Sacred Indigenous Site in Mexico Threatened by Canadian Mining Company

by Darcy Tetreault, Upside Down World

Every year, the Wixarika (Huichol) indigenous people of central-west Mexico walk 500 km to the sacred land of Wirikuta, where according to legend, the sun was born. Here, they collect jĂ­kuri (peyote), carry out rituals of purification and come into communion with their gods, who give them blessings and guidance. In this way, they conserve their culture, maintain harmony with nature, and uphold a thousand-year-old tradition.

Located in the state of San Luis Potosi, Wirikuta is one of the most biologically rich and diverse deserts in the world. In 1994 it was decreed “a Site of Cultural and Historic Heritage and an Area under Ecological Conservation”; in the year 2000 the protected area was expanded to 140 thousand hectares; and in 2001 it was declared a Sacred Natural Site by UNESCO. There is also a bird sanctuary in Wirikuta. In spite of this, it is currently under siege by First Majestic Silver, a Vancouver-based mining company that paid 3 million dollars to obtain 22 mining concessions in the area.

To be sure, First Majestic Silver is not the first mining company to covet the mineral resources in the region. In fact, local mining activities were initiated by the Spanish in the 1770s. The town of Real de Catorce was founded then, but it did not reach the height of its splendor until the end of the 19th century, during the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship. Decadence followed as mining activities became more sporadic. The last mining activities in Real de Catorce took place about 20 years ago, leaving behind a ghost town, hills pockmarked with mining shafts, contaminated water and soil, unemployment and poverty. The aesthetic beauty of the landscape, however, remains intact and Real de Catorce has since become an off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction. It has also served as a filming site for two Hollywood movies: The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julie Roberts, and Bandidas, featuring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.

This same stage is now the backdrop for a social environmental conflict that is unfolding around First Majestic Silver’s intentions to reinitiate mining activities in the area. Where the Wixarika people see sacred beauty and the fountain of life, Keith Neumeyer—president and CEO of First Majestic Silver—sees an opportunity to further enrich himself and his company’s shareholders. With state-of-the-art technologies, he hopes to reopen old mines, exploit previously undetected veins of minerals, and squeeze out the last remaining traces of silver from tailings left behind by others. There are promises of job creation and social corporate responsibility, but the jobs are both dangerous and ephemeral. Moreover, it is not entirely clear how cyanide and other noxious substances could possibly be contained. In Real de Catorce, past experience has shown that mining companies do not stay for long and when they go, they leave behind diverse forms of environmental degradation. Along these lines, in 2010 a team of researchers from the University of Guadalajara detected lead and arsenic in plant and animal samples collected in the Wirikuta desert.

According to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, indigenous and native peoples must be consulted about any project that affects their territories. No such consultations have taken place and very little information is being provided. What is more, in 2008 president Felipe Calderon signed the Hauxa Manaka Accord, designed to respect and protect the sacred sites of the Huichol people. The 22 mining concessions granted to First Majestic Silver by the Ministry of Economy blatantly violate these accords. These concessions cover an area of 6,326 hectares, 70% of which is in the Natural Protected Area of Wirikuta, whose management plan explicitly prohibits any kind of mining activities.

There is nothing extraordinary about this. In Mexico, protected areas and environmental laws are often sidestepped in order to facilitate the activities of national and transnational corporations. The problem, though, is not just one of weak environmental legislation and corruption in Mexico; the Canadian government is also responsible, refusing to regulate resource-extraction companies operating outside of the country. This negligence was perpetuated by the narrow defeat of Bill C-300 in the House of Commons, in October of 2010. Designed to create a complaint and investigative mechanism for communities adversely affected by Canadian mining companies, the bill was rejected by Stephen Harper and all but two of his Conservative MPs, while 20 members of the Liberal and NDP caucuses, including Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, absented themselves from the vote.

