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.
Adams, Simon (2012) ‘The World’s Next Genocide’, New York Times, 15 November, online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/16/opinion/the-worlds-next-genocide.html
AINA (2012) ‘Sunni Rebels Occupying Churches, Homes of Syrian Christians’, Assyrian International News Agency, 29 July, online: http://www.aina.org/news/2012072912019.htm
Al Akhbar (2012) ‘Boycott and breaches mar Syrian vote’, 7 May, online: http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/syria-votes-against-backdrop-violence
Alexander, Harriet and Ruth Sherlock (2012) ‘The Shabiha: Inside Assad’s death squads’, The Telegraph, 2 June, online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9307411/The-Shabiha-Inside-Assads-death-squads.html
ANNA (2012) ‘Показания свидетеля-боевика по резне в Аль Хула с привязкой на местности’ [Summary report of interviews], online in Russian at: http://anna-news.info/node/6359; ‘Показания свидетеля-боевика по резне в Аль Хула’ [Arabic interviews dubbed in Russian], online: http://video.yandex.ru/users/news-anna2012/view/25 ; also ‘Witnesses to al-Houla Massacre in Syria’ [English subtitles by Syriaonline], 1 June, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68TjaXP84wM
AP (2012) ‘’Stop killing your fellow citizens or you will face consequences’: Clinton issues warning to Syrian regime as she says Assad must go’, Associated Press, Daily Mail UK, 2 April, online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2123853/Syria-Hillary-Clinton-says-Assad-go.html
Barnard, Anne (2012) ‘U.S. and Turkey to Step Up ‘Nonlethal’ Aid to Rebels in Syria’, New York Times, 25 march, online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/world/middleeast/us-and-turkey-to-step-up-nonlethal-aid-to-syrian-rebels.html?_r=0
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Blanford, Nicholas (2011) ‘Assad regime may be gaining upper hand in Syria’, Christian Science Monitor, 13 May, online: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0513/Assad-regime-may-be-gaining-upper-hand-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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Malas, Nour (2013) ‘As Syrian Islamists Gain, It’s Rebel Against Rebel’, Wall Street Journal, 29 may, online: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323975004578499100684326558.html
Marcus, Jonathan (2013) Gruesome Syria video pinpoints West’s dilemma, BBC, 14 May, online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22521161
Mood, Robert (2012) ‘Houla massacre, 2 versions – UNSMIS Robert Mood, June 15’, Adam Larson YouTube site, 16 September, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ViUVJYGT_8
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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.
The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) did not object to the appointment of new UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov, although he was described by Tayseer Khaled, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee, as “persona non grata” — not trusted by the Palestinians and nor qualified for the job.
The 15-member UN Security Council unanimously voted to appoint Bulgarian Mladenov, 42, to succeed Holland’s Robert Serry. He would also be the representative of the UN secretary general to the International Quartet (the UN, US, EU and Russia), and personal representative of the UN chief to the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Although protocol allows the PLO the right to reject diplomatic representatives to the organisation, observers cannot understand why it accepted Mladenov. There is no convincing answer except a futile desire by the PLO to appease the UN and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, at a time when PLO diplomatic efforts are focused on the UN and its agencies.
Mladenov not only failed in a similar mission as UN envoy to Iraq and resigned, he is someone who describes himself — and is described by the leaders of the Israeli occupation — as “a good friend of Israel”. As Bulgarian foreign minister, Mladenov suggested a “military alliance” between Bulgaria and Israel. He has often spoken about his bias towards “Israel’s right to exist” and its right “to defend itself” against Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation. He even admitted to being a Free Mason, served Jewish billionaire George Soros, and publicly advocated the US’s “constructive chaos” policies in the Arab world. In fact, his Jewish origins may be the least controversial aspect of him.
Meanwhile, the occupation state does not hesitate in ignoring the UN, its resolutions and representatives, disregarding and even assassinating them when necessary. Most recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to “expel” Mladenov’s predecessor Serry as “persona non grata”. Shortly before that, William Schabas, the head of the UN commission investigating the occupation’s recent war on the Gaza Strip, resigned after Israel refused to cooperate with him or allow him to enter the country.
After the UN tolerated the assassination of its first envoy to Palestine, Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948, at the hands of the Zionist Stern Gang led by Yitzhak Shamir (who later became prime minister of the occupation state), Israel was emboldened to adopt a permanent policy of disregarding the UN without deterrence so far.
