About Christoph Koettl

Christoph Koettl is the Emergency Response Manager at Amnesty International USA and works on urgent human rights situations such as armed conflicts and large scale repressions of civil society. In his work he focuses on exploring the intersection of technology and human rights and specializes in utilizing geospatial technologies such as satellite imagery or interactive maps for human rights research and advocacy. He previously worked and studied in Austria, the Netherlands and Italy and holds an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His expertise is in International Humanitarian Law, conflict analysis, crisis mapping, video validation and social media forensics and he is a regular speaker on technology and human rights. He has testified on war crimes in Sri Lanka before the United States Congress and his work is covered regularly by numerous national and international media, including Associated Press, BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Reuters.
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I Refuse To Forget You: Supporting The World’s Disappeared

Enforced disappearances – the practice by states or governments to detain (or worse) citizens and keep their families in the dark about their fate – have been a human rights problem in Syria for decades. However, Syrian authorities’ heavy handed response to the popular uprising, characterized by an utter disregard for human rights, has led to a dramatic rise in cases of enforced disappearance. This issue and its long-standing impact on families and loved ones, are widely underreported.

Much of the Syrian government’s strategy relies on us simply forgetting about political detainees. In the case of enforced disappearances, this strategy is taken to next level: putting political opponents and activists completely outside the law, and very literally, outside of our memories. Victims are disappeared without a trace – with governments careful not to leave behind any trail of official records or information, deepening families’ despair and banking on to us forget. Well, I refuse to play by their rules.

Today, on the International Day for the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, we are shining a light on some individuals that the Syrian government – as well as other repressive regimes around the globe – want you to forget. We are tracking several cases using Eyes on Syria , and I want to provide you with an opportunity to join me in countering the Syrian governments’ attempt to make people disappear.

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“I Never Thought It Was The Last Time I Would See My Family”

Ahmad Kayali

Ahmad Kayali was killed along with this mother, two sisters, uncle and cousin when his home in Aleppo was destroyed by an airstrike by the Syrian army.

“When I went to work, I never thought that it was the last time I would see my family. I lost all that was dearest to me, my children, my wife, my brother, my cousins, everybody.”

This statement by the husband of Asma Kayali, 25, sums up the situation civilians in Aleppo. Asma was killed with her three children – her daughters Kawthar and Fatima, aged nine and seven, and her four-year-old son Ahmad – when her home was bombed to dust by an air strike on August 6. In total, 10 members of the Kayali family – seven of them children – were killed in that attack, which is emblematic of Syria’s spiraling human rights crisis.

Today, the assault on Aleppo continues unabated, and more civilians are at risks to get killed by indiscriminate attacks carried out by government forces.

Unfortunately, my recent concerns about the specter of an imminent deployment of heavy weaponry in the densely populated environment of Aleppo have become a reality (also check out these pictures of urban warfare from a Reuters photographer). The result is a mounting number of war crimes piling onto an already extensive list of atrocities committed in Syria.

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UN Reveals Further Evidence of Atrocities in Syria

In its newest report on Syria, the UN Commission of Inquiry today revealed further evidence that the government and associated Shabbiha militias have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes over the last few months. In addition, the report found that armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, although these crimes “did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale of those committed by Government forces and the Shabbiha”.

Most importantly, the commission announced that it will provide a confidential list of individuals and units it believes are responsible for these atrocities to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This announcement is significant, and supports the statement I made last week that human rights violations and abuses in Syria, committed by either side, will not go unnoticed.

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Aleppo: Why We Should Be Alarmed

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Syrian men look at a destroyed Syrian army tank parked outside the Azaz mosque, north of the restive city of Aleppo, on August 2, 2012. (c) AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GettyImages

News reports coming out of Aleppo paint a grim picture of the confrontation between opposition fighters and the Syrian armed forces, who are describing this as the “decisive battle”. If the past 16 months are any indication, we have to brace ourselves for a new wave of human rights violations, as well as grave breaches of international humanitarian law. As has been extensively documented by Amnesty International and others, the atrocities committed in Syria have steadily continued to climb.

For example, one of my colleagues who recently returned from Aleppo, documented crimes we believe amount to crimes against humanity. Her reporting from late May describes how government security forces and the notorious government-backed shabiha militias routinely used live fire against peaceful demonstrations in Aleppo, killing and injuring protesters and bystanders, including children, and hunting down the wounded, the medics who treated them, and opposition activists. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

#DemandJustice: The Website War Criminals Don’t Want You To Share

Six years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda. Today, the effect of the failure to arrest him can be seen in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he and other members of armed groups remain free to commit further human rights violations against civilians.

