Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, was instrumental in bringing about the 2008 convention banning cluster munitions, the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel mines, the 1995 protocol banning blinding lasers, and the 2003 protocol requiring clean-up of explosive remnants of war. He and Human Rights Watch co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Goose created the ICBL’s Landmine Monitor initiative, the first time that non-governmental organizations around the world have worked together in a sustained and coordinated way to monitor compliance with an international disarmament or humanitarian law treaty. In 2013, he and Human Rights Watch co-founded the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1993, Goose was a US congressional staffer and a researcher at the Center for Defense Information. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. in History from Vanderbilt University.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

(Beirut) – With Russia’s continued support, the Syrian government is using unlawful tactics in its assault on Eastern Ghouta, including what appears to be the use of internationally banned weapons, Human Rights Watch said today. There are significant concerns about how government forces will treat residents in areas that come under its control, given past reports of reprisal executions.

The UN Security Council should urgently demand a United Nations monitoring team be granted immediate access to areas of Eastern Ghouta, now under government control. The team should document any crimes already committed; their presence may deter further violations. They should also visit sites to which the government is transferring Eastern Ghouta residents, as there are significant concerns about their treatment. If Russia again vetoes council action, the UN General Assembly should call for the immediate deployment of monitors.

“Instead of just watching while the Syrian-Russian military alliance annihilates Eastern Ghouta, the UN Security Council should act to put a stop to these unlawful attacks,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Russia again tries to protect the Syrian government by preventing council action, the General Assembly should demand monitors for Ghouta’s residents. For weeks these people endured starvation and bombardment and now they’re at risk of detention and even execution.”

Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Syria’s capital, Damascus, and home to an estimated 400,000 civilians, has been under attack by the Syrian-Russian military alliance since February 19. Syrian government forces have besieged Eastern Ghouta since 2013, severely restricting humanitarian aid in violation of the laws of war and preventing civilians from leaving. The alliance has bombarded Eastern Ghouta, failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets, hitting residential areas, hospitals, schools, and markets. According to the Ghouta United Relief Office, at least 1,699 residents have been killed since February 19.

On March 17, Human Rights Watch received a distress call from a member of the Syrian Civil Defense who told Human Rights Watch that he and 19 colleagues, five of whom are wounded, have been surrounded by government forces. According to him, in addition, there are 90 members of the Syrian Civil Defense and their relatives trapped in a second location, and they are all requesting safe passage to non-government-held areas. He said they fear retaliation, including summary execution, when the government takes the area.

After government forces retook Aleppo, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations received reports of reprisals and mass executions. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the Aleppo reports and has not yet documented reprisals against Eastern Ghouta residents who have come under government control, but it has previously reported mass executions of civilians by Syrian government forces in areas that have come under their control.

The UN General Assembly’s landmark decision in December 2016 to establish a quasi-special prosecutor mechanism for Syria was prompted by outrage at the way Russia prevented the council from taking action to protect civilians during the brutal Syrian-Russian operation to retake Aleppo.

On February 24, the Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, to allow in humanitarian aid and stop indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as required by international law. But the resolution was never fully implemented and the council has taken no action. Russia, which shares responsibility for violations committed by joint operations of its military alliance, has used its veto 11 times to shield Syria from accountability.

There is evidence that Syria’s operation with Russia in Eastern Ghouta involves the use of internationally banned weapons, including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and chemical weapons.

Human Rights Watch spoke to three witnesses who said that on March 7, 2018, the military alliance attacked residential areas in al-Hammouriyeh with ground-launched and air-dropped cluster munitions, among other munitions. According to local doctors and first responders, at least 20 residents died in the attack. Human Rights Watch examined photos of weapon remnants taken by a local media activist at one of the strike sites and identified the munition as an OTR-21 “Tochka” surface-to-surface, short-range tactical ballistic missile. A first responder told Human Rights Watch that there were several consecutive attacks with cluster munitions that day, including in al-Hammouriyeh, but that he could not recall precise details of their location because he had responded to many such attacks. He said the Syrian Civil Defense rescued more than 40 victims that day.

There is evidence that cluster munitions have been used in several attacks on Eastern Ghouta in March. Photographs shared by Syria Civil Defense of weapons remnants from a reported attack on March 11 show unexploded AO-2.5RT submunitions delivered in RBK-500 cluster bombs. A witness to an air attack on Hammouriyeh on March 7 gave Human Rights Watch a photograph of a AO-2.5RT submunition he said was left over from the attack. Human Rights Watch has documented Syrian government use of banned cluster munitions since 2012.

Syria Civil Defense reports that at about 11:48am on March 16, air-dropped incendiary munitions were used on the Eastern Ghouta residential area of Kafr Batna, killing at least 61 and wounding more than 200. It said that most victims were women and children who were burned alive. Photographs and video provided to Human Rights Watch by doctors, and publicly available, show at least 15 bodies with serious burns.

Photographs reported by the Syrian Civil Defense to have been taken immediately after the attack show multiple small fires burning brightly, indicating the possible use of ZAB submunitions which are delivered by Soviet or Russian-made RBK-500 bombs.

Since November 2012, Human Rights Watch has documented civilian harm from Syrian government use of air-dropped incendiary weapons. Attacks using air-delivered incendiary weapons in civilian areas are prohibited under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which Syria has not ratified.

Doctors in Eastern Ghouta told Human Rights Watch that they have treated symptoms of chlorine use from multiple attacks, including on February 25 in Chifouniya, March 7 in al-Hammouriyeh, and on March 11 in Arbin. Human Rights Watch has not independently corroborated the use of chlorine in these strikes but has previously documented use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria, including during the government’s operation to re-take Eastern Aleppo. Syria acceded to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.

As Syrian government forces entered the town of al-Hammouriyeh on March 14, there was a frenzied aerial bombing campaign, witnesses said. Among the casualties was Ahmad Hamdan, a media activist and resident of al-Hammouriyeh, reported to have been killed by an airstrike. One witness told Human Rights Watch that on March 14: “I was trying to escape with my family, and I saw an entire family get blown up in front of my very eyes. I immediately turned back and took my children back to the basement.”

As government forces retake territory in Eastern Ghouta, civilians have started to evacuate. On March 15, Syrian and Russian media livestreamed the evacuation of what was claimed to be 12,000 residents from al-Hammouriyeh crossing to government-held areas. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage which showed many people leaving. According to one witness and media reports, residents who have moved into areas under government control are being transported to sites around the enclave, including camps and schools, where they are being screened.

International law unequivocally prohibits summary and extrajudicial executions. In situations of armed conflict, combatants are legitimate targets as long as they take part in hostilities, but deliberately killing injured, surrendered, or captured soldiers (those hors de combat) would constitute a war crime. Any evacuation must be safe and voluntary, and protected by guarantees of security and non-reprisals. Civilians are entitled to protection whether they choose to leave or stay in an area, and parties to the conflict should not block civilians from leaving. Parties must allow impartial humanitarian relief reach civilians in need, regardless of whether the civilians have an option to leave.

The Syrian government should verifiably guarantee that the fundamental rights of individuals who were living under the control of non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta will be respected and protected, in particular when they are subject to security screenings and in detention. Authorities should ensure that the screening process is limited to a period of hours rather than days, and that anyone held longer is treated as a detainee and afforded all protections to which detainees are entitled under international law. No one should be presumed to be a combatant based on age or gender absent individualized evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The authorities should allow UN and other independent monitors access to all screening and detention centers.