In fact, over the past two years the occupation state has carried out a proxy war against the UN. It has facilitated logistics, intelligence, firepower and medical assistance to allow the domination of militias fighting the Syrian regime on its side of the disengagement zone between the liberated and occupied Arab Syrian Golan. This compelled the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) to withdraw after its positions were attacked, dozens of its troops kidnapped and their weapons and equipment seized. Until today, the UN has not dared to rectify the situation, which resulted in the collapse of the UN-sponsored ceasefire and rules of engagement between Syria and Israel.
The Middle East is teeming with international peace envoys. The UN has one, so does the US, the EU, Russia, China and the Quartet. Their names change without anything on the ground in occupied Palestine changing. Except for expanding the occupation through settlements under the “peace” umbrella these envoys provide, without any hope that the international community they represent will be able to effect any real tangible change for the present and future of the Palestinian people on the ground.
So what can Mladenov do that his predecessors, the UN, the Quartet, the Arab League and others, couldn’t?
Khaled believes the real test, to remove Palestinian doubts about Mladenov’s role and mission, will be his position on the siege on Gaza and reconstruction there. However, Mladenov’s track record does not indicate there is cause for optimism. Nor does the track record of “UN special coordinators” since the creation of the position in 1994 and the subsequent expansion of its role, as well as the extensive history of choosing UN and US envoys of Jewish origins or related in the first degree to Jews, such as Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, John Kerry, Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and Quartet representative Tony Blair.
On 6 February, the secretaries general of the UN and Arab League issued a joint statement expressing “deep concern” about conditions in Gaza. They urged Arab and international donors to honour their financial pledges made at the Cairo Conference last October “as soon as possible”, in order to rebuild the Gaza Strip and end the siege there. A few days ago, James Rowley, UN coordinator for humanitarian affairs in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, sent out an “urgent call” for these commitments to be fulfilled and an “immediate” lift of the siege on Gaza, because he is “very concerned another conflict will break out” if not.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry described the statement by the Quartet on 8 February after it met in Munich, Germany, as “short of expectations” because it ignored “all the old-new and evolving truths” of the occupation state.
The Quartet also said it is “deeply concerned” about the “difficult conditions in Gaza where reconstruction needs to be quicker” and urged donors to “pay their financial pledges as soon as possible”. However, it linked this to encouraging both sides to “restart negotiations as soon as possible”.
Restarting talks “as soon as possible”, nonetheless, must await the outcome of general elections in Israel and the US. This means the Palestinian people must wait for another two years in the vain hope of reconstructing Gaza. It is obvious the occupation state is enjoying the luxury of time, making easy the occupation without resistance, as well as building settlements without deterrence.
Before handing over the reins to Mladenov, Serry described the failure of donors to pay their dues as “scandalous” and warned “if there is no progress in the coming months” — not two years — towards a two-state solution, “the reality will be a one state [solution]”: the single state of Israel. Former UN coordinator Terry Rod Larsen said in 2002, “the Palestinian patient is dying in the interim.”
Last December, Serry warned in his report to the Security Council that a war in Gaza “could re-ignite if conditions on the ground do not change” in the besieged Gaza Strip. It is clear that what Serry described as a “deadly diplomatic vacuum” coupled with the ongoing siege on rebuilding Gaza, are an explosive recipe in the besieged Gaza Strip, the outcome and ramifications of which are unpredictable.
The “scandal” of donors not paying their dues to rebuild Gaza, as Serry described it, under the pretext that the PLO government does not control the Gaza Strip, is a green light given by the international community to the occupation state to carry out another military assault on national resistance forces in Gaza.
The scandal of Arabs not paying their pledges at Arab summits to provide the PA with a financial “safety net” amounts to flagrant Arab pressure on the PLO to accept the Quartet’s proposal to restart talks with the occupation state “as soon as possible”.
This is Mladenov’s dual mission as the new UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. PLO negotiators continue to wait for a breakthrough by “peace” envoys that are imposed on them and appointed by the US and the UN, although they represent the occupation state. Mladenov is the most recent. He will not change anything on the ground.
Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
The UN Security Council is due to vote soon on a resolution that would approve the recently concluded Minsk agreements, Russian media reported on Monday.
Russia is engaged in negotiations with the 15-member UN council on the resolution initiated by Moscow.
