Inside Syria: Documenting The War On Civilians

Citizen video coming out of Syria continues to uncover abuses that would otherwise go unnoticed (Photo Credit: ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Citizen video coming out of Syria continues to uncover abuses that would otherwise go unnoticed (Photo Credit: ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Syrian crisis hits its two-year mark, the toll on civilians continues to grow exponentially. Peaceful protests that started in March 2011 were quickly met by government authorities responding with deadly force, leading to systematic and widespread human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity. Followed by the escalation into a full-fledged armed conflict by mid-2012, today, both government and armed opposition forces continue pursuing a military solution to the conflict. Caught in the middle are civilians, paying a horrendous price for this deadly stalemate.

Based on field research conducted over the last weeks, an Amnesty researcher inside Syria uncovered new evidence of the government’s assault on civilians, and its outright disregard for the laws of war. This is most dramatically symbolized by the government’s recent ballistic missile strikes against eastern Aleppo, flattening entire blocks and killing 160 residents; or by the increased use of internationally banned cluster bombs.

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Hope and Change? U.S. makes $900 million pledge to Gaza

Yesterday, the U.S. State Department leaked an upcoming pledge of $900 million to reconstruct Gaza and support the Palestinian Authority.  No money will pass through Hamas but will be filtered through non-governmental organizations.  I applaud this assistance but question the effectiveness of aid without negotiations and opening the borders.
Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an Israeli citizen, wonders whether money will pass into Gaza at all:

“The next step is opening the border crossings, and that requires more than just signing a check.”

The irony, of course, is that the US is supplying aid to victims of US made weapons.  The U.S. has been trading arms with Israel while donating to Palestinian reconstruction.  In fact, the Obama administration has continued Bush’s pledge of $30 billion in military assistance to Israel over the next 10 years.   There are no investigations into whether US weapons were used in the recent conflict to harm civilians.  And given that the US refuses to speak to the governing power in Gaza,   who, then, can be held accountable?  And how?
These structural obstacles to the $900 million pledge present a challenge for the Obama administration.  Levy goes on to analyze this:

“There are structural flaws – not least, that Israelis and Palestinians cannot negotiate the core issues alone and need an outside broker and that Palestinian statehood cannot be incubated under Israeli occupation. The very structure of the peace process has become a disincentive for peace itself. There now exists an opportunity to do away with the illusion, even if the danger also exists that events may take a more violent, confrontational and bloody turn.
A different approach would require the US conducting back-to-back talks with the Israeli side and with a Palestinian (or Palestinian plus Arab states) interlocutor, in which one attempts to address the key legitimate needs and concerns of each party. It will be the role of the US and international partners to produce a proposal and implementation plan.”

That’s not to say that aid is not needed:

“Two separate Palestinian surveys have put the cost of the damage at just under $2bn.” – the BBC reports.

But maybe the problem’s too big for a check—no matter how large or generous-to fix.  Nonetheless I am cautiously optimistic about this overture from the US and I hope the US follows up by pressing Israel to open up the borders so that aid can enter without hindrance.

Co-written by Zahir Janmohamed and Ally Krupar

Weapons in Iraq Still at Risk of Loss or Theft

Tens of thousands of arms captured from insurgent armed groups in Iraq have yet to be recorded by Iraqi or U.S. authorities making it easier for the weapons to be lost or stolen, according to a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General’s issued just before the Christmas holiday last year. Poor accountability of night vision devices (NVD) remains a problem.

In the last few years, several reports have revealed the dangers of failing to properly secure and manage weapons in Iraq. For example, described in a November 2008 Amnesty report, some members of Iraqi insurgent groups have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and used police arms to carry out serious human rights abuses. U.S. military officials have also accused Iraqi security guards of stealing hundreds of weapons in 2006 at arms depots such as Taji National Army Depot (NAD).

While there have been significant strides in improving the accountability of U.S. provided weapons in Iraq as well as helping Iraqi authorities properly manage arms and ammunition under their control, a few areas such as the accountability for captured weapons and NVDs still need focused attention.

According to the DoD Inspector General’s report, only around 20,000 of the estimated 80,000 captured weapons stored at various depot locations throughout Iraq had been processed. Processing includes having the weapon’s serial number recorded and inspecting the quality of the weapon. Some of the unprocessed arms are at the Taji NAD and Kirkush Military Training Base among others.

In addition, the DoD Inspector General raised concerns about the accountability of U.S. issued night vision devices (NVD) to the Iraqi security forces. NVD receive extra scrutiny under DoD regulations because they significantly increase a fighting forces’ tactical ability. A DoD investigation showed 26,000 NVDs lacked proper documentation, raising the risk of loss or theft similar to captured weapons.

