STAND’s Weekly News Briefs are compiled weekly by the STAND Education Task Force. Thanks also go to STAND Education Coordinator Bethany Vance, Policy Coordinator Tim Hirschel-Burns, and Communications Coordinator Elisabeth Huh for their assistance in editing this week’s news brief.
This week’s news brief includes a report on the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Burma, violent protests against Congolese President Joseph Kabila, a proposed U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia, and much more.
Middle East and North Africa
On September 7, the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) released a roadmap for transition into a democratic and pluralistic state, which was endorsed by many foreign ministers in London. The HNC is a Saudi-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups and has been in existence for a little under a year. Speaking on behalf of the roadmap, Dr. Riyad Hijab, General Coordinator of the HNC, said this alliance of moderate opposition groups “has taken a strategic decision to pursue a political process of UN-sponsored negotiations and to support international efforts to achieve a genuine political transition.”
Dr. Hijab outlines the HNC’s proposal as a three-tiered transition:
- The return of the millions of refugees and exiled people, the release of political prisoners, and an approximately six-month negotiation process to choose a transitional executive body;
- President Bashar al-Assad steps down and gives way to an 18-month ceasefire handled by the transitional government; and
- UN-monitored elections occur after the ceasefire.
The completion of this three-step process would allow civil and military powers to work with a new, democratically elected government. With this, the HNC seeks to realize its overarching vision of “committing the country to democratic and religious pluralism.” The transition plan promises to represent all Syrian groups “without discrimination based on religion, sect, ethnicity, or class” and proposes that the transitional military include representatives from revolutionary bodies “that have not stained their hands with Syrian blood.”
After the plan was first proposed, the global community looked to the reactions of the U.S. and Russia. While the U.S. backs a number of opposition forces, Russia supports the Assad government. Key individuals dealing with the HNC proposal—and the Syria conflict in general—have been outspoken about the need for these global influencers to put politics aside and address the humanitarian concerns at stake. Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, supports the HNC plan and has challenged Russia to help remove Assad. HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet has also stated that “local ceasefires or temporary cessations that can be exploited by the [Syrian] regime and its Russian ally” are not a lasting solution.
Al-Jazeera has noted that the probability of realizing the HNC proposal is slim to none, arguing “there is no prospect of any negotiations [between the U.S. and Russia] aside from the Geneva talks.” Adding greater strain to potential compromise, Sr. Hijab said he would reject any agreement struck by Russia and the U.S. if it featured any deviation from the HNC’s terms.
Negotiations between the U.S. and Russia are underway, pointing to the construction of a no-fly zone that would “require the Syrian government not to fly over territory controlled by moderate levels, areas where there are civilians, and regions with ISIS/ISIL and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also stated that a central joint operations center between the U.S. and Russia is on the table.
Since 2013, the Syrian city of Jarabulus has been under control of the Islamic State. However, Turkish-backed Ankara fighters retook the city on August 24. Jarabulus is currently subject to administrative control under the Assad regime and is located on the Turkish border. Meanwhile, Turkish forces and Ankara-backed rebels continue to move through Syria in an effort to retake more ISIS-controlled areas.
As of September 11, around 250 Syrian refugees have been able to return to Jarabulus. Turkish President Erdoğan affirmed that the primary goals of his military missions were to provide refugees with this chance to return home, and to secure the Turkish border.
Great Lakes Region of Africa
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
The electoral body in the DRC announced in August that the next presidential election would likely be delayed until July 2017, citing technical difficulties, a lack of funding, and delays in voter registration as major reasons for the delay. Current President Joseph Kabila’s elected term is constitutionally mandated to end in December, but he will retain his position until the elections are held. Opposition groups believe the electoral body has pushed for these delays as an attempt to extend Kabila’s time in office permanently.
The African Union is facilitating election talks, beginning September 1, amongst the leaders of the different parties in an attempt to bring together the government and the opposition. However, DRC opposition groups responded to the call for dialogue with protests and boycotts. Presidents of two opposition parties—the Union for the Congolese Nation, and the Labour Alliance for Development—are participating in the negotiations with President Kabila, but a majority of opposition parties are boycotting the talks until political prisoners are released and presidential candidate Moïse Katumbi is allowed to return to the DRC without threat of arrest. The government has brought charges against Katumbi for recruiting foreign mercenaries with the intent to orchestrate a coup d’état. Between August 27 and September 5, nine human rights activists were released from prison as a gesture of compromise, but the charges against some of the activists remain the same.
Many members of the opposition responded to the call for talks with protests and strikes in Kinshasa. Most of the protests were nonviolent, but some included burning tires and breaking windows. Congolese police used tear gas to disperse protesters, raising concerns about the potential for violent interactions in the future. Protesters have responded by leveraging their economic power, closing shops, and emptying streets during a strike in Kinshasa. The government ignored the strike, but the effect on businesses and the city was dramatic.
