UN: Drought An Underlooked Catalyst for Syria Revolt

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July 26, 2014 – A five-year drought that impoverished large parts of rural Syria led to anger and a growing sense of inequality that were catalysts for the March 2011 uprising, according to the recently released 2014 Human Development Report.

The ensuing civil-war has claimed more than 150,000 lives, including at least 1,700 in the past ten days. The UNDP report, released on Thursday, says the drought devastated millions of livelihoods in the agricultural sector, which was already suffering because of government neglect.

“The role of drought in contributing to the  Syrian crisis is less well known. From 2006 to 2010 the Syrian Arab Republic suffered an unprecedented drought, devastating much of its rural society. Impoverished farmers flooded into the slums of the cities,” the report states. “Observers estimate that 2–3  million of the country’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to extreme poverty. These deprivations, combined with a lack of jobs and an inadequate state and international response, contributed to a rapid buildup of resentment and an acute awareness of group inequality, fertile ground for the civil war that started in 2011.”

The theme of this year’s Human Development Report is resilience and looks at the effects on human security caused by climate change and economic crisis with a particular focus on groups that are vulnerable because of their history and unequal treatment by the rest of society – in Syria’s case, its rural population.

The report also says that humanitarian appeals, while providing necessary immediate aid, do not address climate change as an underlying driver in crises such as in the Sahel and in Syria.

It adds that the current system of global security governance, designed post-WWII to prevent conflict between the great powers, is inadequate in dealing with today’s crises.

“The turn from interstate conflict to internal conflict has changed the focus of conflict prevention and recovery,” the report says. “The resulting governance gap limits international capacity to address pressing security issues, passing the burden to the population in conflict settings.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/WFP

UNSC Draft on Gaza Invokes International Humanitarian Law

Palestinian Amb. Riyad Mansour Addressing the Security Council on Friday - UN Photo

Palestinian Amb. Riyad Mansour Addressing the Security Council on Friday – UN Photo

July 18, 2014 – The draft resolution that Jordan plans to circulate to Security Council members on Gaza includes a clause that explicitly refers to International Humanitarian Law.

Operative paragraph 3 of the draft textCalls upon all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in a Time of War of August 12, 1949.”

This language was absent from Resolution 1860 that ended Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09, an omission that disappointed several Council members then.

The statement that the 15-nation body agreed on July 12 also called upon parties to observe International Humanitarian Law.

A Council diplomat speaking to UN Tribune said the inclusion of language on international humanitarian law and on the protection of civilians in Saturday’s statement was significant. Council statements, while not binding, have to be agreed on by all fifteen members.

The diplomat added that at present there is no disagreement among Council members and there was consensus at Friday’s meeting in support of the Egyptian proposal for an immediate ceasefire.

The Council will meet again on Tuesday to discuss the crisis and, unless there is an end to hostilities by then, the resolution could be put to vote. If so, the ministerial committee formed by the Arab League on July 14, which is chaired by Kuwait and includes Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, would likely head to New York, at the foreign minister level, to press for adoption of the resolution. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El Araby is also a member of the ministerial committee.

International humanitarian law regulates the conduct of war and grave breaches of its rules constitute war crimes that can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, which Palestine said it will join if Israel’s Operation Protective Edge continues.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Friday reported that 268 Palestinians have been killed since July 7, including 193 civilians. Among those killed in the past eleven days are 59 children, representing 22 percent of all fatalities.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Israel’s Gaza Invasion Likely to Spur UN Security Council Action

Security Council Meeting on the situation in the Ukraine
July 17, 2014 – Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza will likely lead to a Security Council resolution calling for withdrawal and a ceasefire despite US wishes that a regional solution be found to the crisis.

Washington would rather see an Egyptian-mediated fix but the current military government in Cairo no longer has clout over militant groups in Gaza.

The Council issued a carefully worded non-binding statement on Saturday calling for de-escalation and a resumption of the Egyptian-brokered 2012 ceasefire agreement. The statement, whose wording was fought over by Jordan and the US, made no reference to either Israel or Hamas but specified the protection of civilians.

In the five days since the Council’s statement, the number of civilians killed has risen steadily with some 50 children now among the innocent victims.