“For every hour that a potential Russian veto prevents any decisive action by the UN Security Council, civilians on the ground in Eastern Ghouta are facing a real threat of reprisals,” said Fakih “The least the Security Council can do now is to deploy monitors to offer some protection for civilians. If the council can’t do so, the General Assembly should act as it did for Aleppo.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Sri Lanka’s accession to the Mine Ban Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions could spur increased financial and technical assistance to help ensure implementation, particularly for clearance of areas contaminated by landmines and explosive remnants of war.

© 2018 Lalith Perera/ Colombo Gazette
Sri Lanka has become the 103rd country to join the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the first South Asian country to ban these indiscriminate weapons.

Sri Lanka acceded to the convention on March 1, 2018, less than three months after the country’s accession to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

As a state party to both conventions, Sri Lanka has committed to never use, transfer, produce, or stockpile cluster munitions or antipersonnel landmines under any circumstances. It must declare and destroy any stocks as well as report and clear mined areas and contamination from unexploded submunitions and other cluster munition remnants by specific deadlines.

One incentive for countries to join these treaties is the likelihood of financial and technical assistance from other countries to help ensure implementation of the treaty requirements. This benefits mine clearance operators risking their lives daily to make land safe again and can help victims of landmines and explosive remnants of war.

Sri Lanka is not known to have produced or exported cluster munitions, a weapon that releases between multiple submunitions in the air, scattering them across a wide area and creating a deadly legacy of explosive remnants. Officials have denied the armed forces ever used these weapons, although there were allegations of use during Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in 2009. During the nearly three-decade long conflict, both sides committed numerous serious violations of the laws of war, many amounting to war crimes.

Antipersonnel mines were produced and used extensively by both sides during the conflict. The transparency now required of Sri Lanka as a state party to these treaties could help to formally answer questions about past cluster munition and land mine use.

Other South Asian countries, such as India, Nepal, and Pakistan, that have yet to sign either ban treaty should review their policy on cluster munitions and landmines and take steps to join without further delay.

All countries should help stigmatize these indiscriminate weapons, which endanger lives long after the fighting has stopped.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Audience members pose questions on AI and modern conflict at a town hall meeting of the Munich Security Conference in February 2018. Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (seated second from right) represented the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots on the panel, in her role as coordinator of the global coalition.

© 2018 MSC / Kuhlmann
As the coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots since its inception five years ago, I’ve been working to preemptively ban fully autonomous weapons.

As you might imagine, so much has changed since 2013. Such major military powers as the United States, China, Israel, Russia, South Korea and the United Kingdom continue to sink funds and resources into the development of weapons systems with ever-decreasing levels of human control over the critical functions of selecting and attacking targets.

More states have acquired precursor weapons systems, notably armed remote-controlled drones.

Concurrent to these investments is a growing international consensus that new international law is urgently needed to address this unrestrained trend towards autonomous warfare. The goal of creating a new ban treaty has been endorsed by 22 countries, dozens of Nobel Peace Laureates and faith leaders, more than 60 non-governmental organizations, and by thousands of artificial intelligence experts, roboticists and scientists.

The issue is simple: Fully autonomous weapons will cross a moral line that should never be crossed by permitting machines to make the determination to take a human life on the battlefield or in policing, border control and other circumstances.

Qualities such as compassion and empathy in addition to human experience make humans uniquely qualified to make the moral decision to apply force in particular situations. No technological improvements can solve the fundamental challenge to humanity that will come from delegating a life-and-death decision to a machine.

Any killing orchestrated by a fully autonomous weapon is arguably inherently wrong since machines are unable to exercise human judgement and compassion.

The question of what to do about killer robots has been hotly debated and this issue continues to seize the world’s attention. The campaign was pleased to raise its concerns at a public event on artificial intelligence convened by the organizers of the Munich Conference in mid-February, where several delegates made tentative statements of support for the call to ban such weapons. This panel on AI and conflict marked a unique opportunity for the campaign highlight multiple ethical, legal, operational, moral, proliferation, technical and other issues.

The head of Germany’s cyber command, Lieutenant General Ludwig Leinhos, told the conference’s opening event on AI and conflict: “We have a very clear position. We have no intention of procuring” fully autonomous weapons. 

Some have described this comment as a new official German position in support of banning such fully autonomous weapons. Others claim that Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom are similarly wholeheartedly behind the ban call.

But statements about an intention not to acquire such weapons are not the same as committing to and actively working toward a legally binding preemptive ban. And it is unclear what Germany or the UK or some others mean by fully autonomous weapons systems, particularly the nature of human control they see as required.

Any statements renouncing these weapons systems are, of course, a step in the right direction. It shows that the discourse and the debate within the armed forces of various countries is increasingly focusing not only questions of the potential legality of fully autonomous weapons, but on the much bigger ethical, proliferation, and other issues.

Yet statements alone are insufficient to deal with all the concerns raised about this far-reaching move toward greater autonomy in weapons systems.

Similarly, non-binding measures such as codes of conduct and greater transparency by programmers might sound appealing, but are no replacement for putting in place normative measures in the form of new law.

Binding legislation is required through a new international treaty and national laws to require the retention of meaningful human control over future weapons systems and individual attacks. Reaching this goal means countries must determine where to draw the line to preemptively ban development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

During another Munich discussion, Eric Schmidt of Google was asked for his views on the call to ban fully autonomous weapons. He responded that “these technologies have serious errors in them and should not be used in life decisions.” He said there are “too many errors” and they shouldn’t be “put in charge of command and control.”

Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljula did not to directly comment on the concerns raised by fully autonomous weapons during our event, but subsequently told another Munich panel that countries at the United Nations General Assembly should vote on “banning artificial intelligence for military purposes.”

Such proposals have merit and could spur more urgent and concrete action. They could help focus greater attention on the ongoing diplomatic process at the Convention on Conventional Weapons, where some 90 countries are considering what to do about these weapons systems. The campaign has criticized the CCW talks for aiming too low and going to slow, but with political will, rapid progress is possible.

Another participant in the conference’s opening event on AI and conflict was former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who succinctly honed in on the challenge. He predicted that without a legal prohibition these weapons could create instability and warned: “Soon, you may see swarms of robots attacking a country …The robots can be easily deployed, they don’t get tired, they don’t get bored.”

Our campaign understands the need to use striking visuals to communicate this challenge. Upon launching the coalition in 2013, we deployed a remote-controlled “robot” outside the British Houses of Parliament that has featured in coverage of this topic in the years since.

Yet we have been careful not to depict fully autonomous weapons in humanoid form to avoid confusing science fiction with actual trends and dangers of anthromorphizing this concern.

It was therefore with some reluctance that our coordinator shared the stage in Munich with “Sophia the robot.”

Created by David Hansen, who previously worked for Disney animatronics, Sophia was in the news last year after addressing an “AI for Good” summit at the United Nations and after it was controversially granted citizenship by the Saudi Arabia.

Sophia opened the AI panel event and gave scripted answers to predetermined questions. Some of the responses were borderline racist (asking why the audience of mainly youth were not wearing “lederhosen”) and sexist (scolded by the moderator for “flirting” after saying “nice uniform” to the general). Most were vacuous — “hurting someone is not OK unless you have to defend yourself” and “robots could potentially protect humans from each other.”

And some were just plain misleading. Upon inviting the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots coordinator to the stage, Sophia remarked, “Please let me assure you that I am not a killer robot.” The campaign has never claimed that Sophie was anything.