On September 7, Human Rights Watch submitted a letter to the UN Human Rights Council requesting action to address current and potential human rights violations in the DRC. As December approaches, concerns among humanitarian groups are rising regarding the likelihood of more violence.
The United Nations detailed evidence of rampant human rights abuses in Burundi and the nation’s continued trajectory towards genocide in two recent reports. The reports found that lawyers and civil society groups in Burundi have faced reprisals for cooperating with the United Nations Committee on Torture, as issues of torture and misconduct by Burundian security forces remain of great concern to the international community. The United Nations has also reported that sexual violence, torture, and extrajudicial killings are on the rise, and that there is significant evidence of “genocidal rhetoric” coming out of Burundi, which many officials indicate as a warning sign for the early stages of genocide. The UN has condemned statements from Burundi officials regarding the Rwandan genocide as inflammatory.
In July 2016, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorized the deployment of up to 228 UN police personnel in Burundi to monitor the nation’s security and human rights situation. The decision has been criticized by US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who claims that the resolution to deploy troops is not strong enough. Power argues the UN police personnel do not have the capacity to prevent violence in Burundi. However, the decision carries weight as a symbolic gesture to include the international community in the situation in Burundi, and to put personnel on the ground.
The Burundi government rejected the UNSC resolution, along with thousands of civilians who protested peacefully against it in the streets of Bujumbura and outside the French and Rwandan embassies. Government spokesperson Philippe Nzobonariba declared that it was a violation of Burundi’s sovereignty to send forces without consulting authorities first. China abstained on the vote. Burundi has also rejected an African Union proposal to deploy 5,000 African Union peacekeepers by claiming that Burundi’s security forces wield adequate control in the country. In contrast, those who oppose the government have supported the resolution, as well as stronger measures, by claiming that the presence of an international organization will help prevent mass violence and ongoing human rights violations in the country.
The resolution to send police forces was drafted in response to violence that has continued since President Nkurunziza was elected for an unconstitutional third term in April 2015. In August, a commission on public opinion reported to the President and Parliament that most people wanted the president to be able to serve for more than two terms. However, critics claim that Nkurunziza created the commission to falsify proof of public support for his desire to remain in office. The Arusha Agreement, which specifies a two term limit for the presidential seat, has been a pillar of the peace following the end of the Civil War, and its dismantlement could, amongst other things, remove ethnic balance in the government.
More than 250,000 Burundians have fled their home country since April 2015 and their views were not considered by the commission. In addition, a Burundian journalist who has been working with the independent newspaper Iwacu has been missing for over two months, raising concerns for journalists and the state of freedom of the press in Burundi. A lack of freedom of press is indicative of a larger state of repression in Burundi where opposition to the current government has no voice to make challenges.
Central and West Africa
Central African Republic (CAR)
In early February, many pointed to the presidential election of Faustin-Archange Touadera in the Central African Republic as a promising sign for a country that has endured countless atrocities as a result of attacks by Muslim Séléka rebels and the brutal retaliation of Christian anti-balaka gangs. Yet even months after Touadera assumed office, his government remains weak. Armed groups remain in the country, despite his determination to enact a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) plan. In fact, the state is fairly nonexistent outside of the capital city of Bangui, as communities are constantly raided by armed groups who steal money and livestock and occasionally kill civilians.
In June, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) warned of a deteriorating security situation in the northwest areas of the country. On June 17, a convoy from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was attacked and one of the drivers was killed, prompting the organization to briefly suspend their operations in protest. Shortly after, sixteen Fulani herdsmen were killed in the north and six police officers were taken hostage by former Séléka rebels in the middle of Bangui. Much of the fighting in the north concerns local grievances between farmers, who are mostly Christian, and migrating herdsmen, who are mostly Muslim. Issues of disagreement can and have quickly escalated into justifications for violence, making people afraid to leave their homes.
This has had enormous ramifications with regards to the humanitarian situation within the country. Nearly half of the population—over two million people—need aid and over one million have been forced to flee their homes. Production of coffee has fallen by twenty-eight percent, while the production of cotton has fallen by forty-two percent. As these are the main cash crops in the country, and a source of subsistence for a vast majority of the population, it is not surprising that so many remain in desperate need of assistance.
