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Turkey’s Syria offensive could spark another catastrophe

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An estimated 26,000 children aged 3-17 in Al Hol camp of Syria's Hasakeh governorate have been out of schools for years due to conflict and displacement and are in need of education services. © OCHA/Hedinn Halldorsson

Airstrikes and a ground offensive by Turkey in northern Syria against Kurdish forces have left civilians dead and forced tens of thousands to flee, UN agencies said on Friday, amid fears of another “humanitarian catastrophe” in the war-torn country. 

Expressing concern about the military campaign launched on Wednesday, the UN’s emergency relief chief Mark Lowcock noted that the Turkish Government had “assured me that they attach maximum importance to the protection of civilians and the avoidance of harm to them”. 

Speaking to journalists in Geneva,  Jens Laerke from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that Thursday had seen “intense shelling all along the north-eastern Syrian border with Turkey, from Jarablus, to the west of the Euphrates, to the Iraqi border”. 

Highlighting the potential for further suffering for Syrians caught up in more than eight years of war, Christian Cardon de Lichtbuer, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that “we have there all the ingredients for unfortunately yet another humanitarian crisis in Syria”. 

UN human rights office confirms eight civilian deaths  

As of Thursday evening, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, reported that seven civilians, including two women and a boy, had been killed in the first two days of the Turkish operation. 

A male civilian man was also reported killed in Jarablus on Wednesday, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said, adding that a woman and a boy were injured yesterday, during “counter-attacks and ground strikes” by Kurdish non-State armed groups. 

In response to the mass displacement of people from the northern border area, mainly to Al-Hasakeh district, the World Food Programme (WFP) has provided ready-to-eat meals to around 11,000 people there, with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). 

WFP supports close to 650,000 people in north-eastern Syria via a field hub in Qamishli; around 580,000 are currently in areas under Kurdish control, it said in a statement. 

“Mass population displacement has been reported since the escalation of violence”, said WFP spokesperson Hervé Verhoosel. “Over 70,000 people from Ras al-Ain and Tal Abiad have been displaced so far.” 

UN food agency ‘will cover’ needs of the displaced 

Several thousand more have move to Raqqa governorate since the beginning of Operation Peace Spring by the Turkish military on Wednesday, Mr. Verhoosel added, while many other were on their way to shelters in Raqqa city, “where WFP will be covering their food needs”. 

Although UN humanitarian staff remain in Qamishli, “their ability to operate and provide relief is severely restricted” by the hostilities, OCHA’s Mr. Laerke explained, adding that local authorities were also reportedly “imposing some quite strict security measures at checkpoints”. 

Linked to the military campaign, Marixie Mercado from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that the Alouk water pumping station reportedly came under attack early on Thursday.  

“This is a station that provides safe water to at least 400,000 people in Hassakeh governorate, including displacement camps,” she said 

In Tal Abiad, two schools have been reportedly taken over for military use, Ms. Mercado added, while child protection programmes have been suspended in Ras al-Ain, Mabrouka camp, Tal Halaf, Sulok and Tal Abiad.  

Health and Nutrition response in Ras al-Ain and Mabourka camp had also been put on hold, while schools in these areas have closed and the water supply has been affected.  

Asked whether any Syrian refugees had been seen returning to a so-called safe zone either side of the Turkey-Syria border, Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), said that he had “no information” of any Syrian refugees doing so. 

Any such buffer zone would have to set up “with full international humanitarian law safeguards in place, including the consent of the Government and warring parties and the zone being of civilian character, the safety of civilians would be hard to guarantee”, the UNHCR spokesperson added. 

So-called ‘safe zone’ is not managed by UN 

Echoing those comments, OCHA highlighted the vulnerability of those displaced by the conflict and the uncertainty surrounding a so-called buffer zone cleared of Kurdish fighters on the border, reportedly proposed by Turkey. 

“It’s not something that’s been set up by humanitarians, it is a zone that has been set up by military planners in Turkey,” said Mr. Laerke. “We do not control it and we have not been involved in the planning of it.” 