Most Canadians would probably be surprised to hear that, in academic and civil society circles, Canadian mining has come to epitomize rapacious capitalism and imperialism. Canadian companies dominate the mining sector in Latin America, with interests in over 12,000 properties. In 2010 alone, at least five social activists were murdered for protesting against Canadian mining activities, including Abarca Roblero, who opposed Blackfire’s operations in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

First Majestic Silver is contributing to this notorious reputation. It is currently seeking local support and ways to convince government officials to grant permission for mineral extraction in Wirikuta. As part of this effort, company representatives have opened a museum in Real de Catorce and they have hired 15 locals to clean up the entrance to the old Santa Ana mine. Pay is between 70 and 240 dollars a week, a pittance compared to what the company is worth (1.58 billion dollars), but hard to refuse for people living in poverty. This strategy is not new: by offering jobs to some, mining companies can divide the local population and conquer. Another common strategy is to invent subsidiaries with Spanish names—in the case, Minera Real de Bonanza—in an effort to promote a Mexican public image.

On September 23, 2010, traditional leaders from the agrarian communities that make up the Wixarika nation signed an official statement to manifest their “profound rejection of First Majestic Silver’s mining project in the Real de Catorce desert.” They demanded “the immediate cancelation of all mining concessions” in their sacred lands and they made it clear that they, “will do everything within [their] means to stop this devastating mining project.” A number of civil society organizations have come together to support this resistance. Together, with representatives from the Wixarika nation, they have formed the Tamatzima Huaha Front. As one Wixarika representative of this Front put it: “These sites are alive, they have a heart, and we are worried that their veins will be destroyed.” In accordance with this vision, indigenous protestors have recently set up a camp in the outskirts of the municipality of Real de Catorce, where they have been fasting and chanting prayers.


Darcy Victor Tetreault is a Professor researcher at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, Academic Unit for Development Studies.

This story first ran April 1 on Upside Down World.

From our Daily Report:

Zapatista tour advances (on EZLN meeting with Huichol leaders)
World War 4 Report, March 6, 2006

See also:

A Perfect Storm in Mexico
by Todd Miller, NACLA News
World War 4 Report, June 2009

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, May 1, 2011
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Revolutionary Struggle and NATO Intervention

by Art Young, Green Left Weekly

Two wars are being waged simultaneously in Libya. One has grown out of a revolutionary struggle for democracy. The other is an attempt by imperialism to strengthen its domination of the country.

Both wars appear to share the goal of “regime change,” but they stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

The regime change that the revolutionary struggle seeks to achieve is the overthrow of the Muammar Gaddafi dictatorship and the establishment of a system of democratic rule.

As is the case elsewhere in the Arab world, the struggle for democracy in Libya encompasses diverse layers of society. The more thorough the democratic transformation, the stronger will be the position of Libyan workers and their allies in the ensuing social struggles.

The Libyan struggle for democracy is an integral part of the great Arab awakening of 2011, a movement of millions of people that threatens the imperialist status quo.

Victory or defeat in Libya will have a huge impact on revolutionary struggles across the region. It deserves our wholehearted support.

The military form of the struggle (now with many aspects of a civil war) was largely imposed on the movement by Gaddafi’s regime.

During the first couple of weeks, the liberation struggle took the form of largely spontaneous uprisings in one city after another, spreading quickly across the country.

Sections of the army and major regime figures defected. The pro-Gaddafi forces were paralysed by the movement’s speed and power, and the readiness of many to die for the cause of freedom.

It looked like Libya would follow the path of Tunisia and Egypt. But Gaddafi had other ideas—and the resources to implement them.

He unleashed a systematic bloodbath. The insurgents were forced to take up arms to defend themselves as best they could.

Gaddafi’s forces took no quarter, murdering many peaceful demonstrators and reducing entire cities to rubble. Gradually, they gained the upper hand and began to march toward Benghazi, the heart of the insurrection.