Show robots may have their place and can certainly attract media coverage, but Sophie was created with deception in mind, to give the impression of “intelligence.” Some with less experience of robots may see this machine as more sophisticated than what it is.

Similarly, there is an increasing tendency to hype the state of developments in artificial intelligence in particular states — China, Russia, US — as an arms race or some other kind of deadly competition. This could adversely influence not just those countries’ policy decisions about autonomous weapons but also their ability to comply with international law.

Why not focus, instead, on an imminent concerns raised by AI —  namely, the complex, challenging, but achievable task of regulating autonomy in weapons systems?

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) police stands guard next to an Afghanistan flag at a guard post of a police camp in Now Zad district in Helmand province, southwestern Afghanistan November 6, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

(New York) – The Afghan government and US military should investigate reports that Afghan special forces summarily executed civilians in Kandahar province during military operations from January 31 to February 1, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. Security personnel found to be responsible for abuses, including failing to report possible war crimes, should be held accountable.

On the evening of January 31, the Special Forces Unit of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) backed by US airstrikes began an offensive against Taliban insurgents in the Band-e Timor area of Maiwand district and the Reg area of Panjwai district, according to official reports.  Local residents told Human Rights Watch by phone that Afghan security forces opened fire on men as they attempted to flee, killing about 50 Taliban fighters and at least 20 civilians. One witness said, “when the airplanes came we fled. But as the people were running away the forces were shooting them.” Security force personnel allegedly dragged some men from their homes and then shot them. The NDS reported that 38 men were detained following the operation.

“The alleged deaths of at least twenty civilians in Band-e Timor demands a prompt and impartial investigation,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher. “Summarily executing people in custody, whether they are fighters or civilians, is a war crime. Only a full investigation can uncover all who may be responsible.”

Summarily executing people in custody, whether they are fighters or civilians, is a war crime. Only a full investigation can uncover all who may be responsible.

Patti Gossman

Senior Researcher

Unlawful killings at Band-e Timor, a long-time Taliban stronghold located on a strategic transportation route, may have been in retaliation for recent Taliban atrocities. In a speech to the nation, President Ashraf Ghani said that in response to the two recent attacks on civilians in Kabul, the government had already begun operations against Taliban bases. “Afghans will take their revenge, even if it takes 100 years,” he said. He praised the operation in Band-e Timor as “more successful” and said, “it will continue.”

The head of the operation was the police chief of Maiwand, Lt. Col. Sultan Mohammad, who reports to Gen. Abdul Raziq, the head of the Kandahar police, who has been accused of systematic human rights violations.

In its February 2018 report, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted that search operations involving NDS Special Forces, either alone or alongside international forces, caused 61 civilian deaths and 25 injuries in 2017. In one case, NDS Special Forces in Nangarhar entered a home and shot dead seven civilian men inside. In another operation in Kandahar, NDS Special Forces shot dead three men and a boy and injured seven others by firing inside a house. UNAMA found that “these forces appear to operate outside of the regular NDS chain of command, resulting in a lack of clear oversight and accountability given the absence of clearly defined jurisdiction for the investigation of any allegations against them.”

Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Afghanistan, the government has an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes by its forces and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Foreign forces taking part in the operation also need to conduct an investigation. Commanders who knew or should have known about crimes committed by their subordinates but took no action can be held criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.

“The Afghan government’s failure to investigate past possible crimes by Kandahar’s security forces makes an investigation of this incident all the more important,” Gossman said. “Unlawful killings won’t stop unless there is real accountability.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Warning about mines written on outside wall of building in Raqqa, Syria, January 21, 2018.

© Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Homemade landmines have killed and injured hundreds of civilians, including more than 150 children, in Raqqa, Syria since the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) was pushed out of the city in October 2017, Human Rights Watch said today.

ISIS had planted the antipersonnel mines when it controlled the city. They include devices often called booby traps or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Most appeared to be victim-activated and therefore banned under international law.

“The defeat of ISIS in Raqqa was heralded as a global international victory, but international support for dealing with the aftermath of the battle, and notably the deadly legacy of mines, has not risen to the challenge,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch. “Explosive devices have already killed and injured hundreds of civilians, but these numbers will most likely increase as more people return.”

During a visit to the city in late January 2018, Human Rights Watch collected information from the Kurdish Red Crescent and international medical organizations working in the area. They found that between October 21, 2017 and January 20, 2018, mines injured at least 491 people, including 157 children, many of whom died. The actual number of victims is surely higher, as many people have died before reaching any medical assistance and those deaths were not necessarily reported.

Some members of the anti-ISIS coalition have donated funds for demining efforts, notably for clearing “critical infrastructure.” But local authorities in Raqqa and medical providers expressed concerns about the limited effort to clear residential areas and said there was a shortage of demining equipment and expertise. The situation has led Raqqa residents to pay local people, who are often ill-equipped, to risk their lives to demine homes.

According to local authorities, more than 14,500 families had returned to Raqqa, notably to neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, like al-Meshleb, by December 20, 2017. The authorities expect that substantial numbers of people will continue to return, despite the high level of mine contamination and the limited services available in the heavily damaged city.

The Raqqa Civilian Council, which is in charge of the city, issued a directive on November 21 urging people not to return to their homes before neighborhoods had been cleared of mines and other explosive devices. However, many local residents whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they had returned to check on their homes despite the risks because they feared looting or wanted to avoid remaining in camps for the displaced.

Residents said that relatives and neighbors were injured by explosives that detonated when they opened their refrigerator or washing machine, moved a large bag of sugar left behind, or simply pushed open a bedroom door. These accounts show that most of the victims were injured or killed by victim-activated improvised explosive devices, rather than by explosives detonated by a vehicle or by remote-control.

Poster warning about danger of explosive remnants of war on roundabout in Raqqa, Syria, January 21, 2018.

© Human Rights Watch

Victim-activated devices that explode due to the presence, proximity, or contact of a person fall under the definition of an antipersonnel landmine and are banned by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits any use of antipersonnel landmines under any circumstance. Even if labeled as improvised explosive devices or booby traps, such mines are prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty, which Syria has not joined.

According to one demining organization working in Raqqa, a common switch or detonator used by ISIS relied on passive infrared sensors, an electronic sensor that measures infrared light radiating from objects in its field of view and detonates when a person merely passes through a particular area. The group noted that such improvised mines have been found in “building doorways, under stairwells, debris piles, roadside, rubble piles and even buried in open fields.”

The United States and other members of the anti-ISIS international coalition, including the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and France, have provided or promised support for demining efforts, particularly to clear “critical infrastructure sites” while training local residents to take the lead in clearing residential areas. But the local demand for demining is far outstripping existing services.

A member of the Raqqa Civilian Council indicated that families could ask their local neighborhood council to request an inspection of their homes before returning, but that the ability to respond did not meet the demand. In just one Raqqa neighborhood, the local council reported receiving about 10 requests for house inspections a day, while they said that the local authorities’ ability to respond is about 10 clearance tasks a week across the entire city.

The discrepancy has driven many local residents to simply pay someone to clear their homes. During its visit, Human Rights Watch saw young men waiting at a roundabout to offer their services to inspect houses and remove rubble, at great risk to their own lives. One local resident said that he paid 25,000 Syrian pounds (about US$50) for a man to check his house. “It’s like playing Russian roulette, but these young men are desperate for money,” the resident said.

Some efforts to educate residents about the mine risks were visible in the city, with posters at key intersections and on administrative buildings. But many residents were still taking a risk by returning.

