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End of Joseph Kony hunt breeds frustration and fear

IRIN Gender - Wed, 04/26/2017 - 13:44

Uganda and the United States have ended a six-year hunt for elusive warlord Joseph Kony and his notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.


But calling off the mission, focused on Central African Republic, has left the commander of Ugandan forces in the country frustrated and advocacy groups concerned that the failure to “kill or capture” Kony could see the insurgency rebound.


Uganda began withdrawing its officially 2,500 troops from their base in eastern CAR last week. The pull out of 100 US special forces, who worked alongside the Ugandan soldiers, began today.


The mission, known as the African Union Regional Taskforce (AU-RT), was almost from the start a wholly Ugandan affair.




It was supposed to have been 5,000-strong, drawing troops from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the CAR. But the neighbouring countries, with security problems of their own, either never deployed or quickly withdrew their contingents.


The task force failed to win donor funding, and Uganda ended up footing the bill. Since 2011, armed US special forces advisors have provided intelligence and logistics support.


Colonel Richard Otto is the commander of Uganda’s contingent in the CAR. At his divisional headquarters in Uganda’s northern city of Gulu, the amiable, decorated, former senior military intelligence officer, explained the difficulty of his three-year posting.


“In CAR, the area we are operating in is almost the size of Uganda. You can imagine [the vastness], and I don’t have enough troops,” he told IRIN.


The task force was drawn from all units of the Ugandan army, but may not have exceeded 1,500 men, according to media reports.


Hiding out


CAR has been the perfect hideaway for the LRA. It has been convulsed by violence since 2013, when a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebels known as the Séléka overthrew the government. The UN mission, MINUSCA, has been unable to end ongoing violence between Christian militia and the former Séléka.        


“The armed forces of CAR are yet to be organised,” said Otto, who before his deployment in CAR served as chief operations planner with African Union forces in Somalia.


“Some of them are undergoing training by [the] UN [and the] European Union Training Mission, and they are not yet deployed in the eastern part of the country.”

Colonel Richard Otto briefing troops in CAR

The lawlessness of the CAR has attracted not only “Séléka” from neighbouring Chad, but also the “Janjaweed” militia from Sudan’s Darfur region coming in to poach elephants, among other armed men.


“We have quite a number of armed groups,” said Otto. “So, when you encounter them in the jungle, sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you are fighting LRA or other [forces].”


But the Ugandan troops have recorded significant successes. Four key LRA commanders have been captured, and an insurgency of 2,000 fighters that terrorised a huge swathe of territory across central Africa has been sharply degraded.


On the run


The LRA, now believed to be down to less than 120 armed men, has splintered into small units operating in the remotest regions of eastern CAR, northeastern Congo, and Darfur.


“The enemy is permanently on the run,” said Otto, claiming that there had been a steady trickle of defections and that “over 1,000 civilians” that were abducted by the LRA had been rescued.


Kony, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, has a $5 million bounty on his head. He is believed to be hiding in the Kafia-Kingi enclave, a disputed border area between Sudan and South Sudan. 


Khartoum is not a member of the regional task force and, as a historical supporter of the LRA, appears to have given Kony safe haven.


But, crucially, he no longer leads his men. “He has lost command, control, and communication,” said Otto. “For the first time, the LRA has factions. There is a group… who has decided to leave [the] LRA and operates on [its] own.”


Two senior LRA commanders, Bosco Kilama and Peter Ochora, who defected last month in Congo, agree with Otto’s assessment on the group’s disintegration.


“The LRA is disarray. The LRA has been completely disorganised with no central command. Kony is growing old and losing the grip on the soldiers,” Kilama told reporters at Uganda’s Entebbe airbase last week. The two men will receive a government amnesty.


Mission accomplished?


The LRA’s apparent toothlesness has allowed the Ugandan army and the US Africa Command to trumpet Kony’s irrelevance as justification for their withdrawal from the hunt.


But Otto, an Acholi from northern Uganda, the original heartland of the LRA, acknowledges that the group remains a threat.


“The will to fight and attack the security forces is not there. However, they still remain a problem to the general population,” he told IRIN.


“They are involved in looting food, looting gold, diamonds, killing elephants in [Congo’s] Garamba national park and Zemongo national park in CAR,” he said. It is a revenue stream that could keep them armed for years.

Richard Mugisha/IRIN The terrain doesn't favour the hunters Abductions


The LRA was responsible for 563 abductions in 171 attacks in 2016, according to the LRA Crisis Tracker, a monitoring group. It’s a drop from the 737 people kidnapped in 2015 in 222 attacks, but still significant.


As of 30 March this year, they are believed to have kidnapped 147 people in 43 incidents.


“Completely abandoning the mission will create security vacuums for already extremely vulnerable communities, particularly in the Central African Republic and northeastern DRC,” said Holly Dranginis, a senior analyst at the US-based Enough Project to End Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.


“Leaving now will also dismantle key defection sites, leaving individuals with scarce options if they want to leave the LRA and reintegrate into civilian life,” she told IRIN.


Lino Owor Ogora, director of the Gulu-based Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives, noted: “The LRA has always taken advantage of any lapses in combat to regroup and reorganise.


“People in northern Uganda have enjoyed peace for close to 10 years now, and the region is on a firm road to recovery. It would be unfortunate if the LRA returned because they were allowed too.”


There is also unease in CAR. On 16 April, civilians in Obbo town, which has been the tactical headquarters for Ugandan and US forces, demonstrated, calling for the troops to stay.


Otto, who spoke to IRIN last week, is now back in CAR finalising the return home of the last of his men.


What happens next? 


But the Ugandan government has hinted that it will not step away altogether from an insurgency that began in Uganda almost three decades ago, and was then exported to its neighbours.


Richard Karemire, the military spokesman, said last week that Uganda could join the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR under a strengthened mandate to tackle the LRA.


He also suggested Uganda could support “capacity-building” of the CAR Armed Forces for “counter-LRA operations”.


Ogora, the head of the Gulu-based foundation, also favours a military option, drawing on the UN and regional armies to “neutralise” the LRA once and for all.


“Short of that, the LRA will continue roaming the jungles of Garamba at will, trading in ivory and arms, and abducting and killing civilians.” 


But Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London, says the military option has been tried and has failed. “This requires a political solution, with amnesty at its core,” he told IRIN.


According to Dranginis, “the United States should continue supporting defection campaigns” as it has proved successful in “weakening the group and creating opportunities for fighters and abductees to leave.”


Demobilisation and reintegration is a complex process, she added, but it “can pay dividends for security in the region”.



End of Joseph Kony hunt breeds frustration and fear ugandan_troops_car.jpg Samuel Okiror Analysis Conflict Human Rights GULU IRIN Africa Central African Republic DRC South Sudan Uganda
Categories: Gender Parity

Syria: Return of the red line

IRIN Gender - Wed, 04/26/2017 - 06:04

As Syria’s warring parties take stock of US President Donald Trump’s cruise missile strike and of his warnings against the use of chemical weapons, the dominant theme seems to be one of confusion. Has Trump’s policy toward Syria changed, or was the missile attack strictly about deterrence? If so, what was it intended to deter, and what would cause Trump to strike again?

Trump is a longstanding sceptic of American involvement in the war in Syria and a harsh critic of the mostly Islamist rebels fighting Syria’s authoritarian government. Since taking office three months ago, he has kept a low profile on Syrian affairs, but in late March the new president’s priorities began to manifest themselves.

On 30 March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced at a press conference in Ankara that the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would now “be decided by the Syrian people”, which is to say, it won’t, but the United States will no longer try to get him to leave. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley followed up by telling reporters, “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting al-Assad out”, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer piled on: “with respect to al-Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now”.

Not the most eloquent formulation of a new policy, but clear enough. However, only a few days later, the US suddenly seemed to reverse course once again.

The massacre in Khan Sheikhoun

On 4 April, the rebel-controlled city of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria was the scene of a massacre, with dozens of civilians reportedly poisoned by the nerve agent sarin. Horrifying pictures of choking children spread first across social media and then through the world press. Local activists said the attack had come from the air, indicating that the Syrian government was behind it.

The international reaction broke along familiar lines. Al-Assad and his foreign allies, notably Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied involvement and accused the Syrian opposition of having staged the incident, though they presented conflicting narratives about what had actually happened. Meanwhile, pro-opposition governments like the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Israel insisted they had evidence the Syrian government had fired sarin-tipped rockets from a MiG-22 jet. The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons later concluded that the Khan Sheikhoun victims had been poisoned with “sarin or a sarin-like substance”, though Russia and Syria dispute these findings.

If the Syrian air force had indeed used sarin gas, it would represent a flagrant breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Damascus signed in 2013, and a direct challenge to the UN.

The issue was particularly sensitive for the United States, which was close to striking Syrian military installations in September 2013 after concluding al-Assad’s forces had breached a US “red line” by killing hundreds of people with sarin near Damascus. Instead, then-president Barack Obama decided to use the momentum created by his threat of intervention to work together with Putin to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The ensuing deal was hailed as an “ugly win” by administration officials but criticised by Obama’s opponents and some of his allies, including many supporters of the Syrian opposition who had hoped for US military intervention against al-Assad.

To many Americans, the September 2013 crisis has come to epitomise a wider debate over how Obama should have handled the Syrian crisis. It also shaped Trump’s posture before Khan Sheikhoun. Although Trump had demanded congressional authorisation before launching airstrikes and called on Obama to “stay out of Syria” in 2013, he later turned around and began to use the red line affair to portray his predecessor as feckless and weak. On his watch, he promised, America would not back down from a challenge like Obama had.

With Khan Sheikhoun, Trump had his own red line moment. According to the White House, US intelligence agencies quickly concluded that al-Assad was responsible and that the weapon used was sarin. Unlike in 2013, there was little hope of recourse to a UN investigation – Russia had spent the previous three years undermining Obama's 2013 deal and seemed determined to veto anything put forth in the Security Council, regardless of what UN and OPCW investigators came up with.

Trump made clear he had reacted strongly to the images coming out of Khan Sheikhoun. “My attitude toward Syria and al-Assad has changed very much,” he said. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal – people were shocked to hear what gas it was. That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”

The US missile strike

Just before dawn on 7 April, the United States launched a barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian military air base at Shayrat, southeast of Homs, from where the White House claimed that a MiG-22 had taken off to bombard Khan Sheikhoun. Storage depots, hangars, and several jets were reportedly destroyed; US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the attack had taken out some 20 aircraft, which, if true, would represent a very significant loss to the Syrian air force.

To no one’s surprise, the US attack was condemned by the Syrian government and its allies, and welcomed by Syrian opposition leaders, many of whom called for continued air strikes and a no-fly zone. Regional allies of the opposition took the same line, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exclaiming that the cruise missile attack was “positive” but “not enough”.

Reactions in the United States were also largely positive, but the strikes triggered a tense debate over how to interpret Trump’s decision and, relatedly, what to do next. In announcing the missile strike, the Pentagon had described it as a “proportional response” and said that the “use of chemical weapons against innocent people will not be tolerated”, which indicated that Trump had now drawn his own red line against the use of chemical weapons. But the statement made no mention of other goals or policies in Syria.

Some of those involved in US debate over Syria wanted the Trump administration to keep raising the pressure on al-Assad. Having previously advocated deeper US intervention in the war, they argued that the 7 April strike had proven that military means were effective and posed limited risks to US forces. In their view, the United States should not stop at a one-off strike. Instead, the Shayrat attack should be incorporated into a broader strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict on American terms, by tipping the military balance and engineering a political transition away from al-Assad’s rule.

However, intervention sceptics cautioned against what they viewed as demands for irresponsible escalation, warning that Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran would not stand idly by if regime survival were threatened, and that the United States risked wading into a quagmire of open-ended and unproductive intervention. Now, they said, administration officials needed to exercise “rhetorical discipline and restraint” and make clear that the Shayrat attack was indeed a one-off punitive strike, in order not to squander the lesser but potentially achievable goal of a reestablished chemical weapons deterrence.

Mixed messages

The Trump administration seemed largely oblivious to these finer points of strategy, focusing instead on seeking domestic praise for the strikes. But for all the rhetoric about Trump as a man of action who had defended US red lines, there was still very little clarity about what the president considered those red lines to mean.

The confusion revolved around two issues: whether Trump had reasserted the old policy of seeking al-Assad’s removal, and what had motivated him to use military force in Syria. Would the United States strike again if there were new reports about large massacres of civilians, or would Trump only react against the use of chemical weapons? If so, would he seek to deter the use of military-grade nerve gas, like sarin, or would he also respond to less lethal and improvised chemical munitions, like the chlorine bombs that have been in widespread use in Syria since 2014?

Related Story: Illegal weapons – a global guide

A couple of days after the strike, Haley declared that the United States could not envisage “any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with al-Assad at the head of the regime”, which many took to mean that Trump had indeed backtracked from his view of al-Assad as a “political reality”. But Haley was quickly contradicted by Tillerson, who said the strike “was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons” and “other than that, there is no change to our military posture”.

Later, however, Tillerson indicated that although the United States was not about to overthrow al-Assad, it was prepared to engage in very intensive policing of the battlefield: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said at a press conference in Italy. Right after Tillerson’s remarks, White House press secretary Sean Spicer casually asserted that Trump would attack anyone who bombed civilians in Syria, with or without poison gas: “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you can – you will – see a response from this president,” he said.

The term “barrel bomb” refers to helicopter-dropped explosive charges that are very widely used by the Syrian air force. According to a pro-opposition human rights group, the Syrian government dropped nearly 13,000 such bombs in 2016 alone. Preventing their use against civilians would require considerably more effort than one or two punitive strikes.

It was only at this point that the Trump administration seemed to realise it had a messaging problem, and that it was seen to be drawing red lines it wasn’t prepared to defend. The White House quickly rolled back Spicer’s statement, saying he had meant only chlorine-filled barrel bombs, not the conventional high-explosive kind.

Trump has backed off from seeking regime change in Syria, but, at the same time, he has retraced Obama’s red line against chemical weapons, while leaving open a possibility of additional retaliation against massacres committed with conventional arms

The following day, Mattis attempted to clear up both the al-Assad issue and the extent of Trump’s red lines in Syria. “Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS”. But Mattis warned that Syrian officials should expect to “pay a very, very stiff price” for any continued use of chemical arms, which, he noted, “could be considered a red line”. When asked whether his definition of chemical arms included chlorine gas, Mattis answered in the affirmative: “Chemical weapons are chemical weapons,” he said. “It is not about whether it's delivered with an artillery shell or it's delivered by a helicopter with a barrel bomb, or a fighter aircraft with a bomb. It’s about chemical weapons.”

This seems to be a considerably more expansive red line than the previous administration was prepared to enforce with military means. The Syrian opposition reported more than 130 chlorine attacks in the first two years after the 2013 red line affair. Though few of these cases have been fully investigated, a Security Council-designated UN-OPCW team of experts concluded last year that the Syrian government committed at least three chlorine attacks in 2014-2015. In response, the Obama administration unsuccessfully pushed for UN sanctions and, when blocked by Russia, moved to unilaterally sanction Syrian officials. This did not stop the reports of chlorine attacks, however, and they have continued since Trump took office. Though the UN-OPCW panel has not yet investigated the recent allegations, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has accused pro-government forces of carrying out four chlorine attacks between 30 January and 21 February in the eastern Ghouta region. Anti-Assad activists in that area also reported a new chlorine attack immediately after the US cruise missile strikes.

On 12 April, the Wall Street Journal finally got Trump himself to explain his policy. The president confirmed his view of the missile attack as a one-off punitive strike, rather than an argument in the debate over al-Assad’s future. While he said he believed al-Assad’s ouster is probably “going to happen at a certain point,” he did not feel it should be America’s doing. “We have other fights that are fights that are more important as far as our nation’s concerned,” Trump said. “We don’t need that quicksand.” Asked what would prompt him to strike in Syria again, the president said any renewed use of chemical weapons by al-Assad would trigger another attack.

That, then, seems to be current US policy: Trump has backed off from seeking regime change in Syria, but, at the same time, he has retraced Obama’s red line against chemical weapons, while leaving open a possibility of additional retaliation against massacres committed with conventional arms.

How stable Is the new US policy?

Michael Anton, who serves as head of strategic communications at the US National Security Council, recently told Politico the cruise missile attack fits well into Trump’s non-interventionist policy and should not be “touted as some major change”. But he also praised Trump for being “a very flexible person” who “responds to events” rather than adhering to a particular ideology or strategy. According to Anton, “the only thing maybe predictable about his foreign policy is that he says to the world, ’I'm going to be unpredictable,’” which, he said, would help the United States “keep adversaries, competitors alike, sort of off-balance”.

That’s one way of looking at it. From the other end of the table, one could argue that it is in fact the United States that is now off-balance – swaying from one idea to the next according to the whims of its commander-in-chief, while State Department and Pentagon officials struggle to interpret and implement unclear guidance in ways pleasing to the president, all working toward the Oval Office in dissonant concert.

It also raises the question of how permanent Trump’s new Syria policy will be, considering his reluctance to communicate his views at length or in depth, his apparently less than fully-formed ideas on the subject, and the forces within his own administration that are quietly pushing for more aggressive intervention in Syria. And what to make of the fact that this famously popularity-obsessed president was showered in praise by former critics after his missile strike, while his otherwise poor poll ratings experienced a quick uptick? The Tomahawk effect already seems to be wearing off, but it is hard to shake the suspicion that Trump might be tempted to seek the role of war president again.

What that means for Syria remains to be seen, but a red line has been drawn. It is unlikely to remain untested.

(TOP PHOTO: An injured woman in Idlib pictured soon after losing her husband and two children to a Syrian army strike in 2012. CREDIT: Freedomhouse2/Flickr)


201212130951070899.jpg Analysis Conflict Human Rights Return of the red line Aron Lund IRIN STOCKHOLM Middle East and North Africa Syria
Categories: Gender Parity

Threatened attack on Yemen port will trigger catastrophe, aid groups warn

IRIN Gender - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 11:13

Aid groups in Yemen are warning that an impending assault by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition on the rebel-held western port of Hodeida could tip the country into famine.


“It would be catastrophic, and the impact would be felt immediately,” said Caroline Anning of Save the Children. “Hodeida is one of seven provinces already on the brink of famine, and an attack could trigger it.”


The port, in the hands of Houthi rebels, normally handles more than 70 percent of all Yemen’s imported goods, including aid, food and fuel. Airstrikes in 2015 damaged four of the port’s five cranes, reducing capacity, but Hodeida remains the country’s lifeline.


“There is no viable alternative,” Anning told IRIN. “[Trucking aid] overland, airlifting, using other ports – there is nothing else that would be able to fill the current gap.”


Aid and human rights groups are ringing the alarm as a donor conference on Yemen opened in Geneva today, with the UN urging action to tackle what it describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.


More than 17 million Yemenis are short of food out of a population of 27 million, with close to seven million on the brink of starvation. The UN has appealed for $2.1 billion for this year, and by the end of Tuesday has received $1.1 billion in pledges.


Yemen’s deep humanitarian emergency has been exacerbated by two years of fighting. The conflict pits a Saudi-led coalition of Middle Eastern and African states that supports the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi against Houthi rebels and loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.


