Scope of Syrian Conflict Continues to Grow

By Max Bartels 

Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East 

 

Damascus, Syria

It has been four years since the conflict in Syria began with President al-Assad’s forces firing on protestors in March of 2011, since then 310,000 people have been killed in the constant fighting. The number of people killed during the conflict has been growing exponentially each year since the beginning of the conflict, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The number of people killed last year totaled at 162, 402 and the year before that the United Nations tallied the death toll at 70,000. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights about 1% to 1.3% of the total population of Syria has been killed since the conflict began. The yearly tallies tend to show the conflict is intensifying. The increase in the yearly death toll rate is particularly troubling while the United Nations is reporting a cut for the funding of continued food ration aid because of a lack of donations. In addition, The World Food Programme reported that they must cut the size of their food ration aid by 30% due to the lack of funding and donations. Medical aid is also a serious issue, the United Nation reported an estimated 12.2 million Syrians are in need of urgent life saving aid.

A Photo showing the destruction of the Yarmouk Refugee camp outside of Damascus. (Photo curtesy of The Toronto Star)

The scope of the crises in Syria has expanded far beyond Syrian borders and into neighboring countries. The United Nations reported an estimated 7.6 million Syrians have been driven from their homes due to the fighting. The displacement of Syrians has created a humanitarian crisis for surrounding nations taking in those refugees. Turkey has taken in 1.7 million Syrian refugees while 1.2 have fled to Lebanon, 625,000 to Jordan and 245,000 to Iraq. In total the fighting has dispersed an estimated 4 million Syrian civilians.

The newest concern in the Syrian conflict is the situation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. Last week ISIS moved into the camp and aid was cut off to an estimated 18,000 inhabitants of the camp. Cutting off the flow of food and medical aid to the camp proved to have severe consequences. Since the start of the ISIS occupation  an estimated 166 children have starved to death, according to the Geneva based group– Friends of Humanity. The group accuses the Assad regime of cutting off aid to the camp, blocking aid in order to flush out opposition fighters in the camp. The people of Yarmouk camp are caught between the Assad’s forces, ISIS and various other opposition groups fighting for control of the camp that strategically placed just outside of Damascus.

For more information, please see:

CNN News — Empty out Boston; Starve Moscow, and you May Understand Some of Syria’s Hell — 17 April, 2015 

The Toronto Star — Refugee Camp Captures the Horror of Syria — 6 April, 2015 

NPR — Syrian Conflict Reached Beyond Borders — 4 June, 2013

CNN News — “The Deepest Circle of Hell”: Terrified Yarmouk Residents Describe ISIS Raid — 15 April, 2015

Venezuela and Spain Quarrel Over Jailed Opposition Leaders

By Delisa Morris

Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela — Ambassadors from both Spain and Venezuela have been summoned due to the remarks made by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro concerning Spain’s take on the opposition crackdown.

Opposition Leader Leopoldo Lopez surrendering in Venezuela / photo courtesy of NBC News

During protests that occurred almost a year ago, President Maduro jailed several opposition leaders and has largely ignored numerous international outcry’s for their freedom.

Maduro made less than favorable comments toward Spain on Tuesday after the Spanish Parliament passed a motion calling for the release of opposition leaders jailed in the South American country.  Venezuela is a former colony of Spain.

President Maduro condemned the measure as “an act of aggression by corrupt Spanish elites” and called Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy “a racist”.

He also accused the Spanish parliament of interfering in Venezuela’s affairs and recommended it “look after its mother”.

“In Spain, they are all racists,” he added, warning, “I am ready for the battle against Madrid.” He also threatened to go “on a tour of Spain and announce my candidacy for president,” even though Spain is run under a parliamentary system where non-members of the legislature cannot campaign for the top spot

The Spanish foreign ministry summoned Venezuelan Ambassador Mario Isea to tell him that Maduro’s “statements, insults and threats” were “intolerable”, it said in a statement.