The DRC is one of several situations featured on our new Demand Justice website. It was launched on International Justice Day earlier this week in order to provide us with a more powerful tool to mobilize  activists around the globe to bring Bosco Ntaganda and others to trial.

If convicted war criminals, such as Thomas Lubanga Dyilo had a Twitter account, he probably would not share our new site. If war crimes suspects Joseph Kony and Omar al-Bashir were active on Facebook, they would hardly “Like” our Fugitives from International Justice infographic. Why not?
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War Criminals Are Running Out Of Time – And Space

A statement in an AP story, relating to the start of the trial of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic, recently caught my attention:

… the fact that he [Mladic] is jailed and on trial is seen as another victory for international justice and hailed by observers as evidence that — more often than not — war crimes tribunals get their indicted suspects, even if years later.

This is a very optimistic and strong statement regarding the current state of international justice. Is the reason for optimism justified? I absolutely think so.

Let’s recap some of the recent historic events to bolster my argument that time’s up for war criminals:

  1. The first conviction of a former head of state for international crimes since the Nuremberg trials: Charles Taylor, Mr. Blood Diamond, was convicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in late April.
  2. Milestone verdict on child soldiers and the ICC’s first verdict: Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord, was found guilty in March of the war crime of using children in armed conflict.
  3. The Mladic trial: 17 years after Srebrenica―infamously known as “Europe’s worst massacre since World War II”―Ratko Mladic had his first day in court on May 16. He faces genocide charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Mladic allegedly orchestrated the killing of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995. The completion of his trial could mark a milestone for the survivors, who did not see a verdict against Slobodan Milošević (who passed away while on trial in 2006).
  4. The unanimous referral by the UN Security Council of the situation in Libya to the ICC. The vote in February 2011 showed a surprising shift in positions when all 15 members―including non-state parties to the ICC such as the United States and Russia―voted in favor of a referral.

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Child Soldiers, Rape, Displacement: Is Mali A Forgotten Crisis?

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Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting in northern Mali © Amnesty International

I am sure that many of you have recently heard or read about the armed conflicts and humanitarian crises in Syria and the Sudan (the latter thanks to some serious attention from celebrity actors and journalists). Less attention is being given to a country that is facing its worst human rights crisis in half a century: Mali.

The regional organization ECOWAS has been very invested in mitigating the crisis and is even preparing to send in troops. While these regional efforts are backed by the United States and other international actors, Mali’s crisis is not getting the attention it deserves and rarely makes the headlines.

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19 Reasons Why Russia Must Speak Out Against Syria Atrocities

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A top Russian official made the following statement today:

Russia enjoys good and strong military technical cooperation with Syria, and we see no reason today to reconsider it—Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov

While Russia touts its good and normal relations with the Syrian regime, more evidence has emerged of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government under President Bahsar al-Assad. Our new report “I Wanted to Die”: Syria’s Torture Survivors Speak Out exposes the system of torture within Syria, on a scale not seen for decades. It identifies 31 methods of torture.

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Homs at Gunpoint: Satellites Track Assault on Syrian Cities

Field Guns Cropped

Field guns deployed at the Shinshar artillery base oriented towards Homs. DigitalGlobe Natural Color Image, Feb. 22, 2012, Shinshar artillery base, Shinshar, Syria, 34 36 23N 36 45 08E

Syrian authorities are continuously escalating tactics to ensure a complete media blackout, as witnessed last week by their deadly attack on a makeshift media center in Homs that killed and wounded several foreign journalists. To counter that blackout, Amnesty has secured satellite imagery to track developments on the ground and document human rights violations.

The images from Homs and Hama show clearly that armed forces have not been removed from residential areas, as demanded by the U.N. General Assembly resolution from mid February. In Hama, the images reveal an increase in military equipment over the last weeks, raising the specter of an impending assault on the city where the father of current President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a bloody 27-day assault three decades ago, with as many as 25,000 people killed. With reports of a ground assault underway in Homs, the analysis of imagery identifies military equipment and checkpoints throughout Homs, and field guns and mortars actively deployed and pointing at Homs. Additionally, the images show the shelling of residential areas in Homs, concentrated on the Bab ‘Amr neighborhood. Artillery impact craters are visible in large sections of Bab ‘Amr, from where we have received the names of hundreds killed throughout the period of intense shelling.

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Satellite Image Shows Homs On Fire

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Pipeline on fire in Homs, February 15. Source: (c) 2012 DigitalGlobe

In the latest blow to the beleaguered citizens of Homs, a pipeline close to the city exploded yesterday. Satellite images captured the magnitude of the fire and the thick smoke covering the city. The pipeline was reportedly on fire at the edge of Baba Amr district, a neighborhood that experienced some of the heaviest attacks by government forces.

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