The United States and NATO are waging a very different war. It only took a few days for them to transform the supposed United Nations-sponsored police action to protect civilians into an all-out war against Libya.

The “regime change” they want is to replace the Gaddafi clique with clients who can defend their interests more reliably. The NATO allies also hope to cow the rebellious Arab peoples with a demonstration of how foreign powers can still frustrate their attempts to win freedom.

This is a reactionary war without an ounce of progressive, humanitarian content.

Resolution 1973 of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), adopted on March 17, gave the green light to foreign intervention in Libya.

A wide-ranging debate in liberal and left-wing circles has ensued. Figures such as Gilbert Achcar and Juan Cole supported the resolution’s call for a no-fly zone to protect civilians.

I was in the other camp, but the debate over the no-fly zone has been superseded by subsequent events.

There is little value in continuing to discuss whether the intervention authorised by the UNSC resolution “saved” Benghazi from imminent massacre, whether one may in principle somewhere at some time support foreign intervention, or whether certain historical precedents apply in this case.

The Libyan people are not facing an abstract no-fly zone. They are the victims of a far-reaching imperialist assault that includes cruise missile attacks, a naval blockade, bombing of military and strategic infrastructure targets, close-in air attacks (the so-called no-drive zone) and any other facilities and assets the NATO commanders wish to destroy.

A growing number of reports attest to the presence of “boots on the ground” of special forces from France, Britain and the US.

This assault on the Libyan people was the real objective behind the smokescreen of a no-fly zone. The UNSC resolution was carefully worded to allow for an open-ended escalation of the conflict.

The fighting in Libya has produced a somewhat unstable equilibrium.

On the eve of the foreign intervention, the rebellion was reeling from a string of military defeats. Now the rebel forces have consolidated their position in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, and in the cities and towns further east.

West of Benghazi, a see-saw battle continues on the road from Ajdabiya to Brega.

Further west, Misurata, the third-largest city located between the Gaddafi strongholds of Tripoli and Surt, remains largely in the hands of the insurgent local population, which has resisted weeks of merciless heavy bombardment from loyalist forces.

The Gaddafi loyalists have consolidated their hold on the western part of the country, often through ruthless repression.

However, the pro-democracy forces have paid a huge political price for the respite that they have achieved in the east. The imperialists have succeeded in entangling Libya’s war for democratic freedoms with their war against the country’s sovereignty.

The rebel bands are far too weak to defeat the loyalists without military assistance from the outside powers.

The air war and the advance or retreat of the rebels on the ground appears as complementary activities of a single strategy. It strains credulity to believe that the fighting and bombing are not being closely coordinated.

The indigenous character of the struggle risks being overshadowed by the great powers’ war of aggression. Meanwhile, the imperialists lay claim to the mantle of the freedom fighters.

We should not close our eyes to the political retreat from the moral high ground, independent of the ebbs and flows of the military struggle.

Whether the insurgency could have pursued another course is a different matter. They had to contend with many constraints over which they had little or no control—not only Gaddafi’s murderous refusal to yield an inch, but also the specific history, culture and social structure of Libya.

They were forced to wage their struggle under conditions much less favourable than those faced by their counterparts in Egypt.

It is also apparent that the imperialist war has greatly strengthened Gaddafi’s political standing in Libya and internationally. It has allowed him to appear as the defender of the unity and sovereignty of Libya, thereby appealing to wavering elements and strengthening the resolve of his loyalists.

The disintegration of the dictator’s forces came to an end and the loyalist counteroffensive began just as the NATO powers’ threats of war reached their peak.

Gaddafi’s hand is further strengthened by the “collateral damage” produced by the Western air attacks. Despite the silence of the mainstream media, the civilian victims are no doubt many.

Does the entanglement of the two wars mean the revolutionary democratic struggle has been defeated?

Has the anti-Gaddafi rebel movement been reduced to a simple appendage of the NATO forces who aim to conquer and rule Libya in the interests of imperialism? Are the rebels the new quislings?

