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.
Syria Report Accuses Russia of Indiscriminate Attacks against Civilians as Ceasefire Announced
The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released a report on Monday that found “reasonable grounds to believe” Russian aircraft carried out airstrikes in civilian areas on July 22, 2019 and August 16, 2019. Referencing eyewitness testimonies, video footage, flight communication intercepts, and other sources, the report concludes that in both incidents “the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas.” The report also details pro-government forces’ use of cluster munitions against a camp for displaced civilians along the Turkish border, which it characterizes as “inherently indiscriminate” and constituting a “war crime.”
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council on Friday Feb. 28 that bombing and shelling in Idlib since December 2019 has left nearly one million civilians displaced, more than half of whom are children, while at least 1,750 civilians have been killed since April 2019. She strongly urged Russia and Turkey to secure a fresh ceasefire. DiCarlo’s call for a ceasefire follows talks between delegations from the two countries in Ankara from February 26 to 28. However, on February 27, airstrikes against Turkish troops in northwest Syria carried out by Syrian government forces killed 33 soldiers and wounded 32. At the February 28 Security Council meeting, the Turkish representative claimed that Turkish forces were “deliberately targeted” presumably by Syrian and Russian Federation forces in a “belligerent act of aggression.” The Russian representative replied they were not provided the coordinates of the Turkish soldiers prior to carrying out any bombing raids. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres underscored that the nature of the conflict has undergone a “very meaningful escalation” in recent days and urged a ceasefire to prevent “more dramatic impact.”
A ceasefire was announced Friday morning. The deal was signed in Moscow on Thursday, memorializing a ceasefire agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Early reports suggest that the ceasefire is holding.
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock reiterated these concerns and highlighted the humanitarian toll of the recent violence. Speaking from the Turkish border with Syria, Lowcock said that displaced civilians were “struggling to survive in horrific conditions.” World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson Christian Lindmeier similarly told press on Friday that health workers described “mayhem in their health facilities” with “horrifying conditions” for the nearly one million displaced people. The WHO also reported that 11 healthcare facilities have been attacked since Dec. 1, 2019, causing 10 deaths and 37 injuries. Lowcock requested $500 million to assist the 1.1 million most vulnerable people in need of humanitarian assistance in northwest Syria. The United States, he highlighted, just pledged $108 million and an additional $300 million has been received or pledged by other donors.
World Health Organization Confirms Coronavirus Deadlier than the Flu
WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a news conference on Tuesday that COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is deadlier than the seasonal flu but does not transmit as easily. He said that approximately 3.4 percent of reported coronavirus patients have died, compared to a mortality rate of fewer than one percent for those with the seasonal flu. He also reported a total of 90,893 reported cases globally with 3,110 total deaths. 48 countries have reported at least one case, with 1,848 cases outside China, 80% of which have occurred in the Republic of Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran, or Italy. China reported 129 new cases on Tuesday — the lowest since January 20.
On Sunday, the WHO upgraded the global risk of the coronavirus outbreak to “very high,” its top level of risk assessment, and released $15 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to help fund global efforts to contain the virus. The World Bank also announced $12 billion in immediate support to countries coping with the health and economic impacts of the outbreak.
However, on Monday Tedros warned that severe and mounting disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) — caused by rising demand, panic buying, hoarding and misuse — is leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients. He called on industry and governments to “act quickly to boost supply, ease export restrictions and put measures in place to stop speculation and hoarding.”
A study by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) found that China’s manufacturing Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) — a critical production index — fell by about 22 points in February, implying a 2% annual reduction in exports. The report estimates that this manufacturing slowdown could result in a $50 billion decrease in exports worldwide. Nevertheless, China’s Ambassador to the U.N. emphasized the resilience of the Chinese economy at a press conference, remarking, “[w]e are very much confident that we are able to realize the goals we have set for this year, the economic goals, the social goals.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also conveyed confidence in its statement expressing its “full commitment to the success of the Olympics Games Tokyo 2020” scheduled to take place from July 24 to August 9 of this year. A joint task force involving the IOC, the Tokyo organizing team, the Japanese Government, and the WHO is monitoring developments and ensuring appropriate measures are taken.
U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary General to Libya Resigns Due to “Stress”
Following the second round of U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva between warring factions in Libya, U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary General to Libya, Ghassan Salame, resigned his post on Monday, tweeting that his “health no longer allows this rate of stress.” The resignation follows renewed rocket fire and shelling on Thursday and Friday as the peace talks failed to make progress. Salame explained that this bombing represents “a very serious violation of the truce.” U.N. Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric issued a statement that the Secretary General “strongly condemns the indiscriminate bombing of several parts of Tripoli.”
China’s Bid to Lead World Intellectual Property Organization Fails
On Wednesday, the Coordination Committee of 83 member states voted to nominate the agency’s next director general. The committee nominated Singaporean candidate Daren Tang over China’s candidate Binying Wang by 55 votes to 28. The vote represents a significant victory for the United States, which had lobbied against China’s nominee. China currently heads four of the 15 U.N. specialized agencies: the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Industrial Development Organization. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told press on February 13 that “[t]he Chinese have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars of intellectual property from the United States of America. … We are going to make sure that whoever runs that organization understands the importance of enforcing intellectual property rights across nations and across boundaries.” The General Assembly will confirm the nomination over the weekend.
International Criminal Court (ICC) Authorizes Afghanistan Investigation
The ICC Appeals Chamber unanimously authorized the Prosecutor to commence an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. The decision follows the lower, Pre-Trial Chamber’s rejection of the Prosecutor’s request last April. The Appeals Chamber found that the Pre-Trial Chamber erred in conducting its own analysis of whether authorizing an investigation would serve the “interests of justice factor” under Article 53 of the Rome Statute, holding that the Pre-Trial Chamber should have solely considered whether there was a reasonable factual basis for the Prosecutor to proceed with an investigation pursuant to the requirements of Article 15.
Noting that there is a reasonable basis to consider that crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction have been committed in Afghanistan, the Appeals Chamber authorized the opening of an investigation itself, rather than remanding the decision to the Pre-Trial Chamber. The Prosecutor is now permitted to investigate crimes allegedly committed on the territory of Afghanistan since May 1, 2003, as well as other alleged crimes since July 1, 2002 that are “closely linked” to the armed conflict in Afghanistan and were committed on the territory of states parties to the Rome Statute. The ability of the Prosecutor to investigate closely linked crimes permits the investigation of alleged acts of torture related to the Afghanistan conflict carried out by the U.S. military and Central Intelligence Agency on the territory of countries that are ICC members.
Image – A picture taken on March 5, 2020 shows an explosion following Russian air strikes on the village of al-Bara in the southern part of Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. (Photo by Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP) (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)