The coalition and the US government accuse Iran of arming the rebels, a charge Tehran denies. Hodeida is near the Bab al-Mandab strait, a choke point through which nearly four million barrels of oil pass daily. Both Riyadh and Washington regard Iran as a strategic threat to the waterway.


Hodeida is one of two remaining ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast under Houthi control. Capturing it would deprive the rebels of the taxes they levy on imports, but is an operation that would be unlikely to be surgical or quick.


An attack on Hodeida would halt aid operations at a desperate time for Yemen, and would have an immediate impact on the population of the densely-packed city.


“Any military campaign in its vicinity, from the ground or air, would have devastating civilian consequences,” the Yemen UN Country Team warned in a statement.

FAO/IPC Famine map Blocked aid


Already, aid blockages mean agencies cannot keep pace with needs. According to the International Rescue Committee, it currently can take six months to get life-saving medical supplies from outside the country into health facilities in Yemen.


“Sea and air blockades that are already in place mean essential humanitarian supplies in Yemen are scarce, and will become even scarcer if these attacks go ahead,” the relief agency said.


All vessels carrying humanitarian cargo are inspected at sea by coalition forces. Commercial shipments to Yemen’s western ports are subject to a UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism to ensure enforcement of a Security Council arms embargo.


The inability to offload new cranes to replace the damaged ones in Hodeida is an example of the impact of the current restrictions.


According to the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and international sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, the blockade and long clearance procedure “involves grave breaches of the most basic norms of human rights law, as well as of the law of armed conflict”.


Saudi concerns over the monitoring of cargo, ostensibly aimed at preventing weapons reaching the rebels, could be achieved by strengthening and expanding the current UN verification mechanism, or bringing Hodeida under third-party management, possibly a UN agency.


“That would depoliticise the process and keep what is a lifeline for northern Yemen open,” said one aid official, who asked not to be named.


The military option seems to be top of the coalition’s list, with the port a key prize on the way to the Houthi held capital of Sana’a. But Oxfam has warned that if Hodeida is attacked, “the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine”.


Enter the “Janjaweed”


An assault would probably happen before the holy month of Ramadan, due at the end of May, and would likely include Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces – better known as the “Janjaweed” militia.


The RSF are “shock troops”, with a long history of abuse against civilians, drawing complaints from even Sudan’s regular army. Several thousand have reportedly been sent to Yemen, according to a new Small Arms Survey report.


The Darfur-recruited militia are directly answerable to President Omar al-Bashir and the intelligence service.  “What we don’t know is how much control will be extended over the RSF [by the military commanders of coalition forces],” said Magnus Taylor of the International Crisis Group.


Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are believed to have provided Sudan with $2.2 billion in aid since 2015, as part of a political deal to “keep Khartoum afloat and in the coalition of Sunni states opposed to Iran”, said Taylor.


Although regular Sudanese troops are fighting and dying in Yemen, the RSF’s deployment is seen as a reward for the loyalty of their commander, Mohammed Hamdan ‘Hemmeti’, to al-Bashir. But that could turn sour if they become cannon fodder for the attack on Hodeida.


Stop the war


Yemen’s conflict has already claimed more than 10,000 lives. According to Amnesty International, all sides in the war “have carried out unlawful attacks that have killed or injured civilians and failed to distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives”.


Advocacy groups are warning that more aid is not enough to save Yemen from catastrophe. Amnesty has called on the international community to suspend transfers of military equipment to all parties to the conflict.


Oxfam has also urged the British government to “pressure all parties to the conflict to resume peace talks, to reach a negotiated peace agreement”.


It pointed out that while aid is desperately needed to save lives now, “many more people will die unless the de-facto blockade is lifted and major powers stop fuelling the conflict”.



TOP PHOTO: Aftermath of a coalition air strike in Yemen

201503262019390973.jpg News Conflict Food Human Rights Threatened attack on Yemen port will trigger catastrophe, aid groups warn IRIN Middle East and North Africa Saudi Arabia Yemen
Categories: Gender Parity

Captive IS fighters face extrajudicial killings on fringes of Mosul conflict

IRIN Gender - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 05:02

On the main road into east Mosul, a rotting skeleton swings from a post outside a row of bullet-riddled shops. What was once a brain lolls horribly from an eye socket in front of a grimace of teeth – starkly white against blackened remains of flesh and skin decomposing onto bones. The corpse belongs to an alleged Islamic State fighter strung up by Iraqi soldiers in January as a warning to IS supporters hiding out in liberated areas of the city.

Even before being pinned to the post, the corpse was unidentifiable – its face and upper body mostly stripped of flesh. The caved-in skull and shattered ribs indicated brutality, but was this inflicted while the person was alive or dead? The body was one of several encountered during a months-long IRIN investigation that reveals extrajudicial killings of IS captives and serial violations of international law on the treatment of prisoners, with commanders at least turning a blind eye to frontline Iraqi troops taking justice into their own hands.

IRIN The skeleton of a suspected IS member hangs beside the main road to east Mosul

Towards the end of the battle for east Mosul, so-called Islamic State's last stronghold in Iraq, death was everywhere. In late January, on a wasteland patch in a residential area near east Mosul’s Al-Salam hospital, two men wearing civilian clothing, their hands tied behind their backs, lay where they had been executed. One, kneeling facedown in the rocky soil, had been shot through the back of the head. The other – a man in his 60s – lay prone on his back, a close-range bullet hole gaping open in his face.

“They were with Daesh,” a local resident told IRIN at the time, referring to IS by its Arabic name. “The [Iraqi] Army brought them here and executed them three days ago,” he said, complaining how women and children were shocked and scared to see the bodies left like this.

Around one month later, IRIN asked frontline Iraqi troops about the fate of an Egyptian IS fighter captured during that morning’s advance. “He’ll be questioned then killed,” one soldier, Mohammed, said flatly. Another, Abbas, interrupted to say the prisoner would be transferred to Baghdad. Mohammed insisted he would not. “No way are the Iraqi forces going to let him go and live in three-star luxury prison accommodation while we are being slaughtered on the front lines by Daesh car bombs and snipers.”

A Mosul-based commander, speaking to IRIN on condition of anonymity, admitted that some IS captives are being shot dead near the front lines, often while military operations are ongoing. Others continue to be executed away from the fighting, presumably after interrogation, such as two men whose bodies were thrown into a ravine near Mosul airport in late March, in an area controlled by Iraq’s federal police.

IRIN Bodies of IS suspects, according to Iraqi federal policemen, thrown into a ravine on the outskirts of west Mosul in March Above the law?

“Killing captured combatants or civilians is a war crime, as is the mutilation of corpses,” Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Iraq, Belkis Wille, told IRIN. “Iraqi criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings and mutilation of corpses, committed by any party in the conflict in a prompt, transparent and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility.”

Realistically, however, extrajudicial killings carried out by rogue military units or individuals on the edge of a conflict zone with few, if any, witnesses are unlikely to be investigated.

Ongoing accounts of IS barbarity in Mosul – the militants are said to routinely execute residents accused of collaborating with the Iraqi Army or caught trying to flee – do captured combatants and suspected IS affiliates no favours. The militants are viewed with hatred and disgust by the battle-hardened soldiers manning Mosul’s front lines, where IS has resorted to multiple daily suicide operations, as well as the extensive use of IEDs and snipers, to defend the city.

“The Iraqi government should control its own forces and hold them accountable if it hopes to claim the moral upper hand in its fight against ISIS,” said Wille. “Political, security, and judicial officials should work together transparently to establish the truth about any abuses that take place in the course of this battle.”

However, investigating abuse is not the priority in Iraq right now, and some extrajudicial killings are apparently being overseen – or at least condoned – by senior military personnel. On one revealing occasion, a high-level commander with the Iraqi Army’s Rapid Response Division told IRIN how his own interrogations of IS prisoners – both Iraqi and foreign – had produced some useful intelligence. Asked what happened to those prisoners after interrogation, he replied: “they were finished”, before hastily asking the interpreter not to translate those words.

The number of extrajudicial killings of IS prisoners in and around Mosul about which IRIN was able to gain verifiable first-hand information was modest. Many more suspects are incarcerated in prisons across Iraq, where at least they stand a chance of facing official justice.

IRIN A young men suspected of IS affiliation awaits questioning at a screening centre for civilians fleeing west Mosul

The Mosul-based commander said more than 1,000 alleged IS affiliates are being held in prisons in Mosul and the nearby towns of Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil alone. High-ranking IS captives are transferred to Baghdad, he added. Iraqi security forces have been arresting IS suspects since mid-2014, so the number of detainees in and around Baghdad is thought to be large, and HRW were told that at least 910 prisoners had been transferred to the capital from three prisons in towns near Mosul. More than 700 IS suspects are also being held in prisons in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, according to one commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

In a March report, HRW said that at least 1,269 prisoners suspected of crimes including affiliation to IS were being held without charge in “horrendous” and “degrading” conditions in three makeshift jails near Mosul: two in Qayyarah and one in Hammam Al-Alil. With chronic overcrowding, poor sanitation, and minimal access to medical care – which may have contributed to four deaths and two leg amputations – the facilities failed to meet basic international standards, the report said. It noted that few prisoners had access to legal counsel and some were being held unlawfully.

“The deplorable prison conditions in Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil show that the Iraqi government is not providing the most basic detention standards or due process,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director. “Iraqis should understand better than most the dangerous consequences of abusing detainees in cruel prison conditions.”

Selfies with the dead

The Mosul conflict has also unearthed disrespectful treatment of the IS dead, whether executed or killed during fighting. Public displays of bodies have become commonplace and are viewed by many soldiers as acceptable.

“These Daesh are not humans – just look what they did to hundreds of Mosul civilians,” said one federal police sergeant, explaining why he thought it was reasonable that men in his unit had strung up an IS fighter from a lamppost for several hours after killing him. “We are only doing to them what they did to others, and doing this is a warning to anyone here who was with Daesh.”

Publicly displayed IS corpses have become sickening local attractions.

By the side of a main road in east Mosul, children casually spat or threw stones at the corpse of a young IS fighter of Asian descent wearing military fatigues, his neck tied up to a broken metal structure with electrical cord. “There were five Daesh fighting here. This one was injured and the other Daesh ran away and left him,” a young local man explained. “When the army came, they killed him and hung him here.”

A passing taxi driver stopped his car to take selfies with the corpse, cheerfully explaining: “I’m going to put these pictures on Facebook and I’m sure I’ll get a lot of ‘likes’.”

IRIN An Iraqi federal policeman takes a selfie with the corpse of an IS fighter

Selfies with dead IS fighters have become common in Mosul. Iraqi soldiers routinely post such images on Facebook, attracting ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and congratulatory, encouraging comments. When it comes to IS fighters, disrespectful behaviour around the dead – something forbidden by Islam and international law – has somehow become acceptable practice.

Near the still-active front lines of west Mosul, as the weather turns warmer and the stench of the IS dead in the streets becomes unbearable, bodies are increasingly set alight to curb the smell. This too is prohibited in Islam, and has also given rise to further macabre acts. “We made coffee on that dead Daesh,” one young soldier said, laughing and pointing to a coffee pot resting on a smouldering corpse. “And we cooked our lunch on that one over there.”

Mental toll

In 2009, the World Health Organization noted that mental health disorders were the fourth leading cause of illness in Iraqis over five years of age. The barbarity of IS and almost three years of conflict involving heavy civilian and military casualties and mass displacement have only exacerbated this mental health crisis. Earlier this year, IRIN reported that only around 80 clinical psychologists are practicing across the country.

SEE: Iraq’s growing mental health problem

Many soldiers have been engaged in IS-related conflict virtually non-stop since mid-2014 and have witnessed friends and comrades being killed or horribly maimed by the militants. The battle for Mosul – now in its seventh month – is proving particularly tough, leaving Iraq’s armed forces mentally and physically exhausted. Some soldiers confessed to IRIN their desire to exact revenge on IS captives or corpses.

After an advance towards west Mosul’s old city in late March, IRIN witnessed a federal policeman approaching the body of an IS fighter. He started kicking him violently in the head, before setting fire to his hair and beard. “You think you’re going to heaven?” he shouted. “There is only one place you are going, and that is hell!” A few other federal police officers joined in the mockery and took selfies with the corpse.

After filming the burning body on his mobile phone for a few minutes, the man who had set it alight started to break down. An older policeman put his arm around his shoulder, to comfort him. Together they crouched there in the late afternoon sunshine.

(TOP PHOTO: East Mosul residents say this man, along with one other, was suspected of IS membership and executed by Iraqi soldiers in January. Their bodies were left in a residential district of the city.)



* WARNING - CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES Captive IS fighters face extrajudicial killings on fringes of Mosul conflict an_is_suspect_executed_in_late_january_by_iraqi_soldiers_according_to_local_residents.jpg Investigations Conflict Human Rights MOSUL IRIN Middle East and North Africa Iraq

In 2009, the World Health Organization noted that mental health disorders were the fourth leading cause of illness in Iraqis over five years of age. The barbarity of IS and almost three years of conflict involving heavy civilian and military casualties and mass displacement have only exacerbated this mental health crisis. Earlier this year, IRIN reported that across the country there are only around 80 practising clinical psychologists.

Many soldiers have been engaged in IS-related conflict virtually non-stop since mid-2014 and have witnessed friends and comrades being killed or horribly maimed by the militants. The battle for Mosul – now in its seventh month – is proving particularly tough, leaving Iraq’s armed forces mentally and physically exhausted. Some soldiers confessed to IRIN their desire to exact revenge on IS captives or corpses.

After an advance towards west Mosul’s old city in late March, IRIN witnessed a federal policeman approaching the body of an IS fighter. He started kicking him violently in the head, before setting fire to his hair and beard. “You think you’re going to heaven?” he shouted. “There is only one place you are going, and that is hell!” A few other federal police officers came over to join in the mockery and take selfies with the corpse.

After filming the burning body on his mobile phone for a few minutes, the man who had set it alight started to break down. An older policeman put his arm around him, onto his shoulder, to comfort him. Together, they sat there quietly in the late afternoon sunshine, trying to process what had just happened.


Categories: Gender Parity

Decree 66: The blueprint for al-Assad’s reconstruction of Syria?

IRIN Gender - Thu, 04/20/2017 - 07:18

With violence in Syria ongoing and even hitting new lows, talk of rebuilding the devastated country might seem premature. But work is already under way, at least in one corner of southwestern Damascus.

It might not look like much now – patches of turf and half-finished dust roads bulldozed through orchards and farmhouses – but a three-square-kilometre plot of land in the neighbourhood of Basateen al-Razi is fast becoming ground zero for the reconstruction of Syria. Critics say it is also the urban planning blueprint President Bashar al-Assad intends to use to consolidate his post-war power.

Back in September 2012, al-Assad signed legislative decree (66/2012) to “redevelop areas of unauthorised housing and informal settlements [slums]”. Decree 66 has since provided the legal and financial foundation for reconstruction in several areas returned to Syrian government control, including Basateen al-Razi.

See: Rebuilding Syria’s rubble as the cannon’s roar

Al-Assad inaugurated the multi-million-dollar urban redevelopment project in March 2016, promising grand designs and a scintillating future for the capital. Armed with planning documents full of futuristic tower blocks, park boulevards, and row upon row of modern-fronted housing, the Damascus Governorate says the 2.15-million-square-metre development will provide 12,000 housing units for an estimated 60,000 residents. There will be schools and restaurants, places of worship, even a multi-storey car park and a shopping mall.

Not everyone shares the government's vision for the future. Opposition activists and independent analysts, as well as former residents, argue that Decree 66 is not only being used to forcibly dispossess Basateen al-Razi civilians but also to engineer demographic change.

Profits and pressure

Funded through Damascus Sham, a holding company worth SYP 60 billion ($279 million) and established by the Damascus Governorate in December, the project is being financed by private sector investors with shares in the development. There are said to be at least 25,000 co-owners tied in to a form of public-private partnership increasingly popular in Damascus.

Consultants familiar with the development say Basateen al-Razi, once a key site of opposition that saw anti-government protests (as seen in the video below) and then armed clashes during 2012, has been viewed as a hugely lucrative real estate opportunity for years – undeveloped farmland and informal housing in some places within walking distance of central Damascus. Some of the redevelopment under Decree 66 has been directly transplanted from a 2007 urban plan for Damascus that was still to be implemented when the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011.

Many residents were originally offered shares and compensation payments for evacuating meant to cover their rent in new homes outside the area — albeit subject to conditions. But so far, locals haven’t done well out of the changes.

A series of demolitions since the decree was signed in late 2012 gradually upturned areas of housing and farmland in Basateen al-Razi — including the plot that now houses the project’s HQ, where al-Assad laid the foundation stone 13 months ago. A network of new roads has also been built through the site.

“[The government] cut electricity, water, internet, and telephone supplies. They are forcing civilians to live like this… to push them towards evacuating.”

Families who fled but still own property in the area told IRIN they had not been compensated. “Our home has been demolished, although other areas have not been demolished yet,” Abu Ahmad, a refugee in Turkey whose family fled three years ago, told IRIN. “I always wanted to return [there] but, after this plan, that has become impossible.”

Relatives of some property owners who remain say the government is using progressively more coercive measures to encourage people from the formerly pro-opposition neighbourhood to leave.

In June 2015, a printed warning was sent to hundreds of residents telling them they had two months to leave before demolitions would start. According to Syria Direct, another round of warnings was distributed in December 2016 ahead of further demolitions scheduled for June this year.

Former resident Abu Khattab, also a refugee now living in Turkey, said his parents received warnings but only moved out in February, to another suburb of Damascus.

“In the past, they’d been promising alternative housing, but they did not honour this promise,” he told IRIN. “[The government] cut electricity, water, internet, and telephone supplies. They are forcing civilians to live like this… to push them towards evacuating.”

It was not possible to independently verify claims of cuts in services. At least three residents still in the area declined to be interviewed out of fear of the authorities.

Where next?

Other cities are already following the Damascus example.

Local authorities across Syria have been treating Decree 66 as a green light for their own reconstruction projects, using the powers invested in a separate May 2016 proclamation to establish their own investment companies – like Damascus Sham – to fund them.

In 2014, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi announced plans to launch reconstruction projects in Baba Amr, using Decree 66 as a model. The city recently established its own holding company to handle real estate projects. Observers expect Aleppo to announce a similar holding company soon, likely for redeveloping the bombed-out remnants of the formerly rebel-held east.

Government pronouncements suggest it’s no accident that areas being eyed for reconstruction are current or former opposition strongholds.

When al-Assad announced Decree 66, his minister of local administration, Omar Ibrahim al-Ghalawanji, hailed it as a “first step in the reconstruction of illegal housing areas, especially those targeted by armed terrorist groups”. State media promotional material for the Basateen al-Razi development makes a similar argument. With “terrorists” gone, it says, the serious work of rebuilding Syria can begin.

The Housing and Public Works Ministry, the General Directorate for Real Estate, and the Decree 66 Implementation Directorate all declined to comment or failed to respond to IRIN’s requests to do so. However, pro-government sources commonly portray the decree as simply economic common sense – a regulation to allow the scaffolding out of rubble so post-war reconstruction can begin.