That is one possible outcome. But in my opinion such a conclusion is premature.

It is also unduly pessimistic. The revolutionary struggle for democracy is still alive and its future course remains an open question.

We should note the repeated complaints from the British and US leaders that they “do not know” the leaders in Benghazi. Of course they know them.

They are saying that they do not trust them—they are not sure that the rebels’ armed base will submit to the big powers’ plans for the country or that the Benghazi leaders will be able to keep their base under control, above all in the context of the wave of change sweeping the region.

Moreover, the continuing resistance in Misurata and the lengthy resistance in Zawiyah, a city just west of Tripoli, attest to the deep-rooted, plebeian, and nation-wide character of the freedom struggle.

Future developments in the region, particularly in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, will also influence the struggle’s outcome.


Art Young is a long-time socialist and solidarity activist based in Toronto, Canada.

This story, abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, first ran April 17 on Australia’s Green Left Weekly.

From our Daily Report:

Qaddafi shells Misrata, calls for ceasefire
World War 4 Report, April 30, 2011

See related story, this issue:

by Rene Wadlow, Transcend Media Service
World War 4 Report, May 2011

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, May 1, 2011
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingTHE TWO WARS IN LIBYA 


by Seth Weiss, World War 4 Report

The Libyan uprising and subsequent NATO intervention have already, much in the manner of the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, precipitated considerable debate and acrimony, along with disorientation and paralysis, within the Left. Some opposed to intervention, displaying a narrow and reflexive anti-imperialism, lend support, tacitly or otherwise, to Qaddafi’s forces. Others opposed to intervention endeavor a principled “neither/nor” position, neither Qaddafi nor NATO. Here, committed to opposing both Western imperialism and the Qaddafi regime, we ask if a strict anti-interventionist position—specifically, opposition to the rebels’ call for a “no-fly zone”—is consistent with a commitment to protecting civilian populations and supporting freedom struggles in Libya and throughout the region.

The Arab Spring Reaches Libya
On February 15th, four days after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt, Fathi Terbil, a prominent Libyan human rights advocate and attorney, was arrested by security agents at his home in Benghazi, an eastern port city and the country’s second largest. With Terbil’s arrest, the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia and Egypt and has now spread to Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen, reached Libya. Terbil, along with a handful of other lawyers, was representing the families of the more than 1200 political prisoners murdered at Benghazi’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. According to the New York Times, “a crowd armed with gasoline bombs and rocks” gathered in Benghazi to demanded Terbil’s release, and “demonstrators, estimated at several hundred to several thousand, marched to the city’s central square, where they clashed with riot police officers.” (“Protests Take Aim at Leader of Libya,” New York Times, Feb. 16, 2011)

By February 17—a date which apparently previous to the February 15 events had been designated as a “Day of Rage” via social media websites like Facebook and Twitter—protest had spread across the country, reaching the capital, Tripoli. By the 19th, as reported in the Times, thousands were in the streets, including a demonstration of 20,000 at the courthouse in Benghazi; protestors were met with brutal force, the Times also reported, producing a death toll in Human Rights Watch’s estimation of 104 people (“Cycle of Suppression Rises in Libya and Elsewhere,” New York Times, February 19, 2011)

By the 20th, the rebels had taken Benghazi, and mass unrest rocked Tripoli and a number of other towns and cities. According to the Times, “Though the Libyan revolt began with a relatively organized core of longtime government critics in Benghazi, its spread to the capital was swift and spontaneous, outracing any efforts to coordinate the protests… [T]he revolt in Tripoli appears far more genuinely spontaneous and unorganized than the Benghazi uprising or, for that matter, the revolutions that toppled the leaders of Tunisia or Egypt.” (“Qaddafi’s Grip on the Capital Tightens as Revolt Grows,” New York Times, February 22, 2011)

Popular councils materialized in cities and towns throughout the east. On March 5, the official establishment of the Interim Transitional National Council was announced in Benghazi. The Council, in a statement on its website, recognizes its obligation to “Guarantee every Libyan citizen … the right to vote in free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections” and to “denounce violence, terrorism, intolerance and cultural isolation…” As well, the Council recognizes its obligation to ensure “[t]he nation’s economy to be used for the benefit of the Libyan people… in order to eradicate poverty and unemployment” and that “the state will guarantee the rights and empowerment of women in all legal, political, economic and cultural spheres.” (“A Vision of a Democratic Libya,” National Transitional Council).