The draft resolution “welcomes the results of the talks in Minsk and includes a call for the parties to be committed to implementing them”, according to a UNSC diplomat quoted by Russian Tass agency.
The vote has been delayed due to amendments introduced in regard to the document.
Britain’s UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant said the diplomats were unable to vote on the resolution on Sunday night due to pending amendments to the document.
Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the UN Security Council Hussein Haniff said members of the global organization were waiting for the Russian side to voice its approval for the amendments before the voting could start.
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Moscow of fueling a pro-Russian uprising in the country.
Leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine on Sunday held a teleconference, demanding a strict observance of the latest cease-fire agreement struck in Minsk, capital of Belarus.
The four leaders also discussed the importance of getting the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to play a bigger role in monitoring the latest truce agreement struck in Minsk Thursday.
Ukrainian forces and independence-seeking insurgents in Ukraine observed a cease-fire as from Sunday local time as per the agreement which also envisages the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line and constitutional reform to give eastern Ukraine more power.
Officials of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics confirmed that militia forces of the two republics have stopped fire.
Poroshenko on Saturday also issued an order of ceasefire in the conflict zones in the country’s southeastern Donbass region as of Sunday.
The 16-hour marathon summit talks of – Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – were held in Minsk last Thursday.
The Minsk negotiations lasted for around 16 hours and agreed on a ceasefire from midnight, February 15.
The head of a UN inquiry into last summer’s Israeli military offensive in Gaza has said he will resign after Israeli allegations of bias, due to consultancy work he did for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).
William Schabas, a Canadian academic, was appointed last August by the head of the UN Human Rights Council to lead a three-member group looking into war crimes during the offensive.
Al Ray reports that, according to the Guardian and in a letter to the commission, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, Schabas said he would step down immediately to prevent the issue from overshadowing the preparation of the report and its findings, which are due to be published in March.
Schabas’ departure highlights the sensitivity of the UN investigation just weeks after prosecutors at the international criminal court in The Hague said they had started a preliminary inquiry into atrocities committed in the Palestinian territories.
In the letter, Schabas said that a legal opinion he authored for the PLO in 2012, and for which he was paid some $1,300 (£900), was not different from advice he had given to many other governments and organizations.
“My views on Israel and Palestine as well as on many other issues were well known and very public,” he wrote. “This work in defence of human rights appears to have made me a huge target for malicious attacks.”
Israel has long criticized Schabas’ appointment, citing his record as a strong critic of “the Jewish state” and its current political leadership. Schabas said his work for the PLO had prompted the Human Rights Council’s executive to seek legal advice about his position from UN headquarters on Monday.
“I believe that it is difficult for the work to continue while a procedure is underway to consider whether the chair of the commission should be removed,” he wrote, adding that the commission had largely finished gathering evidence and had begun writing the report.
The appointment of Schabas, who lives in Britain and teaches international law at Middlesex University, was welcomed at the time by Hamas but was harshly criticized by Jewish groups in the US.
Schabas, at the time, had said that he was determined to put aside any views about “things that have gone on in the past”.
The commission is looking into the behavior of both the Israelis and of Hamas.
UNRWA Report | January 27, 2015
The United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA) has been forced to suspend its cash assistance programme in Gaza to tens of thousands of people for repairs to damaged and destroyed homes and for rental subsidies to the homeless.
Over 96,000 Palestine refugee family homes were damaged or destroyed during last summer’s conflict and the total funding required to address that need is USD 720 million. To date, UNRWA has received only USD 135 million in pledges, leaving a shortfall of USD 585 million. While some funds remain available to begin the reconstruction of totally destroyed homes, the Agency has exhausted all funding to support repairs and rental subsidies.
“UNRWA in Gaza has so far provided over USD 77 million to 66,000 Palestine refugee families to repair their home or find a temporary alternative”, said UNRWA’s Director in Gaza, Robert Turner. “This is a tremendous achievement; it is also wholly insufficient. It is easy to look at these numbers and lose sight of the fact that we are talking about thousands of families who continue to suffer through this cold winter with inadequate shelter. People are literally sleeping amongst the rubble, children have died of hypothermia. USD 5.4 billion was pledged at the Cairo conference last October and virtually none of it has reached Gaza. This is distressing and unacceptable.”
