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…]

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How chlorine gas became a weapon in Syria’s civil war

Dorian Geiger writes: Following the 1,300 tonnes of sarin nerve gas and its precursors being removed from Syria, chemical attacks persist there nearly four years later, but most notably in the form of chlorine, which has emerged as the most heavily used chemical weapon in the war.

“We saw chlorine appearing as a weapon in Syria for the first time in 2014,” said Ole Solvang, the deputy director of the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch.

“The challenge is there are so many horrific things going on in Syria, that this one issue tends to perhaps be overshadowed sometimes by other attacks that are going on.”

In February, Human Rights Watch and Solvang authored a report documenting at least eight instances of chlorine use by the Syrian regime in the battle for Aleppo between Nov. 17 and Dec. 13, 2016. The human rights watchdog verified the attacks through video footage analysis, phone, and in-person interviews, as well as by social media.

The report indicated that the chlorine attacks killed at least nine people, including four children, and injured around 200 people. The attacks, according to the report, constituted war crimes.

“This is, of course, horrific because it is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria is a part of,” Solvang explained. “It’s horrific for the victims, but also because it really undermines one of the strongest bans on any weapon in international humanitarian law and what we’re really concerned about is that the government’s continued use of chemical attacks will undermine this ban and lower the threshold for other countries to also use it [chlorine].”

The Chemical Weapons Convention, implemented in 1993, constitute the world’s first internationally binding chemical weapon laws. They are enforced by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a United Nations-backed agency.

Following the sarin gas attack in Ghouta in August 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people – more than 400 of them children – according a United Nations Security Council report, Syria joined the convention as part of an international agreement – and to subdue the Obama administration’s threats of military action. It was the 190th country to sign on.

So to what role has chlorine played in Syria’s complex and long civil war? And what has been the human toll?

Human Rights Watch have documented 24 chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, of which 32 people were killed and hundreds were injured. However, Solvang acknowledged that this is likely a grave underestimate.

“It’s a terrifying weapon to most people,” Solvang said.

Chlorine is a choking agent. Its greenish-yellow clouds of gas cause shortness of breath, wheezing, respiratory failure, irritation in the eyes, vomiting, and sometimes death.

Chlorine’s effects are also largely psychological: the chemical triggers fear, shock, and panic in a way that other conventional weapons don’t. In the case of Aleppo, Solvang suspects the regime strategically used chlorine to force a mass exodus of the city. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian defector who documented Assad’s atrocities returning to Washington

Josh Rogin writes: The Syrian defector known as “Caesar,” who brought the world the largest trove of evidence of mass atrocities perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, is returning to Washington this weekend. Three years after he helped expose some of the worst war crimes of our generation, the victims of those crimes are still a long way from getting justice.

From 2011 to 2013, Caesar worked as a military photographer in the Syrian army, forced to meticulously document the torture and murder of thousands of men, women and children inside Assad’s jails. When he fled Syria in 2013, he brought with him over 55,000 images that show the killing of over 11,000 civilians in custody, along with documents detailing the Syrian government’s highly organized system of mass murder.

The photos, some of which were released publicly in 2014, show bodies starved, tortured and mutilated. The Syrian government kept detailed records. Assad’s “machinery of death” was the worst since the Nazis, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for war crimes Stephen Rapp said at the time.

Caesar testified before Congress in the summer of 2014 and explained to U.S. lawmakers that the evidence he smuggled out of Syria showed only a small segment of the overall government operation and that tens of thousands of civilians were still being tortured and murdered in Assad’s prisons.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum took up Caesar’s cause and helped build an effort to raise public awareness about the Syrian government’s mass atrocities, working with elements of the Syrian opposition. Caesar’s photos were shown in the halls of Congress, the United Nations and the European Parliament. In 2015, the FBI verified the authenticity of the photos after an extensive forensic investigation.

Now, Caesar is returning to the United States with a simple question: What progress has been made? For those pushing for accountability, justice and a halt to the slaughter, the sad answer is not enough. [Continue reading…]

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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…]

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State Dept. approves renewal of arms sales to Saudis as they continue bombing famine-stricken Yemen

The Washington Post reports: The State Department has approved a resumption of weapons sales that critics have linked to Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilians in Yemen, a potential sign of reinvigorated U.S. support for the kingdom’s involvement in its neighbor’s ongoing civil war.