The leadership of the Interim Transitional National Council, including its chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Justice Minister, comes largely from elite sectors of Libyan society. A piece in Foreign Policy—which describes allegations by Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s commander for Europe, of “flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaeda, Hezbollah” present among the rebel forces as “representing a new level of irresponsibility”—characterizes the Council as “led by a group of well-known and respected Libyan professionals and technocrats.” (“Getting Libya’s Rebels Wrong,” Foreign Policy, March 31, 2011).

Still, this is not reason to lose sight of the popular and democratic character of the uprising that some on the Left have endeavored to downplay, focusing instead on the opposition’s purported links to al-Qaeda, CIA support, and co-optation by Western powers (see, for instance, the commentary of Alexander Cockburn and Vijay Prashad in Counter Punch). Bill Weinberg offers a more nuanced portrait, noting the different layers composing the rebel force, in his World War 4 Report:

…the Libyan opposition does indeed seem to be a “hodge-podge”: In one corner, a small coterie of aspiring bourgeois-democratic technocrats (now in ascendance thanks to deals being quietly made in Paris and Washington); in the other, a few fanatical cells of jihadi types like the “Islamic Emirate of Barqa”; and in the middle, a very large swath of very angry Libyans who have no particular ideological commitment but basically secular and progressive instincts. [“Libya: What is the imperial agenda—and where do anti-war forces stand?” World War 4 Report, March 27, 2011]

Jihan Hafiz, reporting on the ground in Libya for the Real News Network, also draws out the popular character of the rebellion. Her video reporting from the International Women’s Day march in Benghazi is especially worth viewing. (“Libyan Women March in Support of Rebellion,” Real News Network, March 10, 2011). According to Hafiz, this was an unprecedented event, in which thousands of women, most for the first time in their lives, marched and protested. Also notable in Hafiz’s reporting is her documentation of the shift on the ground in Benghazi from opposition to Western intervention to calls for assistance. (“Jihan Hafiz on Reporting From Libya,” Real News Network, April 2, 2011)

In March, Qaddafi’s forces had decisively regained the offensive. The rebels reported more than 8,000 killed in the regime’s brutal crackdown. (“Libya rebel spokesman: More than 8,000 Libyans killed in revolt,” Haaretz, March 20, 2011)

On March 12, in an unprecedented move, the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, voted in favor of a no-fly zone over Libya, and on March 17th the United Nation Security Council, with Russia and China abstaining, also voted in favor a no-fly zone. By this point an attack on Benghazi, with the likely possibility of a massacre of civilian populations, was imminent.

At present, it seems the NATO bombing campaign has yielded a stalemate between the rebel armies and Qaddafi’s forces, as the Financial Times reports. (“West sees Libyan conflict heading for lengthy stalemate,” Financial Times, April 1, 2011). Meanwhile, there are reports of Qaddafi’s sons proposing a transition to a constitutional democracy under the leadership of one of his sons, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the London School of Economic’s doctorate who had threatened Libyans with “rivers of blood” in February. (“2 Qaddafi Sons Are Said to Offer Plan to Push Father Out,” New York Times, April 3, 2011).

With events still unfolding, we turn now to the Left’s response to the question of intervention.