US envoy Samantha Power, who in April solemnly vowed to defend Israeli interests at the United Nations, had been silent on Gaza up until Thursday but shortly after State Dept. spokesperson Jen Psaki said the US is “heartbroken” by the high civilian death toll in Gaza and called on Israel to do more to protect civilians, she tweeted that the civilian toll is “heartbreaking” and the US is “using all diplomatic resources to support a ceasefire.”

Less than an hour later, Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza for the first time since Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. That three-week offensive killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, including 412 children and 110 women, according to UN figures.

In response, the UNSC passed Resolution 1860 on Jan. 8, 2009 with 14 Council members supporting, none against, and the US abstaining. Fighting ended ten days after its adoption.

That lead to almost four years of relative calm until fighting erupted in late-2012, which was ended by the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire.

The Obama administration is keen to avoid a showdown at the UN where the US has used its veto 43 times, the majority of times in support of Israel – most recently in 2011 when it cast the sole no vote on a Security Council resolution condemning settlements that was co-sponsored by some 80 UN member states.

But as the body charged with the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security, and with a large UN presence on the ground in Gaza, expect the Council to take action in the coming days.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Photo/UN Photo

Alleged Killer of Irish Peacekeepers Arrested in Detroit

Funeral of Private Derek Smallhorne who was killed along with Private Thomas Barrett in 1980

Funeral of Private Derek Smallhorne who was killed along with Private Thomas Barrett in 1980

July 17, 2014 – A Detroit man accused of killing two Irish peacekeepers serving with the UN in Lebanon in 1980 was arrested by US authorities earlier this week.

Mahmoud Bazzi, who was a member of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA), was arrested at his home in Dearborn on an immigration violation that could lead to his deportation back to Lebanon.

He moved to the US shortly after the April 1980 torture and execution of Privates Derek Smallhorne and Thomas Barrett who were serving with the nine-nation UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Bazzi’s brother had been killed a week earlier in a skirmish with UNIFIL troops and the killing of the Irish peacekeepers was said to be a revenge attack.

Bazzi reportedly boasted in the Lebanese press of his responsibility for the killings but years later when confronted by a reporter from Irish television said the SLA militia forced him to confess publicly to the killings. A third Irish peacekeeper who was abducted along with Privates Barrett and Smallhorne, John O’Mahoney, was also shot but survived and says Bazzi was the triggerman.

A spokesperson for UNIFIL in New York said they are aware of the arrest of Bazzi.

“Pending clarity on charges filed by US authorities against the individual we won’t comment specifically,” Aditya Mehta said in an email to UN Tribune. “Any attack against UN Peacekeepers is unacceptable and constitutes a war crime.  We remain eternally grateful for the service and sacrifices of Thomas Barrett and Derek Smallhorne, who were killed while serving in UNIFIL in 1980, and urge the authorities to hold those responsible to account.”

Ninety Irish peacekeepers have been killed serving in UN missions, more than half, 47, were killed serving with UNIFIL.

In total, more than 3,200 UN peacekeepers have lost their lives in the line of duty.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

De Mistura New UN Envoy for Syria

Mr. Steffan de Mistura the Secretary-General's Special Representative (SRSG) for Afghanistan and head of United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), speaks to the press following a Security Council meeting on Afghanistan.
July 10, 2014 – Ban Ki-moon has appointed Swedish-Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura as the UN special envoy for Syria.

De Mistura, who was previously UN representative to Iraq and Afghanistan, takes up the post vacated by Lakhdar Brahimi but unlike Brahimi or his predecessor, Kofi Annan, his is not a joint appointment with the Arab League.

While Annan was the joint UN-Arab League special envoy for Syria and Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League special representative, De Mistura’s title is UN special envoy.

His deputy has been named as Egyptian Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, who previously served as the Arab League’s envoy to the IAEA in Vienna. Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that Ramzy’s appointment was made at the recommendation of the Arab League.

“I make it clear that Ambassador Ramzy was recommended by the League of Arab States, but he is going to be appointed by me, by the Secretary-General, and he is going to be the Deputy Special Envoy and he will work together with Mr. De Mistura,” Ban said. “But it is also important that we need to have closer coordination, consultation with the League of Arab States. That is a basic hallmark of our work until now, and it will continue to be so.”