International donors should make mine clearance and mine risk education a priority to protect people from these avoidable deaths and injuries, Human Rights Watch said. Countries bordering Syria should facilitate access for demining organizations and for humanitarian assistance to survivors.

“Visiting Raqqa, one is struck by the discrepancy between the international support to militarily defeat ISIS and the very timid support to deal with the aftermath,” Houry said. “If the situation does not change, the ISIS legacy of landmines will continue to kill for years.”

Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and for its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A man breathes through an oxygen mask at a medical center in Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 22, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

Early on January 22, I began receiving reports from residents in Eastern Ghouta in Syria of chlorine being used in a ground attack on Douma. It was not the first time the besieged town suffered a chemical weapons attack. Almost five years ago, on August 21, 2013, a chemical attack had killed hundreds of civilians, many of them children. It was the first wide-scale use of chemical weapons in decades. The likely culprit was the Syrian government.

Fast forward five years, Syria has ratified the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) created (and then Russia later vetoed) an investigative body tasked with attributing responsibility for the use of chemical weapons. Still the Syrian government continues to use chemical weapons with impunity. Since the attack on Eastern Ghouta, its forces have used chemical agents at least 30 more times.

In the days that followed the recent attack on Eastern Ghouta, we spoke to first responders and doctors, who described symptoms and smells on the victims they treated consistent with the use of chlorine gas. They told us that more than half of those they treated were women and children. This was the fourth alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta since the mandate of the UN investigative mechanism ended on November 17

Only a day after the January 22 attack, France launched a political initiative to combat the proliferation of chemical weapons and ensure that using them has consequences for those who do so. Aptly called ‘No Impunity’, the initiators also imposed sanctions against individuals and businesses with links to Syria’s chemical weapons program.

The French-led initiative is a welcome break from the dangerous attempt to make chemical weapons the new normal, but on its own it is not enough.

The UNSC and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should renew the investigative mechanism, or find an alternative. There is no substitute for UNSC action. But in its absence, states should follow France’s footsteps to ensure that neither Ghouta nor any other place in Syria or elsewhere is ever hit by chemical weapons again.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A member of the Palestinian security forces takes part in a training session to find and remove landmines, organised by the Palestinian Ministry of Interior and the United Nations, in the West Bank city of Jericho June 25, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

Palestine has become the 164th state to ban antipersonnel landmines, another sign of the growing global stigma against these abhorrent weapons.

Palestine acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty following the treaty’s annual meeting in Vienna in December. Palestine has expressed support the treaty for the past two decades.

Despite the fact Palestine doesn’t possess these weapons, the move to join the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty helps to further stigmatize landmines – especially today, when the use of these deadly weapons by non-state actors appears to be on the rise. The latest Landmine Monitor report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines reported a significant increase in civilian casualties from landmines, particularly victim-activated improvised explosive devices in the Middle East and North Africa. The increase reversed a long, downward trend in new casualties from landmines.

The treaty came into force in March 1999 and provides the framework necessary to create a mine-free world. The treaty imposes a ban on antipersonnel mines, and requires destruction of stockpiles, clearance of mined areas, and assistance to victims of the weapons.

According to a voluntary report it provided in 2012, Palestine does not possess antipersonnel mines and has never produced these weapons. There have been no allegations of use of antipersonnel mines or mine-like devices by any Palestinian entity in recent years.

According to Landmine Monitor, there are at least 90 minefields in the West Bank: 13 were laid by the Jordanian military in 1948-1967 and the rest were laid by the Israeli military along the Jordan River after Israel occupied the West Bank following the 1967 war. Since 2014, the UK-based demining organization the HALO Trust has worked to clear West Bank minefields in cooperation with Palestinian and Israeli authorities.

Jordan joined the treaty two decades ago, while Israel and nine other states from the Middle East and North Africa have yet to do so: Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.

Israel rarely elaborates its position on the Mine Ban Treaty, but views antipersonnel mines as a legitimate means of defense. Yet it ceased production and imports of antipersonnel mines in the early 1980s and has observed a moratorium on all exports, sales, and transfers of these weapons since 1994. Since 2011, the Israeli government has been working to clear, “minefields not essential to Israel’s national security.”

If Israel and other non-signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty are serious about stopping non-state armed groups from using improvised landmines, these countries should lead by example and review their own policy and practice on landmines. Most critically, they should join the treaty, and become part of the solution rather than the problem.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Smoke billows behind a building in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on December 3, 2017, during clashes between Houthi rebels and supporters of Yemeni ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

© 2017 Getty Images

(Beirut) – Lawless armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) morphed into disastrous trends for the region in 2017, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its 2018 World Report.

“Failed leadership, failed governments, and failed policies have brought nothing but catastrophe for the youth and future generations of the Middle East caught up in the region’s wars,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The legacy of these wars will be recorded as the ‘shame of the century’ for the Middle East.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

The top five trends in the region’s wars included:

  1. Chemical and Other Banned Weapons as the New Normal: The Syrian government, backed by its Russian allies, has used banned chemical weapons, and in Yemen, the United States-supported Saudi-led coalition has used widely banned cluster munitions. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of instances in which the Syrian government used chemical weapons in Syria, including littering Aleppo with chlorine-filled barrel bombs. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) also used chemical weapons in both Syria and Iraq. The Russian government effectively blocked the only body whose job it was to attribute responsibility and pave the way for sanctions against Syria for using chemical weapons by vetoing the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s Mandate at the United Nations Security Council. Human Rights Watch also documented the Saudi-led coalition’s repeated use of cluster munitions in Yemen – including those made in the US and Brazil. Houthi-Saleh forces made wide use of anti-personnel landmines, despite repeated promises not to use this weapon, which leaves behind unexploded bomblets that harm civilians for generations.

“While the world moves to end the scourge of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, and landmines, the Middle East has made these disgusting weapons the new normal in warfare,” Whitson said. “It’s repellent that arms manufacturers continue to profit off the sale of banned weapons.”

  1. Starving Children During War: Beyond bombing homes, schools, hospitals, and irreplaceable cultural architecture in the region, the Syrian government and Saudi-led coalition have each resorted to blocking aid and impeding critical supplies from reaching starving children. The Syrian government imposes sieges in various regions of Syria, including in so-called “de-escalation zones” such as Ghouta, severely restricting access to food and medical care for the civilian population. The Saudi-led coalition imposed a nation-wide blockade on all of Yemen’s ports and airspace, in a country where malnutrition, cholera, and diphtheria were already ravaging children and have now reached epidemic levels. The UN secretary-general placed the Saudi-led coalition on his annual “List of Shame” for violations against children, despite extraordinary threats and bullying by the Saudi government to be taken off the list.

“It is deeply disturbing that Arab governments are deliberately starving Arab children during wartime,” Whitson said. “The cruelty and barbarism on display in the Middle East should lead to a collective hanging of heads in shame in the region.”

  1. Unlawful Video Executions by Warlords, National Armies Alike: It’s not just ISIS that has promoted itself with gruesome acts of violence and savagery. Human Rights Watch documented Iraqi army soldiers and Khalifa Hiftar-aligned Libyan militias proudly recording depraved acts of torture and executions of detainees. The Egyptian army and police in Sinai staged “shoot-outs” to cover up such executions. Governments failed to investigate, condemn, or appropriately punish repeated unlawful acts by their forces, despite sometimes promising to do so. 

“It’s difficult to square the global outrage against ISIS horrors in the face of national armies and militias that mimic their tactics but receive military assistance from various foreign governments,” Whitson said.

