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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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UN: India should ‘unlock’ freedom curbs in disputed Kashmir

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Children attend class in open at a government middle school, Rajouri district, Jammu and Kashmir, India. UNICEF/Syed Altaf Ahmad

The people of Indian-administered Kashmir continue to be deprived of numerous basic freedoms, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday, before urging the Indian authorities “to unlock the situation”.

The appeal over the territory – which both India and Pakistan claim as sovereign – follows months of escalating tensions linked to earlier suicide attacks and the Indian Government’s decision in August to revoke majority-Muslim Kashmir’s special status, which for decades had allowed it partial autonomy.

At the time of the Indian Government decision, five UN-appointed independent rights experts warned that it had led to tighter central Government control, restrictions on peaceful protests and a communications blackout.

Curfew ‘still in place in large parts’ of Kashmir valley

In Geneva on Tuesday, spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Rupert Colville acknowledged that an “undeclared curfew” had been lifted from much of Jammu and Ladakh regions within a few days.

But he noted that it was reportedly still in place “in large parts of the Kashmir Valley, preventing the free movement of people, as well as hampering their ability to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and restricting their rights to health, education and freedom of religion and belief.”   

Highlighting several allegations of excessive use of force against protesters that involved the use of “pellet-firing shotguns, tear gas and rubber bullets”, Mr. Colville said that there had also been unconfirmed reports of “at least six civilian killings and scores of serious injuries”, in separate incidents since the Indian Government declaration on 5 August across Jammu and Kashmir.

The Office of the High Commissioner had also received reports that armed groups in Indian-administered Kashmir have threatened some residents trying to work or go to school, the OHCHR spokesperson said.

In addition, “at least another six people have been killed and over a dozen injured in alleged attacks by armed group members, since 5 August”.

Web access blocked, politicians detained

And although restrictions on landline telephones were eventually lifted, and a state-run telecom company allowed to resume partial mobile phone services, all internet services remain blocked in the Kashmir valley, Mr. Colville insisted.

In line with the Indian Government’s decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s partial self-rule, two separate federally-administered Union Territories are to be created this Thursday, the OHCHR Spokesperson explained, adding that “hundreds of political and civil society leaders” had been detained “on a preventative basis”.

While some political workers have reportedly been released, most senior leaders – especially those from the Kashmir Valley – remain in detention, he said.

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Why we must urgently close the data gap to end violence against women

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Having the full picture is crucial for effective action to end violence against women. Yet today, efforts to address this critical sustainable development and human rights challenge remain severely hampered by lack of data.

Violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality, reflecting and perpetuating deep-rooted patterns of discrimination. Violence and fear of violence permeate social, economic and political interactions between women and men, constraining opportunities, choices and access to resources and so limiting economic growth and hindering the achievement of sustainable development.

Ending violence against women and girls is a crucial part of both the Beijing Platform for Action – progress on which will be in focus at the Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October) – and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Beijing Platform calls for the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls—physical, sexual and psychological. The Sustainable Development Goals reiterate this, with two indicators designed to track changes in violence by intimate partners and by other perpetrators.

Yet tracking such changes is hard.

Reliable and comparable data on the incidence of violence against women are rare. The Beijing Platform for Action, back in 1995, recognized that the absence of adequate sex-disaggregated data makes it difficult to create and assess programmes designed to bring about change.

Administrative data such as crime records only cover incidents that are reported, and so are likely to underestimate massively the actual occurrence of violence, which often goes unreported due to fear of recurrence or reprisal, shame or perceptions of ‘honour’ within families. Trends in reported gender-based violence can also be influenced by changes in awareness and public perceptions, making victims more or less likely to perceive an act of violence as a crime or affecting their willingness to report it to authorities.

A clearer picture of the true scale of violence against women—and its impacts on their lives– must come from surveys designed specifically for this purpose. UNECE’s survey module, developed in 2011, provides a standardized tool for countries to produce indicators of physical, sexual and intimate partner violence. To date, few countries in the UNECE region have conducted targeted surveys to measure violence against women, and where they have been conducted they are one-off surveys offering no possibility to see trends over time.

An EU-wide survey conducted in 2014 by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency and an OSCE-led survey conducted in 2018 in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe take us a step closer towards the goals of international comparability.

However, until such surveys are conducted regularly the data gap will remain a major impediment to progress.

Violence against women – key trends in the UNECE region

Available data in the UNECE Statistical Database shows significant variations in patterns of violence against women across the UNECE region, as detailed in the Beijing+25 regional key trends paper. 

Female homicides

The most serious manifestation of violence, homicide, is less likely than other forms of violence to go unreported and is less subject to variations of definition and classification between countries. Trends in homicides among countries can therefore more reliably be compared than other forms of violence.

Although two-thirds of the UNECE countries analyzed show low and unchanging levels of homicide of women, there are exceptions where high levels and/or large increases are seen in the past five years.

Among the 32 countries with available data, Azerbaijan had by far the highest female homicide rate in 2017, at 6.8 per 100,000, slightly down from 7.3 in 2012. Latvia and Lithuania also had high rates in 2017 (3.7 and 3.2 respectively). Fourteen countries had rates of less than 1 per 100,000 with very little change since 2012.

Homicides of women by partners and relatives

A large proportion of homicides of women occur at the hands of current or former partners or relatives.

In 2017, over 70 per cent of homicides of women were perpetrated by a relative in Albania (79 per cent), Croatia (74 per cent), Italy (72 per cent) and Slovenia (71 per cent). In all these countries, this percentage increased since 2012. The increase was particularly significant in Albania, where the percentage doubled in five years. Between 2012 and 2017 the percentage of homicides of women in a family context also increased significantly in Belarus (from 30 to 44 per cent), the Republic of Moldova (from 39 to 50 per cent), Tajikistan (44 to 53 per cent) and Georgia (from 15 to 23 per cent).

Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE Region

Progress in combating violence against women will be one of the areas in focus at next week’s Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life.

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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Decisive international action needed to end Israeli occupation

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The international community has a responsibility and legal obligation to compel Israel to end its 52 year-long “occu-annexation” of Palestinian territory and remove barriers preventing Palestinian self-determination, a UN independent human rights expert told the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Michael Lynk made the call in his latest report on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian Territory: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

“The status quo of Israel’s ‘occu-annexation’ is endlessly sustainable without decisive international intervention because of the grossly asymmetrical balance of power on the ground,” said Mr. Lynk, a Special Rapporteur who advises the UN Human Rights Council on the issue.

“Accountability is the key to opening the titanium cage that is the permanent occupation. The international community has issued countless resolutions and declarations critical of the never-ending Israeli occupation. The time has long past to match these criticisms with effective consequences.”

To remedy this, Mr. Lynk recommended that the international community should devise a list of effective countermeasures which would be “appropriate and proportional” to the circumstances.

His report outlines some modern examples of applying pressure, such as diplomatic public statements, trade sanctions, flight bans, travel restrictions and reduction or suspension of aid.

“Should Israel remain unmoved, (the international community) should apply and escalate the range of its targeted countermeasures until compliance had been achieved,” he said.

Mr. Lynk said the occupation is the longest in the modern world. It has been characterized by what he described as “a strong sense of impunity” by Israel.

“This occupation will not die of old age,” he stated.

“Palestinians, along with Israelis of conscience, have been asking repeatedly for the international community to act decisively in support of international law to compel Israel to end the occupation and enable Palestinian self-determination. We can’t afford to ignore their call.”

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

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