Editor’s 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.
Turkey Agrees to 5-Day Pause in Syria; Security Council Fails to Condemn Turkish Action
On Thursday, Turkey agreed to pause its military offensive in northeast Syria for five days, though it also refused to withdraw its troops from the region. The announcement came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for five hours. Pence referred to the arrangement as a cease-fire, but Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, stressed it was merely a “pause for our operation.” The United States also agreed to lift the sanctions it had imposed on Turkey in response to the operation. However, less than a day after the agreement was announced, Kurdish fighters and eyewitnesses reported that the violence had continued along the Turkey-Syria border.
Almost immediately after President Trump announced his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria earlier this month, Turkey launched a massive attack against the Kurds. Last week, the Security Council held an emergency meeting, but failed to agree on condemning Turkey’s actions in Syria. This week, Security Council members were able to reach consensus, though in a statement that also lacked any specific denunciation of Turkey. Rather, the Security Council “expressed deep concern over the risk of the dispersion of terrorists from UN-designated groups, including ISIL,” and said they “are also very concerned over the risk of a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation.” The situation seems to be growing more dire by the day. This week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “Since the Turkish military offensive began on 9 October, we have verified a number of civilian casualties each day as a result of airstrikes, ground-based strikes and sniper fire.”
Some of the individual council members went much further than the Security Council did, with China, Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Belgium, and the United States specifically calling on Turkey to end the violence in the region. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft called on Turkey to “halt its offensive and declare a cease-fire immediately.” She added that, “Turkey’s military offensive into northeast Syria is undermining the campaign to defeat ISIS, endangering innocent civilians, and threatening peace, security, and stability in the region.”
Also on Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution condemning President Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Passing 354-60, the resolution sharply criticized Trump’s decision as “beneficial to adversaries of the United States government.” However, its Senate counterpart was blocked on Thursday, with leading opposition from Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
Despite the outcry for leaving the Kurds, a strong U.S. partner in the counter-ISIL fight, in peril, President Trump has tried to deflect criticism for what is widely seen as a national security disaster. On Wednesday, he said the violence in Syria “has nothing to do with us” and that the Kurds are “not angels.”
UN Ends 15-Year Peacekeeping Mission in Haiti, Amidst Protest and Chaos
On Tuesday, the United Nations officially ended its fifteen-year peacekeeping operation in Haiti, as political, economic, and social instability plague the country. The mission not only failed to achieve lasting security, but many blame the peacekeeping forces for causing a deadly cholera epidemic in the country. The UN forces in Haiti have also faced allegations of sexually abusing civilians.
The UN Security Council authorized the mission in Haiti following the military overthrow of then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Today, the country is reeling from a number of events, including the 2010 earthquake that killed 300,000 people. During earthquake recovery efforts, peacekeeping forces’ improper disposal of infected sewage appeared to cause the cholera outbreak that has since killed more than 10,000 people. Victims have recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to force the United Nations to take legal responsibility for the outbreak. Haiti is also currently the poorest country in the Americas, and its current president, Jovenel Moïse, has faced repeated calls to resign after being blamed for the country’s fuel shortages and increasing inflation. Protests have turned violent and sometimes even deadly, with a journalist covering them, Néhémie Joseph, found shot dead in his car last week.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, recognized that the peacekeeping mission had fallen short in many ways: “This chapter, which comes to an end today, was characterized by shared successes with the people of Haiti, the tragedy of the (2010) earthquake, and by lessons in what we should have done better.” He added, “Today, we must think together about all these aspects: They are the basis on which we can go into the next stage of the partnership of Haiti with the United Nations.”
On Wednesday, United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) commenced operations as a way to maintain some UN support in the absence of the peacekeeping operations. It is a new, one-year authorized operation to help strengthen political stability and good governance in Haiti. However, there is still heavy concern about the country’s future. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the current “protracted multidimensional crisis” in Haiti “shows little sign of abatement or resolution.”
UN: Afghanistan Election Violence Caused 450+ Civilian Casualties, Largely Due to the Taliban
On Tuesday, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report detailing the extent of election-related violence plaguing the country ahead of last month’s presidential election. In total, 85 civilians were killed and 373 were wounded in attacks targeting the September 28 Afghanistan election. Of these, 277 civilian casualties occurred on the day of the election, with 28 killed and 249 injured. Children comprised one-third of these casualties. The Taliban was the source for most of the deaths and injuries as part of a larger voter intimidation campaign, according to UNAMA.
The UNAMA report found that the Taliban was responsible for the vast majority of the violence targeting the election, causing more than 95 percent of the civilian casualties on polling day and 80 percent of the casualties in the lead-up to it. In addition to these attacks, the report also found that the Taliban abducted, harassed, intimidated, and threatened people to deter them from voting. The Taliban also kidnapped thirteen election staff members the day after the election, according to the report. Because of the threats of violence, only about a quarter of eligible voters went to the polls on election day, Reuters reported.
The Taliban’s electoral actions “may constitute crimes against humanity,” according to Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. He added, “These attacks, along with public statements made by the Taliban, revealed a deliberate campaign intended to undermine the electoral process and deprive Afghan citizens of their right to participate in this important political process, freely and without fear.”
UN Sounds Alarm Over Burkina Faso Violence That Has Displaced Nearly 500,000 People
Late last week, UNHCR and the UN Refugee Agency brought attention to the growing humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso, which has escalated in just a few weeks. Significant violence, often caused by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda or ISIL, has forced around 486,000 people to flee within Burkina Faso, increasing the number of internally displaced people by nearly 70 percent in only three weeks.
UN agencies reported that since last year, some 500 people were killed in 472 attacks, which has contributed to civilians fleeing their homes. There is evidence the violence has grown even worse recently. The New York Times reported that at least 15 people were killed on October 11 when a gunman opened fire on a mosque in the Oudalan Province. This attack occurred in the northern part of Burkina Faso, where an Islamist insurgency comprised of armed groups with ties to the ISIL and al-Qaeda maintains a presence, according to the Times. Earlier this month, 20 people were killed in an attack on a gold-mining site, also located in the north.
“Thousands of people are on the move, exhausted and trying to find safety among host families or at transit and official travel sites,” said UNCHR spokesperson Andrew Mbogori. “The prospects for their immediate return to where they come from are poor. As a result, their needs and those of host families, already vulnerable by food and nutrition crises in the region, are growing.” He added that “[w]omen and adolescent girls face particular threats given that health and other essential services are lacking.”
UN Elects Venezuela to Human Rights Council, Despite Maduro’s Record of Abuse
The UN General Assembly elected Venezuela to the Human Rights Council on Thursday, despite significant concern over the message it would send to the international community. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been accused of withholding public humanitarian aid to civilians and trading desperately needed food for votes.
Even with its leadership’s record of abuse, Venezuela initially seemed like a shoe-in for the Human Rights Council because it was one of two nations running for two open seats allocated to the Latin American and Caribbean regional group. However, earlier this month, Costa Rica, which is widely considered to have a much stronger human rights record, announced it would challenge Venezuela for the seat. According to the Associated Press, Brazil won 153 votes, while Venezuela won 105 to Costa Rica’s 96.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that Venezuela was one of several countries running for a seat that did not meet the Human Rights Council requirements for members, namely that they “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate with the Council.” However, since there’s often a lack of competition within different regions, these countries still earn spots. For example, Sudan has an infamous record of human rights abuses, but because it was one of four African countries running for four seats open to the African group, it secured a spot.