Myanmar troops’ sexual violence against Rohingya shows ‘genocidal intent’: U.N. report

FILE PHOTO: Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -Sexual violence committed by Myanmar troops against Rohingya women and girls in 2017 indicated the military’s genocidal intent to destroy the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, United Nations investigators said in a report released on Thursday.

The panel of independent investigators, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2017, accused Myanmar’s government of failing to hold anyone accountable and said it was responsible “under the Genocide Convention for its failure to investigate and punish acts of genocide”.

A military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine was in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

“Hundreds of Rohingya women and girls were raped, with 80 percent of the rapes corroborated by the Mission being gang rapes. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) was responsible for 82 percent of these gang rapes,” the report said.

At a news conference in Myanmar on Friday, military spokesman Major-General Tun Tun Nyi called the accusations “groundless” and based on “talking stories”.

“I cannot read out what they mentioned in their report, because it is not suitable to say in front of women in polite society,” he said.

Myanmar has laws against sexual assault, he added, and soldiers were warned against it at military schools.

“If you look at these experts, don’t they know our country’s law or respect it?” he asked.

The Myanmar government has refused entry to the U.N. investigators. The investigators traveled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, and met with aid groups, think-tanks, academics and intergovernmental organizations.

In an August 2018 report, the investigators laid out five indicators of genocidal intent by the Myanmar military: the use of derogatory language; specific comments by government officials, politicians, religious authorities and military commanders prior, during and after the violence; the existence of discriminatory plans and policies; evidence of an organized plan of destruction; and the extreme brutality of the campaign.

“The mission now concludes on reasonable grounds that the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls that began on 25 August 2017 was a sixth factor that indicated the Tatmadaw’s genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya people,” the new report said.

The conclusion was based on “the widespread and systematic killing of women and girls, the systematic selection of women and girls of reproductive ages for rape, attacks on pregnant women and on babies, the mutilation and other injuries to their reproductive organs, the physical branding of their bodies by bite marks on their cheeks, neck, breast and thigh.”

It said that two years later no military commanders had been held accountable for these and other crimes under international law and that the government “notoriously denies responsibility.”

“Myanmar’s top two military officials remain in their positions of power despite the mission’s call for them to be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” the panel said.

The investigators said they had collected new information about alleged perpetrators and added their names to a confidential list to be given to U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet and another U.N. inquiry charged with collecting and preserving evidence for possible future trials.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez)

‘The whole country is a prison’: No sign of better rights in North Korea – U.N.

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana arrives at a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, January 11, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Despite more than a year of international engagement and promises of economic reform by North Korea’s leaders, the human rights situation in the isolated country remains dire, a top U.N. rights official said on Friday.

Blocked by the government from visiting North Korea, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea Tomas Quintana visited South Korea this week as part of an investigation that will be provided to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.

Noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has embarked on an effort to improve living conditions by focusing on economic development, Quintana said his preliminary findings showed those efforts had not translated into improvements in the lives of most people.

“The fact is, that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the last year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious,” he told reporters at a briefing in Seoul.

“In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country’s population is being left behind.”

North Korea denies human rights abuses and says the issue is used by the international community as a political ploy to isolate it.

Human rights were noticeably absent from talks between Kim and the leaders of South Korea and the United States last year, over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

But in December, the United States imposed sanctions on an additional three North Korean officials, including a top aide to Kim, for serious rights abuses and censorship.

North Korea’s foreign ministry warned in a statement after the December sanctions were announced, that the measures could lead to a return to exchanges of fire and North Korea’s disarming could be blocked forever.

While noting he had “no specific information” on whether international sanctions were hurting ordinary North Koreans, Quintana said the sanctions targeted the economy as a whole and “raised questions” about the possible impact on the public.

He cited a reference by Kim in his New Year message to the need to improve living standards, saying it was a rare acknowledgment of the economic and social hardships faced by many North Koreans.

