Tag Archives: war crimes

One year on from Gaza/Israel conflict, no investigations, no justice.

One year after the upsurge in fighting in Gaza neither side has conducted sufficient, impartial and independent investigations into alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law says Amnesty International.

On 21 November 2012, 13-year-old Mahmoud was killed by a missile fired by an Israeli drone fired in the al-Manara area of Gaza City.
The human rights group, Amnesty International, has today accused both the Israeli authorities and Hamas of failing to investigate documented reports of serious human rights violations.

Amnesty highlighted the case of 13 year old Mahmoud who died in an Israeli drone strike. Mahmoud was one of at least 30 children to die during the 8 days of fighting. Mahmoud was of course also one of 70 or so civilians to die in that 8 day period.

Failing to distinguish between civilian and combatant is a violation of International Humanitarian Law. The nature of Mahmoud’s death is one of 65 incidents Amnesty are calling on the Israeli authorities to investigate.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, reported on Operation Pillar of Defence and highlighted that Israeli forces made considerable efforts to avoid civilian casualties but that on a number of occasions “the military may have acted unlawfully”.

Amnesty International however in their annual report go further commenting that:

“The Israeli air force carried out bomb and missile strikes on residential areas, including strikes that were disproportionate and caused heavy civilian casualties. Other strikes damaged or destroyed civilian property, media facilities, government buildings and police stations. In most cases, Israel did not present evidence that these specific sites had been used for military purposes.”

Specifically, Amnesty has called for investigations into 65 cases of “alleged misconduct” by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during Operation “Pillar of Defense”.

In their latest statement, Amnesty has also condemned Hamas for their “indiscriminate” use of rockets. During the conflict it is thought that as many as 1,500 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel in the 8 day period.

The case of David Amsalem who lost his 24 year old son to a rocket strike was highlighted to illustrate the fact that Hamas’ arsenal, by its very nature, cannot distinguish between civilian and combatant – something which in itself is a violation of International Humanitarian Law.

The conflict left more than 165 Palestinians (more than 30 children and some 70 other civilians) and 6 Israelis (including 4 children) dead.

Neither side has launched sufficient, impartial and independent investigations into these alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law leaving thousands morning with no access to justice and reinforcing a sense of impunity on both sides.

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It’s quite possible that both sides have used chemical weapons in Syria

What happened in the suburb of Damascus that resulted in the death of 1,429 Syrians on the 21st August?

This question sits at the heart of the debate about what the International Community should do in response to the attack.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry is pretty clear that he thinks he knows what happens and what needs to happen. In short, he believes Assad’s regime used chemical weapons on its own people – an act constituting a war crime. Commenting on a declassified report Kerry said that the findings are “are as clear as they are compelling.”

His suggested course of action  is immediate air-strikes.

The UK knows that the Assad regime has stockpiles of chemical weapons partly because 10 months after the outbreak of the most recent conflict the UK government sold nerve gas chemicals to the regime.

Despite all this, many are still claiming that there is not sufficient evidence that the Assad regime is definitely responsible for these attacks. Natalie Bennett, leader of The Green Party, writing on Liberal Conspiracy said: “no, we haven’t seen real evidence, independent scrutiny, in what happened in that hell in a Damascus suburb on August 21.”

The UN inspectors are still compiling their evidence and have given no indication of when they will announce their results.

Bennett’s suggested course of action  involves the ICC. She comments, “The route to justice for a horrific gas attack is the International Criminal Court. As Caroline Lucas said this week: “Crimes against humanity and international law have been committed. Once there is evidence of responsibility for these appalling attacks, those responsible must be dealt with by the International Criminal Court.”

Of course, none of this is anything new in Syria.

We know that there have been reports of deaths after chemical attacks for months before this most recent attack. For example, in March this year 26 people died in the Khan al-Assal area (just outside Aleppo) after an attack that is believed to have involved Sarin. On this occasion, the Russian government produced a report suggesting rebel forces were responsible for the attack- a reported that was contradicted by US evidence.

