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Credit: UNRWA/SStevenson  Yarmouk Camp, Rural Damascus (February 2014) – Palestine  refugees queue amongst the damaged buildings in Yarmouk  Camp to receive the first humanitarian assistance to reach the  camp since July 2013.

The Security Council’s Key Moment on Syria: Tomorrow Morning

UPDATE: The vote is scheduled for tomorrow morning.

The Security Council’s work on Syria is reaching a critical point. Jordan, Luxembourg and Australia have presented a draft resolution that would compel the Syrian government and armed groups to allow humanitarian assistance to reach besieged populations. It is due to be voted on tomorrow  Saturday, but it is still unclear whether or not Russia will veto the resolution.

The outcome of this vote will directly affect the fate of over 6.5 million people in need inside Syria. But there is much more at stake than humanitarian access.

Last fall, the Security Council found unity for the first time on Syria over its chemical weapons program. The outcome of that moment of unity was two fold. Most immediately, it provided for the quarantine of Syria’s chemical weapons. It also provided some momentum toward progress on the humanitarian front. Shortly after the chemical weapons resolution was passed, the Council unanimously agreed (in a statement) on the need for humanitarian access inside Syria.

There was progress on the political front, too. In January, at the cajoling of Russia and the USA, the warring factions met face-to-face for the first time in for peace talks in Geneva. One issue on the table was a “good faith” agreement on a humanitarian ceasefire in the city of Homs.

Earlier this month, the UN finally brokered that ceasefire. This allowed humanitarian supplies into a besieged neighborhood and an evacuation of the sick and vulnerable. It also provided  a proof of concept that humanitarian pauses can be achieved.

With proof in hand and diplomatic momentum behind them, western countries (and Jordan) have been pushing for a more comprehensive resolution that would guarantee humanitarian access to populations in need throughout Syria. By dint of being a Security Council resolution, this would carry the force of law. But Russia is wavering. It’s principle objection is that the resolution on the table may be used as a cover to impose punitive measures on the Syrian government. To wit, the last sentence of the resolution reads:

Requests the Secretary-General to report to the Council on the implementation of this resolution by all parties in Syria, in particular paragraphs 2 through 12, in 30 days of its adoption and every 30 days thereafter, and upon receipt of the Secretary-General’s report, expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance with this resolution;

In other words, the resolution would require Ban Ki Moon to report back on whether or not the Syrian government is blocking humanitarian aid from reaching populations in need. If he finds it is, the Security Council could start debating ‘further steps’ to enforce the resolution. That is diplomatic code for punitive measures like sanctions or even something stronger, and it’s these ‘further steps’ that bother Russia. Moscow’s overriding goal is to prevent international intervention. That means blocking any possible path to intervention.

The drafters of this resolution are well aware of Moscow’s concerns. At the same time, they want the resolution to have some bite. So instead of outright threatening Syria in the case of non-compliance, they inserted an implied threat that punitive measures may be considered in the future.  This weakens the resolution, but could be enough to bring Moscow on board. After all, they could always veto these ‘further steps’ when the time comes.

On the other hand, if Moscow vetoes this resolution it would all but end the limited progress there has been on humanitarian access inside Syria. It would be a profound display of acrimony and disunity at the Security Council and likely signal the end of the ongoing peace talks in Geneva.

A failure of this resolution would signal that the ability of the Security Council to positively affect events on the ground was ephemeral.

 

Credit: UNRWA/SStevenson  Yarmouk Camp, Rural Damascus (February 2014) – Palestine
refugees queue amongst the damaged buildings in Yarmouk Camp to receive the first humanitarian assistance to since July 2013.

