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Embedded With Afghan Civil Society – Part 6 – The Legacy of War Crimes

In May 2010, I was given the opportunity to accompany the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO), an NGO that promotes human rights through arts and culture, as its staff conducted participatory theater workshops as psycho-social therapy and organized civilian war victims to take an active role in shaping the national debate over the government’s intention to negotiate with some of the insurgent factions currently battling Afghan and international forces.

Series introduction. Part I. Part II. Part III PartIV Part V

In January 2001, ten months before the United States and its United Front (Northern Alliance) allies overthrew the Taliban regime, foreign and Afghan Taliban fighters massacred at least 170 Yakawlang residents, and forced thousands into the mountains, where civilians died in sub-freezing temperatures.  That spring, the Taliban burned Nayak to the ground. Nine years on, the physical structures are largely rebuilt, but the population is still reeling.

Yakawlang residents incurred the wrath of the Taliban because they belonged to Afghanistan’s Sayyid Shia community, a small ethnic and religious minority, had the misfortune to inhabit an area previously held by the Shia United Front militia Hezb-e Wahdat, and simply because, like other populations that did not fit the Taliban vision for Afghanistan, they were in the way.

Today, AHRDO’s workshop is to be held in the office of the Afghan Victims’ Social Association, the local organization that represents civilian war victims in Yakawlang. The association was founded in 2008 by women who lost family members during the Taliban occupation. On our way to the office, Bisharat tells me that the UN sponsored a participatory theatre program, and after a performance about confronting past atrocities at the community level, the women in the audience met to plan their own victims support group. In the two years since, the association has been kept afloat by its members and individual supporters in Kabul.

The association office is an earthen building with bare walls and frayed red carpets. I sit on the floor with Qudsia, the young director, and Burmona, the head of administration. The women tell me they have big plans. They want to sponsor a psycho-social assessment of the area, run vocational classes for widows, physical therapy for survivors with disabilities, and education programs for children who left or never started school because their parents were killed.

Qudsia and Burmona explain that they, too, are victims; both lost family members, and Qudsia’s father was among the men massacred in January 2001. We know our community and we know what it needs, but we lack the funds necessary to go forward, the women tell me.  The remoteness of Yakawlang is another obstacle. “We are far from Kabul,” Qudsia laments, “We are far even from Bamiyan city.”

The association does not have a computer, and there is no internet access anywhere in Yakawlang. The staff conduct business entirely through prepaid mobile phones.

For now, with little support, the association can’t do much but provide space to outside organizations. Oxfam and other organizations involved in advocacy for aid reform have called on international donors to provide greater support to community-based organizations working at the local level to repair Afghanistan’s social fabric. But donor requirements remain insurmountable for most local NGOs, so organizations like Qudsia’s rarely receive any of the aid money flowing into their country.

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The Oil Spill Map To Watch

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just released this map of the Gulf. The bit inside the red lines is being shut down to fishing as of 6pm today. 

Presumably, with 19,000 additional barrels of oil spewing out of the ocean floor every passing day, that boundary will grow, and grow, and grow, and grow.If that were not reason enough to worry, hurricane season began yesterday.  

If you werent angry enough, over at Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard lists BP’s 10 biggest screw-ups.  Here’s number 1:

From the top hat to the top kill: In the past six weeks, it’s become obvious that BP has no idea how to fix a hole a mile below the sea. First there was the failure of the containment dome (a contraption that had to be constructed after the blast, since BP didn’t think to have one ready ahead of time). We waited for the second, smaller dome (the top-hat), which BP decided wouldn’t work either. Next came “junk shots,” in which BP unsuccessfully attempted to plug the hole with golf balls, chunks of rubber and other detritus. Then BP promised the so-called “top-kill” would be the best fix. That failed last weekend, and now BP is moving on to its next trick, another containment dome option that looks much like the others, except this method could actually increase the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf by 20 percent. And if that doesn’t work, the spill will likely continue at least through August, until a relief well can be completed.

Ugh. In any case, this map seems to offer a pretty good way to judge the geographical scope of the spill. Presumably it will be updated on a fairly regular basis as the no-go area expands. 

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When Israel and Turkey Fight, the International Community Suffers

Relations between Ankara and Jerusalem have been on the rocks since about 2008. There was this incident. And this. And this.  Now, the raid of the Turkish-backed Gaza-bound flotilla which claimed the lives of four Turkish citizens have plunged Israeli-Turkish relations to a new low.  

The thing is, these countries used to be fairly reliable allies — particularly where their military was concerned. But ever since the Israeli military operation in Gaza in 2008, Israel-Turkey relations have entered a death spiral.  A number of interests are bound to suffer from this — the United Nations included. 

Think back to the summer of 2006.  Two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah along the border of southern Lebanon. Israel responded with a massive mobilization in southern Lebanon and Hezbollah retaliated by launching rocket attacks into Israel.  There was heavy civilian damage–and despite Israel’s military prowess, it could not subdue the Hezbollah guerrilla force. 