Unfortunately, the problems in CAR are not limited to the crimes of armed rebel groups. There have been a number of accusations of rapeby United Nations peacekeepers. On June 7, Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at human rights office at the United Nations, resigned from his post after suspension for sharing confidential documents about incidents of sexual assault, stating that “complete impunity for those who have been found to have abused their authority makes it impossible to continue working.” Kompass has since been completely exonerated by a report that acknowledged the failure of the international organization, but the issue remains a prominent one. Very recently, actress Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for UNHCR, argued that peacekeepers who are found guilty of such abuse should be removed. Although the United Nations claims it is taking sexual violence seriously, others argue that there must be an independent organization to oversee the UN, which otherwise cannot prosecute cases of such abuse and easily cover up any misdeeds.
Although Boko Haram is far weaker than it was just one year ago when it was classified as the deadliest terrorist organization in the world, it would be a mistake to suggest that Nigeria is at peace. Though the Nigerian military has taken back much of the territory that Boko Haram had previously seized, the terrorist organization has continued to engage in what Stephen O’Brien, the humanitarian coordinator at the United Nations, has called “heinous, barbaric, and unconscionable” violence. On May 12, a suicide bomber killed six people in the northeastern Nigeria city of Maiduguri, and on June 4, thirty soldiers from Niger and two from Nigeria were killed at the border city of Bosso. In July, a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy was ambushed by Boko Haram, which frightened the United Nations into briefly halting aid deliveries into the northern state of Borno. Contrary to what Nigerian leaders have argued, the terrorist organization is far from defeated and has continued to launch suicide bombings and other assaults.
The damage that Boko Haram continues to inflict is only one part of the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the country. In August, two Nigerian children in Borno were paralyzed by polio. Given that the north has been one of the most severely impacted by the onslaught of Boko Haram, there is concern that there are not enough doctors in place to ensure that other individuals receive vaccines. Moreover, almost two-thirds of hospitals in the area have been severely damaged and are not functional. Prior to these two cases, Nigeria had not suffered a case of polio in nearly two years. It would be a major setback for the country to once again become a host to the disease.
There are many other major concerns facing Nigeria. In Borno, seventy-five percent of water and sanitation facilities currently need repairs. Almost a quarter of a million people are severely malnourished in the state and about fifty thousand are likely to die without international assistance. As recently as September 13, these same Nigerians have accused government officials of stealing food. One man who managed to escape from Boko Haram after being shot said that trucks full of food have been taken away to the homes of these officials; however, he claims he cannot protest for fear of being killed or expelled from the camps to face Boko Haram. Yet recently, it seems as though Nigerians have had enough. In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, over six thousand people from a shelter known as the Arabic College protested food rations that were so small that their children starved to death.
Finally, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes due to natural disasters, and many more are at risk. Based on information provided to the National Emergency Management Agency in Nigeria, the country is at risk of flooding if heavy rains continue through September. Approximately five thousand people were displaced when the Iyi-Udele-River in central Nigeria flooded in June and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes. Further flooding would only exacerbate existing issues and could ignite a scramble for resources and exacerbate tensions between groups.
Last week, Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Burma. The visit has stirred up renewed conflicts in Rakhine state, with many groups mobilizing to oppose the diplomat’s criticisms of the marginalisation of the regions Rohingya community. Annan, who was invited to head an advisory commission on this issue by the de facto leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited a number of camps in Sittwe on September 6. The commission discussed humanitarian concerns, human rights, development issues, access to basic services, and the right of displaced persons to remain in the Rakhine state. This comes after the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) voiced concern last week about cuts to food aid for Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in parts of Rakhine state. Rations have been cut in 41 camps in recent weeks, which has left all but the most vulnerable (widows, the disabled, the sick, and children under the age of five) with little to no food aid.
Despite the increasingly desperate situation in Rakhine state, Burmese nationalists continue to oppose the advisory commission’s recognition of the Rohingya as an official ethnic group and a national concern. Campaigners in the area have been outraged by Annan’s use of the word “Rohingya” to refer to the group. They insist that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refer to them as “Bengalis.” Aung Htay, a leader of one of the protest groups who mobilised in Naypyidaw on September 8, opposed the commission, claiming, “Rakhine affairs are local affairs. We acknowledge Kofi Annan and his reputation, but we do not accept his interference in our affairs.” In Yangon last Sunday, 400 people from nationalist groups gathered in the city’s downtown area to call for the commission to be abolished, claiming that its inclusion of non-Burmese people was “totally unacceptable.” There is more and more evidence that such top-down change is unlikely to bring peace to Rakhine state. Next week, the Rakhine State parliament will discuss a proposal to reject the commission.