“When you have badly damaged places, then putting in resources to restore them to the way they were – especially if they weren’t properly planned in the first place – that’s going to be a waste of time and money,” London-based analyst Ammar Waqaf, a member of the pro-government British-Syrian Society (established by al-Assad’s father-in-law in 2003), told IRIN. “It would make more sense to have a properly planned project. In fact, if you don’t do that, you won’t be able to bring in investors.”

Google Earth In 2014, gradual demolitions of crops and housing had cleared the south-western edge of the Basateen al-Razi plot, making way for the Decree 66 project HQ where Assad laid the development's foundation-stone in March 2016. Social cleansing?

Urban planners intend to let the bulldozers start work soon on a second block of land earmarked for redevelopment under Decree 66 and located on the other side of the capital’s southern ring road. This much larger site includes Daraya and a series of outlying towns stretching to al-Qadam further east – key opposition areas during the early days of the uprising and the later armed rebellion’s 2012 battle for Damascus.

When Daraya finally capitulated to Syrian government control in August 2016 – its entire civilian population forced to evacuate – the opposition commonly described it as “ethnic cleansing”. Rumours, which now appear unfounded, suggested that Shia Iraqi families would be moving in.

Last year, an activist from the opposition-allied Kafr Souseh Local Coordination Committees said the “vast majority of the [local] population” was “absolutely convinced that this despicable policy of evicting them from their homes [is motivated by sectarianism] and to attract others from different sectarian and religious groups to take their homes”.

Abu Ahmad, the former Basateen al-Razi resident now living as a refugee in Turkey, agreed with this theory, saying the government “wants to change the demographic composition of the area by replacing the [majority Sunni] original population with people from another country”. From where, he couldn't say for sure.

But others dispute charges of sectarianism. Waqaf, the pro-Assad analyst, said such talk comes from an opposition “gasping for support”. However, he did acknowledge that demographic changes could follow the war — albeit more along social and class lines.

Speaking to IRIN shortly after Daraya’s evacuation last year, Syria expert Fabrice Balanche argued that Decree 66 projects “will be more about social cleansing” – the offering up of land to “the Sunni bourgeoisie and upper-class… loyal to al-Assad”.

“When you expel the population of Daraya, a poor population, so that you can build luxury flats and villas for people… then it’s not just sectarian, it’s a social conflict,” he explained.

Past and future

The complex ties between sectarianism, social class, and opposition to the al-Assad regime have developed over the decades, along with Syria’s demographic changes.

From the 1960s onwards, movements from the countryside to the city by migrants – permanent and temporary – drove an expansion of the hinterlands on the outskirts of Syria’s cities. This rural-urban migration only accelerated in the 2000s – not helped by a devastating 2006-2010 drought that saw whole families forced to relocate.

Migrants moving into informal settlements often either squatted illegally on state-owned land or built without planning and permission on private land, creating new social tensions in Syria’s cities. Al-Assad's neo-liberal policies added to those tensions by largely leaving out the suburbs from the economic prosperity visibly benefiting a rich, often regime-tied business class in the city centres.

With some 40 percent of the total population living in informal settlements by the mid-2000s, the central government realised it had a problem and began commissioning plans and detailed studies to redesign Syria's cities. By then, it was already too late.

The first protests in Deraa in March 2011 might have been the spark for the revolution and later the war, but many of these areas, including Basateen al-Razi, had been simmering with socio-economic and sectarian grievances for years.

“It’s important to recognise where the early protest movement started: in the disadvantaged rural areas and these slums, these informal settlements, spreading around the major cities,” explained Leila al-Shami, British-Syrian activist and co-author of a history of Syria’s uprising, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.

“The levels of repression in those communities was so much stronger, as well. It was the working-class communities around Damascus that were put under siege very early on… [something that] wasn’t happening in the more middle-class areas.”

Damascus had never really decided what to do with these "slums", but the war changed that. By 2012 and with the help of Decree 66, experts say urban planning had been transformed into a weapon.

It was used to "destroy the homes of opponents, places where the opposition could hide and fight... [and] to get rid of informal settlements without consultants and meetings," Valerie Clerc, a research fellow at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, told IRIN.

Human Rights Watch and the UN’s International Commission of Inquiry documented deliberate demolitions of hundreds of homes in neighbourhoods around Damascus and Hama between 2012-2013. In one reported but unconfirmed case, governorate officials used land registry documents to mark out the homes of pro-opposition families for destruction. Later, opposition sources allege, land registry offices were destroyed altogether — in some cases deliberately — after pro-government forces retook an area.

The Syrian economy will need revitalising whatever happens next in the conflict. But on the back of Decree 66, reconstruction that might only look like revitalising gentrification to al-Assad loyalists is already being seen as politicised population transfer by his opponents.

Reconstruction was on the agenda at this month’s Supporting Syria Conference, but the debate has not yet drawn widespread interest. In this vacuum of international attention, areas ravaged by the six-year conflict that have seen mass displacement are increasingly being treated as blank canvases on which government officials, investors, urban planners, intelligence officers, and regime allies can paint their own visions of the future of Syria.


Critics say the president is seeking to engineer demographic change through urban planning even as the bombs still fall Decree 66: The blueprint for al-Assad’s reconstruction of Syria? background_image_from_66_website.jpeg Tom Rollins Investigations Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics BEIRUT IRIN Middle East and North Africa Syria
Categories: Gender Parity

Peace talks in Nigeria, chemicals in Syria, and a political meltdown in Afghanistan: The cheat sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 04/14/2017 - 07:57

Every week, IRIN’s team of editors looks ahead at what’s on our humanitarian radar and curates a selection of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:

Talking to Boko Haram


It may be hard for many Nigerians to swallow, but the government is talking to Boko Haram. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said this week that negotiations had gone “quite far” over the release of more Chibok schoolgirls still in the custody of the jihadists. But the end goal seems even more ambitious. Zannah Mustapha, one of the mediators involved in the talks, told IRIN the next step would be to agree humanitarian access to the areas of northern Borno State still controlled by the insurgents, and ultimately a cessation of hostilities.


That would necessitate an agreement with all three factions of Boko Haram, led by Abubakar Shekau, Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur. The Nigerian military would also need to be on board. Getting a deal will be a Herculean effort. But according to Mustapha, the choice is stark.  “Do we want to continue this war or do we want to stop it? If you say stop it, then you need to find the political courage to do that.” The talks are supported by the Swiss government, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and coordinated by Nigeria’s Department of State Security. Look out for IRIN’s upcoming in-depth report on a post-conflict northeastern Nigeria.


Syria chemical weapons redux


Thought you’d heard the last of the politicking over last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Idlib Province’s Khan Sheikhoun? Think again.  On Tuesday, the White House released a declassified intelligence report that said the government of Bashar al-Assad hit his people with sarin gas, and Russia had covered it up.  On Wednesday, Russia vetoed a draft Security Council resolution that condemned the attack and called on the Syrian regime to cooperate with international investigations.  And on Thursday, al-Assad himself said the entire attack was a “100 percent fabrication” intended to justify the US strike that followed.  Even without the help of the latest vetoed resolution, fact finders from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ have gone to Turkey to collect samples and speak to survivors  – you can read up on the OPCW and banned weapons in general in our recent briefing. Expect more denial and finger pointing about the deaths of 87 people, but also, in 3 to 4 weeks, look for evidence-based findings from a joint OPCW and UN-created Joint Investigative Mechanism probe. 


Charity begins at home?


Donor governments spent a record $142.6 billion on development aid in 2016, a rise of nearly 9 percent from 2015, according to figures released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) this week. Good news for the poor nations that are supposed to benefit from that aid right? Not quite. The increase was mainly the result of donor nations counting domestic spending on hosting refugees as part of their official development assistance (ODA). Nearly 11 percent of global aid in 2016, equivalent to $15.4 billion, was actually spent inside donor countries, up from just 4.8 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, aid to the least-developed countries fell by 3.9 percent last year. The main culprits are EU states that have absorbed relatively large numbers of asylum seekers in the last two years, namely Germany, Italy, Austria and Greece. They spent more than 20 percent of their ODA on refugee costs in 2016. Aid groups are not impressed. “Rich countries are misleading the public,” said Oxfam’s deputy director of advocacy and campaigns, Natalia Alonso. “All countries are obliged to help refugees at their borders, but they must stop pretending that the costs of doing this are ‘aid’ to fight poverty and promote development overseas.”


Heading off a political meltdown in Afghanistan


As if Afghanistan didn’t have enough challenges, this new report from the International Crisis Group is an early warning about the very real possibility that the government could disintegrate. The root of the problem is the quixotic nature of the so-called National Unity Government, which was a product of the disastrous 2014 elections. Both leading candidates claimed victory in a poll marred by massive fraud. The UN was then called in to do an audit, but the results were never released. With the threat of conflict looming, John Kerry, who was United States secretary of state at the time, flew to Kabul. He brokered an agreement between Ashraf Ghani who became president, and Abdullah, who was given a position created just for him – chief executive officer. An argument over which of them is truly the top boss is only one of the fissures that are now widening and threatening to tear apart the NUG. “Several options are being discussed in Afghan and international circles for how best to tackle the political and constitutional tensions that, if left unresolved, would increase the risk of internal conflict,” says ICG.


Did you miss it?


A year ago today, opposition activist Solo Sandeng led a march to call for free elections in a Gambia then ruled by a brutal autocrat, Yahya Jammeh. The demonstration succeeded in lighting a spark that finally led to Jammeh’s ouster, but it also cost Sandeng his life. The court case into his murder is the first attempt to hold the secret police to account. The demand for justice is powerful as the country transitions from dictatorship to democracy. But does Gambia have the capacity to deliver? Journalist Louise Hunt talks to victims and activists as Gambia wrestles with the legacy of Jammeh’s 22-years in power, and the anger and pain that still remains. Today will be a difficult one for the Sandeng’s family. But his daughter, Fatoumatta, consoles herself that he chose to be “on the right side of history”.


PHOTO: A military-escorted convoy on the Maiduguri to Damboa road, northeastern Nigeria

convoy.jpg News Aid and Policy Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics This week's humanitarian outlook IRIN GENEVA Global
Categories: Gender Parity

Pakistan investigating NGOs accused of promoting blasphemy and pornography

IRIN Gender - Fri, 04/14/2017 - 05:20
Pakistan is investigating over a dozen NGOs for allegedly promoting blasphemy and pornography on social media – a potentially deadly move dismissed by rights activists as the latest in an ongoing crackdown on civil society.   The country’s Federal Investigation Agency’s cybercrime wing started the investigations last week, deputy director Nauman Ashraf told IRIN.    “These NGOs and some of their employees want to create chaos and anarchy in the country by hurting the sentiments of the people,” he said.   The news comes in the wake of the killing of a student by a mob in the city of Mardan after he was accused of blasphemy. NGO workers say the government’s investigation is not only unfounded – it could also put staff in danger.   “This was the last thing we were expecting from the government and its investigating agencies,” said an employee of an international NGO on condition of anonymity. “We are seriously thinking of winding up all our operations in the country.”   Mehdi Hasan, chairman of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, said the investigations are part of a wider campaign by the government to silence civil society and stifle dissent.   “Religious fanatics and some elements in the government are behind the campaign against the NGOs,” he told IRIN. “They label all of them as agents of the west and see them as promoters of a western agenda in Pakistan, which is ridiculous.”   The government has for years used the legal and regulatory systems to pressure NGOs.    In 2015, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Pakistan, and the police forced a temporary shutdown of Save the Children.   At the time, government sources told IRIN that Save the Children had attempted to conceal its links with Shakil Afridi, the doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination campaign to gather information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals in 2011.    Save the Children told IRIN that the allegations were ridiculous.   SEE: Pakistan turns up the heat on NGOs   In January, the Interior Ministry sent letters to about a dozen NGOs in Punjab Province ordering them to cease operations and accusing them of “pursuing an anti-state agenda”.   Ashraf refused to say which NGOs were under investigation, but he said they included both national and international organisations. He said the NGOs are accused of disseminating pornographic and blasphemous content through social media, but offered no details.   People convicted of blasphemy can face the death penalty in Pakistan. But even the suggestion that someone has committed blasphemy can lead to deadly vigilante and mob attacks, as occurred in Mardan this week. Police have reportedly arrested about 100 people suspected of beating one student to death and injuring two others.   The charge of blasphemy is often used to target religious minorities, according to Human Rights Watch. The group said in its 2016 annual report on Pakistan that at least 19 people are on death row after being convicted of the charge, and hundreds more are awaiting trial.    In an attempt to “muzzle dissenting voices”, HRW said Pakistan last year “passed vague and overbroad cybercrimes legislation installing new curbs of freedom of expression and criminalising peaceful internet use.”   Ashraf said NGO staff “should not get scared of the ongoing investigations if they are innocent.” He added: “We are investigating them as per the law of the land.”    as/jf/   (TOP PHOTO: Civil society activists demonstrate in Islamabad in January for equal education for boys and girls. CREDIT: Aamir Saeed/IRIN) pakistan_ngos.jpg News Aid and Policy Human Rights Pakistan investigating NGOs accused of promoting blasphemy and pornography Aamir Saeed IRIN ISLAMABAD Asia Pakistan
Categories: Gender Parity

“The right side of history” – Gambians seek justice after Jammeh’s fall

IRIN Gender - Thu, 04/13/2017 - 11:28

A year ago, opposition activist Solo Sandeng led the first march in over decade to call for free elections in Gambia. Although the demonstration was a catalyst for the ouster of autocrat Yahya Jammeh, it cost Sandeng his life.

The court case into his death has now become the first prosecution trial under Gambia’s new elected government for the human rights violations perpetrated during Jammeh’s 22-year reign.

“The Sandeng case is not only politically the match that lit the fire, it really brought home the injustices of the regime,” said Aziz Bensouda of the Gambia Bar Association. “It’s one of the cases where we have a lot more detail than in the past, and it will really set the tone [of future human rights cases].”

A key prosecution witness, Nogoi Njie, a member of Sandeng’s United Democratic Party, told IRIN how she and other UDP activists were arrested on 14 April as they marched at Westfield Junction, a busy roundabout in the centre of the sprawling market town Serrekunda.

In her living room, Njie, a matronly woman in her early 50s, said she was interrogated at the National Intelligence Agency headquarters in Banjul over her political allegiance and repeatedly beaten by masked men known as the Jungulars – Jammeh’s personal squad of soldiers who tortured and killed on his orders.

In one room, she recalled seeing a noose hanging from the ceiling, before she was ordered to undress to her underwear, her head covered in a nylon bag. “They told me if I don’t lie down they can hang me by the neck and nobody will know. They started to beat me. The blood was coming out all over my body. I almost lost my life,” she said.

Later she found herself in the same room as Sandeng. The 57-year-old was naked, his body already swollen and bleeding.

He was beaten again and fell to the floor. She recounted what she believes were his last moments alive: “He called my name ‘Nogoi, Nogoi’.” While lying on the ground, Njie said she heard him make a sound, which she re-enacted as a faint, strangled breath.

“I called his name so many times and he didn’t answer me. And I cried because I’m very sorry for that man, he’s a family man. And he’s a very strong man, and they killed him like this.”

Jason Florio/IRIN Nogoi Njie - the last person to see Solo Sandeng before he died The demand for justice

Change in Gambia began when Jammeh spectacularly lost an election in December to now President Adama Barrow. But he refused to accept the result, and only stepped down after West African leaders sent in troops to force him into exile.

There is now a powerful demand for justice as the country transitions from dictatorship to democracy.

In February, Interior Minister Mai Fatty instigated the arrests of former NIA chief Yankuba Badjie, ex-operations director Saikou Omar Jeng, along with seven other NIA operatives, charging them with Sandeng’s murder.

But the trial is raising some difficult questions over the direction Gambia’s quest for justice should take, and the implications for its new-found democracy.

Opinion is divided over whether criminal prosecutions should proceed before the government’s promised truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) is established. The commission’s goal is to encourage people to confess the crimes they committed, and for victims to air the injustices they suffered.

Last month, Justice Minister Ba Tambadou announced that the commission will begin hearings in September. For some critics, waiting until the TRC process begins would mean delaying the day of reckoning for those responsible for the worst abuses.

They, like journalist Alhagie Jobe, who was tortured at the NIA and imprisoned for 18 months, want to see justice delivered swiftly through the courts.

“These people are the enablers of Jammeh and contributed to the killing of not only Solo Sandeng, but many other innocent people and today their families are crying. There was no justice for the last two decades.”

But some legal experts are concerned the Sandeng case is being rushed to court without adequate planning and investigation. The risk is that defendants could be acquitted or prosecuted on a lesser charge, with implications for future human rights cases.

Voices of caution

Sandeng’s remains have been exhumed from a hidden grave near the fishing village of Tanji. But the prosecution has requested more time to gather the evidence, while new indictments have been filed that include conspiracy. The defendants’ bail applications were refused at the last hearing and the trial continues.

“There is the urgent need to be seen to do the right thing, but urgency shouldn’t compromise standards,” said Gaye Sowe, executive director of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights in Africa (IDHRA), based in Banjul.

“We have to be cautious. We shouldn’t allow emotions to get the better of us, because if matters aren’t handled well, the so-called perpetrators could end up becoming so-called victims,” he said.

A further concern for Sowe and other human rights experts is that a trial may not serve all victims equally. Torture, for example, is not currently criminalised under Gambian law. This could have implications for Nogoi Njie and other 14 April protesters who were tortured, and in some cases allegedly raped, Sowe noted. 

Torture victim Mariama Saine, whose mother was a UDP activist, wants to see her abusers punished. She was arrested on the eve of the 1 December election and interrogated at the NIA detention site known as Bulldozer.

“They were beating me while I could hear the election results being announced on a television,” said Saine. “When Jammeh was ahead in the polls, the meanest one kicked me and said ‘Tomorrow, your head will be on a plate’. I was really scared.”

When Jammeh (temporarily) conceded defeat, she was grudgingly allowed to leave the next day. But Saine is still angry at her treatment.

“Of course, I want to see them prosecuted,” she said. “Not only for my case. I want to see all those people who have committed these atrocities prosecuted, all of them.”

Jason Florio/IRIN Mariama Saine - "I want to see them prosecuted" Can the system cope?

Gambia is fast becoming a live crime scene, with more evidence of atrocities committed under the regime coming to light on a weekly basis.

But carrying out prosecutions in a piecemeal fashion through an already under-resourced criminal justice system is unsustainable, say legal and human rights experts.

“It is key that the government sells the idea of the truth and reconciliation commission to people so that they understand it is not possible for all cases to be prosecuted,” said Sowe of the IDHRA. “There may be need for reconciliation in some instances.”

Ousman Bojang, a former NIA operative who turned anti-Jammeh activist when he fled into exile in 2012, believes it is important to take into account how Jammeh’s system of abuse took place.   

“Jammeh used the security services as a cover for the president’s bad activities. People were arrested, then the Jungulars would be invited to do his bidding – torturing, killing, whatever he told them.”