We also know that rebel forces have been in possession of chemicals such as Sarin. In May this year, Turksih forces “found a 2kg cylinder with sarin gas after searching the homes of Syrian militants from the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front” .

It is worth reminding ourselves that Al-Nusra is a listed terrorist organisation that is a splinter of AL-Qaeda and is also widely considered to be the most powerful military force currently fighting Assad’s regime. We also know that Al-Nusra have claimed responsibility for attacks on civilians areas – a failure of the principle of distinction and itself a war crime. This, when combined with a series of brutal killings, starts to paint a bleak picture of what some within the opposition stand for.

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons but I am under no pretence that some of those who are opposing Assad are just as capable of such atrocities.

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Syria has reached “unprecedented levels of horror” – and it’s only going to get worse

Today’s papers are filled with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League peace envoy, comments to the UN Security Council that Syria has reached “unprecedented levels of horror”.

His comments come in the aftermath of the UN estimate that 60,000 have now died in the conflict. Although the actual death toll is likely to much higher as the UN excluded any partial or unverifiable reports of killings.

Last summer Amnesty International reported of a “tide of increasingly widespread attacks on civilians by government forces and militias which act with utter impunity”. Significantly, Amnesty International highlighted evidence that war crimes had been committed by both the opposition and government forces.

In November the human rights organisation made a direct plea to William Hague to try and curb the pattern of abuse against civilians being perpetrated by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

It is hard to imagine the situation getting worse.

Worryingly, some of Mr Brahimi’s comments that went less reported suggest just that. He commented, “The region is being pushed into a situation that is extremely bad”.

This is an understatement.

Firstly there is Iran. A key player in the conflict that is desperate to keep a Shi’a regional ally – not least as a potential arms link export market for terror organisations working in and around Palestine and Lebanon. Many, including the West’s regional partners such as Saudi Arabia, see a functional transition of power from Assad as a way of reducing Iran’s regional influence.

With neither side strong enough to win the war outright, the regional external players are only likely to increase the bloodshed. There is a growing possibility that the fighting will cross borders to draw in more concrete action from regional players.

Secondly, where there is war, there is a killing to be made through arms exports. This opportunity hasn’t passed the UK and US. Currently using routes through Jordan, the UK and the US is ensuring that arms reach their favoured groups – ignoring the above mentioned war crimes. Of course the UK would argue they are acting to ‘protect civilians’ and the arms trade is an inconsequential side note. Whether or not we believe them is a different question.

Either way, the arms industry (which we know to have a small influence on our government) is more than happy to see this war drag out.

Finally, the West’s aim, the overthrow of Assad, also has the chance to further increase the bloodshed. Haytham Manna writing in the Guardian highlights the thorny side of the armed opposition including al-Nusra who Obama has labelled a “foreign terrorist organisation” and who Manna said “indiscriminately targeted non-Sunni people”. Will they and other Islamist groups form part of the new government when they are playing such a pivotal role in the armed resistance?

Even after the overthrow of Assad, will this end the civil war?

Bahimi’s warnings are clear and should act as a warning, not just to the Russians and Chinese who continue to block calls for sanctions against Assad, but also to the West who seem all too eager to jump into bed with those who fulfil their short term goals.

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The UK has turned its back on victims of war crimes

This article was written for Social Justice First.

White phosphorous used by the Israeli military at a UN school in Gaza. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP

“We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still-burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army” Chris Cobb-Smith, a British weapons expert who visited Gaza.

“Commanders ordered their subordinates to shoot civilians and ‘hors de combat’ fighters, and to torture and mistreat detainees. Orders were often enforced at gunpoint and anyone hesitating to comply risked arrest or summary execution” UN report on war crimes in Syria.

These quotes are from two wars and describe two different accusations of war crimes.  Britain’s response to these atrocities should deeply worry us all.Last month Cameron all but offered Assad a safe passage out of Syria. Rightly there was outrage. Amnesty International commented that, “Instead of talking about immunity deals for President Assad, David Cameron should be supporting efforts to ensure that he faces justice, ideally at the International Criminal Court at The Hague”. They rightly then drew attention to the mass indiscriminate bombings that Assad had overseen – actions that constitute a war crime.