 

 

 

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Top of the Morning: Malaria Risk Drops in Africa

Top stories for DAWNS Digest

Malaria Risk Drops in Africa, but 184 Million Still Live Under Threat

The study shows the effect of the Roll Back Malaria campaign and other initiatives. “New research shows that after 10 years of intensified campaigns against malaria 184-million people in Africa still live in moderate to high-risk areas. While the number is high, it’s down from nearly 220-million in 2000 when anti-malaria efforts began to increase. The findings are based on thousands of community-based surveys in 44 African countries and territories. These are places where malaria has been endemic.” (VOA http://bit.ly/1bqL5Yl)

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The Fight for LGBT Rights Extends Far Beyond Sochi

With just a few days left until the hockey gold medal games and the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the eyes of the world are focused on the biennial celebration of the human spirit, determination, and competitive fair play.

However, a different drama has been playing out in Russia at the same time—one that has sometimes overshadowed the Games themselves. LGBT rights have suffered a severe backlash in Russia recently, with draconian laws and oppressive surveillance designed to stamp out homosexuality entirely. LGBT protesters have been met with violent police response.

But Russia is not the only nation in which LGBT rights have suffered recent reversals. Uganda just passed drastic regressive legislation serving up lifetime sentences for those in same-sex relationships and even prison sentences for those who fail to report same-sex couples to the authorities. Meanwhile, the wave of religious fundamentalist backlash that has swept over the Middle East in recent decades continues to make itself felt through strong resistance to sexual openness, including but not limited to public executions of those suspected of being in same-sex relationships.

Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is nothing new, of course. But the sexual revolution in the West and the rapid expansion of rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people across much of the developed world has led to a severe reactions from more traditional religious groups in many societies. Most of the societies enforcing these repressive laws are dominated by wealthy interests whose political power derives from more traditional and less urbane voting blocs closely aligned with conservative religious power structures. These institutions see expanded gender and sexual orientation rights as a threat not only to their power but to their very existence.

But the forces that give rise to the challenge of fundamentalist revanchism also present an opportunity for effective international action to protect and expand the rights of LGBT people worldwide. Civil rights advances in this area have been rapid and widespread across much of the developed world. They have been codified into law in many of the world’s most powerful nations, as well as a landmark UN Human Rights Council resolution passed in June 2011. International outcry over the treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender people in Russia, Uganda and elsewhere has been vocal.

This new yet broad consensus has not yet been enforced in a significant way on the global stage. But there is no reason that it could not be, using all of the diplomatic tools in the international arsenal from condemnation to even sanctions.

Unfortunately, of course, this brings the focus back to Russia. Any action on LGBT rights requiring Security Council support would run into resistance from Russia and possibly from China as well.  Still, much can be done to protect LGBT rights even absent the Security Council. The UN, working along with member nations dedicated to advancing this latest front in the battle for universal human rights, can — and is – playingmajor role in speeding up the process and overcoming resistance from regressive forces.

 

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Top of the Morning: “Power Africa” Breaks Ground

Top stories from DAWNS Digest

Obama’s Power Africa Initiative Set to Break Ground

It’s a $21 billion project, of which the US government is contributing $7 billion in grants and loan guarantees. This is Obama’s signature African development initiative. “This spring, construction is set to begin on the first projects coordinated through Power Africa, a multibillion-dollar Obama administration initiative that seeks to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa within five years, and in some cases accelerate reforms in the governments of the nations involved. Among the initial projects are wind farms in Kenya and Tanzania, and a solar project in Tanzania.” (IEEE http://bit.ly/1crPpoM)

Security Council To Meet on CAR Crisis

The meeting comes as the worsening security situation prevented the top UN humanitarian official from traveling to parts of the country. No outcome is expected from this meeting, but it will provide the UNSC the chance to hear directly about the deepening crisis. “UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon and the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, will brief the Council on the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR). This will be followed by an interactive dialogue session between Council members and Chergui. On Friday (21 February) Council members will meet in consultations to have a further discussion on the CAR with members of the Department of Political Affairs.” (Security Council Report http://bit.ly/1crQpt3)

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Don’t Expect a “Cambodian Spring”

Prominent Cambodian human rights activist Ou Virak came to Stanford to speak last week, and his stance on the possibility of a political “spring” in politically tense Cambodia is clear: not likely.

