Mass Atrocities, Refugees, and the US Travel Ban
On 27 January US President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order banning all refugees, migrants and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries – Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. The discriminatory ban also halts the United States refugee program for an initial period of 120 days, preventing the resettlement of people who are fleeing war and persecution in countries where atrocities are occurring or have previously taken place. The ban includes previously vetted refugees who have survived genocide in Iraq, war crimes in Yemen, or crimes against humanity in Syria.
For years the United States has been the world’s top resettlement country for refugees, accepting nearly 85,000 refugees in 2016 alone. Resettlement programs allow long-term refugees to get out of temporary camps, where they have often spent years, and start to rebuild their lives with access to similar civil rights as those enjoyed by nationals. Refugees can not apply for resettlement, nor choose a country to resettle in, but are selected for eligibility by the UN. Refugees who are selected for potential resettlement to the United States are then scrupulously vetted by eight Federal Agencies, six different security databases, and subjected to rigorous background checks, interviews and biometric testing. For this reason, the process of refugee resettlement takes several years.
UNHCR facilitated the resettlement of more than 140,000 people in 2016, more than half of whom were from Syria. The majority of refugees entering the United States in 2016 were resettled after fleeing persecution and/or conflict the Democratic Republic of the Congo (16,370), Syria (12,587), Myanmar (12,347) and Iraq (9,880).
Raising concern for the thousands of refugees affected by President Trump’s ban, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that, “refugees should receive equal treatment for protection and assistance, and opportunities for resettlement, regardless of their religion, nationality or race.”
For background regarding the threat of atrocities facing populations from countries affected by President Trump’s ban, click on the maps.
UNHCR provides additional statistics regarding refugee resettlement in the United States here.
See also the Global Centre’s “Statement on United States President Trump’s ‘Extreme Vetting’ of Refugees.”
Since the start of a counter-insurgency operation in Rakhine state on 9 October 2016, the Myanmar government has been perpetrating attacks against the Rohingya community that may amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. On 3 February the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report based upon interviews with Rohingya asylum seekers, detailing widespread and systematic attacks, including extrajudicial and summary executions, disappearances and torture. Of the 101 women interviewed by OHCHR, 52 reported having personally been raped or subjected to other forms of sexual violence. Human Rights Watch reinforced this evidence on 6 February, reporting that government forces had committed coordinated and systematic rape and other sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls. Both reports indicate that women and girls were targeted because of their ethnicity and religion. On 6 February the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, stated that ongoing violations against civilians may be a “precursor of other egregious international crimes.”
On 16 February the government of Myanmar announced an end to its four-month “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine state. During the operation, which began on 10 October 2016, the security forces perpetrated systematic attacks against Rohingya civilians, including extrajudicial executions, rape and torture, which may amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Ms. Yanghee Lee, is currently on a 3-day visit to Bangladesh, where she is meeting with Rohingya refugees as well as Bangladeshi officials, to discuss the humanitarian situation. According to the UN, between October 2016 and 20 February an estimated 73,000 people have crossed from Rakhine State into Bangladesh. While welcoming the announcement that security operations had ceased, Special Rapporteur Lee warned that “we cannot forget the numerous allegations of grave human rights violations.”
An international independent investigation into allegations of widespread and systematic human rights abuses in northern Rakhine State should be urgently established. On 16 February the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect joined seven other organizations in calling upon UN Secretary-General António Guterres to personally engage with the government of Myanmar regarding possible atrocities committed in Rakhine State and the ongoing plight of the Rohingya.
On 7 February Amnesty International released a report detailing allegations of a calculated and systematic campaign of abuse and extrajudicial killings by the Syrian government in Saydnaya prison, outside Damascus, between 2011 and 2015. As many as 13,000 prisoners, mostly civilian opponents of the government, were secretly hanged, while thousands more have died due to torture and starvation. According to the report, every week groups of up to 50 prisoners were hanged following a 1-3 minute trial that took place at the Military Field Courts. According to interviews with former prison guards and administrators, bodies were then buried in mass graves on the outskirts of Damascus. The widespread mass executions are part of an ongoing and systematic campaign of crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian government.
During January renewed fighting erupted in several regions of South Sudan. In particular, violence between the Sudan People’s’ Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) has escalated in Central Equatoria and Eastern Nile states, while additional violence has resulted in mass civilian displacement from Yei and Kajo-Keji.
The current fighting has caused the indefinite suspension of humanitarian activities in several parts of the country. More than 52,600 people fled South Sudan to Uganda during January. The UN Refugee Agency announced on 10 February that more than 1.5 million people have fled conflict in South Sudan since December 2013 and an additional 2.1 million continue to be internally displaced.
Despite expressing his commitment to the national dialogue scheduled to start in March, President Salva Kiir has threatened war if the opposition refuses to participate. Meanwhile, significant parts of the August 2015 peace agreement remain unimplemented.
The government needs to take expeditious steps to assist in the deployment of the Regional Protection Force (RPF) and establish the Hybrid Court to investigate atrocities committed during the civil war and hold perpetrators accountable. The UN Security Council should immediately impose an arms embargo and expand targeted sanctions until all parties meet their obligations under the existing peace agreement and in relation to Resolution 2304.
On 20 February three UN agencies and the government of South Sudan declared a state of famine in some parts of the country. At least 100,000 people are facing starvation while a further 1 million people are classified as “on the brink of famine,” with populations in Unity state most acutely affected. The UN estimates at least five million people will be food insecure by April. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, Eugene Owuso, has blamed the government for the situation, noting that the famine is entirely “man made.” The food crisis in South Sudan is the result of years of pervasive insecurity, widespread civilian displacement, and regular attacks on humanitarian workers. Nearly three years of civil war have prevented farmers from planting and harvesting crops, and the delivery of food aid remains extremely dangerous and difficult.
The declaration of famine comes at a time of renewed fighting between the Army (SPLA) and armed rebels in several parts of the country. Three senior military officials recently resigned after accusing the SPLA and the government of committing and condoning war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the ethnic targeting of civilians.
In August 2015 the government and representatives of the rebel SPLA-IO signed a peace agreement to end South Sudan’s 2013-2015 civil war. Given the failure of the government to assist in the expeditious deployment of the Regional Protection Force, or to uphold its obligations under international law, the UN Security Council should immediately impose an arms embargo and targeted sanctions against senior military figures from both the SPLA and SPLA-IO who are implicated in ongoing violence.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
From 9-13 February violent clashes between the Kamuina Nsapu militia and the army (FARDC) escalated in the area of Tshimbulu in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). FARDC soldiers reportedly killed at least 101 people, including 39 women, while indiscriminately firing at militia members. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that reports indicate “excessive and disproportionate use of force by the soldiers.” Prior to this incident, the UN reported that clashes between the FARDC and Kamuina Nsapu had resulted in over 100 people being killed in the Kasai provinces between August 2016 and January 2017. The UN has accused Kamuina Nsapu of perpetrating atrocities against the population in Kasai Central, including recruitment of children. The UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC has deployed a monitoring team to the region to “prevent, investigate and document” human rights violations.
While large-scale attacks by Boko Haram have become less frequent, smaller attacks, particularly suicide bombings, continue. Destroyed infrastructure across the northeast and the ongoing threat posed by Boko Haram makes the return of displaced populations dangerous and continues to limit humanitarian operations.
Effects of climate change – such as lower rainfall and increased desertification – already impacting Nigeria, will likely worsen the competition for resources in the future between nomadic and settled communities, putting civilians at ongoing risk of inter-communal violence. Large-scale displacement and insecurity have increased unemployment and poverty in north-east Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin region.
Nigerian security forces have consistently been accused of failing to adequately protect vulnerable populations from Boko Haram and of committing human rights abuses against civilians. The scale and frequency of human rights abuses committed by the security forces reveal ongoing weaknesses in the training of the Nigerian army and police that the government has failed to adequately address.
The government of Nigeria continues to struggle to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and needs ongoing support from the international community.
On 29 November 2016 the AU Peace and Security Council renewed the mandate of the MNJTF until 31 January 2018.
On 20 January the UN Security Council issued a Presidential Statement, urging states involved in operations against Boko Haram to comply with international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law. The statement also emphasized deep concern over the humanitarian crisis and the importance of rebuilding areas liberated from Boko Haram.
The UN Security Council is scheduled to visit Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger from 2-7 March to assess the security and humanitarian situation in the region.
— MSF International (@MSF) February 22, 2017
Governments involved in the MNJTF and ongoing military operations against Boko Haram need to mitigate the risk to civilians and strictly adhere to international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL). Captured Boko Haram leaders should be held accountable for possible crimes against humanity in areas under their previous command and control.
It is essential that the government of Nigeria addresses the root causes of recurring inter-communal conflict, especially in the “middle belt” region, through socio-economic initiatives and political reforms that tackle land rights, corruption, and poor governance, as well as access to employment and educational opportunities. Compensation to victims and help with rebuilding livelihoods, destroyed in clashes between semi-nomadic herdsmen and settled farming communities, is necessary to prevent another humanitarian crisis and end recurring conflict.
The government needs to urgently undertake a comprehensive security sector reform to ensure that the army and police are trained to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities in a manner consistent with international law.
SOURCE: Atrocity Alert No. 44, February 22, 2017