Tag Archives: international humanitarian law

Regulating the Weapons Markets, how to weaken international legislation

Negotiators on Friday (Feb. 17, 2012) narrowly averted the collapse of talks on a world arms trade treaty to regulate the $55 billion global weapons market, agreeing on ground rules for negotiations after days of procedural wrangling….Arms control campaigners say one person every minute dies as a result of armed violence and that a convention is needed to prevent illicitly traded guns from pouring into conflict zones and fueling wars and atrocities…..

Brian Wood of Amnesty International said Russia, China and several other arms-exporting nations were “resisting proposals from the overwhelming majority for criteria in the treaty that would stop arms transfers” when there was reason to believe they could be used for serious human rights violations.  He said Washington also had misgivings and was concerned that human rights criteria would discourage states like Syria, a major purchaser of Russian arms, from joining the treaty.  One diplomat described Syria’s 11-month crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, which has led to the death of over 5,400 people according to U.N. figures, and other Arab Spring uprisings as “the elephant in the room” as delegates ponder ways of halting arms sales to governments that kill their citizens.  “It was in everyone’s minds as we discussed the need for the treaty,” a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.

There was a long debate about whether decisions at the July drafting conference in New York need to be made unanimously, which would give every country a veto.  The United States, Russia, China, Syria, Iran and others pushing for unanimity have argued that the only way to ensure universal compliance is to get all countries on board. Those who dislike the virtual veto, like Mexico and some European countries, believe it could mean that whatever treaty is agreed on in July – if there is one – will be weak.  “As we have seen in the case of Syria, veto power leads to inaction and hampers the ability of the international community to prevent conflict,” said Jeff Abramson of the group Control Arms. He was referring to Russia’s and China’s veto of two U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Syria’s crackdown.  In the end, participants at this week’s discussions at U.N. headquarters agreed that decisions at the drafting conference in July would be taken by consensus. A senior U.S. official described the veto as “the nuclear option” – a last resort.  The U.S. official, a leading member of Washington’s delegation, told Reuters the ability to “block a weak treaty” while protecting U.S. domestic rights to bear arms – a politically sensitive issue in the United States – was agreed on in 2009 and remained a condition for U.S. participation.

Diplomats involved in the talks said bickering between the United States and Mexico over procedure belied a concrete subtext – Mexico’s complaints that lax U.S. gun laws enable Mexican drug cartels to obtain weapons easily in the United States and move them across the U.S.-Mexican border.  One issue on which the U.S. and Mexican delegations disagree relates to tracking weapons and ammunition. Mexico would like a treaty to require national authorities to track and keep records of arms and ammunition from their manufacture to final use.  The senior U.S. official said such monitoring would not be permissible under U.S. law.  There are other areas of disagreement, delegates said. Washington does not want the treaty to cover ammunition, while China and Egypt are among those that want to exclude small arms.

Excerpt, By Louis Charbonneau, Collapse of arms trade treaty talks narrowly averted, Reuters, Feb. 18, 2012

Report of the Secretary General (Positions of China, Mexico, Egypt) (pdf)

In Syria Covert Action with an Arab-Turkish Face

In Washington, the National Security Council is said to be preparing a “presidential finding”, an executive order authorising covert action [in Syria], as a policy option, but it is not clear whether the White House would take the risky step of signing it.  “It would leak in an instant and it would be radioactive,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in the region. “They [the Obama administration] have no idea of what to do now. They don’t want to be behind the ethnic cleansing of the Alawites, and it would have an explosive effect in Lebanon.” Assad is from Syria’s minority Alawite sect.

Britain and France both secretly sent special forces to train Libyan rebels last year but look unlikely to repeat the tactic in Syria. In the Libyan case, France supplied weapons, Britain non-lethal equipment. Military personnel from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar played the biggest outside role, and contingents from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan were involved.  Any outside involvement in Syria would also have “an Arab face”, said a former British intelligence officer.

The most significant outside player would probably be neighbouring Turkey, which already hosts the opposition Syrian National Council and allows a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose lightly armed fighters are in action against regime forces.  Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, said: “Whether the Turks are confident with that role, and how overt or covert it is, are key considerations.”  Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared he would push for a new initiative in the wake of the security council “fiasco”, and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davotuğlu, is due in Washington on Wedesday to discuss it with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, although no details have been disclosed.  Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Ankara’s preferred option would be regional support for limited Nato operations, including a “safe zone” for the rebels and a humanitarian corridor. “Turkey is beyond the point of no return,” he said. “It has burned its bridges. The longer Assad stays in Syria, the worse it is. Turkey has bet heavily on regime change.”

