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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

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* According to the L.A. Times, at least one unnamed Western government is sponsoring a “fact-finding” mission aimed at gathering the evidence necessary to prosecute President Assad of Syria for crimes against humanity for his brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests. “The fact-finding mission,” the Times reported, “mostly involves assembling testimony from Syrian refugees that conforms to standards of international law necessary to sustain a war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court.”

* Twelve female U.S. senators have requested that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressure the Burmese government to halt its use of rape as a weapon of war. A letter to Clinton signed by eleven of the senators said, “Given the Burmese regime’s unabated use of rape as a weapon of war, we urge you to call on the regime to end this practice and pursue our shared goal of establishing an international commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity…”

* Amnesty International recently published a report calling for reforms in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s justice system to help “combat impunity that has been fostering a cycle of violence and human rights violations for decades.” Citing reports of rapes, arbitrary arrests, murders, and assaults committed by Congolese soldiers on civilians that have went unpunished, Amnesty asks the United Nations, European Union and others to provide funding and “technical support” to help ensure “a comprehensive, long term justice strategy is developed.”

* Villagers in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe have unearthed human remains that are thought to be victims of the Gukurahundi massacre, which took place between 1983 and 1987. The massacre saw an estimated 20,000 people killed when President Robert Mugabe ordered his elite Gukurahundi fighting force to squash political and potential military opposition in the Matabeleland area.

Photos (from top): opinion-maker.org, operationbrokensilence.org, ZimEye.org

* Representative Chris Smith, head of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, convened an emergency meeting to discuss the escalation of violence in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan. Smith called for the immediate dispatch of peacekeepers to the area, which he believes “could be very effective in mitigating the loss of life.” This position is likely to be championed by U.S. officials at the United Nations Security Council meeting today.

* According to reports, since the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters began, thousands of government soldiers have defected and hundreds have been arrested after refusing to obey orders to indiscriminately open fire on protesters.

* Four former Guatemalan soldiers were sentenced to over 6,000 years in prison after being tried for crimes against humanity. They were found guilty of participating in the Dos Erres massacre, in which hundreds of civilians were slaughtered in a Guatemalan village by the military.

 * In a telephone conversation with Syria’s president on Saturday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once again condemned the government’s brutal crackdown on protestors and requested that the country’s borders be opened to international humanitarian organizations.

Photos (from top): rawstory.com, egyptianintifada.com, global post.com

In an interview yesterday, Edward Luck, special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General for the responsibility to protect, offered wide-ranging comments on the concept of R2P, past, present, and future.

In explaining R2P’s origins, Luck cited massacres like the Rwandan genocide and Cambodia’s “killing fields,” which made clear the need for a framework of principles to help protect civilians while taking into account the international system’s deep-rooted notion of state sovereignty. R2P, as conceived in 2001, seemed to present a perfect middle ground, and according to Luck its evolution has so far been successful.

Apart from NATO’s heavily criticized intervention in Libya, and the mixed outcome of Côte d’Ivoire, Luck says R2P has helped in Kyrgyzstan and Guinea, although these cases received less media coverage. In Libya’s case, he argued, most of the negative response has focused on the use of force, which isn’t R2P’s main goal and therefore shouldn’t be the litmus test of its success.

“For us the job isn’t response, the job is prevention,” Luck said. “Many people think that responsibility to protect is all about the use of military force after the bodies start piling up. For us, that isn’t morally acceptable.”

On the topic of Syria, Luck discussed why it is that R2P was applied to help the Libyans while the Syrian people seem to have been abandoned, explaining it mainly in terms of the influence of regional organizations.

In Libya’s case, Luck said, “the Arab League, the African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, all acted before the Security Council did. . . . In this case it was really the way the [UN] Charter had meant it to be: the parties and then the regional bodies first try to resolve the differences.” This contrasts with Syria, where support for intervention from regional organizations has been absent.

Luck also cited the language used by Qaddafi, who referred to protesters as “cockroaches” and said he would “cleanse Libya house by house.” Assad, on the other hand, has been more careful. “We listen to what leaders say as well as watch what they do,” Luck said.

Speculating on R2P’s future, Luck says he hopes and believes that, rather than meeting its demise, R2P will become so absorbed into the way states think of their responsibilities, and so much a part of civil society, that his office at the UN “simply could go out of business.”

The interview fails to mention one glaring issue: namely, the Sudanese state of South Kordofan. By all accounts the regime in Khartoum, since June 5, has engaged in illegal policies that target civilians of specific ethnic groups for torture and arrest and murder. Criticism has been hurled at the UN and its member states for their lack of action and avoidance of the issues—as Luck himself does in the interview.

Genocide scholar Samuel Totten, who has written extensively on Sudan, wrote an opinion column last week arguing that South Sudan fits all the requirements for R2P intervention. Yet, he wrote: “the international [community] largely plays dumb, claiming ‘I see no evil’ and ‘I hear no evil.’ The latter, of course, conveniently translates into, ‘Thus, I do not need to deal with evil.’ Such a position is totally antithetical to the concept of The Responsibility to Protect. Indeed, it is akin to seeking an easy (and unconscionable) way out of acting responsibly.”

In contrast to Luck’s optimistic view of the future of R2P, Totten declared that it was “on the verge of becoming a dead letter.”