“It is unclear why this funding has not been forthcoming,” added Mr. Turner “but UNRWA has been a stabilizing factor in a very challenging political and security context and if we cannot continue the programme it will have grave consequences for affected communities in Gaza. People are desperate and the international community cannot even provide the bare minimum – for example a repaired home in winter –let alone a lifting of the blockade, access to markets or freedom of movement. We’ve said before quiet for quiet will not last, and now the quiet is at risk.”
UNRWA urgently requires USD 100 million in the first quarter of this year to allow families with minor damage to repair their homes and to provide ongoing rental subsidies, including to the thousands of families that left the UNRWA-run collective centers and found alternative rental accommodation. UNRWA is very concerned that if it cannot continue to provide the rental subsidy then large numbers may return to the collective centers, where almost 12,000 displaced Palestinians continue to seek shelter.
Spokesperson, Director of Advocacy and Strategic Communications
UNRWA | Office of the Commissioner General | Jerusalem
The United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator James W. Rawley confirmed on Friday that, in the past three days alone, a total of 77 Palestinians, over half of them children, have become homeless.
He expressed concern over Israel’s recent spate of demolitions of Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
According to Rawley, “demolitions that result in forced evictions and displacement run counter to Israel’s obligations under international law and create unnecessary suffering and tension.”
Home demolitions must stop immediately, Rawley demanded, in a press release that WAFA received.
UN concerns stem from the fact that some of the demolished structures were provided by the international community to support vulnerable families. Rawley explained: “At least eight of these structures were funded by international donors.”
Since 20 January, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has recorded the Israeli demolition of 42 Palestinian-owned structures in the Ramallah, Jerusalem, Jericho and Hebron governorates.
In addition to those displaced, 59 Palestinians were affected, mainly due to the demolition of structures essential for their livelihood, mostly animal shelters.
According to OCHA figures, in 2014, “Israeli authorities destroyed 590 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C and East Jerusalem, displacing 1,177 people – the highest level of displacement in the West Bank since OCHA began systematically monitoring the issue in 2008.”
Area C of the West Bank is under complete Israeli control.
Humanitarian and Legal bodies and institutions such as the UN, OCHA and B’Tselem confirm that the planning policies applied by Israel in Area C and East Jerusalem discriminate against Palestinians, making it extremely difficult for them to obtain building permits.
Having no other choice, many Palestinians are forced to build without permits to be able to provide a shelter for themselves and their families, risking having their buildings demolished, in the process.
Rawley demanded that Palestinians must have the opportunity to participate in a fair and equitable planning system that ensures their needs are met.
By John Chuckman | Aletho News | December 30, 2014
The Palestinians are seeking a vote in the United Nations’ Security Council on a resolution favoring their statehood, unquestionably a reasonable proposal in the minds of most of the world’s people. Of course, the United States, a permanent member of the Security Council, would automatically veto such a resolution, as it vetoes all efforts to restore order to the chaos of the Middle East. And of course, were such a resolution somehow miraculously to pass, Israel would simply ignore it, as it has ignored a long list of binding UN resolutions. But a veto and certain contempt are not enough for an upright, God-fearing Southern gentleman like US Senator Lindsey Graham. He busied himself recently with threatening America’s withholding funds from a United Nations that gets involved in the “peace process.” Imagine, the United Nations getting involved in peace? That is a chilling thought. Since the United States has a history of withholding its UN dues against its solemn treaty obligations to bully its way to certain changes, such threats do carry weight.
Senator Graham, regarded neither as an idealist nor a voice for peace, is only doing what so many American politicians do under the unbelievably corrupt, money-drenched American election system, and that is to make ridiculous public statements about the Middle East in return for generous dollops of campaign funds from the world’s most tireless political lobby, that for Israel. You might think that the lobby itself would tire of funding backwater blowhards demanding the other ninety-five percent of humanity play the game by America’s rules or America is picking up its marbles or chips or whatever and going home, but clearly it does not.
“The peace process” is the longest running farce on the planet, continuing for nearly fifty years. It might have been funny in the vein of The Mouse That Roared, but there is nothing remotely funny in the killing of thousands of people and the extreme abuse and hopelessness of millions. You just could not make a worse hash of a diplomatic and human welfare situation than America has made in the Middle East. And the situation has only intensified in its cruelty and injustice. Today, Israel openly and regularly steals homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It threatens ancient Muslim shrines and desecrates some of them. It has savaged Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison camp, twice, killing close to four thousand including nearly a thousand children. It has attempted to starve Gaza’s people out with a years-long embargo, and is making ugly noises about still another invasion. It is about to steal Syrian oil on the occupied Golan Heights, drilling there illegally, and it is busy arranging the theft of offshore natural gas that belongs to Gaza and Lebanon. It does all of this with complete impunity and not even a cross word from the likes of Senator Graham. I do think the Middle East provides the strongest possible evidence of the complete unsuitability of the United States to play a dominant role in international affairs. It is genuinely a case of the inmates running the asylum.
