World response to atrocities by states and groups ‘shameful'

World response to atrocities by states and groups ‘shameful'
The Arab world featured prominently in Amnesty International's annual report in which the rights group described the response of world leaders to human rights violations by states or armed groups as 'shameful'.
6 min read
25 February, 2015
Secretary General of Amnesty International Salil Shetty presents the 2014/2015 global report
Amnesty International opened its global report for the past year with a short testimony from a Palestinian man from Yarmouk camp in Syria. The prominence of this man's turmoil is a reflection of the scale of human rights abuses inflicted on millions of citizens across the Arab world.

"I worked in humanitarian assistance and as a media activist, but the masked men didn't differentiate between humanitarian workers and armed opposition fighters," recounts the refugee.

Murder, arbitrary detentions, indiscriminate bombing and torture have proliferated amid war and insecurity, and the region is witnessing levels of forced migration not seen since the Second World War.

Discrimination against minorities, women and migrant workers is also prevalent.
     This could be a game changer for the international community and the tools it has at its disposal to help protect civilian lives

The extensive report details not only the widespread human rights abuses by both governments and armed groups but also the failure of the international community to protect civilians.

Salil Shetty, secretary general for Amnesty International, told al Araby al Jadeed: "The response has been dismal. We go so far as to call it shameful."

In Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Ukraine the UN Security Council (UNSC) has failed to deal with rapidly deteriorating crises even as horrific crimes are being committed and the conflicts expand and deepen.

International cooperation and mediation have been supplanted with subterfuge and proxy warfare undermining any prospects for resolution or holding guilty parties to account.

Renouncing the veto

Amnesty argues that the use of vetoes by permanent UNSC members in 2014 against a resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) enabled the humanitarian situation to deteriorate to the desperate state of affairs now evident across the country.

To overcome this seemingly intractable deadlock the human rights organisation advocates for the five permanent UNSC members to renounce their veto rights in situations of genocide and other mass atrocities.

"This could be a game changer for the international community and the tools it has at its disposal to help protect civilian lives," said Shetty.

"It would give the UN more scope to take action to protect civilians when lives are at grave risk, and send a powerful signal to perpetrators that the world will not sit idly by while mass atrocities take place."

The failure of the UNSC to reach any kind of agreement on Syria or to pass a single resolution during Gaza's 50 days of bombardment last July are indicative that the council has been undermined by political expediency and vested interests.
     There is financial gain and political leverage that comes with selling arms and this often supersedes the affect they may have on civilians.

By renouncing the veto Amnesty argues the UN will have more scope to protect civilians when lives are at grave risk by measures such as enforcing humanitarian assistance or arms embargoes, implementing targeted sanctions or referring perpetrators of human rights abuses to the ICC.

Stopping the arms

The arms trade is also accused of having a bloody legacy after flooding the region with weapons that are then used by states and armed groups to commit "grave abuses".

Huge shipments of arms were delivered to Iraq, Israel, South Sudan and Syria in 2014 despite the very high likelihood they would be used against civilian populations trapped in conflict zones.

Amnesty calls on all states including the US, Russia, Israel, China and India to ratify or accede, and adhere to the Arms Trade Treaty, which came into force last year and prohibits the sale of arms to governments or groups who may use them to commit atrocities.

"There is financial gain and political leverage that comes with selling arms and this often supersedes the affect they may have on civilians," Donatella Rovera, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International, told al Araby al Jadeed.

"Whoever is providing arms needs to set in place very robust oversight mechanisms. All too often governments are prepared to overlook this."

The international community was also lambasted for having failed miserably to deal with unprecedented levels of migration across the region.

Over 3,000 people died on the Mediterranean last year with Syrians and Palestinians among the most prominent migrants risking the perilous journey to Europe.

The Italians had previously led an extensive search and rescue mission but it was halted after political wrangling in the European Union and a failure to reach agreement on funding.

"There is lots of rhetoric but in reality there is no action," said Shetty.

Palestine's glimmer of hope

The ongoing violence in Palestine, and in particular the assault on Gaza last summer, featured heavily in the annual roundup.

More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in the 50 days of fighting in Gaza, and again the vast majority of these were civilians.

An in depth analysis by Amnesty concluded that the Israeli policy was marked by "callous indifference and involved war crimes". Hamas were also deemed to have committed war crimes by firing indiscriminate rockets into Israel, causing six deaths.

Amnesty argues that the ongoing UN inquiry into the 2014 fighting and the Palestinian secession to the ICC are notable steps towards ending the cycles of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
     The Palestinian secession to the ICC offers a glimmer of hope for those looking for justice and could have far reaching implications.

Speaking on the side of the Amnesty annual report launch, Salem al Qudwa, an emergency architect from Gaza said, "The people in Gaza don't have any faith in these international organisations. They need to see something real on the ground."

Previous investigations into Israeli transgressions in the occupied Palestinian territories have not resulted in anybody being held to account or any substantial change in policy.

The underlying causes of the suffering persist with the blockade still in place and reconstruction stuttering along.

"The Palestinian secession to the ICC offers a glimmer of hope for those looking for justice and could have far reaching implications. We need to break the impunity and ensure accountability if we are going to break the cycle of violence," countered Philip Luther, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Amnesty International.

Beyond the atrocities carried out during armed conflict in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya there has also been a wave of repression that has seen activists arrested and harassed elsewhere with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain highlighted as countries of particular concern.

The chronic instability wracking the region has reinforced the tendency to use draconian "anti-terror" measures to quell dissent. The long history of repression dressed up as anti-terrorism is, according to Rovera, "now coming full circle but further oppression will not solve any of the problems".

The infringement on individuals' rights and freedom of expression in the name of security is highlighted as a concern not just in the MENA region but also in Europe where anti-terror legislation is being reinforced in a number of countries.

With the war, violence and oppression bedevilling much of the Arab world sitting at such extreme odds with the most basic concepts of human rights many people in the region argue that organisations such as Amnesty are irrelevant and their reports an academic luxury of the West.

"Even though many of the uprisings have developed into civil wars the original rallying cries revolved around the rhetoric of human rights," argued Philip Luther, "you can't put that back in the box."