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.
Deadly Attack in Central Mali Kills at Least 160
On Saturday, gunmen dressed as Dozo hunters attacked the village of Ogossou-Peulh and two other ethnic Fulani settlements in Mali’s central Mopti region. The Malian government’s “latest estimate of casualties” records 160 deaths, making the attack one of the country’s deadliest in recent years.
UN officials decried the attack. Secretary General Guterres called on “Malian authorities to swiftly investigate it and bring the perpetrators to justice.” François Delattre, France’s UN Ambassador and President of the Security Council, argued the need to “break this negative dynamic between the different communities, and to do everything to try and recreate a virtuous circle.” The UN has also deployed “crime-scene investigators, human rights officers, and a child protection expert to central Mali” to investigate this weekend’s massacre.
The Mopti region has in the last year seen a spike in intercommunal violence. According to Human Rights Watch, intercommunal violence reached “alarming levels” in 2018, with “over 200 civilians” killed and thousands more driven from their homes. Ethnic “Dogon and Bambara ‘self-defense groups’” have targeted ethnic Fulani for their “alleged support of armed Islamists.”
2019 has also seen continued violence across the country. On January 1, gunmen executed 37 people “in the Fulani village of Kulogon.” In late February, an attack on the village of Gondogourou killed 10 people from the Dogon community. One week before Saturday’s massacre, gunmen attacked a Malian army base in the village of Dioura, killing at least sixteen soldiers. UN blue helmets deployed as part of MINUSMA have routinely come under attack; 195 peacekeepers have been killed since the mission was established in 2013.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said after Saturday’s massacre: “We are in times of war.” The Malian government dismissed “several high-ranking military commanders” and ordered the disbandment of Dan na Amassagou, the ethnic Dogon militia “it believes to behind the massacre.” It is unlikely that the disbandment of Dan na Amassagou will lead to a decrease in intercommunal violence. The abuse and targeting of Fulani villagers have only fuelled Fulani recruitment “into…Islamist groups.” Fulani villagers are also unlikely to see the government’s announcements as serious. As West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center has noted, “Fulani in the Mopti and Segou regions have experienced retaliatory violence and abuse from…the Malian military (including torture and summary executions).”
UN adheres to position on Golan Heights despite Trump’s announcement
U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Last week, Trump had tweeted that the Golan Heights are of “critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel.” Israeli newspaper Haaretz has argued that Trump’s announcement constitutes the “biggest election present ever given to an Israeli leader.” The proclamation comes just days before Israel’s April 9 election, which for Prime Minister “Netanyahu is do or die.” The Prime Minister is under indictment on “bribery and other corruption charges.” Netanyahu cut short a visit to Washington after a rocket fired from Gaza hit a house north of Tel Aviv, injuring seven.
Israel captured the Golan Heights on the last day of the 1967 Six-Day War. In December 1981 the Knesset extended Israeli “jurisdiction and administration” to the Golan Heights. The UN Security Council responded with Resolution 497, which decided that the Israeli decision to “impose its laws…in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect” and demanded that “Israel, the occupying Power, should rescind forthwith its decision.” A UN spokesperson said that the Secretary General adheres to the view articulated in Resolution 497.
Trump’s decision has met with widespread backlash. The Turkish foreign ministry cast Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights as a “grave violation of international law,” with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu arguing that recognition “will further increase tensions in the region by preventing peace efforts in the Middle East.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he would bring the issue of the Golan Heights to the UN. The Russian, Iranian, Syrian, French, and German governments, among others, have criticized the move. The New York Times’ Editorial Board similarly excoriated the decision, warning that support for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights would “give Israel’s right-wing parties an opening to argue for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank” and arguing that Trump has “given away…valuable American diplomatic leverage…in exchange for nothing of benefit to the United States.”
On Wednesday, the Security Council held an emergency meeting to address the Golan Heights proclamation at Syria’s behest. Of the Council’s fifteen members, fourteen condemned Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, the United States’ Acting Permanent Representative to the United Nations, affirmed to the Council that the US remained supportive of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Cohen cast UNDOF’s mission of maintaining a demilitarized buffer zone between Syria and Israel as of “critical strategic and security importance.” Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon proclaimed that “Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights will continue forever” and warned that “without the Golan Heights, Israel will find Iranian soldiers on the tip of the Sea of Galilee.”
UN officials brief Security Council on dire humanitarian situation in Syria
On Wednesday, Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, and Ramesh Rajasingham, a senior director at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), briefed the Security Council on the situation in Syria. The briefing comes just days after the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had captured Baghuz, the last bastion of Islamic-State-controlled territory in Syria. DiCarlo warned, however, that the Islamic State still remains a threat.
The already dire humanitarian situation in Syria has been exacerbated in recent weeks by fighting not only in Baghuz, but also around the country. Rajasingham noted “an alarming spike in civilian casualties and new displacement” and cited a “growing number of attacks involving improvised explosive devices in urban areas, including Idlib City.” Displaced Syrians have continued to head toward al-Hol camp, located in Northeastern Syria, braving long journeys and dangerous conditions. A March 2019 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report on the al-Hol camp revealed that some 53,400 individuals have arrived since December 2018, many of them fleeing from the hostilities in and around Baghuz. Conditions within the camp, the report warned, are “over-crowded, uninhabitable, and threaten human dignity and life.” DiCarlo placed the total number of people living in al-Hol at 72,000 and informed the council that the UN “is still awaiting approval from the Syrian Government for humanitarian access for a… convoy of life-saving assistance.”
Secretary General Calls for Prohibition on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems
The Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) met in Geneva this week to discuss, among other questions, the “potential challenges posed by emerging technologies in the area of [LAWS] to International Humanitarian Law.” The GGE met twice in 2018, but in its report noted a lack of consensus on the part of the contracting countries to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Notably, some delegations advocated for the “strengthening [of] the mandate of the GGE,” while others argued that the “current mandate offered sufficient flexibility.”
Secretary General Guterres, in his message to the GGE, stressed that “machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant, and should be prohibited by international law.” In past years, a slew of countries have called for a ban on LAWS. The European Parliament in 2018 adopted a resolution that called for “effective negotiations on the prohibition of drones and armed robots which enable strikes to be carried out without human intervention.” At the same time, the United States, Russia, and other “advanced military powers,” have blocked progress toward an international treaty that would categorically ban LAWS. In the lead-up to this week’s session, a number of commentators also came together to advocate for a ban. As British media has reported, a group of doctors, scientists, and Nobel Prize winners issued an open letter to the United Nations, decrying LAWS as “morally abhorrent.”
Human Rights Watch also addressed the GGE, detailing the ways in which autonomous weapons would, in its view, challenge international humanitarian law: autonomous weapons would “face significant obstacles to complying with the principles of distinction and proportionality,” would result in a “gap in individual criminal responsibility for war crimes,” and would “raise serious concerns under the Martens Clause” by undermining the “principles of humanity.” The GGE is scheduled to meet for a second session in late August.