Still, the United Nations has confirmed the continued use of political prison camps housing “thousands” of inmates, Quintana said, quoting one source as saying “the whole country is a prison”.

He said witnesses who recently left North Korea reported facing widespread discrimination, labor exploitation and corruption in daily life.

There is also a “continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture” of defectors who escaped to China only to be returned to North Korea by Chinese authorities, Quintana said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. withdrawal leaves vacuum at U.N. rights forum

The name place sign of the United States is pictured one day after the U.S. announced their withdraw during a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland June 20, 2018. Picture taken with a fisheye lens. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – China, Britain and the European Union lamented on Wednesday Washington’s decision to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council as Western countries began looking for a substitute for the coveted seat.

The United States withdrew on Tuesday from what it called the “hypocritical and self-serving” forum over what it called chronic bias against its close ally Israel and a lack of reform after a year of negotiations.

Washington’s retreat is the latest U.S. rejection of multilateral engagement after it pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“It is bad news, it is bad news for this Council, it is bad news I think for the United Nations. It is bad news, I think for the United States, it is bad news for everybody who cares about human rights,” Slovenian President Borut Pahor told the 47-member forum in Geneva where the U.S. seat was empty.

The European Union, Australia and Britain echoed his comments.

“We have lost a member who has been at the forefront of liberty for generations. While we agree with the U.S. on the need for reform, our support for this Human Rights Council remains steadfast, and we will continue to advance the cause of reform from within its ranks,” Britain’s ambassador Julian Braithwaite said.

Bulgaria’s Ambassador Deyana Kostadinova, speaking on behalf of the EU, said that the United States had been a “strong partner” for many years at the talks. Its decision “risks undermining the role of the U.S. as a strong advocate and supporter of democracy on the world stage,” she added.

China’s foreign ministry expressed regret, with state media saying the image of the United States as a defender of rights was “on the verge of collapse”.

Diplomats have said the U.S. withdrawal could bolster Cuba, Russia, Egypt and Pakistan, which resist what they see as U.N. interference in sovereign issues.

Once the Trump administration formally notifies it of its decision, the U.N. General Assembly will organize elections for a replacement to assume the U.S. term through 2019.

The Western group of countries in the council is expected to discuss the issue at their weekly meeting on Thursday, diplomats said.

When the council was created in 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration shunned the body.

New Zealand, which stepped aside to allow the United States to win election to the Council in 2009 under President Barack Obama, may be a good choice as a replacement, two diplomats said. “There would be a certain symmetry,” one told Reuters.

Canada and the Netherlands were other possibilities, although no country has stepped forward yet, they said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the U.S. decision.

Senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Hanan Ashrawi, said Washington’s justification for withdrawal was “both deceptive and blatantly untrue”.

In a statement, she accused the United States of “subverting international law…for the sake of maintaining the impunity of Israel, the only remaining military occupation in the world”.

(additional reporting by Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Alison Williams and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Damascus intensifies Ghouta assault in bid to cut rebel enclave in half

Smoke rises from the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 27, 2018. REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh

By Tom Perry and Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government forces bombarded eastern Ghouta anew on Wednesday in an effort to slice the rebel enclave in two as they intensified a campaign to deal the opposition its biggest defeat since 2016.

The Syrian government assault on the densely populated area on the outskirts of Damascus, which began more than two weeks ago, has become one of the fiercest campaigns of a war now entering its eighth year, with bombardment killing hundreds.

Live footage broadcast by Syrian state TV from the outskirts of the town of Mesraba showed enormous clouds of smoke rising into the sky. The sounds of explosions and jets could be heard.

A state TV correspondent said militant defenses in the town were being struck by “preparatory fire” in advance of a planned infantry assault. “Mesraba is under heavy attack today,” said Khalil Aybour, a member of an opposition council in Ghouta.

Capturing Mesraba would be a major step towards severing the northern half of the Ghouta, including its biggest town, Douma, from the southern part. Government forces have seized more than 40 percent of the territory so far.