In another example of chaos mixed with farce, the United States pretends to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and while that charade continues, planes loaded with American weapons keep flying out of Turkey to make the seeming lunatics even stronger. Indeed, the various ragtag factions trying to overthrow the Syrian government, cutthroats assembled by the US and its friends from all corners of the globe in a kind of hellish foreign legion, announced a new alliance, so telling Washington’s approved terrorists in the conflict from those who haven’t made the cut is more difficult than ever. Recently, one or another of the lunatic mobs shot down two fighter jets, and how do you think they managed that without American anti-aircraft missiles? Turkey’s certifiably unbalanced president, Tayyip Erdoğan, one day makes fiery speeches threatening Israel (to please the poor fools voting for him) and the next makes new secret deals with Israel. Remember, this is a man who just built a one-thousand room palace for himself – yes, that’s right, exactly one thousand rooms – and it is the ugliest, most pointless large structure built since the early Soviet era, a kind of gigantic sprawling warehouse incrusted with jewels and filled with porcelain.
Well, dippiness is no barrier to membership in a secret club in the region which includes the UAE, Saudia Arabia, and Israel, all lovingly assisted by the US. They are all governments who regard change as desirable only when it results in an even more rigid status quo, as in Egypt. Never mind the welfare of the region’s people or democracy or human rights or national boundaries. These guys resemble twelfth century lords seeing paupers cross their paths: they run them down and proceed to a rollicking good dinner in the great hall. The club is all about security for hereditary monarchs, security for America’s crusader fortress colony in the Middle East, and security for helper states in the American agenda. We’ve had many reports recently of secret air-freight flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi. We also have reports of flights out of Turkey into Syria. The never explained events at Benghazi were undoubtedly blowback from an operation collecting unemployed thugs and arms for secret shipment to Turkey and then into Syria. Saudi Arabia is voluntarily taking a bath by pushing oil prices down, a favor to the US and Israel and Turkey and a way of hurting Russia, Iran, Syria, and even Venezuela – all current members in good standing of Captain America’s ever-changing galaxy of villains – aka, the Axis of Evil. The US is willing to sacrifice for the time being its booming shale oil industry, whose more costly production requires higher prices than Saudi conventional crude, in return for the Saudi sacrifice.
Since both countries are desperate to hurt Russia, Iran, and Syria, the deal is a marriage made in Realpolitik heaven. Russia has helped Syria and does business with Iran, while Saudi Arabia and Israel hate Iran and Syria. The US has made a large investment in toppling Syria for Israel’s benefit, but the plan has been thwarted by Syrian endurance and Russian help. The plan also overlooked the loyalty of important Syrian societal groups to President Assad, but America often overlooks details as it attempts to reshape the world to its liking with bombs. Of course, there was also the precedent of Iraq, a bloody fiasco that achieved nothing but a million deaths and splintering a country into pieces. That splintering, by the way, continues with the ISIS fiasco: Iraq’s Kurds are being used against ISIS to strengthen their own region’s quasi-independence from Iraq.
The chaos the secret club-member countries have created in Syria – perhaps 200,000 killed and a couple of million refugees – appears not to bother them in the least, just so many paupers in the roadway when galloping home to dinner at the great hall. The victims do provide useful free material for the propaganda war being waged, the understanding implicit in America’s and Canada’s and Europe’s press being always that President Assad is responsible for the catastrophe. The US, and cheerleaders on the sidelines like Canada’s current dismal right-wing government, are doing virtually nothing for the refugees, or for the many civilians crippled or wounded. Ironically, Israel actually accepts for treatment in its northern medical facilities some of the very fanatics wounded in the dirty work. After all, it is ultimately Israel’s dirty work they do, regardless of their fanaticism. It’s a phenomenon we might call selective terrorism: fanatical killers who do America’s work, or Israel’s, are not treated as terrorists at all. No matter how many women and children you kill, no matter how many places you bomb, you only become a terrorist if you oppose the interests of America or Israel.