  1. Ran Out of Men, Let’s Use Children: Houthi-Saleh forces resorted to recruiting children to help fight in Yemen. The UN secretary-general placed Houthi forces, as well as other parties in Yemen, on his annual “List of Shame” for their persistent recruitment of children. Human Rights Watch also documented the use of child soldiers in the Syrian conflict by multiple parties, including Kurdish armed groups and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran actually recruited Afghan immigrant children to fight in support of Syrian government forces.

“As if slaughtering and starving the region’s children is not bad enough, some are now despicably dragging children to fight and die on the battlefield,” Whitson said.

  1. Arabs Flee the Arab World En Masse: Many people in the Middle East voted with their feet, fleeing their countries in record numbers over the past five years. Millions of Syrians escaped Syria, while the hundreds of thousands who sought refuge in Europe faced a widespread backlash against refugees. Libyans, Iraqis, Yemenis, and Egyptians joined the ranks of millions of refugees and internally displaced in the Middle East who have lost their homes, livelihoods, and communities.

“Is there any greater evidence of just how inhospitable the Middle East has become than the reality of millions of its people fleeing, or trying to flee, disastrous wars – caused by disastrous leadership?” Whitson said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

New evidence supports the conclusion that Syrian government forces have used nerve agents on at least four occasions in recent months: on April 4, 2017, in a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 90 people, and on three other occasions in December 2016 and March 2017. 

When the UN Security Council meets this week to discuss chemical weapons use in Syria, its 15 members should send a strong message to the Syrian government that those responsible for dozens of chemical weapon attacks will be held accountable and may face future prosecution. It should do so first by imposing sanctions on people suspected of involvement in the illegal use of toxic agents, which have killed hundreds of Syrians and seriously injured many more.

By failing to hold those responsible for these appalling crimes accountable, the Security Council has effectively given perpetrators a green light to deploy sarin and other nerve agents, as well as mustard or chlorine gas against men, women and children.

Russia has used its Security Council veto 11 times to shield its allies in Damascus from condemnation, sanctions or referral to the International Criminal Court. Most recently, Russia vetoed renewing a joint investigation of the UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), whose job it was to identify the culprits behind chemical attacks.

The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) had accused both the Syrian government and Islamic State (also known as ISIS) of repeatedly using illegal chemical agents. In October, the JIM found the Syrian government responsible for the April 2017 sarin gas attack at Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens, mostly women and children. This echoed Human Rights Watch’s findings.

Russia has in the past taken positive steps urging Syria to change. In 2013, Russia helped pressure Syria to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin dismantling its chemical weapons program, and Moscow played a key role in establishing the JIM in 2015. But this time around, Moscow has helped Syria’s government evade responsibility for Khan Sheikhoun, alleging that armed groups carried out the attack themselves but offering little evidence to support this claim.

The Russian government should change course, and support UN Security Council in holding those responsible for chemical attacks accountable. Even if it does not, UN members should continue to fund other UN investigative teams established to investigate crimes in Syria and ferret out those responsible for the chemical attacks.

If perpetrators know that evidence of their crimes is being gathered for future prosecution, that may make them think twice before launching another bomb filled with sarin.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Syrian government and Russian forces have escalated their airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta, a suburb approximately 15 kilometers from the center of Syria’s capital, Damascus, killing dozens of civilians in apparently unlawful attacks. Syrian forces have tightened their siege of the enclave, held by anti-government armed groups, severely restricting humanitarian aid in violation of the laws of war and preventing civilians from leaving the area.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Children in the rubble of damaged buildings in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria. 

© Private

(Beirut) – Syrian government and Russian forces have escalated their airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta, a suburb approximately 15 kilometers from the center of Syria’s capital Damascus, killing dozens of civilians in apparently unlawful attacks, Human Rights Watch said today. Syrian forces have tightened their siege of the enclave, held by anti-government armed groups, severely restricting humanitarian aid in violation of the laws of war and preventing civilians from leaving the area.

The UN Security Council, which on December 19, 2017, renewed its mandate for cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of desperate Syrian civilians, should demand that the Syrian government immediately end unlawful restrictions on aid to Eastern Ghouta or face targeted sanctions against those responsible.

“The world is silently looking on as Russia and Syria tighten the noose around the suffering population of Eastern Ghouta with unlawful strikes, widely-banned weapons, and a devastating siege,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Council should demand that Syria immediately end its tactics that are starving the population, preventing civilians from leaving, and denying humanitarian aid.”

Syrian government and Russian forces have escalated their airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta, a suburb approximately 15 kilometers from the center of Syria’s capital Damascus, killing dozens of civilians in apparently unlawful attacks.

Human Rights Watch in November and December spoke remotely with 12 residents, humanitarian workers, and doctors in Eastern Ghouta concerning alliance airstrikes and restrictions on humanitarian aid.

Syrian government forces have besieged Eastern Ghouta, which has a population of about 400,000, since 2013. In October 2017, the government restricted the use of the al-Wafideen crossing, the only entry point for commercial merchandise, depleting scarce food and medical supplies and causing prices to skyrocket.

From November 14 to November 30, the Russian-Syrian joint military operation conducted more than 400 airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer group that works in anti-government areas, and the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights. The Russian-Syrian alliance struck more than half the towns in the besieged enclave at least once during this period, according to local media monitors. Homes, a makeshift school, and a public market were among the civilian structures hit.

Human Rights Watch documented three aerial attacks in Eastern Ghouta since November 14 that were apparently indiscriminate, in violation of the laws of war. One incident involved the use of cluster munitions, widely banned weapons that are inherently indiscriminate. These three attacks caused the death of at least 23 civilians and wounded many others.

The threat to civilians from the intensified aerial campaign has been exacerbated by lack of access to medical care and essential foodstuffs, Human Rights Watch said. The air and ground attacks and siege have together resulted in the deaths of at least 190 civilians, including 51 children, between November 14 and 30, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Anas al-Ta’an, a local resident, told Human Rights Watch: “We don’t know whether to hide in the basement from the strikes, or risk it to stand in line for two hours in the hopes of getting bread for our children. This is the choice we make, and the situation is beyond tragic.”

The laws of war do not prohibit sieges so long as the harm to the civilian population does not exceed the expected military gain, starvation is not used as a method of warfare, and humanitarian aid delivery is not hindered.

Syrian forces have severely restricted the entry of essential food and medicines and the exit of civilians from Eastern Ghouta in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. Entry of humanitarian aid through UN convoys has been extremely limited, with the Syrian government only granting permission to the UN to enter a handful of times over the past year. While a besieging force may prevent the entry of weapons and food and other supplies destined for opposing armies, essential goods for civilians must be allowed.

A UN official told Human Rights Watch, “the government systematically rejects life-saving medicines and medical equipment.” The UN estimates that aid reached only a quarter of the besieged population in Eastern Ghouta in 2017.

The government has also unnecessarily hindered the evacuation of people with urgent medical needs, Human Rights Watch said. The UN said that close to 500 people require immediate medical evacuation and that at least 10 people have died since June while awaiting Syrian government permission to leave Eastern Ghouta for treatment elsewhere. UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, reported in December that 137 children, ages 7 months to 17 years, needed immediate medical evacuation.

The escalating airstrikes and tightening of the siege in November meant hospitals were over capacity, lacking necessary medical supplies, and doctors were overwhelmed. “There was a child, Osama Al-Tukhi, he was 5 years old and he died of a brain infection,” a representative of a medical facility in Eastern Ghouta told Human Rights Watch “We could have saved him. He only needed an antiviral shot that is easily attainable in any Damascus pharmacy, but not here.”

