More than 60 nations today signed the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty at U.N. headquarters, displaying a strong show of support for the world's first international pact regulating the $70 billion international arms trade.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the official opening of the treaty for signatures. But he said that while the Obama administration intends to sign the treaty, he would not join dozens of other leading allies from Britain, France, Germany, Japan, in doing so today.
"The treaty is an important contribution to efforts to stem the illicit trade in conventional weapons, which fuels conflict, empowers violent extremists, and contributes to violations of human rights," Kerry said in a statement. "The United States welcomes the opening of the Arms Trade Treaty for signature, and we look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily."
Kerry offered no explanation as to why a matter so technical as "translation" had held up American action. But U.N. diplomats familiar with the dispute said that the United States remains unwilling to commit until the lengthy, sometimes contentious, process of translating the treaty, which was negotiated in English, is written down in the other official U.N. languages -- Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish.
The United States had challenged the translation of certain words and passages into foreign languages, including Spanish and Russian. Last week, the U.N. posted the corrections and the U.N. membership has 90 days to challenge the final translation. The United States will considering offering its signature after that process is completed.
The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty 154 to 3 on April 2, overcoming stiff opposition from Iran, North Korea, and Syria and drawing the enthusiastic backing of the United States. But the treaty will not go into force until 90 days after at least 50 nations have ratified the pact. April's U.N. vote (which drew 23 abstentions) revealed broader misgivings by dozens of countries, including Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan -- which argued the treaty would extend unfair advantages to the world's largest arms exporters. Two major arms exporters, China and Russia, also abstained on the vote.
Argentina's Foreign Minister Hector Timmerman was the first person to sign the treaty.
Alistair Burt, Britain's parliamentary undersecretary of state, said his government would "aim to ratify" the treaty within a year. "After 10 years of campaigning and 7 years of negotiation the Arms Trade Treaty has opened for signature and the international community has queued up to sign it," he said. "The treaty is now the international blueprint for the regulation of conventional arms and it is a fresh starting point for international cooperation."
Under the treaty, states are banned from transferring arms to countries, including Iran and North Korea, that are subject to U.N. arms embargoes, or to countries believed to be preparing to use them to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.
The treaty would require governments to establish a national record-keeping system that would allow them to track the trade in conventional arms, and to ensure that weapons are not illegally diverted to terrorist organizations or other armed groups. It would also require that governments conduct a risk assessment to determine the likelihood that arms exports are being used to violate or abuse human rights, particularly against women or children.
The arms treaty would apply to several categories of conventional arms, including battle tanks, combat aircraft, warships, attack helicopters, missiles, and small arms. The treaty includes exemptions that would allow the consideration of defense cooperation agreements between governments and allow states to transfer weapons across international borders, so long as the weapons remain under that state's control.
The National Rifle Association has vowed to vigorously oppose ratification of the treaty in the Senate, claiming it would weaken the Second Amendment.
But Kerry countered today that the treaty "will not undermine the legitimate international trade in conventional weapons, interfere with national sovereignty, or infringe on the rights of American citizens, including our Second Amendment rights."
"The treaty will require the parties to implement strict controls, of the kind the United States already has in place, on the international transfer of conventional arms to prevent their diversion and misuse and create greater international cooperation against black market arms merchants," Kerry said.
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Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, appealed last week to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to expand his investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria to include three additional towns where rebels claimed nerve agents were used, a British official confirmed today.
The appeal comes as the United States and Russia are preparing the ground for a major peace conference on Syria in Geneva, planned for June. The preparations for the Geneva talks have shifted the international debate away from talk of a U.S. military response to the use of chemicals weapons by the Syrian regime to U.S. and Russian efforts to fashion a political settlement.
In advance of those talks, Britain has sought to build up political pressure on Syria and its chief patron, Russia, to yield to international pressure to accept the establishment of a transitional government to replace President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
On Monday, Britain led diplomatic efforts in Brussels to block the extension of a European arms embargo on Syria, raising the prospect that European governments might ship arms to the Syrian rebels if political talks fail. And this morning, Britain's U.N. envoy informed reporters about his government's concerns over new possible use of chemical weapons.
