You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2011.

Yesterday, the French National Assembly (France‘s lower house of Parliament) approved a draft law outlawing genocide denial. This includes the killings of more than one million Armenians by Turkish soldiers during World War I; though Turkey does not classify the killings as a genocide, France officially did so in 2001. The bill still needs Senate approval, and is expected to be debated early next year. In the interim, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoganhalted bilateral political and economic contacts, suspended military cooperation and ordered his country’s ambassador home for consultations.” Erdogan also retaliated by accusing France of massacring 15% of the Algerian population while France ruled Algeria from 1945-1962. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan expressed gratitude for what he considers France’s commitment to human values, but the Organization of Islamic Cooperation rejects the bill and Turkish President Abdullah Gül said France should withdraw from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group if the bill becomes law. The Armenian National Committee of America put out a statement to “mark the event and call President Obama to carry out his promise on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, as well as the Congress to put the 304 resolution to the vote for the recognition of the Armenian genocide.”

Photo: euronews.net

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On December 15 Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s de facto president during the early 1980s, delivered himself to the Attorney General’s office to ask if he would be tried for his 10-year-old charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against the indigenous populations. Mr. Ríos Montt said, “if there’s a criminal investigation against me, it should go forth according to due process and I should stand trial.” This seemingly honest move comes on the heels of a new legislature, which is to take office next month, thus losing Mr. Ríos Montt his congressional seat, and the immunity from prosecution that comes with it. In a December 20 article, the Council on Foreign Relations said this indicated nothing more than a clear grasp on the reality of what would happen after his immunity expired, especially considering the tension that exists between himself and the incoming president Otto Perez Molina. The article also pointed out that the new leader of the Attorney General’s office, Claudia Paz y Paz, has proven more than willing to pursue his case, as her office has already convicted four soldiers, and has recently pressed charges against five more for their roles in massacres that occurred during Mr. Ríos Montt’s rule. Furthermore, Spain’s National Court issued an international arrest warrant for Ríos Montt on genocide charges in 2006, making his flight potentially more dangerous than facing the charges domestically. While the article certainly does not praise Mr. Ríos Montt for his decision to turn himself in, as it is seemingly his only option, it does say that this has positive implications for Guatemala’s justice system, saying, “the fact that Ríos Montt has to engage with the charges at all shows that something may finally be right with Guatemala’s fledgling justice sector.”

Photo: prensalibre.com

On November 28 the UN officially declared that the Syrian government has committed crimes against humanity. But within that complex situation there is also a hidden risk of atrocities against a minority religious group called the Alawites.

We know from the past that reprisals against a regime that has committed genocide may themselves often lead to a new genocide. In Syria’s case there has not been a genocide, but a report issued last month by the International Crisis Group makes it clear that because of “the Alawites’ conspicuous role in putting down protests, disseminating propaganda and staging pro-regime demonstrations,” there is now a high risk of violence targeting the Alawites as a group. [See pages 2, 3, 4, and 8.]

In a section of the conclusion titled “Protection,” the report says:

“Ironically, and however difficult it may be to admit, the Alawite community ultimately might need the kind of protection the protest movement long has strived to obtain for itself. As seen, risks of massacres in the early stages of a transition are very real; should they occur, chances of success could be fatally imperilled. It is not too soon for the opposition to address these fears head on; it might consider possible mechanisms – for example coordinating the swift dispatch, once the regime falls, of observers from local and perhaps international human rights organisations – to minimise this risk.”

In other words, if Syria is viewed only as a state committing violence against its citizens, it obscures the additional risk of genocide or mass atrocities against supporters of the regime itself. If the situation is viewed through a genocide-prevention lens, the risk becomes clear and there is a possibility of taking steps to address it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the two days leading up to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s legislative and presidential elections on November 28, electoral violence left at least 18 civilians dead and 100 seriously wounded. Analysts further predicted election-related violence would follow, and in the two weeks since, these predictions have unfortunately been realized.

Eleven candidates ran for president, including incumbent President Joseph Kabila. Kabila originally came to power in 2001, after his father’s assassination, and was democratically elected in 2006. Currently he is an unpopular figure, especially in western Congo. Eastern Congolese voters are also disillusioned with Kabila’s rule, as he has failed to deliver on his 2006 promises of greater stability and improved infrastructure. As such, many voters were unconvinced that Kabila could win fairly. Moreover, the voting process was widely perceived as fraudulent and irregular.

According to the Carter Center:

“[We find] the provisional presidential election results announced by the Independent National Election Commission (CENI) on Dec. 9 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to lack credibility. CENI results point to the re-election of incumbent President Joseph Kabila with 49 percent of the vote followed by Etienne Tshisekedi with 32 percent and Vital Kamerhe with 7.7 percent.  Voter turnout was 58 percent.

