UN Demands Investigation into Deadly Afghan Hospital Attack

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Oct. 3, 2015 – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday strongly condemned the attack on a Medecins Sans Frontiers hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan that killed at least 12 aid workers and three children while the United Nations human rights chief said the attack may amount to a war crime.

Hospitals are protected under international humanitarian law while the Security Council lists attacks on hospitals and health facilities as one of the six grave violations against children caught up in armed conflict.

At least 37 more people were injured in the overnight attack, including 19 MSF staff.

In a statement issued by his spokesman in New York, Ban called for “a thorough and impartial investigation into the attack in order to ensure accountability.”

Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Hussein said the attack on the hospital “is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal.”

“The seriousness of the incident is underlined by the fact that, if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime,” he added, according to a statement issued by his office in Geneva.

The attack on Saturday, reportedly a result of U.S. airstrikes, ranks as one of the single deadliest ever attacks on aid workers: 22 United Nations staff were killed when their compound in Iraq was bombed by Al Qaeda in August 2003 while 16 French aid workers were killed in a 2006 attack in Sri Lanka blamed on government security forces.

The UN aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, added his condemnation of the attack in a statement issued late Saturday in New York. “Hospitals and clinics should be sanctuaries where people, including women and children, go for help,” he stated. “Attacking a hospital not only has a devastating immediate impact but denies people the opportunity to access lifesaving healthcare in the future,” and he supported calls “for an urgent and impartial investigation to ensure accountability.”

Afghanistan is by far the most dangerous country for aid workers, with 54 losing their lives last year – most as a result of attacks by Taliban or other anti-government forces.

There were at least 38 attacks on health facilities in Afghanistan last year, according to Ban Ki-moon’s annual report on children and armed conflict.

UN to Raise Holy See Flag on Morning of Pope Francis Visit

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Sept. 21, 2015 – The United Nations will raise the flag of the Holy See on Sept. 25th ahead of Pope Francis’s address to the UN General Assembly that morning.

The decision to raise the flag of a non-member observer state comes after a resolution passed by the General Assembly on Sept. 10th to allow the flags of Palestine and the Holy See to fly alongside the flags of the 193 UN member states.

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Francis will be the fourth pope to address the assembly and it will be the fifth papal UN visit. Paul VI was the first pope to address the UN in 1965, one year after the Holy See became a non-member observer state. John Paul II visited twice, in 1979 and 1995. Benedict XVI addressed the assembly in 2008.

Flag poles in place for raising of Holy See and Palestine flags in front of UNHQ in New York.

Flag poles in place for raising of Holy See and Palestine flags in front of UNHQ in New York.

Just over 40 of the UN’s 193 member states have a Catholic-majority population while the overall global Catholic population is about 1.2 billion. Latin America and Europe have the largest share of the global Catholic population with 39 percent and 24 percent of all Catholics respectively living in these regions.

Pope Paul Vi addressed the General  Assembly on Oct. 4, 1965

Pope Paul Vi addressed the General Assembly on Oct. 4, 1965

The United States has the fifth biggest share of Catholics among countries with about 75 million followers or 25 percent of its population.

Palestine has said it will raise its flag on Sept. 30 ahead of President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech following a ceremony on UN grounds. The Holy See has said there will be no ceremony for its flag raising. UN personnel will raise the flag the same time as they raise the other flags on Sept. 25.

Statement from Holy See mission to the UN

Statement from Holy See mission to the UN click to enlarge

Francis, aged 78, is the first Latin American pontiff and the Argentine is also the first Jesuit pope and the first non-European pope since Syria’s Gregory III in 741.

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he chose the name Francis following his election by papal conclave in 2013 in honor of Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans whose mission is to serve the poor.

In his UN address, he is expected to speak about climate change, poverty, nuclear disarmament and the global refugee crisis as well as the conflicts that underlie the refugee crisis.