In the British letter, Lyall Grant urged the U.N. chief to investigate rebel claims that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons in March in the town of Adra, near Damascus; in April in Darraya; and in late April in Saraquib, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the British account.
A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, declined to discuss the details of the information shared. But she said: "The United Kingdom's permanent representative to the United Nations has written to the U.N. Secretary General to draw attention to three further allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria and have asked that they be included in the UN's ongoing investigation."
The Syrian government first invited the United Nations to investigate possible chemical weapons use back in March. The regime accused the Syrian opposition of using chemical weapons during fighting in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo on March 19, where 26 people were killed, including regime troops.
Britain and France countered with their own calls for investigations into the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and possibly Damascus.
Ban appointed a veteran Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, to investigate the allegations by the Syrian government and European powers. But Syria has not agreed to permit an investigation into the European claims and has not yet allowed the team into the country. Sellstrom, whose contract was recently extended until November, is seeking to collect as much evidence as possible outside the country, interviewing government officials with access to intelligence on Syria's chemical weapons program, refugees, and other potential eyewitnesses who have left the country.
So far, Britain has written the U.N. chief four letters documenting its concerns about chemical weapons use in Syria. It is also sharing more detailed information on the latest three attacks with Sellstrom, according to a U.N. diplomat. But Britain has not made its findings public, making it impossible to verify the veracity of its claims that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons.Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
A British-led effort to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria succeeded by default on Monday, as a political split between European leaders over the fate of the ban killed off any hopes of extending the embargo's life. The British government, backed by France, is hoping that the prospect of new arms flows to the Syrian rebels could strengthen the opposition's negotiating hand on the eve of a major peace conference in Geneva planned for later this month.
But the decision to end the embargo in two months hasn't resulted in any immediate calls or plans for arming the opposition. Instead, Russia cited the decision today in defending its own move to deliver S-300 air defense missiles, claiming it would deter foreign intervention. "We consider that such steps will restrain some hotheads from the possibility of giving this conflict, or from considering a scenario that would give this conflict, an international character with the participation of external forces," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters, according to Interfax news agency.
Jean Marie Guéhenno, a former French official and under secretary-general for peacekeeping who served as a top advisor to former U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan, said that the decision to block the maintenance of the European arms embargo has merely provided political cover to Russia and other regime supporters to continue its arms sales. Meanwhile, there's little fresh hope that Western powers will enter the conflict on behalf of the rebels.
"I think it backfired and exposed the weakness of the West, in general," Guéhenno told Turtle Bay. "This issue of arming or not arming is more a bluff than anything else. It's more about doing something to show you're doing something than actually doing something. It will be seen by the Russians, who are not fools, as a sign of weakness rather than strength."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague hailed the decision to ease the barrier to arms shipments to the rebels, however. "We have brought an end to the EU arms embargo on the opposition," he said. "This decision gives us the flexibility in future to respond to a worsening situation or the refusal of the regime to negotiate."
But the decision placed new strains on the European alliance. Austria, the Czech Republic, and Sweden vehemently opposed lifting the arms embargo, fearing it would undermine a U.S. and Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at starting political talks between Damascus and the rebels. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger warned that they likely would pull 300 Austrian peacekeepers out of the Golan Heights, which separates Syrian and Israel forces, if Britain decides to arm the rebels, according to the Guardian.
The move to lift the embargo comes at a time when military support for President Bashar Al-Assad is on the rise, not only from Moscow but from Tehran and Lebanese Shiite militants. On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his fighters were committed to wage Assad's battle to the end. "We will continue to the end of the road," he said, according to Reuters."We accept this responsibility and will accept all sacrifices and expected consequences of this position," he said in a televised speech on Saturday evening. "We will be the ones who bring victory."