He claimed that even though torturing prisoners went against the NIA’s code of conduct, agents could not intervene without facing Jammeh’s wrath


The TRC process could offer a broader scope for redress, with punishments ranging from prosecution to reparations to a public apology. But the details of how it will operate have yet to be divulged. 

“We don’t yet know the terms of reference – how far this process will go,” said Jeggan Grey-Johnson, a Gambian who works for the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa.

“Most of the victims we know of are high profile cases. There may be many people who have disappeared, who have been forgotten about. And will it include violations such as land-grabbing?”

The 14 April will be a difficult day for Fatoumatta Sandeng and her family. She told IRIN that her father wanted to be “part of those people on the right side of history.”

So, on the day of the march “I didn’t stop him. I just wished him good luck and he went.”


“The right side of history” – Gambians seek justice after Jammeh’s fall gambia_jubilate.jpg Louise Hunt Feature Human Rights Politics and Economics BANJUL IRIN Africa West Africa Gambia
Categories: Gender Parity

Can $10 billion and political reforms bring peace to Pakistan’s restive frontier?

IRIN Gender - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 05:50
Haibat Khan was teaching under an open sky. Over the heads of a dozen young students sitting on a plastic mat on the ground, he could see mountains stretching into the distance from the Pakistani town of Mamund towards Afghanistan.   Like much of Bajaur and the other six Federally Administered Tribal Areas – a semi-autonomous region strung along the Afghan border – schools here are in short supply. FATA has been underdeveloped for decades and recent battles between Pakistan’s military and Islamist insurgents have destroyed many more schools and other buildings.   But Khan does not welcome the government’s new plan to bring political reforms to FATA, even though it is vowing to spend $1 billion each year over a decade to build infrastructure.   “The latest reforms are just eyewash and bribery for the tribal people to keep them fighting against the militants and laying down their lives,” said Khan, who wore a short beard and the traditional shalwar kameez – comfortably baggy trousers and a long, loose shirt.   Others echoed his scepticism, citing decades of broken promises from the government in Islamabad to improve conditions in the frontier region, which had a population of three million during the last census in 1998 and is thought to be about double that now.    Tariq Hayat, joint secretary of the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, which is responsible for implementing the reforms, insisted the government is serious about the plan – the most ambitious proposal so far.   “The process has started and this cannot be rolled back now,” he said in an interview in his office in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.   Pivotal moment   If the government fails to follow through, it risks alienating people in FATA at a critical time.   Islamist militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have largely been driven out of FATA after almost a decade of fighting, particularly Operation Zarb-e-Azb (Sharp and Cutting Strike), which began in June 2014 and is ongoing. Many insurgents were killed, but others have fled over the porous border into Afghanistan.   If the government wants to keep them out, it will need to earn the loyalty of FATA residents.   To that end, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet recently approved recommendations on how to better integrate the region, which is frequently accompanied by the adjective “lawless”. In early March, the government announced its approximately $10 billion plan to develop FATA and implement political, administrative, and legal reforms that would provide citizens with the same constitutional rights as those in the rest of Pakistan.   Among other measures, this would mean scrapping the Frontier Crimes Regulations, a much-resented legacy of British colonialists that allows tribes to be punished collectively for crimes committed by individual members. But some say there’s no need to go through the initial five-year transition period for that to happen.   Malik Anwar Zeb, a tribal elder, paced the courtyard of his spacious home – guarded by more than a dozen armed men in the village of Pashat – as he contemplated the plan. "The government should have revoked the FCR immediately through a constitutional amendment if it was serious in protecting human rights of the tribal people,” he said.   aamir Saeed/IRIN Malik Anwar Zeb, a tribal elder in Pashat village in Bajaur Agency, holds a meeting to discuss the government's proposed reforms for the FATA region   Corruption and controversy   A more controversial aspect of the reform package is the plan to merge FATA into neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.    Some Pashtuns, FATA’s largest ethnic group, instead favour a united “Pashtunistan” that would also include parts of Afghanistan. In fact, many Pashtuns in both countries reject the border, which is known as the “Durand line” after Mortimor Durand, a British foreign secretary who in 1893 drew a 2,600-kilometre border through the middle of the Pashtun homeland.     Two political parties that are aligned with the government oppose the merger. Both Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami and Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam-Fazal draw their core support from Pashtuns in the frontier region, and both say that FATA should instead become its own province.    "The reforms in current form are tantamount to Pashtun enmity by the establishment," said Muhammad Usman Khan Kakar, a senator with PMAP.   However, a poll by the Islamabad-based think tank FATA Research Centre found widespread support for merging FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Of those surveyed, 54 percent endorsed the idea fully and 20 percent partially, while 26 percent said FATA should be a separate province.    "We want to get rid of the colonial system and laws," Muhammad Asif told IRIN, as he made a sale at his furniture shop in the busy market town of Khar. "The reforms will give us legal and constitutional rights that we have been deprived of for generations," he said. “At the moment, there is a sense of deprivation and alienation in the tribal people.”   Another fear is that the plan will facilitate corruption, which is a major problem in Pakistan. With $10 billion at stake, some in FATA worry that much of it might disappear into dishonest contracts.   “FATA is already notorious for corruption and we fear the proposed development package will open new avenues of corruption for contractors and mafias,” said Zeb, the tribal elder from Salarzai, in Bajaur Agency.    Hayat, of the frontier regions ministry, dismissed such concerns and said local businesses stand to gain from the influx of development money, although larger projects would likely go to the Frontier Works Organisation, which is part of the military’s engineering wing.   While the government says it’s not worried about corruption, neighbouring Afghanistan provides a stark lesson in the dangers of pouring reconstruction money into a conflict zone. The Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that much of the $113 billion the United States has pumped into Afghanistan since 2001 has been lost to corruption and waste, even as the war has gotten worse.   While Pakistan’s military gains in FATA cannot be underestimated, the region is far from conflict free. On 31 March, a car bomb killed at least 24 people in Kurram Agency; there are army checkpoints all over FATA. Security officials have warned that the so-called Islamic State is expanding recruitment in Pakistan and coordinating with other militant groups to carry out attacks.   SEE: Islamic State ramps up recruitment in Pakistan   Aamir Saeed/IRIN Children studying in an open air school in the town of Mamund   Next steps   Some of the political and legal reforms will require parliament to approve constitutional amendments. The government should have enough support to get them passed, although officials have yet to say when they will be tabled for a debate before the vote.   The government has the power to unilaterally allocate the development funding, and some argue that it should have already put more towards reconstruction in the wake of an offensive that has left ruins of homes, hospitals, and other public buildings across the region.     “The government has not given us [even] a meager compensation for our homes destroyed during the military operation, but is [now] promising us trillions of rupees for development,” said Malik Waris Khan Afridi, a tribal elder in Khyber Agency who is part of a group petitioning the Supreme Court in a legal challenge the government’s reform plan.   Hayat said he was optimistic the first tranche of funding would be allocated in the 2017-2018 budget, to be announced in June, and that it would be directed mainly towards developing light industry and irrigation, as well as building hospitals and schools.   That would go a long way in filling a huge void in public services, and it is hoped that better access to education will deter young men from joining militant groups. A recent report by Pakistan’s education ministry found that 58 percent of children in FATA do not attend school. Those that do, like Khan’s students, often have no desks to sit in or roof over their heads.   "We don't have a schoolhouse. Therefore, we have to observe a holiday in the case of rain or a storm," he said, standing in his classroom on a barren hilltop.   as/jf/ag fata_1.jpg Feature Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Can $10 billion and political reforms bring peace to Pakistan’s restive frontier? Aamir Saeed IRIN BAJAUR AGENCY Pakistan Asia Pakistan
Categories: Gender Parity

UN convenes Rohingya abuse investigation, but Myanmar says it won’t cooperate

IRIN Gender - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 06:10
The UN’s main human rights body is assembling a team to probe alleged atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya, even as the government appears set to deny investigators access to areas where crimes against humanity may have occurred.   While the resolution sponsored on 24 March by the European Union at the UN Human Rights Council called for “ensuring full accountability for the perpetrators and justice for victims”, Myanmar has no obligation to cooperate with the fact-finding mission and has strongly signalled that it won’t.   The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has told IRIN it is putting together the team anyway.   “It is now up to the council president, Ambassador Joaquin Alexander Maza Martelli (El Salvador), to appoint members of the mission; this is expected to happen in the coming weeks,” Rolando Gomez, a spokesman for the Human Rights Council, said in an email.   In the meantime, letters to the Myanmar government are being prepared and a team of specialists – including experts in forensics and gender-based violence – will be assembled in Geneva to support the mission in establishing the facts and circumstances of alleged human rights violations by security forces in Rakhine State.     The resolution says the scope of the probe will include, but not be limited to, “arbitrary detention, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, enforced disappearance, forced displacement and unlawful destruction of property”.   “It is the hope of the Human Rights Council that the mission will be facilitated by the government of Myanmar through unfettered access to the affected areas,” Gomez said.   However, this sort of access seems highly unlikely.   At the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Myanmar “disassociated” itself from the resolution to create a fact-finding mission.   Three days later, on Armed Forces Day, Myanmar’s military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, gave a speech rejecting “political interference” and claiming that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar’s civilian leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, also rejected the UN decision, saying in a televised address: “It is not suitable for our country.”   Even if Aung San Suu Kyi agreed with the UN mission, there would be little she could do to facilitate it. The elected, civilian administration she leads has a tenuous relationship with the military, which enforced absolute rule over Myanmar for almost half a century before enacting reforms in 2011. The reforms allowed political freedom, but Aung San Suu Kyi has no power and limited influence over the military.   The Human Rights Council has no legal powers of enforcement and is in no position to punish Myanmar if it fails to cooperate.   Should the government and military deny access, the UN mission is expected to begin detailed investigations among the tens of thousands of Rohingya who fled across the border into Bangladesh after Myanmar’s military launched counter-insurgency operations late last year.   "If access is barred, the mission will try to reach witnesses wherever they are, including Bangladesh," said a UN source on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorised to speak to media on the subject.    Groups, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have already collected testimonies from Rohingya in Bangladesh, and OHCHR's February report suggested it was “very likely” that security forces committed crimes against humanity. The mission will consider that report and aims to use the specialised forensic and investigative tools of a team with experience in international law, military- and gender-based violence to ascertain the facts.     Myanmar has denied that atrocities took place during the counter-insurgency operations, but has prevented any outside scrutiny by sealing off the conflict zone in northern Rakhine State. Aid deliveries were also completely blocked for about two months, and the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said on Monday that humanitarian access is still “severely limited”.   Human Rights Watch A camp outside the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, for Rohingya displaced by the 2012 violence   Little pressure   Rights advocates had hoped the Human Rights Council would instead approve a weightier Commission of Inquiry, which would have had a broader mandate and could have put greater pressure on Myanmar to accept it. The international community could lean on Myanmar to accept the weaker fact-finding mission, but there is no evidence of any serious attempt so far.   Myanmar’s two powerful neighbours, China and India, both “disassociated” themselves with the resolution. Indonesia has been outspoken about the crisis facing the Rohingya, but its embassy in Yangon told IRIN that – in rejecting the resolution – Myanmar’s government was acting “within the framework of upholding law as a sovereign country”.   European governments are insisting that Myanmar cooperate with the UN mission, but their language is hardly threatening – public statements stress the need to promote the country’s “democratic transition”.   Roland Kobia, EU ambassador to Myanmar, told IRIN the EU would “look forward to Myanmar's full cooperation with the fact-finding mission” and “confirmation of the country's cooperative approach with the international community”.    But there was no suggestion of any steps that might be taken to twist Aung San Suu Kyi’s arm or press the military into opening the door to the investigation team.   SEE: The denied oppression of Myanmar’s Rohingya people   Possible trade-offs   Despite what could evolve into a diplomatic stand-off between the UN and Myanmar (if it continues to push back), analysts say the fact-finding mission may still serve a purpose.   Charles Petrie, a former UN resident coordinator in Myanmar and author of a landmark report on the failure of the UN to protect civilians during Sri Lanka’s civil war, admitted that the chances of investigators gaining access were “pretty slim”. But he told IRIN that the UN resolution could boost the prospects of Myanmar’s government implementing the recommendations made by an advisory commission on Rakhine.   That commission was appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi last August and is headed by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. The Geneva resolution should be seen in the context of Annan’s interim report released on 16 March, Petrie said, describing them as “closely linked”.    Annan’s panel recommended closing the displacement camps that have been holding some 100,000 people since violence erupted between ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority communities and the Buddhist ethnic Rakhine majority in 2012, killing hundreds. The vast majority of the victims were Rohingya.   The panel also said the government should launch a new citizenship process and allow freedom of movement. Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration quickly welcomed the proposals, in a sign, according to Petrie, that it is trying to “gain political capital from it”.   “So, right now, the best-case scenario is that they will focus on one [Annan] to try and defuse the other [Geneva],” said Petrie. “They will implement the recommendations of the Annan report as a means to deflect or reduce the significance of the human rights mission.”   Establishing citizenship is a crucial issue for the Rohingya, who number about one million people in Rakhine and are mostly denied freedom of movement and severely restricted in their access to jobs, healthcare, and education through an institutionalised policy of segregation.   This denial of rights and the 2012 violence led to the rise of militancy among some Rohingya, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. Rohingya insurgents calling themselves Harakah al-Yakin [Faith Movement in Arabic] struck first on 9 October, attacking police posts on the border with Bangladesh and killing nine officers. The attacks triggered the military’s crackdown, which rights groups say was brutal and targeted entire communities.    Despite its limitations – notably the likelihood that investigators will be barred from visiting crime scenes inside Myanmar – the fact-finding mission could also still play a useful legal role, according to Irene Pietropaoli, a Yangon-based human rights consultant.   Even if investigators are prevented from visiting areas inside Myanmar, they can collect evidence from witnesses and survivors of attacks who fled to Bangladesh.    “You are still going to have a United Nations report establishing what happened, which will in turn come useful in political and advocacy terms,” she said. “But also from a legal perspective, if a victim will want to seek justice, this will represent an important document.”   Although the mission cannot bring perpetrators of rights abuses to justice, its detailed findings, recommendations, and possible identification of offenders could lay important foundations for future action.   The process may hopefully also serve as a deterrent against future atrocities, Pietropaoli said.   sp/jf/ag   (TOP PHOTO: A Rohingya child whose hand was badly burnt during an attack on his village in Myanmar fled with his family to Bangladesh, where he is pictured in December 2016. CREDIT: Jared Ferrie/IRIN) bangladesh_4.jpg Analysis Conflict Human Rights UN convenes Rohingya abuse investigation, but Myanmar says it won’t cooperate Sara Perria IRIN YANGON Asia Myanmar
Categories: Gender Parity

UPDATED: Mapped - a world at war

IRIN Gender - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 19:00

This map of ongoing conflicts around the world is part of IRIN’s ongoing series on the world’s forgotten conflicts. Our package of stories, films and graphics has so far looked in-depth at the situation in Sudan's Blue Nile, Myanmar, the border states of southern Thailand and more. Go to our Forgotten Conflicts page to read the features or click on each button and zoom in and out to find out more on the world’s conflicts:



Today's wars. On one map. Mapped: a world at war rf241999.jpg Maps and Graphics Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics LONDON IRIN Global
Categories: Gender Parity

Ethiopia extends emergency as old antagonisms fester

IRIN Gender - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 11:37

The Ethiopian government has extended a nationwide state of emergency for four months, hailing it as successful in restoring stability after almost a year of popular protests and crackdowns that cost hundreds of lives.

But while parts of Amhara, one of the hotbeds of the recent unrest, may be calm on the surface, IRIN found that major grievances remain unaddressed and discontent appears to be festering: There are even widespread reports that farmers in the northern region are engaged in a new, armed rebellion.

Human rights organisations and others have voiced concern at months of draconian government measures – some 20,000 people have reportedly been detained under the state of emergency, which also led to curfews, bans on public assembly, and media and internet restrictions.

“The regime has imprisoned, tortured and abused 20,000-plus young people and killed hundreds more in order to restore a semblance of order,” said Alemante Selassie, emeritus law professor at the College of William & Mary in the US state of Virginia. “Repression is the least effective means of creating real order in any society where there is a fundamental breach of trust between people and their rulers.”

The government line is far rosier.

“There’s been no negative effects,” Zadig Abrha, Ethiopia’s state minister for government communication affairs, told IRIN shortly before the measures were extended by four months, on 30 March.

“The state of emergency enabled us to focus on repairing the economic situation, compensating investors, and further democratising the nation… [and] allowed us to normalise the situation to how it was before, by enabling us to better coordinate security and increase its effectiveness.”

Clamping down

On 7 August 2016, in the wake of protests in the neighbouring Oromia region, tens of thousands of people gathered in the centre of Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara. They had come to vent their anger at perceived marginalisation and the annexation of part of their territory by Tigray – the region from which the dominant force in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition is drawn.

Accounts vary as to what prompted security forces to open fire on the demonstration – some say a protestor tried to replace a federal flag outside a government building with its now-banned precursor – but by the end of the day, 27 people were dead.

That toll climbed to 52 by the end of the week. In all, some 227 civilians died during weeks of unrest in the Amhara region, according to the government. Others claim the real figure is much higher.

A six-month state of emergency was declared nationally on 9 October. Military personnel, under the coordination of a new entity known as the “Command Post”, flooded into cities across the country.

“Someone will come and say they are with the Command Post and just tell you to go with them – you have no option but to obey,” explained Dawit, who works in the tourism industry in the Amhara city of Gondar. “No one has any insurance of life.”

James Jeffrey/IRIN Tourists on a boat on Lake Tana set off from Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region in Ethiopia

Local people told IRIN that the Command Post also took control of the city’s courts and did away with due process. Everyday life ground to a halt as traders closed shops and businesses in a gesture of passive resistance.

In Bahir Dar and Gondar, both popular historical stop-offs, tourism, an economic mainstay, tanked.

“In 2015, Ethiopia was voted by the likes of The New York Times and National Geographic as one of the best destinations,” said Stefanos, another Gondar resident who works in the tourism sector. “Then this happened and everything collapsed.”

Lingering resentment

Before it was renewed, the state of emergency was modified, officially reinstating the requirement of search warrants and doing away with detention without trial.

Prominent blogger and Ethiopian political analyst Daniel Berhane said the state of emergency extension might maintain calm in Amhara.

It “isn’t just about security,” he said. “There is a political package with it: Since two weeks ago, the government has been conducting meetings across the region at grassroots levels to address people’s economic and administrative grievances, which are what most people are most concerned about.”

But bitterness remains.

“We have no sovereignty. The government took our land,” a bar owner in Gondar who gave his name only as Kidus explained. “That’s why we shouted Amharaneut Akbiru! Respect Amhara-ness!” during the protests, he added.

Others still feel marginalised and are angry at the government’s heavy-handed response.

“If you kill your own people, how are you a soldier? You are a terrorist,” 32-year old Tesfaye, who recently left the Ethiopian army after seven years, a large scar marking his left cheek, told IRIN in Bahir Dar. “I became a soldier to protect my people. This government has forgotten me since I left. I’ve been trying to get a job for five months.”