* Human Rights Watch stated that more international monitors are “urgently needed” to help protect civilians and prevent crimes against humanity during the ongoing conflict in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan. The Sudanese government called claims of genocide in South Kordofan “misleading and subjective” after the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations called for an international investigation in the area.

* Despite the abatement in post-election fighting in Côte d’Ivoire, Amnesty International claims that hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons cannot return home because government forces are targeting ethnic groups thought to be loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo with arbitrary arrests, executions, and other crimes.

* In a letter to Myanmar’s president and the leaders of four rebel groups, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi warned of a return to all-out civil war unless all sides pursue a ceasefire and peaceful negotiations.

*According to the global activist group Avaaz, an estimated 3,000 people have gone “missing” in Syria since the government began its crackdown on the democratic uprising there.

Photos (from top): Stuart Price, Peter DiCampo/Pulitzer Center, almostdorothy.wordpress.com

* Four former Guatemalan military officers are being tried for crimes against humanity they allegedly committed in 1982. They are accused of taking part in the Dos Erres Massacre, in which government forces murdered over 200 villagers suspected of being rebel sympathizers.

* Today a United Nations–organized seminar aimed at preventing genocide in South Sudan, hosted in the country’s capital of Juba, concludes. Special Adviser Francis Deng said the UN hopes to “prevent the new State from getting into. . . errors”—such as “discrimination, dehumanization, inclusivity, marginalization, and suppression”—that led to the breakup of Sudan.

* The Democratic Republic of Congo’s main opposition party, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, chose Jean-Pierre Bemba, currently on trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as their presidential candidate. Bemba is accused of leading militias that killed hundreds of civilians in the Central African Republic. 

* President Mahinda Rajapaksa dismissed the controversial British documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” claiming the footage, which purportedly shows the Sri Lankan army committing war crimes during the final weeks of the country’s civil war, was a “film” staged by the rebel Tamil Tigers.

* United Nations officials issued a statement saying Syrian authorities may have committed crimes against humanity in their suppression of the democratic uprisings sweeping the country. Citing reports of the murder and arrest of civilians, Francis Deng and Edward Luck called for an investigation and requested that the Assad regime abide by international regulations when responding to protests.

Photos (from top): thebellforum.com, realsociology.edublogs.org, Associated Press

Syria: Draft Resolution in Security Council

On Wednesday, France, Britain, Portugal, and Germany submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council condemning the actions by the Syrian government against civilian protesters. Explicitly referring to the Syrian authorities’ responsibility to protect its civilian population and suggesting that the violent measures may constitute crimes against humanity, the draft resolution called for an end to the violence, the enactment of political reforms and an investigation of the situation in full cooperation with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The resolution also urged other states stop and prevent sales of arms and related supplies to Syria. Discussion on the draft resolution is to begin on Thursday with a vote taking place in several days. While the draft resolution has the support of as many as 11 of the 15 members of the Security Council including the United States, Russia and China have expressed strong reservations against it, leaving open the possibility of a veto.

The draft resolution follows last Thursday’s warning from Special Advisers of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, and on the Responsibility to Protect, Edward Luck, and Human Rights Watch’s report regarding the situation in Syria. Deng and Luck expressed alarm at the attack on the civilians, called for “an independent, thorough, and objective investigation,” and urged the Syrian government to cooperate with the inquiry and “to refrain from further attacks against the civilian population.” The Human Rights Watch report, in addition to detailing what it considered to be “crimes against humanity,” went further, recommending that the UN Security Council not only condemn the human rights violations, but also refer the violations to the International Criminal Court and adopting sanctions against Syrian officials if necessary.

Kyrgyzstan: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Reports

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International each issued new reports on the Kyrgyz government’s investigation into last year’s ethnic violence. As a result of the violence between the Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks, nearly 500, mostly Uzbeks, were killed, and 400,000 fled their homes. The Amnesty International report, which alleges that some of the atrocities against the Uzbeks may have constituted crimes against humanity, argued that the government did not fully investigate the violence perpetrated by the ethnic Kyrgyz and possibly even the security forces against the ethnic Uzbeks. Human Rights Watch detailed allegations of torture, as well as ethnic bias against Uzbeks during the trials following the investigation. Furthermore, the organizations expressed concerns that the government’s inadequate investigations may lead to future unrest between the two ethnic groups.

Bangladesh: War Crimes Tribunal

Bangladesh has been instituting a war crimes tribunal relating to its 1971 independence war against Pakistan. One to three million, mostly civilians, are estimated to have been killed, and approximately 300,000 women were raped. The tribunal, which is investigating the participation of Bengalis in the atrocities, is significant as it raises questions on whether accused war criminals should be tried in an international court or in a domestic tribunal, and whether countries without advanced legal systems have the capacity to properly deliver justice. The tribunal, charged with prosecuting genocide and crimes against humanity, is also important because it will be considering sexual violence as evidence in its decision-making. The court’s independence and fairness has been a point of contention, with Human Rights Watch, the International Bar Association, and the International Centre for Transitional Justice all expressing concern over several aspects of the proposed legal proceedings. It remains to be seen whether the tribunal can proceed free from political pressure and according to international judicial standards.

Photo: Guardian

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