US Must Monitor Use of US Weapons in Gaza

Amnesty International has called on the US State Department to suspend all transfers of military weaponry and equipment to Israel until it conducts an investigation into whether US weapons were used in human rights violations.  Israel has been using F16’s, Apache helicopters, gunboats and bunker buster bombs in a week-long series of devastating attacks on the Gaza Strip.

Israel Gaza Conflict Enters Twelfth Day. (c) Getty Images

Israel Gaza Conflict Enters Twelfth Day. (c) Getty Images

Monitoring of the use of American-made weaponry is not unprecedented.  The State Department monitored the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories during the second intifada after Israel dropped a 2,000 pound bomb from an F-16 on an apartment building killing not only the Hamas target Saleh Shahadeh, but also 14 civilians, including 9 of his children in 2002.

The U.S. Arms Export Act of 1976 was passed to help guarantee that US made weapons would only be used for legitimate self-defense reasons and not for violations of internationally recognized human rights.  The act requires the State Department to report to Congress when there is a ”substantial violation” of the law.

An incident similar to the 2002 case of Saleh Shahadeh happened during the latest series of attacks on the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of a well-known Hamas leader, Nizar Rayan, killing him along with over a dozen members of his family, including most of his children.  Additionally, civilian residential homes and other civilian buildings, including a university, police compounds, schools and fire stations have been targeted by Israeli air strikes.

While it’s unclear whether any US weapons have been directly used by Israeli security forces for human rights violations in Gaza, given the types of weapons and attacks Israel security forces have recently used and the large amount of civilian casualties, there is a strong likelihood that US weapons could be used in such violations.

According to the US government’s most recent annual report to the US Congress on US arms sales, in 2007 alone, the US approved or delivered millions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition to Israel, including items in the category of rockets, bombs and missiles.  In the past, the US has also sold Israel F-16s, attack helicopters, and cluster munitions.   A Jerusalem Post article outlines the use of GBU-39 ‘bunker buster’ bombs in this latest military operation against the Gaza Strip that were just sold to Israel by the US this past September.

Although it is widely understood and accepted that Israel has the right and duty to protect its citizens, it is still obligated to do so respecting international humanitarian and human rights laws.  They must use the least intrusive means available, respecting proportion, necessity and distinction (non-combatant vs. combatant).  Israel has failed to do this, using extraordinarily powerful weapons against the Gaza Strip such as the one ton bomb on a home to kill one member of Hamas.  The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated locales on earth where 1.5 million people inhabitant a strip 4-7 miles wide and 25 miles long.  Air strikes with ‘smart bombs’ no matter how precise have resulted in a shockingly large number of civilian deaths; sometimes entire families at the same time.

The United States is obligated to enforce the law, regardless of who the offending party may be.  We are a nation based on ‘rule of law’.  If we suspect our weapons are being used in attacks that are indiscriminately killing civilians, we must act.

These concerns were raised in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last Friday by Amnesty International.  Until we can be certain that the US Arms Export Act is not being violated, we must suspend all transfers of weapons and immediately open an investigation.

United Nations Must Re-Impose Arms Embargo on DRC Government Forces

According to a UN Panel of Expert’s report released last Friday, government security forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are providing arms and ammunition to the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) in violation of the UN arms embargo on DRC.  In addition, the DRC government continues to be a major source of weapons for other armed groups in the DRC.

Congolese refugees at the DRC/Uganda border in Ishasha

Congolese refugees at the DRC/Uganda border in Ishasha

Mainly a Rwandan Hutu armed insurgent group that contains remnants of forces allegedly responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, FDLR has been responsible for mass atrocities, including the unlawful killings of civilians, abductions, and rape, and continues to fuel devastation in the DRC.  The DRC government, FDLR, and mayi-mayi militias are fighting against the rebel armed group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), which has also committed grave human rights violations.

The UN Security Council is set to review the Panel’s report tomorrow, which includes additional evidence of the Rwandan government providing military support to the CNDP, including the provision of child soldiers.  The report also shows that the U.S. government has failed to notify the UN Peacekeeping Mission in DRC (MONUC) of its efforts to train DRC government forces as required by paragraph 5 of UN Resolution 1807 (2008).

In March 2008, Amnesty appealed to the UN Security Council not to ease the arms embargo on supplies to non-integrated DRC government army brigades anywhere in the DRC and brigades going through integration in the east of the country.  However, the Council eased this part of the embargo among other import restrictions.  The consequences of the relaxation of the embargo have been very damaging.

Tomorrow, the UN Security Council has an opportunity to remedy this past decision.  As such, in order to prevent diversion from official DRC holdings, all transfers to DRC government units deployed in eastern DRC should be made by prior arrangement under MONUC supervision among several other critical factors that the UN Security Council should adopt.