Infighting among anti-government armed factions and restrictions on freedom of movement within the enclave have contributed to worsening humanitarian conditions, Human Rights Watch said. Anti-government armed groups should allow unimpeded humanitarian access and movement of civilians away from areas of hostilities, Human Rights Watch said.

In December, local media reported that negotiations were ongoing between the Russian and Syrian governments and non-state armed groups operating in Eastern Ghouta for the evacuation of the armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, previously Jabhat al-Nusra, from the besieged enclave. Any agreement should be consistent with laws-of-war protections for both civilians who evacuate and those who remain behind, and should ensure delivery of humanitarian aid to populations in need, Human Rights Watch said.

“Russia will have a difficult time bringing Syrians together in Sochi if it is indiscriminately bombing civilians while allowing its ally, the Syrian government, to continue its increasingly deadly siege of Eastern Ghouta,” Fakih said. “At the very least, it should pressure the Syrian government to allow humanitarian aid and evacuate urgent medical cases.”

The Besieged Enclave
The besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta, east of Damascus, is covered by a July de-escalation agreement between Russia, the Syrian government, and Syrian anti-government groups, that calls for a ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid. Syrian state media reported that Syrian government military operations against the enclave were in response to an attack on November 14 by the anti-government armed groups Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham on a strategic objective, the Vehicles Administration Center, near the town of Harasta. The Russian government stated that the alliance attacks in Eastern Ghouta since November 14 have been targeting Islamic State (also known as ISIS) forces.

Seven people in Eastern Ghouta told Human Rights Watch that Russian-Syrian alliance airstrikes were not limited to Harasta, where clashes were occurring, or areas where fighters were based, but extended to densely populated areas with no evident military objectives. In the three November airstrikes that Human Rights Watch documented, witness accounts and a review of video and photographs of the strikes gave no indication of any military objective in the vicinity.

Non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta have also shelled neighboring government-held areas using mortars, causing civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure, according to pro-government media sources. Attacks using indiscriminate weapons in populated areas violate the laws of war.

Ahmed Hamdan, a local working in media in Eastern Ghouta, said: “There is no way for us, regular people, to identify why we were hit or where we will be hit next. There is no place that we can say, ‘Oh, if I stay away from this area, I will be safe.’ Nowhere is safe.”

Three Unlawful Airstrikes
Human Rights Watch documented three apparently unlawful airstrikes in Hamouriyeh and Irbin in Eastern Ghouta in November and early December. While Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine whether the attacks were carried out by Russian or Syrian aircraft, only Russian and Syrian forces have been conducting airstrikes in the area. But responsibility for an unlawful airstrike does not rest solely with the aircraft or weapon used. All those taking part in the attack, including at the command level, may bear legal responsibility. The laws of war require all government forces involved in an apparently unlawful attack to carry out a credible and impartial investigation of the episode.

Four local residents said that Russian-Syrian alliance aircraft have struck the town of Hamouriyeh, seven kilometers from Damascus, several times since November 14. Hamouriyeh is a densely populated, primarily residential town located near the center of the besieged enclave. It is under the control of the anti-government armed group Faylaq al-Rahman.

On November 19, between 5:30 and 6 p.m., Russian or Syrian aircraft struck Hamouriyeh with cluster munitions three times, according to three residents and online reports. The residents saw the aircraft as it circled above the town. One said that the strikes occurred on Hamouriyeh Square and near Hayjat Street, both residential areas. Available information indicates that the three strikes were with inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions.

A civilian photographer who accompanied a Syria Civil Defense ambulance to the site of the second attack, said that when the driver, Alaa al-Din Juha, stepped out of the car, he set off an unexploded submunition, killing him. Two videos appear to show the explosion of the submunition and Juha’s body next to the Syria Civil Defense ambulance.

Another civilian, Abdo Yassin, died the next day from injuries sustained in the attack, the witnesses said.

The three residents said they were unaware of any military forces in the area struck, which was far from the front lines. Hamouriyeh is three kilometers from the nearest front line.

On December 3, two airstrikes hit between noon and 1 p.m., according to four residents who heard the plane before the strikes. The first strike hit the road in a residential area between Hamouriyeh and Irbin, near a medical facility called the Balsam Center. Ahmad Hamdan, a local media activist who photographed the damage, said that a rocket lodged deep in the concrete of the road and exploded:

I saw six who were dead immediately. The rocket fell in the middle of the road, it created a big hole. The diameter was about 1.4 meters. It went into the concrete and the explosion was huge. There were no remnants; the explosion was significant. There was a steel [iron] door to one of the residential buildings, which was heavily dented.

The second airstrike, approximately half an hour later, contained three munitions, according to three residents. Nibras Hamuriyeh, who lives across the street from where the munitions struck, said that he saw three munitions hit his neighborhood from a plane while he was on the street heading home. He ran home, which was right across the street from one of the strikes, to find the doors and windows broken, and his wife and children crying – “but thankfully unharmed.”

Two other munitions struck the roofs of buildings, Hamuriyeh said. He said that the strike killed his uncle and two adult male cousins who lived in one of the buildings. The building also housed a makeshift school in the basement, which was being used because the regular neighborhood schools had been closed after earlier attacks, two residents said. The makeshift school was destroyed, but no students were harmed because school was out for the day. Hamuriyeh said several other residents also died in their homes from the strikes.

Residents who documented deaths from the December 3 strikes provided a list of 18 civilians killed, including six children.

Video footage from first responders arriving on the scene shows extensive damage to the neighborhood from the December 3 airstrikes.

On November 23, at approximately 12:30 p.m., a Russian or Syrian aircraft carried out about eight strikes on the Eastern Ghouta town of Irbin, three residents said. Irbin is located near the edge of the enclave, less than a kilometer from the Vehicles Administration Center that anti-government armed groups attacked on November 14. The town is controlled by Faylaq Al-Rahman.

Four of the strikes hit a neighborhood in Irbin with a public market and residential buildings, approximately 100 meters apart, two residents said.

Ammar al-Bouchiri, a local resident who was at home when the first strike hit, said:

We heard a warplane… The munition hit the house that is immediately next door, that of our neighbors. The explosion was massive. I was at home and the sound was very loud. And I was thrown to the side.

He said he couldn’t feel anything for several seconds:

There was yelling, there was so much noise, and dust was all over the place. I couldn’t see anymore because of that. I couldn’t find my way out. The ceiling was down, doors were broken, and I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t see; the situation was horrifying.

The strikes killed three civilians: a shop-owner, and two children, and injured at least 20, according to media reports and witnesses.

“When I first got out, there was a dead man on the road facing our house, he was hit with a shrapnel piece,” al-Bouchiri said. “There were also two kids, one of them was still alive, we could still hear her voice.”

Restrictions on Essential Goods and Humanitarian Access
Syrian government forces and associated militias have besieged Eastern Ghouta since 2013. In April 2017, government forces retook the Barzeh and Qaboun neighborhoods of eastern Damascus, closing off smuggling tunnels between the neighborhoods and further restricting the movement of aid into and evacuation of people with urgent medical needs out of the enclave.

The government further tightened the siege on October 3 by severely restricting the use of al-Wafideen, the only commercial trade-crossing with the enclave. The closure of the tunnels and the crossing made prices of goods in Eastern Ghouta skyrocket.

