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In Run-Up to Human Rights Council Vote, Freedom House Chides the US, UN Watch Disappointed with Arbour

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, May 7 -- Ten days before an election in Geneva which might put Belarus on the UN Human Rights Council, a luncheon was held in New York at which alternatives were proposed, including write-in candidates and none-of-the-above votes.

   UN Watch's Hillel Neuer, whose much YouTubed exposes of HRC procedures Inner City Press covered on March 30, reported that moves are afoot to recruit countries with better human rights records, Bosnia in his example, to run against Belarus. Both UN Watch and the U.S-based (and Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie-founded) Freedom House, the co-sponsors of the lunch and of a report about the HRC elections, have said that the U.S. should have run for a seat, should have gotten engaged to try to make the HRC work. "But what evidence is there that such effort would make it work?" one investigative reporter, not this one, asked.

            Inner City Press asked both organizations for their position on the U.S.'s recent decision to deny the UN's expert on the human rights of migrants, Jorge Bustamente, access to a detention center in Texas, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center.

            Freedom House's Tom Melia responded that "We think the U.S. should cooperate with special rapporteurs," even those whom "many Americans reasonably think are embarked on silly missions." Mr. Melia said he didn't think that is the case with Mr. Bustamente, and added that the U.S. "can live with the scrutiny," that it is "a mistake to try  shut out reasonably international inquiries." UN Watch's Hillel Neuer "seconded" Melia's comments.

Time's up?

            A representative of the U.S. Mission who was in attendance listened but did not respond. A similar question could have been asked about the U.S.'s increasing support to Ethiopia, which Freedom House's director of research Arch Puddington told Inner City Press has one of the fastest declining human rights records in the world, a trend also identified by the Committee to Project Journalists in a report released last week.

   Inner City Press asked the UN Development Program's democracy representative Pippa Norris to explain UNDP's support for a Robert Mugabe-sponsored Human Rights Commission which Zimbabwean NGOs only last month denounced. No answer was forthcoming, just as it has not been in the past.

            Inner City Press asked Hillel Neuer what he thought of Louise Arbour's siding on March 30 with the HRC president admonishing UN Watch's "lack of decorum," click here for the story. Mr. Neuer, calling Ms. Arbour a "compatriote de Montreal," said her response was "disappointing," particularly from "the prosecutor of the Butcher of Belgrade." (Neuer was chided for using the word butchery; one reporter at Monday's luncheon noted that perhaps a victim's family might take issue with that term, and not as any cover-up.) Neuer said we look to the High Commissioner to be our champion, our voice." But the High Commissioner much more needs the support of the HRC president than of any particular NGO.

            Politics and even diplomacy are most often the enemies of human rights, or at least work at cross-purposes. Who this will play out at the May 17 Human Rights Council vote remains to be seen. Watch this site.

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On Zimbabwe, UNDP's Support For Mugabe's Human Rights Commission Criticized

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, April 25 -- As from Zimbabwe images of opponents of Robert Mugabe being beaten have pulsed out around the globe, the UN system has been implicated in more than one way. Most have focused on the UN Security Council, where the UK managed to get a briefing on humanitarian issues, over the objection of South Africa, which argues that Zimbabwe is not a danger to international peace and security.

            A separate controversy involves the controversial support to a Mugabe-sponsored Human Rights Commission by the UN Development Program. Last month, Zimbabwe's National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations denounced UNDP's involvement. NANGO spokesman Fambai Ngirandi said there is "no basis for discussing the setting up of a rights commission when there was no letup in the government's suppression of people's rights... It is not the UNDP's role to support the government in imposing a human rights commission. Day in and day out the government is attacking us and they can't respect our very existence."

            Wednesday at the UN in New York, the Open Society Institute brought three speakers from the region. OIS for Southern Africa executive director Tawanda Mutasah explained that the context in which UNDP publicly supported Mugabe's Human Rights Commission was while activists from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unionists were being abducted and tortured by the Mugage government, in September 2006 and again in March 2007. 

    In response to questions from Inner City Press, Mr. Mutasah said that Mugabe's reason for putting forth a HRC at that time was the at least 13 petitions about Zimbabwe filed with the African Commission on Human and People's Rights in Banjul, The Gambia. He said that a Zimbabwe HRC would "provoke the argument that we do have domestic remedies we can use," and therefore there is no need to take complaints to "the African plane" using "regional mechanisms."

Zimbabwe

    Mr. Mutasah's detailed criticism contrasts to the defense of its programs that UNDP offered in response to questions from Inner City Press:

"UNDP is working to facilitate dialogue on human rights in Zimbabwe generally and more specifically on the proposed National Human Rights Commission, with the participation of and at the request of  Zimbabwean Civil society, as represented by NANGO, the independent governing body of non-governmental organizations in the country . [But see above.]

"UNDP believes that the decision of government to establish the National Human Rights Commission presented an opportunity for dialogue."

   By contrast, the article "Civic groups to boycott human rights conference," quotes Arnold Tsunga, then the executive director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights that "groups resolved that they would not attend the meeting because they did not want to be seen as supporting the state's proposed human rights commission."

            Accompanying Mr. Mutasah on Wednesday were Grace Kwinjeh of the Movement for Democratic Change, who described torture including being hit with a metal bar in March such that she has lost part of her ear, and her attorney, Otto Saki, Acting Director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and thus the successor to the above-quoted Arnold Tsunga.) In response to a question concerning OSI's role in Zimbabwe, the moderator asked that her explanation be treated "off the record," since it "compromises the mechanisms that we have in place."

   While Inner City Press is therefore not specifying the role or the speaker, one assumes that the Mugabe government is aware of OSI's role in bringing these speakers to the UN, where they intend to speak with the missions of Senegal and Rwanda, among other places, and to make similar presentations in Washington. The visits to African diplomats was explained as an attempt to work around the accusation that those showing most concern for human rights in Zimbabwe are the UK and the U.S., which plays right into Mugabe's hands.

   Mr. Mutasah offered praise for truth-telling to the presidents of Ghana, Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania (although no one on the panel would comment on whether the Tanzanian president asked Mugabe not to stand for election again in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has since said he will run again.  And what the UN and UNDP will do remains an open question.

UN's Holmes "Condemns" Reported Somali TFG Statements, While Withholding Documents

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 24 -- The Somali Transitional Federal Government, which relies for its legitimacy on the UN, yesterday told the UN that aid workers will have "unimpeded access" to serve those people fleeing the TFG's shelling of Mogadishu.

            In New York, Inner City Press asked UN humanitarian chief John Holmes what the UN's response has been to two sample statements, by TFG president Yusuf that civilian neighborhoods can be shelled, and by TFG defense official Salad Ali Jeele, that certain clans and sub-clans in Mogadishu need to be exterminated (click here for that).

            Mr. Holmes responded that "the statements you've quoted, I would condemn them utterly." Video here, from minute 35:13.

            Inner City Press asked about the letter which it obtained and reported on April 20 in which TFG Minister for Interior Mohamed Mohamoud Guled wrote to the UN World Food Program that

"It's TFG decision that there will be no food distribution can take place anywhere in Somalia without being inspected and approved by the government. Hence UN agencies and any other organization that is planning to bring any relief to Somalia should submit the documents for the goods before shipment for checkup."

            This letter from the Transitional Federal Government to the WFP was cc-ed to the Somali National Refugee Commission, through which Inner City Press is told the TFG had been saying all aid must flow. Asked about this on Tuesday, Mr. Holmes said, "I have no information on that particular organization." That might be a problem.

Mr. Ban and Mr. Yusuf

            Prior to Mr. Holmes' briefing, WFP told Inner City Press the following:

Subject: Somalia

From: [WFP Spokesperson]

To: Matthew Russell Lee

Sent: Mon, 23 Apr 2007 6:09 PM

Hi Matthew,  there were talks between the UN and TFG today. Here's a short update, from Peter Goossens, WFP Country director Somalia:

"The talk between the UN and a TFG commission led by the Heath Minister were positive. The TFG will issue a statement on the outcome. We hope that we will from now on be allowed to use any airstrip in Somalia to bring in humanitarian assistance. We also need to see on the ground that we are now allowed to bring that assistance urgently to those most in need, particularly those displaced by the fighting in Mogadishu."

            Tuesday Mr. Holmes said essentially the same thing. However, when asked if any documents could be provided -- the letter from UN Humanitarian Coordinator Eric Laroche, or the above-referenced TFG statement -- Mr. Holmes said only that "I'll look into that, if we can provide you chapter and verse." Ten hours later, no documents had been provided. It's not "chapter and verse" -- it's basic documents about what Mr. Holmes is calling the world's most dangerous for aid workers. Silence doesn't help; silence is consent. Developing...