On Wednesday pro-government forces advanced, taking the small town of Beit Sawa to Misraba’s south, a Hezbollah-run media unit said.

Civilians have been fleeing frontline areas into Douma and hiding in cellars, with aid workers saying many children had told them they had not seen daylight in 20 days. [L5N1QP5D5]

“It’s bad in the basement, but it’s better than the bombing,” Adnan, 30, a Douma resident who has been sheltering below ground with his wife and two-year-old daughter together with 10 other families, told Reuters by telephone.

The United Nations says 400,000 people are trapped in the towns and villages of the eastern Ghouta, under government siege for years and already running out of food and medicine before the assault. An aid convoy reached the area this week but government officials had stripped out most medical supplies.

The United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria. Ali al-Za’tari, asked the government to commit to a ceasefire on Thursday to allow more aid in.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally, has offered rebels safe passage out with their families and personal weapons. The proposal echoes previous agreements under which insurgents, in the face of military defeat, were permitted to withdraw to opposition-held areas along the Turkish border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says at least 815 civilians have been killed by government bombing and shelling in this offensive, with 45 killed on Wednesday.

The Observatory said an extra 700 pro-government militia fighters had arrived at the front as reinforcements to join the operation.

The U.N. Security Council has called for a 30-day countrywide ceasefire, but Moscow and Damascus have not halted the campaign, arguing that the fighters they are striking are members of banned terrorist groups unprotected by the truce.

The Security Council, where Russia holds a veto, will meet on Wednesday to discuss the failed ceasefire.

Russia’s defense ministry said some rebels wanted to accept the proposal to evacuate. So far rebels have dismissed it in public. The military spokesman for one of the main eastern Ghouta rebel groups said rebels would defend the territory and there were no negotiations over a withdrawal.

“The factions of Ghouta and their fighters and its people are holding onto their land and will defend it,” Hamza Birqdar of Jaish al-Islam told Reuters in a text message sent overnight.

The opposition says such evacuation agreements amount to a policy of demographic change by which Assad has forcibly displaced those who oppose him.

In an interview on state TV, a Syrian army colonel expressed confidence Ghouta would fall quickly, saying the people there would return to the “state’s embrace … very, very, very soon”.

COMPLICITY

Russian warplanes have taken part in the eastern Ghouta operation, and the White House has accused Russia of complicity in the killing of civilians there.

Defeat in eastern Ghouta would mark the biggest setback for the anti-Assad rebellion since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing, ground assaults and the promise of safe passage out.

Moscow and Damascus say the Ghouta campaign is necessary to halt rebel shelling of the capital. The Observatory says such shelling has killed at least 27 people since Feb. 18.

Syrian state media have given a higher death toll and said at least five people were injured on Wednesday due to rockets falling on government-held Damascus.

A commander in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad said he anticipated rebels would end up cornered in Douma and accept a withdrawal deal.

Assad said this week that the majority of people in eastern Ghouta wanted a return of state rule. But rebels and opposition activists say people fear government persecution.

State media said some people in Ghouta raised Syrian flags. The Observatory said a few people protested in the town of Hammouriyeh calling for an end to the bombardment and for rebel groups to leave.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said targeting a few hundred fighters was no justification for the offensive.

“Claims by the government of Syria that it is taking every measure to protect its civilian population are frankly ridiculous,” he told the U.N. Human Rights Council.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis, Laila Bassam and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff/Mark Heinrich)

North Korea boycotts ‘politically motivated’ U.N. rights session

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana addresses a news conference after his report to the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland,

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana addresses a news conference after his report to the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea boycotted a U.N. review of its human rights record on Monday, shunning calls to hold to account the Pyongyang leadership for crimes against humanity documented by the world body.

A 2014 U.N. report detailed the use of political prison camps, starvation and executions, saying security chiefs and possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un himself should face international justice.

The U.N. Human Rights Council held a two-hour session on abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) amid rising tensions on the divided peninsula following its latest missile tests last week and two nuclear tests last year.