An aid worker said that in November the one-month cost in Eastern Ghouta of a “survival minimum expenditure basket” (SMEB) – a unit used by humanitarian organizations to measure basic survival needs per household – was approximately US$700. A UN inter-agency assessment found that by mid-November, the price of a bundle of bread in Eastern Ghouta was 85 times the price in nearby Damascus; in August it was 24 times the Damascus price. Residents estimated that the average worker made only between US$50 and a US$100 a month and said that the majority were unemployed.

Firas Abdullah, a media activist in the Eastern Ghouta city of Douma, described impact of the siege:

The siege is killing us. A man must work two jobs to scrape together enough money to put one meal for his children a day, if that. It’s almost as bad as it was in 2013-14. Then, we got to a point where we used to take the feed that we saved for the chicken – very harsh, inedible stuff – and eat it.

The government allows only one well-known merchant to use the al-Wafideen crossing to bring merchandise in, residents and aid workers said. They said that in November the merchant was required to pay a tax of approximately 2000 Syrian pounds (US$4) for each kilogram of material brought in, making goods even more expensive.

“Imagine the path to let aid in is clear, they [the Syrian government] can do it,” the doctor from Irbin said. “They just don’t want to. Instead, we must pay exorbitant prices, that go to the regime to fund the very militias that are besieging us.”

Another doctor said: “A lot of children are dying from malnutrition. And this is a shame to the entire international community, to all those who are watching.”

The Syrian government has restricted the number of UN aid convoys to the area and the amount and types of goods that can be delivered. Humanitarian workers said that the convoys that entered since September did not contain aid that was sufficient for the population they were intended for and often did not meet their needs. Even when permission is granted, administrative and security issues often result in excessive delays, a UN official based in Damascus said.

Since the tightening of the siege, there have been many reports of harm to civilians from a lack of adequate food or medicine. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that at least five civilians died as a direct result of lack of food or medicine between November 14 and 28. On November 2, local media reported that a one year-old girl named Maram, who had been born with one kidney, needed medicine that was unavailable and surgery that could not be performed within the enclave.

Siege Watch reported that on November 13, a child named Walid with a heart condition had died after Syrian authorities had refused requests for a medical evacuation. A hospital director said on November 30 that medications were running low, and that patients needed procedures and treatments that were unavailable: “a little girl died from a cardiac issue, to diagnose her we needed an echocardiogram, which we didn’t have for children.”

The doctors said that the lack of medicine and adequate medical care has made people desperate. On December 15, the Damascus and Rural Damascus Directorate of Health, which is responsible for medical services in Ghouta, sent a letter to the World Health Organization describing the strain that the systematic denial of medicine and medical supplies has placed on the overwhelmed medical system of Eastern Ghouta.

The doctor from Irbin described trying to evacuate a girl, Sara, who had a malignant tumor in her eye, a genetic condition that had killed two of her siblings:

We left no stone unturned trying to get her out, to treat her but to no avail. No one would let her out, or help us. She died. Her parents gave birth to another girl, around a month or two ago, initial tests indicate that she has the same sickness. Her father, this time, when I wanted to discuss treatment with him refused outright. He said he doesn't want to discuss treatment anymore, he doesn't want to treat her anymore – there is no point. We’ll wait to die together, he told me.

The doctor described the pressures on the medical system:

On the 18 or 19 [of November], there was an airstrike and a relative of mine was injured. A young guy, 33 years old with children, whose hands had to be amputated. I was the one to treat him, but I didn't realize it was my relative. I didn’t realize until I got home, and my wife told me a relative of mine had to have his hand amputated. I asked her, was it the one with the two hands amputated? She said yes. I treated him but I was so overwhelmed with the number of patients, I didn’t even recognize him. This is our lives now.

International Humanitarian Law
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which apply to the armed conflict in Syria, prohibit attacks that target civilians or civilian property, that do not or cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants, or that cause harm to civilians or civilian property that is disproportionate to any anticipated military gain. All parties to the conflict have an obligation to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians from harm, and not to deploy forces in densely populated areas.

The laws of war do not prohibit siege warfare so long as the purpose is to achieve a military objective and not to starve or cause disproportionate harm to the civilian population. Civilians may not be forcibly displaced unless their security depends on their evacuation.

A party that imposes a siege that has the effect of starving the civilian population has an obligation to provide access for humanitarian aid for civilians in need and not arbitrarily interfere with it. Parties must also ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian workers, which can only be restricted temporarily for reasons of imperative military necessity.

Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, intentionally or recklessly – may be prosecuted for war crimes. Individuals may also be held criminally liable for assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you for the floor, Mr. President.

We thank the Committee on Cooperative Compliance for its diligent and important work, and also thank it for the opportunity for the ICBL and its members to contribute to the process.

There is no question that the overall record of compliance with the Mine Ban Treaty is admirable. But it is by no means perfect, and States Parties can do better.

The most serious compliance concern of course is the possible use of antipersonnel mines by a State Party. There has been one confirmed instance of this in the past 20 years, by Yemen in 2011-2012. We have just heard from the Committee about its actions with respect to Yemen, as well as to allegations of use by three other States Parties: South Sudan, Sudan, and Ukraine.

It is worth noting that there have been no new allegations of use by States Parties in the past three years. The allegations about government use in these countries are now all three to five years old. The Compliance Committee has noted that in all of these cases, the States Parties have mined areas under their jurisdiction, but outside of their control, and that the cases will have to remain open until those states conclude appropriate investigations into those areas.

As more time passes, the potential effectiveness of any investigation decreases greatly. 

We appreciate the updates just provided by Sudan and South Sudan. These updates were not included in the report of the Compliance Committee to this Meeting of States Parties, and we look forward to seeing the updates in writing, to studying them, and to having the Compliance Committee assess them.

In June 2017, Sudan reported that it had conducted an investigation in one area where there was alleged use by government forces, and concluded that no use had occurred. Sudan said it was not able to investigate in three other areas with alleged use. Today, Sudan indicated that at least one more area has been investigated, without finding any evidence of mine use by government forces. But at least one more area still needs to be investigated.

South Sudan today stated that it carried out an investigation in November 2017, and found no evidence of use of antipersonnel mines. It is unclear if further investigations into other areas still need to be conducted.

Full transparency with respect to these investigations and their findings is crucial.

While being the most serious, use allegations are by no means the only compliance issues of concern.

On Article 4, the long-missed stockpile destruction deadlines for Greece and Ukraine remain unmet. We will elaborate on this in our statement on stockpile destruction later. We enthusiastically congratulate Belarus for having completed its destruction program.

On Article 3, we fail to understand why States Parties are not speaking out and asking questions of the many States Parties that are keeping mines under the Article 3 exception without ever using them for any of the permitted purposes. These are in essence stockpiled mines, not mines retained for training or development. We will come back to this in our stockpile destruction statement.

On Article 5, there are far too many mine clearance extension requests, and too little respect for the “as soon as possible” requirement and the ten-year deadline. Of deep concern, as noted by many States Parties, Ukraine has been in violation of the treaty since 1 June 2016 for missing its clearance deadline without having requested an extension in time. We continue to hope Ukraine will move to remedy this situation as soon as possible, as it is clearly in its own best interests to do so. Extension requests are required, and submission of a request is not a matter for negotiation or for pre-conditions. Given the very difficult conflict situation it is enduring, it is hard to understand why Ukraine is needlessly bringing harsh criticism upon itself for its failure to abide by the treaty’s legal requirements.

On Article 7, the compliance rate for transparency reporting continues to be embarrassingly low (less than 50% for 2016), indicating widespread disregard for this legal obligation.