In Somalia, Understaffed Government Demands to Inspect All UN Aid, At "Anti-Terror" Checkpoints

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 20 -- The UN-supported Transitional Federal Government in Somalia is now hindering the UN's attempts to deliver humanitarian aid. Beyond the shelling of civilian areas, the TFG has blocked UN agencies and the private groups they work with from using air strips, and has demanded to inspect all food and medicine that comes into the country, even though the TFG has nowhere near the manpower for this. This results in a slow-down or stoppage of aid to Somalis.

            In a sample April 9 letter sent to the UN World Food Program, of which Inner City Press has obtained a copy, click here to view, TFG Minister for Interior Mohamed Mohamoud Guled writes that:

"It's TFG decision that there will be no food distribution can take place anywhere in Somalia without being inspected and approved by the government. Hence UN agencies and any other organization that is planning to bring any relief to Somalia should submit the documents for the goods before shipment for checkup."

            Given the resources and focus of the TFG, this threatens to slow or cut off the flow of humanitarian aid to Somalis. Inner City Press is informed that the UN's Eric Laroche, who previously said that the UN should cast its lot with the TFG as the only game in town, has now written to Mr. Guled that the TFG lacks the physical and human capacity to carry out the inspections and that this directive may jeopardize the UN's capacity to deliver assistance. Intimidation, including death threats, that have become routine at TFG militia checkpoints directed at UN and partners particularly from a military group based at the Afgoye junction calling itself the "Anti-Terror Unit."

Somalia today

            The TFG has now denied access to the K50 airstrip and has re-designated  Mogadishu airport as the entry point for Benadir, and Middle and Lower Shabelle.  Also slowing and stopping humanitarian aid, it has proved impossible for the UN to fly a company that will fly to Mogadishu International Airport.

            The TFG has also issued a directive that all implementation and data-gathering be carried out exclusively through the National Refugee Commission (NRC), which will further put into question the independence and impartiality of humanitarian response. That is an issue that Inner City Press raised to Mr. Laroche when he was in New York, click here that story. Mr. Laroche said the time had come to gamble on the TFG, and to judge him if it went wrong. Has that time arrived? And what is the response of belatedly present WFP executive director Josette Sheeran Shiner to the letter from Mohamed Mohamoud Guled hindering food distribution in Somalia?

            UN staffers have said they will meet with the TFG on April 23. The UN Security Council will meet April 24 to discuss Somalia. As the UN's postponed and re-written Rwanda genocide exhibition is slated to go on display, the UN's as well as other parties' roles in what's occurring in Somalia will need to be closely considered. Developing.

As Somali Defense Official Speaks of Extermination, UN and U.S. Dodge War Crimes Questions

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, April 11 -- As civilian neighborhoods in Somalia are bombed by the Transitional Federal Government, TFG-supporters from the United States to the UN increasingly decline to comment on what's wrought in Mogadishu. Wednesday at UN Headquarters, Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe to confirm over one thousand deaths and to respond to a quote from TFG defense official Salad Ali Jeele about "exterminating" a rival clan. [Video here, from Minute 6:50 through 8:56, and see below.]

            Ms. Okabe declined comment on the extermination threat, and said that "death toll statistics are provided by the local authorities." But what if it is the local authorities who are doing much of the killing?

            Already officials in Europe have expressed concerns about their possible complicity in war crimes in Mogadishu. These concerns must be sharpened by the following remarks by the EU-supported TFG's Salad Ali Jeele:

"We have succeed in winning the political aspect, what remains now is the force implication... Very soon people will flee from this town , but I wonder where they will flee to. Whether it is here to the north side or to Galgaduud. Since people cannot reconcile and come to terms with each other it is best to forcefully expel [them] from the city... We are now in the final stages. You have seen what happened in the last four days' onslaught, without doubt who ever has survived that onslaught will be exterminated in the one to follow soon."

            In terms of the UN system's continuing engagement, only earlier this week, the UN World Food Program issued a press release calling on the TFG to, at least with pirates, become tougher. The UN's humanitarian chief for Somalia, Eric Laroche, was last heard to urge unequivocal support for the TFG. Now the planned reconciliation conference has been delayed for at least a full month. Much can happen in thirty days. Salad Ali Jeele was previously quoted, by a UN-affiliated service, as denying the UN's own experts' report that the TFG was violating the arms embargo then in place.

Somalia '07 -- shades of RTML?

            Tuesday at the UN, Inner City Press got a chance to ask U.S. Ambassador Wolff a question about the weapons in Somalia, video here, from Minute 6:49:

Inner City Press: On this report, that the U.S. allowed Ethiopia to buy weapons from North Korea in January '07, I think your predecessor has said if it's true, this -- you know, he disfavored that, that it would have violated previous sanctions.  Do you have any views on whether that took place?  And if so, why it would not violate the sanctions?

Ambassador Wolff:  Well, I've seen the reports on this.  I don't have any additional information to offer.  We believe that the resolution should be adhered to.  And from my reading of the accounts, it's the responsibility of the Ethiopian government to adhere by that resolution.

            But the underlying reporting indicates that the U.S. was aware of the ship heading to Ethiopia, in violation of the U.S.-sponsored sanctions on North Korea's arms sales, and that the U.S. did nothing.  State Department spokesman Scott McCormack on Monday answered similarly, "I'm not going to have any particular comment on the details of that story." Earlier on Monday, he had said that "my objective here isn't to criticize the Transitional Federal Government." Maybe it should be...

Bombing of Civilians Justified by UN-Supported Somali President, War Crimes Questions Raised

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 9 -- When are war crimes accepted, and who gets to decide?  In Mogadishu last week, hundreds of civilians were killed when Ethiopian troops and the Transitional Federal Government fired into built-up sections of the city. In seeming violation of the laws of war, TFG president Abdullahi Yusuf has said "any place from which a bullet is fired (at us) we will bombard it regardless of whoever is there."

            Monday at UN Headquarters, Inner City Press asked the spokesman for Ban Ki-moon to respond to the quote, and to the bombing by the TFG and others of civilian areas in Mogadishu. The spokesman, Farhan Haq, pointed out that "a number of bodies, including the Security Council, have recognized the TFG."

   In response to Inner City Press' follow-up question, Mr. Haq said that "the UN is against bombing of civilian areas... across the board." What have the UN's Francois Lonseny Fall, or perhaps more pertinently, Political Affairs chief Lynn Pascoe, said on the topic? "I can check," Mr. Haq said. Video here, from Minute 20:53. Also needing update is the UN's humanitarian chief on Somalia Eric Laroche's statement that the TFG is "the only way to go."

            The inquiry takes place in the wake of reporting on a European Union expert's April 2 e-mail warning to Eric van der Linden, the chief EU official for Kenya and Somalia, that:

"there are strong grounds to believe that the Ethiopian government and the transitional federal government of Somalia and the African Union (peacekeeping) Force Commander, possibly also including the African Union Head of Mission and other African Union officials have through commission or omission violated the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court."

            While the UN has yet to send its own blue helmeted peacekeepers to support or replace the African Union force, the UN has supported the TFG even as its compliance with the Transitional Federal Charter has come into question, concerning the exclusion (and now bombing) of certain clans and sub-clans. Even following the EU warning, the UN continues to call on the TFG to take more aggressive action.

            Responding by press release to the freeing of two ships and their crews, UN World Food Program Somalia Country Director Peter Goossens called, blithely some say, for a more aggressive stance by the Transitional Federal Government. On WFP's web site, Mr. Goossens is quoted that "the threat of piracy however is still very much alive in Somali waters and WFP urges the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and the Puntland authorities to curb this menace."

Somalia: tsunami or TFG?

            Others are making excuses for the intentional bombing of civilians areas. Voice of America found an expert, former US ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn, to say that " I think that in this part of the world war tends to be particularly brutal. And I think its going to be extremely difficult to prove that there were war crimes taking place as such. I think this tends to be more the way things are done." Particularly on the 13th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda, this type of relativism is troubling.

            Compliance with Security Council resolutions, even by their sponsors, has become relative as well.  The U.S., it emerges, allowed Ethiopia to buy weapons and tank parts from North Korea months after the U.S.-sponsored sanctions on North Korea. Asked for Ban Ki-moon's reaction, spokesman Farhan Haq declined to comment, saying that since these are Security Council sanctions, the Council members should be asked. When it was pointed out that Mr. Ban has chosen to comment on compliance with the Security Council resolution barring arms imports into Lebanon, Mr. Haq shrugged. It is apparently a matter of discretion.

            U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer was in Baidoa over the weekend. She met with Abdullayi Yusuf and was quoted by Reuters that "'I think that everybody used excessive force when you hear the number killed,' Frazer said, but blamed insurgents for starting the fight with mortar attacks from populated areas."

 News analysis: the allowance for war crimes and other bending and breaking of laws in Somalia appears based on the equation of the Union of Islamic Court with the Taliban, or more explosively, Al Qaeda. In late December when Ethiopian troops crossed the border and drove on Mogadishu, the Security Council did nothing. When in January the U.S. fired missiles at supposed Al Qaeda hide-outs in southern Somalia, little was said. Now the UN-supposed Transitional Federal Government, through its president, says openly they will fire into civilians areas if the residents don't themselves expel the Courts or insurgents.

   Meanwhile the UN counts and decries those fleeing Mogadishu. The World Food Program, in one of its first communications under new executive director Josette Sheeran Shiner, fresh in from the U.S. State Department, blithely issues a press release calling on the TFG to crack down on pirates, click here to view. What if the pirates move into residential neighborhoods? Bombs away, apparently...

Transcript of TFG President Yusuf Q&A, March 21, 2007, see esp. Q&A 5 and 6

1. Q.  It is been reported that the government instigated the current fighting.

A. The man who made that accusation who claims he is speaking on behalf of a clan and that his house was attacked is well known and he works directly with the Islamic Courts. Since he collaborates with the courts and the courts are the ones who are killing the people and conducting terrorism amongst the people and who are destructive, it does not matter how educated he is, it doesn't matter how famous he is, it does not matter from what clan he is: Society should be protected from that kind of man (arrested/eliminated?) because he will not contribute anything to the community except  trouble and destruction. 

2. Q. But Mr. President he is saying we were a clan that was meeting just like the other clans meet?

A: Son, he is lying! We know the names of the guys he was meeting with at that time. They are one family (sub-clan).   They cannot even speak on behalf of a sub-clan. They are individuals and we know the one he is having the meeting with. The name Hawiye is being used as a cover but it does not exist. I believe you have asked the Prime Minister about this ( i.e. Hawiye) and you know from which clan the Prime Minister comes from (i.e. he is Hawiye).

3.  Q: One can ask, can the president draw people closer to each other now that there is on going fighting everywhere and the people are fleeing, many are wounded so how will they come (to Mogadishu for the peace conference)?

  A: The facts are well known. It is the guys I have named who are causing the instability and we are working to ensure they can never again cause instability (threat?). This city should be secure when the conference (reconciliation conference scheduled for April 16 in Mogadishu) is to be held. That is the transitional government's responsibility.

4. Q: So have you been overpowered? Reports say that it is the government troops and the peacekeepers that are being dragged. Were you overpowered?

A: First of all have you ever fought in a war?

5. Q: Then who is fighting? Isn't it reported that two sides are fighting?

A: First, I have asked you a question. If there is a battle there will be casualties (deaths), It is possible that every now and then one or the other side looses ground, but we have not been defeated, we will not be defeated God willing and we will eliminate these guys.

6. Q: The government is using artillery to shell civilian areas according to reports, therefore why are you using these artillery?

A: Why shouldn't we use it? They are within the civilian areas. The public should make them (rebels) leave the civilian areas. When those guys leave the civilian areas no harm will come to the civilians. We want the civilians to remove them (rebels) telling them to go away from our midst. It is you (rebels) that are causing us all these troubles. It is the rebels who are the cause of all the troubles and not the government because any place from which a bullet is fired (at us) we will bombard it regardless of whoever is there.

7. Q: Even if civilians are there you are going to bombard it?

A: Yes we will bombard it! Because the civilians should not be used as Human shields. The civilians should get out of there and we have warned the civilians. We said there is fighting going on in those neighborhoods get out of there while the fighting is going on because one of the sides will be made to give up. The civilians have that warning.

8. Q: Mr. President since you have announced that yours is a government of peace, and that you will save the public, if you now say we are going to burn everyone (who opposes us) what do you think of that?

A: It is one side that is initiating the fighting. The instigators will be confronted with fighting. If they hide amongst the civilians there will be collateral damage to the civilians. You need to ask them (rebels) those kinds of questions like why don't you leave the civilian areas and fight the government somewhere else? It is they that you should ask such questions and goodbye!

            But the questions are proliferating. Developing...

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