The Qataris are also in favour of some sort of limited military intervention. Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, said: “After the security council, the momentum is shifting towards talk of a buffer zone, or safe zone, and people here are talking seriously about it. But the Qataris would want the US and EU on board.”

The establishment of any kind of safe zone would involve the destruction of Syrian air defences and that would require US military participation, something Washington has ruled out for the time being. Although Hamid pointed out that similar declarations were made by the Obama administration before the Libyan intervention.

Meanwhile, foreign participation is likely to come in the form of covert backing for the FSA. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are rumoured to be financing the rebel force, but Baer said the FSA was having problems smuggling heavy and sophisticated arms into the country.  “They would like to get things like surface-to-air missiles,” he said, “but they are not being allowed across the borders in Turkey or Jordan. There is a lot of this stuff being sold at the arms markets in Libya.”

Hokayem predicted support for the FSA would now increase, but warned that a lack of co-ordination between the Gulf states risked leading to the rise of competing militias.  One analyst, Marc Lynch, commented: “I expect calls to mount for the provision of weapons to the Free Syrian Army, or for that to simply happen without fanfare … But nobody should be fooled into thinking that this is a panacea: arming the weaker side in a fully fledged, internationalised civil war is much more likely to produce a painful stalemate than a quick, decisive outcome.”

Jordan, whose intelligence service is considered the best in the Arab world, is watching developments in Syria through the eyes of tribes that straddle the border. It could also train and supply the anti-Assad rebels, but only if that mission were “subcontracted” to it by the far wealthier Gulf states.  Efforts to persuade the fractured Syrian opposition to close ranks are likely to take precedence over any clandestine activity, not least because an EU arms embargo bans any weapons supplies.

Ben Barry, an IISS military expert, said any assessment of the FSA would conclude that its most urgent need was for secure communications. Its fighters used mobile phones with Syrian numbers, which were easily monitored by the government, he said. Anti-tank weapons and night-vision goggles would help boost its performance against superior regime forces.  In past conflicts in the area, arms smuggling routes have often run through Kurdish areas, but Syrian Kurds have not allowed weapons throught to the opposition so far.

Ian Black and Julian Borger, Search for Syria strategy focuses on stiffening fragmented opposition, Guardian, Feb. 7, 2012

Let them Kill Each Other, the US Doctrine on Afghanistan

The head of the U.S. special forces has revealed a likely controversial plan to triple the number of armed Afghans paid by NATO to protect their villages under a plan once described as “a community watch with AK-47s”.  In a rare meeting with journalists Saturday, (Dec. 10, 2011) Adm. William H McRaven, the architect of the daring U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said the plan could go into effect over the next two years.

The number of Afghan Local Police, or ALP, could go up from 9,800 to 30,000, if the Afghan government supports it.American commanders consider the groups a local and cost-effective solution to shoring up security in Afghanistan’s sprawling and lawless rural communities. They were active in 57 districts now, but could cover 99 by the end of 2013.  “The real advantage for the ALP and what it provides you as opposed to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is the ability for Afghans from their local districts to protect their own homes,” he said. “The ALP allow guys to stay at home and protect their families and their villages.”  The ALP created “a network out there that can respond to any potential threats,” he said.  Former NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, first introduced the plan 17 months ago, describing it to the U.S. Congress as “a community watch with AK-47s.”

But Human Rights Watch accused the groups of “committing serious human rights abuses” and not being held accountable by the Afghan government.  These reports have raised fears that the armed groups might turn on the communities they protect or neighbor, particularly if their coalition wages falter after the NATO drawdown.  There are also concerns they could enter into rivalries with neighboring groups, instead worsening security for local Afghans. McRaven said he had only heard anecdotal talk of these groups fueling local tribal rivalries, but has not seen evidence on the ground to support that.

Col. John Evans, deputy commanding officer of Combined Forces Special Operations, said at 30,000 in number, the groups would cost an estimated $170 million to maintain annually, making them significantly cheaper than the police or army as an Afghan method of providing security locally.  While he said the ALP could not provide all the same skills as the police and army, he added: “There is an economy aspect for the ALP for a government of Afghanistan that is going to continue have to meet financial commitments as a young democracy. It does give them some options.”

Evans added that basic training and local accountability were in place to keep the ALP in order. “There are several check and balances: a vetting at the local level by the Shuras”, or groups of village elders  “It allows for people to say that a man would be a good guardian for them as they have known them all their lives. And secondly if this young man turns out not to be an honest man now he is accountable to that village elder as that’s how the culture works.”  Evans added the ALP were under the remit of the Afghan Ministry of Interior and answerable to local police chiefs.