The toll in killed and wounded and homeless in Eastern Ukraine continues to mount. New punitive measures come regularly from Kiev, undoubtedly with American advice about possible vulnerabilities – after all, a top cabinet minister in the coup-created government is American. Only the other day we read reports of Ukrainian militia-types, the kind of right-wing thugs who helped the US overthrow an elected government in Kiev, blocking food traffic into the East. Attempting to starve people into submission is defined in international law as a war crime, but we hear no word of concern from America, just as we heard no word of concern for Israel’s original blockade of Gaza which actually included a calculated level of calories intended to just keep the population alive (since modified under intense secret international pressure).
In all these induced chaotic situations, we hear little or nothing from the UN, an institution which should be among the first condemning aggressive behavior. But the UN, despite the many differing private views of its members, is now in all official capacities under the thumb of the US. Its current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, a candidate favored by America, is ineffectual and behaves at times almost as though he headed an organization having nothing to do with peace or human rights.
Well, there is some intimidating history. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the only UN secretary-general not to be elected to a second term in office, and the reason was an American plan to be rid of him, one of Madeleine Albright’s glorious career achievements. America vetoed his second term because it was most unhappy when he did not embrace the bombing of Bosnia, and they disliked other of his views which tended to be thoughtful and compassionate. Earlier, Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, a much admired man, was assassinated in an engineered plane crash, said to have been the work of Belgian mining companies unhappy with the UN’s policies in Congo, a place the mining companies had drained of wealth for decades of brutal exploitation, but I think it unlikely anything of that nature happened without at least a nod of approval from Washington, which after all was a major customer for the products of Congo.
The evidence is piling up, despite delays and many irregularities in the official investigation into the crash of airline Flight MH-17 in Ukraine, that a Ukrainian pilot deliberately shot the plane down. His fighter jet is said to have been armed with air-to-air missiles on take-off, something completely out-of-the-ordinary in the conflict since Eastern Ukrainians have no air force. It returned, according to an eye-witness, with no missiles and the pilot muttering cryptic phrases. Of course, this would be the kind of act you might expect from people who used sniper rifles earlier this year to kill many hundreds of civilians in Maidan, the central square of Kiev, in order to terrorize the population and start the coup. But where is America’s voice in these grotesque doings? As Russia has patiently pointed out, an American spy satellite was virtually overhead at the time of the crash, so definitive evidence exists without a doubt but is not produced. But then neither is it produced for the destruction of Flight MH-370 in the Indian Ocean, an event it is virtually certain was the work of American forces at the secret Diego Garcia base as the plane came their way for whatever unknown reason.
The irregularities around Flight MH-17’s investigation include Malaysia, owners of the airline, being excluded from the group conducting the investigation and include the fact that segments of the wreckage were left behind at the crash site, and that after taking a very long time to get there in the first place, making manipulation of forensic evidence possible and even likely. We also have the absence of any American satellite or radar records, and we have not a word about the autopsy on the pilot, something which might solve the entire mystery, as from the discovery of Ukrainian missile fragments in his body.
What kind of world do we want to live in? One where coups and civil wars are engineered for the pleasure of others? One where airliners full of people are shot down deliberately? This is the chaos, and just part of it, America has bestowed upon us in the twenty-first century. I won’t even go into the financial tsunami it created in 2008 with the same lack of caution for others and concern about doing things correctly. The full impact of that has yet to strike us all.
But America brings laughable trivia, too. The President of the United States spending time and breath on the hacking of a private company’s web site? A Japanese company, no less? And turning the relatively trivial business of hacking, which happens every day now somewhere, into an international incident by blaming, almost certainly incorrectly, North Korea?
The President said the FBI had investigated and assured him that North Korea was responsible. What he didn’t tell us was that the FBI has a decades-long record of being wrong, seriously wrong, a great deal of the time. Given the FBI’s history, it certainly is in the running for the title of Most Incompetent Security Organization in the Western World, although, like other national security institutions in the United States, it is grossly over-funded with money gushing out like water from broken plumbing. Americans pay more per unit of misinformation than likely any other people on the planet.
Anyone familiar with the record of the FBI listens to assurances like the President’s with a sarcastic smile at best (see FOOTNOTE for a partial list of the FBI’s viciousness and incompetence over the years). Shortly after the president’s silly words, we had several world-class tech experts tell us why it could not have been North Korea, and I’ll take bets against the FBI on this one from anyone.