In comparison, warnings from the West of possible military action in the future seem to be doing little to deter Assad's backers. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the U.S. decision to co-sponsor, along with Russia, a diplomatic peace conference on Syria later this month, has lessened calls for military action to halt the killing. "Basically, this process kills the whole discussion on intervention, chemical weapons, and R2P [the Responsibility to Protect doctrine]," Hokayem told Turtle Bay.
"Yesterday's focus on the arms embargo issue at the European Foreign Minister's meeting was something of a red herring," Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey wrote in a blog post at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The West is, quite simply, ill-equipped to win a proxy arming race if its support for rebels prompts Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to increase their military backing of the regime. And that is exactly what has happened. Russia's announcement today that it will supply anti-aircraft missiles was entirely predictable."
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The Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on the Kabul compound of the U.N. affiliated International Organization for Migration, killing one Afghan police officer, injuring three of the agency's staff members and an employee of the International Labor Organization (IOM), the U.N. announced. Several U.N. and Afghan security officials were also injured.
The incident marked one of the deadliest attack against a facility associated with the United Nations since Oct. 28, 2009, when armed Taliban militants broke into a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul and opened fire on U.N. personnel and their Afghan guards.[*See note below]. Five U.N. personnel died in that incident, including an American, Louis Maxwell, who was killed by the Afghan police who mistook him for a Taliban fighter.
Today's action heightened U.N. concerns about the safety of its workers at a time when the United States and its Western military allies are beginning to draw down in Afghanistan. The United Nations is expected to play a more active role after the United States completes its withdrawal by the end of 2014.
In a statement issued in Kabul, Jan Kubis, the U.N. secretary general's special representative to Afghanistan condemned "today's terrorist attack centered on a compound of the International Organization for Migration. He said the four injured international staffers, including one IOM worker who sustained serious injuries, are receiving medical care. All other U.N. staff members in Kabul have been accounted for, he said.
"The Taliban have claimed responsibility, alleging that their target was a ‘military rest house,'" he said. "The situation is reported to be under the control of Afghan security forces. The mopping up operation continues, with sporadic fire being heard." A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters the Taliban forces were targeting a compound used by the CIA. Reuters also reported that the assault began with a car bomb explosion outside the compound housing the IOM.
Following the 2009 attack in Kabul, the United Nations withdrew some staff from the country, relocated others to more fortified facilities, and bolstered their security arrangements, which are provided by Afghan police and Nepalese Gurkhas working under a private contract.
In October 2010, Taliban militants launched an attack on a U.N. compound in the town of Herat, striking the facility's gate with a car bomb to allow suicide bombers disguised as women into the compound. Though Afghan police were injured, the attack was effectively repelled by U.N. guards and Afghan police.
Following today's assault, Kubis expressed "gratitude" for the quick response by "UN security personnel, including Gurkha guards provided by the firm IDG Security, and Afghan forces." He also expressed "sympathies to all the IDG security personnel, Afghan police and security forces injured while bravely responding to this terrorist attack."
[Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that this was the deadliest attack on a U.N. facility since 2009. On April 1, 2011, a mob protesting the burning of a Koran by a Florida pastor stormed a U.N. compound in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing three international staffers and four Nepalese Gurkha soldiers." Turtle Bay regrets the error.
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Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the March 9 crash of a U.N.-contracted Russian Mi-8 helicopter during a storm in Eastern Congo that killed all four crew members and prompted internal calls from U.N. aviation officials for new safety features on aircraft.
In the days following the crash of the Russian helicopter, two mid-level U.N. aviation officials advocated the need for UTair (the chopper's owner) and other contractors to immediately install a safety device known as an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), a digital mapping system that allows pilots flying into a storm to detect and evade large obstacles, like mountains and buildings.
