‘Why is the World Doing Nothing?’ – Cluster Bomb Attack by the Syrian Army in Aleppo

A child in a field hospital in Aleppo, Syria after sustaining injuries in a cluster bomb attack by the Syrian armed forces on a residential area on March 1, 2013.

A child in a field hospital in Aleppo, Syria after sustaining injuries in a cluster bomb attack by the Syrian armed forces on a residential area on March 1, 2013.

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Adviser

In a field hospital, which I won’t name for security reasons – too many field hospitals have been bombed already – a little boy of 7, Abdo al-Dik, was shaking like a leaf and moaning in pain with deep lacerations to his abdomen and legs.

Relatives had just collected his 3-year-old brother Nizar’s body for burial. Another brother, 8-year-old Subhi, was still missing as of 6 p.m.

In the same hospital room, 6-year-old Mustafa Ali was lying in a bed with shrapnel injuries to the head, neck and shoulders – alone and waiting for someone from his family to come find him. He told me that he was visiting his relatives when the air strike happened; a neighbor said that the child’s relatives were badly injured and he did not know whether they had survived.

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Sri Lankan Report Doesn't Fully Address War Crimes

Displaced Sri Lankan Tamil civilians.

I’ve been waiting for months for the final report from Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (often referred to as the “LLRC”).  The commission had been appointed by President Rajapaksa in May 2010 to examine events during the last seven years of the war between the government and the Tamil Tigers (the war ended in May 2009 with the government’s victory over the Tigers).

The Sri Lankan government has used the existence of the commission to say that an international investigation into war crimes and other human rights abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka wasn’t needed.  On Dec. 16, the Sri Lankan government released the LLRC’s final report.  I have to say that I’m disappointed with the report.

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Sri Lankan doctors "recant" prior testimony

A group of Sri Lankan doctors currently in detention were produced by the Sri Lankan government before the media today in order to recant their prior reports of civilian deaths during the last stages of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  I’d written about three of these doctors in an earlier entry on this blog, expressing concern that their arrest by the government shortly after leaving the war zone was in reprisal for their earlier reports.  The doctors had provided eyewitness accounts from the war zone detailing the extent of civilian suffering earlier this year.

Since January, an intense military offensive by the government gradually reconquered all the territory once held by the Tigers.  In mid-May, the government announced that it had defeated the Tigers and recaptured all their territory.  Trapped in the war zone with the Tigers had been thousands of civilians who were prevented by the Tigers from leaving; some civilians who did flee were shot by the Tigers as they did so.  The government forces repeatedly shelled the war zone, despite the heavy concentration of civilians in an increasingly shrinking area.  The government denied that it had caused any civilian casualties.  Since the government barred independent observers and the media from the war zone, the doctors’ reports were one of the few eyewitness accounts available as to what was actually happening in the war zone.

Despite U.N figures of more than 7,000 civilian deaths this year, the doctors today said only 650-750 civilians were killed this year.  Their estimate also happens to be far below the Sri Lankan government’s own estimate – a Sri Lankan government official last month estimated 3,000 – 5,000 civilians had been killed.

The Sri Lankan government had said, and the doctors today asserted, that their earlier reports from the war zone had been given under pressure from the Tigers who then controlled the area they were in.  Consider this:  the doctors have been in detention by the government since mid-May and have yet to be charged.  At today’s press conference, they expressed hope that they might now be released.

Also consider that last week, Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa had said in an interview with the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, when asked why the doctors couldn’t be released now, “I told them to organize a press conference.  Let the doctors come and say what they have to say.”  You might think that that would mean that the doctors have now done what the President wanted, so they’d now be released.  But note that in the same interview, Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to President Rajapaksa, had said about the doctors, “If they go scot-free, it will set a very bad precedent.”

If the doctors had been under pressure earlier from the Tigers while the fighting was going on, have they since been under pressure from the government to “recant” their earlier reports?  AI said today that the doctors’ statements were “expected and predicted,” since we feared that their detention by the government was intended to produce exactly the result we saw today.

I’ll repeat the request I made in my earlier entry about the doctors:  please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email:  priu@presidentsoffice.lk) and to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. Jaliya Wickramasuriya (email:  slembassy@slembassyusa.org).  Please ask that the doctors be released immediately from detention unless they’re promptly charged with a recognizable crime.  They should be given all the medical care they may need, especially Dr. Varatharajah, as well as access to their relatives and lawyers of their choice.  Thanks for your help.