In addition, he is also expected to address the plight of Christians in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, but a region where the number of Christians who’ve had to flee war and persecution has risen dramatically in the past decade, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

The Holy See has diplomatic relations with 180 sovereign states including the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the State of Palestine. It also has formal contacts, but not diplomatic relations, with Afghanistan, Brunei, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia and has unofficial delegates in regions where there are Catholic communities including the Arabian peninsula and Western Sahara.

The Holy See has no diplomatic relations of any kind with the Maldives, North Korea, China and Bhutan.

Prior to his address to the assembly, Francis will attend a town hall meeting with UN staff.

– Denis Fitzgerald 
@denisfitz

 

Claims by Powell to UN Justifying Iraq War Based on Info from Tortured Person

Security Council Hears United States Briefing on Evidence of Iraq's Failure to Disarm
Dec. 9, 2014 – Claims made by Colin Powell to the UN Security Council in 2003 that Saddam Hussein was providing support for Al Qaeda came from a person who had been tortured and who later recanted what he told interrogators.

On Feb. 5, 2003, Powell told the Security Council: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”

He went on to describe how a detainee had detailed Saddam Hussein’s support for Al Qaeda including training in the use of chemical and biological weapons.

“Al-Qaida continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. As with the story of Zarqawi and his network, I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al-Qaida. Fortunately, this operative is now detained and he has told his story. I will relate it to you now as he, himself, described it.

“This senior al-Qaida terrorist was responsible for one of al-Qaida’s training camps in Afghanistan. His information comes firsthand from his personal involvement at senior levels of al-Qaida. He says bin Laden and his top deputy in Afghanistan, deceased al-Qaida leader Muhammad Atif, did not believe that al-Qaida labs in Afghanistan were capable enough to manufacture these chemical or biological agents. They needed to go somewhere else. They had to look outside of Afghanistan for help.

“Where did they go? Where did they look? They went to Iraq. The support that this detainee describes included Iraq offering chemical or biological weapons training for two al-Qaida associates beginning in December 2000. He says that a militant known as Abdallah al-Iraqi had been sent to Iraq several times between 1997 and 2000 for help in acquiring poisons and gasses. Abdallah al-Iraqi characterized the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials as successful.”

But the Senate Select Committee report released on Tuesday states in a footnote that the information was given by a Libyan national who had been subjected to torture. He later recanted the claims, saying he had been tortured, adding that he told his interrogators “what he assessed they wanted to hear.”

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Although Powell’s presentation failed to convince Security Council members to support the use of force against Saddam Hussein, with permanent members China, France and Russia opposed, the US invaded Iraq the following month.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/UN Photo

Spotlight on Venezuela as it Gains Security Council Seat

Venezuela's delegation celebrates election to the Security Council for 2015-16. (credit/UN Photo).

Venezuela’s delegation celebrates election to the Security Council for 2015-16. (credit/UN Photo).

Oct. 21 – Venezuela’s UN delegation gloated last week over its election to a non-permanent Security Council seat calling it “recognition of the international policies of the Bolivarian Revolution” but since then it has come in for criticism from both the Human Rights Commissioner and the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

That its election to the Council is a victory for the country’s Bolivarian policies is off the mark as it ran uncontested for the available Latin American seat – it was simply their turn to run – and in principle, a country’s national policies should have no impact on the collective responsibility of the Council to maintain international peace and security (in reality, however, the Council consists of governments whose national interests often usurp its international obligations).

The criticism from newly appointed UN human rights chief, Zeid Hussein, came on Monday when he called on Venezuela to release opposition leaders and others arbitrarily detained during student-led anti-government protests earlier this year. He also “deplored” threats and intimidation directed at human rights defenders and journalists. “My office is extremely concerned about the current situation, and we will continue to monitor it very closely,” Zeid said.

And on Tuesday, Venezuela’s record on ending discrimination against women was up for review by CEDAW. Among the areas of concern, committee member Olinda Bareiro-Bobadilla said, were “dozens” of discriminatory laws. This includes “the acquittal of a rapist if he marries his victim. Allowing that violence against women persists throughout life.”