In closing, it is vital to promote compliance with the norm being established by the Mine Ban Treaty: that there should not be any use of antipersonnel mines by any actor under any circumstance.

According to Landmine Monitor, in the past year, two governments continued using antipersonnel mines: Syria and Myanmar. In both cases, the number of mines used appeared limited.

However, non-state armed groups have continued using antipersonnel mines (mostly improvised antipersonnel mines, also called victim-activated improvised explosive devices, which are prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty) in at least nine countries, with extensive use in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and limited use in India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ukraine, and Yemen.

As an aside, the issue of improvised antipersonnel mines can also be a compliance issue. States Parties need to treat these as they do other antipersonnel mines, to report them in transparency reports as contaminated areas, and to report on clearance in accordance with treaty mandated deadlines.

States Parties should condemn any new use by non-state armed groups as well as government forces, and States Parties should seek out new ways to stigmatize and stop the use of improvised antipersonnel mines.

Thank you.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Broken Chair, a statue in support of the bans on landmines and cluster munitions, stands outside the United Nations in Geneva.

© 2017 Mary Wareham/Human Rights Watch
(New York) – Sri Lanka joined the international treaty banning antipersonnel landmines on December 13, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The action is especially significant because Sri Lanka used antipersonnel mines in the past and has since undertaken an extensive, ongoing mine clearance effort.

“Sri Lanka’s accession should spur other nations that haven’t joined the landmine treaty to take another look at why they want to be associated with such an obsolete, abhorrent weapon,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines – the group effort behind the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. “This should spur other countries that haven’t joined the treaty to review their position and address any obstacles to joining it.”

Sri Lanka deposited its instrument of accession to the treaty with the United Nations in New York, becoming the 163rd country to join. The Mine Ban Treaty comprehensively bans antipersonnel landmines, and requires destruction of stockpiles, clearance of mined areas, and assistance to victims of the weapons.

Sri Lanka participated as an observer in the fast-track diplomatic Ottawa Process, which led to the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty in September 1997, but said it could not sign due to its ongoing conflict with the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Since then it has expressed its support for the humanitarian objectives of the Mine Ban Treaty and voted in favor of every annual UN General Assembly resolution on it. In December 2015, Sri Lanka announced that it was “seriously considering” joining the Mine Ban Treaty “as a matter of priority” following “a paradigm shift” in policy after the election of a new government in January 2015.

Sri Lanka reports that it has never produced or exported antipersonnel mines. Under the treaty, its stockpiled landmines must be destroyed within the next four years. The Sri Lanka army has acknowledged using antipersonnel mines in the past, while the LTTE produced and used them extensively during the armed conflict, which ended in May 2009.

After Sri Lanka’s accession, three South Asian countries have yet to join the Mine Ban Treaty: India, Pakistan, and Nepal.

Austria will host and preside over the 16th meeting of the states parties to the treaty in Vienna during the week of December 18-21, 2017.

Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), chairs the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, and serves as ban policy editor for Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. The ICBL received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, together with its coordinator, Jody Williams, for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and for its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.

“After deliberating for almost two decades, Sri Lanka ultimately decided to get on the right side of history by relinquishing antipersonnel mines,” Goose said. “With every country that joins the treaty, the norm against these weapons only gets stronger."

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh addresses a rally held to mark the 35th anniversary of the establishment of his General People's Congress party in Sanaa, Yemen, August 24, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – The killing of former longtime Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, on December 4, 2017, underlines the need for governments to support the new United Nations expert panel to investigate abuses by all sides to Yemen’s war, Human Rights Watch said today. Saleh, implicated in numerous abuses during his 33-year-long rule of Yemen and during the current conflict, was reportedly killed by Houthi forces while trying to leave the capital, Sanaa.

The Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen was created by the UN Human Rights Council in September to investigate and identify those responsible for abuses in Yemen’s armed conflict. The United StatesUnited Kingdom, and other UN member countries should press the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi armed group to cooperate with the UN inquiry.

“Saleh’s death is a grim reminder of the consequences of granting immunity to those linked to grave abuses since countless Yemeni victims and their families should have been able to confront him in court for his alleged crimes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The US, UK, and others should fully support the UN expert panel and pursue the justice Yemenis deserve.”

Tensions between forces loyal to Saleh and the Houthis had been increasing over the past few months, with armed clashes breaking out on December 1 in Sanaa. On December 4, Houthi-affiliated media reported that Houthi forces had killed Saleh. Videos purportedly showing Houthi forces putting Saleh’s body, with a head wound, into a truck circulated on social media. Close associates of Saleh later confirmed he had been killed that day. The circumstances of his death remain unclear.

During the recent fighting in Sanaa, dozens of people, including civilians, were killed, and hundreds wounded. Ambulances and medical teams were not able to reach the wounded and medical teams were reportedly attacked, according to the UN. An International Committee of the Red Cross medical warehouse was struck during fighting, the organization’s regional director said on Twitter. Humanitarian agencies repeatedly called on all sides – including the coalition, which had reportedly carried out airstrikes against Houthi forces during the fighting – to allow civilians safe passage.

Civilians in Sanaa had already been suffering from a lack of essential supplies, like food, fuel, and medicine, following the coalition’s decision to block the entry of goods through ports under Houthi control on November 6.

Saleh leaves a deeply troubling legacy. Although officially deposed from power during the Arab Uprisings in 2012, Saleh stayed in Yemen and acted as a political spoiler throughout the country’s aborted transitional process. In September 2014, the Houthi armed group took over Sanaa. Despite having waged a six-year, intermittent civil war against the Houthis in the north, Saleh aligned himself with the rebel group in the fight against President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition.

The allied Houthi-Saleh forces committed numerous violations of the laws of war, some most likely war crimes. Human Rights Watch documented that Houthi-Saleh forces laid antipersonnel landmines throughout the country and killed and wounded civilians and prevented their return home. The Houthi-Saleh forces indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas like the cities of Taizz and Adenforcibly disappeared and abused scores of individuals in areas under their control and blocked and impeded the distribution of aid.

Saleh left office in February 2012 under a flawed transfer pact brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and backed in most aspects by the UN Security Council, the US, and European Union member countries. The accord promised Saleh immunity in exchange for leaving office. Yemen’s parliament fulfilled the promise, passing a law granting blanket immunity from prosecution to Saleh and his aides for any action during his 33-year rule.

Shortly before Saleh left office, Human Rights Watch confirmed the deaths of 270 protesters and bystanders during attacks by government security forces and gangs on largely peaceful demonstrations against his rule, most in Sanaa. Dozens more civilians were killed in 2011 in apparently indiscriminate attacks by government security forces on densely populated areas in Taizz during clashes with armed opposition fighters. Human Rights Watch also documented a broad pattern of international human rights and laws-of-war violations by government security forces while Saleh was in power, including apparent indiscriminate shelling in the 2004-2010 civil wars against the Houthis and the use of unnecessary and lethal force since 2007 to quash a separatist movement in the south.

On December 4, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights named Kamel Jendoubi, Charles Garraway, and Melissa Parke to the UN expert panel. In announcing the appointments, the high commissioner said: “For three years, the people of Yemen have been subjected to death, destruction and despair. It is essential that those who have inflicted such violations and abuses are held to account.”

“It’s critical for the panel to be able to do its job so that the thousands of Yemenis who have suffered can find a measure of redress,” Whitson said. “Saleh’s death adds one more incident to the UN expert panel’s very long caseload.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am