By Claude Canellas, Sonya Dowsett and Isla Binnie
Basque militant group ETA effectively ended an armed separatist campaign after almost half a century on Saturday, leading French authorities to the sites where it says its caches of weapons, explosives and ammunition are hidden.
ETA, which killed more than 850 people in its attempt to carve out an independent state in northern Spain and southwest France, declared a ceasefire in 2011 but did not disarm.
Founded in 1959 out of anger among Basques at political and cultural repression under General Francisco Franco, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna - Basque Country and Freedom) gained notoriety as one of Europe's most intractable separatist groups.
The Spanish government said ETA's handover of weapons in the French city of Bayonne was positive but insufficient and called on the group to formally dissolve and apologize to its victims.
ETA's disarmament ends an era of political violence in Western Europe, but comes as nationalism is stirring across the continent, with Scotland and the Spanish region of Catalonia seeking independence referendums, while Sinn Fein has urged a vote on taking Northern Ireland out of Britain.
ETA said in a letter to the BBC earlier this week it had handed over its weapons and explosives to civilian go-betweens who would deliver them to authorities.
The mediators - known as "The Artisans of Peace" - passed authorities a list with the coordinates for eight sites where ETA had stored its weapons arsenal, their representative, Michel Tubiana, told reporters in Bayonne.
The caches contain 120 firearms, about 3 tonnes of explosives and several thousand rounds of ammunition, he said.
Security forces were now searching the sites to neutralize the explosives and secure the weapons, French Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said at a news conference in Paris. Police were photographed carrying out bags from sites around Bayonne.
A Spanish government source said Madrid did not believe the group would hand over all its arms, while Spain's state prosecutor has asked the High Court to examine those surrendered as possible murder weapons used in hundreds of unresolved cases.
ETA's disarmament entailed no impunity for their crimes and they should not expect any favorable treatment, the government said in a statement.
"The actions carried out today by the terrorist group are nothing more than the result of their definitive defeat," Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido told reporters in Madrid.
Arnaldo Otegi, leader of Basque pro-independence party EH Bildu who has served time in jail for his links with ETA, said in Bayonne that it was a day that would be welcomed by the great majority of Basques, although work was not finished.
"From today we will put on the table all the problems we still have as a society and a nation," he said, adding that the biggest issues were the around 300 ETA members still in Spanish and French prisons and the group's victims.
ETA's first known victim was a secret police chief in San Sebastian in 1968 and its last a French policemen shot in 2010.
It chose not to disarm when it called its truce, but has been weakened in the past decade after hundreds of its members were arrested and weapons seized in joint Spanish and French operations.
Popular revulsion at the scale of violent attacks carried out by Islamic militants had also played a part, Paddy Woodworth, who has written in depth about ETA, said.
"It had ceased to be an attractive organization to join."
The group's first revolutionary gesture was to fly the banned 'ikurrina', the red and green Basque flag, before the campaign escalated in the 1960s into violence that was brutally reciprocated by the Franco regime.
In 1973, ETA targeted Franco's heir apparent Luis Carrero Blanco by digging a tunnel under the road that he drove down daily to attend Mass. They packed the tunnel with explosives and blasted Blanco's car over a five-storey building.
The assassination changed the course of Spanish history, as the removal of Franco's successor led to the exiled king reclaiming the throne and a shift to a constitutional monarchy.
Attacks including a 1987 car bomb at a Barcelona supermarket, which killed 21 including a pregnant woman and two children, horrified Spaniards and drew international outrage.
Gorka Landaburu, who lost his thumb and was left blind in one eye after an ETA letter bomb detonated in his home in 2001, welcomed the disarmament and said lessons had been learned.
"This must never happen again in our country," he said, standing by the sea in the Basque resort of San Sebastian. "I hope no one ever picks up pistols and bombs to defend an ideology ever again."
Published on Reuters on April 8, 2017.
BY YONAH JEREMY BOB
Human Rights Watch demanded on Monday that its investigators be allowed into Gaza if Israel wants the International Criminal Court to take its own war-crimes investigations seriously.
HRW, in a 47-page report, accuses Israel of preventing its researchers from accessing Gaza and says Egypt has prevented HRW visits to the coastal territory since 2008.
Israel has not yet responded to the report but has said it investigates allegations made against its soldiers and has long accused HRW of unfair bias against Israel.
Recently, Israel has taken a more aggressive stance toward some human-rights NGOs, barring some activists from entering Israel and accusing them of involvement in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign and general efforts to delegitimize Israel.
“The travel restrictions call into question the Israeli military authorities’ claim to rely on human-rights organizations as an important source of information for their criminal investigations into potential serious crimes committed during the 2014 Gaza war,” the report said.