When it joins the Council on Jan. 1, 2015, Venezuela will have the unenviable distinction of having the highest murder rate of any of the 15 nations on the Council. According to the latest report of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, more than 16,000 Venezuelans are killed annually by armed violence, a rate of more than 50 people for every 100,000 citizens, the second highest murder rate globally, behind Honduras, according to the UNODC report whose most recent figures were for 2012.

As a comparison, that’s 40 percent more than the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined last year – almost 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed in 2013, according to the UN mission there, and in Iraq, more than 7,000 civilians were killed last year, according to UNAMI.

Next year the UN will decide on its post-2015 development agenda and whether peace and stability should be one of the goals.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

US Invokes Article 51: Does the UN Charter Cover Attacks by Non-State Actors?

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Sept. 23, 2014 – US envoy Samantha Power has cited Article 51 of the UN Charter as cover for the airstrikes the United States carried out inside Syria overnight Monday against ISIS and the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front.

Power wrote to Ban Ki-moon Tuesday saying, “States must be able to defend themselves … when, as is the case here, the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks.”

Power’s letter also cites Iraq’s letter to the Security Council of Sept. 20 warning that the country “is facing a serious threat of continuous attacks coming out of ISIL safe havens in Syria.” It adds that the Iraqi government has requested the US lead “international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria.”

The UN Charter prohibits the use of force by a state against another state unless authorized by a Security Council resolution. But Article 51 provides an exception: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.”

The UN Charter is concerned with inter-state conflict as only states can become members of the UN so the applicability of Article 51 for use of force inside a sovereign country against a non-state actor is a question that international law scholars have grappled with.

Marko Milanovic argues that Article 51 does not require the attribution of the armed attack by a non-state actor to a state. “Rather, for the attacked state to respond against the non-state actor which is operating in another state, the conduct of this latter state must be such to justify the ensuing violation of its sovereignty.”

He proposes three scenarios that would justify an attack inside a sovereign state against a non-state actor:

“(a) the territorial state was complicit or was actively supporting the non-state actor in its armed attack; (b) the territorial state failed to exercise due diligence, i.e. it did not do all that it could reasonably have done to prevent the non-state actor from using its territory to mount an armed attack against another state, or is not doing all it can to prevent further attacks; (c) the territorial state may have exercised due diligence, but it was nonetheless unable to prevent the attack, or to prevent further attacks.”

And the due diligence case would appear to be the US argument when Power writes that “the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks.”

Ban Ki-moon earlier on Tuesday spoke of the US airstrikes, saying that “today’s strikes were not carried out at the direct request of the Syrian Government, but I note that the Government was informed beforehand.”

“I also note that the strikes took place in areas no longer under the effective control of that Government.   I think it is undeniable – and the subject of broad international consensus – that these extremist groups pose an immediate threat to international peace and security,” Ban said.

For more discussion on Article 51 and non-state actors see here and here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia

Pillay Pitches Stronger Security Council Role for Successor

Special Session Human Rights Council
Aug. 21, 2014, Outgoing UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, on Thursday suggested her successor provide informal monthly briefings to the Security Council to avert future crises.

Pillay’s pitch came after she scolded the 15-nation body over its inaction on crises during her tenure such as Syria, Gaza, Sri Lanka and Iraq. “I firmly believe that greater responsiveness by this Council would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” she said in her final address to the Council.

The South African jurist was appointed in 2008 for a four-year term but fell foul of the US over her criticism of Israel and was only given a two-year second term.

The Council tends to act when a humanitarian situation arises out of conflict but Pillay stressed that human rights abuses are evident for years, even decades, before a major crisis erupts and the Council must must do more to prevent, rather than react to, conflicts.

Pillay also said Ban Ki-moon can do more in providing early warning to the Council on emerging crises. Ban launched the Rights Up Front plan last year in response to the UN’s “systematic failure” in responding to the final months of the 2009 war in Sri Lanka.  The plan’s aim is to prevent human rights abuses by acting on early warnings of human rights abuses.