About a month after the hostilities began, the security council negotiated a tenuous cease-fire.  Israel would not withdraw from Lebanon unless a relatively sophisticated international military force was to take its place.  France, Italy and Spain, agreed to deploy a force.  That was enough to satisfy Israel.  But for political reasons, the force would also need to include troops from Muslim countries.  The thing is, Israel, understandably, would object to the inclusion of troops from countries with which it did not share diplomatic ties. There are precious few countries that have are Muslim majority, have sophisticated militaries, and have ties with Israel. In that small club, Turkish peacekeepers are clearly the the prize. In August 2006,  then-Secretary General Kofi Annan traveled to Ankara to press Prime Minister Erdogan to send a peacekeeping contingent to Lebanon.  A few weeks later, Turkish naval and engineering units were en route to Lebanon.  With that political cover, the force, known as UNIFIL II was able to deploy.  There has not been a resumption of hostilities since. 

The 2006 Lebanon-Israel conflict seems like the distant past, but at the time it was incredibly destabilizing for the entire Middle east.  The Turkish-Israeli alliance, though, persevered and helped to stabilize the situation. With relations as frayed as they are today, it is hard to see that sort of thing happening again.  When Ankara and Jerusalem fight, the cause of international peace and security is bound to suffer.   

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World Health Organization to Israel: Let Us Deliver Medical Supplies to Gaza

The World Health Organization seems to be seizing on the spotlight by renewing a call to allow for the unimpeded access into Gaza of medical supplies and technical know-how. From a WHO statement released moments ago:

Hundreds of items of equipment have been waiting to enter Gaza for up to a year, procured by WHO and other organizations, says Mr Tony Laurance, head of WHO’s office for Gaza and the West Bank. These items include CT scanners, x-rays, fluoroscopes, infusion pumps, medical sterilization gasses, laboratory equipment, UPS (uninterrupted power supply) batteries, and spare parts for support systems like elevators.

“It is impossible to maintain a safe and effective healthcare system under the conditions of siege that have been in place now since June 2007,” Mr Laurance says. “It is not enough to simply ensure supplies like drugs and consumables. Medical equipment and spare parts must be available and be properly maintained.”


Gaza’s second biggest hospital, the Gaza-European Hospital, operates without 2 out of its 3 elevators not functioning due to disrepair.

All hospitals have been waiting for over 6 months to get spare parts to repair their main sterilizers.

Spare parts needed for the cardiac catheterization laboratories in the Gaza-European Hospital have been waiting to enter for 6 months.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials and top American conservatives are denying that there even is a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza at all.  From ThinkProgress. 

ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN: “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. … The flotilla is an attempt at violent propaganda against Israel, and Israel will not allow the violation of its sovereignty at sea, in the air, or on land.”

MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: “Over one hundred trucks, every day, laden with food and medicine go into Gaza. There’s no shortage of food. There is no shortage of medicine.”

NEWT GINGRICH: “There was no humanitarian crisis; this was a deliberate political effort on the part of people who want to try to undermine the survival of Israel.”

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: “What exactly is the humanitarian crisis that the flotilla was actually addressing? There is none. No one is starving in Gaza.”

Who are you going to trust: Charles Krauthammer or the WHO? 

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Israeli Raid on Gaza Flotilla Not Much of a “Turning Point” in US-Israeli Relations

Last night, the United States agreed to the passage of a Security Council “Presidential Statement” on the violence aboard a Gaza bound flotilla raided by Israeli commandos.  Is this the “tipping point” in U.S.-Israel relations that Digby and other may have been predicting?  

The Security Council statement on Israeli peace flotilla raid Security Council seems to say three things. 

1) It condemns the raid. 

2) It calls for the release of the flotilla members and their ships currently being detained in Israel.

3) It calls for a credible investigation into what transpired.

There is not much question about number 2. But apparently, the meaning of the rest of the text is in the eye of the beholder.  And the way in which the Obama administration is choosing to interpret the statement would suggest that there no daylight between the United States and Israel. 

At a press stakeout this morning, the American official who negotiated the joint Security Council statement walked back any suggestion that the council “condemned Israel” for the raid, or that council is calling for an independent international investigation of the incident.  “If you read the text carefully, it makes clear what it means and what it doesn’t mean,” Deputy American UN Ambassador Alejandro Wolff told reporters. “We are convinced and support an Israeli investigation as I called for in my statement earlier and have every confidence that Israel can conduct a credible and impartial, transparent, prompt investigation internally.”

On point 1, what the statement actually says is this:

“The Security Council deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries resulting form the use of force during the Israeli military operation in international waters against the convoy sailing to Gaza. The Council, in this context, condemns those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded, and expresses its condolences to their families. (emphasis mine)

Depending on your perspective, “those acts” could mean Israeli forces opening fire on civilians on the ship or civilians provoking Israeli forces into firing in self defense.  The American delegate clearly refuses to interpret this as the former.   Others, like council president Claude Heller of Mexico, read it differently.  In an earlier press stakeout Heller made it clear that there is no doubt in his mind that the resolution condemned the Israeli military actions.  (Watch here

On the question of who or what will investigate this incident, the statement also remains ambiguous.  

