Geneva Syria Talks Yield Progress on Humanitarian Issues

Montreux Conference in Geneva
Jan. 26, 2014 –  The Syrian government will allow trapped women and children to immediately leave the old city of Homs, Lakhdar Brahimi said on Sunday.

He was speaking after the second day of face to face talks between representatives of the Syrian government and opposition in Geneva, Switzerland.

Aid agencies have for months called for a pause in fighting to allow trapped civilians to leave the city which is partially rebel-held.

Pro-Assad forces have bombarded Homs for almost three years and the government has also reportedly blocked electricity, water and phone service while families are living without heat and adequate food.

“With regard to Homs, there is an agreement now from the armed groups inside that they will not attack a humanitarian convoy if it enters Homs,” Brahimi said in Geneva, according to a transcript provided by the UN. “What I have been told by the Government side is that women and children in this besieged area in the old city are welcome to leave immediately.”

He said “other civilians are also welcome to leave, but the Government needs the list of their names first.” Asked by a reporter who recalled the Srebrenica massacre of men and boys if this list could be used to perpetrate a similar massacre, Brahimi answered: “We don’t have that fear. I don’t think we have that fear. Horrible things are happening in Syria, we don’t want anything like Srebrenica in addition to all of that. “

While the talks are aimed at finding a political solution to the crisis which will enter its fourth year in March, there’s little indication that progress has been made on this front, but Brahimi did note there is “mutual respect” between the negotiators and an awareness that the dire humanitarian situation had to be part of the talks.

“I think we all felt, and the two parties felt also, that you cannot start negotiations about Syria without having some discussions about the very, very bad humanitarian situation,” the Algerian diplomat said.

Talks are set to resume on Monday and are expected to turn to the heart of the matter: finding a political solution based on the Geneva Communique which calls for a mutually agreed transitional government with full executive powers.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

photo: UN Photo/Violaine Martin

Syrian Government Policy of Enforced Disappearance a Crime Against Humanity: UN Investigators

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Dec. 19, 2013 – The Syrian government is continuing its policy of enforced disappearance that started in March 2011 when protests against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad erupted and the spread and pattern of this abuse amounts to a crime against humanity, UN investigators probing human rights violations in Syria concluded in their latest report.

Enforced disappearance has been used to silence the opposition, as a form of reprisal or punishment and as a tactic of war, the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry said in the report released on Thursday which covers March 2011 to Nov. 2013.

It cites instances of doctors being disappeared for providing medical services in oppositions controlled areas and injured civilians in FSA-controlled areas being disappeared when they seek treatment at government hospitals.

“The violation of enforced disappearance is often a gateway to the commission of other offences, most particularly torture,” the report says.

It adds that there is a deliberate government policy of not providing information to family members of those detained and those inquiring are often themselves then detained.

“The truth regarding the fate of the many disappeared in Syria and the extent of the phenomenon of enforced disappearance will likely only fully be grasped in the aftermath of the conflict,” the report says. “The victims of this violation number far beyond the individuals disappeared. The families and loved ones of those disappeared endure a mental anguish that amounts to a further violation of their human rights.”

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that enforced disappearances were committed by Government forces, as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, and therefore amount to a crime against humanity,” the report concludes.

The full report is here

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Will Ban Ki-moon’s words be used to bolster US case for strike against Assad?

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For many months, it has been evident that President Assad and his Government have lost all legitimacy.” – Ban Ki-moon, June 7, 2012

Sept. 5, 2013 – These words from the UN secretary-general could be used in arguments to justify a US strike against targets inside Syria by the United States in the coming weeks.

The UN charter prohibits military action against another member state unless authorized by the Security Council or in self-defense. 

But the US has argued that the Assad government has lost legitimacy, and they have the words of Ban Ki-moon to back them up.

The secretary-general is appointed by the General Assembly at the recommendation of the Security Council and the question of whether he is a secretary or a general is open to interpretation, that’s to say how much weight do his words carry. Here is the UN charter’s vague description of the role of the secretary-general.

As this ASIL article by Kenneth Anderson points out, saying a government has lost legitimacy is a political statement not a legal statement but the US “might go a step further and say that the Assad government is no longer the legitimate, lawful government of Syria, and argue that it uses force not against UN member state ‘Syria,’ but rather against the illegitimate Assad regime and in collective self-defense of the Syrian people.”

While such a claim will be contested, not least by Russia, who could argue that “the Assad government meets essentially all the formal requirements of international law to be the legal government,” a number of countries including the six countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council have recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the 22-nation Arab League has given Syria’s seat to the SOC, against the objections of Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. Britain, France, Italy and Spain have also recognized the group as a legitimate representative.

One way around the legitimacy question would be a General Assembly vote on who should represent Syria at the UN, though the US is thought to be unwilling to establish such a precedent should countries unfriendly to Israel consider a similar move in the future with regard to Palestinian representation.

Ban said today in Russia that he has taken “note of the ongoing debate over what course of action should be taken by the international community” regarding the allegations of chemical weapons use and that “all those actions should be taken within the framework of the UN Charter, as a matter of principle.”

– Denis Fitzgerald

photo: UN photo/Eskinder Debebe