The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Weekly News Brief: 11 / 8 / 2017

STAND’s Weekly News Briefs are compiled weekly by members of the STAND Education Task Force.

Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa region encompasses the countries of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and contains 120 million people of two major religions, five main ethnic groups, and countless cultures and traditions. Due to widespread poverty and ethnic hostilities, the region is frequently subject to bloody conflict. Today, the largest sources of conflict in the region are fueled by the drought in Somalia and tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia. These conflicts are complex, evade categorization, and ,while localized specifically to the Horn of Africa region, are accompanied by repercussions of profound international importance.

Somalia

In March of this year, the United Nations declared famine as the single largest humanitarian emergency in the world, identifying four devastating famines in Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Each country, in turn, has a set of internal conditions which make combating widespread hunger and malnutrition particularly difficult. In Somalia’s case, 6.2 million people – more than half the population – need food aid, including more than one million children under the age of five at risk of malnourishment. Somalia has lacked a central government since 1991, creating a power vacuum that al-Shaabab, a jihadist fundamentalist group with ties to ISIS, is attempting to fill. The group currently controls huge swaths of land, and is blocking the provision of humanitarian aid to southern Somalia’s starving population.

West of the famine in Somalia, there are growing tensions between rival states, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the latter often called the “North Korea of Africa” due to its suppression of free speech, egregious human rights abuses, and state-imposed civilian conscription periods of indeterminate length (Shaban 2017). These tensions came to a head from 1998 to 2000, during the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war which resulted in an Ethiopian victory after more than 70,000 casualties. Today, the two countries are in a virtual “Cold War” state with sporadic bursts of violence. Many fear that these tensions may soon threaten regional stability and warrant international intervention. In Asmara’s address to the UN General Assembly last month, Eritrean Foreign Affairs chief Osman Saleh Mohammed accused Ethiopia of illegally occupying Eritrean land for fifteen years, with President Isaias Afwerki blaming the United States for supporting an arms embargo placed on the country under allegations of connections to al-Shaabab. This emerging conflict has the potential to escalate to full-scale war, and many have alleged state-sponsored terrorism on both sides.

These two conflicts are rapidly shifting, with urgent developments occurring each day. Both have the possibility of further escalating and threatening regional and global peace.

Southeast Asia

Burma

On September 21, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addressed the UN General Assembly to publicly condemn Burma’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims. Bangladesh has sheltered over 800,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma since the conflict arose. In addition, neither Bangladesh nor Burma recognize the Rohingya as citizens, rendering them stateless. During her address, Hasina called for the creation of “safe zones that could be created inside Myanmar under UN supervision” to allow Rohingya refugees to safely return with dignity. Furthermore, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has characterized Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The U.S. State Department announced last month that the U.S. would provide $32 million in humanitarian aid to Rohingya for “emergency shelter, food security, nutritional assistance, health assistance, psychosocial support, water, sanitation and hygiene, livelihoods, social inclusion, non-food items, disaster and crisis risk reduction, restoring family links, and protection of over 400,000 displaced persons.” There is hope that this commitment will encourage other countries to address this increasingly dire situation.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s de facto leader and Nobel Laureate, praised in the past for her push for democracy in Burma, is under harsh scrutiny from human rights groups for not addressing this crisis with more urgency. Burma’s Constitution clarifies that Suu Kyi can not fire the Commander-in-Chief of Burma’s Armed forces, nor are the Armed forces obligated to report back to her. They are essentially their own entity, which is worrisome because the Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, claims that the predominantly Muslim countries’ media platforms this story. They also claim that so-called Rohingya “terrorists” are actually committing ethnic cleansing against Buddhists in Rakhine State. Roughly 40% of Rohingya villages in Burma are empty and an estimated 1,000 Rohingya have been killed since August.

Middle East and North Africa

Syria

Raqqa has been under militant control since 2014. As the first city in Syria under ISIS control, it quickly became emblematic of the group’s terror tactics. In June, “heavy street-by-street fighting amid intense U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and shelling” began.

In an effort to de-escalate the conflict and salvage civilian lives, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the U.S., brokered a deal entailing the surrender and evacuation of Syrian militants. The most notable part about this deal is the differentiation between local and foreign forces. While local forces will be evacuated, “ISIL’s foreign fighters will be left behind ‘to surrender or die,” according to an SDF spokesperson. However, some outside sources have suggested that foreign fighters will be allowed evacuation as well.

The humanitarian aim of the brokered deal provides insight into the current humanitarian crisis in the country. Local tribal leaders stated that liberation, rather than killing, was the main goal. ABC News reports that “the tribesmen said their evacuation would save the lives of civilians, who the extremist fighters have used as human shields. Furthermore, “last week there was an estimated 4,000 civilians still in the city.”

