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ICP Asks UN's Syria Commission About Abuses by FSA or Coalition

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, February 20 -- As the UN's Syria Commission of Inquiry -- they would later take Press questions, see below -- began briefing the UN Security Council at 10 am on February 20 in basement Conference Room 11, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a link to the CoI's report to its email list (here).)

  Some, not all, had been given the report in advance under embargo, and bragged about it, then downplayed the abuses of ISIS and Nusra also detailed in the report.  Other abuses were hardly mentioned. This is how today's UN works.

  The four Commissioners and UK Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant then came to take media questions.  After Al Jazeera, CBS and Reuters, Inner City Press asked the Commissioners if, beyond the Government, Nusra and ISIS they cataloged abuses by the Kurds, Free Syrian Army or even Coalition.

 It was Vitit Muntarbhorn who answered for the other Commissioners, saying, We cover all sides: the authorities, their colleagues so to speak, the non-state armed groups in their variety, we cover the Kurds as well. One recurrent issues is the use of child soldiers particularly under ISIS. Video here.

  What about the Coalition? And the Free Syrian Army which is listed even by the UN as recruiting child soldiers?

 The other Commissioners, all present, are Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Karen Koning AbuZayd and Carla del Ponte. Given her history with Kosovo, one wanted to ask her about the new organ trafficking allegations against ISIS in Iraq. But the rule was, Syria only.

  Similarly, the UN's monthly report on humanitarian access in Syria was not placed as before in the UN Spokesperson's Office for all, but only to some.

  Not (yet) asked is how to square this ninth released Syria CoI report with High Commissioner Zeid's recommendation this week to withhold a similar report about the 40,000 people killed in Sri Lanka in 2009.

  Despite all the talk of accountability in Syria, if there were a change would the reports and calls all be buried or "deferred"? We'll have more on this.

  Back on January 28, the UN's Syria humanitarian monthly briefing had this to say about Islamic State:

“access to ISIL controlled Raqqa and Deir ez Zor is particularly concerning. UN agencies were unable to deliver food to the entire caseload of 600,000 people in these two governorates in December due to lack of agreement with armed groups on the ground."

  So is Islamic State the "armed group" the UN is referring to? And were none of the 600,000 people served, or not all of them?

    The government “has continued to condut airstrikes, including barrel bombs, in densely populated areas... for nearly two weeks, Al Nusra Front has cut water supplies to Idlib city, affecting some 600,000 people.”

  This monthly breifing was given on January 28 by Kyung-wha Kang "on behalf of Valerie Amos," who leaves the UN in March. (Click here for Inner City Press exclusive coverage.) The underlying report was not distributed in advance through the UN Spokesperson's office "gray lady" system, see below, instead handed selectively to Western wire service(s).

  The Syria humanitarian resolution adopted by the UN Security Council back on December 17 covers "all parties to the Syrian domestic conflict."

  After the adoption, Inner City Press asked Australian Permanent Representative Gary Quinlan, yes or no, if any of the obligations in the resolution apply to the US-led campaign of air strikes in Syria.

  "No," Quinlan replied.

   "Why not?" Inner City Press asked.

  Quinlan said "I know where you are going" with that, but emphasized that the resolution had been adopted unanimously.

   But the question is, why carve out anyone, particularly one using force from the air, from a Security Council resolution about international humanitarian law?  To some, the answer is obvious, involving Israel being exempt from resolutions about the Golan Heights, US aversion to the International Criminal Court, etc.

  But why are these double standards simply accepted without question? After Quinlan and his counterparts from Luxembourg and Jordan finished speaking at the Security Council stakeout microphone, the dozen journalists listening to them left as Syria's Permanent Representative Bashar Ja'afari came to the microphone to reply. And so it goes at the UN.

When outgoing UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos briefed the Security Council about Syria on December 15, there was in the Spokesperson's Office no accompanying report. Amos' briefing to the Council did not address casualties from US and Gulf allies' air strikes, as November's written report had.

 Instead, Amos said that “all parties to the conflict continue to violate the most basic laws with devastating consequences. The Government has continued to use barrel bombs in densely populated areas, killing and maiming people. The use of barrel bombs has been particularly acute in Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Rural Damascus, Deir Ez-Zor, Ar-Raqqa and Da'ra.”