No relief for Sri Lanka's trapped civilians

When I first heard this morning that the Sri Lankan government had announced that “combat operations have reached their conclusion” in the government’s offensive against the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in northeastern Sri Lanka, I felt a surge of hope.  Maybe the thousands of civilians trapped in the 5 square-mile area still held by the Tigers would be safe?  Maybe the government will reciprocate the unilateral ceasefire declared by the Tigers yesterday, so all the civilians could leave the war zone safely?

Alas, the hope didn’t last long.  The government said shortly thereafter that the earlier announcement wasn’t intended as a ceasefire declaration and that the army would keep fighting.  It simply meant a change in tactics:  the government will no longer use heavy weapons and aerial attacks which could cause civilian casualties.  Of course, earlier, they had also said that all the civilian casualties had been caused by the Tigers.  So today’s announcement could be seen as an implicit admission by the government that their earlier statement was inaccurate.  The Tigers claimed later that the government carried out air strikes against the Tiger-held area today, in contradiction of their pledge not to use aircraft.  Since there are no independent observers in the war zone, it’s difficult to verify either side’s claims.

Also in the news today was a report that the Sri Lankan government has denied access to the war zone to a U.N. team currently in the country.  Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had announced that he was sending a humanitarian team to the war zone to assess the situation and try to protect the trapped civilians.  Today, a senior U.N. official visiting Sri Lanka told reporters that the U.N. had not reached an agreement with the Sri Lankan government to allow the team into the war zone.

The Sri Lankan government’s pledge not to use heavy weapons or aerial attacks should be welcomed.  If they live up to it, it might increase the chances of saving the 50,000 civilians still trapped by the Tigers in the war zone.   But we still need both sides to agree to let the civilians leave and to work out the best method of doing so, as soon as possible.  Anything else risks more civilian casualties.

Distinguishing between civilians and Tigers

The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister said today that since Monday, over 100,000 civilians had fled the remaining area controlled by the Tamil Tigers and crossed into government-held territory, and that only 15-20,000 civilians were still left in the Tiger-held area (which had earlier been designated by the government as a “no-fire zone” but scarcely merits that title now).  The Minister also said that the Tigers had suffered “massive casualties” during the army’s offensive against them.  He claimed that any civilian casualties had been caused solely by the Tigers.  He dismissed calls for international monitors in the conflict area.

I found the implications of his statement alarming.  You should be aware that the Sri Lankan government has barred journalists and other independent observers from the war zone.  So it can be very hard to verify any claims by either the government or the Tigers.  The government had previously said, as late as last Sunday, that there were only 70,000 civilians trapped in the war zone by the Tigers.  Now, apparently, that estimate was too low by 50,000 or so.  So, do we now accept an estimate of 15-20,000 civilians still left in the zone?  Suppose another 15-20,000 people are able to flee the zone in the next few days.  Could the government say that anyone left in the area is a Tiger (since by their estimate, all the civilians would be gone) ?  And if everyone left were killed, there would be no “civilian casualties” but just more “massive casualties” suffered by the Tigers.  Without international monitors or independent journalists in the area to check, who could contradict the government?

We need a pause in the hostilities now.  The government and the Tigers must let aid and monitors into the zone and allow civilians to leave the zone safely.

Under Fire: White Phosphorus, Civilians, and Arkansas

Israeli army ‘using white phosphorus’ – 12 January 2008

White phosphorus, often supplied by the US, has accounted for approximately 100 deaths and injuries in Gaza, as of February 3.  The pain of the burns alone frequently leads to death.   The questions remain, did Israel use white phosphorus on civilians in violation of international law and if so, who supplied them with it?

According to many eye-witness accounts and investigations, for example, the Israeli military systematically fired White Phosphorus munitions, including those made by the United States, over or near heavily populated areas of Gaza, killing and injuring scores of civilians and damaging residential buildings. […] More investigation needs to be done to determine whether Israel used U.S. weapons to violate international law and thus not a legitimate use of force, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests Israel has violated international law.  – Amnesty International.

The evidence leads to a question of the structure of arms trade between the U.S. and any country, but especially where U.S. weapons have been used against civilians.  In the following video, U.S. citizens in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, react to the Pine Bluff Arsenal’s exclusive production of white phosphorus weapons.

Following the White Phosphorus Trail

Hospital Shelled in Sri Lanka, 9 Civilians Killed – But Does Anyone Care?

As the deadly violence continues to escalate in Sri Lanka I am distraught by the lack of attention it’s receiving.  Just last week a hospital in northern Sri Lanka, where more than 800 people were sheltering, was shelled four times.  At least 9 were killed and 20 injured by the attack.  It’s not clear who did the shelling; both the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been blamed.

