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.
UN Tackles Humanitarian Fallout of Turkish Offensive in Northeast Syria
The UN continues to grapple with the humanitarian crisis in the northeastern Syria region. On October 9, Turkey launched a ground offensive targeting Kurdish groups. Despite a shaky cease-fire, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on Tuesday that the situation remains dire.
UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, reported as of Tuesday that more than 7,000 refugees have crossed the border from northeast Syria into Iraq in the past week. Nearly 180,000 have been displaced by the fighting in northeast Syria. UNICEF reports that 80,000 of the displaced are children, of whom five have been killed and 26 injured since the beginning of the Turkish offensive. UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic reiterated that any return of refugees to Syria or any other place in the world “has to be voluntary, it has to be dignified and it has to be safe at the time when it is safe to return.”
Key civilian infrastructure in the region has been damaged, including a water station and at least four medical facilities. “The Alouk water station, which serves nearly half a million people in Al-Hassakeh city and the surrounding displacement camps, has been out of service for the past ten days,” OCHA explained.
The UN has worked to scale-up aid and essential services, “despite security and access challenges.” The World Health Organization (WHO) noted that 40 tons of medical supplies had been airlifted from Damascus to Qamishli earlier this week, although important hospitals remain closed. Thanks to temporary repairs, around half of the civilians affected by the water crisis have access to potable water. OCHA expects that the rest will regain access in the coming days. UNICEF stressed the need for continued deconfliction to allow them to repair damaged power lines.
On Wednesday morning, a Syrian Kurdish man set himself on fire outside the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. The emergency services reportedly managed to save his life, and transported him by helicopter to a local hospital.
UN Human Rights Chief Calls for Investigation into Chile Protest Deaths
At least 18 protesters have died in Chile in the past week. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former president of Chile, called on Monday for independent investigations into the deaths. Bachelet cited “disturbing allegations” of excessive use of force by security forces.
The unrest, originally over a proposed public transport ticket price increase, has widened to reflect anger over inequality and general living costs. Many of the deaths occurred during looting as supermarkets and factories were set on fire.
Reuters reports over 6,000 arrests as of Wednesday, October 23. The government imposed a state of emergency in several major cities, and has suspended almost all public transport in Santiago. “We are at war against a powerful enemy who is willing to use violence without any limits,” said Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. But on Tuesday night in a televised address, he “acknowledged that his government and its predecessors had failed to perceive the widespread anger in Chile over economic inequality” and announced “a set of conciliatory measures” that nevertheless appear unlikely to satisfy protesters.
Bachelet did not explicitly reference her successor President Pinera in her statement, but called for immediate dialogue and a halt to “inflammatory rhetoric.” She added that “the authorities must act in strict accordance with international human rights standards, and any application of the state of emergency must be exceptional and rooted in law.”
UNSC Sends Delegation to South Sudan, but Peace Deal Unclear
Members of the UN Security Council visited South Sudan on Sunday in an effort to broker political compromise in the ongoing peace process between the government and rebel leaders. However, South Sudan’s main opposition leader, Riek Machar, told the delegation that he will not join the unity government prior to a Nov. 12 deadline.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Fighting erupted three years later between supporters of President Salva Kiir and rebel groups. A peace deal, signed last September, was hoped to bring an end to the violence.
Machar highlighted the failure to agree on ways to disarm and integrate the army, and “could not see” how they could form a government lacking such an agreement. “The security arrangement has to be in place,” said Machar. Decisions on states and boundaries are another key outstanding issue.
The UN Security Council delegation remains hopeful about the prospect of a deal before the Nov. 12 deadline. “What Dr. Riek Machar is asking is not impossible to do in the next three weeks but need the political leaders to say [we are] going to do it,” said Jerry Matthews Matjila, South Africa’s Ambassador to the UN. Matjila also highlighted progress since the September 2018 peace deal. “We noted the reduction of political violence which has contributed to the return of 594,000 displaced people, increased food production, enhanced humanitarian access, and increased commerce among communities.”
UNSC Briefing: Yemeni Fuel Shortage Creates Severe Humanitarian Crisis
Martin Griffiths, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen, briefed the United Nations Security Council on October 17. Griffiths stressed that Yemen is facing “the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis.” However, Griffiths also noted “some positive indications,” referring partly to indications of willingness to engage from the warring parties and a fragile cease-fire in the southern city of Aden.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and OCHA chief, Mark Lowcock, reported in the briefing that September had been the “deadliest month for civilians so far this year,” averaging 13 civilians killed every day. He also noted worrying signs of recurring famine, particularly in light of government policy blocking fuel imports, in turn causing severe fuel shortages.
Meanwhile, Oxfam warns that the severe fuel shortage has resulted in 15 million Yemenis being cut off from access to clean drinking water. Piped water systems and water trucking routes have not been able to run at full capacity. Oxfam reports the lack of clean water will result in the spread of cholera and other waterborne diseases. Yemen is already in the middle of the worst epidemic of cholera in recorded history. The WHO has registered more than 1 million suspected cholera cases and nearly 1,500 associated deaths since the beginning of the fighting in 2015.
Oxfam blames the civil war that began in 2015 for the fuel crisis, specifically on warring parties “using the economy as a weapon of war.” Both the recognized Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels have imposed restrictions on fuel importers. “The weaponization of the Yemeni economy is yet another cruelty inflicted on the people of Yemen who have been forced to endure four years of conflict,” said Oxfam’s Yemen country director Muhsin Siddiquey. However, in the UNSC briefing, Griffiths noted breakthroughs in renewed access to fuel ships entering the key port city of Hudaydah.
IMAGE: A Security Council vote at the United Nations, 12 September, 2003. (Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)