The appointment by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of one of his most hawkish and outspoken rivals as Israel’s new ambassador to the United Nations has prompted widespread consternation.
As one Israeli analyst noted last week, Danny Danon’s appointment amounts to a “cruel joke” on the international community. The new envoy “lacks even the slightest level of finesse and subtlety required of a senior diplomat”.
Last year Netanyahu sacked Danon as deputy defence minister, describing him as too “irresponsible” even by the standards of Israel’s usually anarchic politics. Danon had denounced the prime minister for “leftist feebleness” in his handling of Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer.
Danon is a UN official’s worst nightmare. He is a vocal opponent of a two-state solution and has repeatedly called for the annexation of the West Bank.
Back in 2011, days before the UN General Assembly was due to vote on Palestinian statehood, Danon dismissed the forum as irrelevant: “Even if there will be a vote [in favour], it will be a Facebook state.”
On the face of it, Netanyahu’s timing could not be worse. Danon is to represent Israel as the Palestinians are expected to step up efforts at the UN to entrench recognition of their statehood. He will also be a leading spokesman as Israel tries to fend off war crimes investigations at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
The generally accepted explanation is that Netanyahu’s move is driven by domestic, not diplomatic, calculations. Danon is the Israeli right’s poster boy, one who makes the prime minister look too cautious and conciliatory.
The two faced off for the Likud party leadership last November. Danon lost but Netanyahu doubtless fears, as his party and the Israeli public shift ever rightwards, that his rival’s time is coming.
The posting removes Danon as head of the Likud’s powerful central committee, dispatches him to a distant land, and should provide him with opportunities aplenty to self-harm.
But that is not the whole story. Danon’s appointment reveals something more significant about Israel’s deteriorating relations even with its international supporters.
It is hard nowadays to recall that Israel once took the UN very seriously indeed. It had to.
In the decade following 1948, Abba Eban, the country’s foremost diplomat, sought to carve out international recognition and respectability for Israel at the UN.
Eban often used deceit and misdirection – he is reported to have avowed that “diplomats go abroad to lie for their country”. But he never forgot the importance of creating a façade of moral justification for Israel’s actions, even as it launched wars of aggression in 1956 at Suez and again against Egypt in 1967.
Reality caught up with Israel when the UN adopted a resolution in 1975 equating Israel’s official ideology, Zionism, with racism. The resolution was only revoked 16 years later, after the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower.
Washington arm-twisted the General Assembly with promises that Israel would engage in a peace process with the Palestinians, culminating a short time later in the Oslo Accords.
But as Oslo slowly unravelled, and Israel’s leaders – not least Netanyahu himself – were exposed as the true rejectionists, Israel was forced on to the back foot again.
Today, the consensus in Israel is not only that the UN is a bastion of anti-Israel prejudice but that it is an incubator of global anti-semitism, much of it supposedly spawned by Arab states. Israel is blameless, so this story goes, but the world has fallen under the haters’ spell.
The parting shot of Danon’s predecessor, Ron Prosor, last week was to accuse yet again a leading UN official, Jordan’s Rima Khalaf, of anti-semitism for pointing out the untold misery caused by Israel’s near-decade blockade of Gaza.
Earlier this year, after stepping down as Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren went further, arguing that the plague of anti-semitism had infected even America’s leading Jewish journalists. Their critical coverage of Israel was proof of self-hatred, he claimed.
The need for such desperate diplomacy has grown as Israel’s moral image has tarnished, even for its allies. But the hectoring and intimidation by seasoned diplomats like Prosor and Oren has produced diminishing returns.
Danon’s posting is part of a discernible pattern of recent appointments by Netanyahu that reflect a growing refusal to engage in any kind of recognisable diplomacy. Confrontation is preferred.
The trend started with Netanyahu’s decision in 2009 to let the thuggish Avigdor Lieberman lead the foreign ministry and Israel’s diplomatic corps.
Notably, Netanyahu picked Ron Dermer, a high-profile partisan of the US Republican party, to replace Oren in 2013. Dermer is widely credited with engineering Netanyahu’s provocative address earlier this year to the US Congress, in an undisguised effort to undermine President Barack Obama’s talks with Iran.
Danon’s appointment, like Dermer’s, indicates the extent to which the Israeli right has abandoned any hope of persuading the international community of the rightness of its cause – or even of working within the rules of statecraft.
Just as Dermer has turned Obama’s White House into a diplomatic battlefield, Danon can be expected to barrack, abuse and alienate fellow ambassadors at the UN in New York.
An Israel that has no place for negotiations or compromise wants only to tell the world that it is wrong and that Israelis don’t care what others think. Danon is the right man for that task.
‘Could be.’ ‘Might be.’
‘Can’t show or prove anything, but maybe.’
Is there any wonder that with such language coming lately from the “official” but secretive investigation of the July 17, 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, there is little reason for confidence in a final report? And lots of reason for concern of what a flawed or reckless final report could spark?
On August 11, the Dutch Safety Board and the ‘Joint Investigation Team’ investigating the MH17 crash issued a speculative statement saying they have discovered pieces among the debris they collected from the fields in eastern Ukraine where the plane came down that “possibly originate” from a spent Buk missile.
They say they can’t be sure. “At present, the conclusion cannot be drawn that there is a causal connection between the discovered parts and the crash of flight MH17.” And they can’t show us anything. But they are making the statement anyway.
The statement was reported widely by Western media along with predictable spin and wild interpretation. Western media has reported all along that the thinly-equipped self-defence forces in eastern Ukraine are the “likely” culprits in bringing down the MH17, “possibly” with backing coming from ‘somewhere’ in the Russian military command.
Manipulation and misreporting of the known fact of the crash of the plane is disrespectful toward the victims and their loved ones. Much more troubling is the fact that it disregards the deadly context of events surrounding the investigation, including the string of military exercises upon which NATO is embarked in eastern Europe and now the latest news that Ukraine is moving heavy artillery back to the front line of its war in eastern Ukraine, to be unleashed on the civilian population.
Here is how the European correspondent of Canada’s daily Globe and Mail, Mark MacKinnon, reports the Dutch investigators’ statement in a special, center-spread article in the newspaper on August 12:
“The recovery of the missile fragments adds to the bulk of evidence implicating pro-Russian fighters in the downing of the passenger jet, which killed 298 people. Moscow, which accuses the Ukrainian military of shooting MH17 out of the sky, recently used its veto at the United Nations Security Council to block the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to prosecute the case.”
Who needs an official investigation with such an apparent, open and shut case? The implications of such thinking and writing are becoming unthinkable considering the exceptionally dangerous context reported in the opening of the very same Globe article:
“War between Russia and the NATO alliance should be unthinkable. But a new study of recent military exercises suggests both powers are preparing for just that possibility.
“Researchers at a European think tank [the European Leadership Network] warned that while there was no evidence that either side intended to go to war, the increasing frequency and size of military exercises on both sides [sic] of the NATO-Russia border heighten the possibility of an unplanned incident that could spark a wider conflict (Read the report PDF). The finding raises the spectre of a continent-wide clash of conventional armies, the sort not seen since Russia and the Western allies combined to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War.”
The British government is piling on by announcing that it will double the number of Ukrainian soldiers and extremist militia members that it plans to train this year, from 1,000 to 2,000. Presently, Britain says it has 75 soldiers in the country.
Speaking in Kyiv on August 11, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon described the conflict in eastern Ukraine as “red hot”.
Rebel forces in eastern Ukraine have been receiving vital humanitarian aid from the Russian government and from widespread citizen initiatives. They have also received important political/diplomatic support from the Russian government.
The Russian government makes the utterly evident argument that Kyiv should respect the terms of the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement it co-signed signed on Feb. 12, 2015 and negotiate the grievances which the population of eastern Ukraine has expressed over Kyiv’s radical, extremist turn to a pro-Europe, anti-Russia and pro-austerity orientation for Ukraine.
The issuance of another unfounded, speculative accusation by the Dutch-led MH17 investigation, then seized upon and manipulated by reckless journalists and editors, is another reason why this investigation cannot be taken seriously.
The Dutch government is refusing demands by Dutch media that it release documentation pertaining to its response to the crash last year. A formal request to this effect was made by RTL Nieuws.
The government defends its refusal by saying that documents contain the names of individuals and that the release of the documents could have negative consequences for relations with other countries.
RTL Nieuws has said the following in response to the government’s decision:
“We think it unfortunate that the minister does not work harder to disclose more information. Of course, we understand that not every piece of information can be thrown into the street. But withholding basic facts and decisions? We will study the decision and decide if going to the courts is desirable and useful.”
Late last year, the Dutch news magazine Elsevier revealed some details of the secret agreement signed on August 8, 2014 by the four countries composing the so-called Joint Investigation Team investigating the disaster. The four are Holland, Belgium, Ukraine and Australia. (Malaysia was added to the JIT late last year following pressure and protest over its initial exclusion.) The secret agreement said that any one of the member countries of the JIT can veto release of any information gathered by the investigation.