“Within Rights Up Front, the Secretary-General can be even more proactive in alerting to potential crises, including situations that are not formally on the Council’s agenda,” she said.

Article 99 of the UN Charter empowers the secretary-general to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The human rights chief, who will be succeeded by Jordan’s outgoing UN envoy, Prince Zeid, also suggested the Council build on the new Arms Trade Treaty, “which requires arms exporters and importers to confirm that weapons will not be used to commit violations.”

“Where there are concerns about human rights in States that purchase arms, one condition of sale would be that they accept a small human rights monitoring team, with deployment funded by the Treaty’s Trust Fund,” she said.

The five permanent members of the Security Council are among the six biggest arms sellers in the world.

Prince Zeid assumes the role of high commissioner for human rights on Sept. 1. He has been succeeded as UN envoy by Dina Kavar, who becomes the sixth female ambassador to currently serve on the Council.

– Denis Fitzgerald 
On Twitter @denisfitz

 

Image/UN Photo

Ten Countries Infected by Polio Virus as WHO Declare Emergency

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May 5, 2014 –  Cameroon, Pakistan and Syria pose the greatest risk for exporting the polio virus that was on the verge of eradication a couple of years ago.

The vaccine-preventable disease has already spread across the borders of these three countries with neighboring Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan and Iraq also infected.

Declaring the situation a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organization on Monday said “the consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile States” where vaccination programs have been interrupted because of fighting.

Ethiopia, Israel, Somalia as well as Nigeria have also recorded cases of polio in the past year whereas prior to 2013 only three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – were considered endemic countries. The number of cases had decreased from some 350,000 in 1988 to 223 in 2012 as it seemed that the virus would join smallpox and rinderpest as the only diseases ever eradicated.

There were 417 polio cases last year, according to the Global Eradication Initiative.

Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Lebanon are at high risk of becoming infected countries due to their proximity to currently infected countries and the risk of conflict interrupting vaccination campaigns there.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Amnesty: 21 Countries Used the Death Penalty Last Year

April 9, 2013 – China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States were the world’s top executioners last year, according to Amnesty International’s annual review of the use of the death penalty.

The organization recorded 682 executions in 21 countries in 2012, virtually unchanged from 2011, when it recorded 680 executions in 21 countries. The figures do not include the estimated thousands of executions carried out in China, which does not publicly release information on its use of the death penalty.

A U.N. push to end the death penalty seems to be gaining traction with no executions recorded in 174 of the U.N.’s 193 member states (the two U.N. non-member states that carried out executions last year were Palestine and Taiwan). 

A General Assembly vote in November 2012 on putting a moratorium on the death penalty passed by a vote of 110 in favor, 39 against and 36 abstentions, a slight improvement from the same vote in 2010 and six more in favor than in a 2007 vote. A diplomat involved with the text said the aim is now to encourage states that have declared a moratorium to abolish executions, citing strong progress in Africa on ending the death penalty.

The U.S. is the only country in the Americas to still use the death penalty, carrying out 43 executions last year, the same as in 2011, but in only nine states, compared to 13 in 2011. There are 3,170 people still on death row in the U.S., according to Amnesty.

Belarus is the only country in Europe to still use the death penalty, carrying out at least three executions last year.

At least 557 executions were carried out in Middle East countries last year. Iran put 314 people to death in 2012; Iraq, 129; and Saudi Arabia, 79. Yemen, where a minimum of 28 people were executed last year, was the sixth biggest executioner in 2012. Those four countries accounted for 99 percent of all executions in the region last year.

Japan, seven executions last year, and the U.S. are the only G8 countries to still apply the death penalty. In Japan, as well as Belarus, prisoners were not informed of their forthcoming execution, nor were their families or lawyers, according to the Amnesty report.

Hanging remains the most commonly used method of execution followed by shooting. The U.S. and China both use lethal injection while Saudi Arabia still practices beheading, often in public.

The Amnesty report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald