These are dark time

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I saw the images and videos soon after the first reports came out. The images are surreal because the victims, a lot of them children, are either already dead or suffering – but there is no blood. People are trying to revive them by throwing water on the victims’ faces yet nothing seems to help. Some of the children just seem delusional or puppet-like.

 Syrian opposition group claims that a chemical attack has killed as many as 1,300 people in government rocket strike that hit Damascus suburbs. The Assad government denies that allegations calling the rebels’ claim a ‘disillusioned and fabricated one whose objective is to deviate and mislead’ the UN mission (A UN team is currently in Syria to investigate the use of poison gas by both the Assad government and the rebels). However, if proven trues the chemical attack would not only be the worst chemical in this civil war but also since 1988 when Saddam Husein launched a chemical-weapon attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja. The Assad government has chemical weapons and has been suspected of using them before, though to a limited extent. This time, it seems very different.

 Though most world leaders condemned the attack they failed to act and, for now, have only called for an investigation. The European Union urged the government to give the UN full access to all sites and reminded that the use of chemical weapons is “unacceptable.” The French government adopted a firmer stand. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that, if proven true, the attack would be “an unprecedented atrocity”. Today he added that outside powers should respond “with force” if the use of chemical weapons is confirmed. He nonetheless ruled out sending troops on the ground and failed to say what “force” means. British Foreign Secretary William Hague meanwhile hopes that the massacre “will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realize its murderous and barbaric nature.”

Statements of the U.S. were rather bland, simply stating deep or grave concern. A year ago President Obama said that the US would respond forcefully to any chemical weapons use. However, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the side the U.S. chooses “must promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.” Obama is against any costly intervention in Syria, especially since the rebels do not represent Washington’s interests. Brushing off a question about his so-called “red line”, Obama said in an interview that, as the biggest power, it does “does not mean that we (the U.S.) have to get involved with everything immediately. We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests.” I “like” the “we have to get involved with everything immediately” considering the conflict has already lasted two years…Nothing can be expected from the White House.

There was not much from the United Nations Security Council because members failed to agree on a common statement. While Security Council members are seeking “clarity” on the opposition’s claims, China and especially Russia, Assad’s strongest supporter, opposed a strong and formal statement. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appeared more willing to condemn the attack describing reports of the chemical attack as “very alarming and shocking.” He warned the Syrian regime that, if proven true, “such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator.”

The Arab League called on UN inspectors currently on the ground to investigate reports. Saudi Arabia in particular urged the UN Security Council to “assume responsibility… By convening immediately to reach a clear deterrent decision that ends the humanitarian tragedy.” Turkey criticized the UN’s reaction stating that “all red lines have been crossed but still the U.N. Security Council has not even been able to take a decision. This is a responsibility for the sides who still set these red lines and for all of us.” Turkey has been supporting the rebels in Syria for some time and says the “use of chemical weapons in Syria is evident from the footage coming from there.”

The Assad regime seems to be playing with the “international community.” Why would it launch a chemical-weapon attack when UN inspectors are in the country? Does the regime want to show what it is capable of while the UN Security Council cannot even agree on a common statement? Assad is testing the West, showing that he has more than one trick up his sleeve. In recent weeks, successes and advances against the rebels have boosted his confidence. The Obama administration remains unwilling to act and ignores the “red line.” While the chemical attack will be a test for Washington, I doubt it will a game change. The White House’s strategy since the beginning of the conflict has been passivity. France, the UK and Turkey may take small steps but how much can they actually do?

In any case, western governments are responsible of failing to act. Whether this is a chemical weapon attack or not, too many people have already died.

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Egypt round-up

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After this week’s violence in Egypt and the overload of news, it’s sometimes hard to make sense of the situation. Here is a round-up.

– Live blogs

The NYT Lede

Al Jazeera Live blog

Good interactive timeline of the situation

Key events in Egypt’s uprising and unrest – Associated Press

The 23 Twitter accounts you must follow to understand Egypt – Max Fisher

– To get an idea of the chaos:

Egypt – A Fire That Will Burn Us All | Transitions – Mohamed El Dahshan

 “Reconciliation becomes increasingly difficult as interests are obscured; buried under political posturing, narrow interests, and more frightfully, vengeful impulses.

The leaders of both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood should be taken into orbit so they can see with some distance what their actions are reaping.”

– On Democracy

Democracy’s Losing the Streetfight –  Bessma Momani

Momani asks the hard question about democracy, mass protests and elections. How can one make democracy more accountable to the needs of the people? “This critical discussion can’t and won’t take place in the streets and squares of a capital near you. It is time to realize that there is simply no app for democracy.”