The implications of an official report that ‘goes rogue’ by leaving vital questions unanswered and throwing anti-Russia speculation and prejudice to the wind are very serious.
The words ‘Russia’ and ‘Buk missile’ have been pounded out in tandem so frequently by Western governments and media during the past year that any speculative report of a “Buk” missile in relation to the MH17 crash just reinforces the ‘blame Russia narrative’ they have worked to establish.
A survey of the circumstances of the crash and the composition of the investigation underlines the danger of the situation.
The armed forces of Ukraine and quite possibly the extremist, right-wing militias allied with it possess the Buk missile system. The government in Kyiv failed to close the airspace over eastern Ukraine when it launched a war there in the spring of 2014. This flew in the face of decisions by the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States and major international airlines months before the MH17 crash to prohibit passenger planes from flying there.
Following the crash/shoot down, Ukraine ignored the July 21, 2014 resolution at the Security Council demanding that the investigation be given unfettered access to the crash site. Investigators were forced in and out of the area, according to the exigencies of the war which Kyiv declined to put on hold. To the point where parts of the plane and parts of bodies are still being randomly discovered today by visitors to the scene.
The circumstances of the crash should easily argue in favour of excluding Ukraine from the official, international investigation, or at the very least, they argue for including Russia since its border lies only a few dozen kilometers away from the crash site. But no, the JIT investigation is being conducted by governments that are hostile to Russia and to the pro-autonomy rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
Malaysia showed its colours last month when it introduced a resolution at the UN Security Council on July 29 proposing that a witchhunt-style tribunal be established by the Security Council to investigate matters. The resolution was a win-win for the anti-Russia crowd. A special tribunal could conduct an investigation without having to go through the motions of impartiality required of the JIT. The terms of the Dutch-led investigation is that it establish the facts, not search for guilt.
Russia vetoed the resolution. The Russian government argued that with two investigations already taking place, what was the purpose of adding a third? Russia’s suspicions were already on high alert given the fact that its offers to cooperate with the investigation have been rebuffed or treated at arm’s length.
Russia’s ambassador to Britain explained his country’s vote: “Our partners preferred to conduct a vote that is impossible to explain by any other motive than seeking a fresh pretext for pointing a finger at Russia.”
“Progress towards justice must be seen. So far, we have seen nothing.”
The vetoed Security Council resolution looked for all the world as a staged ‘aha’ moment. As in, ‘Aha, what is Russia trying to hide by vetoing a tribunal?’ That’s exactly how much of Western media and Western governments reported the veto.
Moscow-based writer John Helmer has been following and reporting the MH17 story closely and provided a comment about the latest developments:
“So far, as I have reported, the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) stands out for an investigation that has failed to bring to light and analyze the most obvious sources of data or explain why the Board, the Dutch police and prosecutors have failed to do this.
“For example, in public disclosure so far, there has been no analysis of U.S. satellite images, including infrared images, of the MH17 site just before, during, and just after the strike and crash, and no disclosure of whether the Dutch investigators requested this data, what they were told, or if the Dutch believe the data exist and is being withheld from the investigation.
“I’ve seen no DSB analysis of the silence on the last four seconds of the Cockpit Voice Recorder, and no explanation of how this is possible. There has been no published analysis of the Ukrainian air traffic control radar and radio tapes or confirmation of whether Kiev handed them over to the Dutch, and if they haven’t been handed over, why not. So far, too, there has been no disclosure of evidence from the autopsy and post-mortem data collected from the victims’ bodies.
“What is missing is obvious. So what to make of particles of evidence whose provenance, authenticity and authority of disclosure are far from obvious? The Dutch want to be thought of as careful, methodical, clean. Why so careless all of a sudden?”
MH17 – ‘Buk plume’ burns witness – Part I, by Max van der Werff, July 26, 2015
Black boxes and black holes in the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 investigation, by John Helmer, July 17, 2015
The website New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond contains an extensive dossier of articles on the July 17, 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. These include the extensive writings on the subject by U.S. journalist Robert Parry.
Roger Annis is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. On June 12, he gave a talk in Vancouver, Canada reporting on his visit to Donetsk, eastern Ukraine in April 2015 as part of a media tour group. A video broadcast of that talk is here: The NATO offensive in eastern Europe and the class and the national dynamics of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Russia is expected veto a draft UN Security Council resolution calling for an international tribunal to be formed to probe the downing of a Malaysian airliner last year. President Putin said he regretted that a compromise deal could not be worked out.
The Russian president explained to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte why Russia would not support the establishment of a tribunal into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in a phone call, the Kremlin said.
Moscow opposed the draft document submitted by Malaysia and supported by several nations, including The Netherlands and Ukraine, saying that its description of the tragedy as a threat to international security is a strained interpretation meant to subject it to the council’s authority.
“We believe it is not in the UN charter. The UN Security Council is not supposed to deal with issues like this,” Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said, adding that Russia would veto the document.
The Security Council ordered creation of special tribunals to tackle several cases, including war crimes committed during the Balkan wars and the genocide in Rwanda. But Russia believes it would be wrong to treat the MH17 downing differently from other similar incidents with civilian aircraft, such as the downing of Iran Air flight 655 by the US in 1988 or the downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007 by Soviet Union in 1983. The call for a tribunal is confrontational, Moscow believes.
An alternative draft resolution proposed by Russia and seen by RT called for more transparency in the ongoing investigation of the MH17 incident by the Dutch authorities. It also criticized UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a failure to appoint a special representative to tackle the case.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down on July 21 as it was flying over a war zone, where Ukrainian armed forces were fighting against rebels, who rejected the new government imposed by an armed coup in Kiev. The tragedy has been the subject of much speculation, with Kiev and its foreign sponsors accusing the rebels of taking down the plane with a Russia-supplied missile.
The rebels rejected the accusations and blamed the Ukrainian army for the downing. Moscow denied supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels and made public evidence of Ukrainian military activities in the area.
A preliminary report by the Dutch investigators in September 2014 confirmed that the Boeing airliner was taken down by an outside force, but did not indicate which side could have carried out such an attack even what kind of weapon was used. The final report is still being completed.
The US has a history of making inaccurate statements to international bodies in order to advance its global agenda. One need only look at the statements made on the international stage prior to the invasion of Iraq to realize that the intention to invade Iraq was not going to be hindered by a realistic assessment of its “weapons of mass destruction” program.
In recent UN convenings, we are now seeing false statements put on the record by high-ranking US officials concerning the US’s domestic agenda. As the UN has no dominion over the domestic issues within the United States, one can only view these coordinated efforts by the US officials as a studied effort at propaganda.
This past May, the UN reviewed the human rights record of the United States. Known as the UPR (Universal Periodic Review), this session in May marked the second such review, the first having taken place in 2010. Civil society was invited to submit reports and over ninety NGOs and grassroots organizations did so. In addition, over 110 UN member nations also voiced their concerns as to the US’s human rights record.
Criticisms and concerns were entered on many different issues. The failed campaign promise of President Obama to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay was mentioned repeatedly. So were the failures of the United States to ratify many human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Convention on the Rights of the Child, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, The Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance as well as other international treaties.
Racial profiling and police killings of US citizens, many if not most being African Americans, were raised as consistent concerns. In addition, recommendations were made that the US halt its application of the death penalty and also establish a national human rights agency.
The tone of the US response was quite a bit different from the tack taken in 2010. Gone were the promises, empty as they were. Instead, the US adopted a regimented and in some cases a somewhat belligerent defense of what might be considered indefensible activities. And where belligerence might have failed to impress, outright lies were employed.
Muted belligerence was clearly in evidence in the statements made by Brigadier General Richard Gross, legal counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who addressed concerns about Guantanamo Bay and the detainees. “The detainees are detained lawfully,” he declared. According to Gross, there were 242 detainees at the beginning of the Obama administration and 116 have been transferred out since then. He stated that 122 remain. As these figures omit four individuals, it is assumed that they have died.
Alarmingly, Gross made the following revelations: Of the remaining 122, he told us, 57 are designated for transfer. Out of the 65 others, 10 are currently facing charges or have been convicted. The remaining 55, he stated, will be reviewed by the periodic review board. In other words, 55 individuals have been detained for years without being charged. This is hardly in accordance with US law, which guarantees a speedy trial, among other legal considerations.
And it is US law which pertains to the detainees. Supreme Court decisions have granted the detainees protections under US law, including the right of habeas corpus. Over 200 writs of habeas corpus have been filed by Guantanamo Bay detainees. Not one has been granted.
Police abuse is of grave concern to many different sectors. The US attempted to assuage these concerns with outright lies. Indeed, the US continued on with its hooey about the non-existent “hundreds of federal prosecutions” for police abuse that it tried to front a few months back at the Convention Against Torture meeting in Geneva. As discussed in this article, the actual numbers of federal prosecutions for police abuse could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Rather than correct the previous misstatements, the US officials amplified the bogus figures, and cited a total of 400 such prosecutions. The Big Lie is always the best, and for those who gagged on the overblown figure of 330 such prosecutions stated at the CAT by Assistant Attorney General David Bitkower a few months back, the new figure of 400 such prosecutions provides an even bigger loogey to swallow.
For students of effective propaganda, it might be of interest to note that the US did not use David Bitkower, a white man, as the mouthpiece for this lie on the occasion of the UPR. As previously noted, most of the police killings involve a black victim, and accordingly, the US used one of its black DOJ officials, James Cadogan, to deliver this line of horse puckey. Cadogan is Senior Counselor to the Assistant Attorney General.
Well, using the facade of race to convince the naïve population that it was getting something other than more of the same worked in the 2008 election, did it not?
It looks like the US, seemingly on a roll of grandiose pronouncements as to its diligent protection of human rights, did not stop with this false figure. Other declarations were made at the UPR which were similarly suspect. For example, according to Kevin Washburn, with the Department of the Interior, the US has restored about a million acres to Indian tribes under this administration. Well, that sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it?
The problem arises in verifying Washburn’s “million acre” pronouncement. As it turns out, Washburn also testified before a Congressional subcommittee just a scant three days after he made the “million acre” declaration to the UN. In his testimony in front of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, US House of Representatives on May 14, Washburn testified that the Obama administration had restored “approximately 300,000 acres to tribes.”
That constitutes a rather serious difference in figures. In accordance with the Uncle Tomism seen in using African American Cadogan to speak on police abuse, Washburn, who is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, also claims to be a member of the Chickasaw Nation, an Oklahoma tribe.
At the 2010 UPR, the US promised to ratify the Convention On the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In fact, Congress voted against ratification in 2012. In the US report to the UPR for the 2015 review, the US stated that “The United States has robust protections to prevent discrimination against persons with disabilities and has actively enforced these protections since our last report.” In fact, multiple ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) complaints have been filed with the Department of Justice, stating profound violations of rights affecting the elderly and disabled by state courts. According to recent statements made by an ADA employee to this reporter, not one of these complaints has been pursued by the DOJ.
Another red flag appeared in the US’s statements about the number of federal hate crimes prosecutions. The US claimed that over 200 individuals had been convicted under federal hate crime laws, including the Shepard/Byrd Act, in the past five years.
This reporter contacted the DOJ press office as well as the FBI and was refused details on hate crime convictions. A dedicated internet search, including DOJ and FBI websites as well as newspaper reports, turned up a total of 72 convictions for federal hate crimes since 2009. Sixteen of these convictions—for the infamous Amish beard cutting defendants– were subsequently reversed in 2014, leaving a grand total of 56.
Parenthetically, as the press office at the US DOJ refused to supply factual documentation (such as case numbers and names), this reporter filed a Freedom of Information Request for this information. It is possible that the fulfillment of this request will provide a different perspective. For the edification of the readers, the last FOIA request by this reporter was filed in 2009. I am still awaiting the response.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the lack of transparency in the Obama administration and cited multiple problems with FOIA. According to the article, “Most Administrations play games with FOIA, but the Obama White House has turned stonewalling into an art form.”
The WSJ article goes on to discuss the following ploys being utilized to evade replies to FOIA requests– imposing sky high fees, failing to process requests within the legal time limit, destroying information and excessively redacting information.
Access to accurate information is a fundamental part of a democracy. If the citizenry is kept in the dark about the nature of its governance, it will not be able to make appropriate decisions. Those in power who play a shell game with the facts of their activities do so in accordance with the dedicated purpose of any liar–fear of exposure and avoidance of accountability.
Janet C. Phelan, investigative journalist and human rights defender that has traveled pretty extensively over the Asian region, an author of a tell-all book EXILE.
Months after the Saudi government pledged to single-handedly meet the United Nations’ (UN) “flash appeal” for humanitarian aid to Yemen, Riyadh is making it clear that the donation doesn’t come without strings attached.
On April 12, as the Saudi-led air campaign rained bombs over Yemen, the UN issued an emergency flash appeal calling for $274 million in aid for the country to address the increasingly dire humanitarian condition. Less than 24 hours later, the call was met entirely by the very government that was leading the attacks against Yemen.
Overseen by the UN Office for Coordination of Human Affairs (UNOCHA), emergency funds are meant to be distributed quickly to where they are most needed. Over two months have passed since Riyadh pledged the full $274 million, however, and the money has yet to be delivered to Yemen.
A UN memo obtained exclusively by VICE news has revealed the reason for this delay is the restrictive conditions the Saudi government has placed on the aid disbursement. What’s more, the UN appears to have consented to these conditions.
On Tuesday, Riyadh announced that $244 million of the total amount pledged will be split between nine UN agencies. The next day, the UN’s undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien sent a letter to the Interagency Standing Committee, a global humanitarian coordinating body for humanitarian agencies.
In the letter, O’Brien explained that the funds would go through the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Work (KSC). He also noted that KSC would dictate the terms of the fund distribution with each of the nine agencies.
“The KSC would like to negotiate the Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with each recipient agency,” he wrote. “They would also like to be assured that the Government of Yemen in exile is consulted.”
The memo indicates that the pledge was a calculated move on the part of the Saudi government to monopolize the aid and control where it goes and when. According to VICE, the letter alarmed many aid workers who say that it was too vaguely worded, thereby giving Riyadh leeway for further delays.
“It’s really unusual for a single donor to have any substantive role once they contribute funds, let alone negotiate individual MoUs with agencies,” an anonymous official involved in the Yemen response told VICE.
He also noted the UN’s acquiesce to Riyadh’s stipulations.
“The charitable way of saying it is this is a compromise – the less charitable way of saying it is that they folded,” he said. “Now the UN has punted and handed off the problems to these agencies. I’ve never seen that before.”
The letter comes as the UNOCHA struggles with massive funding deficits in over two dozen countries, including in Yemen where the agency estimates that 80% of the population needs humanitarian aid, and may explain the UN’s agreement to the Saudi government’s stipulations.
“With regard to NGOs, I am aware that there are sensitivities in receiving funding directly from the KSC,” O’Brien wrote, acknowledging the unusual Saudi stipulations. “We therefore must work actively to mobilize additional funds to be allocated directly, or via the Pooled Fund, to our front-line partners.”
However, another aid worker with an organization that delivers humanitarian supplies to Yemen told VICE that O’Brien’s acknowledgement does not take away from the UN’s concession to Saudi over control of the fund disbursement.
“The thing about this communication that we all got, it’s really vague,” he said. “We are trying to assume and guess what they mean by this plan, but it’s not clear. The Saudis might very well sit on it for a long time.”
While it is not unusual for donor countries to have a degree of control over the distribution of funds, InterAction humanitarian vice president Joel Charny notes that emergency situations require agencies like the UN to make the final call.
“It’s not that donors don’t care where the money goes, but there’s a sense that in an urgent case like Yemen you let the professionals make the call,” he said.
O’Brien also told VICE a day before the letter was released that, as a general rule, the UN does not “condone any modality based on geography,” meaning that donors cannot restrict aid distribution from certain areas.
Yet Riyadh has already asked for the restriction of aid distribution to Houthi-held areas in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia launched its air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen in March in an effort to reinstate Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Since the beginning of the airstrike campaign, over 2,800 people have been killed in the fighting and 13,000 have been wounded, according to local hospitals.
Following its insensitive and macabre efforts to downplay the repercussions and atrocities of Operation Protective Edge, Israel has now attempted to ridicule the UN Human Rights Council report on last summer’s aggression. The report, which Israel pronounced as “morally flawed”, has accused both Israel and Palestinian resistance groups of war crimes, contradicting Israel’s “internal investigation” that justified every intentionally targeted civilian death as collateral damage and thus, bequeathing impunity to the state’s false morality conjectures.
While drawing attention to state complicity with regard to war crimes committed by Israel, the report employs the same non-committal rhetoric that shifts evidence towards the realm of probability. “Directing attacks against civilians constitutes a violation of the principle of distinction and may amount to a war crime.” Such statements indicate that the report’s value will probably serve as some form of heightened awareness and confirmation of the massacre that took place last summer but fail to provide a foundation with which to hold Israel accountable for its premeditated actions.
A statement released by the Israeli Foreign Minister criticised the UNHRC report, stating it was “commissioned by a notoriously biased institution, given an obviously biased mandate.” Additionally, the statement attempts to reinforce the internationally-adopted drivel that seeks to create a false dimension of morality and terror. Quoted in the Times of Israel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry statement reads: “It is regrettable that the report fails to recognise the profound difference between Israel’s moral behaviour during Operation Protective Edge and the terror organisations it confronted.”
So moral, in fact, that the report juxtaposes widespread destruction, displacement and murder committed by the Israeli army, against the “trauma” allegedly endured by Israeli settlers of siren sounds and fear of being “attacked at any moment by gunmen bursting out of the ground” – the latter with reference to the tunnel network utilised by Palestinian resistance and which was annihilated by Israel in its quest to prevent Palestinians from making legitimate use of their territory within historic Palestine.
Predictably, Israel deemed the report biased, despite its refusal to participate and cooperate with the commission during its investigations. Netanyahu has instead accused the UNHRC of slander – a predictable response that is well ingrained in Israel’s international repertoire and also rendered evident in recent altercations with the organisation.
It is disconcerting, albeit expected, to observe that the UNHRC’s use of language falls into the same confines of affirming war crimes yet at the same time allowing Israel to navigate the obscure parameters that still provide impunity. This is particularly evident in the report’s recommendations to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, as well Palestinian resistance movements. Calling upon Israel to abide by international law when its very existence is an infringement of that law renders the recommendations ludicrous, allowing Israel the opportunity to colonise further territory as long as certain requirements and definitions are implemented.
Conversely, the UNHRC report expects Palestinians to relinquish their anti-colonial struggle – in other words, “to stop all rocket attacks and other actions that may spread terror among Israeli civilians.” The UNHRC report is indeed biased, yet employs hypocritical subtlety in order to disguise its role as part of the international agenda that makes no distinction between civilians and a settler population willingly complicit in Israeli state violence.
Gaza, Occupied Palestine – Ban Ki-moon’s decision not to include Israel on the list of violators of children’s rights twists the knife in the heart of every Palestinian parent, making it very clear that in the eyes of the United Nations, Palestinian children’s lives don’t count.
When a military with the most sophisticated and accurate weaponry on the planet can kill more than 500 children in cold blood with complete impunity, as Israel’s absence from the list shows, it reveals more than just the complete disregard for Palestinian lives that has become so commonplace in the halls of power. It also makes it abundantly clear that the UN, the single most important international organisation charged with protecting the lives of the most vulnerable, is failing spectacularly.
Children are the lifeblood of the future. How can any world citizen look at the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Palestinian child death toll from the 2014 Israeli aggression, and this decision, and not be appalled?
At best it reflects the paucity of responsible leadership evident in the UN under Ban Ki-moon’s secretaryship, which has seen public faith in the international organisation reach an all-time low.
At worst it underlines the gross politicisation of an organisation purporting to uphold the rights of ALL humans – and failing.
The only way Ban Ki-moon’s decision – if not his entire leadership in relation to the Palestinian issue – can be called a success is if the intention is to ‘grow’ a generation of increasingly angry cynics with no respect for the abject hypocrisy emanating from Geneva and New York.
Hemaya expresses its utmost disappointment in the attitude to Palestinian children that the decision represents, and calls on human rights bodies and concerned citizens everywhere to roundly reject it by supporting and valuing those Palestinian children who survived, and who continue to suffer under illegal occupation, repression and siege.
TEHRAN – Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Gholam Ali Khoshrou lashed out at Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon for raising the possibility of using atomic weapons against Iran, and asked the UN Security Council to condemn the remarks as a threat against the international peace and innocent civilians.
“Moshe Ya’alon’s recent remarks and the Zionist official’s implied reference to the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Islamic Republic like what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also his threats against the Lebanese civilians, including the women and children, shows more than ever the regime’s aggressive nature,” Khoshrou said in a letter on Wednesday to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Lithuanian Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, whose country holds the rotating UN Security council presidency this month.
He underlined that the Israeli minister’s comments are evidence showing that the regime possesses atomic weapons and isn’t afraid of using them against other countries.
“The impudent remarks have challenged the primary principles ruling the armed conflicts and the international humanitarian rights and weaken the international peace and security and therefore, the UNSC is expected to condemn these irresponsible remarks and clear threats of using nuclear bomb and massacre of civilians,” the letter added.
Khoshrou also called on the UNSC president to release the letter as the Council’s document.
Ya’alon claimed last week that Israel would attack entire civilian neighborhoods during any future assault on Gaza or Lebanon.
Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem, Ya’alon threatened that “we are going to hurt Lebanese civilians to include kids of the family. We went through a very long deep discussion … we did it then, we did it in [the] Gaza Strip, we are going to do it in any round of hostilities in the future.”
The Israeli official also appeared to threaten to drop a nuclear bomb on Iran, although he said “we are not there yet.”
In response to a question about Iran, Ya’alon said that “in certain cases” when “we feel like we don’t have the answer by surgical operations” Israel might take “certain steps” such as the Americans did in “Nagasaki and Hiroshima, causing at the end the fatalities of 200,000.”
Aletho News | April 18, 2015
Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gholam-Ali Khoshrou on Friday submitted to the UN a four-point plan on putting an end to the ongoing bloodshed in Yemen prepared by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The following is the full text of the foreign minister’s letter which was addressed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:
In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon,
I would like to draw your attention to the extremely alarming situation in Yemen, exacerbated by the recent provocative foreign military air campaign. It goes on in flagrant defiance of the most basic principles of international law, flouting the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, in particular the obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force in international relations.
Foreign military forces have mostly targeted purely civilian infrastructures of Yemen, destroying, inter alia, hospitals, schools, road, food factories and power plants, and thus depriving civilians of basic necessities. They have also indiscriminately targeted residential areas, including refugee camps, killing and injuring innocent civilians, in particular women and children.
This critical situation is escalating and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is approaching catastrophic dimensions. It may result in further exacerbation of the already tense circumstances in a region that has been plagued by one of the most barbaric types of extremism and multi-pronged vicious campaign of foreign-backed terrorists. These terrorist groups have been the main beneficiaries, gaining strategic foothold in Yemen aided by the foreign aerial campaign.
Under these circumstances, it is imperative for the international community to get more effectively involved in ending the senseless aerial attacks and establishing a ceasefire, ensuring delivery of humanitarian and medical assistance to the people of Yemen and restoring peace and stability to this country through dialogue and national reconciliation without pre-conditions.
The Islamic Republic of Iran reiterates that there is no military solution to this conflict. The only way to restore peace and stability is to allow all Yemeni parties to establish, without any foreign interference, their own inclusive national unity government. To this end, the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that all efforts, particularly those by the United Nations, should be guided, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations and fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, by the following objectives:
1.Ceasefire and an immediate end to all foreign military attacks;
2.Unimpeded urgent humanitarian and medical assistance to the people of Yemen;
3.Resumption of Yemeni-lead and Yemeni-owned national dialogue, with the participation of the representatives of all political parties and social groups;
4.Establishment of an inclusive national unity government.
I hope that Your Excellency will urgently use your good offices and conduct consultations with the concerned parties to facilitate and encourage an immediate end to these senseless bombardments and initiation of a genuine dialogue to find a political solution to this tragic crisis. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran stands ready to assist you in advancing this objective.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
M. Javad Zarif
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran
This article examines and documents the Houla massacre of May 2012, a terrible incident in the Syrian Crisis which came closest to attracting UN intervention. The analysis here seeks to include all relevant evidence, both from witnesses and on the UN processes. A series of appalling civilian massacres during the conflict helped set the tone for another round of ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘responsibility to protect’ debates. The killings at Houla deserve close attention. However, because of NATO’s abuse of the ‘no fly zone’ authorisation for Libya and the wider geo-politics of Syria, Russia and China would not allow a similar UN Security Council authorisation of force. Big power intervention therefore remained indirect, through proxy militias. While the Syrian army attacked those militias and many Islamist groups carried out public executions, attempts to blame the Syrian Army for attacks on civilians remained hotly contested.
The context to this was two very different narratives. Western propaganda attacked Syrian President Bashar al Assad, claiming that he, through the Syrian Arab Army, was repeatedly ‘killing his own people’. From the Syrian side this was always a proxy war against Syria, with NATO and allied Gulf monarchies backing sectarian terrorist gangs, with the aim of ‘regime change’. The western line maintained that a peaceful protest movement, after many months of ‘regime brutality’, transformed into a secular (later ‘moderate Islamist’) ‘revolution’. The western popular media reinforced this line, with calls to arm the ‘civilian protestors’. One such article claimed ‘We will pay a high price if we do not arm Syria’s rebels’ (Slaughter 2012). In the first few months of western reports there is very little admission of an armed insurrection, except by suggested ‘civilian self-defence’ measures.
The Syrian Government, on the other hand, said the political reform movement and the sectarian Islamist attacks were quite distinct, the latter taking cover under the former. Armed sniping attacks on police and civilians began in March 2011. In fact, arms shipments were intercepted on the Syria-Iraq border a week before the first violence broke out (Reuters 2011) and former Saudi military official Anwar Al-Eshki would later confirm to the BBC that his country had armed Islamists at the al-Omari mosque in Daraa (Truth Syria 2012). Many Syrian citizens back their government’s explanation, saying that the early protests were not linked to the armed attacks, which made use of Islamist slogans. The protest movement was effectively driven off the streets by the armed conflict (Eva Pal 2014; Haidar 2012). It has emerged that both sides played down soldier deaths in the early weeks, as ‘the government did not want to show they are weak and the opposition did not want to show they are armed’. Yet 18-19 soldiers were massacred in Daraa in late March and another 88 were killed across Syria in April (Narwani 2014).
A similarly polarised view developed over how to characterise the violence in Homs over 2011-2012, when the first groups calling themselves Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades attempted to hold parts of the old city. The Farouq and Khalid bin Walid brigades were the main occupying groups. Western sources characterised Farouq, if not exactly secular, then as ‘moderate’ Sunni Muslims. One US report, while recognising Islamist ‘jihadis’ amongst the fighters, claimed that ‘the vast majority of the [FSA] opposition fighters are legitimate nationalists … pious rather than Islamists and are not motivated by sectarianism’ (Benotman and Naseraldin 2012). The Washington-aligned International Crisis Group similarly noted ‘the presence of a strong Salafi strand among Syria’s rebels’, but spoke of ‘a moderate Islamic tradition’, suggesting that the Farouk and Khalid bin Walid brigades might be pious rather than Islamist (ICG 2012). The Wall Street Journal also called Farouk ‘pious Sunnis’ rather than Islamists (Malas 2013). The BBC called them ‘moderately Islamist’, suggesting they exaggerated their Islamism by dress and beards ‘to attract financial support from the Gulf’ (Marcus 2013).
Yet many Homs residents were terrified by the sectarian-genocidal slogans of ‘Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the tomb’ (Eretz Zen 2012; Adams 2012; Wakefield 2012). Reports of these slogans appeared in the US media as early as May 2011 (Blanford 2011). They did indeed drive Christians to Beirut. The Orthodox and Catholic churches blamed Farouq for the large scale ethnic cleansing of more than 50,000 Christians from Homs (CNA 2012). They began to impose an Islamic tax (Spencer 2012). A local analyst concluded most of Farouk were sectarian Salafis, armed and funded by Saudi Arabia; while ‘Khalid Ibn al-Walid remained loyal to and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood’ (Mortada 2012). Such ethnic cleansing would hardly have come from ‘moderate’ religious people, let alone a secular revolution.
The Houla massacre
After the Syrian Army had driven the FSA groups out of Homs, and on the eve of a UN Security Council meeting on Syria, a dreadful massacre of more than 100 civilians took place at the village of Houla, on the Taldou plains just north-west of Homs. The Houla massacre (25 May 2012) is important to ‘Responsibility to Protect’ discussions, because it formed the basis of a failed attempt to authorise UN intervention to protect civilians, based on the claim that the Syrian Government had massacred civilians. Evidence to back that claim, however, was hardly clear.
The governments of Britain, France and the USA immediately blamed the Syrian Government. In what has been called the ‘western and Arab media narrative’ the victims were killed by army artillery (Correggia, Embid, Hauben and Larson 2013). The Syrian Government, in turn, accused the foreign-backed terrorists, in particular the groups that had been driven out of Homs. Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the army clashed with ‘hundreds’ of armed men who committed Friday’s massacre. The killers used knives, which they said was a ‘signature’ of Islamist militant attacks (Reuters 2012). The Government told the UN ‘the victims were reportedly killed by terrorists numbering between 600–800, who had entered Al-Houla previously from the villages of Al-Rastan, Sa’an, Bourj Qaei and Samae’leen, among other locations’. The General Command of the armed forces held an inquiry (HRC 2012a: 6).
Allegations of Islamist ‘false flag’ provocations had been made before. Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, the mother superior in charge of an ancient monastery in Qara, south of Homs, had observed the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Homs, and had grave suspicions about who was behind the killings at Houla. She had said publicly that Syrian Christians had been pressured to join FSA groups, had been used by the rebels as human shields and that Christian homes had been taken over by Sunnis. She denounced their ‘false flag’ crimes in 2011 (SANA 2011; AINA 2012), pointing out that the Catholic Media Centre had a list of names of hundreds of murder victims, many of whose images had been later used in [FSA] media setups (SANA 2011).
Western media reports, however, generally dismissed statements from Damascus. Several governments expelled Syrian diplomats, in moves designed to isolate the government. The UN Security Council said it:
‘condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings … in attacks that involved a series of Government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood … [and] also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range … [this] constitutes a violation of applicable international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government’ (UNSC 2012). France’s representative at the UN, Martin Briens, said: ‘Tanks and artillery cannons from the government shelled residential areas killing civilians’ (RT 2012). Britain’s envoy Mark Lyall Grant said ‘there is not the slightest doubt that there was deliberate government shelling against a civilian neighbourhood’ (Cowan 2012).
These accusations were premature, betraying prejudice. Russia insisted on a UNSC briefing by UN Special Mission (UNSMIS) head, Norwegian General Robert Mood, who told them the victims included 49 children and 34 women, most of whom had been shot at close range or had their throats cut. Russian diplomat Aleksandr Pankin summarised: ‘very few of the people who died in Houla were killed by artillery shelling’ (RT 2012). From then, culprits in western media stories shifted to pro-government militia (shabiha). Britain’s Daily Telegraph blamed ‘Assad’s Death Squads’. The paper suggested a sectarian motive, from an opposition source: ‘They would fight for Bashar to the death. It is natural – they have to defend their sect’ (Alexander and Sherlock 2012).
The certainty of the British and French governments, and of the anti-government ‘activists’, was not evident in the statements of the head of UNSMIS. Mood’s group visited the massacre site and heard two distinct stories. The general’s public comments three weeks after the massacre deserve attention, given that the UN did not release the report to which he refers:
‘We have interviewed locals with one story and we have interviewed locals that have another story. The circumstances and … the facts related to the incident itself still remain unclear to us … we have sent [statements and witness interviews] as a report to UN headquarters New York … if we are asked [to assist] obviously we are on the ground and could help’ (Mood 2012).
This report was delivered to the UN Secretary General (UNSG 2012); yet it seems it was not received by the Security Council (Hauben 2012). Mood’s ambiguity may have been disconcerting for those wanting clear findings against the Syrian Government. On 1 June the Human Rights Council (three against and two abstentions) blamed the Houla killings on the Syrian Government (‘wanton killings … by pro-regime elements and a series of Government artillery and tank shellings’) before calling for a ‘comprehensive, independent and unfettered special inquiry’ (HRC 2012c). UNSMIS had its activities suspended and was disbanded in August.
Circumstances and timing were certainly important. As the Syrian Army drove Farouq from Homs and into surrounding towns, Syrians turned out for the 7 May National Assembly elections. Those sections of the opposition aligned to the FSA called for a boycott, and armed groups threatened to enforce this (al Akhbar 2012). In the event, the ruling Ba’ath party won 60% of the vote and their allied parties another 30%, though turnout was only 51% (Zarzar and al-Wahed 2012). There was reason to suspect enforcement of the threat, as reprisals against those who had participated and so lent legitimacy to the state and the government.
Yet that line of inquiry was not pursued by the second UN inquiry. With three of the UNSC permanent members openly backing regime change in Syria, the debate was heavily politicised. The Houla massacre inquiry was taken over by a Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry, co-chaired by US diplomat Karen Koning AbuZayd (HRC 2012a; HRC 2012b). Appointing a US delegate was a mistake, on the part of the UN. Karen Koning Abu Zayd had worked for the UN for many years, but was explicitly listed as a USA delegate to the Commission. The US Government had, by this time, publicly blamed the Syrian Government for Houla, demanding that President Assad resign for ‘killing your fellow citizens’ (AP 2012) and, with Turkey, had ‘stepped up’ what it called ‘non-lethal aid’ to rebels in Syria (Barnard 2012). By any standard Washington was a belligerent party to the Syrian conflict. On principles of independence and avoiding conflicts of interest the Human Rights Council should not have incorporated a US representative.
Unlike UNSMIS, this Commission did not visit Syria. A review of evidence was carried out and eight additional interviews were conducted, at a distance from Syria. The interim report reflected some of the ambiguity of the UNSMIS team: ‘[We are] unable to determine the identity of the perpetrators at this time; nevertheless … forces loyal to the Government may have been responsible for many of the deaths’ (HRC 2012b: 10). This was an injudicious statement. The report blamed both government forces and anti-government groups for crimes of war, but came in more strongly against the Syrian government, relying on the formal duties of government to ‘prevent or punish’ violence, as well as not commit it (HRC 2012b: 23). That is, a ‘catch-all’ argument had it that the Government was ultimately responsible for all violence on its territory.
The Commission’s 15 August report firmed up against the Syrian Government, removing most of the earlier ambiguity, but without identifying perpetrators. They wrote:
‘The commission conducted eight additional interviews, including with six witnesses from the Taldou area, two of whom were survivors. They looked at a range of statements from ‘various sources’, including ‘international human rights NGOs’ (HRC 2012b: 64-65).
All statements, they said, were consistent with deaths being caused by government shelling and unidentified ‘shabiha’ forces. Even though they had heard evidence that the Al Sayed and Abdulrazzak families (the main groups of civilians killed) were government supporters, they concluded that the unidentified killers of those families ‘were aligned to the government’ (HRC 2012b: 67). They discounted evidence that FSA groups had committed the murders, claiming ‘apart from two witnesses in the Government report, no other account supported the Government’s version of events’ (HRC 2012b: 10). The Government ‘was responsible for the deaths of civilians as a result of shelling’, they said; while as regards the ‘deliberate killing of civilians, the Commission was unable to determine the identity of the perpetrators … [but] it considered that forces loyal to the Government were likely to have been responsible for many of the deaths’ (HRC 2012b: 10).
A prominent witness presented by the anti-government side was 11 year old boy Ali Al Sayed, who says many members of his family were murdered. In an online video little Ali says:
‘There were tanks in the street, they shot at us with machine guns … soldiers came out … they fired 5 bullets on the door lock … arrested my brother … [and] my uncle … then my mum screamed at them … they then shot her 5 times, they shot her in the head … then he went to my brother and shot him … some of them were dressed as military, some had regular clothes, had shaved heads and beards, shabiha’ (Marchfifteen 2012).
He pretended to be dead, and thus escaped being murdered. Later he saw news on state television of his uncles having been murdered. His story is not consistent in several respects (Larson in Correggia, Embid, Hauben and Larson 2013: 20-28) and, at the end, with the help of some leading questions, he gives what appears to be a tutored appeal for foreign military intervention:
‘I demand that the international community stop the killing in Syria and in Houla … we are being killed … the international community is sitting, just talking and not doing anything … the people must fight for us, do what they say and protect us’ (Marchfifteen 2012).
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the boy’s story, Ali’s was hardly the only eye-witness account of the massacre. Further, it was quite false for the UN Commission of Inquiry to suggest that only ‘two witnesses … supported the Government’s version of events’. By that time there was public evidence from at least fifteen witnesses, broadly consistent with the account by the Syrian Government. Russian journalists tried to present their interview material to the Commission and apparently met with a lack of interest (Janssen 2012). The Commission claimed that the Russian reports ‘relied primarily on the same two witnesses as the Government’s report’ (HRC 2012b: 66). Yet a simple reading of a summary of evidence from the latter’s witnesses shows this to be false. Below is a summary of evidence from witnesses the UN Commission ignored. These accounts of ‘rebel’ culprits are broadly consistent with the account of the Government and often quite specific. Several gunmen are named.
First, the Syrian news agency reported two unidentified people who feared for their safety. The first said the gunmen were locals plus a larger group from other areas. The locals assembled after noon prayers before attacking check-points. They then selected pro-government people, those who participated in elections or ‘didn’t give the gunmen money’. One was Haitham al-Housan. The bodies shown on television were of ‘people murdered by terrorists along with the bodies of the gunmen killed in the initial conflict’ (SANA 2012). The second witness, a woman, saw the larger group attacking a check-point. They heard of people from Tal Dahab, Aqrab and al-Rastan. A man called Saiid Fayes al-Okesh fired a mortar and police responded; he was shot in the leg. Another gunmen was Haitham al-Hallaq, who led a group of about 200. The victims belonged to the al Sayed family, with Muawiya al Sayed ‘a police officer who didn’t defect’ and others related to Meshleb al Sayed, who ‘recently became Secretary of the Peoples’ Assembly’. Other targeted groups included four households of the Abdelrazzaq family (SANA 2012).
Syrian television news showed interviews with two distressed male witnesses. The first man said:
‘The terrorists are from this area and all the areas around … a huge number of them, hundreds. They started to use shells and RPGs … hitting the houses with guns, machine guns … They killed people in their houses … some bodies have been burned’ (Syria News 2012: at 6.47). The second man said: ‘A man, his brother, and nephew were killed in front of my sister … [another] was able to run away and hide … the United Nations, those observers, what are they doing while shells are hitting us?’ (Syria News 2012: at 7.35).
German journalist, Rainer Hermann, who speaks Arabic, interviewed witnesses from Houla within days of the massacre. His sources included Syrian opposition members who had rejected violence, whose names he withheld. They said Islamist rebels had attacked three army checkpoints. His sources told him:
‘The massacre took place after Friday prayers … dozens of soldiers and rebels were killed … [in fighting of] about 90 minutes … those killed were almost exclusively families of the Alawite or Shia minorities … [including] several dozen members of a family which had converted to Shia Islam in recent years … and the family of a Sunni member of parliament, because he was considered a collaborator … after the massacre, the perpetrators filmed their victims, presented them as Sunni victims and spread their videos’ (Hermann 2012).
Hermann gave names to the gang leaders:
‘more than 700 gunmen under the leadership of Abdurrazzaq Tlass and Yahya Yusuf [Farooq leaders] came in three groups from Rastan, Kafr Laha and Akraba and attacked three army checkpoints around Taldou. The numerically superior rebels and the soldiers fought bloody battles … the rebels, supported by the residents of Taldou, snuffed out the families … [who] had refused to join the opposition’ (LRC 2012).
German journalist Alfred Hackensberger spoke with a man who had been given refuge in the Qara monastery headed by Mother Agnes Mariam. This man called ‘Jibril’ said:
‘The fighting began around noon, when the rebels, coming from Ar-Rastan and Saan, attacked the checkpoints … the rebels went to the hospital and killed patients there … several teams targeted and went in selected houses and started to shoot all of the inhabitants. He knew the Sajid’s personally. ‘They were Sunni Muslims, like all of us’, he says. ‘They were killed by them because they have refused to join the revolution. They’ve even murdered a Member of Parliament who … had refused the boycott of the FSA’.
Asked about the ‘regime loyalists’ claims, Jibril responded derisively:
‘Nonsense … Houla is in rebel hands since December 2011 … the Army would like to reclaim Taldu, but it has not been done … many people know what really happened … who’s there … can only replay the version of the rebels. Everything else is certain death’ (Hackensberger 2012).
The Arabic speaking Dutch writer Martin Janssen constructed his view from three sources: the Catholic Fides news agency, information from refugees at the Qara monastery and the accounts of Russian journalists Musin and Kulygina. He questioned the shabiha story because many victims were Alawi, who are almost all pro-government. Fides had reported that ‘large groups of Syrian Alawites and Christians were fleeing to Lebanon to escape the violence of armed gangs’, after the events at Houla (Janssen 2012). The Qara monastery told him witnesses said the army was absent in the region, with ‘Rastan and Saan … under full control of the Free Syrian Army’. The armed groups attacked the al-Watani hospital and killed the guards. ‘Then they invaded the hospital where armed rebels killed all present and … put the hospital on fire’ (Janssen 2012). At Tal Daw, near Houla, armed groups murdered all the Alawite families. The report from the monastery described the area around Qusayr as ‘in turmoil’ and wracked by sectarian violence (Janssen 2012).
Those Russian journalists, Marat Musin and Olga Kulygina from the Abkhazian Network News Agency (ANNA-News) had a camera crew in Houla on 25 May and took a number of witness interviews. Their sources make it very clear the murderers were Islamist ‘rebels’. An old woman called
‘The grandmother of Al-Hula’ said: ‘Checkpoint positions were attacked … All the soldiers were killed, then they attacked our villages, torched a hospital … Bandits killed our pharmacist … [because] he had treated a wounded soldier Nobody but the army will help us … They say there have been airstrikes! Lies, lies, lies. Liars, all of them come from Ar-Rastan’ (ANNA 2012).
Taldou resident Syed Abdul Wahab, said: ‘The terrorists want to come here … to take power. We have always lived in peace. We cannot leave the house’. A local woman from Al-Gaunt, next to Al-Houla, said ‘Nine terrorists killed my relatives in the field. The bandits set fire to our houses and we fled … we have a martyr, who was burned alive. Why, by what law did they die? Is this Islam? Is this justice?’ (ANNA 2012).
Another woman from Taldou they call Arifah told them she listened to the radio chatter from the ‘bandits’, before the massacre (Musin 2012a). They began by firing at the main checkpoint while a group from the al Hassan clan, led by Nidal Bakkur, attacked a ‘second checkpoint’ outside the village. The bandits lost about 25 people but after about two hours they had taken over both check-points. ‘They then proceeded to murder the Al-Sayed family which lived across the street from the police station’. Three families including about 20 children were murdered, along with another 10 from the Abdul Razaq family. That afternoon Abdul Razak Tlas, leader of the Farouq Brigade, arrived with 250 men from Ar-Rastan, Aqraba and Farlaha (Musin 2012a). The city of Ar-Rastan had been abandoned by most civilians for some time, taken over by Islamists from Lebanon (Musin 2012b). Arifah said that by 8pm the murdered civilians and dead bandits had been taken to the mosque. They then filmed for the Qatari and Saudi television stations. On Saturday morning, when the UNSMIS observers arrived, ‘The fallen rebels involved in the action were presented as civilians, while the conquering rebels dressed in army uniforms posed as defectors. They were surrounded by their family members who told the story of a government attack with heavy shelling and posed as victim’s relatives, while the relatives of the real victims were nowhere to be seen’ (Musin 2012a).