Left Anti-imperialist Response
Those on the Left advancing an anti-interventionist position can be divided into two camps. The first camp supports the Qaddafi regime, some explicitly and others tacitly, as a bulwark in a struggle against Western imperialism. Most prominent here are Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Also in this camp are many of the same Left intellectuals and journalists—including Alexander Cockburn, Jean Bricmont, Michel Chossudovsky, and Diana Johnstone—who carved out an anti-imperialist position on the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s by way of genocide denial and apologetics for Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen. Here, a narrow and reflexive anti-imperialism—that is, an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of mentality—prevails.

Consider, for instance, a recent announcement by a Trotskyist group in New York City for a meeting on Libya at the CUNY Graduate Center. It stresses:

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libyan rebels have avidly sought Western aid,
and eventually bombs against Qaddafi. Rebels who fly the flag of the 
monarchy while allying with religious reaction and the CIA are appealing 
to imperialism instead of fighting it. [“Forum: Obama’s African War,” New York Activist Calendar, posted April 10, 2011]

As Trotsky himself noted in reply to this kind of mechanical anti-imperialism:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign—this would make every sectarian a master strategist … [“Learn to Think: A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists,” May 1938, online at Marxists Internet Archive]

A second camp of the Left anti-interventionists endeavors a principled anti-imperialist position which rejects both NATO intervention and the Qaddafi regime. Most in this camp also, although not all, share a genuine commitment to supporting popular forces for freedom within Libya. However, a narrow anti-imperialism, although of a different sort, also prevails here. This camp faces a real antinomy between its anti-imperialist principles and its interest in supporting freedom struggles in Libya and throughout the region. It has been unable to find a positive resolution to the contradiction, and it has allowed opposition to Western intervention to trump both solidarity with freedom struggles and protection of civilian populations from massacre by tank brigades and aerial bombardment.

As Gilbert Achcar argues in a recent interview with Stephen Shalom on Z Net:

…if Gaddafi were permitted to continue his military offensive and take Benghazi, there would be a major massacre. Here is a case where a population is truly in danger, and where there is no plausible alternative that could protect it. The attack by Gaddafi’s forces was hours or at most days away. You can’t in the name of anti-imperialist principles oppose an action that will prevent the massacre of civilians. In the same way, even though we know well the nature and double standards of cops in the bourgeois state, you can’t in the name of anti-capitalist principles blame anybody for calling them when someone is on the point of being raped and there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists. [“Libyan Developments,” Z Net, March 19, 2011]

At stake, as well, was the fate of the Libyan revolution and perhaps that of the other Arab revolutions, too. A victory for Qaddafi, draining the confidence of the masses and emboldening other despots in the region, might well have spelled the end of the Arab Spring.

In the Z Net interview, Ashcar goes on to argue that:

…without coming out against the no-fly zone, we must…advocate full vigilance in monitoring the actions of those states carrying it out, to make sure that they don’t go beyond protecting civilians as mandated by the UNSC resolution. In watching on TV the crowds in Benghazi cheering the passage of the resolution, I saw a big billboard in their middle that said in Arabic “No to foreign intervention.” People there make a distinction between “foreign intervention” by which they mean troops on the ground, and a protective no-fly zone. They oppose foreign troops. They are aware of the dangers and wisely don’t trust Western powers.

Such qualifications, especially on the issue of boots on the ground, are extremely important. The issue of military aid to the rebels also needs careful consideration. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 doesn’t affirm the right of the rebels to arm themselves or loosen up the arms embargo to the rebels’ advantage. As well, calls for Qaddafi’s frozen assets to be handed over to the rebels to fund arms purchases have gone unanswered.

Military aid is not likely, of course, to come without strings attached, and the Western powers are free to favor groupings more compliant to their interests over others for aid. Some have argued that such circumstances present a case for advocating a no-fly zone rather than military aid. Still, others argue that what distinguishes NATO planes from arms in the rebels’ hands is direct control over the weapons by the rebels. Regardless, one thing is clear: The Left has no immediate way of coming to the aid of the rebels on its own, no international brigades to send to fight, and no resources to provide military assistance.