Egyptian ‘Liberals’ Are Out for Blood – Lee Smith

“It’s understandable that many Egyptians are concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s religiously fundamentalist and paranoid worldview. But the fact that people who describe themselves as liberals want to see their neighbors’ blood shed suggests that their liberalism isn’t what we typically mean by a political doctrine that prizes individual freedom and seeks as little interference from the state as possible. The reality is that Egypt’s liberals have aligned themselves with the military — the very same regime that they protested against during the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.”

Local views

Egypt’s press blames Islamists for violence

Egypt’s press holds the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for violence during the operations against protest camps but other newspaper elsewhere in the Arab World are more critical of the authorities for the bloodshed.

 Witness Accounts of Sectarian Attacks Across Egypt – Liam Stack

Bloggers and activists compile information and evidence of sectarian attacks thanks to media platforms, such as Twitter and Toutube. This is a good example of citizen journalism

United Nations and international reactions

Statement of Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General on Egypt condemning attacks on churches, hospitals, and other public facilities. “ (…) political clocks move only forward, not backwards. He calls on all Egyptians to resolve their differences peacefully in the interest of moving forward.”

UN Security Council has called for an end to violence in Egypt

 Statement by and Mr. Adama Dieng, United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Ms. Jennifer Welsh, United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, on the situation in Egypt

The two advisers condemn sectarian attacks on Christian churches and institutions.

 Reactions to developments in Egypt – Associated Press (lots of hot air)

– US and EU diplomacy

“How American Hopes for a Deal in Egypt Were Undercut” – David D. Kirkpatrick, peter Baker and Michael Gordon.

On European and US diplomacy and aid: “Where is the threshold of violence for cutting ties?”

On America’s role in Egypt:

 Democracy in Egypt Can Wait – Charles A. Kupchan

“The United States should do what it can to shepherd the arrival of liberal democracy in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. But the best way to do that is to go slow and help the region’s states build functioning and responsible governments. Democracy can wait.”

Egypt’s Army Crosses The Rubicon – Patrick Buchanan

 “Perhaps lowering our profile and shutting up would serve us better. This part of the world will be decades sorting out its future in light of the political, religious, ethnic and ideological forces unleashed by the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamism.”

“A phrase from the America of a century ago, when Mexico was in turmoil, comes to mind. Why not a period of watchful waiting?”

Egypt’s ‘special responsibility’ to end the stalemate – The Washington Post

 “The United States, too, has a special responsibility to work for a political settlement that restores democracy in Egypt, given its long-standing ties to the armed forces and $1.3 billion in annual military aid.”

Egypt challenges Obama’s Arab Spring philosophy – Julie Pace

“The president’s philosophy of limited engagement is facing perhaps its toughest test in Egypt, where the nation’s first democratically elected president was ousted by military forces with deep, decades-long ties to the U.S.”

What does the conflict in Egypt mean for Europe?

Egypt: disaster on Europe’s doorstep  – The Guardian

The international community is starting to grasp the dimensions of what is unfolding. Europe is on Egypt’s doorstep and if it descends into civil conflict, as it still might, the displaced will travel north across the sea if they can.

On what’s to come: where is Egypt headed?

AP Analysis: Egypt is in dangerous territory, facing possible long bout of violence – Hamza Hendawi

“With astonishing speed, Egypt has moved from a nation in crisis to a nation in real danger of slipping into a prolonged bout of violence or even civil war.”

It only gets worse from here – Issandr El Amrani

Smart analysis from Issandr El Amrani “In their strategy against the July 3 coup, the Brothers and their allies have relied on an implicit threat of violence or social breakdown (…) , combined with the notion of democratic legitimacy, i.e. that they were after all elected and that, even if popular, it was still a coup. On the latter argument, they may have gained some ground over time both at home and abroad. But on the former, they got things very, very wrong: their opponents will welcome their camp’s rhetorical and actual violence, and use it to whitewash their own.”

Vigilantes emerge as menacing force in Egypt as mosque siege ends – Jeffrey Fleishman and Raja Abdulrahim

 “The siege at a Cairo mosque Saturday highlighted the specter of Egypt spiraling into civil strife and factional bloodshed among the army, Islamists and bands of vigilantes who are emerging as a dangerous third force in the nation’s turmoil.”

In Egypt, Reconciliation Fades Further into the Distance – Bessma Momani

Reconciliation recedes into the distance as the “us vs. them” narrative becomes stronger in Egypt. The military and Muslim Brotherhood vilify each other.

 

Africa’s Forgotten Conflict?

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The United Nations, including Ban Ki-Moon, raised concerns over the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR), which has suffered a “total breakdown of law and order”, according to Ban. Last March, Séléka, a coalition of rebel group led by Michel Djotodia, staged a coup, ousted President Francois Bozizé and set up a transitional government. But the situation is getting worse. Ban has urged Member states to consider targeted sanctions against CAR but he is not the first, nor the only one to raise the alarm. Last month Médecins Sans Frontières announced that the health system had collapsed as a result of looting and lack of funding. Last week, Caritas reported killings outside Bangui. Reporters Without Borders condemned increased violence against journalists. Finally, Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), voiced his concern about the worsening security situation.