The report “documents how Israel systematically bars human-rights workers from traveling into and out of Gaza, even where the Israeli security services make no security claims against them as individuals. Egypt is also imposing severe travel restrictions on its border with Gaza.”
Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch said the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor’s office should take note of the restrictions in the context of its ongoing preliminary examination of the Palestine situation.
“If Israel wants the ICC prosecutor to take seriously its argument that its criminal investigations are adequate, a good first step would be to allow human-rights researchers to bring relevant information to light,” Bashi said. “Impeding the work of human-rights groups raises questions not just about the willingness of Israel’s military authorities to conduct genuine investigations, but also their ability to do so.”
HRW acknowledged that Hamas also has had a role in restricting access to and from Gaza, noting that, on March 26, the Hamas authorities in Gaza significantly tightened restrictions on passage between Gaza and Israel following the assassination of a senior member of its military wing, which Hamas blames on Israel.
“Hamas says it wants to stop the killers from fleeing Gaza. The Hamas authorities are blocking nearly all travel out of Gaza, unless it is for medical care or to visit relatives in Israeli prisons,” the report said, adding: “Palestinian authorities are not known to have investigated any alleged serious crimes committed in or from Gaza, such as the firing of rockets by militant groups in Gaza toward Israeli civilian areas.”
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories responded to the report, by stating that it “coordinates over 1,000 crossing daily for trade and business purposes, medical treatment, academic studies abroad, participation in conventions and advanced studies and more. The numbers speak for themselves, and you can see in 2016 over 310,139 crossings were listed through Erez Crossing from Gaza to Israel and vice versa,” said COGAT.
Further, COGAT said, “all requests are thoroughly examined by the Coordination and Liaison Administration to the Gaza Strip (CLA) and security officials. We coordinate the crossing of many humanrights organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, The Global Doctors Organization and many more on a regular basis.”
The Military Advocate General’s office (MAG) responded to the report, saying it attributes “great importance” to its “extensive and daily dialogue” with human-rights organizations, whose reporting, it said, provides important input into its decisions about whether to open a criminal investigation or how to obtain a fuller picture in existing investigations.
MAG also criticized documentation by human-rights organizations as suffering from “methodological, factual and legal flaws” and, in some cases, “a clear bias.”
It called the travel restrictions issued against human-rights workers as “unavoidable … due to weighty security and political considerations,” HRW said.
The report called on Israel to “end the generalized travel ban and allow access to and from Gaza for all Palestinians, subject only to individual security screening and physical inspection... Until the travel ban is canceled, the authorities should add human-rights workers to those eligible for travel permits.”
“Egypt should also facilitate travel for human-rights workers via its border, and the Hamas authorities should protect human-rights workers from retribution,” the report said.
Published on The Jerusalem Post on April 3, 2017.
The Yemeni human rights defender talks to Lydia Noon about Britain’s arms deals, drones and gender discrimination during the war.
How and why did you get involved in human rights in Yemen?
I have felt a sense of guilt about people who are oppressed since I was a child. My activism started in 2004 during a six-year war between the regime of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, an armed rebel group.
I wrote several opinion pieces against war and its abuses. Some families of those arrested in Sana’a (Yemen’s capital city) asked for my help, and alongside other male and female activists, I stood with them. We organized several campaigns opposing detention and war.
How has life changed for you since the start of the civil war in 2015?
The situation in Yemen wasn’t good – even before the war. Since the Houthis took control of Sana’a in 2014, and the Saudi-led coalition launched their aerial military campaign in March 2015, every family in the country has been shedding tears: either for a relative lost in the war or a detainee confined behind bars.
Citizens are now without a state or a constitution to protect their rights. Political parties are not providing the basic essentials for people in government or Houthi-controlled areas. Yemenis are stranded between the aerial and ground violations of the parties involved.
I am a part of this nation and the suffering of others is mine as well. But I have decided to face this situation and continue my work.
What is life like for women in Yemen?
Yemeni women have the same but double sufferings [as men]. Many women suffer from a lack of education, early marriage, exclusion from political participation and other forms of discrimination. But if a woman has the support of her family then nothing can stand in her way; there are no laws preventing her participation in all aspects of life.
You are the chairperson of the Mwatana organization for human rights. What kind of things do you do?
Mwatana follows an investigative research approach to ensure accurate documentation of human rights violations. We play a lobbying and advocacy role to support victims of human rights abuses.
Besides publishing reports and documentaries, we monitor and publish information on arbitrary detention and forcible disappearances, facilitate contact between detainees and their families and work to set all those arrested and disappeared free. We also work on training and awareness-raising as part of our mission to create a human rights collective awareness.