[. . .] the quality and integrity of the vote tabulation process has varied across the country, ranging from the proper application of procedures to serious irregularities, including the loss of nearly 2,000 polling station results in Kinshasa . . . it is also evident that multiple locations, notably several Katanga province constituencies, reported impossibly high rates of 99 to 100 percent voter turnout with all, or nearly all, votes going to incumbent President Joseph Kabila. These and other observations point to mismanagement of the results process and compromise the integrity of the presidential election.”

Anti-riot policemen and members of the elite presidential guard were deployed into the streets of Kinshasa to confront Tshisekedi’s supporters in the immediate aftermath of the election. It has now been confirmed that police killed four people in post-election violence, three of whom were looters and one who was hit by a stray bullet. Human Rights Watch received reports not only of shootings, but of abductions as well. The country’s last civil war, which claimed approximately 6 million lives, ended in 2003. The United Nations’ Human Development Index—the indicators of which are health, education, income, inequality, poverty, gender, and sustainability—ranks the DRC last out of 187 countries. Given these conditions and the DRC’s recent history, it is widely believed that this controversy could escalate into yet another civil war.

Photo: globalpost.com

Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day, commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights organizations the world over are using the occasion to mobilize the international community to stop crimes against humanity in North Korea. Three months ago saw the launch of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), whose goal is working toward the establishment of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry to address these issues.

According to Human Rights Watch, the North Korean dictatorship is guilty of “the widespread and systematic use of torture, arbitrary detention, abduction and public executions.” And in the last 16 years, more than four million North Koreans have died of starvation. Though the country has received billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, money and food alike are diverted to the military and the party elite. Political prison camps abound, in which, according to current Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea Marzuki Darusman, “as many as 250,000 political prisoners, one-third of whom are children, are at present being forced to perform slave labor on starvation rations and are subject to brutal beatings, systematic rape and torture, and execution at the whim of prison guards.”

Robert Park, writing in the Harvard International Review (HIR), believes the time has come, or is overdue, for the international community to invoke the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Park also argues for increased financial support for North Korean refugees, many of whom send money to family and friends remaining in the country through illicit channels. In addition, he says South Korea must take decisive action, given that the South Korean constitution extends citizenship to all North Koreans, giving it leverage to exercise its right of diplomatic protection over defectors in China. To this end, Park calls on “the highest branches of South Korea’s government . . . to vouch more persistently and forcefully for the North Korean defectors on the grounds that these refugees are their nationals by law.” If these steps are not taken, says Park, North Korea will continue to bear witness to one of the most horrific genocides in modernity.

Photo: wilgpacific.org

* Yesterday Kenyan foreign minister Moses Wetangula announced that his government would not host the Intergovernmental Authority on Development meeting dedicated to Sudan. His statement came after the Kenyan High Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, following on the International Criminal Court‘s warrants against Bashir for crimes against humanity and war crimes in March 2009, and for genocide in July 2010. Wetangula at first criticized the Kenyan court’s decision, saying it would complicate the country’s foreign relations and disrupt its mediating role in Sudan. For its part Sudan expelled the Kenyan ambassador, recalled its own, and froze bilateral trade between the two countries. This decision was delayed following a meeting between Bashir and Wetangula, but Bashir says unless the Kenyan court reverses its ruling, Sudan will proceed with sanctions against Kenya.

* Swiss judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet arrived yesterday in Phnom Penh to replace Judge Siegfried Blunk of Germany as the UN half of the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges (OCIJ), charged with investigating alleged crimes by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Judge Blunk resigned in October amid international criticism that he had “failed to conduct genuine, impartial, and effective investigations.” In his resignation statement, Blunk said he was routinely subject to pressure that “could be perceived as attempted interference by government officials.” Judge You Bunleng, representing Cambodia in the OCIJ, responded to Ansermet’s arrival by saying that without Cambodian government approval, “[A]ny procedural action taken by Judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet is not legally valid.”

The UN-backed Cambodian tribunal’s ineffectiveness has resulted in only one conviction since its conception in 2001, that of Kaing Guek Eav, commandant of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison. In a December 6 article, The Investigative Fund pointed out that there is no independent mechanism to oversee the conduct of judges on the Cambodian tribunal.

Meanwhile, on November 22, after hearing opening statements by the defense and the prosecution, Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two,” defended himself against atrocity charges, saying that they were committed by Vietnamese troops, and imposters disguised in the black outfits of Khmer Rouge revolutionaries.

Photo: arabnews.com

* Burma’s ruling military junta seems to be inching towards democratic reform. The contentious Myitsone dam project has been called off and the government recently released more than 6,000 political prisoners. One of them, chief opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has registered her National League for Democracy party to run in the upcoming elections. The party supports a constitutional amendment that would allow prisoners to vote. Additionally, bans on public protests and union strikes have been lifted.

