Arab Gulf States, United Nations Back Yemen’s Hadi

American defense secretary Chuck Hagel welcomes President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi of Yemen in Washington DC, July 30, 2013
American defense secretary Chuck Hagel welcomes President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi of Yemen in Washington DC, July 30, 2013 (DoD/Glenn Fawcett)

Arab Gulf states and the United Nations threw their support behind Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi on Wednesday and called on Houthi rebels controlling the capital, Sana’a, to stand aside for a transition plan.

Hadi fled to Aden, Yemen’s economic hub, last week, establishing a rival government there. Read more

Report Accuses Assad of Detaining, Torturing Children

A Syrian boy in a refugee camp in Harmanli, Bulgaria, November 4, 2013
A Syrian boy in a refugee camp in Harmanli, Bulgaria, November 4, 2013 (UNHCR)

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.

While Ban’s report is long and detailed, it all points to one conclusion: the warring factions in Syria, with the regime of President Bashar Assad taking the crown of the worst offender, have no respect for human rights, regardless of how young their victims are.

From the earliest days of the uprising in 2011, children who were seen as opposed to the regime were taken off the streets in wide dragnets by the security forces. In many cases, they were arrested simply because of their parents’ affiliation with the opposition movement — and they weren’t safe anywhere.

“The United Nations collected reports of children who were arrested in their homes, schools and hospitals and in the streets,” the report says, “and at checkpoints in Dara, Idlib, Homs, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Damascus governorates. Children arrested in 2011 and 2012 reportedly transited through multiple detention facilities and were often held in intelligence forces detention facilities, sometimes for months.”

What happened inside was even worse. Children as young as eleven years old were subjected to a variety of interrogation techniques, all of which are internationally described as torture, in order to extract confessions on the whereabouts of their relatives.

Ill treatment and acts tantamount to torture reportedly included beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shocks, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives.

All of this to extract questionable confessions and enact a form of collective punishment for their perceived support for anti-government protests.

Rebel units were also implicated in the mistreatment of children, including by enlisting them as soldiers and recruiting them to deliver supplies to adult fighters.

Although the Free Syrian Army explicitly states that it does not allow children under the age of eighteen to participate in combat operations or support roles, the reality is that these restrictions are not enforced — a clear concern for Western nations that support this secular opposition group.

All in all, at least 10,000 children have been killed in the civil war. Given the Assad regime’s reliance on crude and deadly tactics that make no distinction between armed combatants and civilians, this figure — however disturbing — is not necessarily a surprise to those who have been monitoring the war and keeping track of the casualties.

Expressions of outrage and official statements of condemnation are better than letting the report go unanswered or ignored. But in the end, words will not do anything to stop the killing, displacement, imprisonment and torture of men, women and children, most of whom are too poor to become refugees in another country or too proud to leave their homes.

Condemnations of Syrian War Crimes Have Little Impact

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay listens during a session of Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, May 29
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay listens during a session of Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, May 29 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

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.

“The evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state,” she said. “The scale of viciousness of the abuses being perpetrated by elements on both sides almost defies belief.”

Taken alone, Pillay’s remarks will not be able to initiate an international investigation into war crimes related to Syria’s war. Although the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a body that was sanctioned by the Human Rights Council earlier in the conflict, has reportedly compiled a list of individuals responsible for criminal acts, they can only be prosecuted if the Security Council agrees that crimes have in fact been committed.

Referring Assad or anyone in his regime to The Hague to stand trial is more difficult than usual. Not only does Syria not recognize the International Criminal Court; the Security Council has long been deadlocked on the conflict since hostilities began. China and Russia, two of its permanent members, have already blocked three resolutions that targeted Assad’s regime. They can be expected to similarly veto any referral of Syrian officials to the international court.

As long as China and Russia see Assad as at least preferable to the fragmented rebellion, if not an ally, allegations of impropriety against the Syrian leader or his commanders will be stalled. Given the large-scale atrocities that have been committed in Syria since March 2011, and a civilian death toll that is estimated to have exceeded 100,000, the wanton disregard of human life from loyalist forces will likely continue.

Without Security Council approval, there is nothing other countries can do to hold violators to account. The only thing Pillay’s commendations have, for now, achieved is to further discredit Assad and his backers in the eyes of the world.

In Shocking Move, Saudi Arabia Declines Security Council Seat

The United Nations Security Council meets in New York, January 31, 2012
The United Nations Security Council meets in New York, January 31, 2012 (Flickr/GermanyUN)

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

Iranian Leader Expected to Urge Dialogue in United Nations Address

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani delivers a news conference in Tehran, August 7
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani delivers a news conference in Tehran, August 7 (Presidency of Iran)

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.