 She did mention that “opposition groups have also prevented medical supplies from reaching besieged communities in Nubul and Zarah.”

 Most troublingly, Amos said that the UN has received reports of 350 children, some as young as five years old, being trained for combat in a military camp in Ar-Raqqa by ISIL.

  Back in late November, the UN released its Syria aid access report  in the same pre-spun way it did on April 23, then on May 22, on June 20 and then on July 24 and August 28. Unlike other reports, for example on Sudan where both the UN's Herve Ladsous and Valerie Amos have been petitioned by Darfuri groups, here, the UN put an advance copy of this Syria report its its so-called "gray lady."

  As previously reported, the "gray lady" holds documents, of late only the month's Security Council program of work, of which advance copies are released, sometimes with a heads-up to favored media.

  Who decided for the UN Secretariat and Spokesman which are the important issues meriting such treatment? The Free UN Coalition for Access posits that it should be all reports, with no advance notice to favored media. The system could be fixed, but to simply without explanation return to the current murk is UNacceptable - and typically UN.

  In December, a correspondent was told, "there is no more gray lady."


   In this system, selective reports circulate for days before the UN's actual report.

  The spoon-fed pre-spinner, ironically, has engaged in censorship of other leaks, click here for, here for critique by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

  As Inner City Press reported here, Australia along with Luxembourg and Jordan pushed a  resolution on Syria aid access.

  Again, the UN report does not directly address calls in Washington to support the Free Syrian Army -- which is still listed by another part of the UN as recruiting and using child soldiers.

  On ISIL, the report continues in Paragraph 8: "ISIL continues to increase its influence in the Syrian Arab Republic, predominantly along the main supply lines in rural central Homs, Hama, Rif
Dimashq, southern Hasakeh and western Aleppo. It also continues to fight for the control of border crossings and natural resources. During the reporting period, it made advances in Raqqa, Hasakeh, and Aleppo governorates following clashes with Government forces."

  How has the pre-spinning worked, or not worked? Back on July 24 at 11:15 am US state media began tweeting about the report. Inner City Press went to the Spokesperson's Office and asked if it had been put out as described below. No, was the answer.

  But 15 minutes later, the Spokesperson's Office squawked that the report had been distributed to the Council, and there is then was in the "gray lady" -- the only UN report still distributed this way -- no reports on Africa are.

 Back on June 20, just before 6 pm, the UN Spokesperson's Office announced over its "squawk" system to correspondents still in the building that the report had been circulated. This meant it had been placed in piece of furniture in the Spokesperson's Office which has sat empty for many days now.

  Apparently only these Syria reports are now pre-released, pre-announced and pre-spun.

  In terms of the Spokesperson's duty to answer questions, there was by closure on June 20 no answer to Inner City Press' request to confirm or deny Ban Ki-moon was handed legal papers about the introduction of cholera into Haiti as he entered the Asia Society, Inner City Press coverage here.

  Back on May 22 the UN's go-to wire service, which has also tried to get other media thrown out, gushed that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's "toughly worded report... said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government bore the greater responsibility."

   This wire's report didn't mention the Free Syrian Army displacing people (in the report) or the FSA recruiting child soldiers (in another recent UN report, which Inner City Press noted here.)

  Nor did it mention, for example, "45,000 in areas besieged by opposition forces in Nubul and Zahra." The number remains the same in the June 20 report.

   As we diplomatically sketched on April 23 hoping for some reform, the UN Spokesperson's Office makes "advance copies" of reports available. That is fine - but there is no consistency in who they tell of the availability of reports or how they make the announcement.

  Showing bias, they only "squawk" over the internal intercom system some but not all reports.

  Now this inconsistency applies to pre-releasing some but not all reports. Who decides? How?

   Using the squawk system rather than e-mailing all resident correspondents favors media, like the UN friendly wire, which have a person sitting in their office -- for example a person who filed a "for the record" complaint against another media, than scammed Google into banning the leaked complaint from Search, misusing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, click here for that.

  Other international organizations handle this with less bias. The IMF gives accredited media like Inner City Press embargoed copies of documents, and hold embargoed briefings to which accredited journalists anywhere in the world can pose questions, then wait and report at the embargo time. The UN must improve: and the Free UN Coalition for Access is working on this.

  Other have complained about this murky UN practices; others still a month ago asked FUNCA to wait a week before proposing reforms, which it did. But where are any reforms? We will continue to Press.

   If the Gulf & Western insiders on the board of the UN Correspondents Association, which tried to get other media thrown out of the UN, have a problem with disclosure, they too should push the UN to reform. But they won't even reform themselves, and for example commit not to seek the expulsion of other media from the UN.

  The current spokesperson has taken sides on this and other things; it is time for reform. If Ban Ki-moon is so tough and principled, why was he praising the president of Sri Lanka just after a report showed him seeking to "go all the way" and kill all his opponents? This all circles back. We'll have more on this.

Further back-ground: On April 30 when UN Humanitarian chief Valerie Amos took media questions, Inner City Press asked her about two paragraphs of her report on Syria, the advance copy of which was released on April 23 as analyzed below.

   Paragraph 47 disclosed 25 UN staff members detained. Inner City Press asked, by whom? Amos said by both the government and the armed groups.

 The June 20 report, in Paragraph 44, says "29 UN staff (27 UNRWA and 2 UNDP) are currently detained of which four are missing."

   The Free UN Coalition for Access has repeatedly asked, including at UN noon briefings, why these reports don't just go online for all to see. The response, off-camera, has been to allow translation into the UN's official six languages. Really?

  The result is that stories are written, for example here by Reuters, that focus on the Syrian government while the report has whole sections about Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, ISIS, et al. Is this retyping really "reporting" by the Reuters bureau chief, who himself is engaged in censorship, here?

 Despite the lack of any stated rule in this regard,  FUNCA and Inner City Press have been criticized for even questioning or reporting on this anti-public process. A previous UN spokesperson told Inner City Press the reason for stealth is that "the member states" would like pre-release before translation. But doesn't the Secretariat WORK for member states? Or is this how they buy the fealty of the scribes?

   But if Gulf media immediately scans and puts the advance copy online, where is the mystery? Where is the double standard? Wouldn't it be better for the UN itself to put the report online when available?

 And then not, as it did on Western Sahara, change the report after getting pushed around? FUNCA is and will remain for UN transparency and fair treatment. And FUNCA maintains there should be answers -- including from UN Under Secretaries General -- and written rules. The UN has outright refused to explain why for example the Turkish Cypriot leader Eroglu was allowed to speak on UNTV but Polisario is not. The lack of rules only benefits the powerful: media, countries, corporations.

     When Qatar sponsored an event at the UN in New York on March 21 featuring the Syrian Coalition headed by Ahmad al Jarba, a group calling its the Syrian Grassroots Movement held protests seeking to oust Jarba.

   By March 22, the group stated that some 40,000 people in 58 cities inside Syria had participated in demonstrations to get Jarba out of his post, saying "it is time to put an end to political corruption."

  Back in September 2013, France sponsored an event in the UN and called Jarba the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. French Ambassador Gerard Araud was the first questioning at Qatar's March 21 Syrian Coalition event. What is France's position now? Who chooses the leaders?

  Likewise, back in July 2013 and earlier this month, the Jarba-led Syrian Coalition held faux "UN" events in the clubhouse Ban Ki-moon's Secretariat gives to the largely Gulf and Western UN Correspondents Association. How does that now appear, in light of the anti-Jarba protests?

   Qatar's March 21 event was not listed in the UN Journal nor in the UN Media Alert. It was not on the UN's publicly available webcast.

  Select media outlets were there, when Inner City Press came in at the end to ask a question: Al Jazeera on the podium in Qatar's event, Al Arabiya like a Saudi diplomat -- not the Permanent Representative -- in the audience along with Al Hayat, even Al Hurra, on whose Broadcasting Board of Governors US Secretary of State John Kerry serves.

   The new Free UN Coalition for Access is against faux UN events, in the clubhouse the Secretariat gives to what's become its UN Censorship Alliance or elsewhere.

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