But Ameerah Haq, the undersecretary general in the U.N.'s Department of Field Support, overruled the U.N.'s aviation experts, saying that it needed to conduct "a review of technical and contractual arrangements" before deciding whether the equipment was needed. "This review," she wrote in a confidential communication to the Ukrainian government, "may possibly conclude that EGPWS, or other similar systems, should be installed in all aircraft contracted" for U.N peacekeeping missions, she wrote.
The internal debate over safety has commercial implications for some of the U.N. helicopter suppliers, particularly Ukraine, which has been installing the EPGWS warning systems in some their choppers, and the Russians, who have not.
Late Monday, the U.N. privately read out the latest bids on multimillion contracts for three helicopters for the U.N. mission in Congo.
UTair offered the lowest price, making it the odds-on favorite to win the contract. The Ukrainian entrant, along with two other Russian competitors and air operators from Canada and Nepal, proposed more expensive bids, making it likely they will lose out.
U.N. requirements to accept the lowest bid that meets qualifications means that the only way UTair could lose the bid is if the U.N. determines its helicopters are not in compliance or it a further analysis of the bids determines that somehow the Russian aircraft are more expensive than their competitors. But the fact that the Russian aircraft don't have the advanced safety systems the U.N. is currently evaluating will not be taken into consideration in the final decision, according to officials familiar with the procurement process.
Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, reacted angrily to the decision, saying the U.N. has "learnt no lesson from the previous tragedy." If any crash happens in future because of the absence of the EGPWS, he said, the U.N. will bear responsibility for the "crime."
The Russia mission to the United Nations has declined to respond to request for comment on the issue. A UTair spokesman, Ilya Khimich, also did not respond to a request for comment on the latest deal. But Khimich has previously defended UTair safety standards, saying the Russian operator uses "meteorological location" and "radio altimeter" instruments "which detect artificial and natural obstacles, as well as the geometric height above the ground surface." He said that the U.N. didn't require "enhanced proximity warning systems because of [the] total absence of topographic maps of Africa, which are mandatory system software."
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courtesy of the United Nations
The latest round of Russian and U.S. diplomacy has yet to prove it can end a civil war in Syria that has already exacted well over 70,000 lives and threatened to engulf the region. But it has been enough to convince Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, to put his retirement plans on hold and serve as the diplomatic ringleader for the high-stakes negotiations.
The political conference -- which is designed to bring together Syrian officials, opposition leaders, and big-power foreign ministers -- is expected to begin in Geneva, Switzerland, around June 15 and last two to three days, though the final date has not been set in stone, according to diplomats involved in the preparation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has committed to open the event with a speech, but he will turn over the work of mediation to Brahimi, a veteran diplomatic trouble shooter who has negotiated peace deals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brahimi has confided to diplomats that he envisions the conference as a truncated version of the 2001 Bonn conference, where the former Algerian diplomat helped forge a transitional Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai to fill a political vacuum created by the U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban. The meeting will start large, with speeches by senior international dignitaries, and then shift into more intimate talks involving the warring parties.
Brahimi's goal is to gain support for the implementation of the June 2012 Geneva action plan, which outlined a roadmap for a political transition to a provisional government with full executive powers in Damascus. The Geneva pact -- which was backed by Russia and the United States -- represents the most important big-power agreement on a plan to resolve the conflict. But the deal has foundered in the face of a split over the wisdom of threatening further sanctions against the Syrian government to compel its compliance with the terms, as well as differences over the role of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's future.
There are several crucial matters that remain unresolved on the eve of talks, including the composition of the Syrian and opposition delegation, and the question of whether they will talk directly or communicate through Brahimi. The role of the United States and Russia, the key sponsors of the conference, and other major powers like Britain, China, France, and Turkey remains undecided. Some of the most controversial regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, which is arming the opposition, and Iran, which is arming the Syrian government, will not likely be invited.
So far, the Syrian government has proposed some five to six names of government representatives, including Prime Minister Wael al-Halki, Information Minister Omran Zoabi, and Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar. But the opposition has yet to select their own representatives or approve the Syrian government list.