“We are not participating in any meeting on DPRK’s human rights situation because it is politically motivated,” Choe Myong Nam, Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, told Reuters.

U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK Tomas Ojea Quintana said he regretted the decision but was still seeking engagement with North Korea.

Rising political and military tensions should not shield ongoing violations from international scrutiny, he said.

“Military tensions have brought human rights dialogue with the DPRK to a standstill,” Ojea Quintana told the 47-member forum.

He also called for an independent investigation into the killing of Kim Jong Nam, estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un, in Malaysia last month, saying there may be a need to “protect other persons from targeted killings”.

Between 80,000 and 120,000 people are held in four known political prison camps in North Korea and hundreds of families in South Korea and Japan are looking for missing relatives believed abducted by North Korean agents, Ojea Quintana said.

“We remain deeply concerned by ongoing widespread and gross human rights violations and abuses in the DPRK, including summary executions, enslavement, torture, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances,” said William Mozdzierz,

head of the U.S. delegation.

He added that the U.S. is open to improved relations if the DPRK was willing to meet its international obligations.

South Korea’s envoy Lim Jung-taek voiced dismay that three years after the landmark U.N. report there was “no glimpse of hope” for ending “systematic, widespread and gross violations”.

Ying Wang of China, North Korea’s main ally, said Beijing was “against the politicization of human rights issues” while seeking dialogue and de-escalation on the peninsula.

Sara Hossain, a member of the Council’s group of independent experts on accountability, said the U.N. should consider ways of prosecuting those responsible for human rights abuses in North Korea, possibly by creating an international tribunal.

“The groundwork for future criminal trials should be laid now,” she said.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Julia Glover)

Troops and court needed fast to avert South Sudan genocide: U.N.

Council-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan Yasmin Sooka addresses the Human Rights Council 26th Special Session on the human rights situation in South Sudan, Geneva, Switzerland,

y Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – World powers can stop a “Rwanda-like” genocide in South Sudan if they immediately deploy a 4,000-strong protection force across the country and set up a court to prosecute atrocities, the head of a U.N. human rights commission said on Wednesday.

Africa’s newest nation plunged into civil war in December 2013 after a long-running feud between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, exploded into violence, often along ethnic lines.

“South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilize the entire region,” commission chief Yasmin Sooka told an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Fighting was expected to escalate again now that the dry season had started, she said. Gang rape was happening on an “epic” scale, she added, citing cases of women being raped at a U.N. site in the capital Juba within sight of U.N. peacekeepers.

Washington and other powers called the one-day meeting after Sooka’s commission reported this month that ethnic cleansing was already taking place in South Sudan, which only seceded from Sudan in 2011.

Sooka’s comparison with Rwanda referred to the killing of some 800,000 people in three months of ethnic violence there in 1994.

Kiir has denied there is any ethnic cleansing and South Sudan’s ambassador at the council, Kuol Alor Kuol Arop, said his country saw no need for the special session.

International pressure, including the threat of sanctions, has so far failed to halt the fighting in an oil-producing country at the heart of a fragile region that includes Sudan, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo.

The warring sides agreed to set up a court backed by the African Union in 2015, but one has not appeared.

General view of the Human Rights Council 26th Special Session on the human rights situation in South Sudan, Geneva, Switzerland,

General view of the Human Rights Council 26th Special Session on the human rights situation in South Sudan, Geneva, Switzerland, December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

South Sudan’s government has said it will allow a 4,000-strong regional protection force to bolster the U.N.’s existing peacekeeping mission. But it has also not arrived and Sooka said there were fears it would not operate beyond Juba.

“We urge the immediate deployment of the 4,000-strong regional protection force for South Sudan … People all across the country asked that it not be restricted to the capital if it is to protect civilians across South Sudan,” she said.

The 47-member forum adopted a resolution without a vote reminding the government of its responsibility for protecting the population against genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing and condemning the widespread violence and rape.