Sudan and South Sudan

Sudan

On October 13, President Trump lifted sanctions on Sudan. The first round of sanctions against Sudan started in 1993 because of state-sponsored terrorism, and were expanded in 1997 and 2006. The lifting of sanctions was the culmination of former President Barack Obama’s initiative to relieve Sudan of economic isolation in January. Obama’s administration provided specific conditions for Sudan to meet in the following 6 months, in order to lift sanctions. Historically, sanctions have been leveraged in attempts to end the atrocities occurring in Sudan, which range from genocide and ethnic cleansing in Darfur, to atrocities in the Nuba mountains and Blue Nile. With insignificant humanitarian aid, a lack of international cooperation in enforcing the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants for members of the Sudanese government, and gridlock in the UN Security Council over arms embargos, these sanctions have been the only form of leverage the U.S. has had on Sudan to stop the continued atrocities against its people. President Omar al-Bashir is eager to remove these sanctions, which are not only hated by a few government oligarchs, but also by the country’s growing middle class. Bashir has attempted to engage in multinational partnerships to give the international community the misleading perception that Sudan is undergoing a process of normalization and integration with the outside world. This façade is meant to divert attention from Bashir’s mission to “unite” the country under a homogenous Arab identity by means of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The real question is whether these sanctions been effective and whether Sudan has taken steps to warrant a lifting of sanctions. Though the aerial strikes on the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile and other regions has stopped and Sudan has ended all arms and material support to rebels in South Sudan, Bashir’s track record concerning religious freedom tells a different story. The government has pursued the demolition of 25 churches and protests have been stamped out, with church leaders being killed and peaceful protests being brutally halted.

During the 8069th meeting of the Security Council on October 12, Secretary-General António Guterres made countering instability-rooted starvation a priority saying,Until these conflicts are resolved and development takes root, communities and entire regions will continue to be ravaged by hunger and suffering.” One of the conflicts prioritized is South Sudan, where half of South Sudanese people depend on food aid, with women and children being hit the hardest. Rebels from both sides frequently block humanitarian aid and plunder homes and fields. Women, who often bring food from areas far from their homes, constantly fear for their lives as they pass through the territories of various rebel groups. With the constantly shifting loyalties of militias, an aid distribution center or a field that was safe to enter previously may now be several rebel territories away. Due to the same uncertainty, aid workers can be welcomed in a refugee camp one day and slaughtered the next. Without UN protection, aid workers may be more reluctant to serve in the country, where 79 aid workers have died since the beginning of the civil war in 2013.   

 

Sael Soni is STAND’s Horn of Africa Coordinator. 

Ana Delgado is STAND’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Coordinator.

Soham Mehta is STAND’s Sudan and South Sudan Coordinator.

Caroline Brammer is STAND’s Southeast Asia Coordinator. 

Upholding “Never Forget” and “Never Again”

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Poland to learn about the Holocaust. During my trip, I went to different concentration and extermination camps, including Sobibor, a death camp constructed in 1942. As this was the third camp I had visited, I had already accustomed myself to the routine of visiting, learning, and leaving. I figured this would be a similar experience. I was not prepared for what I would see there. As we approached the death camp, I looked for stark buildings and barbed wire fences similar to those I had seen at Majdanek days before. Here, I saw nothing. In place of where the camp had been, I saw only a large grassy field, railroad tracks, and a pile of human ash. Somehow, this empty field was supposed to mark the place where more than 200,000 people had been killed. The absence of any trace of remembrance was stunning. I was unable to comprehend how this bare field had previously been used for something so horrific. When it was time to leave, I walked away from Sobibor entirely unsettled.

I realize physical reminders of the Holocaust will not always appear in our everyday lives. Yet my experience with the Sobibor death camp has made me fully appreciate  the vital importance of remembrance. The day of Yom HaShoah, which honors each of the 11 million innocent people that were murdered, ensures that we do not forget the magnitude of the largest genocide in history. Too often, the absence of physical representation leads to desensitization, which  leads the international community to downplay the enormity of the Holocaust and the lasting effect it has had on the world. Holocaust education is critical to ensure we not only remember, but also learn, from the past. The international community must recognize how the Holocaust could have been prevented and implement effective mechanisms to prevent history from repeating itself anywhere else in the world.

Today, in the United States, we have an opportunity to turn our remembrance into action. We can support a bill entitled the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which increases the United States’ capacity to prevent and proactively respond to genocide and mass atrocities around the world by coordinating a whole-government approach to atrocity prevention, authorizes funds for emerging atrocity situations, and trains Foreign Service Officers in atrocity prevention and response.

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Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, for whom the legislation is named, passed away last year, but his words continue to inspire generations:

Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.

We must understand that in the face of mass atrocities we should welcome those who seek help, rather than closing our borders and turning them away. We should take steps to stop any form of senseless hatred and scapegoating, regardless of where it occurs, and foster compassion. Lastly, we should not need to rely on physical reminders be represent the tragedy of the Holocaust. The absence of the physical death camp in Sobibor should not diminish the potency of our memory of what occurred there. We must never forget the victims who had their lives stolen. Only then will we truly be able uphold the promise of “never forget” and “never again.”



16002765_422766264730008_759533419891447940_nEllen Bresnick
is the Midwest Regional Organizer for STAND. She is currently a senior in high school in Middleton, WI, and the co-founder of En Masse, a multilingual publication platform for international issues. She looks forward to continuing her work with human rights next year in college at Washington University in St. Louis