A tour guide in Gondar, speaking on condition of anonymity, was also critical of the response: “The government has a chance for peace, but they don’t have the mental skills to achieve it. If protests happen again, they will be worse.”

However, some do believe the authorities have to take a tough line.

“This government has kept the country together. If they disappeared, we would be like Somalia,” said Joseph, who is half-Amharan, half-Tigrayan. “All the opposition does is protest, protest. They can’t do anything else.”

Mountain militias

Even as calm has been restored in some areas, a new form of serious opposition to the government has taken shape: Organised militia made up of local Amhara farmers have reportedly been conducting hit-and-run attacks on soldiers in the mountainous countryside.

“The topography around here is tough, but they’ve spent their lives on it and know it,” said Henok, a student nurse who took part in the protests. “They’re like snipers with their guns.”

James Jeffrey/IRIN Outskirts of the city of Gondar, in the northern Ethiopian Amhara region

“The government controls the urban but not the rural areas,” he said. “[The farmers] are hiding in the landscape and forests. No one knows how many there are,” he said, adding that he’d seen “dozens of soldiers at Gondar’s hospital with bullet and knife wounds.”

Young Gondar men like Henok talk passionately of Colonel Demeke Zewudud, who led Amhara activism for the restoration of [the annexed] Wolkite district until his arrest in 2016, and about Gobe Malke, allegedly a leader of the farmers’ armed struggle until his death in February – reportedly at the hands of a cousin on the government’s payroll.

“The farmers are ready to die,” a priest in Gondar told IRIN on condition of anonymity, stressing that the land is very important to them. “They have never been away from here,” he explained.

Without referring specifically to any organisation of armed farmers, Zadig, the government minister, said the state of emergency had been extended because of “agitators” still at large.

“There are still people who took part in the violence that are not in custody, and agitators and masterminds of the violence who need to be brought before the rule of law,” he said. “And there are arms in circulation that need to be controlled, and some armed groups not apprehended.” 


Terrence Lyons, a professor at The School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in the United States, said the government must decentralise power to achieve longer-term stability.

“Grievances haven’t been addressed by the state of emergency or by the government’s commitment to tackle corruption and boost service delivery,” Lyons told IRIN. “There needs to be a reconsideration of the relationship between an ethnic federation and a strong centralised developmental state, involving a process that is participatory and transparent – but we aren’t seeing that under the state of emergency.”

In 1995, Ethiopia adopted a federal system of government, which in theory devolves considerable power to the country’s regions. But in practice, key decisions are still taken in Addis Ababa.

“If the government wants a true and real form of stabilisation, then it should allow for a true representative form of governance so all people have the representation they need and deserve,” said Tewodros Tirfe of the Amhara Association of America.

In a report presented to a US congressional hearing in early March, Tewodros said some 500 members of the security forces had been killed in the recent clashes in the Amhara region. “Deeper resentment and anger at the government is driving young people to the armed struggle,” he told IRIN.

But Zadig and the government insisted: “The public stood by us.”

“They said no to escalating violence. In a country of more than 90 million, if they’d wanted more escalation we couldn’t have stopped them.”

Lyons warns of complacency.

“As long as dissidents and those speaking about alternatives for Ethiopia are dealt with as terrorists, the underlying grievances will remain: governance, participation, and human rights,” he told IRIN.

“The very strength of the [ruling] EPRDF is its weakness. As an ex-insurgency movement, its discipline and top-down governance enabled it to keep a difficult country together for 25 years. Now, the success of its own developmental state means Ethiopia is very different, but the EPRDF is not into consultative dialogue and discussing the merits of policy.”



(TOP PHOTO: A statue of 19th-century Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros—a legend to many Amhara—dominates the piazza area in the centre of the city of Gondar, in northern Ethiopia's Amhara region. CREDIT: James Jeffrey/IRIN)

Ethiopia extends emergency as old antagonisms fester emperor_tewedros_statue.jpg James Jeffrey Analysis Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics GONDAR IRIN Africa East Africa Ethiopia
Categories: Gender Parity

Bellicose North Korea gives aid donors the jitters

IRIN Gender - Fri, 03/31/2017 - 05:33

The long winter is ending in North Korea, and another season of bombast is about to begin. 

From April to September, a series of holidays will almost inevitably be accompanied by bellicose statements – rhetoric likely to heighten tensions and make donors extra-jittery about funding humanitarian programmes that a great many North Koreans depend upon for their survival.

Upcoming holidays include the April anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-sung, who led North Korea from its formation in 1948 until his death in 1994. The anniversary of the start of the 1950-1953 Korean War is in June, and September marks the founding of the country at the end of the conflict, which split the Korean peninsular into two nations (both still claim to be the legitimate government of the entire territory).

“This is the season where they do parades and make bombastic claims about reunification,” explained Gianluca Spezza, research director at leading website NK News, speaking in a personal capacity. “They start to ratchet up tensions. It’s part of the national propaganda system.”

This year, those tensions are already noticeably higher than normal. In November, the UN slapped further sanctions on North Korea, restricting critical coal exports in response to its fifth and largest nuclear test. Under UN Security Council rules, North Korea is allowed to continue only limited exports in order to pay for the “livelihoods” of its people.

China, by far the largest buyer of North Korea’s coal (its biggest export), announced in February that it would cease all purchases. That statement came six days after North Korea tested a ballistic missile system, with one missile falling just 200 kilometres from Japan’s coast.

Other regional rifts have also widened since the 13 February assassination in Kuala Lumpur International Airport of the exiled and estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader. South Korea accused Pyongyang of poisoning Kim Jong-nam with the lethal nerve agent VX, but the North angrily denied it and denounced Malaysia’s ensuing investigation as a smear campaign.

Against the backdrop of all this geopolitical tumult, the UN has released its funding appeal for 2017. The “needs assessment” said that 41 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people are undernourished, while 70 percent depend on government rations. The UN is asking for just $114 million, but may have trouble raising even that relatively small sum.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in the midst of a protracted, entrenched humanitarian situation largely forgotten or overlooked by the rest of the world,” said UN resident coordinator Tapan Mishra, using the country’s official name in the assessment.

“I appeal to donors not to let political considerations get in the way of providing continued support for humanitarian assistance and relief,” he said, noting a “radical decline in donor funding since 2012”.

SEE: Sanctions make delivering aid hard in North Korea

Donor dilemma

Recent events and the prospect of further trouble ahead is likely to make countries that contribute aid even more reluctant to be associated with North Korea.

“The intensification of sanctions and the worsening reputation of North Korea has a huge impact on being able to find donors,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Japan, for example, has been an important contributor to humanitarian programmes.

“When DPRK does missile launches and they end up in the Sea of Japan, one day they can say, ‘We’ve had enough,’” said Spezza.

He said the UN and China are the only reasons North Korea is able to function. The country lost its Cold War benefactor when the Soviet Union collapsed and it was struck by a series of floods, storms, and hailstorms that devastated crops between 1995 and 1998.

“It was a biblical disaster,” said Spezza.

Nobody knows how many people died in the ensuing famines; estimates range from 300,000 to one million.

That’s when the UN began large-scale humanitarian programmes, which continue 22 years later. Indicators such as malnutrition and mortality rates gradually rebounded, although the country has not managed to regain the levels of normalcy it had maintained until the early 1990s.

Some potential donors make the argument that a country that spends money building up its military while depending on humanitarian aid for two decades does not deserve support. At the same time, withdrawal of such aid would only hurt the victims of North Korea’s bad policies.

In addition to being chronically short of food, North Koreans are also subject to the regime’s use of food to punish those it considers “expendable”, a UN commission of inquiry found in 2014.

“If the UN pulled the plug, hypothetically, [North Korea] would go down in a few months,” said Spezza.

Other than Japan, big donors to UN programmes include the EU and the US. Current EU programming is due to end in November and will be up for renewal. Despite sabre-rattling between Washington and Pyongyang, the US provided $900,000 of aid in January, although the State Department has said it is reviewing last-minute spending approved by the previous administration.

The new US administration's readjustment of its relationchip with North Korea may go further than reevaluating aid. On his recent trip to Asia, President Donald Trump's secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, hinted at measures that could even include military action. 

“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said during a stopover in South Korea's capital, Seoul. “We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.”

China, the prop

China’s role in propping up the economy is even more important than donors and UN agencies, which is why its decision to halt coal imports – a key source of cash for Kim's regime – is so significant.

In response, the government’s Korean Central News Agency ran an article that accused China of “mean behaviour” and “dancing to the tune of the US”.

“It has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people's living standard,” said the article, which ran under the byline of Jong Phil.

In fact, China’s decision will likely have little impact on living standards, according to Town, of the US-Korea Institute. She cited, for example, allegations that North Korea’s mines use forced labour.

“The revenue stream is not one that would have trickled down to the average person in that way,” said Town. “Nor would this particular revenue stream have much impact on say, agricultural production.”

Spezza said it’s almost impossible to think that China would allow North Korea to fail, even though it considers the regime to be “like a child throwing tantrums”.

Beijing is loath to abandon its neighbour as that would mean a state collapse and reunification, probably under the leadership of South Korea. Seoul is a staunch US ally and the country hosts more than 28,000 American troops. China does not want them on its doorstep.

“So, it’s geopolitics,” said Spezza.


(TOP PHOTO: Aid agencies carry out an assessment of flood damage in North Korea's North Hamgyong province in September 2016. CREDIT: UNICEF)

dprk_3.jpg Analysis Aid and Policy Environment and Disasters Food Health Human Rights Politics and Economics Bellicose North Korea gives aid donors the jitters Jared Ferrie IRIN Asia Korea, Democratic Peoples Republic
Categories: Gender Parity

Why there’s no need to panic on UN peacekeeping cuts

IRIN Gender - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 09:47

Fears are growing that the UN will be forced to drastically cut peacekeeping missions at President Donald Trump’s behest. Fortunately, it's a lot more complicated than that. First, Trump has to get his proposed budget through the US Congress and then, even if he does, where and when to cut the presence of blue helmets around the globe relies on tricky diplomatic manoeuvring and careful navigation of the UN's bureaucratic roadblocks. 

The current UN peacekeeping budget, for the year ending 30 June, 2017, is $7.78 billion. The US provides 28.57 percent of this budget, followed by China and Japan at around 10 percent, then Germany, France, and the UK.

The budget officially proposed by the Trump administration would significantly reduce financing to the State Department, international aid, and the financing of international organisations, including the UN. The so-called “skinny” budget contains only a few lines that directly reference peacekeeping. Namely, the US “would not contribute more than 25 percent for UN peacekeeping costs”.

However, the US Congress already caps American’s peacekeeping assessment level at 25 percent. To meet its marginally higher existing obligations, that cap must be waived every year. “Trump is not creating this – it exists already,” pointed out Paul D. Williams, associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

Recent reports suggest that the Trump administration wants to cut far deeper than the 25 percent ceiling, ripping as much as 40 percent from the $2.2 billion annual US contribution. A decrease from 28.57 percent to under 25 percent amounts to around $280 million. Incidentally, this is almost precisely the figure a 2014/15 UN Board of Auditors’ report identified as the total amount funded but not being spent by missions. A 40 percent cut would take roughly $1 billion from the UN's peacekeeping budget and reduce the US share, at existing levels, to more like 17-18 percent.

The UN has often faced threats from American politicians, but this time the White House has telegraphed a clear intent to follow through on its promises: “We’re absolutely reducing funding to the UN and to various foreign aid programmes,” said Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director.

“We should look at all 16 of them,” US ambassador Nikki Haley said at her confirmation hearing, referring to the number of blue-helmet missions around the world (14 are funded through the assessed peacekeeping budget). Haley will chair a 6 April meeting at the UN Security Council about the future of those peacekeeping missions. A letter she sent to Council members asks: "are current missions still 'fit for purpose?'"

"Council members are encouraged to review missions and identify areas where mandates no longer match political realities and propose alternatives or paths towards restructuring to bring missions more in line with achievable outcomes," wrote the US mission. The letter, obtained by IRIN, asks many of the same questions already being posed by Council members – what to do "where there is no political process to support"; how to guard against mission creep; or whether it is "advisable, or even possible, to operate a mision without the strategic consent of the host government".

Even if a far larger proposed cut does emerge when Trump’s more detailed budget is released in May, the reality is that it is Congress that ultimately decides the budget, not the White House. Many Republicans already balked at the proposed cuts, especially at the State Department, and the president is already locked in a major congressional battle over healthcare reform.

"I do not anticipate that Congress will approve the UN-related provisions in the president’s budget without major revisions,” Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation told IRIN. "There are many congressional champions who appreciate peacekeeping, and want to ensure full-funding.

Experts reserve their deepest concern for reductions in US financing to other UN programming, including UNICEF. “I think the proposed cuts to the UN’s humanitarian, climate and human rights work will have a far more negative impact,” said Cedric de Coning, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

No one knows exactly how things will play out at this stage. For one, the White House has yet to even brief Congress on its budget proposals for the State Department. 

“Depending on how all this shakes out, the cuts could end up being quite enormous across the various agencies and the UN itself,” Bathsheba Crocker, assistant secretary of international organisation affairs at the State Department during President Barack Obama’s administration, told IRIN. “I think we all need to be girding ourselves for that possibility.”

But when it comes to peacekeeping, the US cannot pick and choose which missions it wants to fund.

What each member state owes as a portion of the peacekeeping budget is determined every three years. The US share, like that of other countries, won’t be renegotiated until late 2018. That means that if the US cuts funding to 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget – regardless of what the total budget is – it will be in arrears for the first time in nearly a decade, according to the UN Foundation.

America’s own federal budget won’t be passed for nearly a year. The UN’s peacekeeping budget, meanwhile, will be renewed at the beginning of July. “This cycle is rarely aligned with the Security Council mandate” of each peacekeeping mission, the UN’s website notes.

"This is an attack on an institution based on prejudice and ignorance."

All of these built in lags – at times criticised as roadblocks to simplifying UN bureaucracy – could now serve as buffers. New UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already committed himself to deep reforms and will look to carefully decide how and where best to trim.

Some Security Council diplomats say there is room to make missions work better, and that could mean some cuts in funding – though such efforts may now be associated with the White House, where top officials have shown contempt for the UN as an institution. "There is an opportunity to have a tougher approach with the UN on where they spend their money, using money as an incentive for reform,” insisted one non-American Security Council diplomat. If the US approves deep funding cuts without a parallel re-assessment at the UN, diplomats may be less sympathetic. 

US reviews of peacekeeping missions, noted de Coning, “will probably prompt the UN Secretariat to also do its own internal reviews, and other member states, especially those in the Security Council, will also need to form their own opinions, and have a basis for doing so.”

“This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is always good to be under pressure to review your goals, objectives, effectiveness, and efficiencies,” he added. “The proposed cut to 25 percent will be politically symbolically important for the US, but the real reduction in costs would come from pressure to bring down the overall $8 billion budget.”

Others point to the fact that peacekeeping is hugely cost effective for countries like the US. As one recent analysis points out, the US pays $2.1 million every year for each servicemember deployed in a war zone; the equivalent figure for a deployed UN peacekeeper is $24,500.

“I think this budget proposal reveals this administration’s slash-and-burn approach to the UN is ideological,” Williams. “It is not the product of a thoughtful review process carried out and then implemented to find sensible reforms. This is an attack on an institution based on prejudice and ignorance.”

“Such cuts would mean the UN Security Council would not be able to achieve a range of objectives it authorised in the name of maintaining international peace and security,” he added.

But several missions were already in the process of shutting down or transitioning to a smaller footprint, so efficiencies can also be made, even if they don’t make the kind of dent in spending that the White House appears intent on achieving.

“There are actually quite a lot of straightforward ways to shrink the peacekeeping budget by reasonably high amounts in the next several years,” said Richard Gowan, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on the UN.

IRIN took a look at the options, mission by mission:

Cutting and shrinking


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recommended that the mission in Haiti be drawn down and replaced with a smaller UN presence by October of this year. That move is complicated both by disagreements over what the new presence would entail – or if there should be one at all – and the UN’s ongoing response to a cholera epidemic that its own peacekeepers introduced in 2011. A trust fund set up to finance the UN’s $400 million cholera response strategy currently contains just $2 million. MINUSTAH’s current mandate will expire in less than one month – on 15 April.

Currently, there are nearly 5,000 uniformed personnel deployed, including 2,370 military and 2,601 police. An additional 1,245 civilian personnel are in the country, according to the Department of Peacekeeping. The mission’s budget is currently $345.9 million.

UNOCI – Cote D’Ivoire

In April 2016, the UN Security Council voted to close down UNOCI by June of this year, and lifted an arms embargo on the country, and travel bans. By 30 April, all uniformed and civilian personnel are to leave the country. The mission’s budget for the fiscal year ending June 2017 is $153 million.

UNMIL – Liberia

After more than 13 years, the UN’s mission in Liberia will close at the end of March. Its approved budget through this year was $187 million.

Maximum overall savings: $685.9 million

The Big Missions

The UN’s five most expensive missions are MONUSCO, deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; UNMISS, deployed in South Sudan; UNAMID, deployed in Darfur, Sudan; MINUSMA, deployed in Mali; and MINUSCA, deployed in the Central African Republic. Together, the five missions soak up more than $5.2 billion, or two-thirds of the entire peacekeeping budget.

In order for significant cuts to be made, “you have to see some major changes to existing missions like CAR or Mali or DR Congo,” said Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation. “If you want to get serious numbers,” said Crocker, “it’s very hard to do without these big missions taking some hits.”

MONUSCO – The Democratic Republic of Congo

The UN’s mission in the DRC is its most expensive peacekeeping operation, with an approved budget of $1.23 billion. Nearly 19,000 peacekeepers are deployed in the country, and Guterres recently requested that the Security Council send 320 additional police to handle election-related unrest. The Council meets in March to consider mandate renewal. It could be a first sign of how Haley’s US mission plans to throw its weight around. But it may also be too soon to gauge, with the ink on the White House budget barely dry, and little sense of how Congress will proceed. Recent violence and the disappearance of two UN experts and their teams have ratcheted concerns.

At the Security Council, France has circulated a draft resolution to renew the mandate. Last week, France’s UN ambassador Francoise Delattre said he was open to “negotiations aimed at reforming MONUSCO,” as long as they remained focused on protection of civilians and preparing for elections. “We should not be playing with fire when it comes to such high stakes,” he added.

"What commitments should the Council expect of countries hosting UN peace operations where the UN is helping the government to establish its authority throughout its territory," asked the US note, specifically referring to MONUSCO, as well as missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Somalia. 

“Negotiations around MONUSCO are going to be the first evidence of how these battles play out,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director at Human Rights Watch. “In many ways you need MONUSCO to do more, not less, in the coming year. Slimming down the mission at the same time as the country is gearing up for elections could be really problematic.”

“My guess is that the DRC mission will stay in some capacity, although the government pretty much wants it to leave,” assessed David Curran, a peacekeeping research fellow at Coventry University.