Selecting an agreed slate has been complicated by the need to identify individuals who have sufficient authority over the Syrian combatants to compel them to accept a potential political deal, but who are not associated with human rights abuses.
The diplomacy is unfolding against a backdrop of deepening violence, not only in Syria, but in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where fighting broke out on May 19 between residents of Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in the town of Tripoli.
The pro-Syrian militia, Hezbollah, has sent fighters to aid Assad's forces in its battle for the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East told the Security Council today. "The past month has seen repeated incidents of shelling from Syria into Lebanese territory that has caused casualties."
Serry also said that the U.N. secretary general "remains gravely concerned about the allegations of the use of chemical weapons." Citing "mounting reports on the use of chemical weapons" he urged the Syrian government to allow a U.N. team into the country to examine the allegations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met in Amman, Jordan, today with the pro-opposition diplomatic coalition called the "Friends of Syria" -- a group that includes representatives of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Kerry said they would discuss how to help the opposition fashion a slate of representatives for the Geneva talks that constitute the "broadest base possible in Syria."
"We will discuss the framework, the structure of what we think Geneva ought to be. And obviously, that will have to be discussed with the Russians, with the United Nations, and with others in order to find the formula that moves us forward most effectively," Kerry said before the meeting. "We will listen to all voices with respect to the format, to the timing, to the agenda, and to the outcomes that should be discussed."
In the meantime, the U.S. and European powers sought to increase pressure on Syria to show flexibility in Geneva. On Monday, the European Union is expected to meet on Monday to decide whether to lift or ease an arms embargo that has limited the opposition's ability to purchase weapons. Kerry, meanwhile, warned that the United States may be prepared to provide military support to the opposition. "In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate ... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country."
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Courtesty of the United Nations: Jean-Marc Ferre
On March 9, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter flying under the U.N. flag lost its way in heavy rains and crashed into a densely wooded mountainside in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), killing all 4 Russian crew members on board and prompting a review of U.N. safety regulations.
The helicopter -- contracted by the Russian airliner UTair -- was traveling without an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), a digital mapping system which warns a pilot when the aircraft is about to hit the ground, a building, or the side of mountain. The device, which is more commonly used in Western planes and helicopters, is not required in U.N. aircraft.(*See note below)
In response to the air tragedy, the United Nations quickly issued an internal email indicating that it would require the device be installed in all U.N. aircraft. But the decision was rescinded following complaints by Russia, whose suppliers don’t use the security devices in their own aircraft, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the matter. The fatal crash near the town of Bukavu was the worst U.N. air accident in the DRC since April 4, 2011, when a U.N.-contracted Georgian Airways Bombadier CRJ-100 jet crash-landed at the Kinshasa airport in stormy weather, killing 32 of the 33 passengers and crew aboard. Following that accident, a top U.N. official advised Ukraine to urge its helicopter suppliers to upgrade their own safety features, installing the more advanced ground warning systems in their helicopters, according to Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyez. But they never required it, and they refused to compensate companies that voluntarily installed the systems, which can add up to $150,00.00 to the price of a helicopter, Sergeyev said. Ukrainian firms, he added, installed the devices in some of their helicopters. Their Russian counterparts held off, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
The latest incident highlights a risk for U.N. pilots that has been reduced for their counterparts who fly commercial aircraft or who pilot helicopters in the United States and Europe. A review of internal, confidential U.N. communications also underscores the U.N.’s sluggish effort to address a pressing safety issue that potentially threatens the lives of U.N. crews and passengers.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets international flight standards, recommends that U.N. aircraft carry the enhanced ground warning system. But the U.N. has determined that it is not mandatory. The post-crash debate is playing out against a wider U.N. competition over the lucrative air supply market. The U.N. peacekeeping department’s air fleet -- at least 190 aircraft and 140 helicopters, in 17 U.N. missions around the world -- relies largely on low-cost planes and helicopters leased by private contractors or supplied by air forces from the developing world. The market has long been dominated by countries from the former Soviet Union -- including Russia and Ukraine -- that inherited a massive inventory of inexpensive aircraft after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and continues to produce variants of these rugged designs.