But these positive developments are still far outweighed by the country’s persistent human rights violations. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana (pictured above), recently discussed the Burmese military’s use of children and forced labor, as well as discrimination against ethnic minorities. A National Human Rights Commission has been set up but lacks independence, and border conflicts remain unresolved. Lastly, despite the dam project not coming to fruition, exploitation of Burma’s natural resources, and the resultant displacement of people, continues to be an issue.

* Last Friday, 29 United States senators, Democrat and Republican alike, sent a letter to President Obama to express their “support for developing the necessary tools to successfully avert mass atrocities and prevent conditions that can lead to violence against innocent civilians.” The letter recapped the terms of Senate Concurrent Resolution 71, while also expressing appreciation for recent steps taken by the Obama administration to develop a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to genocide and mass atrocities prevention, such as the Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10), a National Security Staff Director focused on the prevention of war crimes and atrocities, the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board, and the mandate for an interagency study to inform the board’s work.

Photo: irrawaddy.org

AIPR Communications Intern Christopher Kousouros files this report from a panel discussion on The Media in Srebrenica.

On Monday a panel discussion was held in New York on the media’s role in uncovering the 1995 Srebrenica genocide and, given the upsurge of citizen journalism, the evolution of the media’s structure and role in preventing future atrocities.

The discussion, organized by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, featured the following speakers: Laura Silber, an investigative journalist who interviewed Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic soon after the genocide took place; Michael Dobbs, who wrote the first in-depth article about Srebrenica; Emma Daly, communications director at Human Rights Watch, who was a journalist covering the Bosnian war at the time of the genocide; and David Rohde, the journalist who exposed the mass graves outside Srebrenica, leading to the uncovering of the genocide that took place.

Srebrenica proved indicative of the abilities and limitations of investigative journalism in the ’90s, before the advent of the citizen journalism that has so critically reshaped the media’s role today. In the early ’90s, there were journalists from all over the world in Bosnia. In fact, Michael Dobbs claimed that the media played a decisive role in creating the six safe areas, Srebrenica among them, in 1993. Professional media coverage was one of the most effective weapons Bosnians had to get the international community involved.

However, by July 1995, Srebrenica had been cut off to all journalists. Consequently, it was only when news started trickling out of the city, by way of escaped Muslim men arriving in Tuzla, that thanks to investigative reporting by people like David Rohde, the genocide was uncovered. In other words, investigative journalism at the time was capable only of exposing the genocide after the fact, but since no reporters were allowed into the city, as is usually the case in areas under threat of genocide, no one was able to get word out in time to prevent it. Dobbs was the first to write an in-depth report on the genocide, but it came in October, three months later.

Times have changed. With the advent of citizen journalism, on-the-ground coverage of events in places inaccessible to professional journalists is available virtually everywhere, whether via cell phones or social media such as Facebook and Twitter. According to Dobbs, if this kind of technology had been available in 1995, it would have been much harder to cover up and carry out the genocide in Srebrenica. However, these new technologies also present a problem, in that it is sometimes near impossible to confirm the stream of information pouring out of places like Syria and Sri Lanka, where professional journalism has been effectively eliminated.

The media, however, hardly bear all the responsibility for the international community’s failure to prevent genocide in Srebrenica. Ivan Barbalić, a representative of the Permanent Mission of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Nations, was present at the panel discussion and said enough evidence was in fact available. He said that while technologies like cell phone video recordings and Facebook weren’t available in 1995, media institutions like Headline News and CNN were providing enough real-time coverage in Bosnia for decisionmakers to conclude that something was going to happen in Srebrenica. He believes that the writing was on the wall, and that the failure to act belongs to the international community as a whole. He points specifically to the lack of political will in institutions such as the UN.

Nevertheless, Barbalić also pointed out the decisive role that citizen journalism has played in the Arab Spring, and said that had this information been available in 1995, perhaps the genocide could have been prevented. In discussing the Libya intervention, he said, “When Libya was opening up, the information coming from the media was very important to create a complete picture: ‘If we don’t do something, there will be major bloodshed in Benghazi.’ ” The coverage provided by Libyan citizens effectively made it impossible for the international community not to intervene in Libya, but in places like Syria and Sri Lanka, where there is a virtual blackout of professional media coverage, the ability to verify information that might drive the international community to act is largely absent.

Looking towards the future, all of the panel speakers agreed that professional journalism still holds an important role in preventing and exposing mass atrocities. They believe that new technologies and citizen journalism can be a very powerful resource, but one that needs to serve a complimentary role with the professional media, which are charged with providing verifiable facts that can influence international action. Without reliable information from places like Syria, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, the atrocities being committed will not be brought to light, let alone prevented from happening in the first place.

Photo: channel4.com

Christopher Kousouros holds a B.A. in International Studies from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. 

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