Saturday, February 20, 2016
Saudi Arabia’s warnings to aid agencies in Yemen to leave possible attack zones do not provide a legal basis for the kingdom to launch unlawful raids in those areas, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.
“A warning is no justification for an unlawful airstrike,” James Ross, legal and policy director at the HRW, said on Wednesday.
“They (the Saudis) can’t shift the blame for shirking their responsibility onto aid agencies that are struggling to address a deepening crisis.”
In a February 5 letter, the Saudi embassy in London advised the UN and other aid organizations to withdraw their offices and employees from regions where Houthi Ansarullah fighters and their supporters are active.
Saudi Arabia began its military campaign against Yemen in late March 2015. The strikes are meant to restore power to fugitive former Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a strong ally of Riyadh.
Since last March, Saudi raids have struck hospitals and other facilities run by aid organizations, according to a HRW report released on Wednesday.
Facilities of medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Yemen have been hit by the air raids several times.
On December 2, 2015, an MSF mobile clinic in the southwestern province of Ta'izz was targeted. One civilian was killed and eight other people, including two staff members, were injured in the attack.
Another raid on the northern city of Sa’ada targeted an MSF-supported hospital on January 10. Six people lost their lives and at least seven, most of them medical staff and patients, were wounded.
On January 21, a Saudi airstrike hit an MSF ambulance in Sa’ada, killing its driver and six other people, and wounding dozens.
The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen said in a January 26 report that it had documented 119 sorties relating to violations of the laws of war in Yemen. Among them were five on storage facilities for food aid and 22 on hospitals.
Elsewhere in its report, the HRW called on Riyadh to publicly retract the February 5 letter, take all feasible steps to minimize civilian harm, and facilitate access to humanitarian assistance.
The report also urged the UN Human Rights Council to launch an independent, international investigation into violations of the laws of war by all sides to the conflict in Yemen.
“Should the ground war heat up in Yemen, adhering to the laws of war will become even more complicated and necessary,” Ross said.
“The Saudis need to be crystal clear that they are doing far more to meet their legal obligations or civilians will continue to suffer unnecessarily.”
Britain has been accused of waging a behind-the-scenes PR offensive aimed at neutering United Nations criticism of Bahrain for its human rights record, including the alleged use of torture by its security forces.
Documents shared with the Observer reveal that the UN’s criticism of the Gulf state was substantially watered down after lobbying by the UK and Saudi Arabia, a major purchaser of British-made weapons and military hardware.
The result was a victory for Bahrain and for Saudi Arabia, which sent its troops to quell dissent in the tiny kingdom during the Arab spring.
But the UK’s role has prompted concern among human rights groups. According to the international human rights organisation, Reprieve, two political prisoners in Bahrain are facing imminent execution and several more are on trial, largely due to confessions obtained through torture.
The situation in the kingdom was under acute scrutiny last September, when the UN’s human rights council met to discuss issuing a high-profile statement raising concerns about possible human rights abuses. Before that meeting, the UK held discussions with officials from a large number of UN member states, as well as diplomats in the Middle East, representatives from the office of the UN’s commissioner for human rights and international campaign groups.
According to a source familiar with the initiative, the UK sought to convince other states “that things were improving” in Bahrain and to dissuade them from issuing a damning diplomatic statement that would have had an impact on the kingdom’s international reputation. Traditionally the UN statements are issued by Switzerland and then signed off by other member states who, on this occasion, appear to have been convinced by the representations made by the UK and the Saudis. The original draft was watered down heavily, according to those familiar with its contents. “The first draft contained many more condemnatory elements than the final outcome,” a source said. “The UK managed to significantly weaken the contents of the text.”
A comparison of the second and final, third draft issued on 14 September and obtained by the Observer, shows significant further amendments were made to remove embarrassing references to Bahrain and its security forces. The second draft read: “We are concerned by reports of excessive use of force by the riot police forces.” This was changed to: “We are concerned that there is insufficient accountability for human rights violations.”
Another key section of the second draft read: “We are concerned about reports of torture and ill-treatment in detention including reprisals against victims reporting human rights abuses.” This was altered to: “We are concerned about reports of reprisals against victims reporting human rights abuses.”
