Editors’ Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
U.N. Security Council Rebukes Use of Mercenaries in Africa
Early this week, the U.N. Security Council debated the presence of mercenaries in Africa with special attention to the Central African and Sahel regions. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the role of mercenaries is growing and evolving to include cyberattacks, industrial espionage, and connections to shadowy transnational organized crime networks. Guterres called for renewed support for regional and international conventions against the use of mercenaries, namely the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which was adopted in 1989 and currently has only 35 signatories. Côte d’Ivoire’s Minister for Foreign Affairs further asked governments to accede to the 1977 Organization of African Unity Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, which has been ratified by only 30 African states.
This debate’s regional focus recalls recent reports of Russian mercenary activities in different corners of the globe. In July 2018, three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic while investigating the Russian private military company Wagner, known for its mercenaries’ involvement in Syria, Ukraine, and Sudan. Months earlier, Wagner mercenaries came into direct conflict with the U.S. military in Syria. Just Security has also covered the use of U.S. and other mercenaries by the United Arab Emirates in Yemen (for example, “Justice Dept Must Open Criminal Investigation Into Potential War Crimes by U.S. Mercenaries in Yemen,”and “When is a Mercenary (Not) a Mercenary? The Case of Foreign Fighters in the UAE’s Military”).
Rights Groups Call on U.N. Human Rights Council to Address China’s Mass Detention of Uyghur Muslims
On Monday, a coalition of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, implored the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate “credible allegations that up to one million Turkic Muslims are being arbitrarily detained in ‘political education’ camps across Xinjiang.” The rights groups called on the Council to adopt a resolution establishing an international fact-finding mission to the northwest Chinese region, where reportedly an estimated10 percent of Xinjiang’s total population is currently being held in mass detention camps. According to investigations by independent journalists, Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims suffer “political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and…torture” in these facilities. Last month Beijing said it would receive U.N. investigators in Xinjiang as long as they do not interfere in domestic matters. However, trips by journalists and foreigners to the region have been closely monitored and circumscribed by the Chinese government to date.
This plea comes at a time when the United States is scaling back its role at the United Nations, creating openings for China to assert its worldview. This shift has been especially pronounced in the human rights realm. In June 2018, the United States left the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has since emboldened China and Russia to work, sometimes in concert and other times independently, to promote policies favorable to them—such as through budget negotiations to cut human rights posts and peacekeeping missions.
Recent revelations also indicate a company tied to Erik Prince, brother of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, signed a deal to build a training facility in Xinjiang province. Prince is known for founding the private security firm Blackwater, whose mercenaries played a controversial role in the U.S. wars in the Middle East. The company, Frontier Services Group, has an established presence in China and has since removed the statement from its website regarding its most recent deal in Xinjiang. (For more Just Security coverage on Erik Prince, see here.)
U.N. Expert Report on North Korea Finds No Denuclearization, Continued U.N. Sanctions Violations
In a confidential report submitted last Friday to the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee, U.N. sanctions monitors found North Korea is working to protect its nuclear program and continues to violate U.N. sanctions. This report comes weeks before the second summit in Vietnam between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 27-28. On Wednesday, U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun met with his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang to discuss the summit.The U.S. State Department reports the upcoming meeting is meant to build upon the Singapore Summit to advance progress on “complete denuclearization, transforming U.S.-DPRK relations, and building a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.” However, the recent U.N. confidential report suggests there has been little progress in moving toward complete denuclearization. The report additionally detailshow North Korea continues to violate U.N. sanctions through sophisticated cyberattacks and the increased use of illegal ship-to-ship petroleum transfers.
The Palestinian Authority Seeks U.N. Protection in Hebron
On January 28, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to renew the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) after Israel’s Public Security Ministry “accused the TIPH of cooperating with extremists and interfering with soldiers and police.” In response, the Palestinian Authority asked the United Nations to deploy a permanent international force in the area. The TIPH was part of an international response to a massacre by an Israeli settler at the Hebron Mosque of Ibrahim in 1994. In the wake of this attack, the U.N. Security Council issued Resolution 904, calling for:
measures to be taken to guarantee the safety and protection of the Palestinian civilians throughout the occupied territory, including, inter alia, a temporary international or foreign presence, which was provided for in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, signed by the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization…
The first mission lasted only a few months before withdrawal, but a second mission was deployed in 1997 and has continued for twenty-two years since. The mission’s main task is to “observe, and report on the situation in Hebron.” The mandate is typically reviewed biannually, and the TIPH reports to its five founding countries: Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.
Although TIPH is not a U.N. body, U.N. officials have made reference to the mission’s positive peace-promoting role in the region. In response to the Israeli government’s action to suspend TIPH, Secretary-General Guterres expressed hope that there can be an agreement to protect Palestinians in the West Bank, and U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarricsaid U.N. Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov would follow developments and engage with all parties involved, including countries sending observers to Hebron. However, there is no U.N. response yet to the Palestinian Authority’s request for a new force.
Implementation of the Stockholm Agreement in Yemen
A series of U.N.-facilitated meetings took place this week between the warring parties aboard a ship on the Red Sea in an effort to implement further the Stockholm Agreement. During the talks, two aspects of the December 2018 agreement between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels were front and center: (1) continued efforts to facilitate both sides’ withdrawal from Hodeidah were a source of frustration, and (2) the prospect of a prisoner exchange agreement was hailed as an opportunity for hope.
In the midst of these talks, Danish Lieutenant General Michael Lollesgaard replaced Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert as the head of the Redeployment Coordination Committee, the U.N. operation monitoring the cease-fire in the country’s main port Hodeidah and working to implement the Stockholm Agreement. This team of unarmed monitors was deployed under U.N. Resolution 2451. The parties were supposed to withdraw forces from Hodeidah by January 7, but this has yet to occur as both sides continue to struggle over who will control the port. On Monday, the U.N. Security Council voiced its concerns regarding violations of the ceasefire at Hodeidah.
U.N. special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths highlighted the positive effect the prisoner exchange agreement could have in advancing a political solution to the war in Yemen. The list of prisoners, which will include an estimated 15,000 names, should be finalized in the course of this week’s meetings and then will be sent to the International Committee of the Red Cross to oversee implementation. This aspect of the Stockholm Agreement was the least contentious.