The proposal from the State Department would reverse a decision made late in the Obama administration to suspend the sale of precision guided munitions to Riyadh, which leads a mostly Arab coalition conducting airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approval this week of the measure, which officials say needs White House backing to go into effect, provides an early indication of the new administration’s more Saudi-friendly approach to the conflict in Yemen and a sign of its more hawkish stance on Iran.

It also signals a break with an approach the previous administration hoped would limit civilian deaths in a conflict that has pushed Yemen to the brink of widespread famine but that Persian Gulf ally Saudi Arabia has cast as a battle against the spread of Iranian influence across the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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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…]

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MSF inquiry indicates Russia was behind hospital bombing in Syria

The Guardian reports: An investigation commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) bolsters its claim that Russian and Syrian forces were responsible for the deadly bombing last year of a hospital it was supporting in northern Syria.

Video and photographic images captured by medical staff, activists and members of the public were pored over by a UK-based research agency hired by the organisation to look into the attack, which took place on 15 February last year and claimed the lives of 25 people.

While Russia denied claims that its forces were responsible for the bombing of the Maaret al-Numan hospital in Idlib province, the aid group said that the digital material confirmed the attack was carried out by the Russians, working in tandem with the Syrian regime. [Continue reading…]

 

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The Syrian war isn’t stopping for Trump

Ishaan Tharoor writes: So far, the most meaningful role played by President Trump in the miserable conflict in Syria has been his relentless demonization of Syrian refugees.

But the war still smolders, and the White House will, sooner or later, have to reckon with its complexity. It may also need to confront the mounting evidence of atrocities committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the regime’s alleged use of chlorine bombs during its successful campaign last year to reclaim the last rebel-held territory in the city of Aleppo. The rights group documented at least eight separate chlorine gas attacks before a cease-fire was signed on Dec. 13. “The attacks resulted in the deaths of nine civilians, including four children, and wounded roughly 200,” reported my colleague Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “If confirmed, the attacks would be a significant breach of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed in 2013.”[Continue reading…]

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Eight-year-old American girl ‘killed in Yemen raid approved by Trump’

The Guardian reports: President Donald Trump personally approved a US commando raid in Yemen that left one elite serviceman dead and may have killed an eight-year-old American girl, the US military has told the Guardian.

At least 14 people died in Sunday’s raid by the elite Joint Special Operations Command, which is now the subject of a preliminary inquiry to determine if allegations of civilian deaths are sufficiently credible to merit a full investigation.

The operation was launched to gather intelligence on suspected operations by al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), according to Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command. Planning for the raid “started months before”, under Barack Obama’s administration, but was “not previously approved”, he said.

Thomas said he did not know why the prior administration did not authorize the operation, but said the Obama administration had effectively exercised a “pocket veto” over it.

A former official said the operation had been reviewed several times, but the underlying intelligence was not judged strong enough to justify the risks, and the case was left to the incoming Trump administration to make its own judgment.

An eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, was killed in the raid, according to her family. Nawar, also known as Nora, is the daughter of the al-Qaida propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a September 2011 US drone strike in Yemen. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed in a second drone strike soon afterwards.

On the campaign trail, Trump endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015. [Continue reading…]

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Assad linked to Syrian chemical attacks for first time

Reuters reports: International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, according to a document seen by Reuters.

A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials.

Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15 – including Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures – indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian medical facilities were attacked more than 250 times this year

Huffington Post reports: The first airstrike hit at 9:02 on the morning of Feb. 15. As rescue teams dashed to the scene, warplanes circled back for a “double tap,” pummeling the isolated hospital in northwestern Syria a second time, minutes later. And a third. And a fourth.

Twenty-five people died, including nine health care workers and five children. Staff and volunteers who survived the onslaught at the Doctors Without Borders-supported facility rushed victims to the next closest emergency center in a nearby town. The bombs followed.

It’s an utterly grim and tragic irony: Hospitals are now among the most dangerous places in Syria. There have been 252 attacks on Syrian health care centers in 2016 so far, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a nonprofit organization. Countless men, women and children suffering from injury or illness in the war-torn country have endangered their lives simply by seeking treatment. Many of the brave doctors who voluntarily walk into hospitals to help those in need ― dismally aware of the grave personal risk ― never come back out. [Continue reading…]

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Last rebels in Aleppo say Assad forces are burning people alive

The Daily Beast reports: Amid celebratory gunfire and cheers from Assad loyalists, foreign militias under Iranian command and troops loyal to the regime on Monday captured about 90 percent of the opposition-held areas of eastern Aleppo.