Syria was suspended from membership of the Arab League in November 2011 and the decision by the UN to not appoint a joint envoy is viewed as a result of pressure from Damascus as well as a calculation that Damascus may work more cooperatively with an envoy not jointly appointed with the Arab League.

Annan served as joint special envoy from Feb. 2012 to Aug. 2012 and resigned after the failure of his six-point plan while Brahimi served from Aug. 2012 to May 2014 and resigned when it became clear that the Geneva Communique would not be implemented.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/UN Photo

UN: 23 Civilians Killed in Gaza Since Start of Israeli Offensive

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July 9, 2014 – Seven children were among the 23 civilians killed since the July 7 start of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge offensive in Gaza, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on Wednesday.

About 900 people have been displaced by the airstrikes that have destroyed or damaged some 150 homes, OCHA said in a situation report.

A total of 35 Palestinians have been killed since the operation began and approximately 300 people have been injured, including 71 children and 66 women, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Four Israelis, including two civilians, have been injured as a result of rocket fire from Gaza, and some property has been damaged, OCHA reported.

It also says that hospitals in Gaza are operating but are short on supplies and electricity outages are disrupting operations.

In addition, 13 schools have been damaged by the strikes.

The UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting on Gaza at 10am ET on Thursday. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will brief the 15-nation body who are also expected to hear from the Israeli and Palestinian envoys to the UN.

Civilian Casualaties Up 24 Percent in Afghanistan

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July 9, 2014 – Almost 5,000 Afghan civilians were killed or injured in the first six months of 2014 with women and children accounting for one-third of casualties.

The UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 4,853 civilian casualties from Jan. 1 to Jun. 30 2014, up 24 percent over the same period in 2013. The toll included 1,564 civilian deaths, up 17 percent, and 3,289 injuries, up 28 percent.

Total child civilian casualties increased 34 percent in the first six months of 2014 to 1,071 with 295 children killed and 776 injured, while total women civilian casualties increased 24 percent to 440, including 148 women killed and 292 injured.

“The nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is changing in 2014 with an escalation of ground engagements in civilian-populated areas,” the head of UNAMA, Ján Kubiš,, said in a statement. “The impact on civilians, including the most vulnerable Afghans, is proving to be devastating.”

Seventy-four percent of civilian casualties were attributable to anti-government forces, according to UNAMA, with the Taliban publicly claiming responsibility for 147 attacks that resulted in 553 civilian casualties with 234 civilians killed and 319 injured.

Attacks involving suicide bombers killed 156 civilians and injured 427.

Nine percent of civilian casualties were attributed to  pro-government forces – eight percent to Afghan national security forces and one per cent to international military forces, while 12 percent occurred in ground engagements between insurgents and Afghan forces which could not be attributed to a specific party.

The remaining civilian casualties were caused by explosive remnants of war, such as landmines, UNAMA said.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN ‘Dysfunction’ at Heart of Slow Response to Humanitarian Crises

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July 8, 2014 – The global humanitarian system is failing to appropriately and rapidly respond to crises and the UN is at heart of this failure, according to a new report from Medecins Sans Frontiers.

The organization reviewed three recent crises – the refugee emergency in Upper Nile State, South Sudan from Nov. 2011 to Nov. 2012; the M23 mutiny in North Kivu, DRC, from April 2012 to April 2013; and the influx of Syrian refugees to Jordan from July 2012 to June 2013.

“The UN was at the heart of the dysfunction in each of the cases reviewed. There, historical mandates and institutional positioning have created a system with artificial boundaries (for example, between the coordination roles of UNHCR for refugees and OCHA elsewhere), to the detriment of those needing assistance and protection,” the report states.

“Further, the triple role of key UN agencies, as donor, coordinator and implementer, is causing conflicts of interest, especially in recognizing and correcting mistakes.”

Significantly, the report notes that “insufficiency of financing was not identified as a major constraint on performance in any of the three emergencies reviewed.”

Instead it says that disbursement of funds is slow and bureaucratic and the process for receiving funds in the field takes up to three months “which means it cannot be properly considered ’emergency response.'”

The report specifically criticizes the UN Refugee Agency’s role as coordinator, implementor and donor saying this triple role led to considerable “conflicts of interest” and this in turn made it difficult for “UNHCR itself to admit to bigger problems or to ask for technical assistance from other UN agencies, for fear of losing out on funding or credibility.”