On August 31, the Union Peace Conference began a first round of peace negotiations with Burma’s warring factions, the first of its kind in decades. The conference assembly managed to agree on a united commitment to ending fighting, but many of the regional armies were unwilling to subscribe to an unconditional surrender without guarantees. Furthermore, the Ta’aung National Liberation Army and Arakan Army have criticised the government’s conduct during the negotiations and have accused them of discriminating against representatives of the United Wa State Army. Just hours before the Peace Conference got underway, reports surfaced of fresh fighting in Kachin and Shan States. According to the AFP news agency, the Burmese military attacked rebel strongholds in northern Shan and Kachin States early on Tuesday morning. Elsewhere, fighting between the Burmese Border Guard Forces (BGF) alongside the army, and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) in Kayin State, has intensified. A total of 3,452 residents from 22 villages in the region have fled their homes to Myaing Gyi Ngu where refugees are receiving assistance.
Though violence continues in Northern Burma, the army has made significant progress in releasing 55 children and young people from armed services this week in accordance with the U.N.-backed 2012 Joint Action Plan. So far, 800 children and young people have been discharged under the plan to end the recruitment of child soldiers. It is crucial that the international community continue to pressure the Burmese Army to reform. However, this past week, the Obama administration announced its plans to lift all sanctions on Burma, including those limiting the power of the Burmese armed forces and exploitation of natural resources, including the jade and gemstone trade. Activists both within and outside of Burma have criticized this move, which would reward the current government for recent democratic progress, but leave minority ethnic groups largely on their own in a hostile environment.
Earlier this month, the UN announced that starvation in South Sudan has reached “unprecedented levels.” The country has been facing a crisis of food shortages since violence broke out in December 2013, and the current crisis has put 4.8 million people’s lives at risk.
On July 16, a report revealed that some South Sudanese leaders have been making a fortune from the conflict, which has killed thousands since its outbreak. Documents released by The Sentry, a Washington-based watchdog organization, indicated that President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar both own homes in a wealthy Nairobi neighborhood while million of their citizens continue to die from starvation. The war has forced 1.6 million South Sudanese to flee their homes for U.S.-protected refugee camps in neighboring countries. At a press conference on September 9, the team from The Sentry indicated that this was “just the beginning” of the investigation.
As the conflict continues in South Sudan, its epidemic of gender-based violence also continues to spread. Earlier this year, South Sudan launched a National Action Plan for implementing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, a well-known global framework for gender protection and women’s rights. However, the plan has yet to produce tangible positive results.
On July 8, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous reported that South Sudan’s government had not taken any action to follow through on a pledge it made earlier to collaborate on the deployment of more U.N. troops in order to avoid a possible arms embargo. Israel’s involvement adds an additional layer of complexity to the situation. Though Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu has recently been working to reinforce ties with African countries, many critics have called him out for doing little to use his relationships to address human rights concerns, and for helping exacerbate conflict by providing arms and surveillance equipment to the South Sudanese government.
In September, the continuing intimidation of activists, harassment of journalists, and rampant use of sexual violence in South Sudan raised the concerns of U.N. Human Rights Commission. These issues were raised at a news conference in Juba after an editor reported that the authorities had suspended his publication.
The conflict in Yemen continues to rage as conditions for civilians further deteriorate. A new report has asserted that the Saudi Air Force, a key entity fighting against the Houthis, has targeted civilian areas such as schools and hospitals in a third of its strikes. The Saudi government has denied these allegations and justified its actions by claiming that Houthi rebels utilize civilian facilities for military purposes. Nevertheless, the threat of violence has surged as earlier peace talks failed, and the number of new mass atrocities reach all-time highs. Thousands of civilians have died so far and over 3 million Yemeni civilians across the country remain displaced. Today, U.S. Congress is voting on whether or not to send $1.15 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, a move criticized by numerous human rights groups, including STAND.
During a rally in June, an explosion that killed 87 and injured over 200 Hazara civilians demonstrated that the Hazara ethnic group continue to face tough conditions. While ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, the discrimination that the Hazara have faced isn’t new; the Taliban also oppressed this minority group during its brief rule of the country. The Hazara community remains at extreme risk of mass atrocities in the conflict in Afghanistan as ISIS and other terrorist organizations continue to target them, and as militants continue to gain footholds in portions of the country.
Ana Delgado is STAND’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, focusing mainly on Syria. She is a Senior at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in Political Science and Peace, War, and Defense.
Elizabeth Westbrook is STAND’s Great Lakes of Africa Coordinator, focusing mainly on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi. She is a Junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Justin Cole is STAND’s Central and West Africa Coordinator, focusing mainly on the Central African Republic (CAR) and Nigeria. He is a Junior at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sophie Back is STAND’s Southeast Asia Coordinator, focusing mainly on Burma. She is a Senior at University College of London.
Joanna Liang is STAND’s Sudan and South Sudan Coordinator. She is a Junior at the University of Delaware.
Jason Qu is STAND’s Emerging Conflicts Coordinator. He is a Junior at Bronx High School of Science.