After more than eight years of war in Syria, needs are “significant and widespread”, Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, reiterated in Geneva on Thursday. 

Over 11 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance, she said, including 4.7 million living in areas of high severity of need. 

Amid uncertainty about how the military campaign will develop, the ICRC reiterated concern about the lack of basic services available to those displaced in the coming days and weeks, in towns and cities levelled by bombardment and shelling in a bid to drive out ISIL forces. 

“People are moving inside Syria, so we can assume, yes, they will go towards (the) south,” said the international Red Cross committee’s Mr. de Lichtbuer. “With the complexity and so areas like Deir-Ez-Zor, and Raqqa, which are not necessarily places that can welcome thousands of people, we will see how it evolves in the coming hours, because it is moving very fast.”

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Human Rights

Global Experts To Convene Online To Discuss Values In A Post-Covid World

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Leading Islamic scholars and experts from around the world, representing government and civil society will convene online to attend the seventh assembly of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies being held between the dates of December 7-9.

The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies is led by Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, President of the Higher Academic Council at the new Mohammed bin Zayed University for Humanities in Abu Dhabi, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. 

The Forum draws upon religious leadership and expertise to enter into productive conversations with academics, politicians, economists, and scientists about futures that are more peaceful, more secure, and more inter-connected for all humankind.

The title of this years Forum is “Human Values After Corona: Reviving Virtue in Times of Crisis.” It will examine how cooperation between nations, their people, and followers of the world religions can promote global peace and the welfare of all. The conference will emphasize the commonality or shared nature of humankind’s destiny at this crucial time. The conference will be unparalleled in its breadth this year hosting the most diverse panel of speakers spanning cultural, academic, governmental, and civic society fields in open conversation and with a shared commitment to positively influence the crisis’ present unfolding and alleviation.

The Forum will also discuss the healthcare dimensions of this pandemic and its effects upon mental health, especially given that the preservation of the human intellect is one of the overarching concerns of Islamic sacred law. Moreover, the guests will discuss how humanity may join hands across cultures and religions to create a new world that is human-centric and which prioritizes humanity’s wellbeing over other interests. Participants will also discuss the present economic crisis and the ethics of solidarity, as well as prospects for how the New Alliance of Virtue – signed by representatives of the world’s religions in Abu Dhabi last year – may be utilized in the process of our world’s upcoming ‘rebirth’.

Notable attendees will include:  the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Ambassador Sam Brownback, US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Chief Rabbi of the UK, Professor Azza Karam,, Mr. Robert Wexler, Shaykh Mustafa Ceric, HE Noor-Ul-Haq Qadri, From Michael Sandel, Prof Sir Michael Marmot, Dr William Vendley,  and Professor Melissa Rogers, Rehman Chishti MP, and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College.

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The pandemic is fuelling slavery and sexual exploitation, UN experts warn

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UN human rights experts are warning of a direct link between the pandemic, socio-economic vulnerability and the risk of exploitation, including forced labour or being sold, trafficked and sexually exploited. © UNICEF/Noorani

The COVID-19 pandemic has played into the hands of slavers and traffickers and requires stronger government measures to prevent exploitation of vulnerable people, more than 50 independent UN human rights experts said in a statement on Monday. 

There was a direct link between the pandemic, socio-economic vulnerability and the risk of exploitation, they said. Exploitation could mean forced labour, including the worst forms of child labour, or being sold, trafficked and sexually exploited. 

Governments and businesses should recognise how the loss of jobs, income or land could put vulnerable groups at greater risk, such as people already facing discrimination on grounds of sex, race, age, disability, religion, nationality and economic status, and people without basic services such as sanitation and education.

“If workers don’t receive adequate economic, social and other support from governments, without discrimination on grounds of migration and other status, they face serious risk of exploitation, including being subjected to slavery, servitude, forced or bonded labour, or trafficking in persons”, the statement said.