UNAMID – Darfur, Sudan

UNAMID is the UN’s second costliest mission, and its first hybrid deployment. 2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of the joint UN-African Union enterprise, and at an annual price tag of $1.03 billion, it has been one of the “most expensive endeavors ever conducted” by the organisation. Beset by scandals and an inability – some say unwillingness – to operate freely, the mission has long been under pressure. UN officials say it is not always easy to quantify the return on investment for UNAMID – a metric the US now appears bent on amplifying. In a region historically vulnerable to genocide, it acts as a deterrent (a weak one, critics say) and provides leverage against the government in Khartoum. Several Security Council diplomats told IRIN that UNAMID needs at the very least to be reformed.

The 16,000-strong mission is currently mandated through June 2017. “It may be the case that the calls for UNAMID to leave are more open now than ever before,” said David Curran, a peacekeeping research fellow at Coventry University.

“It is a very troubled mission for sure; it is also a very troubled part of the world,” offered Crocker. The Security Council, she said, “should make sure that any decisions that are made about downsizing the mission are made on a realistic strategic assessment of the needs on the ground.”

Several diplomats suggested that the US may negotiate hard on UNAMID, potentially raising the threat – perhaps feigned – of vetoing its renewal.

“I would imagine Darfur (UNAMID) may receive the most attention as the protection situation there is perhaps less acute than in DRC and South Sudan,” said de Coning.

UNMISS – South Sudan

Authorised on 8 July, 2011 – one day before South Sudan became independent – the mission’s task changed drastically following the outbreak of civil war in December 2013. Today, the mission protects a quarter of a million displaced South Sudanese civilians at its bases, including more than 120,000 just in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State. The mission has been censured for previous failures to intervene in violence against civilians and aid workers.

It would be hard to rationalise shutting down a mission in a country where UN officials have repeatedly highlighted the threat of genocide, and where famine has been declared in some areas. But UNMISS may find its funding at risk simply because of the need to find ways of overall tightening.

With an approved budget of $1.08 billion, UNMISS is the second most expensive UN mission. According to State Department figures, the US financed the mission in 2016 to the tune of $315.47 million. The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) reports that 12,923 uniformed personnel are currently deployed, along with 1,973 civilians. In December 2016, the mission’s mandate was renewed and the Security Council reaffirmed the authorisation of a 4,000-member “Regional Protection Force”. That force has yet to be allowed into the country, underscoring the impasse.


The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali is one of its most expensive – and also one of the deadliest. More than 70 peacekeepers have been killed since MINUSMA’s deployment in July 2013, following French intervention against extremists and rebel groups. Blue helmets are targeted by and involved in fights with regional al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists. Currently, more than 13,000 peacekeepers are deployed.

Because of the mission’s counter-terrorism role, some diplomats consider it better safeguarded from cuts than other deployments. It is also relatively new by UN standards. In February, Canada reportedly delayed deployment of its peacekeepers to the country because it was wary of US plans across all missions. “The overall security situation remains worrying,” UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous said last week during a visit.

MINUSMA will cost $933 million in the fiscal year ending June 2017.

MINUSCA – Central African Republic

A mission notorious for rampant sexual abuse among its peacekeepers, some diplomats consider MINUSCA too recently created for large scale retrenchment. Deployed in April 2014, there are currently more than 12,000 peacekeepers in the country. MINUSCA will cost roughly $920 million this year.

On 16 March, Haley met with Faustin-Archange Touadéra, president of the Central African Republic. According to a readout, she expressed America’s “commitment” to both MINUSCA and “how to make it as efficient and effective as possible.” In a speech before the Security Council on the same day, deputy US representative Michele Sison also largely endorsed the mission; repeating that America wanted to make “MINUSCA an even more efficient and more effective peacekeeping mission”. She did note the sexual exploitation and abuse tied to the mission, but did not criticise its staffing.

The current mandate expires in November 2017.

Annemieke Vanderploeg/UNMISS Chinese peacekeeper in South Sudan   Other Missions

UNIFIL – Lebanon

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been deployed in the country since 1978. Its mandate has changed several times, most recently after the 2006 Lebanon War involving Israel. UNIFIL was subsequently expanded by the Security Council. Rarely mentioned in the press, its presence and price tag are not small: 11,425 UN personnel, including 10,577 troops, are currently deployed. The mission currently has an approved budget of $488 million.

When UNIFIL’s mandate was last renewed, in June 2016, the Security Council requested that the secretary-general conduct a strategic review. Delivered on 9 March, it recommended reductions in the number of maritime crew personnel deployed by the mission, from 1,200 to 900, and that helicopters be flown less. Larger cuts were not outlined, although the review reiterated that “UNIFIL should continue to optimise its staffing complement and resources to support the effective and cost-efficient implementation of its mandate.”

UNISFA – Abyei

The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei was deployed in June 2011. Set up as an interim force, the current mission costs a sizeable $268.5 million. More than 5,300 military personnel are deployed. The current mandate runs through May of 2017. Much of the Security Council’s attention has been drawn to the other more expensive missions in the Sudans – UNAMID and UNMISS.

UNMIK – Kosovo

The UN’s mission in Kosovo, deployed since 1999, costs $36 million per year. In a February report, Guterres supported the continued resourcing of the mission, which he said “in it’s current configuration, is well suited to respond to challenges on the ground.” But the US representative told the Security Council in February: “we believe UNMIK is over-resourced and overstaffed in comparison with its limited responsibilities.”

UNFICYP – Cyprus

Amid negotiations between Turkish and Greek Cypriot representatives, the UN in January approved a six-month extension of the mission there. One of the UN’s oldest missions, UNFICYP costs a modest $55 million per year.

UNMOGIP - India/Pakistan

The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan is one of the smallest peacekeeping operations. Only 111 total personnel are deployed; the budget through 2017 is $21 million.

UNTSO – Middle East

The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) is the UN’s oldest current peacekeeping mission. Founded in 1948, today it assists other deployments in the region. Its budget for the fiscal year ending in 2017 is $68 million.

MINURSO – Western Sahara

The UN’s mission in Western Sahara was created in 1991. Last year, it was the center of controversy when then secretary-general Ban Ki-moon referred to the Moroccan “occupation” of the territory. Today, the mission is involved in ceasefire monitoring and supporting local families. Current strength is around 480 personnel, including 241 peacekeepers. Its budget through mid-2017 is $56 million.

UNDOF - Golan Heights

UNDOF was mandated in 1974 to supervise disengagement between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights. Since 2013, fighting inside Syria has forced most of its peacekeepers into Israeli-controlled territory. The mission currently deploys around 830 peacekeepers, at a cost of $47 million per year. Its mandate was renewed in December until 30 June, 2017.


A look at the options, mission by mission Why there’s no need to panic on UN peacekeeping cuts 201409190935360772.jpg Samuel Oakford Analysis Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics UNITED NATIONS IRIN Africa DRC Somalia South Sudan Sudan Liberia Mali Haiti Global Middle East and North Africa
Categories: Gender Parity

Raped, injected with poison, entire family murdered: One woman's story in CAR

IRIN Gender - Thu, 03/23/2017 - 10:07

The first time the Séléka rebels captured Danielle* she was visiting the shallow grave where her husband, father, and brothers were all buried. Danielle had witnessed the rebels kill the men outside her home just a few hours earlier. When she returned to show her mother what had happened, the fighters – still lingering outside – turned on her.

“They took me to the bush, where I stayed for almost two weeks with my hands tied behind my back,” she says. “Every day, they raped and brutalised us.”

Eventually, Danielle managed to escape from the rebels, but they soon caught her again. Back in the bush in Bambari, a market town in Central African Republic’s Ouaka Province, the fighters filled up a syringe and injected her with poison.

“Sometimes, my body smells very bad,” she says, peeling back her t-shirt to reveal a thick surgical scar snaking down her stomach.

Almost three years on, the memory is still hard to bear. Sitting on a brown, flowery sofa at a legal aid clinic run by the American Bar Association in CAR’s capital, Bangui, the 31-year-old weeps in front of her lawyer, Guy Galabaja. 

Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

“This is a war crime,” says Galabaja, 51.

Sitting next to Danielle, three other women from different parts of the country share similarly horrific stories.

They are all survivors of sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated by the Séléka – a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebel groups from the north, who overthrew former president François Bozizé in a coup in March 2013 – and the anti-balaka, a network of Christian self-defence militias that rose up in response (Since its formal dissolution in 2014 the rebel coalition is now often referred to as “ex-Seleka”).

The battle for justice

While a small number of victims of the ensuing conflict have since found lawyers and had their cases filed with the national prosecutor, the search for justice in CAR remains an uphill struggle.

According to figures from Amnesty International, the UN’s peacekeeping force in CAR, MINUSCA, has helped arrest 384 suspects following warrants from the country’s prosecutor. But barely any have been high-ranking members of Séléka or anti-balaka.

Part of the problem is a lack of resources.

“The judiciary system has been destroyed, the infrastructure has been destroyed, and the personnel that worked in the justice system have fled,” explained Adrien Nifasha, a Burundian lawyer working with the NGO Avocats Sans Frontières.

There is also an absence of political will. One of the few senior figures to be arrested since the conflict began was Jean-Francis Bozizé, former minister for defence and son of the deposed president. 

After returning from exile, Bozizé fils (son) was arrested by MINUSCA but released just a few days later by the national authorities. Since then he has been networking among various anti-balaka groups, according to the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts.

For Didier Niewiadowski, a French jurist and former advisor at the French embassy in Bangui, the Bozizé affair reveals just how deeply “the Central African authorities fear losing their lucrative positions by questioning anti-balaka and former Séléka leaders”.

More explicit cases of corruption are occurring as well. One senior lawyer interviewed by IRIN says he was forced to abandon two recent cases involving perpetrators of rape and child abuse after receiving threatening phone calls from “high-level people”.

“It’s clear there is corruption and not just in Bangui,” he says. “In a context where there is poverty and people are not well paid, [legal officials] will use their positions to get resources”.

Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN Site of the SCC still operating as the High Court Hybrid help?

To help rebuild public trust, the country’s pre-election, transitional government ordered the creation of a Special Criminal Court back in May 2015.

Like previous courts in Sierra Leone, Cambodia, East Timor, and Kosovo, the SCC will have national and international staff and apply a blend of national and international law.

If things go well its hybrid structure will mean “the justice that is served will ultimately be closer to the communities affected by violence”, says Mark Kersten, international criminal justice consultant at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Tasked with prosecuting genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity dating back to 2003, experts also hope the SCC will complement the work of the International Criminal Court, which has two investigations active in CAR but is expected to indict just a handful of people.

When it opens, it will be the first example of a hybrid court working alongside the ICC in the same country. Almost two years after the law establishing the new court was promulgated however, evidence of progress is hard to find. The building earmarked for the SCC – a faded, modernist relic in downtown Bangui – is still operating as the country’s High Court.

Asked when he expects it to be operational, Joe Londoumon, president of the SCC’s organisational committee, sighs and looks up at the ceiling of his office, across the road from where the court will eventually be based.

“I don’t know yet,” he says. “The judicial police is not yet in place, so for now there are no investigations. Even the building where the SCC will operate hasn’t been set up.”

One of the main challenges facing the SCC will be funding. While $5 million of the $7 million required for the court’s first 14 months has been provided, according to figures from Amnesty International, its future revenue will depend on piecemeal, voluntary contributions. A similarly unpredictable funding structure used for the Special Court in Sierra Leone left it chronically underfunded.

The fog of war

An even greater problem is CAR’s ongoing conflict. Like their counterparts at the ICC – yet to issue a single arrest warrant despite opening a new investigation in September 2014 – SCC investigators will face the unenviable challenge of how to access vast parts of the country where war crimes have and continue to be committed.

“We are not talking about a post-conflict situation,” says Pierre Hazan, special advisor in transitional justice with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. “We are in a war. If [investigators] want to meet people, collect evidence, protect witnesses, how are they going to do that? It makes the whole thing extremely ambitious.”

For Londoumon, the solution is obvious: “My hope is that these rebels will be disarmed so we can catch them,” he says, referring to the government’s ongoing disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programme.

But simultaneously disarming and prosecuting rebels isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Since the 1990s – when the contemporary international criminal justice system was born in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – scholars have agonised over an apparent tension between peace and justice.

Intervening after conflicts with decisive victors such as was the case with the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, created by the Allied powers in the wake of World War II, is one thing. But in active conflicts, some fear the presence of international prosecutors can turn belligerents away from peace negotiations.

While rebel groups in CAR have complex incentives for remaining violent, with the DDR programme stalling, “there is a risk,” says Richard Moncrief, Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, “that the process of negotiation around disarmament becomes bogged down and justice, including through the Special Criminal Court, accelerates.”

“That creates a very strong disincentive for people to enter the disarmament programme because they are already being targeted by the justice system,” he adds.

Outside his house in Boy Rabe, a notorious anti-balaka neighbourhood in Bangui’s fourth district, Judicael Moganazou, the spokesman for one faction of the group, says the debate is academic.

“If some of the people know that today they are going to be disarmed and then tomorrow they are going to be prosecuted by the international community or local judges, then they won’t drop their guns,” he says.

Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN Ex-Seleka rebels in Bambari Finding a way

Whatever progress the SCC and ICC do make, the mass criminality that swept through CAR means neither is likely to be sufficient.

Searching for fresh ideas, last year Hazan joined a delegation of Central Africans to Rwanda where 9,000 community-based “Gacaca” courts sprung up across the country in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide.

While they’ve been criticised by some human rights groups, the courts played an important role in post-conflict Rwanda, focusing not just on retributive justice but on truth recovery and national reconciliation.

A mandate for CAR’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission was adopted by the transitional government in May 2015.

“The basic concept is to address the needs of victims,” Hazan explains. “You need to address what people have been through over the past few years and create a narrative that is acceptable along the spectrum of public opinion.”

No progress has been made to date, however, and in the context of open conflict, building an effective commission won’t be easy.

“People talk a lot about reconciliation, but the tensions and the mistrust are absolutely still there,” says author and anthropologist Louisa Lombard. “The idea that Muslims are not real Central Africans is still present, as is the idea that justice should be a way to punish ‘bad people, but not us because we were just fighting for our own rights’”.

Back at ABA’s legal aid clinic, it’s just 10am but almost every seat is taken. The road to justice may look impassable, but in a country where so few victims receive any kind of support, the women here remain hopeful that some, albeit limited form of justice, can still be served.

“Even if they don’t find the people who committed this crime, at least I will go to the courts and publicly tell people what happened,” says Marie, who was raped by three Séléka fighters in a graveyard in Bangui three years ago. 

“I will explain to them what is in my heart,” she adds, fighting back tears.

*Names have been changed.

(TOP PHOTO: Abuse survivor sits at a legal aid clinic run by the American Bar Association in CAR’s capital, Bangui. CREDIT: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN)


Raped, injected with poison, entire family murdered: One woman's story in CAR michelle_ngoakouzou_2.jpg Philip Kleinfeld Feature Conflict Human Rights BANGUI IRIN Africa Central African Republic The battle for justice

While a small number of victims of the ensuing conflict have since found lawyers and had their cases filed with the national prosecutor, the search for justice in CAR remains an uphill struggle.

According to figures from Amnesty International, the UN’s peacekeeping force in CAR, MINUSCA, has helped arrest 384 suspects following warrants from the country’s prosecutor. But barely any have been high-ranking members of Séléka or anti-balaka.

Part of the problem is a lack of resources.

“The judiciary system has been destroyed, the infrastructure has been destroyed, and the personnel that worked in the justice system have fled,” explained Adrien Nifasha, a Burundian lawyer working with the NGO Avocats Sans Frontières.

There is also an absence of political will. One of the few senior figures to be arrested since the conflict began was Jean-Francis Bozizé, former minister for defence and son of the deposed president. 

After returning from exile, Bozizé fils (son) was arrested by MINUSCA but released just a few days later by the national authorities. Since then he has been networking among various anti-balaka groups, according to the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts.

For Didier Niewiadowski, a French jurist and former advisor at the French embassy in Bangui, the Bozizé affair reveals just how deeply “the Central African authorities fear losing their lucrative positions by questioning anti-balaka and former Séléka leaders”.

More explicit cases of corruption are occurring as well. One senior lawyer interviewed by IRIN says he was forced to abandon two recent cases involving perpetrators of rape and child abuse after receiving threatening phone calls from “high-level people”.

“It’s clear there is corruption and not just in Bangui,” he says. “In a context where there is poverty and people are not well paid, [legal officials] will use their positions to get resources”.

Hybrid help?

To help rebuild public trust, the country’s pre-election, transitional government ordered the creation of a Special Criminal Court back in May 2015.

Like previous courts in Sierra Leone, Cambodia, East Timor, and Kosovo, the SCC will have national and international staff and apply a blend of national and international law.

If things go well its hybrid structure will mean “the justice that is served will ultimately be closer to the communities affected by violence”, says Mark Kersten, international criminal justice consultant at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Tasked with prosecuting genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity dating back to 2003, experts also hope the SCC will complement the work of the International Criminal Court, which has two investigations active in CAR but is expected to indict just a handful of people.

When it opens, it will be the first example of a hybrid court working alongside the ICC in the same country. Almost two years after the law establishing the new court was promulgated however, evidence of progress is hard to find. The building earmarked for the SCC – a faded, modernist relic in downtown Bangui – is still operating as the country’s High Court.

Asked when he expects it to be operational, Joe Londoumon, president of the SCC’s organisational committee, sighs and looks up at the ceiling of his office, across the road from where the court will eventually be based.

“I don’t know yet,” he says. “The judicial police is not yet in place, so for now there are no investigations. Even the building where the SCC will operate hasn’t been set up.”

One of the main challenges facing the SCC will be funding. While $5 million of the $7 million required for the court’s first 14 months has been provided, according to figures from Amnesty International, its future revenue will depend on piecemeal, voluntary contributions. A similarly unpredictable funding structure used for the Special Court in Sierra Leone left it chronically underfunded.

The fog of war

An even greater problem is CAR’s ongoing conflict. Like their counterparts at the ICC – yet to issue a single arrest warrant despite opening a new investigation in September 2014 – SCC investigators will face the unenviable challenge of how to access vast parts of the country where war crimes have and continue to be committed.

“We are not talking about a post-conflict situation,” says Pierre Hazan, special advisor in transitional justice with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. “We are in a war. If [investigators] want to meet people, collect evidence, protect witnesses, how are they going to do that? It makes the whole thing extremely ambitious.”

For Londoumon, the solution is obvious: “My hope is that these rebels will be disarmed so we can catch them,” he says, referring to the government’s ongoing disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programme.

But simultaneously disarming and prosecuting rebels isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Since the 1990s – when the contemporary international criminal justice system was born in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – scholars have agonised over an apparent tension between peace and justice.

Intervening after conflicts with decisive victors such as was the case with the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, created by the Allied powers in the wake of World War II, is one thing. But in active conflicts, some fear the presence of international prosecutors can turn belligerents away from peace negotiations.

While rebel groups in CAR have complex incentives for remaining violent, with the DDR programme stalling, “there is a risk,” says Richard Moncrief, Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, “that the process of negotiation around disarmament becomes bogged down and justice, including through the Special Criminal Court, accelerates.”

