Reporting by Rami Amichai and Mustafa Abu Ghaneyeh, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff
October 8, 2017
October 8, 2017: JORDAN RIVER, West Bank (Reuters) – Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women trekked through a biblical desert landscape on Sunday, converging on the shores of the Jordan River in a march for peace.
The women, many of them dressed in white, descended through the arid hills leading to the river, where they erected a “peace tent” named for Hagar and Sarah, scriptural mothers of Ishmael and Isaac, the half-brother patriarchs of Muslims and Jews.
“We are women from the right, the left, Jews and Arabs, from the cities and the periphery and we have decided that we will stop the next war,” said Marilyn Smadja, one of the founders of the organizing group, Women Wage Peace.
The organization was established after the 50-day Gaza war of 2014 when more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed. Israel put the number of its dead at 67 soldiers and six civilians.
Some 5,000 women participated in Sunday’s march, organizers said. It began last month at several locations across Israel and will culminate in a rally later in the day outside the Jerusalem residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
RODELAS, Brazil, Sep 30 2017 (IPS) – The Tuxá indigenous people had lived for centuries in the north of the Brazilian state of Bahia, on the banks of the São Francisco River. But in 1988 their territory was flooded by the Itaparica hydropower plant, and since then they have become landless. Their roots are now buried under the waters of the reservoir.
Dorinha Tuxá, one of the leaders of this native community, which currently has between 1,500 and 2,000 inhabitants, sings on the shore of what they still call “river”, although now it is an 828-sq-km reservoir, in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, along the border with the state of Bahia, to the south.
While singing the song dedicated to their “sacred” river and smoking her “maraku”, a pipe with tobacco and ritual herbs, she looks dreamily at the waters where the “Widow’s Island” was submerged, one of several that sprinkled the lower course of the São Francisco River, and on which the members of her community used to live.
“This song is to ask our community for unity, because in this struggle we are asking for the strength of our ancestors to help us recover our territory. A landless indigenous person is a naked indigenous person. We are asking our ancestors to bless us in this battle and protect our warriors,” she told IPS.
The hydroelectric plant, with a capacity of 1,480 megawatts, is one of eight installed by the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company (CHESF), whose operations are centered on that river which runs across much of the Brazilian Northeast region: 2,914 km from its source in the center of the country to the point where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean in the northeast.
After the flood, the Tuxá people were relocated to three municipalities. Some were settled in Nova Rodelas, a hamlet in the rural municipality of Rodelas, in the state of Bahia, where Dorinha Tuxá lives.
After a 19-year legal battle, the 442 relocated Tuxá families finally received compensation from the CHESF. But they are still waiting for the 4,000 hectares that were agreed upon when they were displaced, and which must be handed over to them by state agencies.
“What nostalgia for that blessed land where we were born and which did not let us lack for anything. The river where we used to fish. I have such nostalgia for that time, from my childhood to my marriage. We were indeed a suffering and stoic but optimistic people. We grew rice, onions, we harvested mangoes. All that is gone,” Tuxá chief Manoel Jurum Afé told IPS.
The new village is very different from the community where they used to live on their island.
“What nostalgia for that blessed land where we were born and which did not let us lack for anything. The river where we used to fish. I have such nostalgia for that time, from my childhood to my marriage. We were indeed a suffering and stoic but optimistic people. We grew rice, onions, we harvested mangoes. All that is gone.” — Manoel Jurum Afé
Only the soccer field, where children play, retains the shape of traditional indigenous Tuxá constructions.
But the elders strive to transmit their collective memory to the young, such as Luiza de Oliveira, who was baptized with the indigenous name of Aluna Flexia Tuxá.
She is studying law to continue her people’s struggle for land and rights. Her mother, like many other Tuxá women, also played an important role as chief, or community leader.
“It was as if they lived in a paradise. They had no need to beg the government like they have to do now. They used to plant everything, beans, cassava. They lived together in complete harmony. They talk about it with nostalgia. It was a paradise that came to an end when it was flooded,” she said.
On September 20, 2017 Archbishop Nicholas Djomo of the diocese of Tshumbe in the Kasai region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) held a briefing for the Catholic Task Force for Africa and other groups at the office of the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN). The event was live streamed which allowed other participants to join from different parts of the United States by phone and video conference.
In his remarks, Bishop Djomo called on Catholics and all people of good will to pray for Africa in general and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in particular. Bishop Djomo’s message highlighted the work of the Church as ambassador of Jesus Christ for peace and prosperity.