“In this regard, we are concerned that these practices have increased in the past months. In some cases, victims are further subjected to ill-treatment, torture, or even disappearance when they are prevented from informing as to their fate and whereabouts and put outside the protection of the law.”

Signatories to the statement included many Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups –independent experts who report to the UN Human Rights Council – as well as the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which was set up by the UN General Assembly in 1991. 

Governments must do more to protect victims

They said governments must increase their efforts to identify and protect victims of slavery and trafficking, ensuring their access to essential health services, including reproductive health services, psycho-social counselling, legal assistance, vocational training, income-generating support and remedies without discrimination.

Governments should also try to remove social and employment inequalities that can make some people more at risk of slavery and exploitation, while international solidary was needed to ensure child protection was adequately funded, the human rights experts said.

“We call upon Member States and other entities to address the structural causes that contribute to slavery and exploitation and continue providing support to those offering comprehensive assistance to victims, including through contributions to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year”, they said.

The statement’s first signatory, Tomoya Obokata, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, plans to hold a webinar on Tuesday to discuss aid for racially discriminated groups subjected to slavery during the global pandemic.

The statement was issued ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December, which marks the day in 1949 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the first Convention to fight human trafficking.

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

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Human Rights

Human rights breaches in Belarus, Ethiopia, and Algeria

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A girl stands outside her home in the Tigray Region, Ethiopia. © UNICEF/Tanya Bindra

On Thursday, the European Parliament adopted three resolutions taking stock of the human rights situation in Belarus, Ethiopia, and Algeria.

Human rights violations in Belarus, in particular the murder of Raman Bandarenka.

Parliament condemns in the strongest possible terms the murder of Raman Bandarenka in Belarus, and expresses its condolences to his family and to all families who have lost loved ones as a result of the repression of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime.

Mr Bandarenka, a 31-year-old art teacher, was brutally beaten on the evening of 11 November by a group of plain-clothed men in masks who reportedly had close ties to the regime. Mr Bandarenka was taken into detention where he was subjected to further beatings. He later died as a result of his injuries.

MEPs demand prompt, thorough, and independent investigations into his death and the protest-related deaths of other Belarusian civilians. They reiterate their support for the protesters’ demands for freedom, democracy, dignity, and the right to choose their own destiny, while condemning the ongoing human rights violations, intimidation, and disproportionate use of force by the authorities towards peaceful demonstrators.

The text was adopted by 613 votes in favour, 41 against and 35 abstentions.

The situation in Ethiopia

MEPs are deeply concerned by the current armed conflict between the federal government of Ethiopia and the regional administration of Tigray led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), including the ongoing violence and allegations of serious breaches of fundamental human rights. They call on both parties to commit to an immediate ceasefire and to settle political differences by democratic means within the framework of the country’s constitution.

The resolution deplores the loss of life and killing of innocent civilians and the extrajudicial killings, regardless of their perpetrators. Parliament implores Ethiopia’s central government and the TPLF to take immediate action to deescalate the conflict and criticises the severe restrictions preventing humanitarian workers from accessing the area.

The text was adopted by 643 votes in favour, 5 against and 46 abstentions.

Human rights abuses in Algeria, in particular the case of journalist Khaled Drareni.

Parliament strongly condemns the escalation of arbitrary and unlawful arrests, detentions, and judicial harassment of journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, lawyers, civil society, and peaceful activists in Algeria. It also urges the Algerian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release journalist Mohamed Khaled Drareni and all those detained and charged for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

In August, Mr Drareni – a correspondent for TV5 Monde – was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 50 000 Algerian dinars for filming police attacking demonstrators in Algiers. He was formally charged with ‘inciting an unarmed gathering’ and ‘undermining the integrity of national territory’. In September, his sentence was reduced to two years on appeal.

MEPs reiterate their call on the Algerian authorities to stop all forms of intimidation, criminalisation, or the arbitrary detention of critical voices such as journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders. They insist that appropriate steps be taken to guarantee for all the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. The resolution was adopted by 669 votes in favour, 3 against and 22 abstentions.

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