“That creates a very strong disincentive for people to enter the disarmament programme because they are already being targeted by the justice system,” he adds.

Outside his house in Boy Rabe, a notorious anti-balaka neighbourhood in Bangui’s fourth district, Judicael Moganazou, the spokesman for one faction of the group, says the debate is academic.

“If some of the people know that today they are going to be disarmed and then tomorrow they are going to be prosecuted by the international community or local judges, then they won’t drop their guns,” he says.

Categories: Gender Parity

How a gold mine has brought only misery in Liberia

IRIN Gender - Tue, 03/21/2017 - 08:55

The maths was merciless. Siah* had the equivalent of $5 in her pocket but needed $15 to treat her youngest son Joseph’s malaria. She had travelled an hour to the nearest clinic only to discover she couldn’t afford the medicine. Joseph died that day, as she cradled him in her arms.


Siah lives in Kinjor, a small town in the lush forests of western Liberia. Just a few steps from her home, Liberia’s largest commercial gold mine, New Liberty Gold, plans to dig out a billion dollars-worth of the precious metal.


The Liberian government and its multilateral funding partners see commercial mining as a path to development in a country still recovering from the impact of 11 years of civil war.


Under the law, communities are obliged to give up their land rights and move, in return for compensation. But IRIN’s months-long investigation can reveal that financial reward isn’t always forthcoming from the foreign mining operations.


To make way for New Liberty Gold, 325 families in two villages, Kinjor and Larjor, had to abandon their homes, farms, and artisanal mines that had provided some income. In return for their move to a new village, also named Kinjor, and carved out of the forest near the mine, the company promised to make life better: new houses, a school, hand pumps – and what could have made all the difference to Joseph – a clinic. 


Construction began on the mine in 2014, and the first gold sales came a year later. Even though the company describes the operation as a “key asset”, the promised better amenities are yet to materialise years later, and there has already been one major chemical spill that has polluted the environment.


New Liberty Gold has the backing of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, which since 2014 invested $19 million and became a key shareholder. That support was predicated on a 155-page Resettlement Action Plan by the company, which listed its planned $3.9 million investments in the new Kinjor.


During the IFC board meeting that approved the mining project, the US delegate formally raised “serious concerns” regarding “the environmental and social risks posed”. The US urged the IFC “to work with the company to ensure that all appropriate funds are set aside for this [resettlement] plan”.

The cost of “progress”? photo-1-main-road-of-kinjor-dscf2067.jpg Emmanuel Freudenthal and Alloycious David Investigations Health Human Rights Politics and Economics KINJOR Liberia IRIN Africa West Africa Liberia Hundreds of families forced to make way for New Liberty Gold mine The World Bank is a key shareholder in the multi-million-dollar project The promised resettlement package remains largely undelivered A March 2016 accident released arsenic, cyanide into nearby river Dead fish, skin rashes reported by local riverside communities Responsibility hard to pin down due to opaque offshore ownership The origins of conflict A history of displacement

Projects funded by the World Bank have displaced more than three million people between 2004 and 2013 in 124 countries, according to data published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.  Those shortcomings were acknowledged by Bank president Jim Yong Kim in 2015, after an internal review found “major problems” that caused him “deep concern”.


But the Bank and the IFC do not appear to have held New Liberty Gold accountable for failing to meet its basic obligations, despite a commitment made by the IFC on its website to help the company “implement best practice standards” in Kinjor.


“I’m really disappointed to say that [this case] is one amongst many," said Jessica Evans, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "We’ve seen time after time serious failings by the World Bank and the IFC when it comes to resettlement."


That is little comfort for Siah. Outside a neighbour’s house in Kinjor, she fought back the tears to speak about her son’s death. Her voice rose in anger when she listed the failings of New Liberty Gold: “no hospital here, no safe drinking water”.


“There are toilets right next to the water pump. It makes us sick,” she added. “We are suffering.”


The owner of the mine, Avesoro Resources Inc. (previously called Aureus Mining), has built a school and installed some water pumps. But the rest of the action plan, the compensation due for uprooting people against their will, remains little more than a wish list.

Still waiting

Controversy at mining projects like New Liberty Gold is not new in Liberia. For nearly 100 years, natural resource extraction – from rubber to minerals – has been steeped in violence and corruption. Opaque investments carry a tremendous risk in the context of such a fragile state as Liberia.


In one of Kinjor’s narrow alleys flanked by mud huts, Yarpawolo Gblan, an old man in a faded black polo shirt, stepped forward: “Are you a journalist? Come and see my house!”


We sat on a bench, our backs to the wooden wall of a hut scrawled with the phone numbers of Gblan’s children. Three years ago, Avesoro had forced him to move from what had been his home for a decade, into “temporary” accommodation, to make way for the mining project.


The huts the company provided have just two small rooms: not nearly big enough to house Gblan’s family of eight. He extended the original structure as best he could, using his own resources.


The huts were meant to be a stopgap measure, until the displaced families could move into 325 “improved houses” promised by the company. The unfinished shells of those houses stand in ordered rows, just a few hundred metres away.


But construction stopped longer than a year ago. Weeds now grow between the brick walls, and slimy bright-green algae thrive in puddles fed by rain falling through where roofs should be.

The company man

Half a day’s drive from Kinjor, in a wealthy suburb of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, a striking white-walled villa serves as the headquarters of New Liberty Gold.


Debar Allen is the company’s general manager, a physically imposing man who fills his generously appointed office. From behind a large wooden desk, he explained in a calm baritone that people like Gblan, who were supposed to have been resettled, “do not want to move from where they are”.


He offered two reasons for the construction delay: the need “to get going with the mining project because we were running out of funds”, and the desire of those being resettled to build their own permanent houses where they are now. “Rather than bringing contractors from Monrovia, we have to team up with them,” he said.


The World Bank, via email, offered a different explanation. With “the Ebola outbreak, the company faced significant construction delays. As a consequence, the project experienced some significant challenges that impacted its financial/cash flow position.”


The result was that “the full implementation of several aspects of the project had to be postponed, and some of the permanent houses have not yet been completed.”


But in February 2015, the IFC provided a $5.3 million cash injection for New Liberty Gold to help the company “cope with additional costs” as a result of the Ebola outbreak, and to “support the company’s ongoing work in Liberia”. 


In reality, the company should have finished the resettlement houses several months before Ebola hit Liberia. Moreover, the outbreak was brought under control more than 18 months ago, yet the new housing construction will not be completed any time soon.


Allen explained: “We signed with the [local] leaders a memorandum of understanding that postpones the completion to the end of next year”. That means December 2017.


Community representatives told IRIN that the company had asked them to sign numerous times, accepting the new deadline, and that they eventually gave in. They had reasoned that whether they signed or not, the houses would not be built any faster. 


The World Bank did not reply to IRIN’s requests for more details on the resettlement timeline and the mine’s failure to make good on its promises to the community.

  Dead fish and rashes

In March 2016, an accident at New Liberty Gold mine released cyanide and arsenic, byproducts of the mining process, into a nearby river that serves villages downstream. In Jikando, where people use its water to fish, bath and wash clothes, they began to see dead fish floating. Soon, they started developing skin rashes themselves.


A slim teenager lifted his t-shirt to show a rash he has had since shortly after the spill. He told IRIN it still itched but said: “it doesn’t worry me all the time”. Several mothers confirmed their children were still afflicted by similar rashes. No medical tests have been conducted on villagers who’ve reported similar effects.


Avesoro’s Allen said the company found out about the leak in April, after a phone call from the local chief in Jikando. He noted that the company now regularly delivers frozen fish to replace the poisoned ones, as the community’s “source of protein was from the creek”.


On 14 April, shortly after the leak, the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency fined the company. On 10 May, Avesoro publicly disclosed the spill to shareholders, stating that its “investigations to date indicate no adverse impact on any human settlement”. 


It’s difficult to pin responsibility for the mine’s failures on any individual because it’s hard to identify the successive true owners of New Liberty Gold. Aureus is part of a long list of shell companies named in the Panama Papers leak, many of them registered in opaque jurisdictions. 


The latest twist in the ownership trail came at the end of 2016 when MNG Gold, headquartered in Turkey, took over Aureus and changed its name to Avesoro Resources Inc.

The warlord

Investing in companies with complex ownership is not unusual for the IFC. A recent report by Oxfam found that 84 percent of the IFC’s investments in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 used “secrecy” jurisdictions.


But the roots of the New Liberty Gold project stretch back before 1995, when a resource extraction license was issued by former warlord turned president Charles Taylor to a mysterious company called KAFCO. 


The permit changed hands a few times and, today, Avesoro holds its permit via a wholly-owned subsidiary, Bea Mountain Mining Corp – a company created in 1996 by Keikurah B. Kpoto, one of Taylor’s closest associates.  


The exploitation of Liberia’s gold and diamonds allowed Taylor, convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2012 and now serving a 50-year prison sentence in the UK, to fund his war effort.


In 1998, foreign interests bought Bea Mountain Mining. The beneficiaries of the sale were well hidden. According to a document IRIN procured, three quarters of its capital belonged to a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. The rest was held by owners of bearer shares.  


Bearer shares are the vehicles of choice for the corrupt because they are owned by whoever holds the paper certificates, just like cash. There is no trace of their owner in company records and they can easily become covert payments for pretty much anything.


The World Bank nevertheless wrote that it had undertaken due diligence on New Liberty Gold, an investigation that included “desktop reviews, several meetings with Aureus management and a site visit”. 


Over the past decade, the IFC has spent more than $200 million on projects like New Liberty Gold. It has a seemingly unshakable faith that commercial mining can deliver development that will trickle down to communities like Kinjor.


As for Siah: Her last-born is now buried. If she once believed the promises of New Liberty Gold, that is certainly no longer the case. “The company is doing nothing for us,” she told IRIN. “If the company had built a hospital here, [his death] would not have happened.”


(This investigative report is being jointly published by 100Reporters, IRIN and Le Monde Afrique. 100Reporters is an award-winning investigative news organisation based in Washington, DC. Its objective is to reveal untold stories on corruption, transparency and accountability. IRIN delivers unique, authoritative and independent reporting from the front lines of crises to inspire and produce a more effective humanitarian response. Le Monde Afrique is a pan-African francophone media for news, reporting, analysis and debates.)


- The mainroad of new Kinjor

- Yarpawolo Gblan sitting in front of his “temporary house”

- Unfinished "new houses"

- A child's hand after the chemical spill

- Left to right: Tambakai Jangaba, Taylor, Foday Sankoh (leader of the Sierra Leonean rebel RUF), and Kpoto


Categories: Gender Parity

South Sudan needs peace as much as food

IRIN Gender - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 09:58

The declaration of famine in two counties of South Sudan last month led to immediate pledges of aid. Grave editorials called on Western governments to prioritise relief efforts to the needy, despite the shortcomings of the government and the ongoing civil war.

But a singular focus on sending more food may miss the mark. That's because in South Sudan's famine zone, more people die from bullets than starvation.

The famine was declared for Mayendit and Leer counties of southern Unity State, an area populated by various clans of the Nuer ethnic group. These clans are politically loyal to Riek Machar, who leads South Sudan's main rebel group, the SPLA-IO, and hails from Leer.

According to a February survey that food security experts analysed as part of the data used to declare famine, 4.1 in 10,000 people died per day across Mayendit county. That’s above the famine threshold of two hunger-related deaths per 10,000 people, which itself is about 10 times the average global death rate

But 73 percent of those deaths in Mayendit were from conflict, not starvation. That means more than two people per 10,000 died per day – the same catastrophic, out of control death rate of a famine – but the immediate cause was because they had been shot.

Other surveys tell a similar story. In Leer, there's no recent available mortality data, but a survey from February 2016 found that of the more than three people dying per 10,000 per day there, 57 percent were from conflict rather than starvation. 

third study released in December 2016 by REACH, a USAID-funded group, found conflict the leading cause of mortality in Leer and Mayendit, accounting for 49 percent of total deaths.

That means the war in southern Unity is so bad that even amid a famine, violent deaths still outpace starvation deaths.

To be clear, the high rate of conflict deaths does not mean Leer and Mayendit counties are not experiencing famine.

Jason Patinkin Displaced children find shelter on the small island of Kok

A famine requires, among other factors, that a population experiences two deaths per 10,000 people per day that are “related to hunger”. A violent death can also be “related to hunger” if, for instance, a hungry person ventures into an unsafe area in search of food and is shot, something that has been the case in southern Unity.

But the opposite is even more true. Southern Unity is a lush floodplain, full of fish and arable land. No one would die from hunger there if there wasn't conflict. The war has prevented people from planting, harvesting, fishing, and trading. Just as importantly, the conflict prevents relief workers from bringing enough food aid to reach hungry people.

“With active conflict in these places, it is very difficult for humanitarian assistance to be felt, because even when the food is distributed, sometimes it can be taken away [by armed groups],” explained Barack Kinanga, a food security expert with the International Rescue Committee.

The hunger facing people in southern Unity is not just a byproduct of the war, but the goal, many analysts suggest. Across the country, 5.8 million people are in need of food aid and more than 2.3 million – one in every five people in South Sudan – have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the conflict.

While SPLA-IO rebels have launched attacks (including on civilians), and thrown up barriers to aid, the death by violence and hunger in southern Unity is primarily the result of three scorched-earth campaigns waged by the government army (the SPLA), and its militia allies.

Draining the sea

The first campaign, led by the Justice and Equality Movement, a militia from Sudan's Darfur region that has fought for South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, took place in January 2014.

JEM stormed south from the Unity capital Bentiu and razed Leer, sending civilians and aid workers running for their lives. By the time aid groups returned in May 2014, children were already dying of malnutrition, though no famine was declared.

The next two campaigns were far more devastating. For seven months, beginning in late April 2015, SPLA-backed militia from the Bul and later Jaggey clans of the Nuer wreaked havoc across southern Unity.

Besides mass murder and sexual slavery, the militia torched villages, stole or destroyed grain and crops, looted cattle on an industrial scale, wrecked water points, shelled river ports to disrupt trade in foodstuffs, and either stole or blocked aid deliveries.

The goal was to annihilate the rebels’ support base by creating an “empty area” in central and southern Unity, according to a United Nations Panel of Experts report.

“SPLA armed forces were intent on rendering communal life unviable and prohibiting any return to normalcy following the violence,” the group said.

Nearly 8,000 people died by violence or drowning in the swamps while fleeing attacks in the 2015 campaign, according to a UN mortality study released early last year.

By the end of 2015, some 70,000 people had fled the affected region, mostly to government areas where aid workers were allowed to deliver food. Forty thousand people left behind were classified by the IPC to be in “famine conditions”.

The most recent campaign, from July 2016 and continuing into 2017, finally pushed Mayendit and Leer counties into what the UN and the government now officially describe as a famine.

Jason Patinkin Men carry an elderly woman through the swamps

These attacks were carried out by SPLA-backed militia loyal to Taban Deng Gai, who hails from the Jikany Nuer clan in northeastern Unity state. Since the collapse of a peace and power-sharing deal with rebel leader Machar in 2016 and the return to civil war, the international community has recognised Taban, as he is popularly known, as the First Vice President.

The 2016-2017 campaign appears to have been just as brutal as the one of 2015, including rape, murder, and destruction of villages.

“A whole village would disappear,” said one aid worker, who visited repeatedly in 2016 but IRIN is keeping anonymous for safety reasons. “In your next visit, you'd find just piles of ash.”

As in 2015, soldiers targeted civilians and their livelihoods by stealing cattle, blocking aid, and destroying crops during fighting, which the REACH study said was the largest cause of food insecurity in the state. Destitute people have turned to gathering wild fruits, leaves, and fish to survive, but soldiers block access to even these emergency food sources.

“We found a case [in government-controlled southern Mayendit], the men with guns are basically disallowing anyone from accessing fishing areas,” the aid worker said.

“Pushed and pushed and pushed”

Throughout the chaos, aid groups have undertaken what at times was the largest single-country aid effort on Earth.

In 2014, they started dropping food from planes, which hadn't been done anywhere since the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

That wasn't enough, so they started “Rapid Response Missions”, where aid workers were helicoptered in to remote areas for one to two weeks at a time, quickly assessed needs, and distributed as much as food and medicine as possible before dropping into the next place. Those missions hadn't been done anywhere, ever.

When government militia started killing civilians who attended the rapid response missions and stealing their food, aid groups covertly handed out “emergency relief kits” – small packages of high-energy biscuits, fishing hooks, water purification tablets, and other lifesavers – by helicopter or canoe to families hiding in the bush.

This was a far cry from meeting the needs of people on the ground, but aid groups continued trying to reach them. Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross kept coming back, even though soldiers looted or destroyed their compounds in Leer four times, including last July.

None of these efforts stopped the violence itself. Even the declaration of famine, the loudest alarm bell the aid world can ring, hasn't resulted in a ceasefire. Just days after the announcement, aid workers were forced to evacuate Mayendit yet again.

“We've pushed and pushed and pushed,” said World Food Programme spokeswoman Challiss McDonough. “But humanitarian assistance can only do so much on its own. It cannot end a conflict.”

For that, the international community needs to mobilise political action.

“This is a conflict-driven famine,” said Nicholas Haan of Singularity University, who led the development of the IPC and is on its independent Emergency Review Committee, which assessed the famine data for South Sudan.

“In addition to stop-gap humanitarian assistance, there needs to be extreme, extraordinary measures to tamp down the conflict in the area, whatever that looks like.”

Identifying the problem

For now, most commentators – besides activists George Clooney and John Prendergast – blame South Sudan's “man-made” famine on fighting between “armed groups”, rather than plainly accusing the government.

There are few journalists and researchers operating in the country, so most information comes from the UN mission, called UNMISS, and aid groups.

UNMISS often avoids commenting on incidents of violence. Aid groups, despite having by far the best network of contacts on both sides of the conflict, are also largely silent – even when they are the targets of violence – in the name of "neutrality".

The effect of this institutional silence and aversion to naming culprits is a wider illusion that atrocities aren't happening, or if they are, that all sides are equally culpable.

“One of the biggest lessons from southern Unity was that we, as a humanitarian community, needed to come together and be more vocal and honest about what we were seeing,” said one senior aid official, who worked closely on the response but spoke anonymously over career concerns.

“We had overwhelming anecdotal evidence to suggest that ethnic cleansing was under way [in 2015], but we were blocked by senior UN leadership from being able to say that,” the source added.

Jason Patinkin This village in Leer County was attacked by government forces a week after the photo was taken

The silence held even when relief workers themselves were attacked. UNMISS said nothing when men believed to have been from South Sudan's National Security Service beat up the mission’s deputy humanitarian coordinator at her home in Juba. Later that year, MSF would not comment when three staff were killed, though they announced the incident to their employees. 

IRIN interviewed two other aid officials who worked closely on southern Unity. Both agreed with the assessment that aid groups operated under a culture of silence.

They said this phenomenon increased followed the arrival of a new UN humanitarian coordinator in the middle of 2015, Eugene Owusu, who replaced Toby Lanzer after his expulsion by the government.

One of the officials said the wariness to speak out was “policy” from Owusu's office, noting that internal pressure was required to drive any public statement. All three officials said public silence was not an effective strategy at gaining access to southern Unity, even though the need to preserve access was the justification for remaining silent.

