Report Accuses Assad of Detaining, Torturing Children

In times of crisis or violence, children are often the most vulnerable members of society — psychologically scarred by the acts of brutality that occur around them, susceptible to manipulation and in many instances forced to fend for themselves if their families are displaced by fighting.

In Syria, children are put in even greater jeopardy by the deliberate actions of their government — acts that include widespread arrests, detention under horrendous conditions and outright torture for their confessions.

These are some of the grave and disturbing findings published last week by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his team of field researchers. The report was delivered and briefed to members of the Security Council in the hope that the chamber would at least be able to come together and issue a clear statement of condemnation against the crimes that have been perpetrated. Read more “Report Accuses Assad of Detaining, Torturing Children”

Condemnations of Syrian War Crimes Have Little Impact

While much of the world is focused on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program, the United Nations Human Rights Council is devoting serious resources to another major issue in the Syrian Civil War: the lack of accountability for those who are engaged in atrocities.

In a speech to reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, the international body’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, disclosed that her colleagues had uncovered numerous incidents in the fighting that amounted to war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Observers of the Syrian Civil War, which is now in its third years, might not be surprised. Reports of what can well be considered crimes against humanity have regularly surfaced. Syrian military forces deliberately bomb densely populated areas, regardless of how many civilians are in the vicinity. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed by the regime’s use of fighter aircraft, heavy artillery and helicopter gunships. Cluster munitions and barrel bombs that explode on impact, covering wider areas than regular munitions, have been used throughout the year. Bakeries, schools and power stations have all been targeted — if not to destroy rebel supplies and command centers, than to frighten civilians into thinking twice about supporting the opposition.

But in a twist that could potentially add renewed urgency to the humanitarian crisis in the country, Pillay singled out President Bashar Assad for either ordering or condoning these abuses. Read more “Condemnations of Syrian War Crimes Have Little Impact”

In Shocking Move, Saudi Arabia Declines Security Council Seat

Most of the 193 countries that are part of the United Nations consider winning a temporary spot on Security Council a great honor. As the body’s sole authority on debating issues of international peace and security, countries in every region of the world are often quick to put themselves in the running in hopes of joining the exclusive club.

Not, it seems, Saudi Arabia. Read more “In Shocking Move, Saudi Arabia Declines Security Council Seat”

Iranian Leader Expected to Urge Dialogue in United Nations Address

While thousands of international diplomats are attending this week’s festivities at the annual United Nations General Assembly, American officials are squaring most of their attention on Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.

Since his surprising victory in Iran’s presidential election this summer, the former nuclear negotiator and cleric has generated his fair share of excitement in world capitals, talking of moderation, coming together in pursuit of shared goals and expressing a willingness to become more transparent about his country’s nuclear enrichment efforts.

Compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani comes across as a wise sage who understands the nuances and sensitivities of international politics. The president himself criticized Ahmadinejad’s administration for speaking in bold, black and white terms and conducting a foreign policy that, he said, resulted in nothing but global sanctions preventing Iran from exporting its oil.

With an economy in tatters, Rouhani recognizes that he needs to change how Iran does business if there is any hope for those sanctions to be relaxed. Read more “Iranian Leader Expected to Urge Dialogue in United Nations Address”

Intense Diplomacy Required to Disarm Assad’s Chemical Arsenal

When asked by a CBS reporter during a press conference if there was anything Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad could do to avert a military strike, Secretary of State John Kerry casually suggested that his regime could hand over all of its chemical weapons to international monitors.

“Sure,” Kerry said. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that.” To demonstrate just how unrealistic he deemed the possibility, Kerry quickly added that Assad was unlikely to even consider the idea. “He isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Forty-eight hours later, Kerry’s offhand remark has turned into a major diplomatic initiative led by the Russians to postpone or cancel outright an American airstrike on Assad’s military bases. Read more “Intense Diplomacy Required to Disarm Assad’s Chemical Arsenal”

Fijian Troops Replace Austrian Peacekeepers in Golan

Some 170 Fijian troops will replace Austria’s United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights that separate Israel from Syria later this month.

Austria initially reconsidered its deployment to the Golan last month when the European Union failed to extend its arms embargo on Syria. France and the United Kingdom were among member states calling for less stringent sanctions to enable them to provide weapons to rebels battling the regime of President Bashar Assad there. The Alpine country’s foreign minister Michael Spindelegger expressed concern that it would not longer be seen as a “neutral party” on the Israeli-Syrian frontier as a consequence of the decision.