It likely was someone at Sony doing a publicity stunt to promote what by all reports is a dud of a film, but why should the man with the biggest job in the world join in? Consider also the fact that if you make what can be viewed as a threatening comment or presentation of any kind against the President of the United States, you will be visited and interviewed by the Secret Service, who will then keep you on file permanently. Why is it okay to make a movie about the assassination of North Korea’s president then, the subject of The Interview ? Sony certainly has a right to do stupidly foolish things, but it is more than a little muddled for the President, eagerly, to support it. Will he now address the rights of porn actors in California to work without condoms?
As I write this, a British newspaper reports that some Sony employees have been quietly dismissed. Reported also is the discovery of a web site strongly suggesting disgruntled employees. See what I mean about America overlooking the facts before it acts?
FOOTNOTE ON HOW WRONG AND DISHONEST THE FBI HAS BEEN: The FBI was wrong in claiming there was no such thing as the Mafia, something J. Edgar Hoover insisted for many years while he gambled at their racetracks and stayed at their resorts for free, some biographers believing Hoover had been compromised by the Mafia with photos of his secret gay, cross-dressing life. The FBI was wrong in focusing huge resources for many years on the pathetic American Communist Party, half of whose small membership is said to have consisted of FBI agents. The FBI was wrong about the threat of Albert Einstein, seeking his extradition for a time and checking the contents of his garbage to his dying day. The FBI was wrong about the danger of Dr. Martin Luther King, and it played judge and jury with his personal life. The FBI was wrong about Dr. Wen Ho Lee of Los Alamos being a spy, although it ruined his career. The FBI was wrong about the crash of TWA Flight 800, taking an inordinate amount of time trying to let public interest cool and avoid the obvious fact that the crash was an accidental shoot-down by the American military, there being a radar track showing something like a missile rising towards the plane. Despite its vast resources, the FBI never saw 9/11 coming. One of its own senior agents, Robert Hanssen, was one of the more damaging spies of modern times, a man whose carelessness in many details, classic indicators of a paid spy, went unnoticed for years. The FBI was wrong in the Atlanta Olympic bombing, ruining the life of another innocent man. It couldn’t have been more wrong in its handling of the sad kooks at Waco, effectively murdering them all. So, too, at the Ruby Ridge standoff where an FBI sniper killed a woman and her child needlessly. The FBI Crime Labs were cited in the 1990s by the Inspector General for misconduct and manipulating evidence, something many had suspected for years. The FBI specialized for years in hurting the reputations of those it didn’t like or those it merely suspected, as by asking questions at their place of work and neighborhood, not have any proof of wrong-doing. The FBI, at least under J. Edgar Hoover, held career-threatening information obtained by spying over the heads of many prominent congressmen and government leaders, effectively blackmailing them to do its bidding. It did the same with non-government officials where it felt so inclined. The FBI was wrong about the assassination of President Kennedy, it being the only investigative agency for the lamentable, embarrassing Warren Commission, thereby assuming at least equal responsibility for its inaccurate, dishonest report. Indeed, the FBI did not reveal at the time that Oswald secretly worked for them as a paid informant (since documented). It also lied about evidence a senior FBI agent destroyed after the assassination, a note Oswald had written.
The year 2014 was another year of futility in the fight against climate change. Climatists redoubled efforts to convince citizens that urgent action is needed to stop dangerous global warming. But the gap between public warnings and actual events produced an endless stream of climate irony.
January began with a frosty bang as an arctic air mass descended on the central United States, following a similar event in December. What was once called a cold snap is now ominously christened a “polar vortex.” Record-low daily temperatures were recorded from Minnesota to Boston, along with all-time seasonal snowfalls in many cities.
In a White House video released on January 8, John Holdren, chief science advisor to President Obama, made the paradoxical statement, “But a growing body of evidence suggests that the kind of extreme cold being experienced by much of the United States as we speak is a pattern that we can expect to see with increasing frequency as global warming continues.”
Also in January, passengers of the research ship Akademik Shokalskiy were rescued after the ship was locked in ice for 10 days near the antarctic coast. The expedition lead by professor Chris Turney had intended to study how weather patterns near Antarctica were changing due to man-made global warming.