The last hope of the besieged rebels, most of whom seem to have withdrawn in the face of certain defeat, had been to receive reinforcements or resupplies from their counterparts in the southern and western suburbs. That option has now been foreclosed upon as these routes are completely interdicted by the regime.

The triumphal takeover of the citadel of the Syrian revolution followed a day of intense bombing of houses and apartment buildings, destroying so many that it was impossible to determine the death toll. The neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr, al-Kallasa, al-Farod and al-Salhin in the Old City, as well as Sheikh Saed, in the southern district, are all now under regime control.

The Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets, an internationally renowned team of first responders, said more than 90 bodies of people presumed to be still alive are under debris and that its volunteer staff reported they could hear the voices of children trapped in the rubbles of their houses.

A member of the group in Aleppo told al-Arabiya TV on Monday night that men, women, and children were huddling and crying in the streets and at the gates of empty buildings in the few neighborhoods that remained in the hands of the opposition. He described the situation as hopeless, because precision munitions and indiscriminate barrel bombs had destroyed the city’s medical facilities, ambulances, and fuel supply. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The United Nations warned Tuesday that dozens of people may have been executed in the Syrian city of Aleppoas pro-government troops seized what remained of the rebels’ most famous stronghold.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. human rights council, said his office received reports that pro-government forces had killed at least 82 civilians, entering homes and killing people “on the spot.”

Others were reportedly shot as they fled. A list of names provided to the U.N. included 11 women and 13 children, he said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. forces may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan, prosecutor says

The New York Times reports: The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Monday that she had a “reasonable basis to believe” that American soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan, including torture.

The international prosecutor has been considering whether to begin a full-fledged investigation into potential war crimes in Afghanistan for years. In Monday’s announcement, the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, signaled that a full investigation was likely.

Still, the prosecutor did not announce a final decision on an investigation, which would have to be approved by judges, and it is unlikely that the United States will cooperate. [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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Military attacks on ‘hospitals shields’: International law itself is partly to blame

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini write: From the war in Afghanistan and the US-backed Saudi intervention in Yemen, to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Syrian civil war, hospitals have increasingly been targeted by military forces. The justification for many of these attacks has been uncannily similar: the hospitals were bombed because they were shielding combatants and therefore the attacks do not constitute a violation of international law. Hospitals, in other words, are now classified as if they are equivalent to human shields.

The figures are revealing. One year following the infamous US bombardment of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz — which Afghan Defense Ministry officials initially tried to justify on the theory that the Taliban were “using the hospital as the equivalent of a human shield” — the humanitarian organization reported that 77 of its medical facilities have been attacked during the last twelve months alone. Yes, that’s over six per month. In June 2016, a United Nations commission documented that in Syria “more than 700 doctors and medical personnel have been killed in attacks on hospitals since the beginning of the conflict” and that medical facilities “are being turned into rubble.”

Politicians and military officers from Gaza to Yemen use the same refrain to defend these attacks. During its 2014 war on Gaza, Israel bombed different Palestinian medical facilities, destroying parts of one hospital and 5 primary health care centers. In an attempt to defend its strikes, Israel accused Hamas of using hospitals to store weapons and hide armed militants.

In a similar vein, after the recent bombardment of an underground medical facility in a rebel controlled area, a Syrian regime official declared that militants would be targeted wherever they were found, “on the ground and underground,” while his Russian patron explained that rebels were using “so-called hospitals as human shields.”

Saudi officials attempting to justify the high number of air strikes targeting medical facilities have adopted the same catchphrases. They, too, accused their adversaries, the Houthi militias, of using hospitals to hide their military forces. This exact claim is also reiterated in a recent UN report.

What ties all of these examples together is not merely the use of similar rhetoric, but more importantly the same underlying assumption: when health care facilities become “hospital shields” they lose the protected status they are granted by the Geneva Conventions. Thus, once framed as shields, these facilities can be bombarded without violating international law.

Let there be no mistake, “hospital shield” is an extremely dangerous neologism since it undermines one of the founding pillars of international law: the principle of distinction between legitimate military targets and protected civilian sites. The tragic irony is that international humanitarian law itself offers the legal toolkit for these regimes to justify the bombing of hospitals. It does so in two ways. [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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