The arrogance that Cameron showed on that occasion was alarming. He believed that his idea of getting Assad out of the country at any cost was somehow superior to that of International Law. That he could bring peace where established human rights mechanisms couldn’t.

This was the first time I had heard this government leave its staunch “we support international law” line that it hides its inactions behind. Sadly it looks as though it wasn’t a one off. The Foreign Office on Monday night implied that the UK is prepared to back a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN if, and only if, Abbas pledges not to pursue Israel for the war crimes it has committed.

Can anyone tell me, since when has the UK started to hand out impunity for war crimes in return for entering into peace talks?

I can’t believe that these two incidents are not connected and I fear that they are signals for what is to come from the FCO.

The consequences of Cameron’s words

The UK is saying is that Abbas should not pursue justice for the victims of Israel’s 2009 “indiscriminate and reckless” use of white phosphorus. In contrast, Human Rights Watch said that senior leaders should be held to account as civilians “needlessly suffered and died”.

Equally, it is saying that Abbas should not follow up the evidence that suggests Israel used indiscriminate attacks in the latest up-surge of fighting in Gaza.

The UK has asked Abbas not to apply for membership of either the International Criminal Court(ICC) or the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The first being a body that aims to offer accountability by bringing to justice those who have committed the worse crimes – namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The latter is a pre-judicial body that aims to settle legal disputes between states based on international law.

The Foreign Secretary needs to be asked why it is he thinks Palestine should be a state – but should not have access to these bodies!

Clearly the UK is acting in this way for some reason – perhaps trying to compromise with a hard-line US position for example. Or perhaps they are hoping to avoid Israel annexing settlements in the West Bank. But, this is a price too far.

Once you start to compromise on these internationally agreed standards – standards that Israel has signed up to – then you stand at the top of a very slippery slope!

What we need is for the UK to be making clear and bold statements calling for all those accused of war crimes to be held to account through the established bodies – regardless of who the perpetrators are!

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Rockets and war crimes cannot break the Israeli peace movement

At the time of writing, 80 rockets have been launched from Gaza since last night – all aimed at the south of Israel.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) spokesman on twitter pointed out earlier that these rockets are not always intercepted.

The latest series of attacks have caused at least 5 injuries. Towns across the south of Israel are, once again, living in fear that a rocket could hit at any moment.

These attacks, due to their indiscriminate nature are a violation of International Humanitarian Law as they fail to distinguish between civilian and combatant. Amnesty International has accused Hamas, who regularly claim responsibility for these rocket attacks, of War Crimes.

These most recent attacks reminded me of my visit to Sderot earlier this year. Sderot is an Israeli town less than a kilometer from the Gaza border with a population of just 24,000 people. Life in Sderot is dictated by the near constant danger of rocket attacks.

Every house in Sderot has a built in ‘safe room’. I was told residents have just 14 seconds to get to it should they hear the warning siren. A physical impossibility for many such as Sderot’s elderly residents.

Town planners have ensured that there are always bomb shelters close by out in the streets. Every bus stop is built to double up as a bomb shelter. As a result, residents of Sderot are never far from shelter nor the reminder that they live in a constant danger.

Nearly all of Sderot’s residents have been affected by rocket attacks. 13 people have been killed in the small town in the last decade alone. The most recent was 35 year old Shir-El Friedman who was killed on the 9th May 2008.

Despite this terrifying reality, I met some within this small community that are actively looking to reach out to those living in Gaza.

I met a representative from ‘Other Voice‘ – a group of Israelis, mainly based in Sderot, who are working to end the circle of violence both in Gaza and Sderot. Their website states:

The Palestinians are also suffering. They, like us, strive for a quiet and peaceful life and for a better future. We believe that only by working together can we reach a long lasting solution. Therefore, our group is in ongoing contact with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who believe, as we do, in non-violence and mutual respect that will bring about the much anticipated change”.