Nicolas Agostini, representative to the UN at the International Federation for Human Rights, based in Geneva, said: “It is very unusual for states to engage in massive PR efforts to support their allies on the human rights council. What we witnessed last September was basically an attempt by the UK to shield Bahrain from any kind of international scrutiny. At the same time as the UK was engaging in this PR exercise on behalf of the Bahraini government, Saudi Arabia was mobilising its foreign service to bully states so that they would not support the statement on Bahrain, which is very sensitive to international pressure and cares about its image. In that sense, managing to have a joint statement on Bahrain, despite the efforts from the UK and Saudi Arabia to prevent it happening, was very important.”
Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said allegations that the UK had sought to water down criticism of Bahrain in the UN Human Rights Council were deeply worrying.
“It is right that the UK government works to improve other countries’ human rights records,” Foa said. “But its work with Bahrain appears to have crossed the line into whitewashing.
“This behaviour is especially troubling in light of the potentially imminent resumption of executions in Bahrain and the role of confessions extracted through torture in obtaining death sentences in Bahraini courts,” she added.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: “As with all negotiations, a balance has to be struck between the content of any statement and ensuring that it gains the widest possible support from the international community. We don’t shy away from raising issues of concern, including human rights, at all levels within the government of Bahrain.”
Turkey is playing a pivotal role in the escalation of violence both in the Middle East and Europe, Czech-based freelance journalist Martin Berger notes, adding that Ankara is just waiting for a "legal pretext" for the invasion of Syria.
Nevada voters caucus on Saturday to choose the Democratic candidate for president. Here is a look at the contest: Delegates and Rules The caucuses are open, which means that any eligible voter may participate and that voters can register or change their party affiliation on the caucus day. The results of Saturday’s vote are not binding. Twenty-three of the 35 delegates to the county conventions will be chosen on Saturday based on presidential preference in each of the state’s congressional districts. Results Nevada caucus precincts open at 11 a.m. Pacific time (2 p.m. Eastern time), and voting will start about noon, with initial results coming within the hour. Polling There has been very little public polling, and because Nevada has a caucus system, which means a lower turnout, a surprising outcome is possible. What to Watch For Patrick Healy, a national political correspondent for The New York Times, looks at six dynamics that could alter the 2016 race, and Nate Cohn of The Upshot offers some ways to look at the results as they roll in. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/us/politics/nevada-caucus.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&viewport=desktop-large&module=column-2®ion=top-news&contentIndexValue=0&subIndexValue=4&feedIndexValue=0&groupKick=true&summary=true&_r=0
A fresh round of peace talks on Afghanistan are to begin soon. Meanwhile, representatives from Pakistan, China and the US met the Afghan leadership a few weeks ago to settle on the way forward. The fact that no decisions made by the four principal countries involved has been made public might be good news – but only if it means that no stone will be left unturned to find the way forward.
Recently I’ve felt optimistic about a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, but I must admit that I am beginning to lose my optimism and despite not wanting to hold any single participant to blame, it is becoming increasingly difficult not to centre on America.
In the case of Pakistan it seemed, until early last year, that the US policy was ambivalent because of its desire to keep China encircled. Of late though, it appears that the US is again supportive of Pakistani efforts to improve its security situation.
However, there seems to be no reason for the US not to do everything possible to ensure peace and stability, and yet it has not.
A year ago some of us, while speculating on ISIL infiltrating this region, explained why it was unlikely to be successful in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. After learning of the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar, I dwelt on the necessity for urgency in dealing with this more insidious threat, but too late, due to splintering Taliban ranks.
Then ISIL captured Kunduz. Admittedly, it was retaken but while attempting to do so American planes bombed a hospital staffed by their own people, killing doctors and patients.
I explained that the logistic route to northern Afghanistan lies through territories where only the Haqqani Network could interdict them and, therefore, it was even more imperative that Haqqanis were included in peace talks.
On Pakistan’s insistence, Haqqani was represented during the meeting in Islamabad. Sensing the reluctance of the invitation to Islamabad, Haqqani sent fairly insignificant representatives. But that too could have been treated as a beginning; to open more doors to them. Apparently that did not suit Kabul and Washington.