It sounds like risky work. Have you been the target of intimidation?
Some fellow civil society activists and I were once beaten by a group of women that the Houthi armed group sent to disperse a protest where we were demanding to know the destiny of a forcibly disappeared civilian. We were detained for hours.
The executive director of Mwatana, Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih, has been arrested twice by the Houthis and has had his passport confiscated on a separate occasion. Four Mwatana field researchers have been arrested and released at various times; one of them spent over two weeks in detention.
Britain sells weapons to Saudi Arabia, do you think this makes it complicit in the war in Yemen?
Britain hurts itself when it insists on supporting a state that has committed documented war crimes against Yemeni civilians.
Mwatana has documented the aerial attacks against civilians in which British weapons were used. Britain’s support of Saudi Arabia is not limited to the selling of weapons; it also provides political and intelligence support.
It is so hurting and frustrating that Britain has supported Saudi efforts of preventing an international, independent inquiry mechanism to investigate violations of all parties to the conflict in Yemen. No matter how high the mutual interests between Britain and Saudi Arabia, the blood cost is ultimately higher.
The number of drone strikes in Yemen increased drastically under the Obama administration. Do you expect more of the same under Trump?
The first US drone strike under President Trump took place in the al-Baidha province [on 21 January] and killed 15 civilians – ten children and five women, documented by Mwatana. This is a very big number and the military target of the operation is still unclear.
As usual with the drone program, transparency is absent. The new worrying development in these drone operations is the accompanying ground raids which seem random and careless about civilians.
Is there enough humanitarian assistance on the ground in Yemen?
Humanitarian assistance cannot be enough because the catastrophe is too big and can only be addressed by state capabilities. Humanitarian organizations are trying to play an important role but they only bridge gaps.
The accessibility of such organizations on the ground is restricted due to setbacks posed by various armed groups. The end of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen demands the end of the war in the first place.
Published on the New Internationalist's website on April 5, 2017.
By STEVE WEMBI
Recent acts of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including the murder of two United Nations researchers and the discovery of 23 mass graves in the Kasaï region, may constitute war crimes, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said on Friday.
“I am deeply concerned by the numerous reports of serious violence in the D.R.C., particularly in the Kasaï provinces, for several months,” the I.C.C. prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement.
“There have been reports of violence between local militias and Congolese forces, the killing of many civilians and noncivilians, kidnappings and summary executions of persons, including U.N. experts on mission and their accompanying persons,” she said.
“Such acts could constitute crimes within the jurisdiction of the I.C.C.,” Ms. Bensouda said, adding that the court would not hesitate to prosecute those believed to be responsible for the crimes.
The statement was released on the same day that the director of the United Nations human rights office in Congo, José Maria Aranaz, said mass graves had been discovered in Kasaï, where the Kamuina Nsapu militia has clashed with the Congolese Army and the police for several months.
“We documented 23 mass grave sites in different localities: Nkoto, Kabeya, Nguema and Tshimbulu,” he said. “And this information has been shared with the major judicial, civil and military authorities.”
“We must bring to justice those responsible for this killing that has happened and continues to happen. We are concerned about the level of figures,” Mr. Aranaz added.
On Tuesday night, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, confirmed that the bodies of the two United Nation researchers — Michael Sharp, an American; and Zaida Catalan, a Swede — had been discovered in a shallow grave.
They disappeared along with four Congolese in Kasaï-Central Province on Monday. Mr. Guterres urged the authorities to “conduct a full investigation into this incident.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo has a history of government-led atrocities, including gang rapes and the slaughtering of civilians. Last month, members of a militia ambushed and beheaded about 40 police officers in a central province.
Seven Army officers were recently charged with war crimes after a video surfaced on social media that appeared to show uniformed soldiers opening fire on a group of civilians, killing at least 13 people. Several analysts said that the video revealed a government-sponsored massacre of civilians.
Other videos and photos have also been circulating on social networks for weeks; in one, people claiming to be militiamen from Kamuina Nsapu desecrate bodies of those thought to be members of the national police.
The International Court, based in The Hague, handed down its first sentence in 2012, after convicting the former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.
Since then, it has convicted several Congolese officials accused of crimes against humanity, including former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba last year and the rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda.
Violence in Kasaï-Central Province has claimed more than 500 lives and internally displaced scores of residents, according to local nongovernmental organizations.
The joint conference of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo, the Apostolic Nunciature and the archbishop of Kananga released a statementin French on Thursday expressing “compassion and condemnation” about the continuing violence in Kasaï.
The bishops called for an end to the summary executions of civilians, and for the military to show restraint in the effort to restore peace.
Published on the NY Times' website on April 1, 2017.