To meet Israelis living with this constant threat of attack but who were looking to create dialogue rather than conflict was truly inspiring. Too often, across both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, I witnessed the exact opposite happening.

The most difficult question I am left with, is that I don’t know how I would respond if I lived under such constant fear! This however only exaggerates my admiration for those like the members of Other Voice.

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“What happened to Rachel will never be OK” Cindy Corrie

“The loss, the void, is permanent. You feel it every day of your life, What happened to Rachel will never be OK”.

These are the words of Cindy Corrie, the mother of Rachel Corrie who was killed in Gaza in 2003. She was interviewed a few days before a judge was due to rule on the civil lawsuit that she had bought against the State of Israel. Today the judge’s rulings were announced.

How it feels to lose a daughter at such a young age is something that I cannot begin to fathom. In Cindy’s own words, “for parents there’s that dread of something happening to a child. I don’t even know how to describe how we got through those first minutes and hours”.

Rachel died at the age of 23 in March 2003. She was crushed to death by a bulldozer as she stood in front of it aiming to protect a Palestinian’s house that was due for demolition. This house, which was finally demolished a year later, was one of 1,700 houses in Rafah that were demolished between 2000 and 2004. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem described these demolitions as ‘collective punishment’.

Richard Purssell, from Brighton, who witnessed Rachel’s death said at the time. “The driver cannot have failed to see her. As the blade pushed the pile, the earth rose up. Rachel slid down the pile… The driver didn’t slow down; he just ran over her. Then he reversed the bulldozer back over her again.”

Despite testimonies supporting this view, the Judge today concluded that the driver had not seen her – despite the fact she was wearing a bright orange jacket and was stood on top of the pile of earth he was driving towards. The judge added that “She [Corrie] did not distance herself from the area, as any thinking person would have done.”

Sadly, death remains an ever present reality in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Since January 2009 (the end of Operation Cast Lead) 302 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces. 38 of those killed were minors.

Indeed, an often forgotten fact is that on the same day that Rachel Corrie died in March 2003 a four year old Palestinian girl was also killed. This, in a world where the value of your death is dependent on the colour of your passport failed to make the headlines.

A death of an international was embarrassing to Israel. The then Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, promised US president George W Bush that Israel would conduct a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation into the incident.

The judge ruled today that the initial internal IDF investigation did take place and its findings were valid.

For many Palestinians however the possibility of an investigation into a loved one’s death is often an impossibility. B’Tselem states that “Israel has increasingly avoided accountability for serious violations of human rights…as a rule, [Israelis do] not open criminal investigations in cases in which soldiers killed Palestinians who were not taking part in the hostilities”.

Indeed, in cases of alleged torture no criminal investigations have been launched despite over 700 complaints being filed with the State Attorney’s Office. This failure led to B’Tselem concluding that the “State of Israel breaches its obligation under international law to investigate allegations of torture and, where the findings dictate, prosecute the perpetrators”.

Just as the families of many Palestinians are awaiting justice so are the families of murdered Israelis. Amnesty International noted that Hamas has made no attempt to investigate the alleged war crimes and possible crimes against humanity committed by Hamas’ military wing and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza during Operation “Cast Lead”. Families left to mourn with no prospect of an investigation.

This is something I cannot comprehend going through. Cindy Corrie’s grief is something I cannot comprehend going through. The thought of losing a loved one in this way is more than anyone should have to experience.

Rachel Corrie emailed home on the 27th February 2003 saying, “I really can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry about it”. Sadly, for nearly 10 years this lack of outcry is what has enabled the atrocities to continue throughout the region.

Today’s verdict has failed to offer any sense of accountability. It has however created a global outcry.

I am now waiting for a similar sized outcry next time an Israeli or Palestinian dies.

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The arrest warrant for Gaddafi confirms that we were right to enter the Libyan conflict

Gadaffi, along with his son and his chief intelligence advisor have been accused of alleged crimes against humanity including persecution and murder.  Gaddafi has been accused of orchestrating waves of attacks against civilians. A number of opponents have been killed or have disappeared.

ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo alleged that the attacks were systematic in nature and aimed at civilians.  In the recent months Amnesty International has pointed to evidence that suggested war crimes and crimes against humanity such as the repeated attacks on residential areas in Misratah.

This further intrenches the international community’s original justification for entering into the Libyan conflict. With the operation in the Libya now being over 100 days old, it is important to remember the original justification of conflict, to protect civilians. UN resolution 1973 authorises ‘all necessary measures to protect civilians’. What this arrest warrant does not do however, is justify further mission creep. Indeed, the UN resolution specifically excludes a foreign occupation force of any form on Libyan territory

The UK (as a member of the UN) has an obligation to not offer safe haven for any of the wanted men, they do not have international legitimacy to go after Gadaffi’s life. This is extra judicial execution, just as the US’s operation against Bin Laden was simply an extra-judicial execution.

What the UK must do however is to ensure that all other members of the UN deny safe haven for Gaddafi. This is not the first time that an arrest warrant has been issued for a head of state, the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has faced arrest since 2009 on charges of genocide, crimes and humanity and war crimes. The UK has to use all its diplomatic channels to ensure the Libyan leader cannot travel freely to rally support for his regime.

Equally, the UK must continue to urge the Libyan Government to comply with these arrest warrants and hand the wanted men over. It is important to remember that a lot of people involved with the regime are there by chance opposed to ideology. There are amazing stories coming out of Libya of men and women who have taken a stance against the regime and refused to act against their own people or commit atrocities. The UK Government should also applaud and seek to support these individuals.

Most importantly, this arrest warrant sends a clear message to all the senior figures involved in this conflict that they cannot act with impunity.

The UK can take strength from this announcement as it shows that we were right to move to defend civilians. It remains as important as ever to make sure we do not over step this mark. We must live up to our international obligations the same way the any other Government must. I do not believe that this development justifies any further increase in military operations – unlike some.

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Forgetting the past, Sexual violence in Bosnia Herzegovina

For a long time it was the subject of headlines, documentaries and judicial concerns. Now, it is a buried memory in Europe’s forgotten history. The war crimes that took place in Bosnia Herzegovina were some of the most horrific to occur on European soil since the Second World War. Depending on what report you believe, between 20,000 and 50,000 women and girls were raped in BiH during the conflict. Many were held captive and sexually exploited over long periods of time. With the EU’s drive to tackle corruption in BiH it worries many who have been affected by this issue that it will become a forgotten memory.

The International Criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was set up in 1993. Part of its mandate was to prosecute serious violations of humanitarian law, this includes sexual violence. To date, the ICTY has convicted 18 people of rape. This combined with the domestic courts that have convicted 12 people, brings us to a grand total of 30 prosecutions. Out of a minimum of 20,000 rapes there have only been 30 prosecutions. This is wholly inadequate by anyone’s standards, let alone the thousands of women who have not been able to return to normal life after being subjected to these horrific crimes.

The mandate of international judges is due to lapse in the coming months. This would mean that many cases would have to be bought back to square one in the domestic courts loosing years and thousands of Euros of work. It is essential that the mandate for the International judges is extended so they can continue to investigate these crimes in an impartial and thorough manner. This has to go hand-in-hand with a development of the domestic courts system that currently are inadequate to address issues of rape. This needs to be done with the support and encouragement of the whole European community.

At the moment however, the European community seems hell bent on tackling the headline grabbing issue of corruption. While there is no doubt that this issue is endemic in BiH and is often a root cause of other issues, it can not be prioritised over tackling rape. There needs to be sustained pressure put onto the BiH authorities to insure thorough and impartial investigations are undertaken. If this does not happen I fear that some will never be able to access to justice that they need to have a chance of returning to ordinary life.

“This nation forgets everything. They forget about us victims. But I will never forget about what happened to me.” – Sabiha, interviewed by Amnesty International

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