Now the Taliban has taken Sangin. Once again Afghan troops are struggling to recapture it. This might be more difficult to recapture merely due to its location and terrain.
I repeat myself again. The Afghan Taliban were splintering but Mullah Omar’s death splintered them further. As a consequence, an ideal opportunity was created. If Afghan security forces could, like the Pakistani forces, conquer the Taliban speedily, then do so. If not, then begin negotiations immediately; while the Taliban are still in a position of weakness. But again nothing happened.
As many of us predicted, inactivity was bound to strengthen ISIL. Continued bad governance, a weakened economy, and widening cracks in Taliban ranks created opportunities which it has filled.
As in Syria, the moment ISIL capture sufficient space, they will create a mini-state. In the politico-economic state which exists in Afghanistan, it will be impossible then to prevent ISIL ranks from swelling further.
It is immaterial that ISIL might reveal its uglier side far sooner than the Taliban did in 1996.
Pakistan is considerably better off economically and in terms of the established capability of its security forces. But if ISIL becomes a force to reckon with in Afghanistan, Pakistan will be the most directly affected neighbour. If that happens, all that has been gained in the last two years could be lost in as many months.
And make no mistake, ISIL leaders are at least as wise as the Taliban, maybe even far wilier.
They timed their operations very well. Spring is upon us to open this year’s campaign season and it begins with Afghan troops attempting to retake Sangin. However insignificant Sangin might be in comparison to Kunduz, but over a hundred British soldiers died unsuccessfully defending it.
Ashraf Ghani has a very tenuous hold over his National Unity government. Far more tenuous than the wilier Hamid Karzai had when he began his first term – only because he was more shrewd. While Mr Karzai strengthened his hold, at least over Kabul and its surroundings, with every passing month, Mr Ghani has been weakened further.
Admittedly, Mr Ghani’s weakening has been partially due to events beyond his control and partially due to efforts of those deliberately undermining his authority. But his failure to demonstrate an attempt to end corruption and deliver good governance is also contributing to his weakening political hold.
By comparison, Pakistan is doing fairly well in its attempt to stage an economic recovery. Good governance might still be out of reach but the decision of security forces to take on corruption along with terrorism has helped improve the domestic scene.
But, only by comparison. We are far from being out of the quicksand we were getting sucked into.
Sexual violence in Pakistan often goes unnoticed: Here are a few resilient voices in the battle for justice
By Kathy Gannon
Kainat Soomro was 13 years old and on her way to buy a toy for her newborn niece when three men kidnapped her, held her for several days and repeatedly raped her. Eight years later, she is still battling for justice. She sits on a steel-framed bed in her parents' three-bedroom home, and holds her blue shawl tight around her body.
When she describes the horror of her captivity her voice is barely a whisper, but it gains strength when she talks of the fight she has been waging: going to Pakistan's courts, holding protests, rejecting the rulings of the traditional Jirga council, taking on the powerful landlord and politician who she says are protecting her attackers.
The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sexual abuse, but Kainat has gone public with her case.
Her battle for justice has inspired an award-winning 2014 movie, Outlawed in Pakistan. Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani teenage Nobel Peace Prize winner who was shot by the Taliban, invited Kainat to the Nobel award ceremony, and her fund has given Kainat financial help.
Yet Kainat's family has paid a high price for her bravery. One sister remains unmarried and another was divorced because her in-laws were ashamed to be associated with Kainat.
In 2010, her brother was killed over his sister's refusal to stay silent.
Clutching a gold-framed picture of his son, Ghulam Nabi Soomro spat out words of condemnation. "They know about our troubles thousands of miles away but here in the next street no-one is helping us get justice," he said.
In Pakistan, women are often too fearful to report sexual violence, yet the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded 423 rapes and 304 gang rapes in 2015.
It also said that in 2015, at least one woman a day was killed in the name of honour — murdered for allegedly bringing shame on the family.
"Each year a gamut of promises is made for the protection and development of women, but (they) remain unfulfilled by the year-end," the commission wrote in its 2014 annual report.
Attackers are rarely jailed. Human rights workers say the police often refuse to even register a case involving attacks against women, and the powerful and rich are immune.