He explained how the DRC is facing a serious political, security and humanitarian crisis. In fact, on the political front, the National Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops was called on to mediate and help political actors and civil society representatives find a compromise on the question of elections which includes the elections of a new president. The church successfully brokered an agreement between political actors which was signed on December 31st, 2016. Unfortunately, because the political actors were not willing to compromise to work on a detailed implementation plan of the agreement, the bishops handed the remaining task over to the president so that they could keep on trying on their own to find a compromise. The disagreements on the way forward remain and the political crisis has deepened.
On the security front, in the eastern and the center of the country namely in the Kasai region, there are internally displaced people in the millions and hundreds of thousands as refugees in the neighboring nation of Angola. Also there are a good number of Congolese in Uganda as well. Given the number of people in need, the humanitarian aid to the displaced is not enough.
The Security Crisis
Here are some examples to prove the case of chronic insecurity in eastern DRC that was mentioned by Bishop Djomo. On September 16, 2017 in Rutshuru in North Kivu Province, a vehicle full of passengers was ambushed by members of a militia. One person was killed, three were kidnapped and many more were wounded. The night before in the same locality in a village called Ntamugenga, a Catholic priest named Jean de Dieu Kasereka Kanefu who was on holiday with his family was also kidnapped and taken to an unknown location. The kidnapers were asking for $20,000 in ransom, but no one knows exactly how much was paid for his release less than 24 hours later. Fr. Jean de Dieu is a member of the Catholic order of Caracholini priests.
On September 15, 2017, the director of the Mabalako Healthcare System, Doctor Mumbere Kamaliro Germain, was kidnapped after an ambush by armed men near Rwindi and Mabenga towns on the Goma-Butembo road. His kidnapers are asking $10,000. One person was killed during the ambush. The car Doctor Mumbere was in was part of a long convoy which was escorted by the army at the time of his kidnapping.
On the night of September 8, 2017, Father Waswandi, a Catholic priest from the Diocese of Butembo in North Kivu province escaped a kidnapping attempt. He jumped from a vehicle they had put him in and was treated for wounds from beatings with metallic bars.
On July 16, 2017, two Catholic Priests, Frs. Charles Kipasa and Jean-Pierre Akilimali of Paroisse Notre-Dame des Anges parish in Bunyuka in Butembo Diocese were kidnapped. The kidnapers were asking for $20,000 in ransom.
On April 14, 2017, the gynecologist of the referral hospital of Uvira, Doctor Gildo Byamungu was killed at his home during the night by armed men. They took his phone, computer, and documents. On January 29, 2016 Doctor Deo Chiza Rumesha, chief surgeon at the referral Hospital of Mweso in North Kivu was kidnapped and found the next morning dead.
On October 19, 2012 Frs. Edmond Kisughu, Anselme Wasukundi, and Jean-Pierre Ndulani, three Assumptionist priests, were kidnapped from their rectory in Mbau in the Diocese of Beni, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). To this day they have not returned home. An article published by the Assumptionist priests in 2014, citing the bimonthly paper Les Coulisses and Radio Kivu 1, stated that they are believed to have been killed by the Ugandan rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces & the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) because they refused to convert to Islam. This combination of two rebel groups is known to force its hostages to convert to Islam, according to documents seized at one of their camps two years ago during a raid and destroyed by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC.
On a daily basis, Congolese citizens from different corners of the nation live in fear for their lives. Men, women, school children are kidnapped, killed day in and day out, and their stories are known to just a few. Congolese politicians in the meantime are fighting over political posts which are an easy way to accumulate wealth in a very short time with little effort. The stories above are just a sample of what is going on in the DRC. Each day and night is full of uncertainty in villages, towns and cities.
These are examples of what Bishop Djomo referenced when he said that there is a security crisis in the DRC. He called on the faithful to pray for the victims; the youth to work for social transformation, and African diasporas, no matter where they are, to free themselves from partisanship from their home countries and embrace a vision that will help their homeland and Africa in general.
(August 21, 2017) Yuba, South Sudan — Bishop Santo Loku Pio Doggale is not a man to mince words and he didn’t mince words earlier this year when he discussed South Sudan’s descent into a worsening, seemingly never-ending civil war.
“The government is the orchestrator of the war, and the people are suffering as a result,” he told NCR from his office in the capital of Juba in late May, citing numerous examples of the afflictions South Sudanese are experiencing: rape, looting and displacement.