Venezuela in turn summoned Spanish Ambassador Antonio Perez-Hernandez y Torra in protest, complaining of Spain’s “meddling and disrespectful statements”, said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez.

“We again call on the Spanish government to respect Venezuela’s sovereignty,” she said.

The negative treatment of opposition leaders by the Venezuelan government is a regular source of tension between the two countries.

Some of the jailed leaders include Leopoldo López, who was arrested in February 2014 for organizing a peaceful protest against Maduro, the mayor of western regional capital, San Cristóbal, and the mayor of the national capital, Caracas, have been arrested for expressing disagreement with the socialist government. Maduro accused both of being involved in a conspiracy to overthrow him.

Venezuela recalled its ambassador to Spain for consultations in February after Rajoy met with Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

The following month Rajoy met with Mitzy Capriles, the wife of Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who has also been jailed in what Venezuelan opposition figures said was the latest crackdown on criticism of Maduro’s left-wing government.

Spanish political figures have been increasingly vocal in condemning human rights abuses in Venezuela. Former Spanish President Felipe González has personally taken it upon himself to defend López and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma in Venezuela’s courts. This prompted Maduro to immediately accuse González of spearheading a coup attempt against him.

For more information, please see:

ABC News – Spain Files Protest With Venezuela Over President’s Comments – 16 Apr. 2015

The Local – Diplomatic spat: Spain, Venezuela tensions rise – 16 Apr. 2015

BreitBart – Spain Lodges Protest with Venezuela after President Calls Nation ‘Rascists’ – 16 Apr. 2015

telesur – Respect International Law, Venezuela Tells Spanish Diplomat – 15 Apr. 2015

Colombian Government to Resume Bombing of FARC Targets after Rebels Attack Colombian Troops

By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch, Managing Editor

BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, has ordered the resumption of bombing raids against Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels after an attack he blamed on the group killed Colombian 10 soldiers. The move, which broke a fragile truce between FARC and the Colombian government will likely intensify combat in the region. The Colombian government halted bombing raids targeting FARC as part of peace talks between the two parties in recognition of a unilateral ceasefire declared in December by the FARC insurgents.

The fragile truce between Colombian forces and FARC rebels appears to have fallen apart after a deadly attack by FARC Rebels against Colombian soldiers. (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

According to Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti said of the FARC attack against Colombian troops that “this is the deadliest attack since they announced the unilateral indefinite ceasefire back in December. And comes just a few days since the Colombian government announced the extension of the suspension of the air raids over FARC camps.” He added that at the present movement, it is not clear what the effects of these attacks will have on ongoing peace talks between FARC and the Colombian Government. FARC negotiators in Cuba committed to the unilateral ceasefire to promote peace talks that have taken place in Cuba over the past two years. FARC negotiators claimed the insurgents would only fire their weapons if they were first attacked by the armed forces. However, it is unclear how much control FARC rebel leaders in Havana really have over the more than 7,000 fighters participating in the FARC insurgency.

Ten Colombian soldiers were reportedly killed in the rural southwestern Cauca province in the early hours of Wednesday when the FARC launched an ambush against the troops, throwing grenades and firing on them as they sheltered in a covered sports pitch, the Colombian army said. “This incident was a product of a deliberate attack by the FARC, it was not a coincidence and this implies a clear rupture of the promise of a unilateral ceasefire,” President Santos said, after meeting with his Administration’s defense team in the city of Cali. “I have ordered the armed forces to lift the suspension of bombings on FARC camps.”

FARC is the largest rebel organization in Colombia, a nation that has been a haven to illegal drug and human traffickers for several decades. The organization was founded 1964 with the stated aim of installing a Marxist regime in the South American state. In five decades of conflict more than 220,000 people are estimated to have been killed. While the FARC movement claims its motives are to establish a Marxist regime, a regime that in theory would focus on the rights of workers, the paramilitary organization has targeted trade unions, even assassinating their leaders, for several decades leading to the degradation of the Labor movement in a countries who’s labor unions were once the among the strongest in Latin America.  Colombia has experienced the highest number of assignations of trade union leaders and labor activists of any country in the world. FARC is listed as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Europe.

For more information please see:

Al Jazeera – Colombia to Resume Bombing of FARC Targets – 16 April 16, 2015

BBC News – Colombia Lifts Bombing Truce after FARC Attack in Cauca – 16 April 2015

CNN International – Colombia Renews Bombing Raids on FARC After Rebels Kill 10 Soldiers – 15 April 2015

Reuters – Ten Colombian Soldiers Killed In Attack Blamed On FARC Rebels – 15 April 2015

Blackwater Guards Sentenced For Role in Nisoor Square Shooting

By Lyndsey Kelly
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

 

WASHINGTON D.C., United States of America – U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced former Blackwater security guard Nicholas Slatten to life in prison and three others, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard to 30-year terms for their roles in a 2007 shooting hat killed 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square, after being convicted in October.

Photo of Nicholas Slatten leaving the Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of MSNBC).

Judge Lamberth announced the sentences after a daylong hearing at which defense lawyers have argues for leniency and presented character witnesses for their clients. The defense argued, saying decades-long sentences would be unconstitutionally harsh for men who operated in a war-torn environment. Prosecutors described the shooting as an unprovoked ambush of civilians and said that the men have not shown any remorse or taken responsibility for their part in the incident. Lamberth stated, “based on the seriousness of the crimes, I find the penalty is not excessive.”

Families of the victims spoke in favor of harsh sentences, including Mohammad Kinani Al-Razzaaq, whose 9-year-old son was killed in the incident. Al-Razzaq demanded that the court show Blackwater “what the law is.”

However, it is unlkely that the sentencing hearing will be the last for these men. Even before the trial began, defense lawyers identified issues, which would form the basis of an appeal, including whether there was proper jurisdiction to charge the defendants in the first place.

The men were charfed under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which covers overseas crimes of Defense Department civilian employees, military contractors and others who are supportingthe American war mission. The defense argues that the Blackwater defendants worked as State Department contractors and were not military.

 

For more information, please see the following:

AL JAZEERA – Blackwater Guards Sentences in 2007 Shooting – 13 April 2015.

MSNBC – Ex-Blackwater Guards Hit With Lengthy Prison Sentences – 13 April 2015.

US NEWS – Blackwater Guards Who Slaughtered 14 Iraqis Get 30 Years, Life – 13 April 2015.

Pope’s use of “Genocide” is Praised by Armenians and Condemned by Turks

By Max Bartels

Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East 

 

Vatican City, Rome

On Sunday Pope Francis held Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica, he used the term “genocide” to refer to the death of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed in the former Ottoman Empire in 1915. The Mass was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the events and the leaders of the Armenian Church and the Armenian President attended the Mass. The Pope stated that the events of 1915 involving the Armenian people are widely considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century. The Pope’s use of the term “genocide” has sparked political uproar in Turkey who strongly denies the allegations of genocide.

The Pope during the 100th anniversary Mass, side by side with leaders of the Armenian Church. (Photo curtesy of Yahoo News)

The Turkish President condemned Pope Francis for describing the events of 1915 as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey claims that the deaths in 1915 were the result of unrest and civil war during a very turbulent time in Turkey and the World. The Turkish government has also claimed the death toll numbers have been inflated. In response to the Pope’s statements the government of Turkey has recalled its ambassador to the Vatican for consultation. The Turkish Ambassador claimed that this does not mean the end of diplomatic ties with the Vatican. Rather, that consultation is necessary for the ambassador after an event the Turkish government does not approve of.

On the other hand, the Armenian government praised the Pope for his statements in support of their cause. Armenia believes that Turkey is out of touch with the rest of the world and that the term genocide is widely used to refer to the events of 1915. The President of Armenia praised the Pope saying his statements act as a powerful message to the international community.

Pope Francis is not the first Pope to use the term “genocide” to refer to the events of 1915. Pope John Paul II authored a joint declaration with the leader of the Armenian Church in 2001 stating the deaths were considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Pope Francis took John Paul’s statements further, issuing them on the 100th anniversary, in the presence of Armenian political and religious leaders and urged the international community to recognize the events as a genocide.

For more information, please see:

The Associated Press — Turkey Recalls Ambassador over Pope’s Armenia Genocide Words — 12 April, 2015 

CNN News — Pope Francis Uses “Genocide” to Refer to Mass Killings of Armenians by Turks — 13 April, 2015 

Yahoo News — Erdogan “Condemns” Pope Over Armenian Genocide Comment — 14 April, 2015 

U.S. News and World Report — Pope’s Armenian Genocide Comments Anger Turks — 12 April, 2015 

VDC: The Weekly Statistical Report

United Nations Calls for More Humanitarian Aid to North Korea as Regime Clamps Down on Aid Workers

By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch, Managing Editor

PYONGYANG, North Korea – The United Nations has called $111 million in aid to fund crucial humanitarian needs in the country. The United Nations estimates that about 70% of the North Korean people are food insecure and one third of children under the age of five years old are stunted. North Korea “is both a silent and under-funded humanitarian situation,” Ghulam Isaczai, the United Nations resident coordinator for North Korea, said in a statement released last Wednesday. “Protracted and serious needs for millions of people are persistent and require sustained funding.” The call for additional funding comes as the North Korean regime cracks down on foreign aid organizations operating inside the secretive state. On Wednesday, the reclusive State’s propaganda news service announced the deportation of aid worker Sandra Suh, a United States citizen, accusing her of engaging in acts of propaganda against the state. It was the second deportation of an aid worker in less than two months after a German aid organization announced one of its workers was expelled in February.

The Need for aid remains high in North Korea, where 70% of the state’s people live in a state of food insecurity while regime insiders live in obscene wealth. (Photo courtesy of Deutsche Welle)

The Korean Central News Agency claimed Suh had “engaged in anti-DPRK propaganda abroad with photos and videos about the DPRK she secretly produced and directed, out of inveterate repugnancy toward the DPRK.” Timothy Park, who accompanied Suh to North Korea, said the allegations were without basis. Suh has been named in the media as the founder of Los Angeles-based Wheat Mission Ministries.

Despite the regimes apparent crackdown on foreign aid workers the North Korean people remain desperate for humanitarian aid as the state continues to fail to meet their basic needs. According to the United Nations latest report on North Korea, Children in rural areas and those in institutions such as nurseries, kindergartens and orphanages have little access to water and sanitation contributing to the spread of waterborne diseases. About 25 percent of North Korea’s 24.62 million people still have no access to essential health services.

According to the economist Marcus Noland, North Korea could close the food gap and end food insecurity in the country with less than two-tenths of one percent of national income or one percent of the regimes military budget. The Kim Jong-un regime is known to be spending six times that of the United Nations latest appeal for aid to North Korea on luxury goods as North Korea’s elite regime insiders continue live in obscene wealth while most people go hungry.

For more information please see:

Deutsche Welle – Expulsions Hinder Foreign NGO Activities in North Korea – 13 April 2015

The Diplomat – North Korea Clamps Down On Foreign Aid Groups – 13 April 2015

Reuters – U.N. Calls For $111 Million for Crucial Aid for North Kore – 9 April 2015

The Wall Street Journal – North Korea Deports U.S. Aid Worker – 8 April 2015

New Talks Scheduled in Search of More Permanent Peace in Ukraine

By Kyle Herda

Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

KIEV, Ukraine – Following a long period of relative rest in Eastern Ukraine, there has been another spike in reported use of heavy weapons on the frontline by both sides, in violation of the second Minsk agreement. As a result, France, Ukraine, Russia, and Germany will once again meet to try and work out a way to restore and keep peace.

Ukrainian soldiers stand guard near Mariupol. (Photo courtesy of The Wall Street Journal)

The current ceasefire agreement requires both sides to pull back weapons with a caliber over 100mm from the front line. The rebels are accused of multiple incidents of 120-122mm attacks on government troops, and Kiev is accused of firing tank and artillery repeatedly at rebels. Pro-Russian senior commander Eduard Basurin claims two journalists were wounded in an attack by the government when troops fired around Pisky, near Donetsk. Kiev also claims one Ukrainian serviceman was killed and six wounded by the rebels while in the east.

One area under great risk of heavy fighting is the port city of Mariupol, which has seen scattered fighting already in the regions nearby. The city saw heavy fighting at points last year when the conflict was hot throughout the east, but has since been essentially fortified by Ukrainian troops. Mariupol’s position on the water with access to the Black Sea, as well as its position on land between rebel-held land and Russian-held Crimea, makes it a likely target for the rebels or Russia should they make a big push. Further, the 500,000 civilians within Mariupol are divided: 75 percent support Kiev, while 25 percent support separating from Ukraine. More than 1,000 Ukrainian troops have been deployed to Mariupol since last summer.

There have been over 6,000 killed in the conflict since it began over a year ago, and while many parties have tried to find a solution that results in peace and stability for all, nobody seems to have a permanent answer. Constant smaller violations of the current ceasefire, as well as the occasional serious violations as we have again seen recently, allow the peace to remain a fragile façade that both sides wear while continuing to act in furtherance of their ultimate goals with no resolve for the greater peace. Barring a large-scale conflict and renewed heavy fighting that proves successful for one side, either both sides must be willing to give, or fighting will continue as we have seen: indefinitely and with no hope for peace in sight.

For more information, please see:

Reuters – Violence escalates in east Ukraine ahead of talks – 14 April 2015

The Wall Street Journal – Diplomats Seek Withdrawal of Heavy Weapons From Ukraine Front Lines – 13 April 2015

Ukraine Today – ‘Normandy Four’ meeting today in Berlin for talks on fragile east Ukraine ceasefire – 13 April 2015

The Wall Street Journal – European Officials Push for Lasting Peace Deal in Ukraine – 12 April 2015

The Daily Signal – Visit to a Mariupol Hospital Lays Bare Ukraine War’s Toll – 12 April 2015

ISIS Videos Shows Deliberate Destruction of the Ancient City of Nimrud

By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch, Managing Editor

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A video released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) shows militants using power tools and bulldozers to deface and destroy monuments in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq, before the site was completely destroyed with explosives. The video comes only a week after another video showed the destruction of the UNESCO cite at the Ancient city of Hatra. Damage to Nimrud was first reported in March but the new video shows the full scale of the destruction of the historic cultural site which has stood for more than 3,000 years surviving countless conflicts and regimes.

An image taken from a video released by ISIS on April 11 shows smoke billowing from an ancient site after it was allegedly wired with explosives by Islamic State in northern Iraq. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Nimrud, which was once the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire and a major Assyrian city from about 1250BC to 610BC, is located 20 miles south of the modern city of Mosul and is just 3 miles outside the small village of Selamiyah, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered one of most important archaeological sites in Iraq. Nimrud was first excavated by modern archeologists in the 19th century when many of its artifacts were removed from their homeland and transported to Europe’s largest museums including the British Museum and the Louver, Sadly these artifacts that were once stolen from Nimrud and the Iraqi are now among the only surviving artifacts from the city following its horrific destruction.

Flashpoint Intelligence, a global security firm, could not confirm that the site shown in the video is in fact the ancient city of Nimrud. However, the organization said “online chatter does seem to corroborate the claims, and the rest of the video does follow the group’s pattern of destroying ‘idols,’ as they call it.” If confirmed, this destruction of cultural sites that belong not only to the people of Iraq but all of humanity, is a crime under international law. The loss of the city of Nimrud is a tragedy not only for the people of Iraq but for humanity, the city represents the cultural achievements of Ancient Mesopotamia, considered by many to be the birthplace of both agriculture and western civilization

ISIS has targeted several other Assyrian sites in Iraq and destroyed countless manuscripts, books and other artefacts that they have declared to be un-Islamic and blasphemous. The group recently destroyed a library in Mosul that contained more than 8,000 ancient manuscripts Irinia Bokova, the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO) has previous condemned the destruction of key historical sites by ISIS saying that the “deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime.”

Earlier this year’s ISIS supports claimed they were ordered by the Profit to commit these acts of Iconoclasm, the deliberate destruction of cultural and religious idols of other cultures, saying, “the Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him.” While the militants claim their actions are motivated by a desire to destroy what it sees as idolatry ISIS itself does not destroy all artifacts its encounters, instead the illegal looting and selling of antiquities is a primary source of ISIS funding.

For more information please see:

NBC News – ISIS Video Shows Apparent Destruction of Nimrud Archaeological Site – 12 April 2015

The Jerusalem Post – WATCH: ISIS Razes Ancient City in Latest Bid to Erase ‘Un-Islamic’ History – 12 April 2015

USA Today – Video Purports To Show ISIL Destroying Ancient City of Nimrud – 12 April 2015

The Guardian – Isis Video Confirms Destruction at UNESCO World Heritage Site in Hatra – 5 April 2015

Regime Forces Bomb School in Aleppo

By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch, Managing Editor

DAMASCUS, Syria – The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the Syrian Civil War using a network of sources on the ground in Syria, reported Sunday that at least nine people, including five children were killed by airstrikes which hit a school in the rebel-held area of Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo. Regime forces have denied the report saying that the army had stepped up attacks on rebels since the insurgents bombarded a government-held residential area in the northwestern city on Saturday. But he said the military had not targeted civilians.

Residents inspect blood stains shelling from regime warplanes hit the Al-Ansari school in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled Al-Mashad neighborhood on April 12, 2015.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in the United Kingdom, released a video it says shows the aftermath of the deadly attack. In the video a man is seen holding what he says is the severed lower leg and foot of a young child, and rescue workers were shown carrying away what appeared to be a body wrapped in a sheet. According to the Observatory, at least 32 people were killed in Aleppo on Saturday, 17 of them in the government-held district of Suleimaniyah bombarded by rebels, and 15 of them in an army air strike that later hit a market in a rebel-held area. The organization added that a number of people were seriously wounded and the death toll is likely to rise.

The airstrikes that hit the school came just a day after the monitoring group and Syrian state rune media (SANA) reported shelling by Syrian rebels on a government-held neighborhood in Aleppo. Footage aired on Syrian state television on Saturday showing damaged buildings and injured people being treated at an overcrowded local hospital.

State TV media reported the shelling targeted the predominantly Christian and Armenian neighborhood of Suleimaniyah in Aleppo killing nine people and wounding 50. SANA also reported that several buildings were severely damaged and people were likely still trapped under the ruble.

Just hours after the shelling Syrian helicopters gunships targeted a market in Aleppo’s rebel-held neighborhood of Maadi in an apparent retaliation by the Syrian government, according to both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition-run Aleppo Media Centre. The Observatory reported that ten people were killed in the attack and dozens more were badly injured.

Aleppo has a major frontline in the four-year-old Syrian civil war, a conflict that has killed an estimated 220,000 people. The city, 30 miles from the Turkish border, is divided between government and rebel control.

For more information please see:

Al Jazeera – ‘Children Killed’ In Syria’s Aleppo School Bombing – April 12, 2015

Al Arabiya – Five Children Dead in Air Strike on School in Syria’s Aleppo – 12 April 2015

Reuters – Monitor Says Syrian Army Bombs Aleppo School – 12 April 2015

Sky News Australia – Nine People Killed During Syria Air Strikes – 12 April 2015