The groups trying to advance women's rights in Pakistan's deeply traditional patriarchal society suffered a painful blow in January when the national parliament refused to pass laws banning child marriage. The parliament buckled to the dictates of the Islamic Ideology Council, a religiously right-wing advisory group with no legal authority. The same body has also said that taking DNA tests to identify a suspected rapist is against Islam.
"Women's groups have been demanding that the Islamic Ideology Council be disbanded," says Uzma Noorani, an activist who also operates a women's shelter in Pakistan's port city of Karachi.
She says rights advocates are fighting a war for change and occasionally battles are won. Southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, has passed legislation aimed at protecting women and banning underage marriages. But then the war begins again as they fight to convince police and judges to register cases and implement the laws, and to take authority away from the Islamic Ideology Council and other hard-line groups.
"When you have a law it is like a weapon, when you need it you can use it," says one outspoken member of Sindh's legislature, Mahtab Akbar Rashdi.
She says that the national government is pandering to those who adhere to a narrow and restrictive view of Islam, which mostly targets women. "It's as if women for them are the biggest problem in Islam," she says of the Islamic Ideology Council.
One women's shelter in Karachi, surrounded by two walls and protected by guards, is home to around 40 women. Some have fled abusive husbands, some have been raped, others are being hunted down by families for choosing love.
When Azra was 18, her family sold her for $5000 to an older man who passed her around to strangers. She ran away, and now she is fighting for a divorce and too afraid to leave the shelter's walls. The courts have yet to decide on her case and Azra — who is just 20 — wonders where she will go when the time comes to leave the shelter.
Sidra Kamwal had left her abusive husband and moved back in with her mother when another man proposed to her. The man refused to take no for an answer. He pestered her and harassed her. And then one day he told her that if couldn't have her, no one could, and threw acid on her face.
The months afterward were horrific. Her poverty meant doctors paid her little heed. One sent her home with only burn cream, but the pain and swelling were unbearable. Her nostrils had seared together. She returned to hospital and again, after three days, they sent her home.
Her four-year-old son refused to come to her after her attack. "He didn't recognise me. My face scared him," she says, pulling her headscarf over her twisted mouth and nose.
Nightmares haunt her sleep. Each time she closes her eyes his face appears. Sometimes he is hitting her, throwing more acid, pounding her. If her terror does not waken her, the small tube that runs between her burnt nostrils does. Without it, she struggles to breathe.
It was not until she went to court that Noorani, the women's rights activist, saw her and she received treatment. According to the Human Rights Commission, 55 acid attacks took place in Pakistan in 2015. To date, only 17 arrests have been made.
Unlike Kainat or Azra, Sidra's attacker is in jail, but his family has been embraced by the neighbours. The family jeers at her, and the neighbours applaud. Sidra, with her painfully disfigured face, is the outcast.
Militants blew up part of a newly constructed government school in Pakistan's South Waziristan region late Friday night, a spokesman for a wing of the Pakistani Taliban said on Saturday, the latest in a string of attacks on educational institutions.
No one was hurt in the blast in Pakistan's restive tribal belt, but 18 laborers working on the site were abducted, said Azam Tariq, a spokesman for an arm of the Pakistani Taliban known as the "Sajna" group, which claimed responsibility for the attack. He said the workers were released a short time later.
"We have blown up the school because it was a government installation," said Tariq, warning the group would continue to attack government targets.
Twenty people were killed and dozens wounded last month when militants launched an attack on Bacha Khan University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a little more than a year after Taliban gunmen massacred 134 students at a military school in nearby Peshawar.
The Peshawar school attack was seen as having hardened Pakistan's resolve to fight militants along its border with Afghanistan.
Officials in South Waziristan said the girls' wing of the school in the Tehsil Tiarza area was damaged in Friday's blast, as well as some heavy machinery being used for ongoing construction at the site.
In a separate incident in Mohmand tribal area to the north, Pakistani security officials killed five militants during a clash near Mohmand Agency's administrative headquarters on Saturday.
The militants were planning an attack in the area, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A generation of Pakistani militants have used the tribal region to launch attacks on the Pakistani state and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Taliban are fighting to topple the government and install a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They are loosely allied with the Afghan Taliban who ruled most of Afghanistan until they were overthrown by U.S.-backed military action in 2001.