McRaven defended NATO’s controversial tactic of night raids in Afghanistan, which have become a sticking point in negotiations over the US’s long term military presence in the country. He said there have been 2,800 raids on insurgents in the country in the past year alone, only 15% of which fired a shot.  McRaven added that of all the casualties caused by coalition special forces raids, only 1% were civilians killed in error. The intrusive nature of the raids, and the civilian deaths they cause, have made them deeply unpopular in the nation. President Hamid Karzai has frequently demanded that they stop.  “I think you would find that night raids are very valuable when you are trying to get somebody who is trying to hide,” McRaven said. “It’s an important piece of security and I think we have to continue to have this discussion with the Afghans. I’m not sure I know if it’s essential but I know that it’s important.”

On special forces raids in general in Afghanistan, McRaven said: …..”A common mission of for the guys is they will helicopter into an area and the Afghans will get on bullhorns and they will say “please come out we are coalition forces.”  Previous reports have suggested raids happen on average 10 times a night, but sometimes as often as 40. McRaven’s remarks lower that average slightly, but still provide an official confirmation of how common such operations have become.  McRaven said moves are under way to ensure that future night raids are led by Afghan commandos, a possible compromise in the face of complaints here from the presidency. McRaven insisted elements of the Afghan government were in favor of raids.

McRaven also addressed the changing nature of the insurgency after a decade of war in Afghanistan. An operations officer with his team said that since the bin Laden raid and other operations, al Qaeda’s “relevance in Afghanistan is becoming less and less. Their leadership has been impacted significantly. Each time they try and put somebody up there, we take them down. That has really put a hurt on al Qaeda.”  Afghan insurgents “see al Qaeda more as a liability now. They [the Afghan Taliban] see it was a mistake to ever partner with” al Qaeda, he said.

McRaven added the Haqqani network – a sophisticated part of the insurgency considered responsible for various raids into Kabul and believed to have significant Pakistani military support – were tough fighters who are well-supplied.  But he added the network was not entirely dependent on Pakistani support.  “I think the Haqqanis are fairly autonomous. That’s not to say that support that they get living in Pakistan certainly makes them more difficult for us to get at. They have been around for quite some time. So they have developed a pretty extensive network in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. I don’t think they would go away quickly regardless who went after them.”…

Excerpt, By Nick Paton Walsh,Tripling Afghanistan’s ‘community watch with AK-47s’, CNN, Dec. 11, 2011

Right to Know: deaths caused by the CIA’s drone program

The U.S. is disputing a report that its counter-terror drone program has killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, including more than 160 children. The London-based non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a report this week that claimed the CIA drone program, credited for killing approximately 2,000 suspected militants, is also responsible for the deaths of 385 civilians, 168 of them kids, in 291 strikes since 2004.

“The numbers cited by this organization are way off the mark,” a senior U.S. official told ABC News. “We see the battlefield in real time; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism doesn’t… This group’s allegations about individual strikes are, in every case, divorced from the facts on the ground.”

The official said that while the U.S. agrees around 2,000 suspected militants have been killed, the total civilian casualties are closer to 50. One of the “loudest voices” in the report is that of a Pakistani lawyer who is currently involved in legal action with the U.S., the official said. “His agenda is crystal clear.”

The lead reporter on the BIJ’s project, Chris Woods, told ABC News that the group has no agenda and simply compiled public information while attempting to corroborate what they could on the ground, since the CIA’s figures are unavailable to them.

By LEE FERRAN, ABC News, Aug. 12, 2011

More War Crimes in Sudan: Abyei

The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) has confirmed through the analysis of DigitalGlobe satellite imagery collected on 27 May the intentional destruction of approximately one-third of all civilian structures in Abyei town by the Government of Sudan and northern-aligned militia forces. SSP has documented multiple violations of international humanitarian law in Abyei town. These abuses can constitute war crimes, including violations of the Geneva Conventions, and in some cases they may represent crimes against humanity.

The imagery captures at least ten SAF main battle tanks consistent with T-55s or T-64s, three mobile artillery pieces, heavy equipment transports, heavy trucks and infantry fighting vehicles in Abyei town. Widespread looting, debris, and destruction of property is visible, including the ransacking of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) storage facility. Additionally, SSP confirms the destruction of Banton Bridge on the Kiir River south of Abyei town. This is consistent with reports that Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) detonated the bridge.

Satellite imagery analyzed by Harvard Humanitarian Initiative with support from DigitalGlobe provides new evidence of SAF forces carrying out extensive and wanton destruction and appropriation of property without the justification of military necessity. The attacks on civilian objects under the SAF’s occupation of Abyei town constitute violations of international humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and its First and Second Additional Protocols of 1977 to which Sudan is party.

May 28, 2011, Satellite Images