But it watered down the original wording, which would have extended the mandate of the U.N. human rights commission in South Sudan for a year. The commission will report back to the council in the first quarter of 2017.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Andrew Heavens)

U.N. urges Syrian Government to stop blocking aid

Men unload flour from a Red Crescent and United Nations aid convoy in the rebel held besieged town of Hamoria area in Syria

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United Nations’ humanitarian chief on Friday demanded that the Syrian government and militant groups stop interfering with the delivery of food and medicine for civilians trapped in besieged and difficult-to-reach areas in war-ravaged Syria.

“The continued use of siege and starvation as a weapon of war is reprehensible,” U.N. under secretary-general Stephen O’Brien told the 15-nation Security Council.

“Based on the latest information, we now estimate that some 592,700 people are currently living in besieged areas,” he said, adding that most of those were surrounded by government forces.

The five-year-old civil war in Syria has killed at least 250,000 people. Millions have been displaced and many of those are now refugees living abroad.

O’Brien said the Syrian government, and to a lesser extent the militant groups fighting the government and against each other, deliberately interfere with and restrict aid deliveries.

He complained that the U.N. had asked to send aid convoys to 35 besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria in May but the government only granted full access to 14 of them and partial access to another eight.

He added that the parties to the conflict also continued to siphon off crucial medical supplies from aid convoys.

“The removal of life-saving medicines and medical supplies such as surgical kits, midwifery kits, and emergency kits has continued unabated, with supplies for an estimated 150,000 treatments removed from convoys since the beginning of the year,” he said.

Since February 2014, medical supplies for over 650,000 treatments have been taken from aid convoys, O’Brien said.

Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari questioned the accuracy of O’Brien’s claims and blamed the bulk of the violence against civilians in Syria on Islamic State and Nusra Front militants.

O’Brien told the council he stood by his claims.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the complaints from Syria were ironic given that it is “a government that pulls infant formula off of convoys, (as well as) anesthetics and surgical equipment.”

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by David Gregorio)

Hungary Now Calls Migrant Crisis A “German Problem”

The leader of Hungary, which has been struggling with an influx of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, says the problem is a “German problem” because that’s the destination for most of the immigrants.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban added, however, that he would not allow migrants to leave his country without registering.

“Nobody would like to stay in Hungary, neither in Slovakia nor Poland nor Estonia,” Orban said.  “All of them would like to go to Germany. Our job is only to register them.”

The comments from the country’s leader comes as the country’s train station in the capital city of Budapest was reopened to migrants.  However, the trains that migrants board only travels to a registration center and not to Germany or other European Union (EU) nations.

Many of the migrants are resisting efforts to leave the trains at the registration center in Bicske and are having to be removed by police.

German officials have previously stated they expect to take in over 800,000 migrants this year, four times the number from last year.  However, they are calling for “fair” distribution of the current migrant influx to all EU nations.

Emergency meetings to discuss the situation between EU leaders is scheduled for mid-month.

UN Human Rights Council May Take Up Abedini’s Case

Officials with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) say the U.N. Human Rights Council is taking a hard look at the case of Pastor Saeed Abedini and his wrongful imprisonment in Iran.

“The Human Rights Council Working Group looked at the facts, they looked at the evidence and they came to the independent conclusion, as we have, that his detention is arbitrary, that it is in violation of international law and that he should be freed,” Associate Counsel Matthew Clark said to One News Now.

“So the U.N. is taking steps to put out there exactly what is happening and what action needs to be taken by the Iranian government to free him.”

The move by the U.N. is seen as significant to put pressure on Iran in the wake of Abedini’s home country doing nothing to help obtain his release from an Iran prison.

“It’s been nearly two and a half years now since Jacob’s dad, Saeed Abedini, has been imprisoned in Iran because of his Christian faith,” Jay Sekulow of the ACLJ wrote in an article for Fox News.

“And, on this day, the day Jacob turns 7, his dad is still languishing in prison — separated from his son, his daughter and his wife — still in need of medical care, still facing an uncertain fate.”