This moth, the 193-member United Nations General Assembly unanimously appointed former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres as the ninth secretary-general of the would body for a five-year term that will begin on 1 January 2017.
Guterres, 57, will replace Ban Ki-moon, 72, of South Korea. Ban will step down at the end of 2016 after having served two five-year terms. Guterres was Portugal’s prime minister from 1995 until 2002 and UN High Commissioner for Refuges from 2005 until 2015. On 13 October, he pledged to act as an “honest broker” and stated that he would take a humble approach in trying to deal with global issues, in which human dignity will be at the core of his work. Speaking to the General Assembly, Guterres stated, “diversity can bring us together, not drive us apart…We must make sure that we are able to break this alliance between all those terrorist groups or violent extremists on one side and the expressions of populism and xenophobia on the other side,” adding, “these two reinforce each other, and we must be able to fight both of them with determination.”
At the start of this month, the 15-member UN Security Council unanimously recommended that the General Assembly appoint Guterres, who beat our twelve other candidates, seven of whom were women, amidst a push for the first woman to be elected.
Diplomats are now watching to see who Guterres will appoint to senior UN positions, amidst speculation by diplomats and UN officials that China would like one its nationals to head peacekeeping and that Russia is keen to lead political affairs. Currently, a French man runs peacekeeping, an American man leads political affairs and a British man is in charge of humanitarian affairs.
The United Nations has launched a human rights investigation into the on-going violence that is taking place in the Central African Republic (CAR). The launch of the investigation comes after the UN Security Council ordered an inquiry in December to identify suspects who could be prosecuted for the violence. On Monday, inquiry head Bernard Acho Muna indicated that he hoped the presence of investigators in the CAR would help prevent genocide. The Cameroonian judge added that “we have to put an end to the impunity,” noting that the “hate propaganda” in the CAR was similar to that in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide that killed about 800,000 people. Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, before heading for the CAR, Mr Muna stated “we don’t wait until genocide is committed and then we call for prosecution….I think it is in our mandate to see how one can stop any advances toward genocide.” The inquiry will “…present to the Security Council a complete file so that the appropriate action can be taken.” A team of UN investigators will arrive in Bangui on Tuesday to begin interviewing Christian and Muslim victims of attacks, as well as senior political and military officials and activist groups. The commission, which includes former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda and Fatimata M’Baye, a lawyer from Mauritania, will spend two weeks in the CAR and will also look into Chad’s role in the violence. They will then draw up a confidential list of suspects for eventual prosecution, which will be submitted to world powers later this year. They will also be in touch with a preliminary inquiry, which will be carried out by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Since the beginning of the conflict last year, thousands of people have been killed while the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) says that about 1.3 million people, a quarter of the population, are in need of aid. Tens of thousand of Muslims have also fled the country as Christian militias have stepped up their attacks since the forced resignation of the CAR’s first Muslim ruler, Michel Djotodia, in January 2014. Many Muslims have crossed the borders into neighbouring Cameroon and Chad, while thousands more are living in camps inside the CAR. Although interim President Catherine Samba Panza has appealed for an end to the bloodshed, this appeal has gone with little success.
On Friday, UN aid chief Valerie Amos announced that fewer than 1,000, of the more than 100,000 Muslims who once lived in the capital city, remain in Bangui.
Somali Forces Launch Operations to Retake al-Shabaab Controlled Regions
Officials indicated Monday that African peacekeepers, operating alongside government forces, have recaptured several strategic towns in the south-western region of Somalia. The recapture comes just days after the African Union’s AMISOM force announced that it had launched a wide scale offensive against al-Shabaab militants in areas located near the Ethiopian border. The operation to remove the militant group from its last remaining strongholds in central and southern Somalia also comes in the wake of a sure of attacks in the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where al-Shabaab continues its bid to oust the internationally-backed government.
Speaking to reports, regional government official Abdulahi Yarisow confirmed the operations, stating “AMISOM and the Somali troops kicked al-Shabaab out of several key towns including Wajid and regional capital Hudur,” adding that “our military advancement will continue until we eliminate the enemy from the rest of the country.” A statement released by AMISOM indicated that troops had secured the towns of Ted, Rabdhure and Buudhubow, effectively driving out al-Shabaab militants from the area. The statement added that “the SNA (Somali National Army) and AMISOM joint operations signal the beginning of the renewed efforts by the Somali government forces working more closely with AMISOM forces to dislodge al-Shabaab from many of its strongholds across the country.”
