first official confirmation of use of sulphur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, in Syria since it agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, which included sulphur mustard.

The report did not mention Islamic State, as the fact-finding mission was not mandated to assign blame, but diplomatic sources said the chemical had been used in the clashes between Islamic State and another rebel group taking place in the town at the time.

“It raises the major question of where the sulphur mustard came from,” one source said. “Either they (IS) gained the ability to make it themselves, or it may have come from an undeclared stockpile overtaken by IS. Both are worrying options.”

Syria is supposed to have completely surrendered the toxic chemicals 18 months ago. Their use violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

The findings were part of three reports released to members of the OPCW last week. They add to a growing body of evidence that the Islamic State group has obtained, and is using, chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Médecins Sans Frontières releases internal review of Kunduz hospital attack

Médecins Sans Frontières reports: The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today released an internal document reviewing the October 3 airstrikes by US forces on its hospital in northern Afghanistan. The chronological review of the events leading up to, during, and immediately following the airstrikes reveal no reason why the hospital should have come under attack. There were no armed combatants or fighting within or from the hospital grounds.

The document, part of an ongoing review of events undertaken by MSF, is based upon sixty debriefings of MSF national and international employees who worked at the 140-bed trauma center, internal and public information, before and after photographs of the hospital, email correspondence, and telephone call records. At least thirty people were killed in the airstrikes, including 13 staff members, 10 patients and 7 unrecognizable bodies yet to be identified.

“The view from inside the hospital is that this attack was conducted with a purpose to kill and destroy,” said Christopher Stokes, MSF general director. “But we don’t know why. We neither have the view from the cockpit, nor the knowledge of what happened within the US and Afghan military chains of command.”

The initial findings of the MSF review firmly establish the facts from inside the hospital in the days leading up to and during the attack. The review includes the details of the provision of the GPS coordinates and the log of phone calls from MSF to military authorities in attempt to stop the airstrikes. MSF had reached an agreement with all parties to the conflict to respect the neutrality of the hospital, based on international humanitarian law.

“We held up our end of the agreement — the MSF trauma center in Kunduz was fully functioning as a hospital with surgeries ongoing at the time of the US airstrikes,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of MSF. “MSF’s no-weapons policy was respected and hospital staff were in full control of the facility prior to and at the time of the airstrikes.”

Among the 105 patients at the time of the airstrikes, MSF was treating wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict in Kunduz, as well as women and children.

“Some public reports are circulating that the attack on our hospital could be justified because we were treating Taliban,” said Stokes. “Wounded combatants are patients under international law, and must be free from attack and treated without discrimination. Medical staff should never be punished or attacked for providing treatment to wounded combatants.”

The MSF internal review describes patients burning in their beds, medical staff that were decapitated and had lost limbs, and others who were shot from the air while they fled the burning building.

“The attack destroyed our ability to treat patients at a time of their greatest need,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of MSF. “A functioning hospital caring for patients cannot simply lose its protected status and be attacked.”

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Russia dismisses questions about airstrikes on hospitals in Syria

EA Worldview reports: Russia’s Defense Ministry has tried a new line to dampen bad publicity over its airstrikes on hospitals in Syria, saying the medical facilities do not exist.

Major-General Igor Konashenkov said the accusations of several damaged hospitals, with the deaths of staff and patients, were “traditionally made without any proof, without any factual backing”. He claimed that, of six hospitals said to have been struck, only one is real. [Continue reading…]

Médecins Sans Frontières reports: Airstrikes in Syria have killed at least 35 Syrian patients and medical staff in 12 hospitals in northern Syria since an escalation in bombings began in late September, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

According to staff at the hospitals, the attacks, which have also wounded 72 people, targeted medical facilities in Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama governorates, including six supported by MSF. Overall, six hospitals have been forced to close, including three supported by MSF, and four ambulances were destroyed. One hospital has since reopened, yet access to emergency, maternity, pediatric, and primary health care services remains severely disrupted. [Continue reading…]

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