The Early Edition: June 20, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

U.S. WITHDRAWS FROM THE U.N. HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

For too long, the [U.N.] Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday when announcing that the U.S. would withdraw from the 47-member Council based in Geneva. Laura Koran reports at CNN.

“We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights,” Haley said, speaking alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, adding that the U.S. decision “is not a retreat from human rights commitments.” Al Jazeera reports.

Haley cited the Council’s “chronic anti-Israel bias,” and the fact that she had warned a year ago that the U.S. would leave if the Council failed to kick out human rights abusers and continue to discuss Israel’s treatment of Palestinians at every meeting. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Haley highlighted that the Council had passed more resolutions against Israel than the “number passed against North Korea, Iran and Syria combined,” condemning the “disproportionate” focus. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the U.S. decision to leave “this prejudiced body” in a message on Twitter yesterday, Gardiner Harris reporting at the New York Times.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s election to Council membership in the past year was one of the final straws for the Trump administration, Haley explained, adding that the U.S. would be “happy to rejoin” if the body reforms. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

“The Council has failed in its stated objective,” Pompeo said, criticizing the body for allowing human rights abusers, such as Iran and Venezuela, to remain as members, and making the comments a day after the U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein condemned the U.S. for its migration policy separating children from their parents. Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. decision is “disappointing, if not really surprising, news,” al-Hussein also said, joining a chorus of voices expressing regret at the move, including U.S. allies and the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said the Council is “crucial to holding states to account.” The BBC reports.

“The Secretary-General [António Guterres] would have much preferred for the United States to remain in the Human Rights Council,” the spokesperson for the U.N. chief said in a statement yesterday, emphasizing that the body “plays a very important role in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. decision to leave to the Council is the latest U.S. retreat from multilateralism, following the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Rights groups have also criticized the move as making it more difficult to advance human rights around the world, Lesley Wroughton and Michelle Nichols report at Reuters.

“The United States should be leading the world on human rights, not retreating into isolation and separating young children from their families,” the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, said yesterday. Katrina Manson reports at the Financial Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is on the second day of his visit to China, having been greeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday. Jeremy Page and Chun Han Wong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Xi told Kim that he hopes Pyongyang and Washington would be able to implement fully the outcome of last week’s nuclear summit in Singapore, where Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization in return for U.S. security guarantees. Xi indicated to Kim that through the “concerted efforts of the relevant countries” negotiations regarding the Korean Peninsula are back on track, Christopher Bodeen and Dake Kang report at the Washington Post.

Xi also praised Kim for the “positive” outcome of the summit with President Trump, adding that “the Chinese people’s friendship for the North Korean people will not change, and China’s support for socialist North Korea will not change.” Ben Blanchard reports at Reuters.

Kim reportedly promised to cooperate with Chinese officials to secure “true peace” in the process of “opening a new future” on the Korean Peninsula. Christine Kim reports at Reuters.

Sanctions against North Korea will remain in place until Pyongyang can assure Seoul that “complete denuclearization has been achieved,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said today at a news conference, adding that the South expects “concrete action” by North Korea to “live up to its complete denuclearization commitment,” in return for guarantees of its security and other efforts for peace. Christine Kim reports at Reuters.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in today urged Pyongyang to produce a plan for concrete steps toward denuclearization, raising pressure on Kim during his Beijing visit. Moon remarked that “it’s necessary for North Korea to present far more concrete denuclearization plans, and I think it’s necessary for the United States to swiftly reciprocate by coming up with comprehensive measures,” Christopher Bodeen reports at the Washington Post.

U.S. and South Korean officials are hoping the suspension yesterday of a major joint military exercise will help advance nuclear negotiations with the North, but the decision to cancel the significant Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills is a daring gamble that could trigger a serious security crisis in the region should the talks fail leading to a resumption of the exercises. Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung report at the Washington Post.

North Korea yesterday rejected allegations by the top U.N. human rights official Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein regarding the continuance of the Pyongyang’s widespread rights violations, with North Korean deputy Choe Myong Nam telling the U.N. Human Rights Council that al-Hussein’s remarks were based on “unconfirmed information fabricated and spread by forces hostile” to North Korea. Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

North Korea could begin the process of handing over the remains of troops missing in the Korea war in the next few days, including those of U.S. soldiers, two U.S. officials claimed yesterday. Idrees Ali reports at Reuters.

“On several occasions in the past, D.P.R.K. [North Korea] officials have indicated they possess as many as 200 sets of remains they had recovered over the years,” the Pentagon noted on its website, adding that “the commitment established within the Joint Statement between President Trump and Chairman Kim would repatriate these as was done in the early 1990s and would reinforce the humanitarian aspects of this mission.” Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

As the scramble for North Korea accelerates, it is coming to light that Pyongyang is unlikely to move moving towards unfettered capitalism, but rather to a state-guided model along the lines of China. Bryan Harris, Lucy Hornby and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

Although normally a summit marks the conclusion of meticulous preparation, the reverse was true of the Singapore summit – and so while Trump and Kim have “had their handshake, their aides must now start the grunt work,” David Ignatius comments at the Washington Post.

Containing a nuclear power requires more than just one meeting, and so negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear threat will take “deliberation, political courage — and time,” comments The New York Times Editorial Board.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump’s congressional allies used the recently published Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report to launch an attack on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election yesterday. The report indicates that the lead F.B.I. agent assigned to the investigation – Peter Strzok – held strong anti-Trump views when the probe began, and Trump loyalists have seized on the report to portray the F.B.I. as part of an out-of-touch Washington bureaucracy that disdained both Trump and the working class voters who swept him into office, Matt Apuzzo and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Strzok was escorted from the F.B.I. building Friday and effectively relieved of work responsibilities, though Strzok technically remains an agent of the bureau according to his lawyer. Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

Michael Horowitz has found that anti-Trump bias did not influence the outcome of the Hilary Clinton email probe, angering Republicans arguing that Horowitz’s report showed F.B.I. officials had “prejudged” the outcome of the probe and suggesting that his review was incomplete. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was questioned earlier this year in an inquiry into whether he was told about the F.B.I.’s reopening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation ahead of disclosure to both Congress and the public, Giuliani confirmed yesterday. Giuliani said that during an hour-long interview in February, he told investigators for the Justice Department’s Inspector General that he had not learned anything before the public did, Michael S. Schmidt and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

Guiliani has expressed a preference that the Trump political team stop making public comments about the Russia investigation, commenting that “I wish they’d sit back and keep quiet for a while,” Lachlan Markay reports at The Daily Beast. Giuliani was reacting to comments by Trump’s re-election campaign manager Brad Parscale, who yesterday sent a message on Twitter calling for the removal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

YEMEN

Yemeni government forces backed the Saudi-led coalition today captured the airport in the city of Hodeidah from the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, according to the coalition, which started an offensive last week to retake the strategic port city from the Houthis. The AFP reports.

Pro-government forces and the coalition have started preparations to capture the city and its port, which constitute a key entry point for aid and food supplies. The military advance has raised concerns from rights groups and the U.N., stating that a prolonged battle could worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Saudi-led coalition officials displayed weapons allegedly from Iran to reporters yesterday to demonstrate that Iran has been helping the Shi’ite Houthi rebels despite its denials. Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

An investigation has revealed the widespread use of torture by U.A.E. officers in Yemeni prisons, including at secret sites. The U.S., which is a top ally to the U.A.E. and is a partner to the Saudi-led coalition, has said that it has not seen evidence of detainee abuse, Maggie Michael reports at the AP.

An overview of the offensive against the Houthis in Hodeidah is provided by Linah Alsaafin at Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

There was no major breakthrough at yesterday’s meeting in Geneva between representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss the establishment of a new Syrian constitution, with the U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura saying in a statement that “some common ground was beginning to emerge” regarding the creation of a committee to draft the constitution. Barbara Bibbo reports at Al Jazeera.

“We are still committed to the de-escalation agreement but if the regime launched any attack on any sector of the south, it will be faced by volcanoes of fire,” a commander for one of the opposition Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) groups in southern Syria has said, making the comments after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces carried out airstrikes near a rebel-held village yesterday. The southwest of Syria constitutes a flashpoint due to the presence of Iran-backed forces near the Syria-Israel border, Tom Perry reports at Reuters.

“Syria expresses its strong condemnation and absolute rejection of the incursion of Turkish and American forces in the vicinity of Manbij,” the Syrian state S.A.N.A. news agency said yesterday, quoting a Syrian foreign ministry statement and referring to Turkish and U.S. independent patrols in the area controlled by Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia. Reuters reports.

Pro-Syrian government forces, rebel fighters and terrorist groups committed war crimes during the government forces’ month-long offensive on Eastern Ghouta which began in February, according to a report by U.N. investigators published today. Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 26 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between June 11 and June 17. [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A major escalation of violence erupted overnight between Israel and the militants in the Gaza Strip after Hamas fired a volley of rockets at Israeli territory, leading the Israeli military to target 25 Palestinian militant Hamas group positions in Gaza today. Yaniv Kubovich, Almog Ben Zikri and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.                                     

Israel’s Iron Dome defense system intercepted seven of the 45 rockets fired into Israel, and there have been no immediate official reports of deaths or injuries from the militant attacks, which have undermined the tacit three-week ceasefire agreed between Hamas and Israel. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The escalation started shortly after Israel carried out strikes against three Hamas sites in response to Palestinians flying fire kites and balloons over the Gaza border, which have caused significant damage to Israeli territory. The BBC reports.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees [U.N.R.W.A.] has an “unprecedented shortfall of over $250 million” and is “weeks away from painful cuts” to its emergency assistance for Gaza and elsewhere, the U.N. Mideast envoy Nikolay Mladenov told the U.N. Security Council yesterday, with the funding crisis following the U.S. decision at the beginning of the year to withhold $65m to the agency. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“The need to reverse, or at the very least contain the impact of negative trends – especially illegal settlement activity, violence and incitement – is critical” to ensure there is hope for a return to the negotiating table for Israel and Palestine, Mladenov also said yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

AFGHANISTAN

Taliban fighters today killed 30 security forces in an ambush on two checkpoints in the western province of Badghis, according to the provincial governor Abdul Qafoor Malikzai, the attack following the Taliban’s refusal of President Ashraf Ghani’s 10-day extension of the Eid ceasefire. Al Jazeera reports.

According to Defence Ministry figures, 13 soldiers were killed and eight injured in the overnight attack, with the Taliban also suffering casualties. The BBC reports.

Special operations commander Lt. Gen. Scott Miller was nominated to take over command of the war in Afghanistan yesterday, and was asked by senators about his strategy for the 17-year war in a generally amiable hearing, although Miller was put under pressure by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as to how he might change current U.S. tactics. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

U.S.-GERMANY RELATIONS

President Trump claimed yesterday that crime in Germany has increased, adding that German officials “do not want to report these crimes.” Trump made the claims in a message on Twitter, adding that “crime in Germany is up 10% plus … since migrants were accepted. Others countries are even worse. Be smart America!” Maria Curi reports at POLITICO.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday rebuffed Trump’s claims, pointing to statistics that showed crime was in fact down. “My answer is that the interior minister presented the crime statistics a short while ago and they speak for themselves,” Merkel told a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Noah Barkin and Andreas Rinke report at Reuters.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

Chinese hackers have been carrying out spying operations and destructive activities against the U.S. and Southeast Asia to further national espionage goals, including the targeting of satellite communications, according to the Symantec cybersecurity firm. The findings come as tensions have increased between the U.S. and China over trade, national security and cybersecurity, Tim Starks reports at POLITICO.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today called on the world to “combine forces” to defend against cyber threats, warning that attacks can bring down airlines and fighter jets. Reuters reports.

Advances in synthetic biology have raised concerns of a new generation of bioweapons, according to a report published yesterday by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which was commissioned by the Defense Department to highlight ways the technology may be abused. Ian Sample reports at the Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned of tensions in the military alliance and urged western unity, saying that while there may be disagreements between the U.S. and other allies over key areas – such as trade, climate change and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – a breakdown is not inevitable. Daniel Boffey reports at the Guardian.

Europe’s proposals to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are not enough to satisfy Tehran, the Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying yesterday, referring to European efforts following the U.S. decision to withdraw from the agreement. Reuters reports.

A study by the Airwards monitoring group has found that at least 230 civilians have died in Libya since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, with the report noting the lack of transparency about strikes carried out by the various parties to the conflict. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).