Although Hudur had been captured from al-Shabaab by Ethiopian troops in March 2012, their withdrawal from the region resulted in the town falling back into the control of al-Shabaab.
Diplomats indicated on Wednesday that the UN Security Council is expected to soon authorize 4,000 more troops in order to boost the African force that is battling resurgent al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. According to reports, the council is likely to allow a new upper limit of about 22,000 troops for the African Union force, which is known as AMISOM. During a recent Security Council meeting on Somalia, which specifically focused on efforts to support the country’s interim government, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson stated that advances made by the African force, along with the Somali army, had “ground to a halt” because it lacked a sufficient number of troops. According to the UN Deputy, al-Shabaab “is mobile and is training and recruiting substantial numbers of frustrated, unemployed young men.” During the meeting, the UN Deputy reaffirmed an earlier call made by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the African Union for “a significant temporary boost” to AMISOM’s numbers. In a recent report to the Security Council, the Secretary-General indicated that there is an urgent need to reinforce AMISOM in order to move into southern Somalia to “deny Shebaab the opportunity to raise resources and to forcefully recruit and train personnel.” Britain is drawing up a resolution on increasing the force, which is expected to be voted by the Security Council in mid-November. The resolution would effectively allow for an increase of about 4,000 troops in order to allow an upper limit for AMISOM of about 22,000 troops. The call for an increase in troops comes amidst mounting warning pertaining to al-Shabaab’s increasing threat after the Nairobi shopping mall attack last month. While the AMISOM force, along with the Somali army, have pushed al-Shabaab militants out of the capital city, along with other major cities, over the past eighteen months, al-Shabaab has been able to regroup and stage large and elaborate attacks, such as the one on Westgate Mall in Nairobi on September 17. In turn, suicide bombers have been able to stage attacks in Mogadishu, which is government controlled. If the increase in troops is to pass in a Security Council vote, the new deployment of troops will likely be tasked with focusing on removing al-Shabaab militants from the southern region of Somalia, particularly from their new stronghold of Barawe. In recent weeks, the town has been the focus of two missions carried out by US forces. The first focused on targeting a senior al-Shabaab commander, known as Ikrima, while the second, a drone strike, killed three al-Shabaab commanders, including the militant group’s top bomb-maker. In turn, sources indicate that al-Shabaab militants stationed in Barawe have been planning attacks not only throughout the rest of the country, but regionally as well.
Meanwhile, for the first time, Somalia’s President visited the southern port city of Kismayo on Thursday, which is a former al-Shabaab stronghold that is now controlled by a warlord who has long been opposed to the region being controlled by the central government in Mogadishu. While no further details of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s visit have been released by his spokesman, Abdirahman Omar Osman, the trip does signal a step forward in relations with the breakaway region. Shortly after the President’s visit, al-Shabaab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab boasted that the group’s militants fired dozens of artillery and mortar rounds at the “infidel leader,” however officials have dismissed this claim. The president’s spokesman later confirmed that “there was no mortar attacks at Kismayo airport contrary to al-Shabaab claims.” The visit also comes amidst efforts to increase support for the central government and is seen as a bid to combat the threat from al-Shabaab militants who continue to control large areas around the port city. Kismayo, which is patrolled by Kenyan and Sierra Leonean troops from the African Union force, is controlled by the Ras Kamboni militia of warlord Ahmed Madobe, who has claimed leadership over the southern semi-autonomous region of Jubbaland. The region lies in the far south of Somalia, bordering both Kenya and Ethiopia, and its control is split between multiple forces including clan militias, al-Shabaab and Kenyan and Ethiopian troops. Al-Shabaab forces currently control their last major port at Barawe, which is located some 250 kilometers northeast of Kismayo. However African Union forces are moving closer to capturing control of the town. Taking Barawe would result in al-Shabaab loosing a vital area and in turn, it would link up AU forces who are currently split between Jubbaland and Mogadishu.
Days after the conclusion of the G20 Summit in Saint Petersburg, where global leaders remained divided on the Syrian crisis, Russia has urged Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control in an attempt to avoid US military strikes. Meanwhile the United States has warned that this recent diplomatic initiative made by Russia may be a form of stalling US air strikes. The announcement of a proposed destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons comes one day after two foreign hostages were freed after being held captive for five months in Syria.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced that an offer to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles was made during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, who welcomed the initiative. During talks that were held in Moscow, Mr. Lavrov stated that he had urged Mr. Muallem to “not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction.” He also indicated that once this plan is approved and completed, Syria should fully join the Chemical Weapons Conventions. In response to the proposal, Mr. Muallem indicated that Syria has welcomed Russia’s initiative and has praised its officials for “attempting to prevent American aggression against our people.”
Shortly after Russia’s announcement, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also called for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in internationally supervised safe zones. During a brief meeting with journalists on Monday, Mr. Ban told reporters that he may propose the zones to the UN Security Council if UN inspectors confirm that such banned weapons were in fact used. He further noted that such a decision may also aid the Security Council’s “embarrassing paralysis” over the Syrian crisis. While the UN’s leader has welcomed Russia’s proposal, and has urged Syria to “agree to these proposals,” adding that there would be “very swift action” by the international community to ensure that the stocks are destroyed, he warned that “first and foremost Syria must agree positively to this.” In turn, Mr. Ban stipulated that if UN inspectors confirm the use of sarin gas in an August 21 attack, the Security Council would have no choice but to act.
Currently a UN team, which is led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, is working on a report on whether chemical arms, which are banned under international law, were used in the August 21 attack that occurred near Damascus. If the use is confirmed by the team, then according to Mr. Ban, “this would be an abominable crime, and the international community would certainly have to do something about it.” Officials in Britain, France and the United States have already stated that Assad’s forces carried out the attack in which more than 1,400 people died.
Meanwhile the United States on Monday indicated that while it would take a “hard look” at Russia’s plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, US officials expressed skepticism over the credibility of the initiative. Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf stated that “we’ll look at this new development, we’ll take a hard look at it,” cautioning that “clearly we don’t want this as I said, to be another stalling tactic. The Russians for months and years have stood up for the Syrian regime at the UN and in the international community.” In turn, Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security advisor, indicated that despite Russia’s proposal, Washington would not ease pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. During an interview, he stipulated that the US “will just have to follow up with them and with other countries going forward to assess the seriousness of this proposal,” adding that “at the same time, it is going to be very important that we don’t take the pressure off.”
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has also stated that a destruction of the weapons would be a “huge step forward,” however he warned that such a proposition should not be used as a “distraction tactic.”
Assad’s Warning to US
Meanwhile Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad recently gave an interview to US network PBS in which he warned the US against any military intervention, cautioning that the Middle East was “on the bring of explosion,” and that the US would “…pay the price if you’re not wise with dealing with terrorists. There are going to be repercussions.” During the interview, Mr. Assad also stated that the US “should expect everything. The government is not the only player in this region. You have different parties, different factions, different ideologies. You have everything in this decision now.” The Syrian leader however did not specify whether or not his comments were a threat that Syrian backed groups, such as Hezbollah, would launch retaliation attacks, or whether the comments were a warning that such strikes would bolster al-Qaeda-linked groups. He also denied that he was responsible for the chemical weapons attack, adding that there was “no evidence” to hold his government responsible for the 21 August attack.
Hostages Freed From Syria
On Monday, freed Italian journalist Domenico Quirico and Belgian teacher Pierre Piccinin spoke about the “very tough” conditions they lived through while being held hostage for five months in Syria. The two men, who were released on Sunday, stated that during the five-month kidnap ordeal, they had been subjected to violence, humiliation and mock executions. While both men indicated that they had overheard their captors discussing a possible rebel involvement in a poison-gas attack near Damascus, Mr. Quirico stated that they had no way of verifying the information. Although minimal details have emerged in regards to the circumstances of the ordeal, reports indicate that Italy’s secret services had stepped up its efforts in order to secure their freedom ahead of the possible US military strikes.
A gaunt and tired Quirico and a heavily bearded Piccinin were first seen late on Sunday after stepping off an Italian government plane in Rome. They later stated that “we are okay despite the torture suffered,” adding that “there was sometimes real violence…humiliation, bullying mock executions, Domenico faced two mock executions, with a revolver.”
According to a statement made by Mr. Quirico, he and Mr. Piccinin were initially picked up in April by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army who then handed them over to the Abu Ammar brigade. The veteran reporter further noted that “the first days we were blindfolded. There were maybe three groups that handled us…the conditions in which we were held were very tough from the start. We were given food at best once a day.” Although the two men tried to escape twice, once while their captors were at prayer, the were tracked down after two days and “seriously punished.”
Mr. Quirico has also been quoted as casting doubts on claims made by Mr. Piccinin relating to an alleged conversation they overheard about the alleged rebel role in the use of chemical weapons. Mr. Quirico has stated that “from a room where we were being held and through a half-open door one day we overheard a conversation in English via Skype involving three people whose identities I do not know,” further stating that “in the conversation, they were saying that the gas operations in two suburbs of Damascus was carried out by rebels as a provocation to force the West to intervene military.” He has since indicated that he is not able to say whether or not this conversation was based on real facts or on hearsay. In turn, a source close to the Belgian government has indicated that Mr. Piccinin’s comments “engage only him personally.”
Concerns on the part of Italian authorities had mounted as the possibility of US-led air strikes on Syria increased. However in the wake of the release of these two men, media rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has stated that thirteen journalists are still missing in Syria. Amongst the kidnapped are two French journalists, Didier Francois and Edouard Elias, and US journalist James Foley. Italy is also still attempting to free another one of its nationals who has been missing in Syria since July. Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for a number of years.
World leaders meeting at the G20 Summit in Russia remained divided over military action in Syria. The Syrian crisis, and prospect of military action, has overshadowed the official agenda of the summit, which was intended to focus on the world’s top economies and emerging markets in order to stimulate growth and battle tax avoidance. While talks on Syria dominated the first day of the summit, it was not immediately clear if the leaders would have another chance to discuss the issue on the summit’s second day or if the main session would focus on purely economic issues. What does remain clear is that tensions between the United States and Russia have reached a new low.
Despite not being on the original agenda of the summit, which is hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg, global leaders discussed the Syria crisis over a working dinner on Thursday, which lasted into the early morning hours. However there was no breakthrough during the dinner as leaders, including US President Barack Obama, presented their positions on the Syria crisis. The discussions, which failed to bridge the divisions over US plans which are seeking military action against the Syrian regime, also confirmed the extent of global divisions on the issue. A Kremlin spokesman was quoted as saying that “some states were defending the view the rushed measures should be taken, overlooking legitimate international institutions. Other states appealed not to devalue international law and not to forget that only the UN Security Council has the right to decide on using force.” While a high-ranking source close to the talks indicated that there was a disappointing lack of ambition at the dinner on the Syria issue, noting that Putin as host was keen not to aggravate tensions further, a French diplomatic source highlighted that while discussions indicated a sharp divide amongst the leaders, the overall objective of the dinner “was an exchange between the top world leaders and not to come to an agreement.” Outside of the summit, several Western states share Mr. Putin’s opposition to military action, and after last week’s vote in the British parliament, which resulted in the UK government voting against strikes, France is the only power to have vowed that it will join American intervention if US officials go ahead with military action.
Mr. Putin has emerged as one of the most inflexible critics of military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has been accused of allegedly using chemical weapons in an attack that was carried out on 21 August. Putin’s comments that any move without the UN’s blessing would be an aggression, remained unchanged throughout the Summit. China also insists that any action without the UN would be illegal.
Meanwhile on Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that military strikes could spark further sectarian violence in the country which he said is suffering from a humanitarian crisis “unprecedented” in recent history, adding that “I must warn that ill-considered military action could cause serious and tragic consequences, and with an increased threat of further sectarian violence.” The UN is also appealing for more aid for the estimated two million Syrians who have fled their country, in which another 4.25 million are internally displaced. UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Friday that the UK would provide an additional £52 million (US $80 million) in aid for Syrian, in which much of it will go towards medical training and equipment in order to help those civilians who have been targeted by chemical attacks.