It says that refugee status and not need or vulnerability was the primary determinant of assistance and that those registered with UNHCR and living in UNHCR camps were prioritized over those living in host communities.

The MSF report also states that “risk aversion” is a major problem in the global humanitarian response system and “populations received assistance in large part based on how easy they were to target and reach.”

“While the humanitarian system has grown massively, this had not led to a proportionate improvement in performance during emergencies,” the report concludes.

A spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs responded that it welcomes the contribution by MSF ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit which is being convened because of the “unprecedented strain on the international humanitarian system” and that “many of the report’s conclusions are reflected in OCHA’s own reviews of humanitarian operations.”

“The UN has already been addressing some of the concerns raised by MSF. We are working to improve our security management,” OCHA’s Clare Doyle said in an email to UN Tribune. “Aid organisations are using rapid mobile response teams, for example in South Sudan, to reach the most remote locations. Over 800,000 people have been reached by these teams since March 2014.”

She added that research does not indicate that aid workers are becoming more risk averse. “Figures from the Aid Workers Security Database do not support MSF’s assertion that humanitarian workers are becoming more risk averse, but indicate that the risk acceptance of humanitarian workers is increasing slightly.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/UNHCR

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More Allegations of Torture and Ill Treatment in Bahrain

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June 27, 2014 – The United Nations expert on torture says his office has received information that torture and denial of medical treatment is continuing in Bahrain detention centers.

Juan Mendez, the special rapporteur on torture, also said that, despite his requests, the government of Bahrain have still not set a date for him to visit the country. The authorities in the Gulf country have “postponed” two of his previously planned visits.

“On a regular basis my mandate receives information and allegations of torture and ill treatment of detainees including beatings and forced confessions,” he said in a video address on Thursday. “We also receive information about denial of medical treatment to people who are suffering different ailments. Some of them originated in torture and some of them pre-existing but either way in violation of the obligation of the state of Bahrain to provide adequate medical treatment to anybody in detention.”

Mendez, an Argentine who was detained for 18 months during Argentina’s military dictatorship and suffered torture, also said that “there is very little information pointing to the fulfillment of Bahrain’s obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish torture.”

He added that the “important recommendations” made by the 2011 Independent Commission of Inquiry are “in a state of non-implementation.”

“We also receive frequent complaints of excessive use of force in the street. Since the clashes of early 2011 those reports have been unceasing which means that the government has not changed its policy regarding crowd control or excessive use of force,” he said.

– Denis Fitzgerald 
On Twitter @denisfitz

UNICEF: Children in Yemen Forced Into Marriage, Labor and Conflict

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June 18, 2014 – Attacks against schools and hospitals are among the grave violations committed against children in Yemen, according to the UN Children’s Agency in its 2014 report on the Arab world’s poorest country.

“One particular form of such grave acts is the forced marriage of girls, which is reported to have affected up to 100 girls in Abyan alone during 2012, involving leaders or members of Ansar Al-Sharia,” says the report, which was released on Tuesday. Ansar Al-Sharia is another name given to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The UN team in Yemen verified cases of girls as young as 13 being forced into marriage and a case of two girls offered as ‘gifts’ by their brothers who had been allowed to join armed groups. It says the majority of girls forced into marriage soon become pregnant.

“In all of the verified cases the girls reported being abandoned along with their children when their husbands fled from Abyan as government forces regained control.”

Recruitment of children by armed groups, including the government, is continuing, the report says, with 69 verified cases of boys between the ages of 10-17 recruited to fight in armed conflict last year.

Yemen also has the highest rate of child labor in the MENA region at 23 percent, double that of the next highest country, Iraq, and also the only MENA country where the proportion of girls in child labor exceeds that of boys.

There were 18 attacks on hospitals and 242 attacks on schools in Yemen last year, the report says. “Attacks on schools are a deliberate targeting of children:  their safety, their right to an education and their essential development.”

More than 100 of the schools were destroyed by shelling while other schools have been occupied by armed groups.

One bright spot appears to be a gain in gender parity in primary education with 8 girls enrolled for every ten boys, but the report cautions that the rate of boys dropping out of school is also increasing “and thus gender parity rates in enrollment may not reflect actual gains for girls education in
Yemen.”

The full report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz