A new Amnesty International report accuses the US of "war crimes" in the bombardment of Raqqa, and the virtual "annihilation" of the city. The fact that the US-led bombardment was in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their campaign to take the city from ISIS has contributed to pitting Kurd against Arab and brought northern Syria closer to ethnic war. Ironically (if predictably), now that the Syrian Kurds have served their purpose in defeating ISIS, Washington is about to kick them overboard—just as Assad and Erdogan alike are preparing offensives against them.
A crisis over the Yemeni island of Socotra was resolved this week, as the United Arab Emirates agreed to withdraw and turn control over to Saudi forces, which will in turn restore full Yemeni rule there. The island, just off the very tip of the Horn of Africa, has been ruled by Yemeni governments for centuries between periodic episodes of control by various European powers, and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique flora and fauna, hailed as the "Galapagos of the Indian Ocean." Emirati forces seized it at the beginning of the month, and raised their flag over the airport and other strategic points—sparking angry protests from the island's inhabitants. Hashim Saad al-Saqatri, Socotra's governor, condemned the UAE move as an "occupation," saying it represented "a flagrant violation of Yemeni sovereignty." Even after the de-escalation, suspicions remain. Yemen's ambassador to UNESCO, Ahmad al-Sayyad, charged that "there is synergy between the roles of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There is a hidden inclination to divide Yemen." (Middle East Eye, May 18; Al Jazeera, May 17)
A UN human rights expert has expressed grave concerns over a sharp escalation in hostilities in Burma's Kachin State, which has reportedly killed at least 10 civilians, left several wounded and forced thousands to flee their homes in the north of the country. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, said she had received reports that the military had carried out aerial bombings, and used heavy weapons and artillery fire against civilian areas near the Chinese border. "What we are seeing in Kachin State over the past few weeks is wholly unacceptable, and must stop immediately,” Lee said. “Innocent civilians are being killed and injured, and hundreds of families are now fleeing for their lives."
The UN Security Council on April 27 extended the mandate of the peacekeeping force for Western Sahara (MINURSO) through the end of October 2018, while calling for Morocco and the Polisario Front to finally negotiate an end to the decades‑old conflict. Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco, while the Polisario Front seeks independence for the territory. The territory has since the 1975-1991 war that followed its independence from Spain been divided by a series of sand berms and a "buffer zone." These separate the territory's Morocco-occupied west and a Polisario-controlled eastern strip. The Security Council called for the Polisario Front to immediately withdrawal from the buffer strip around the area of Guerguerat, to refrain from any destabilizing actions. It also expressed concern over Polisario's planned relocation of administrative functions form Tindouf, across the border in Algeria, to Bir Lahlou within Western Sahara, (ReliefWeb, April 27)
Pressure from China, restrictive legislation and self-censorship among Taiwanese youth have emerged as threats to freedom of speech in Taiwan, according to Nylon Cheng Liberty Foundation director Cheng Tsing-hua. He made his comments on Taiwan's Free Speech Day, April 7, which commemorates the day in 1989 that his brother Cheng Nan-jung, a young democracy advocate under the gradually loosening one-party dictatorship of the Kuomintang, self-immolated as a protest against government restrictions on freedom of expression. The surviving Cheng noted that the recent Taiwanese film Missing Johnny was last month banned in China after the male lead, Lawrence Ko, was reported to be a supporter of Taiwanese independence. He also pointed to Taiwan's Assembly and Parade Act, a holdover from the KMT dictatorship, as restricting the right to hold public demonstrations. And he noted government orders banning the public from displaying the national (Republic of China) flag at various occasions— such as the 2008 visit of Chen Yunlin, then chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.
The United Arab Emirates announced April 16 that it is ending its military training program in Somalia, as the governments of Abu Dhabi and Mogadishu trade charges back and forth. Ostensibly the move comes in response to the seizure of millions of dollars from a UAE plane by Somali security forces last week. But tensions between the two governments have been on the rise over Emirati plans to build a military base in Somaliland, the self-declared republic that is effectively independent from Mogadishu. The UAE has trained hundreds of troops since 2014 for the weak and fractious Mogadishu government. But Mogadishu sees establishment of a foreign base at Somaliland's port of Berbera as a move toward recognition of the breakaway republic, calling it a "clear violation of international law."
Abdul-Al Duraqi, a poet and activist from the Ahwazi Arab minority in Iran, arrested during the most recent protests in the city of Ahwaz (Khuzestan province), has been hospitalized after torture sessions at the hands of his interrogators. Family members told the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization (AHRO) that Duraqi was transferred to Ahwaz's Sepidar hospital on April 7 due to deterioration in his physical condition after severe torture in the Ahwaz intelligence center. Duraqi is revered in his community for keeping alive an Ahwazi literary tradition in the Arabic language. Protests in Ahwaz were sparked in mid-March following the controversial exclusion of the Ahwazi Arab ethnicity in a children's program aired by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation. The program included a boy placing dolls dressed in the traditional garb of different ethnicities in their designated regions on a map of Iran—but there was no doll representing the 8 million Ahwazi Arabs. Nearly 400 have been arrested in protests over the past month. AHRO charges that the detained are being denied their due process rights. (UNPO, April 12; UNPO, March 29; AHRO, April 9)
Indigenous and environmental activist Saw O Moo was reported killed in Burma's Karen State on April 5. The Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) said Saw O Moo was killed in an ambush by Burmese army soldiers while returning home from a community meeting to help organize humanitarian aid for villagers displaced by renewed hostilities between the military and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Saw O Moo was one of the most active local community leaders pushing for creation of the Salween Peace Park, a proposed 5,400-square-kilometer protected area to be overseen by indigenous peoples. “We will never forget his dedication in the ongoing struggle to build peace and protect ancestral lands,” KESAN said in a statement. Several attempts to retrieve the body have been unsuccessful, as soldiers are shooting at anyone who approaches the area. As a result, Saw O Moo’s family has not been able to perform their Indigenous funeral rites. The Salween Peace Park is intended to protect the montane rainforest region from mining interests. (Mongabay, Burma Link, April 9; The Irrawady, Jan. 13, 2017)