To be sure, solidarity with the Libyan freedom struggles doesn’t demand uncritical support. (And there may be much that deserves strong criticism and condemnation; allegations of reprisals against black Africans alleged to be in the pay of the Qaddafi regime are especially disturbing.) It should also go without saying that NATO intervention is not motivated by humanitarian concern, and the rhetoric of Obama, Sarkozy, and Cameron has reached astounding levels of hypocrisy. Moreover, Western intervention may well have very negative repercussions, including drawing the rebels into positions of accommodation. (This latter argument may be overstated by some—is there not some possibility that the Libyan masses, having thrown off the yoke of one tyrant, will not readily accept a new one?) Still, for all of this, what is the alternative to supporting the rebels’ call for assistance?


From our Daily Report:

Qaddafi shells Misrata, calls for ceasefire
World War 4 Report, April 30, 2011

See related story, this issue:

Revolutionary Struggle and NATO Intervention
by Art Young, Green Left Weekly
World War 4 Report, May 2011

Special to World War 4 Report, May 1, 2011
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingLIBYA AND THE LEFT 


by Rene Wadlow, Transcend Media Service

The United Nations has tried to stop the downward spiral of Syria into repression and potential chaos. It has been five weeks that what began as peaceful protests and demands for limited reforms have been increasingly met by government violence. Discussions on what the UN could do to help the Syrian people and to speed up necessary reforms started in both New York and Geneva. Governments and UN Secretariat members discussed different possibilities against the backdrop of the UN Security Council resolutions on Libya and the continued fighting there.

The representatives of China and Russia who had not blocked the resolution to use “all necessary force” to protect the civilian population in Libya but who have grown increasingly ill-at-ease with the NATO-led attacks did not want to open the door to a possible repeat over Syria. Thus all possibility of action within the Security Council was blocked with the insistence on the part of China and Russia that the situation was an internal affair of Syria and did not pose a danger to regional peace.

Thus the UN focus moved to Geneva and the UN Human Rights Council, for if events in Syria did not pose a danger to peace in the area, the events were still an open violation of the UN human rights standards. Syria is a party to all the major UN human rights conventions. Thus, on April 29, 2011—when the eyes of much of the world were turned to London and a Royal wedding—in Geneva a path-making Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council was being held. A Special Session is the “highest profile” which the Council can give to a situation. It can be called on short notice, but before a Special Session is held, there are usually intense negotiations among governments. The representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also have a short time to prepare common positions and statements for a Special Session. Since NGOs speak after the governments, there is usually time for only a few statements prior to voting on the outcome resolution. However, for this Special Session, government representatives stuck to their time limits, and 16 NGOs were able to speak even if few said anything which had not already been said by governments.

The human rights situation in Syria was well set out at the start by Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-Wha Kang of Korea:

Information gathered since mid-March points a disturbing picture: the widespread use of live fire against protestors; the arrest, detention, and disappearance of demonstrators, human rights defenders, and journalists; the torture and ill-treatment of detainees; the sharp repression of press freedoms and other means of communication; and the attacks against medical personnel, facilities and patients.

Yet even these deplorable practices have been exceeded over the past week. According to reports, entire towns have been besieged. Tanks have been deployed and shelled densely-populated areas. The delivery of food has been impeded. Access to electricity has been cut. And transportation systems have been shut down. There have been reports of snipers firing on persons attempting to assist the injured or remove dead bodies from public areas.

We have noted with concern that military and security officers have been among those killed. Still, the preponderance of information emerging from Syria depicts a widespread, persistent and gross disregard for basic human rights by the Syrian military and security forces. Syrian and international human rights organizations have already documented more than 450 killings and around four times that number of injuries…

Let me conclude by emphasizing the importance of holding perpetrators of serious human rights violations accountable, and in this regard, the urgent need for an independent, impartial, effective and prompt investigation into recent events in Syria. The convening of this Special Session should not only convey to the people of Syria that the international community is aware of their plight and supports their struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms. It should affirm to people everywhere that the Human Rights Council will be resolute in ensuring justice for victims of human rights worldwide.

