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.
ICJ tells the United Kingdom to relinquish control of the Chagos Archipelago
On February 25, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) released an advisory opinion requested by the UN General Assembly in 2017, calling for the British government to end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago “as rapidly as possible.” Britain granted Mauritius its independence in 1968, but in the decolonization process separated the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, forcibly evicted the vast majority of Chagossian islanders from the archipelago, and prevented their return. Today, the UK administers the archipelago as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). In 1982, the UK paid £4 million to Mauritius for the archipelago on an ex gratia basis. That sum was disbursed to some 1,344 islanders, who as a condition of accepting the funds had to renounce the right to return to the BIOT. The ICJ opinion notes that Chagossians today remain “dispersed in several countries,” primarily the UK, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, President of the ICJ, delivered a forceful opinion, which Philippe Sands QC, who represented Mauritius at The Hague, underlined as a ”landmark” ICJ ruling. By vote of thirteen votes to one, the court held that the process of decolonization of Mauritius “was not lawfully completed” in 1968 and that “all Member States” had an obligation to cooperate with the UN “in order to complete the decolonization of Mauritius.” On Tuesday, Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, argued before Parliament that the dispute was “bilateral” and that Britain would thus continue to seek a “bilateral solution.”
Britain’s response to the ICJ’s opinion could affect the status of the US military base sited on Diego Garcia, which is the largest island in the archipelago. Most of the island’s facilities are run by the US Air Force, though the British also station personnel on the island. The US agreement with the UK on Diego Garcia’s facilities is set to expire in 2036, but the handover of the archipelago to Mauritius could force a change in defense arrangements.
Security Council meets on Venezuela at US request
This past weekend, clashes between Venezuelan security forces and anti-Maduro protesters turned ugly. At a number of border crossing points, Venezuelan National Guardsmen fired tear gas on Venezuelans trying to access aid shipments that Maduro has prevented from crossing the border. The UN confirmed that “four people were shot, and 64 injured” near the Brazilian border. Some 285 people were injured at points on the Colombian border.
The Security Council met on Tuesday at the request of the United States. Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, briefed the Council that some 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country because of the deteriorating economic and political situation. The United States and Russia also faced off at the Council meeting. Elliot Abrams, US Special Representative for Venezuela, called for the “illegitimate [Maduro] regime to peacefully step down.” Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s Permanent Representative, pilloried American aid efforts, accusing the US of attempting an “illegal state border crossing for the delivery of unknown cargo.” The diplomatic sparring continued yesterday at the Security Council when China and Russia vetoed a US-backed resolution that called for “free and fair presidential elections.” The US did not need to veto Russia’s resolution, as it failed to receive the nine votes required for adoption.
UN report criticizes Israeli conduct in Gaza
The UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2018 protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory issued its report this week. The report criticizes Israeli conduct during what Gazans term the “great march of return,” a series of demonstrations lasting between March 30 and December 31, 2018. Throughout that period, Palestinian demonstrators habitually approached the border fence that separates Israel and Gaza and demanded that Israel lift its blockade on Gaza. The probe, headed by chairperson Santiago Canton, accused Israeli security forces of “serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.” The commission also compiled a list of fatalities and injuries, noting that of the 189 Palestinians killed at demonstration sites, 183 “were killed by live ammunition used by Israeli security forces.”
Israeli authorities have denounced the UN report. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that Hamas operatives had carried out “terrorist activity during the violent demonstrations along the fence” and maintained Israel’s right to “self-defense.” Foreign Minister Israel Katz criticized the report as “hostile, mendacious, and biased against Israel.” The Commission did not only criticize Israeli conduct, however. Notably, the report criticized the police force of the de facto authorities in Gaza for failing to prevent “incendiary kites and balloons from reaching Israel” and for failing to take action against demonstrators who “injured Israeli soldiers.”
The Commission of Inquiry will present its report to the Human Rights Council on March 18. The HRC opened its 40th session this week and will meet until mid-March. Secretary-General Guterres addressed the Council on Monday and listed the various threats imperiling the UN’s human rights agenda, highlighting a rise in hate speech as well as increasing economic stratification. British Foreign Office Minister, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, also addressed the Council, stressing freedom of religion and China’s persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang province. The Council will pay special attention to the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories, with Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk set to make a report on the issue.
UN to conduct internal review of its conduct in Myanmar
According to a Guardian investigative piece, the UN will be launching an investigation into its “conduct in Myanmar over the past decade.” Despite wariness among senior UN officials toward a full scale inquiry, Secretary General Guterres has forged ahead by appointing Gert Rosenthal, former Guatemalan Permanent Representative to the UN, to head the investigation. Human rights professionals and aid workers in Myanmar have long criticized the UN’s conduct in relation to the Rohingya crisis. According to a bombshell BBC article, Renata Lok-Dessallien, the former head of the UN country team in Myanmar, “tried to stop human rights activists from traveling to Rohingya areas” and ignored staff who warned about impending ethnic cleansing in the years leading up to the August 2017 spike in violence. The UN transferred Lok-Dessallien from Myanmar in late 2017 but stressed that her transfer had “nothing to do with her performance.”
Extreme violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has forced over 727,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The majority have settled in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, a port city in southeastern Bangladesh. The humanitarian situation remains dire. This week, UNICEF revealed that some half a million Rohingya children are living in the Cox’s Bazar area. Though praising the Bangladeshi government’s humanitarian efforts, UNICEF stressed that “there is no viable solution in sight for these Rohingya children.”
The 2019 UN Joint Response Plan seeks to raise $920 million to address the needs of more than 900,000 refugees from Myanmar and 330,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis. The comprehensive plan addresses root causes of the current crisis, details the current geographic distribution of refugees, and articulates a protection framework focused not just on providing the Rohingya with aid but also on “preparing refugees for solutions… by building their resilience and enhancing their confidence.” The UN will continue to implement its humanitarian efforts in full partnership with Bangladeshi authorities.
Donors pledge $2.6 billion to humanitarian assistance for Yemeni civilians
On Tuesday, Secretary-General Guterres revealed that member states had raised $2.6 billion in humanitarian assistance at a pledging conference in Geneva. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pledged the largest amounts at $500 million each, with Canada pledging $46.7 million and the United States $24 million. Ahead of the conference, Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, had called for “more money from governments who are not involved in this brutal war.” Top human rights officials at the UN have accused Saudi Arabia and UAE of committing war crimes in their fight against the Houthis.
Meanwhile, aid workers on Tuesday finally gained access to the Red Sea Mills, where 51,000 tons of grain have lain since September of last year. That is enough grain for 3.7 million people, the UN reports, but the wider humanitarian situation in Yemen remains catastrophic. The Norwegian Refugee Council has described Yemen as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” According to Guterres, some 10 million people are “one step away from famine” and some 360,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. The UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen requires $4 billion to reach over 20 million people who are “barely surviving.”
In the United States, the House of Representatives passed a resolution on February 13, by a vote of 248 to 177, directing the President “to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen.” That bill, due to Republican procedural maneuvering, will not get a vote in the Senate. In December 2018, the last Senate approved a resolution that directed the “removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress.”
In the meantime, the Stockholm Agreement remains Yemen’s best shot of curtailing the violence that has gripped the country since 2014. Houthi forces were supposed to draw back from the ports of Saleef and Ras Isa on Monday as a precursor to a withdrawal from Hodeida port, but have yet to do so.
UN releases report on violence in Afghanistan
On Sunday, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its report on “protection of civilians in armed conflict” for 2018. The report is the UN’s tenth and documents the human costs of the War in Afghanistan. In the past decade, more than 32,000 civilians have been killed and around 60,000 injured. UNAMA concluded the armed conflict reached “unacceptably high levels in 2018,” resulting in 3,804 deaths and 7,189 injuries. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking about the report, drew attention to the “fact that the number of children killed [in 2018] is the highest on record.”
There was also a sharp increase in suicide attacks in 2018, mainly by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), an offshoot of the Islamic State which, according to scholars, maintains a “contradictory relationship with the Taliban.” The Taliban also continues to deliberately target civilians. During the October 2018 parliamentary elections, ISKP and Taliban attacks resulted in at least 56 deaths.