A Sri Lankan Tamil civillian girl wounded in shelling inside the Island's rebel-held north arrives for treatment at a hospital in the government held northern town of Vavuniya on January 22, 2009. (c) STR/AFP/Getty Images

A Sri Lankan Tamil civillian girl wounded in shelling. (c) AFP/Getty

The hospital is located in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka, where government forces have succeeded in pushing the LTTE into a small area of land.  Trapped with the Tigers are over 250,000 civilians who are not allowed by the LTTE to leave.  The Sri Lankan government, as part of its offensive, has been carrying out aerial and artillery attacks in the area with the result that hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured.  The government has declared “safe zones” for civilians to seek shelter, but several civilians in  “safe zone” have killed or injured due to shelling.

Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that hundreds of civilians had been killed or injured due to the intensified fighting between the two sides.  Shortly thereafter, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued statements calling on both sides to protect civilians.  Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, also voiced his concern.  The Sri Lankan government subsequently announced that the Tigers had 48 hours to let civilians leave the war zone; this appeared to be an unofficial truce.  It expired on Saturday night.  The fighting, and thus the shelling and the civilian deaths, resumed on Sunday.

I can’t help noticing a contrast with Gaza.  Gaza seems to get lots of press attention, while Sri Lanka doesn’t appear to get as much.  Both involve indiscriminate attacks against civilians, in war zones that the media is denied access to.  Yet it seems that the suffering in Gaza deserves more attention than the deaths and injuries in Sri Lanka.  Why is that?  Can’t the world take on another crisis?  If we don’t, we may be reading soon about, not hundreds, but thousands of civilians being killed.  That might be worth thinking about.

Sri Lanka: Nowhere Safe

The war in Sri Lanka has escalated this past weekend but one thing about the 26 year conflict has not changed; Tamil civilians bear the brunt of the attacks, injuries, and deaths. 70,000 civilians have been killed. The Red Cross reports that hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed or wounded in fighting since last week.
Vanni area in Northern Sri Lanka, including Puthikudiyiruppu and many Internally Displaced People’s camps.

Vanni area in Northern Sri Lanka, including Puthikudiyiruppu and many Internally Displaced People’s camps.

“The origins of the conflict arise from decades of the Sinhalese majority’s systematic discrimination against the Tamil minority, and its denial of the Tamils’ meaningful participation in the political process. The Sri Lankan army is almost exclusively Sinhalese. Successive Sinhalese-dominated governments have failed to effectively address these longstanding injustices.” Senator Patrick Leahy.

Civilians are sitting ducks, with 250,000 Tamil civilians trapped in the Vanni area conflict zone.  The Sri Lankan government called a 48 hour safe passageway last Friday to allow civilians to escape; only 236 emerged from the conflict zone.

“People are on the move because they are looking for a safe place. But there is no safe place,” ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad

Those still trapped in the conflict zone and displaced from their homes are reliant on humanitarian aid that is waiting on the edge of the conflict zone.

The civilian toll rose with strikes on February 1st, 2nd, and 3rd on the hospital in Puthikudiyiruppu hitting the pediatric unit. Twelve civilians have been killed and 30 wounded due to artillery strikes over the past two days. The government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels have denied responsibility for the assault.

Bits of news from inside the conflict zone come from the Red Cross and healthcare professionals; journalists are barred from entry. Sixteen journalists have been killed since 1992 and 3 imprisoned in Sri Lanka since the beginning of the conflict. Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader, predicted his own death:

“It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended,” he wrote in the column titled, “And Then They Came for Me.”

Civilians must be protected under international humanitarian law, be they women, children, journalists or healthcare workers. Humanitarian aid must reach civilians trapped in conflict zones and the international community should be allowed access to assess the damages.

“We are deeply troubled by comments by the Sri Lankan Government threatening to expel foreign diplomats, aid agencies, and journalists. Reporters have already experienced physical attacks and intimidation, including the latest brazen assassination of renowned journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga. Together, we urge the Government of Sri Lanka to protect all of its citizens and conduct swift, full, and credible investigations into attacks on journalists and other civilians.” Senator John Kerry and Senator Richard Luger.

Written by Ally Krupar, Edited by Zahir Janmohamed

Faulty Intelligence, Wanton Recklessness, or a Combination of the Two

(As originally posted to Livewire)

1 February 2009: A 13-year-old girl who was asleep in her bed; three primary school-age boys who were carrying sugar canes; two young women on their way to a shelter in search of safety; a 13-year-old boy on his bicycle; eight secondary school students who were waiting for the school bus to take them home; an entire family sitting outside their home – these are among the many victims of missiles fired from Israeli UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), commonly known as drones.

Here in Gaza people call the drones “zannana”, an onomatopoeic description reflecting the buzzing sound that they emit as they fly overhead. Their main function is surveillance, but, in recent years, Israeli forces have also used them to fire missiles, often to assassinate “wanted” Palestinians.