“The Security Council takes note of the statement of the United Nations Secretary-General on the need to have a full investigation into the matter and it calls for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.” [emphasis mine]

So does this mean that there will be a team of independent international investigators looking into the incident or just an Israeli government investigation (albeit one that “[conforms] to international standards.”) Again, there seems to be ambiguity.  The text does, however, make reference to a statement by Ban Ki Moon earlier in the day. Perhaps that will provide some guidance? 

 We do not yet know the full facts yet. More than ten people appeared to have been killed and many more wounded. It is vital that there is a full investigation to determine exactly how this bloodshed took place. I believe Israel must urgently provide a full explanation. [emphasis mine]

As you can see, Ban’s remarks do not offer much in the way of clarification.

It is important to keep in mind is that yesterday’s Security Council action was not a resolution, but a so-called “Presidential Statement.” The former has the force of law and can be vetoed by the five permanent members. The latter does not have any legal authority, but is politically significant because passing a presidential statement requires unanimity of the entire 15 member council. This means that when a presidential statement is passed, it has the weight of each of the 15 members of the council behind it.  So long as council members put up a unified front, it can be a politically powerful tool. But once that consensus is broken, the statement rapidly loses its utility as a mechanism to pressure a country or group. 

By choosing to interpret the deliberately ambiguous text in the way it is, it would seem that the Obama administration is not trying to pressure the Israelis too hard — at least in public.  A “tipping point” this was not. 

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Readout from the Emergency Security Council Session on Israeli Raid of Gaza Bound Flotilla

Last night, the Security Council issued a “Presidential Statement” on the incident aboard the a Gaza-bound humanitarian convoy that was poised to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.  Ten people were killed in the raid and hundreds of nationals from Europe and Turkey (including several dignitaries) are being detained by Israel. 

The Security Council held an emergency session yesterday.  Judging from the readout, the session produced some very volatile moments. 

Turkey, which the New York Times describes as the “unnofficial sponsor of the convoy” happens to sit on the Security Council. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu issued a very harsh rebuke of Israel, it’s erstwhile “ally.”

Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said he was distraught by the incident, which was a grave breach of international law and constituted banditry and piracy — it was “murder” conducted by a State, without justification.  A nation that followed that path lost its legitimacy as a respectable member of the international community.  The children of Gaza, meanwhile, did not know where their next meal was coming from; they had received no education and had no future.  Today, many humanitarian workers returned home in body bags.  Israel had “blood on its hands”.

Meanwhile, the United States, which is reliably on Israel’s side in these sorts of deliberations, was much milder in its criticism. Said Ambassador Alejandro Wolff, Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations: “The United States is deeply disturbed by the recent violence and regrets the tragic loss of life and injuries suffered among those involved in the incident last night aboard the Gaza-bound ships.” He then went on to criticize “direct delivery by sea” of humanitarian aid.    

As you can see, much different sentiments coming from Turkey and the United States.

Despite the tonal difference, there was apparently enough agreement in the council to reach consensus in the form of a presidential statement.  In diplomatic terms, a presidential statement is less than a “resolution” in the sense that it does not have the force of law.   It does, however, have political potency. Each of the 15 members of the Security Council have a veto over the process, meaning a presidential statement, once issued, has the unamimous backing of the council. 

This is what the United States, Turkey, and the rest of the council agreed upon yesterday.   You will note that Israel is not condemned directly, only “those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded, and expresses its condolences to their families.” Presumably, that would also include attacks against the Israeli soldiers that boarded the ships.  The Times reports this concession was granted in order to secure American approval of the final statement.

Presidential Statement

“The Security Council deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries resulting form the use of force during the Israeli military operation in international waters against the convoy sailing to Gaza. The Council, in this context, condemns those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded, and expresses its condolences to their families.

“The Security Council requests the immediate release of the ships as well as the civilians held by Israel. The Council urges Israel to permit full consular access, to allow the countries concerned to retrieve their deceased and wounded immediately, and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance from the convoy to its destination.

“The Security Council takes note of the statement of the United Nations Secretary-General on the need to have a full investigation into the matter and it calls for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards.

“The Security Council stresses that the situation in Gaza is not sustainable. The Council re-emphasizes the importance of the full implementation of resolutions 1850 (2008) and 1860 (2009). In that context, they reiterate their grave concern at the humanitarian situation in Gaza and stress the need for sustained and regular flow of goods and people to Gaza, as well as unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza.

“The Security Council underscores that the only viable solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an agreement negotiated between the parties and re-emphasizes that only a two-State solution, with an independent and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours, could bring peace to the region.

“The Security Council expresses support for the proximity talks and voices concern that this incident took place while proximity talks are under way and urges the parties to act with restraint, avoiding any unilateral and provocative actions, and all international partners to promote an atmosphere of cooperation between the parties and throughout the region.


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