Violence continued after the UNSMIS visit. Musin and Kulygina later interviewed two wounded soldiers, a wounded policeman and another resident, who gave more detail of ‘rebel’ sniper attacks and murders, and of the ‘rebel’ escorts set up for the UN observers. They continued to identify attackers and victims. A group from the Al Aksh clan had been firing mortars and RPGs at the checkpoints. All checkpoint prisoners were executed: a Sunni conscript had his throat cut, while Abdullah Shaui of Deir-Zor was burned alive (Maramus 2012; Musin 2012b). The police officer said ‘the attackers were from Ar-Rastan and Al-Hula. Insurgents control Taldou. They burned houses and killed people by the families, because they were loyal to the government’ (Musin 2012b). The resident saw the clashes from the roof of the police station. ‘Al Jazeera aired pictures and said that the Army committed the massacre at Al Hula … in fact, they [the gunmen] killed the civilians and children in Al-Hula. The bandits … steal everything … most of the fighters are from the city of Ar Rastan’ (Maramus 2012; Musin 2012b). The second UN inquiry ignored these 15 witnesses, who told of specific perpetrators with clear political motives. An outline of major reports and their associated evidence is below.
|TABLE Houla massacre (May 2012): significant reports|
|Source/report||Method and conclusion|
|Mother Agnes Mariam||FSA had previously attacked Christians and was engaged in ‘false flag’ attacks, falsely blamed on the government|
|Most western media reports||Massacre by ‘Assad’s death squads’|
|British and French government||Massacre resulted from Government shelling of civilian areas; later changed this to ‘regime thug’ attacks|
|UN Special Mission on Syria (UNSMIS), Gen. Robert Mood||Went to massacre site, heard stories that blamed both sides. Could not resolve the two versions.|
|UN HRC Commission of Inquiry||Interviews in Geneva, co-chaired by US diplomat; witnesses selection assisted by anti-government groups; Commission blames pro-government ‘thugs’ (shabiha)|
|FSA video, on Al Jazeera and elsewhere||Show young boy Ali al Sayed, he blames ‘shabiha’ in army clothes with shaved heads and beards.|
|Syrian Government, state news agencies and television||Four direct witnesses say attacks were by armed gangs, who killed security and targeted pro-government families|
|German journalist Alfred HACKENSBERGER||Interviews refugee ‘Jibril’ at Qara monastery – massacre carried out by FSA gangs on pro-government families|
|German journalist Rainer HERMANN||Interviews anti-violence opposition people – they say local gangs and FSA killed pro-government families|
|Dutch Journalist Martin JANSSEN||Notes large outflow of Christian and Alawi refugees from Houla; refugees at Qara blame FSA gangs|
|Russian journalists Marat MUSIN and Olga KULYGINA||Eight witnesses blame FSA-linked anti-government gangs, victims pro-government families|
|Correggia, Embid, Hauben and Larson||Critical review of evidence and UN reports – say the Commission report is not credible.|
Dissent at the UN
The partisan report clearly influenced UN discussions. Although the HRC passed a motion with a strong majority, condemning the Syrian Government, the dissenting comments were significant. Russian representative Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischv (UNTV 2012: 7.00 to 8.10) said
‘We cannot agree with the one-sided conclusions put out in the resolution concerning the Commission on the Houla tragedy … We believe that the question of guilt is still open. An investigation should be carried out thoroughly … unfortunately some states are de facto encouraging terrorism in Syria therefore we have no doubt that the episode in Houla has definitely been whipped up in the media and has been used to carry out force against this country. The delegate from China (UNTV 2012: 13.25 to 15.50) also flagged that country’s intention to vote against the resolution, as there was a need ‘for a political solution … [and an] immediate end to violence … putting pressure on one party for the conflict will not help solve the problem’. The Cuban delegate (UNTV 2012: 16.05 to 18.50) said ‘there are parties that are interested in not fostering the path of dialogue and understanding … [some saying clearly they want] regime change, and even promoting the idea of military intervention with the use of force to impose on the Syrian people decisions that are being taken outside the country’. The Indian delegate (UNTV 2012: 19.00-21.30), who abstained, said India had given ‘unqualified support to the joint missions’ but urged the Human Rights Council to ‘always act with complete impartiality, in order to maintain its credibility and retain the trust and confidence of all … [there is a need for] a balanced and impartial resolution that can help start a meaningful political process in Syria’
The Syrian delegation (UNTC 2012: 24.33-35.30) came out hardest against the resolution, saying that the Commission of Inquiry ‘didn’t even visit Syria’ and had ignored the Syrian inquiry. Referring to some ‘Arab co-sponsors’ Syria said they had no right to ‘give advice’ because they were ‘directly involved in the killings of Syrian people, and criminals cannot be judges’, imposing sanctions and then ‘shedding tears about the humanitarian situation’. The refusal to condemn terrorism in Syrian reflected badly on the Council. Nevertheless, the big powers had the numbers, with 41 voting in favour, three against and three abstentions. The resolution was adopted but no UNSC action was possible because of opposition from two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China.
The unsatisfactory UN process does not negate the fact that strong prima facie evidence emerged against particular groups and individuals. Witnesses identified as perpetrators four local gunmen (Haitham al-Housan, Saiid Fayes al-Okesh, Haitham al-Hallq and Nidal Bakkur) along with groups from two clans (the al Hassan and the al-Aksh), plus a large Farouq group led by Abdurrazzaq Tlass and Yahya Yusuf. Their motive was to punish pro-government villagers, in particular the al-Sayed and Abdulrazzak families, then to set up a scene to falsely blame the government for their own crimes. The Houla massacre did not result in a Libyan-styled intervention, but false accusations afforded temporary impunity to the killers and created a great risk that military intervention could have been set in play.
Houla set the tone for a series of similar ‘false flag’ massacres. When the August 2012 massacre of 245 people in Daraya (Damascus) came to light, western media reports quickly suggested that ‘Assad’s army has committed [another] massacre’ (Oweis 2012). However that story was contradicted by British journalist Robert Fisk, who observed that the FSA had slaughtered kidnapped civilian and off-duty soldier hostages after a failed prisoner swap (Fisk 2012). Similarly, the 10 December 2012 massacre of 120 to 150 villagers in Aqrab (less than 15 kilometres from Houla, and also at that time under ‘rebel’ control) was also blamed by ‘activists’ on the Syrian Government. The New York Times suggested ‘members of Assad’s sect’ were responsible (Stack and Mourtada 2012). In fact, as British journalist Alex Thompson (2012b) later reported, from the tightly corroborated evidence of survivors, the FSA (including foreign fighters) had held 500 Alawi villagers for nine days, murdering many of them as the army closed in and the FSA fled. In this case those of ‘Assad’s sect’ were the victims, just as the victims at Houla had been mostly government supporters and their families.
The Houla massacre illustrates great dangers in the practice of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, when the big powers have proxy armies in the field. The idea that almost any sort of atrocity could be blamed on the Syrian Government, with little fear of contradiction in the western media, must have played heavily on the minds of Islamist armed groups. Farouq in particular was very media savvy, regularly producing videos for the television networks of Qatar (Al Jazeera) and Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiya). Up against a superior national army, which was not disintegrating along sectarian lines, Farouq and the others were in desperate need of military backing. Inflaming moral outrage against the Syrian Government just might bring in NATO air power, as it had in Libya. In the meantime, they could carry out major crimes with impunity.
The failure of UN processes to recognise the UN’s own role, in fomenting both impunity and escalation of the violence, further discredited the ‘no fly zone’ idea, which had been cynically exploited in the Libyan intervention. After Houla, while the propaganda war continued, there was no real hope of Security Council authorised intervention in Syria. The next major incident, involving the use of chemical weapons in ‘rebel’ occupied East Ghouta, more than a year later, would have as its reference point a unilateral ‘red line’ decree by Washington. Houla in many respects marked the collapse of UN-sanctioned ‘official truth’ in Syria.
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Haidar, Ali (2012) Syria’s Ali Haidar: Both Sides Have Extremists’, Al Akhbar, 13 July, online: http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/9716
Hauben, Ronda (2012) ‘Why is the UNSMIS Houla Report Missing?’, 28 November, Netizenblog, online: http://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2012/11/28/why-is-unsmis-report-missing/
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Hermann, Rainer (2012) ‘Abermals Massaker in Syrien’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 7 June, online: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/neue-erkenntnisse-zu-getoeteten-von-hula-abermals-massaker-in-syrien-11776496.html
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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has suggested that the Israeli regime deliberately targeted a base of UN peacekeeping forces along Lebanon’s southern border last month, in which a peacekeeper was killed.
“The incident happened at a UNIFIL base which is known perfectly by Israeli forces,” Ban said, using the acronym for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
According to Lebanon’s An-Nahar daily on Saturday, Ban also censured the killing of the Spanish peacekeeper who died in the Israeli shelling of the UNIFIL post in January.
During the Israeli raid on the Lebanese border, the observation tower of a Spanish UNIFIL position in Abbasieh, one kilometer east of Ghajar, was directly struck by an artillery shell, killing Cpl. Francisco Javier Soria Toledo.
A report submitted to the UN Security Council on Friday by the UN’s Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag held the Israeli regime “fully liable for the death of the peacekeeper.”
Israel launched the attack after Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah targeted an Israeli military convoy in the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms on January 28, killing two soldiers and wounding several others while destroying at least nine Israeli military vehicles.
The attack by Hezbollah was launched in response to an Israeli airstrike in the town of Qunaitra in Syria’s Golan Heights 10 days earlier, which killed several top members of the Lebanese resistance movement and an Iranian commander.
The Israeli attack on the UNIFIL post in January was not the first of its kind.
Four UN observers were killed in an Israeli airstrike on their post in Khiam, southern Lebanon, during the 2006 Israeli war on the Arab country. Then-UN chief Kofi Annan said at the time that the attack appeared to be “deliberate.”
A French UN observer was also killed in 2005 near the Shebaa Farms by Israeli tank shelling.
The most notorious Israeli attack, however, came in April 1996, when artillery shells fired by the regime’s forces struck the Fijian battalion headquarters in Qana, killing 107 civilians who had taken refuge at the compound.
A small community in Uganda is challenging a UN-backed international oil palm venture that has expropriated small farmers and obliterated an entire forest on a Lake Victoria island to establish a vast plantation. Three years after the grab, Friends of the Earth groups are backing the islanders legal action, which is launched today.
Fighting a land grab can seem like a hopeless cause: the odds are hardly even when farmers without land or a source of income are pitted against multinational corporations, European banks and UN Agencies. However in Uganda, one community is fighting back.
Four years ago, an oil palm plantation partly operated by the oil palm giant Wilmar International began on Bugula, a highly biodiverse island on Lake Victoria. Then home to about one hundred small-scale farmers, the project was sold to them with extravagant promises of employment and development.
Yet today, 3,600 hectares of pristine forest have been destroyed, replaced with a vast swathe of oil palm, and many farmers and their families find themselves destitute with little compensation – if any – awarded to them for the loss of their land.
Finding themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances, three of them are today launching their legal action on behalf of the rest of the community against the oil palm company, Oil Palm Uganda Limited (OPUL), demanding the restitution of their land and compensation for lost crops and income.
Although nominally independent, OPUL is 90% owned by Bidco Uganda, itself a joint venture between the oil palm giant Wilmar International, Josovina Commodities and Bidco Oil Refineries, a Kenya-based company. Wilmar International holds at least 39% of the shares in OPUL and is providing technical expertise for the project.
In launching the legal action in Masaka today, the Bugula islanders are taking on more than just these mighty corporations.
The oil palm project is backed by the Ugandan government, which even helped to finance it, and by a United Nations agency: the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which is “directly overseeing” the project after providing a $52 million loan.
So this is ‘improving access to land and tenure security’?
Established in 1974 after the World Food Conference, IFAD’s ‘motto’ is “Enabling poor rural people to overcome poverty”. Its Financing Policies and Criteria state that the projects it finances should incorporate “engagement with indigenous peoples” and “improving access to land and tenure security”.
The Bugula project is carried out under IFAD’s ‘Vegetable Oil Development Project – Phase 2‘ which claims to be aimed at “increasing the domestic production of vegetable oil and its byproducts, thus raising rural incomes for smallholder producers and ensuring the supply of affordable vegetable oil products to Ugandan consumers.”
According to IFAD, “Oil palm activities are carried out on Bugula Island in Kalangala District (Ssesse islands) and Buvuma Island in Mukono District. In the course of the project, about 3,000 smallholder farmers will directly benefit from oil palm development and 136,000 households from oilseed development. The project is directly supervised by IFAD.”
It records a total project cost of $146.2 million, to which it is contributing a $52.0 million loan repayable in 2018, co-financed with SNV Netherlands Development Organization, which is contributing $0.3 million. It claims to benefit 139,000 households.
The Ecologist spoke today with Alessandro Marini, IFAD’s Country Representative for Uganda by telephone, but he repeatedly refused to comment at that time because he was “on his way into a meeting”. He has since failed to respond to our email requesting his views.
The UK is the single biggest contributor to IFAD.
John Muyiisa’s story
In January, Anne van Schaik of Friends of the Earth Europe joined NAPE / Friends of the Earth Uganda in a fact-finding mission to Bugula Island, Kalangala, and visited the house of John Muyiisa, one of the plaintiffs.
John saw his 43-acre plot taken for the palm oil project, and has since not stopped fighting to get it back. John showed us the state of his house, which is about to collapse because he doesn’t have the resources to repair it. The foundations of the new house he was planning to build for his family have been left abandoned since the project began.
When he showed us the small plot that was left to him, John said: “We all depended on this land. My land was not only my income but also a secured future income for my children. It would have provided me with the money I needed to buy a new house. Now I have lost my land and our plans are shattered.” These concerns have found little sympathy among local government officials.
We also visited the nearby island of Buvuma, where IFAD has financed another oil palm project. When we expressed our interest to hear from the local community about the effects of the island’s palm oil project, they exhausted themselves by explaining the benefits of the project.
“There will be electricity, employment, new roads, and extra income for local palm oil growers”, officials told us. This sounded all-too familiar to what we heard during a visit in 2013, but two years on, these promises seem emptier than ever.
Once we had finished speaking with the officials, we joined them at a community meeting at the district house to discuss compensation for lost land. When the chairperson gave farmers the floor to talk about the effects of the project, many raised their hands.
They talked about how the compensation had been inadequate, how it is totally unclear to them how it had been calculated, and how some of them didn’t want to leave their land but were given no choice. Clearly embarrassed and annoyed, a local official responded and corrected them. “People should not first sign an agreement and then complain after”, he said.
His unsympathetic stance was mirrored by other government officials on both islands. Often we heard jokes about how farmers drank away their compensation money in bars, got themselves a second wife or otherwise managed to fritter it away.
This indifference, although unspoken, is implicitly shared by IFAD, BIDCO, OPUL and Wilmar. Indeed, the chain of responsibility stretches back further – to banks in Europe and the USA whose financial support sets the wheels in motion for these devastating land grabs.
Europe’s mega-banks financing palm oil explosion
Taking the case of Wilmar International, in 2014 US and EU financiers had a total of €371 million of shares in the corporation, and 1.1 billion Euro in loans outstanding to them.
For instance in the Netherlands, ING held more than €26 million in shares; the British bank HSBC held €298 million in loans, while BNP Paribas and Dutch Rabobank held €189 million and €111 million respectively. Deutsche Bank held €4 million in shares and €12 million in outstanding loans.
Like Wilmar, many of these financiers have adopted policies to address the environmental, social and governance impacts of their investments. However, there is no accountability mechanism in place for most of these commitments, and so there is no financial or legal incentive for financiers to follow through.
This means that many European financial institutions, through their investments in agribusiness projects, are supporting a significant number of what are in fact land grabs in the global South. Such incidents are widespread and growing: new cases are reported to civil society organisations on a near-weekly basis in countries from Cambodia and Papua New Guinea to Indonesia, Myanmar and Nigeria.
Europe needs to take action at the political level. Both by ensuring financial institutions on its soil are not complicit in land grabs, and by voting this year to finish reforms to halt the expansion of agrofuels which compete for cropland.
UN-IFAD must hang its head in shame
And clearly IFAD is an organization crying out for abolition. Its financing of the Bugula Island land grab is in clear violation of its financing principles and criteria, indeed the very purpose of its existence – “Enabling poor rural people to overcome poverty”
While IFAD speaks of “community-driven development approach to fighting rural poverty“, “improving access to land and tenure security”, “dynamic and inclusive rural development“, “food and nutrition security for all”, “inclusive growth and poverty eradication”, and “sustainable smallholder agriculture” it is actually financing land-grabbing projects that achieve the precise reverse of all its empty rhetoric.
Indeed it is robbing poor farmers and farming communities of their land and livelihoods, leaving them destitute, and handing over their wealth for plunder by foreign corporations and profiteering financiers.
As for John and the rest of the former farmers of Bugula, the next steps in their fight for justice will be taken in court in Masaka. With pressure coming at them from both sides, the message to oil IFAD, palm companies and financiers alike is clear: the battle against land grabs is on.
Action: to support John Muyiisa’s struggle in his search for legal redress for the farmers of Kalangala, please visit our crowdfunding page.