By AYODELE AKENROYE
The month of November 2016 was indeed a turbulent month for the International Criminal Court (“ICC”), as it witnessed a wave of African Countries (South Africa, Burundi and The Gambia) pulling out of the Court, with Kenya and Namibia considering withdrawal. Because November is usually when the Annual Meeting of the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) to the ICC takes place (the governing body of the Court), the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for these African leaders to send a strong message about their dissatisfaction with the existing structure. the African Union adopted a resolution at its biannual summit in January 2017, calling on all African States to collectively withdraw from the Court.
As expected, several commentators have analysed the implications of the withdrawal of the three African states for the future of international criminal justice (at least in Africa). However, most of the commentators missed the mark in their analysis because they adopted a single narrative which utilized a Western-centric lens, demonized African leaders, overly focused on the symbolism of South Africa’s withdrawal (and then its return, based on the recent ruling of the South African High Court), and derided the African Union’s political weakness. In doing so, these critics sought to promote an overly optimistic future for the Court, exactly at a time when a little dosage of pessimism might jolt the Court back to reality.
The reality is simply this: the current application of the Rome Statute is lopsided—nine of the Court’s ten open investigations are in Africa—and should be fixed, and African states’ frustrations with the Court cannot be ignored or rationalized away. The perception of the unequal application of the Rome Statute 15 after years of its adoption is severely eroding trust in the Court and, consequently, in the international criminal justice project.
The ICC periodically needs to accept such critiques so that it may achieve its justice mandate, and not get carried away by enthusiasts who might under-rate the failure(s) of the Court. This is essential for the Court to bring justice to languishing victims—be it in countries in Africa, or in Syria, Palestine, Crimea and in different flash points and hotspots of conflict all over the world.
The Court’s jurisdiction is articulated in Article 5 of the Rome Statute, which states that “the jurisdiction of the Court shall be limited to the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole”. This has been unequally applied to African States to the detriment of victims in other non-African States who are looking to the Court for justice and are neglected. They might even be “re-victimised” by the Court due to its failure to include them in the international criminal justice project by bringing their perpetrators to justice. This negates the fact that international criminal justice ought to be universal in its application.
Also, the differential application of the Rome Statute inadvertently lends credence to the argument of some people that Court is biased against Africa and is a tool of oppression used by powerful states to control and maintain their economic and military interests in that continent. Therefore, the ICC needs to proactively reinvent itself by a combination of highly layered and complex political and legal maneuverings to become a Court truly “worth having”. This includes the ICC actively engaging African States beyond the annual ASP meetings, expanding investigations to countries in conflicts outside of Africa and actively managing expectations in its rhetoric on victims’ demands for justice. It has to be made clear that the ICC cannot prosecute every international crime, and the principle of complementarity implies that local judicial structures should take the lead when they can. Also, the court should deal with its structural weaknesses, including an amendment to the Rome Statute to removes the possibility of the Security Council initiating or halting investigations. This will truly transform the Court into a "court of last resort” for all victims in all sites of violent conflict, and not just in Africa.
The history of the ICC cannot be written without recalling the zeal and unflinching support shown by African states during the negotiations of the Rome Statute of the Court. In fact, Senegal was the first country to ratify the Rome Statute in 1999. As of March 2017, 34 African states have ratified the Rome Statute thereby constituting the largest bloc of states parties to the Rome Statute.
At least six African states have already adopted domestic legislations to implement the Rome Statute, and it was in an African State—Uganda—that the first review conference of the ICC took place. This history demonstrates that Africa is very crucial to the mandate of the Court and every criticism from the continent must be taken very seriously, rather than being rationalized away under the simple narrative of despotic and corrupt African leaders trying to evade international justice.
To be clear, there are indeed despotic and corrupt African leaders who should not be allowed to escape international justice. But such leaders exist all over the world, and their victims are also crying for help. It seems that their cries have been ignored by the ICC’s imbalanced focus on Africa.
This begs the question: why hasn’t the ICC brought cases against perpetrators in these non-African countries? One answer is that the Security Council has not used its power to refer situations like Syria to the ICC, because some of the Permanent Members have used their veto to block such action—this is another illustration of why an amendment to the Rome Statute (to remove such veto power) would make the Court truly independent and able to investigate where its needed, rather than where its politically convenient In addition, because the United States, China, India, and Russia have all declined to ratify the Rome Statute, over half the world’s population does not fall under ICC jurisdiction.
To avoid this continued “injustice”, African states should work with international partners to strengthen their own national judicial institutions to deliver robust justice processes that resonate more with victims at the grassroots. This will truly make the ICC the court of last resort, instead of the court of first instance.
Published on Open Democracy's website on April 3, 2017.