“I don’t think a spring in Cambodia will happen, nor do I think it’s desirable,” Ou said, in the early February talk. “We don’t even have a word for spring in Khmer. The closest word is revolution, which reminds people of Khmer Rouge.”

Ever since the hotly contested July 2013 elections, Cambodia has been experiencing political turmoil unprecedented since the 1997 coup by current Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have been calling for “change” — and for Hun Sen, who helms an unquestionably corrupt and undemocratic government, to step down from the post which he’s held since 1986.

In the months since summer, Cambodia’s garment industry has been drawn into the political turmoil and has formed alliances with the opposition, asking for an increase in wages for the factory workers behind some of America’s most iconic brands, including Nike, the Gap, and H&M.

At least four garment protesters were shot dead after security forces responded to a protest, answering stones and Molotov cocktails on the garment workers part with live ammunition. Now, some are concerned that the intensifying call for increased salaries and increasing political uncertainty may cause Western garment and other business interests to move away from Cambodia

It’s into this restive political environment that Ou Virak made his comments at Stanford. A long-time opponent of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party via his human’s right organization, he’s come out in recent months against a recent uptick in violence against Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority — which he suspects has been fueled by Rainsy’s aggressive opposition to supposed Vietnamese encroachments on Cambodian turf.

“Is Sam Rainsy a moderate? I think he is, but he is not a man of principle,” said Ou. “He’s not a man of principle because he’s chosen the politics of convenience. He’s all over the place.”

To exemplify Rainsy’s scatter-shot tactics, Ou pointed to Rainsy’s willingness to blame Vietnamese influence for a wide array of Cambodia’s ills, as well as his willingness to associate himself with the Chinese, who hold considerable business interests within the fertile Southeast Asian nation.

“He cannot escape the mental trap of the 1980s. He cannot run the country,” said Ou. “The anti-Vietnamese sentiment is being used to polarize Cambodia. It’s a game that used to be played but the CPP, and now by the CNRP.”

Per Ou, the last thing that Cambodia needs in its current state of political confusion is an outburst of ethnic cleansing. “Fear, hate and anger are already there in Cambodia,” he noted. “All they need is power for a possible Rohingya situation.”

Primarily, the Cambodian activist is worried that the CNRP — even if they do manage to oust Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-time government — lack any kind of coherent political strategy. And that could allow political radicals to seize the reins if a “spring” style ouster of Hun Sen took place.

“I haven’t seen an agenda…The only thing I’ve seen is how much we hate Hun Sen, and how much we hate Vietnam,” he said in the talk. “That’s a formula for disaster, going in with so much hate. We have no idea what we are fighting for.”

“If you win the revolution and get your, way you need a plan for not letting radicals win the day,” he added. “It’s easy to be frustrated, but it’s not easy to have a long protracted movement.”

Ou, a US-trained economist, is also opposed to any kind of economic sanction against Cambodia, which some have proposed as a redress for exploitative sweatshops and recent human rights violations committed by the opposition party.

“Definitely no sanctions, not now. It’s easy for us to call for sanction,” said Ou, referring to overseas observers of the current situation in Cambodia. To Ou, it’s questionable just how long garment workers making a mere $50 a month would be able to hold out in a protracted street fight over democracy.

“Boycotting products made in Cambodia is a terrible idea,” said Ou. “Isolating Cambodia and Hun Sen would walk us back very far.” He proposes a more moderate increase in salaries for garment workers over time, which he says would avoid spooking overseas investors while also improving living conditions for Cambodia’s working poor.

Although Ou Virak may advocate for patience, he remains hopeful that change will come sooner, rather than later, for Cambodia.