“Access was often used as an excuse not to speak out on human rights violations, [but] we already didn't have access for most of 2015 so we didn't have that much to lose,” said the first official.

“There has to be a point at which we say, ‘you know what, now speaking out about what we're seeing and the massacres we're hearing about is more important than maintaining our relationship with the government’. It seemed like the UN never hit that point where they were comfortable making that shift, and NGOs fell in line.”

What’s next?

One possible measure to slow down the violence is an arms embargo.

The 2015 campaign, which lasted through the wet season, depended heavily on armoured and amphibious vehicles. Even today, fresh bullets continue to flow into southern Unity, including a reported transfer of ammunition from the SPLA to a militia in the area last month. But an embargo is unlikely to get past Russian and Chinese objections at the UN Security Council, even if it could garner enough regional support.

Another possible way to stop the attacks on civilians might be foreign military intervention. Already, UNMISS has a Chapter Seven mandate to protect civilians with lethal force when necessary and to facilitate humanitarian aid.

But UNMISS has weak command and control and a general unwillingness to engage. Although it established a base in Leer in November 2016, the town has only become more violent, militarised, and unsafe for aid workers and civilians alike.

Eight months ago, there was talk of sending an additional 4,000-strong UN Regional Protection Force drawn from neighbouring countries. But the RPF would only deploy to the capital Juba, and faced with government resistance, there has been no real progress on that or any other military option.

Political solutions are also in short supply.

“The international community has few options, and the state knows this,” said Carol Berger, a Canadian anthropologist who has worked in South Sudan for many years.

“The unimplemented peace agreement, talk of a national dialogue, of forming a hybrid court to try those alleged to have committed atrocities — all of these supposed solutions have only provided the state with a cover as it continues its war,” she told IRIN.

It's a grim outlook, but if the world continues sending food without stopping bullets, it's a likely scenario for years to come.


TOP PHOTO: A young man with a gun walks through the swamps in rebel-held Leer County. CREDIT: Jason Patinkin

South Sudan needs peace as much as food leer_jason_gun_man.jpg Jason Patinkin Analysis Aid and Policy Conflict Health Human Rights NAIROBI IRIN Africa East Africa South Sudan
Categories: Gender Parity

Besieged: A 360º experience in Sudan's Nuba Mountains

IRIN Gender - Fri, 03/10/2017 - 04:28

It’s the dry season in the Nuba Mountains, a time when the Sudanese government usually renews its offensive against the rebels holed up in the rocky fastness.

This season though, despite sporadic clashes, a ceasefire seems to be holding.

For Khartoum, there is an incentive to keeping the peace. The outgoing US administration of Barack Obama lifted economic sanctions in January, and a key condition of the six-month probation period until their permanent removal is a cessation of hostilities.

The rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N) also have a point to make. They are keen to demonstrate to the international community their commitment to talks, and to the clearing of obstacles to aid access to the impoverished South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

Peace can’t come soon enough for the people of the Nuba Mountains. The conflict has disrupted farming in rebel-held areas, and, along with poor rains, has resulted in sharply reduced harvests. Food prices are sky-rocketing, and the crisis is forcing more and more people from their homes in search of aid.

Besieged: A 360º experience in Sudan's Nuba Mountains ABOUT THE PROJECT HOW TO WATCH IN VR Besieged: Nuba 360º caves_inside_panorama_background.png TFMDigital Video Aid and Policy Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Journalists and NGOs are banned from the Nuba Mountains. This rare film was captured by local community groups with guidance from international media. The narration is scripted directly from interviews with more than a dozen Nuba civilians. IRIN Africa East Africa South Sudan Sudan The origins of conflict

The people of the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan live on the fault line between Sudan’s largely Arab north and its predominantly black African south.

Political and economic power in Sudan has historically been in the hands of a northern, Arabised elite. Since independence, the country’s marginalised communities have tried to resist that domination. The Nuba, numbering around 1.5 million, are a group of majority Muslim peoples, proud of their “African-ness”. They have faced long-standing discrimination as a consequence.











When the Second Sudanese Civil War erupted in 1983, the alternative message of equality and inclusion of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and its charismatic commander-in-chief John Garang resonated with Nuba leaders. By 1987, an alliance had formed. Garang took the fight north through South Kordofan. The Nuba Mountains became a key rebel stronghold, and the government responded with a scorched-earth strategy that bore hallmarks of genocide. Jihad was declared, and a fatwa made it clear that Nuba Muslims were not to be spared either.

A fragile peace took shape between the north and the south in 2005, which led to a referendum and independence for South Sudan in 2011. But the contested areas of Blue Nile and South Kordofan were left under Khartoum’s control. Promised consultations on greater autonomy failed to materialise. As the world applauded South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, bombs were once again falling on the people of the Nuba Mountains. The conflict that still grips South Kordofan today was well under way.







About the project

This 360º film project was a collaboration between local Nuban organisations and foreign media. 

Directed and produced by London-based production company TFMdigital with support from Pax Christi, the film gives voice to the lived experience of people besieged in the Nuba Mountains.

The narration of Besieged: A 360º experience in Sudan's Nuba Mountains is composed of interview excerpts from more than a dozen civilians. You can download the full transcripts here.

Film Library Film Library Photo Library Back to film list Gandi Khalil Leyl | BESIEGED Share this film

The narration was recorded by the South Sudan Theatre Organization in Juba, South Sudan involving Sudanese and South Sudanese actors.

The scenes themselves are of real civilians in real situations and were filmed on location by Transformedia near the front lines of the conflict in the Nuba Mountains.

Virtual Reality at the Highest Level

Footage from the film Besieged: A 360º experience in Sudan's Nuba Mountains was used to provide high-level officials around the world the opportunity to take a "Virtual Reality Human Rights Mission to Sudan".

More than 600 officials took this Virtual Mission at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in New York, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva (UNHRC), the African Union Commission on Human and People’s Rights (AUHPR) in Banjul, and in parliaments around the world. This work was partially funded by Amnesty International.

Transformedia/IRIN Virtual Human Rights Mission to members of the Bureau of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child


How to watch in VR and 360

360º video allows you to be immersed in a scene, almost as if you were there.

You can watch 360º videos in three ways: by simply altering the position of your phone or tablet or by using your mouse to drag around the scene on your computer. To really bring the content to life, you can use a virtual reality headset.

You can experience Besieged: A 360º experience in Sudan's Nuba Mountains by using the YouTube app on headsets such as Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear. You can also use Google Cardboard.

How to watch on your phone
without a VR headset
  1. Open the YouTube app on your smartphone and search for the IRIN News channel.
  2. Once you’ve selected the IRIN 360º video you would like to watch, turn your phone horizontally so it becomes full screen.
  3. Select the three vertical dots in the top right corner of the screen, then select ‘Quality’. Choose the maximum resolution for the best viewing experience.
  4. Now you can physically move your phone around or use your fingers to shift the perspective of the camera.
How to watch on your desktop
  1. Open YouTube on your internet browser and search for the IRIN News channel.
  2. Once you’ve selected the IRIN 360º video you would like to watch, select the ‘Settings’ icon in the bottom right corner, click ‘Quality’ and choose the highest resolution.
  3. Select the ‘Full Screen’ icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.
  4. Now use your mouse or trackpad to shift the perspective of the camera by clicking and dragging.
How to watch on your VR headset
  1. Open the YouTube app on your smartphone and search for the IRIN News channel.
  2. Once you’ve chosen the IRIN 360º video you would like to watch, select the ‘Settings’ icon in the bottom right-hand corner, click ‘Quality’ and choose the highest resolution.
  3. Click on the three vertical dots in the top right corner of the screen and select the 'Cardboard' icon. You’ll see the layout of the screen split into two circles.
  4. Turn your phone horizontal and place it into your headset.​



Categories: Gender Parity

Eritrea to Ethiopia, Mosul worsens, and Boko Haram bombs: The Cheat Sheat

IRIN Gender - Fri, 03/03/2017 - 11:29

Every week, IRIN’s team of editors takes a look at what lies ahead on our humanitarian agenda and curates a selection of some of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:

What’s coming up?

Mosul’s back (it never went away)

In case you turned away for a minute, here’s a reminder that the battle of Mosul is ongoing and that for civilians it appears to be getting much worse. The UN says an average of 4,000 people are streaming out of western districts each day – plus it estimates there are up to 750,000 more trapped inside. Supplies of food and water are said to be running low, and many people live in the tightly packed old city, where civilians Thursday were feared dead after a mosque was hit in what witnesses say was a strike from the air. Fleeing the city is a risk too, but conditions inside are so horrific that for some it’s worth the journey. Will aid agencies be ready to meet the needs of this new wave? They have been preparing for at least six months, but we all know that's no guarantee. Next week we’ll take you there, with testimony from civilians who have walked across the desert under fire, desperately seeking safety and help.

One day the war will end

Boko Haram attacked the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri early on Friday in a triple suicide bombing. The attack comes ahead of a visit by the UN Security Council to the city, part of a tour of the four-country Lake Chad region by diplomats to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis affecting 21 million people in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

The international community had its chance to act at the Oslo humanitarian conference last month. Analysts had called for a significant donor response – see our op-ed. What got pledged was $672 million in new money spread over three years, against an appeal target of $1.5 billion for 2017. Neither the US or British governments made even a show of opening their wallets in Oslo. In these straitened times we must be glad for any mercy, but also mindful that the 2016 appeal was for a good deal less, $739 million, and wound up being only 53 percent funded.

Behind the humanitarian crisis looms Boko Haram. Nigeria repeatedly promises the jihadists are under control. Today’s bombing in Maiduguri proves otherwise. What to do? Researcher Atta Barkindo calls for the opening of channels of dialogue. Someday, the war will be over, and the local vigilantes that have sprung up to defend their communities will be disbanded. The International Crisis Group is sounding an alarm now, of new dangers unless care is taken over how these young men are demobilised.

EU plan to detain migrants for up to 18 months

Migration is high on the agenda, once again, at next week’s European Council meeting in Brussels. Ahead of the meeting, the European Commission issued a slew of press releases trumpeting progress on various initiatives. The one that has grabbed the most headlines is an action plan on the return of irregular migrants, including a recommendation that member states detain people awaiting removal for up to 18 months to prevent them from absconding. At a press conference on Thursday, EU home affairs commissioner Dmitris Avramopoulos made it clear children would not be exempt. The Commission also released the latest figures for the EU’s relocation and resettlement scheme, revealing that just 13,546 asylum seekers have been transferred from the overwhelmed frontline states of Italy and Greece. Several countries, including Hungary and Austria, have refused to participate in the scheme, while others have accepted only a handful. Also came a third progress report on the Partnership Framework with third countries, focusing on “results” in Niger, Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal and Nigeria, and on next steps such as finalising a readmission agreement with Nigeria by June. Our reporting last month highlighted how – dodgy statistics aside – the Niger deal has successfully stemmed northward migration, albeit while decimating the local economy.

Hotspots to watch

The International Crisis Group has released its annual report on the top 10 conflicts where it believes the EU should look to take action to promote peace. Some are fairly predictable (Somalia, Syria, Yemen), but others you may not even have heard of. Gold star if you can find Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, on a map. The contested region is within the borders of Azerbaijan but has an ethnic Armenian majority and Armenia also claims sovereignty. The two countries went to war from 1992 to 1994 over control of the area, but tensions have been sizzling much more recently. Last April, clashes erupted again and 200 people lost their lives. Other surprises on the list include Myanmar, which has been accused of crimes against humanity in its crackdown on ethnic Rohingya, and Venezuela, which has reached such a low ebb that civil conflict has become a real possibility.

Did you miss it?

Eritrean journeys on hold

Several thousand Eritreans are thought to leave their country every month, fleeing compulsory and open-ended national service, political persecution and a failing economy. Most cross into neighbouring Ethiopia, where they are accommodated in refugee camps, but not many remain there. This new report by the Overseas Development Institute looks at how policy decisions are influencing Eritreans’ decisions to move on, often towards Europe via the irregular route to Libya and across the Mediterranean. The main finding of the report is that livelihood support programmes in Ethiopia and the slim possibility of resettlement to a third country are not enough to offset the fact that refugees there are denied the right to work. Instead, they are forced to scrape out a living that might meet their basic needs but holds no promise for the future. This reality is captured by an excellent accompanying film following the experiences of Teddy Love, an Eritrean man who escaped eight years of military service to become a popular singer in Asmara before being arrested and imprisoned. Since arriving in Ethiopia seven years ago, he has eked out a living singing in nightclubs for tips to support his two children.

Yemenis fight for survival as famine looms

After flagging up last week that Yemen is facing the largest food insecurity emergency in the world, IRIN published a two-part feature this week from rural Taiz, where children and the elderly are already dying of malnutrition. Regular contributor Iona Craig has been writing on this crisis since 2010 and has covered the country’s downward spiral from neglected humanitarian disaster to civil conflict, all-out war and economic meltdown. Her words, aided by photographs from Ahmed al-Basha, now describe the reality of a rural Yemen on the brink of famine. Skin hangs from the scrawny hands of a baby girl who can’t be nourished by her starving mother, women and children collect precious drops of water from a dying spring, a healthcare system on its knees can’t possibly cope. But these are the lucky ones. In her accompanying story, Craig ventures into the more remote highlands and finds al-Dashin, a displacement camp where death from malnutrition is becoming a regular event. Her conclusion: “Yemenis are renowned for their unwavering resilience. This is a rural-based society, well practised at caring for its own after decades in which there has been a near-total absence of a functioning state. But there has to be a breaking point. In a remote dusty wasteland in rural Taiz, that point of collapse is startlingly tangible.”

(TOP PHOTO: Protests in Aden, Yemen. CREDIT: Iona Craig)



Protests in Aden, Yemen, February 2017 .jpg News Migration Conflict Food Human Rights This week’s humanitarian outlook IRIN GENEVA Global
Categories: Gender Parity

Post-quake Nepal: No country for old women

IRIN Gender - Tue, 02/28/2017 - 23:30
Laxmi Devishretha hasn’t spoken for a week. Silent but for the rhythmic in-and-out of the oxygen tank pumping through her nostrils, the 83-year-old lies in a hospital bed, tucked up to her chin in a red fleece blanket. At this point, she’s largely given up trying to make herself heard.   “It’s the cold,” explained her daughter, also called Laxmi. “It’s hard to keep warm at night, so her asthma has got worse.”   The air in her home doesn’t help either, according to Binot Dangal, medical director of Charikot Hospital in Dolakha, one of the districts hardest hit by the April 2015 earthquake that killed about 9,000 people and displaced another 3.5 million.   Dangal said there has been a spike in respiratory illnesses among elderly women since the quake. He blamed poor ventilation combined with open cooking fires inside the makeshift huts where they are now forced to live.   That’s just one hardship that women – and especially older women – are facing during the post-quake reconstruction phase.    Survey results included in the UN’s Interagency Common Feedback Project report showed that perceptions of progress jumped from 22 percent six months ago to 49 percent last month. But while the overall results indicate that Nepalis are more satisfied with rebuilding efforts, there is a glaring gap between men and women.   “Women report having seen less progress, having received less support, they have less information about how to get support, less knowledge about safer building practices and they are less likely to have consulted an engineer,” said the report.   As the second anniversary of the devastating quake approaches, Devishretha is one of an estimated two million people still living in temporary accommodation. Reconstruction has been painfully slow, but in the meantime, tents are gradually being replaced across the 14 affected districts by semi-permanent corrugated iron shacks.    Corinne Redfern/IRIN Laxmi Devishrethra, 83, suffers from respiratory illness partly due to living in a poorly ventilated shack after Nepal's 2015 earthquake   SEE: A year after Nepal quake, billions unspent and little rebuilt   Gender gap   What the UN report refers to as the “gender information gap” is evident across all age groups, but the discrimination faced by elderly women following the earthquake is chasmic.    According to the government’s Nepal Living Standards Survey, women are nearly 30 percent more likely to be illiterate than their male counterparts. Literacy decreases with age, according to local NGO Ageing Nepal, which reports that 95 percent of elderly women are unable to read.   Illiteracy poses a major problem for elderly women who need to access the three installments of governmental post-earthquake support. Doing so requires a bank account, which requires extensive paperwork. Widows whose husbands – deemed by default as “heads of households” – opened a bank account on their family’s behalf have also found their access to the grants rescinded, according to the UN report as well as individuals who spoke to IRIN.   Health issues post-earthquake are ostracising Devishretha’s peer group even further.   Research conducted by Suman Thapaliya for his Masters thesis at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University last year reveals that 51 percent of elderly women with “significant” physical problems developed them since April 2015, while only a quarter of men aged 60 or older have noticed a decline in their physical health during the same timeframe. Elderly women are also 7.2 percent more likely to have experienced depression or neglect since the earthquake.    Yet so far, no specific government programmes are in place to improve their access to medical facilities, target their mental health, or improve their literacy levels.    “We have a generation of widows who have spent their lives facing discrimination from a deeply patriarchal society, and who have now lost everything,” said Krishna Gautam, Ageing Nepal’s founder. “And they’re still not receiving the assistance they need to recover – physically or emotionally.”   Suddenly vulnerable   Mira Serchan, who heads the Senior Citizen’s Unit at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, is keen to clarify that financial assistance of 2,000 rupees (about $18) a week is available “for all men and women over 60”. The government is also collaborating with local NGOs in 10 districts to teach the elderly crafts such as candle making.   “The focus is very much upon giving [older women] the tools to live independently,” said Serchan.   That may be the case, but learning to make candles won’t solve the issues faced by people like Mau Khakda. The 65-year-old lived independently in Dolakha long before the earthquake struck, but she has now been forced to move in with her grandson in Kathmandu. Her main challenge is illiteracy.   “It wasn’t a problem two years ago. I worked in the fields and I had a routine,” she said. “But my house was totally destroyed in the earthquake, and everything is new now. Even when information is distributed by word of mouth, I can’t check anything.”   Corinne Redfern/IRIN The Basic Literacy School For Senior Citizens   There aren’t any figures to show exactly how many senior citizens fled to Kathmandu following the disaster, but Gautam of Ageing Nepal says he’s certain it’s in the thousands. Aware that they were struggling to assimilate in a new city – a lettered labyrinth mapped out with street signs and numbered bus routes – he embarked on a bid to find funding to launch a literacy programme for elderly women.    After approaching the government, he eventually succeeded in securing a $3,000 grant from the NGO Committee on Ageing at the UN. The “Basic Literacy School For Senior Citizens” launched in July last year, with 25 eager-eyed women aged 60 to 83 clutching new notebooks and sharpened pencils.   Ageing Nepal plans to open a second school in Kathmandu later next month, this time with funds from members of the local community.   cr/jf/ag   (TOP PHOTO: Maiti Thapi, 61, in Deurali. CREDIT: Corinne Redfern/IRIN) nepal_elderly_4.jpg Feature Aid and Policy Environment and Disasters Health Human Rights Post-quake Nepal: No country for old women Corinne Redfern IRIN DOLAKHA DISTRICT, Nepal Asia Nepal
Categories: Gender Parity