“They are being brutally mistreated,” the auxiliary bishop of the capital of Juba said of those who are the victims of violence — victims who have, at the moment, “no resource to justice. It’s a big mess.”
He acknowledges that his critics — in the government and even some, privately, within the church — wonder if his criticisms are fair, smart or wise.
But Doggale brushes aside those criticisms, saying, “I’m not afraid.”
“My life doesn’t matter. I’ve suffered, too. I’ve lost members of my family. But when brutality is the order of the day, someone has to speak up, especially when you see that the flock is living in fear. This makes me angry.”
Doggale’s outspoken stance represents one wing of the church — a faction that believes that the church needs to be firm in its prophetic stance not only for the larger cause of peace in South Sudan but also in calling out the current government for policies and actions some believe are the cause of the current war.
But in a predominately impoverished, Christian nation where the church has an outsized role in providing education, social services and even basic necessities like food, the church’s place in society also has a practical side.
“The Catholic Church has a strong, strong footprint here,” said Fr. Pau Vidal, a Jesuit priest and a project director for Jesuit Refugee Service in the northern city of Maban. Another humanitarian agrees. “The churches have credibility here in South Sudan,” said Jerry Farrell, the country representative in South Sudan for Catholic Relief Services. “In fact, they’re the only institutions that do have credibility, as they touch on so many parts of life: spirituality, health care, housing, education, food.”
Financial figures about the church’s role are hard to come by, but Catholic Relief Services alone has provided assistance of some sort to more than 1 million South Sudanese, the agency said, and works in partnership with local dioceses, parishes and religious congregations of both women and men.
Famine remains a serious problem and 6 million of country’s 12 million people face some kind of food insecurity — the lack of access to food — according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Church-based groups have initiated programs to improve the humanitarian situation within the country. As just one example, the Society of Daughters of Mary Immaculate, or DMI Sisters, is working on local initiatives to assist small communities in agricultural projects.
Grave problems persist in the country and whether stated in public, like Doggale, or in private, among numerous Catholics, they revolve around the current government in power.
The criticisms center on several fronts — that the government has either not been able to control factions of the government military forces known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which is predominately made of members of the ethnic or tribal group known as the Dinkas, or has been purposely targeting non-Dinkas and populations the government believes oppose it.
Ethnic tensions have been put to use for political purposes, as Human Rights Watch said in its report on the ongoing conflict, noting that it began in 2013 when “soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, fought in the capital following months of growing political tensions.”
In its 2017 report, Human Rights Watch said that government troops have “killed, raped, and tortured civilians as well as destroying and pillaging civilian property during counterinsurgency operations in the southern and western parts of the country,” while acknowledging that both sides of the conflict “have committed abuses against civilians in and around Juba and other areas.” Some 2.4 million South Sudanese have been displaced, Human Rights Watch noted.
For its part, the South Sudanese government claims its troops are trying to battle an anti-government rebellion. It has blamed the civil war — which began in late 2013 — on anti-government rebels. And it has said it is committed to finding a peaceful solution to South Sudan’s war with those who oppose the government.
Some within the church, such as Fr. Moses Peter, a diocesan coordinator for Caritas in the city of Wau — which has faced a serious crisis, with thousands seeking refuge on the ground of the Catholic cathedral there — are, like Doggale, government critics. Peter said, “Nobody trusts the SPLA,” and notes that the government has accused the Catholic Church of being “pro-rebel,” a charge he strongly rejects. (President Kiir is a Roman Catholic.)
Yet the prophetic often mixes with the practical — Peter says in his humanitarian work, he works cordially with local officials among the thousands displaced in Wau by the conflict. And the church has a long history in Wau of involvement with peace efforts among all parties and factions to help diffuse local tensions.
Everyone in the church is tired of the conflict and is eager to resume some sense of hope and nation-building that ushered in the creation of the world’s newest nation after it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Many relish memories from that time, their first taste of independence, coming after years of war.
“It was a beautiful moment — an independent people felt they could start afresh,” said Vidal. “But the [current] war has worsened the situation so much and there is no sense of nation unity now.”
Some say there is still enough political and humanitarian space to do needed pastoral work.
“It is certainly better now than in the 1960s when our people were under Arab rule,” Sr. Mary Faida, a member of the Sacred Heart Sisters, a South Sudanese congregation, said of life under the rule of neighboring Sudan, which is predominately Muslim. She said the work now of the church and of religious congregations — whether in education or in health care — is “giving hope to the people.”
Yet there are still deep worries about the church and its future. Interviewed in May, Doggale said even with all of its problems, he did not believe that the national government was engaging in systematic harassment of the church. But he did say some government officials were probably behind threats to individuals, including him.
“Is it government policy? No,” he said, but added he had received several threatening anonymous calls recently, including one in which a man told him, “Your days are numbered.”
There have been other troubling signs, too: a group of government troops threatened employees of a church bookstore in Juba in February of this year and took books off of the shelves they declared were written by government critics.
Since May, the bishop has become increasingly pessimistic. South Sudan-based Radio Tamazuj reported in July that Doggale called the current government’s national dialogue strategy “a waste of time.” He said, “The problem is political and it has to be solved by the political leaders,” including Kiir and Machar.
“The ordinary citizens have not yet created any problem, that’s why our faithful citizens are able to stay for three months without salaries and they don’t even demonstrate. They still go to work, you will never see this in any country in the world,” he said.
In emails earlier this month, Doggale told NCR that the current situation is “getting worse day by day. People are living in the uncertainty, rampant insecurity, hunger and diseases. In one word. It is limbo.”
In a later email, the bishop said, “The intimidation is of all South Sudanese by their own government. The ruling elite don’t care who you are, they just do what they want and when they want it.” He said there is there is no rule of law and repeated his belief that the country is in limbo.
“In South Sudan everybody is under intimidation, and so fear is instilled into people. It is the church that tries to give some voice, and so they (the government) are not comfortable about that and that is why they also get frustrated when the voice of the church continues in many ways to be aloud and strong on the suffering of the people.”
Others who agree with the bishop say privately the church has to be careful — that it is dealing now with what some call a military dictatorship and that the church is clearly in the government’s crosshairs.
“This is not a joke, what is happening now,” said one member of a religious order, who said the Kiir government has made a number of false allegations about the church, including that it has called “for regime change.”
“The stakes are now going up for the church,” the member said.
“The blood of the tribe is thicker than the water of Baptism,” Doggale said. “Our government is Catholic. They read the Bible. They go to church. But how much do they put into practice?”
Others also point out that in such an intense, confusing environment it is probably no surprise that four dioceses in the country are without bishops now.
“The Catholic Church is trying to finds its way now. But in keeping quiet, and not speaking out against human rights, we are taking sides and protecting our own projects,” said one cleric who did not want to be identified.
“How much injustice will we continue to see? There is so much that the religious here are witnessing,” the cleric said. “When you speak out [it is assumed], you are speaking out against the government. How can you do that in a way that is constructive?”
[Chris Herlinger is international correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is email@example.com.]
Nearly four years after President Bashar al-Assad’s government promised to get rid of its stockpile of chemical weapons, gas attacks are still commonplace. What went wrong?
By Anthony Deutsch
Filed Aug. 17, 2017, 10 a.m. GMT | THE HAGUE – In the spring of 2015 a Syrian major general escorted a small team of chemical weapons inspectors to a warehouse outside the Syrian capital Damascus. The international experts wanted to examine the site, but were kept waiting outside in their car for around an hour, according to several people briefed on the visit.
When they were finally let into the building, it was empty. They found no trace of banned chemicals.
“Look, there is nothing to see,” said the general, known to the inspectors as Sharif, opening the door.
So why were the inspectors kept waiting? The Syrians said they were getting the necessary approval to let them in, but the inspectors had a different theory. They believed the Syrians were stalling while the place was cleaned out. It made no sense to the team that special approval was needed for them to enter an empty building.
The incident, which was not made public, is just one example of how Syrian authorities have hindered the work of inspectors and how the international community has failed to hold Syria to account, according to half a dozen interviews with officials, diplomats, and investigators involved in eliminating Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.
A promise by Syria in 2013 to surrender its chemical weapons averted U.S. air strikes. Many diplomats and weapons inspectors now believe that promise was a ruse.
They suspect that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while appearing to cooperate with international inspectors, secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability. They say Syria hampered inspectors, gave them incomplete or misleading information, and turned to using chlorine bombs when its supplies of other chemicals dwindled.
There have been dozens of chlorine attacks and at least one major sarin attack since 2013, causing more than 200 deaths and hundreds of injuries. International inspectors say there have been more than 100 reported incidents of chemical weapons being used in the past two years alone.
“The cooperation was reluctant in many aspects and that’s a polite way of describing it,” Angela Kane, who was the United Nation’s high representative for disarmament until June 2015, told Reuters. “Were they happily collaborating? No.”
“What has really been shown is that there is no counter-measure, that basically the international community is just powerless,” she added.
That frustration was echoed by U.N. war crimes investigator Carla del Ponte, who announced on Aug. 6 she was quitting a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria. “I have no power as long as the Security Council does nothing,” she said. “We are powerless, there is no justice for Syria.”
The extent of Syria’s reluctance to abandon chemical weapons has not previously been made public for fear of damaging international inspectors’ relationship with Assad’s administration and its backer, Russia, which is giving military support to Assad. Now investigators and diplomatic sources have provided telling details to Reuters:
– Syria’s declarations about the types and quantities of chemicals it possessed do not match evidence on the ground uncovered by inspectors. Its disclosures, for example, make no mention of sarin, yet there is strong evidence that sarin has been used in Syria, including this year. Other chemicals found by inspectors but not reported by Syria include traces of nerve agent VX, the poison ricin and a chemical called hexamine, which is used to stabilise sarin.
– Syria told inspectors in 2014-2015 that it had used 15 tonnes of nerve gas and 70 tonnes of sulphur mustard for research. Reuters has learned that inspectors believe those amounts are not “scientifically credible.” Only a fraction would be needed for research, two sources involved in inspections in Syria said.
“Why, my God, three-and-a-half years later, has more progress not been made in clearing up the inconsistencies? If I was the head of an organisation like that, I would go to Damascus and I would confront these people.”
–Angela Kane, former U.N. high representative for disarmament
– At least 2,000 chemical bomb shells, which Syria said it had converted to conventional weapons and either used or destroyed, are unaccounted for, suggesting that they may still be in the hands of Syria’s military.
– In Damascus, witnesses with knowledge of the chemical weapons programme were instructed by Syrian military officials to alter their statements midway through interviews with inspectors, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
The head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international agency overseeing the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, conceded serious questions remain about the completeness and accuracy of Syria’s disclosures.
“There are certainly some gaps, uncertainties, discrepancies,” OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu, a Turkish diplomat, told Reuters.
But he rejected criticism of his leadership by Kane and some other diplomats. Kane told Reuters that Uzumcu should have turned up the pressure on Syria over the gaps in its reporting and done more to support his inspectors. Uzumcu countered that it was not his job “to ensure the full compliance” of treaties on chemical weapons, saying that the OPCW was mandated to confirm use of chemical weapons but not to assign blame.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, insisted that Syria was completely free of chemical weapons and defended the country’s cooperation with international inspectors.
“I assure you that what was called the Syrian chemical weapons programme has ended, and has ended with no return. There are no more chemical weapons in Syria,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Sharif did not respond to requests for comment about the incident at the warehouse.
On Aug. 21, 2013, hundreds of people died in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta, a district on the outskirts of Damascus. The colourless, odourless nerve agent causes people to suffocate within minutes if inhaled even in small amounts. Assad’s forces were blamed by Western governments. He has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and blames insurgents for the attack.
By Bill Firman – The basic things we need for daily living we often simply assume they will be there. Not so in South Sudan where very little can be taken for granted. When I first came to South Sudan in 2009, I lived in Malakal. Most people there cooked on charcoal but we were lucky enough to be able to use gas. It is very convenient to be able just to turn a burner on and off when you like. When gas was no longer available, we used charcoal, a much slower and less convenient way of cooking.
When we turned the generator on, or there was town power, we could use an electric hot plate. At that time there was town power at night in Malakal. In Juba, where I am now, there used to be town power all day; but town electricity is only a happy memory today. It ceased to be available several years ago. We have adjusted and installed solar power but our solar system will not support cooking on an electric hot plate or in an electric oven.
In most of our houses and institutions, charcoal or wood is used for cooking, backed up by gas. Bottled gas is not readily available outside of Juba. We have found ways to maintain a limited supply of gas in Wau, Yambio and Riimenze but only if we use it sparingly. One cannot just go into town to renew the supply. In large towns such as Juba, Wau and Malakal, charcoal has to be brought in from bush areas. It is, or maybe was, a common sight to see trucks laden with bags of charcoal moving into Juba. Making and selling charcoal from wood has been a traditional South Sudan occupation for people in bush areas.
Amid the soaring prices of food, the shortage of diesel and petrol leading to greatly increased public transport costs, the great devaluation of the South Sudanese Pound (SSP) and the general insecurity, we thought conditions for the people could not get much worse. But in the past month, they have. In just three or four weeks the price of a sack of charcoal in Juba has increased from SSP700 per bag to SSP2500. One man living in a UN PoC (Protection of Civilians) camp told me recently that most of the people there have not cooked for several days.
In the PoC camp, the cost of a bag of charcoal is SSP3,500. That is about USD 24. It may not sound much in some countries but when salaries are low, it is a huge problem. The judges in South Sudan have been on strike recently as their salaries are in the range of 8000SSP to 12,000SSP (not even USD100) per month. Most South Sudanese are paid significantly less than this. So how can they afford this inflated price for charcoal?
Why has this happened? Insecurity. Apparently charcoal producers are too easily robbed bringing their charcoal to the city to sell it or when taking the payment for it back to their home place. The rising cost and shortage of fuel may also be a significant factor leading to the high new price. So there is a charcoal shortage. I suppose some may say not burning charcoal is good for the environment but it is certainly an unwanted scenario for those living in Juba who lack alternatives.
The shortage and rising cost of fuel affects everything. Our driver and cook in Juba each have to catch two buses each day, each way, to get from where they live to here. It does not seem long ago that the fare was SSP1 for a bus ride but now it is costing them SSP100 to travel to and from work each day – about SSP2000 per month.
The front cover of a recent Amnesty International Report carried the statement in large bold letters: ‘If men are caught they are killed; if women are caught they are raped’. In another report, Amnesty asserts that ‘A survey conducted in 2015 by UNFPA found that 72% of women living in the Juba PoC sites reported having been raped since the conflict broke out, mostly by police and soldiers.’
These are startling statements and there is fear among the people of becoming victims of violence. There are many traumatized people but most cope by putting it out of their minds and getting along cheerfully with life. But how do you remain cheerful when you can’t even afford to boil the water for a cup of tea? How do you remain healthy if you can’t cook your food or sterilize the water you drink? Many South Sudanese are used to living with a simple diet, and with hunger, but many will find life very difficult if they can’t cook their porridge or enjoy a cup of tea.
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 6 2017 (IPS) – A former French judge has been appointed as the head of an independent team tasked with investigating war crimes in Syria.
Catherine Marchi-Uhel was appointed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to lead a panel known as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism which aims to gather, preserve, and analyze potential evidence of serious violations of international law committed in Syria since 2011 for use by courts or an international tribunal.
The legal team, established in Geneva, was created by the UN General Assembly in December 2015 after facing longstanding resistance from Russia which has used its veto power eight times in the Security Council to block investigations and action on the conflict.
Marchi-Uhel is the first head of the panel and has extensive experience in international criminal law, previously serving as an international judge with the UN mission in Kosovo and in Cambodian courts prosecuting leaders of the Khmer Rouge. She was the Head of Chambers at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and worked in various legal positions at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with UN peacekeeping missions.
Most recently, Marchi-Uhel has been serving as the ombudsperson for the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda.
Many applauded the move, including Human Rights Watch who noted that the team is “critical” for the “long march to justice,” stating: “For victims who have known nothing but suffering, despair, and abandonment, the creation of this team represents a small step in the difficult struggle for justice, redress and an end to impunity that has marked the bloody conflict.”
Though the exact figure is uncertain, estimates of casualties from the 7-year long war range from 320,000 to over 400,000.
A UN International Commission of Inquiry has comprehensively documented atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict, including systematic attacks on hospitals and schools.
One of the deadliest attacks in Syria came in October 2016 when a series of airstrikes hit a complex of schools in Haas, killing a total of 36 civilians, 21 of whom were children between the ages of 7 and 17. Another 114 people were injured in the attack including 61 children. Afraid of future attacks, the school was closed.
“A Syrian Air Force attack on a complex of schools in Haas (Idlib), amounting to war crimes, is a painful reminder that instead of serving as sanctuaries for children, schools are ruthlessly bombed and children’s lives senselessly robbed from them,” the commission stated.
Such attacks in Syria are estimated to account for half of global attacks on schools from 2011 to 2015.
Several countries have already begun their own investigations into war crimes in Syria including Sweden which prosecuted a former Syrian opposition fighter for war crimes in December 2016.
The International Mechanism headed by Marchi-Uhel is expected to further these efforts around the world.
However, the team, funded by voluntary contributions, has only received half of the $13 million that its work is estimated to cost in its first year with 26 contributing countries as of June.
Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and Qatar are among the group’s top donors.