In his first month and a half on the job, Rouhani has given countless interviews and speeches calling for a more tolerant and inclusive policy. In the last week alone, he sat down for an hour long television interview with America’s NBC News, in which he reiterated that Iran had no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, and wrote an opinion article for The Washington Post, preaching to the United States and its allies on his policy of “constructive engagement.”

“My approach to foreign policy,” he explained, “seeks to resolve these issues by addressing their underlying causes. We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart.” The message to America was clear: let’s talk.

Iranian presidents have taken a conciliatory approach in the past, notably the reformist Mohammad Khatami, only to be constrained by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a government in Washington DC looking for quick results. These bad experiences have left many in America skeptical about Iran’s intentions and Rouhani’s calls for rapprochement.

Israel also doubts that Rouhani is sincere. Almost immediately after the Iranian’s interview with NBC, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out four tough preconditions for lifting economic pressure on the regime in Tehran: it should halt all uranium enrichment, agree to remove the uranium it has already enriched, close the underground enrichment facility at Fordow and stop all attempts to acquire plutonium which could be used in a nuclear bomb.

So despite the new face of Iranian politics, Hassan Rouhani will enter a General Assembly hall in New York on Tuesday that is both eagerly awaiting his plans and highly skeptical that he has the full backing of both the supreme leader and his military. With a popular mandate from the Iranian people, however, and some diplomatic momentum after his media appearances, Rouhani might nevertheless have a genuine chance to rework Iran’s foreign policy in a more pragmatic direction.

Intense Diplomacy Required to Disarm Assad’s Chemical Arsenal

The United Nations Security Council meets in New York, January 31, 2012
The United Nations Security Council meets in New York, January 31, 2012 (Flickr/GermanyUN)

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.

Hours after Kerry made his comments, the Russian government announced that it had formally asked the Syrians to voluntarily commit to the disarmament of their chemical weapons program, a plea that was quickly accepted by the wartorn country’s foreign minister Walid Muallem.

Indeed, the prospect of Assad handing over his chemical weapons stockpile was so tempting to outside powers that President Barack Obama, in a primetime speech to the nation, said Congress would hold off on voting to authorize military action in order to see the proposal through.

From the early moves in Moscow, it appears at least on the surface that the Russians are serious in resolving the Syrian chemical weapons issue in a collaborative process through the United Nations. Sensing that an American attack on a Middle Eastern ally was imminent, Russia likely determined that a diplomatic miracle was needed to give Assad more time to fend off his opponents. The Russian government handed over a rough blueprint to American negotiators on what they envision the disarmament plan to entail while Kerry met his Russian counterpart in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday to discuss the plan in more detail.

Negotiating the nuts and bolts of the proposal, however, will be a difficult task for the United Nations Security Council — a body that has been unable to do anything about Syria’s civil war for more than two years, given Chinese and Russian opposition to outside intervention.

The difficulty of implementing the plan was made clear almost immediately when the Russians postponed a planned Security Council meeting on Tuesday over objections to a draft French resolution that would have pinned the blame on Assad for a chemical weapons attack last month in the Damascus suburbs that likely killed hundreds of civilians. Ramming through a compromise resolution in the Security Council could be a long and tedious process.

Before the plan can be enacted on the ground, American and European negotiators in New York will have to find a way around Chinese and Russian reluctance to codify the Russian disarmament proposal into a binding, international agreement. In order to succeed at the United nations level, compromises need to be made and a middle ground between the West and Russia found.

The first key issue that could scuttle the diplomatic project is whether the Russian plan will be backed up by the threat of force if Assad fails to hand over his chemical weapons and in time. If the Russians continue to stonewall on this question or outright refuse punishment in the event of Syrian resistance, Britain, France and the United States may very well come to the conclusion that Moscow’s diplomatic maneuvering was neither sincere nor designed to succeed. Rather, it will be viewed in Western capitals as a ploy to delay an American strike.

How the foreign ministers meeting in Geneva goes will serve as a prelude to whether the United Nations are able to deal united with what is one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles.

Fijian Troops Replace Austrian Peacekeepers in Golan

An Italian Alenia C-27J Spartan transport aircraft lands at Zeltweg Airfield, Austria, June 2011
An Italian Alenia C-27J Spartan transport aircraft lands at Zeltweg Airfield, Austria, June 2011 (Martin Wippel)

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.

Austria’s soldiers comprised the bulk of the international monitoring mission in the Golan buffer zone that has been deployed since 1974. It also has peacekeepers in Bosnia, Lebanon and Kosovo.

Russia, seen as an ally of Assad’s, had offered to replace Austria in the Golan Heights. The United Nations turned down the offer because the agreement with Israel and Syria precludes permanent members of the Security Council from taking part.

Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, Israel has at least twice carried out airstrikes into the country to prevent advanced weaponry from reaching Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that supports the regime in Damascus and is also backed by its ally Iran.