On February 16, during a presentation in Indonesia, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that climate change was “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” Only two days later, protestors set fire to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, leading to the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. In March, Russia seized the Crimea. In July, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, and political unrest continues today. In the Middle East, slaughter of innocent civilians and beheading of western captives became a growing trend. Man-made climate casualties seem remarkably scarce in comparison.
In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations released Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, part of its Fifth Assessment Report. The report said that man-made climate change would reduce world agricultural output. Lead author Dr. Mark Howden stated, “There’s increasing evidence that climate change is also impacting on agriculture, particularly on some of the cereal crops such as wheat and maize. The negative impacts are greater and quicker than we previously thought.”
Meanwhile, farmers continued to ignore the warnings of the IPCC. According to the US Department of Agriculture, world agricultural production set all-time records for all three major cereal crops in 2014, with rice output up 1.1 percent, wheat up 11.2 percent, and corn up a whopping 14.0 percent over 2013.
The Obama administration continued its attack on coal-fired power plants, which provide about 40 percent of US electricity. In June, the EPA proposed new restrictions on carbon emissions that would make it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired plant in the US. At the same time, more than 1,200 new coal-fired plants are planned across the world, with two-thirds to be built in India and China.
In his 2007 Noble Prize acceptance speech, former Vice President Al Gore warned that the arctic ice could be gone in “as little as seven years.” But arctic sea ice rebounded in 2014 and antarctic sea ice has been growing for decades. According to the University of Illinois, satellites measured global sea ice area at above the 30-year average at the end of 2014.
In September, the United Nations held a climate summit in New York City to urge the world to conserve energy and reduce emissions. Spokesman Leonardo DiCaprio stated, “This disaster has grown beyond the choices that individuals make.” Mr. DiCaprio neglected to mention his frequent flights on carbon-emitting private jets or his ownership of the world’s fifth largest yacht, purchased from a Middle East oil tycoon.
In October, climate skeptics reported the eighteenth straight year of flat global temperatures. Satellite data shows no temperature increase since 1997. The “pause” in global warming is now old enough to vote or to serve in the military.
Hurricanes and tornadoes are favored events for generating alarming climate headlines, but US weather events were few in 2014. US tornadic activity was below average and the lack of strong hurricanes continued. No Category 3 or stronger hurricane has made US landfall for more than eight years, the longest period since records began in 1900.
The last half of 2014 witnessed a steep drop in world petroleum prices from over $100 per barrel to under $60 per barrel. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, technologies perfected by US geologists and petroleum engineers over the last two decades, produced an explosion in US oil production and triggered the fall in world prices.
But the concurrent drop in US gasoline prices to two dollars per gallon is not welcomed by man-made global warming believers. Former Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said in 2008, “So we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” English journalist George Monbiot has lamented, “We were wrong about peak oil: there’s enough in the ground to deep-fry the planet.”
With all the climate fun in 2014, what will 2015 hold?
The United Nations has welcomed the FARC’s (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) declaration of an indefinite unilateral ceasefire in Colombia, and offered to help oversea it – if both parties involved agree.
“The United Nations has the competency,” Hochschild told reporters Thursday. He also stated that the U.N. has the willingness and the experience needed for the job.
The leftist rebel group called the indefinite earlier this week in Havana, Cuba marking the end of the last round of peace negotiations for the year.
The FARC and the Colombian government have been engaged in peace talks since November of 2012 to end the 50 years of civil war in the country. Although unilateral ceasefires have been called in the past, this is first time that no time limit has been set, leaving many optimistic that the two sides may be approaching an agreement.
One of the conditions for the ceasefire set by the FARC was that the situation be monitored by an outside body.
On Thursday, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) announced that they were open to overseeing the ceasefire. The leftist fighters also approached the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Broad Front for Peace to oversea the ceasefire.
President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, welcomed the ceasefire, however has refused to agree to it, stating fears that rebels would use the time to recalibrate and acquire arms.
The President has also refused to meet the FARC’s conditions for an outside monitoring body, saying the government itself could monitor the situation.
Earlier on Friday, the government accused the FARC of killing five soldiers during clashes in the southwestern state of Cauca. The attack reportedly happened only hours before the ceasefire was due to begin, however it is not clear who started the aggressions. The FARC has not accepted responsibility and has yet to comment on the matter.
According to the FARC, the ceasefire – which took effect at midnight on Saturday – must lead to a truce, and will only call it off if Colombian soldiers directly attack FARC troops.
Santos has said he is only willing to halt military actions if a peace agreement is signed.