Last week, two Austrian troops were wounded when Syrian opposition fighters captured a border post before they were driven out by government forces. Read more “Fijian Troops Replace Austrian Peacekeepers in Golan”

United Nations Should Leave French Pacific Islands Alone

The United Nations last month added French Polynesia again to its list of territories it insists are colonized. The organization urges France to get the Pacific islands on the path to self-determination. But they don’t want to.

Less than two weeks before French Polynesia was reinscribed to the United Nations’ list of “non-self-governing territories,” its inhabitants voted out longtime president Oscar Temaru, who wants the islands to ultimately become independent, and replaced him with Gaston Flosse, a conservative who advocates no change in the territory’s relations with France.

French Polynesians’ wariness of independence is mirrored across the territories that the United Nations still considers colonies. Read more “United Nations Should Leave French Pacific Islands Alone”

Real Hardship Could Be After United Nations Palestine Vote

President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority face one of the most pressure packed days on Thursday when their diplomats are expected to send in a draft statement to the United Nations General Assembly for enhanced status in the world body.

The draft resolution, which was introduced to the United Nations earlier this month and announced (PDF) in front of the General Assembly in September, calls for the international community to recognize an independent Palestinian state on lands that have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war — East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But perhaps the most important aspect of the draft is the possibility of great power for the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations, including participation in the International Criminal Court.

After months of back-channel talks by the United States and an overt Israeli campaign to pressure the European member states to vote against or abstain from the measure, Israel has come to the realization that the Palestinians will succeed in their effort. Israeli diplomats and spokesmen for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are now downplaying the impact of the vote, calling it a symbolic gesture that will do nothing to improve the chances of a two-state solution. Read more “Real Hardship Could Be After United Nations Palestine Vote”

Palestinians’ United Nations Push Could Backfire

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has made it clear that he will formally push for an enhancement of Palestinian status at the United Nations sometime in November. What is also clear is that Abbas’ effort, unlike his attempt at the Security Council last year to gain full member state status, is almost certain to succeed. With the General Assembly traditionally dedicated to the Palestinian cause and with no American veto of the measure impossible, the resolution will pass by a simple majority vote.

What is less certain, however, is how Israel and United States will react in the event that the Palestinians achieve their goal. A successful vote in the General Assembly would give the Palestinians the right to join a number of multilateral organizations for the first time, including the International Criminal Court, where Palestinian representatives could plausibly charge Israel for war crimes. For a country that has long used the concept of national security to justify its occupation of the West Bank and its embargo of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian membership of the court would serve as a legal headache for the state of Israel.

All of this begs the question: what measures will Israel take to counter, or punish, Abbas’ United Nations campaign? The United States presumably would support Israel in any countermeasure that is deemed reasonable. Obama Administration officials have argued that a unilateral Palestinian move at the United Nations would hurt the chances for a negotiated, final status peace agreement.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are already combing through a list of options that they can take once the Palestinians acquire their “nonmember state” upgrade.

One option under consideration, withholding tax revenue that is collected on behalf of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, has been used by the Israelis in the past when disputes arose over the peace process. A large chunk of the Palestinian Authority’s revenue comes from the taxes and customs duties that the Israelis collect and transfer to Ramallah. A decision to withhold those transfers could lead to the worsening of a financial cash crisis that economists ay is the worst in the Palestinian Authority’s eighteen year history.

Another option being mulled by Israeli policymakers is a total boycott on talking, dealing with and communicating with Mahmoud Abbas as long as he remains president. The Israelis used a similar policy with respect to the late Yasser Arafat when they no longer believed that he was interested in formulating a lasting peace. This policy would pack a major punch but also be incredibly rash. Washington would be likely to oppose it, seeing Abbas as the best hope for dialogue that the Israelis have had in a long time.

The Obama Administration may also decide to make its displeasure known by ratcheting up its own pressure. As was hinted by American officials during Abbas’ Security Council plan last year, donations and funding to the Palestinians could be put in jeopardy. The United States are the single largest financial contributor to Abbas’ West Bank government. Washington provides (PDF) close to $500 million in aid this year alone.

That funding could be threatened thanks to American legislation already on the books which mandates Congress and the White House to cut off funding for the Palestinians if their government acquires “the same standing as member states or full membership as a state in the United Nations or any specialized agency […] outside an agreement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Depending on how the law is interpreted, an attempt by the Palestinian Authority to increase its United Nations representation from an “observer entity” to a “nonmember state” could possibly meet the criteria of an American aid block.

So while Abbas will receive the support he needs to attain more prestige at the United Nations, he will confront some very uncomfortable, if not painful, reprisals after the vote ends. With his government facing a terrible fiscal crisis, the Palestinian leader may well have to justify to his people why a greater voice in New York is more important to their cause than an administration that can pay its bills.