As with all serious UN meetings, the decisions have been negotiated before the meeting starts. There was broad agreement that the Human Rights Council would vote the creation of a working group for an independent, impartial investigation to be named by the President of the Council after consultation. The consultations have started, but the names of the members have not yet been announced. It is unclear at this stage if Syria will allow the group to enter to carry out interviews and other investigations. The working group on the situation in Darfur was not able to enter Sudan, and Israel did not allow the working group chaired by Justice Goldstone to enter Israel.

However, some countries have allowed Special Rapporteurs on country situations named by the Human Rights Council or the earlier Commission on Human Rights to visit the country in question. Much of the debate during the Special Session concerned basic attitudes on general human rights matters over which negotiations would not lead to any compromise. There are States which do not want country-specific discussions, basically by fear that they might one day be discussed. This is the long-standing position of China and Cuba and can be taken up by others depending on the specific case. With the situation in Syria, there was a newer and more interesting balance to be found between those States who, in addition to the creation of an investigation body, wanted a condemnation of the current violations in Syria on the basis of information now available and those States which wanted “constructive dialogue.” Those for constructive dialogue stressed that while not opposing an investigation, felt that there was an opportunity to “engage in constructive dialogue with the Syrian government.” They maintained that condemnation measures would hinder finding peaceful solutions. This group of States, largely led by Pakistan and the Russian Federation, put an emphasis on the reforms which had already taken place after the start of the demonstrations, in particular the lifting of the state of emergency, abolishing the State Security Court, the granting of citizenship to 250,000 Kurds who had been registered until then as “aliens” and the replacement of the Cabinet and some governors of provinces.

The Syrian Ambassador, Faysal Khabbas Hamoui, could have played on these calls for engagement and dialogue, and he may have done so in private. In his public statements prior to the start of the debate and again just prior to the vote, his position was so “hard line” as to destroy any idea that “constructive dialogue” was possible at all. He attacked the idea of having a Special Session at all and then went on to attack the protesters as agents of a foreign-led conspiracy and as extremists wanting violence. His presentation left no visible door open for dialogue, and there was no call for a possible national reconciliation.

The vote on the only resolution, A/HRC/S-16/1 came with few surprises:

Votes in favor: 26
Against, 9: Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Gabon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Russian Federation
Abstentions, 7: Cameroon, Djbouti, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Uganda, Ukraine
Left the room so they could not be counted in any category, 4: Angola, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar

The motivations of Angola are unclear. However, given the solid structuring of power in Syria, the inter-twinning of power and wealth, the mosaic of security services, quick reforms are unlikely. As President Bashar al-Assad has said “haste comes at the expense of the quality of reforms.” There may be a possibility for external NGOs, civil society organizations in Syria and the Syrian government to discuss peaceful advances toward a more just and inclusive society. We need to keep looking for possible doors even as people are being killed on the ground.


Rene Wadlow, is representative to the United Nations at Geneva for the Association of World Citizens

This story also appeared May 1 on Transcend Media Service.

From our Daily Report:

Syrian security forces split over “day of rage” repression?
World War 4 Report, April 30, 2011

See related story, this issue:

by Seth Weiss, Marxist-Humanist Initiative
World War 4 Report, May 2011

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, May 1, 2011
Reprinting permissible with attribution


Issue #174, May 2011

Electronic Journal & Daily Report LIBYA AND THE LEFT by Seth Weiss, World War 4 Report THE TWO WARS IN LIBYA Revolutionary Struggle and NATO Intervention by Art Young, Green Left Weekly SYRIA: THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL by Rene Wadlow, Transcend… Read moreIssue #174, May 2011