“There’s a lot of people with their own initiative locally in Cambodia. There’s a lot of smart young people,” he said. “Due to what’s taking place on the ground, Hun Sen can’t get away with his behavior. Things are changing.”

“People in Cambodia don’t have the luxury of romanticizing the world “revolution,” warned Ou, in a trenchant answer to those calling for another burst of political upheaval.

And indeed, Cambodians circa 2014 are playing with political fire, and should be mindful of that reality. Any approach towards democratic change in this country with a painful past must of necessity be a careful one, lest painful memories are summoned again.

Image: CNRP supporters rally in Phnom Penh in August of 2013 – Faine Greenwood

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UNHCR/ B.Ntwari/ January 2014

Is the “international community” turning its back on the Central African Republic?

For the last 70 days or so, the Central African Republic has been making headlines internationally. Following a coup in March 2013, instability and insecurity grew exponentially, as the new leader of the Central African Republic – Seleka leader Michel Djotodia – proved incapable of managing the forces that brought him to power. Now, merely a month after Djotodia stepped down unceremoniously, the country is being ripped apart.

Tit-for-tat violence, pitting Muslims against Christians, is creating a downward spiral of violence, which the small number of foreign troops on the ground today are not able to contain – not even close. As UN Dispatch editor Mark Goldberg noted earlier this week, the New York Times editorial board dropped the G-bomb, warning that genocide is looming in the landlocked African nation. And while the use of the word “genocide” is generally controversial, rhetorical questions should not obscure the main issue: millions of lives are at risk, and the country is spinning out of control. The current presence of the French and AU troops, the deployment of humanitarian aid, and the political pressure from regional partners are both vital and necessary – but, at this stage, this feels like we are responding to a raging house fire by throwing glasses of water, rather than calling in a fire brigade.

It’s time to call in the firemen, or risk another situation where the world stands by as millions of innocent people lose everything: their families, their homes, their livelihoods.

Of course, UN Dispatch readers understand that the reasons behind the currently limited intervention in the CAR are eminently complex. There are geopolitical considerations at play, tax dollars to manage in precarious economic times, and many other crises to contend with the world over. The ability of the “international community” – a loosely defined group of state and non-state actors with no real accountability or responsibility – to react in a timely and decisive manner is very limited.

It is disheartening to see what is playing out in the Central African Republic, especially knowing that MISCA – the African Union military force – was only partially funded for the rest of the year at a funding conference two weeks ago in Addis Ababa. And even though France is sending an additional a few hundred troops to strengthen their force on the ground, given the scale of the conflict and the massive effort needed to restore a sense of security in the country, this again falls far short of what the Central African Republic needs. (This RFI article notes that the French reinforcements are being sent for two reasons: one, because of the severity of the crisis, and two, because EU countries are taking their time sending their own troops through the recently approved EU mission.) Sluggishness in the face of these mass atrocities is not acceptable.

Other, more powerful voices, are saying the same thing, and pointing specifically to the responsibility of the UN Security Council and the African Union. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon once again called for decisive action on the matter on Saturday, saying “Now we must act together, we must act decisively and we must act now to prevent the worst.” In a stern statement released on Feb 18, Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of the key humanitarian actors on the ground, said “The extreme levels of violence against civilians and targeted killing of minority groups in the Central African Republic (CAR) illustrates the utter failure of international efforts to protect the population.” On January 22, 2014, the Under Secretary-General and Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, concluded his statement to the UN Security Council with this (emphasis mine):

Although the international community is responding late in the day, there is still a window to act to mobilize appropriate resources and to reverse one of the worst human rights and humanitarian crises of our time. We need to uphold our responsibility to protect Central Africans from the risk of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity yesterday.

Will the actors who can make a difference – the countries that make up the Security Council, the AU, the EU and other nations with military and economic power to bring to bear – finally heed the call? Or will the usual, convenient excuses for slow or limited action prevail, as they tend to do?

Photo credit: UNHCR/ B.Ntwari/ January 2014

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