An Israeli journalist told us that the military censor does not permit Israeli media to publish any reference to strikes by drones. These missiles seem to be very precise, with a relatively small but concentrated radius. Yet, they have killed or injured hundreds of civilians, including many children, though the reason for this – whether due to faulty intelligence, wanton recklessness, or a combination of the two – is unclear.

In many of the cases we investigated, we found a consistent pattern: each missile is packed with tiny metal cubes that increase its lethal effect. These are blasted with extreme force, penetrating through metal doors and steel pylons and embedding deep into concrete walls.

Today, we visited the place where a missile fired from a drone killed two women and three children from the same family on the morning of 15 January. It was in a Bedouin village on the outskirts of Beit Lahiya, in north Gaza. Those killed were three children, their mother and their grandmother.

The family’s home had been destroyed some 10 days earlier by the blast from a powerful air strike that apparently targeted a nearby tunnel. After this, the family had gone to stay with relatives across the road. The two women and three children were killed by the missile when they returned to the remains of their home to retrieve some of their possessions.

Earlier, we investigated several other cases in the Khan Yunis area, in the south of the Gaza Strip. There, the latest drone attack had occurred on 29 January, despite the 11-day-old ceasefire, in the centre of Khan Yunis.

The target, it seems, were two suspected Palestinian militants who were riding a motorcycle. They were hit and injured, but so too were 16 civilians, almost all of them children, as might have been predicted considering the location and time of the missile strike.

It was launched at a point opposite the hospital, only a few metres distant from the entrance to a UN primary school and directly in front of a row of food stalls. The attack was launched at 11.30am, just as children were leaving school at the end of the morning lessons.

On 2 January, three boys from the al-Astal family – eight-year-old Abderrabbo, his brother Mohammed, aged 11, and Abd-al-Sattar al-Astal, also just 11 – were killed by a missile fired from a drone while collecting sugar cane in al-Qarara, north-east of Khan Yunis. At the scene, we again found metal posts peppered with the signature square holes from the shrapnel blasted from the drone missile.

Another characteristic of these missiles is a small hole that penetrates deep into the ground, leaving few remains. We asked to borrow a shovel from local farmers in order to dig down and try to recover any remains from the missile. At this, some village youths stepped up enthusiastically and began to dig into the sandy ground.

Some six feet down, they recovered small parts of the circuit board and other shards of the missile. We urged the children’s family to hold on to these and keep them safe, as possible evidence to be considered in any future investigation.

Originally posted to Livewire by Donatella Rovera, Middle East & North Africa Researcher at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London

UN Pledges $613 Million in Aid for Gaza

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed in an interview at the World Economic Forum for the international community to contribute aid for food, water, sanitation, shelter, infrastructure support, and health care for Gaza:

“As you know, I recently visited Gaza. The civilian population has suffered greatly during three weeks of military operations. More than a third of the 6,600 dead and injured were children and women. As a father of three, I was especially troubled by their suffering and the psychological trauma so many families went through.

Help is indeed needed urgently: food, clean water, shelter, medicine, restoration of basic services. Everywhere I went, I saw the evidence of critical humanitarian needs. The population were already vulnerable because of so many months of severely restricted supplies. That is why the Humanitarian Flash Appeal for Gaza that we are announcing today is so timely and so important. With the help of this $ 613 million appeal, the United Nations and other aid agencies can jump into action to help the 1.4 million civilians in the Gaza Strip to recover.”

The emphasis on psychological trauma is particularly interesting, especially considering the civilian devastation, destruction of schools and the 2,267 children who were injured or killed in the conflict.  Psychological trauma in post conflict situations does not solely affect children. Men in Gaza also face long term psychological trauma following the violence and lack of opportunity.

In the light of the World Economic Forum and the global economic crisis, perhaps the largest long term threat to human rights and humanitarian aid is economic:

“The systemic and perpetual economic hindrances imposed upon the Palestinian economy by the Israeli occupation are viewed by most experts to be the primary impediment to allowing the Palestinian economy to reach its full potential. The World Bank has identified three principal “paralytic effects” of Israeli policies on the Palestinian economy: access to economies of scale, access to natural resources and access to an investment horizon. It also cited physical impediments — road blocks, closures, earth mounds and the ongoing construction of the wall on West Bank land […] — as a ‘paralysis confronting the Palestinian economy’.”

The paralysis, as UN humanitarian chief John Holmes suggests, is on the border:

“Unless all of them [border crossings] are effectively opened, we’re never going to be able to get enough supplies to Gaza.”