The country has plunged into chaos.

 The Séléka coalition may “control” the state but there is real chaos in CAR. First, the rebels commit gross human rights violations and refuse to protect civilians. Second, the population does not have access to the most basic goods and services. And third, the government is struggling to establish control outside Bangui. Séléka fighters and other armed groups arbitrarily arrests and detain civilians, commit targeted killings, rape and sexual abuse women, conduct raids against villages, and recruit child soldiers, according to the findings of a recent mission carried out by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The UN Secretary General stated 1.6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. MSF and other humanitarian agencies said that malnutrition and diseases such as malaria are rife, and drugs are in short supply. Moreover, organizations have been the victim of looting and attacks in the past couple of months. The World Food Programme has increased up its efforts to bring aid to the 200,000 people who have fled their home as a result of the crisis.  The situation is even worse outside the capital of Bangui where “there is no police, no justice system and no social services.” Furthermore, the conflict is not concentrated in CAR. Neighboring countries such as Chad and Sudan have been accused of participating or supporting coups in 2003 and 2013.

 Séléka is ignoring the dire humanitarian and human rights situation. The self-proclaimed interim president Michel Djotodia claimed in July that security had returned to much of the country, dismissed report of insecurity, and blaming the Lord’s Resistance Army for remaining problems. Séléka leaders say their men are not responsible for exactions and claim, of course, that they are protecting the population. But the narrative of the population is very different.

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CAR has a long history of conflict and crisis. The State has never really functioned. The March 2013 coup was the fifth of its kind since the country’s independence on 1960. Ousted President Bosizé himself participated in coups and ousted President Ange-Félix Patassé in 2003. He has been accused of committing or presiding over crimes against humanity during his presidency.

The current “interim president”, Michel Djotodia, has a history of violence as well. After Bosizé took power in 2003, Djotodia‘s Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) instigated a rebellion in 2004 called the “Bush War.” The Global Peace Accord signed in 2008 put an end to the conflict but also granted amnesty acts committed before the signing of the Accord. Djotodia was arrested in November 2006 but let free in 2008 after participating in the peace talks. The culture of impunity is therefore widespread.

Despite the peace agreement, Djotodia helped form Séléka and continued his campaign against Bosizé. The government signed another peace agreement with Djotodia in January 2013 and gave him a post in the Ministry of Defense. The agreement was short-lived: Séléka ousted Bozizé in March, accusing President Bosizé of failing to keep his promises. Djotodia suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and the National Assembly, promised to hold elections within 18 months but then postponed them to 2016.

There are numerous risk factors for the situation to get even worse. The current government does not have the capacity or/and refuses to prevent crimes against humanity and does also not have the institutions designed to protect the population. Impunity for violations committed by armed forces, militias, rebels and other state and non-state actors also heightens to risk of more abuses. Finally, atrocity crimes are more likely to occur during armed conflict, especially intra-state conflict. Considering the state of chaos since the Séléka takeover, risks of an all-out conflict have increased, especially between Muslims and Christians. The LRA is also more likely to become stronger as a result of the general lack security in the country. Finally, increased divisions within the Séléka coalition will render the transitional government even weaker.

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The latest Report of the Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect underlines the need to address structural and operational factors that affect state capacity to prevent human rights violations and mass atrocity crimes. Particularly important is the establishment of an environment of resilience and to build state structures that will address crimes. This includes constitutional protections; democratic electoral processes; political pluralism; ensuring accountability for human rights violations and past atrocity cries; setting up national accountability mechanisms; confronting economic disparities and deprivation; effective sector reform; guaranteeing legislative protection for human rights. CAR has not addressed these structural issues. There is no political will or leadership to do so.

In view of the current situation, the cycle of conflict, coups and violence, there is a urgent need to put an end to the culture of impunity. In terms of security sector reform, the government must absolutely condemn exactions and stop integrating Séléka elements into the army without screening them beforehand in order to determine their suitability. An efficient national disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) is system urgently needed, and those who have committed violations of human rights should be prosecuted.

In terms of justice, African civil society groups and international NGOs have urged ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to launch an investigation into ongoing human rights abuses, and thus to go beyond simply monitoring the situation. The ICC may be accused once again of focusing only on African cases but the situation in CAR is pressing and monitoring human rights abuses is not sufficient considering the number of reports of human rights violations.

The African Union on sanctions on Séléka leaders, including asset freezes, but member states should actually implement them. As the United Nations Secretary General states in his report on CAR, Djotodia visited to Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan despite travel bans.

 United Nations member states and the international community, if it exists, have a responsibility to act. In the past couple of years, our collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes and abuses from being committed in countries such as Syria, the DRC, and Burma should already put us to shame. The Central African Republic should not remain a forgotten conflict.

 

Read the UN Secretary’s General report on the Central African Republic HERE