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Atrocity Alert No. 265: Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Sudan

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Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

TALIBAN ADVANCES INTO CITIES AS REPORTS OF ATROCITIES EMERGE

Since 6 August the Taliban have captured nine of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals – Zaranj, Shebergan, Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taloquan, Aybak, Farah, Pul-e-Khumri and Faizabad – perpetrating retaliatory killings and other grave human rights abuses against local civilians. On 10 August the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for a deescalation of the situation, warning that, “violations that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity continued to emerge.”

Ahead of the latest violence, during a special UN Security Council (UNSC) session on 6 August, Deborah Lyons, Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), warned of an impending catastrophe for civilians as the two-decade war in Afghanistan enters “a new, deadlier and more destructive phase.” Special Representative Lyons appealed to the UNSC to act, stressing that, “ahead lies either a genuine peace negotiation or a tragically intertwined set of crises: an increasingly brutal conflict combined with an acute humanitarian situation and multiplying human rights abuses.” Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban remain stalled.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reported that since 9 July over 1,364 civilians have been killed or maimed in Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Herat and Kunduz as a result of the Taliban’s attacks or by retaliatory airstrikes conducted by the Afghan government in densely populated areas. In the areas overtaken by the Taliban, OHCHR has also received reports of “summary executions, attacks against current and former government officials and their family members, military use and destruction of homes, schools and clinics, and the laying of large numbers of improvised explosive devices.” According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 330,000 Afghans have been internally displaced since 1 May.

The UNSC must take urgent action regarding the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and should mandate UNAMA to help facilitate meaningful intra-Afghan negotiations that prioritize the protection of civilians. UN member states that engage with Taliban representatives should insist on an immediate ceasefire and emphasize that any Taliban-led government imposed by force and responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights will not be recognized by the international community.

270,000 PEOPLE DISPLACED AS CONFLICT SPREADS ACROSS NORTHERN ETHIOPIA

At least 200 civilians, including 100 children, were reportedly killed while displaced families were sheltering at a health facility and school in the Afar region of Ethiopia on 5 August. Violence in Afar and neighboring Amhara has escalated over the past month as the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) have vowed to continue the war against government forces and their allies who militarily intervened in Tigray last November.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 70,000 people have been displaced since the TDF launched an offensive in Afar on 19 July while a further 200,000 have been displaced by TDF advances in Amhara. Meanwhile, TDF forces have allegedly captured the town of Lalibela in Amhara, the location of the Rock-Hewn Churches World Heritage site. In response, on 6 August the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) urged all parties to the conflict to uphold their obligations under international law and protect the site.

Atrocities also continue inside Tigray. Since 2 August Sudanese officials reported finding over 50 bodies floating downstream in the Setit River, known to Ethiopians as the Tekezé. Witnesses said some victims had visible gunshot wounds while others had their hands bound. Some of the victims reportedly bore markings associated with ethnic Tigrayans.

On 30 July the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, expressed alarm at the dangerous increase in dehumanizing language used by political leaders in Ethiopia and hate speech propagated through social media. Special Adviser Nderitu warned that, “such dynamics in the current socio-politico context, characterized by deep-seated ethnic tensions across the country, constitute a dangerous trajectory in the direction of further pulling communities apart.”

After nine months of bitter armed conflict in Tigray and facing escalating ethnic violence, Ethiopia is at a crossroads. All parties to the conflict should immediately commit to a ceasefire to allow for the safe flow of humanitarian aid. Targeted attacks on civilians, health facilities, schools and cultural heritage sites are prohibited under international law and may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UN Security Council and African Union must redouble their efforts in negotiating a durable political solution to the crisis in northern Ethiopia.

SUDAN CABINET ANNOUNCES PLAN TO SURRENDER PERPETRATORS TO THE ICC

Sudan has recently taken important steps towards advancing international justice. On 11 August, after meeting with ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan, Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Mariam Alsadig Al Sedeeg Al Mahadi, indicated that the cabinet “decided to hand over wanted officials to the ICC.” Last week, on 3 August, the Cabinet unanimously passed a draft bill to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although the Sovereign Council, the highest authority in Sudan, still has to pass the bill into law, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok stated on Twitter that “justice and accountability are a solid foundation of the new, rule of law-based Sudan we’re striving to build.”

During former President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, Bashir, various government officials and allied armed militias – including the notorious Janjaweed – allegedly committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide against civilians in the provinces of South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Darfur and elsewhere. The UN estimates that in Darfur alone, over 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million were forced to flee as the Janjaweed and other military forces ravaged the region from 2003 onwards.

Following a referral by the UN Security Council in 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants against Bashir and several other individuals, including the former Minister of State for the Interior, Ahmad Harun, for their alleged involvement in the commission of atrocities in Darfur. Last June, one of the indictees, Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman (Ali Kushayb) – a Janjaweed leader – surrendered himself in the Central African Republic. He was subsequently transferred to The Hague and on 9 July 2021 Pre-Trial Chamber II confirmed the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Three other indictees are currently in Sudanese custody.

Since the overthrow of President Bashir in April 2019, Sudan has been transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. However, there can be no lasting peace without justice in Sudan. It is essential that the Sovereign Council rebuild trust between the government and vulnerable populations in Darfur and other disputed regions. Juliette Paauwe, Senior Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “the possibility that Sudan will become a member of the ICC and hand over wanted officials not only sparks hope that those responsible for atrocities in Darfur may finally face justice, it is also an important signal to all armed groups in Sudan that the transitional authorities are committed to breaking with the country’s violent past.”