A number of European powers, including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, have been seeking to break into the U.N. aircraft leasing market (estimated at $1 billion a year, according to U.N. figures, , offering more advanced aircraft with state-of-the-art safety features. They have encountered little success at the United Nations, where contracts are required to go to the lowest bidder, and where, some have privately complained, U.N. bidding specifications favor former Soviet aircraft.
Some U.N. diplomats believe that internal debate is driven as much by safety concerns as by competition for costly contracts, particularly between two top suppliers, Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian firms are currently bidding on a major new contract for helicopters for the DRC, and they have sought to secure a competitive edge by highlighting the fact that they are moving faster than their Russian competitors to equip all of their helicopters with enhanced ground warning systems.
“It is a purely commercial thing,” said one diplomat. “The Ukrainians were led to believe that the [safety] specifications for helicopters would be changed soon -- and they added the special safety equipment on their own initiative. The Russians found out the specs were going to be changed and started complaining. So now, the Russians are pissed off that they risk losing contracts. And the Ukrainians are pissed off that the specs will not change.”
Sergeyev, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, said that as far back as 2011 the U.N.’s then chief of the Department of Field Services, which manages logistics for U.N. peacekeeping missions, Susanna Malcorra, had urged him to instruct the country’s contractors to begin installing the warning systems on their aircraft. Sergeyev said Ukrainian contractors have begun to comply with the request but that the additional costs associated with the safety upgrades have made their helicopters less competitive. The U.N., meanwhile, has sent mixed signals about its commitment to safety, according to U.N. documents.
Shortly after the Russian crash, Christian Gregoire, an official from the U.N.’s Aviation Quality Assurance unit, sent out an email to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the DRC announcing that the U.N. would now require contractors upgrade their early warning systems. “In the light of the recent tragic UTAIR mi-8 accident in MONUSCO [the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the DRC],” Gregoire wrote, according to a copy of the emailobtained by Turtle Bay, the U.N. peacekeeping department’s Air Transport Section “will shortly amend all contracts Terms and Conditions to make the EGPWS mandatory equipment on board all UN operated aircraft.”
Gregoire also warned that failure to install the warning systems could lead to the grounding of some helicopters, or restrictions on their use in peacekeeping operations.
In a separate March 12 memo, three days after the latest Russian air crash, an official from the U.N. aviation unit in the DRC, Andrei Anochkine, sent a memo to UTair charging that its aircraft were not in compliance with its contractual obligation to ensure greater ability to detect potential flight obstacles in low-visibility situations. “Safety is being compromised” by UTair’s failure to use the EGPWS in its aircraft, wrote Anochkine.
“Traditional GPWS can only monitor the ground directly beneath it,” he wrote. “This can be a problem if there is a very sudden change in the terrain and the GPWS cannot provide a prompt enough warning for the pilot to react. With Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), the system can track the course of the aircraft and see if it is heading towards a mountain or other similar threat.”
Together, the two memos appeared to mark a shift in the U.N. peacekeeping department’s air fleet safety policy, But a subsequent department memo, drafted on April 12 by a U.N. procurement official, Sean Purcell, made clear that the policy had not in fact changed. While the installation of the new early warning systems would constitute an “advantage” to vendors offering helicopters to the U.N. “it is not mandatory at this juncture,” Purcell’s memo stated.
At U.N. headquarters, officials downplayed the contradictory communications, insisting that the U.N. had never officially committed to requiring the installation of the new safety systems. “There was no reversal of decision, as in fact there has been no decision,” she said.
“Our first priority is to ensure that our air operations are safe and reliable,” Ameerah Haq, the undersecretary general for the department of field support, which oversees logistics for U.N. peacekeeping missions, wrote in an April 30 letter to the Ukrainian ambassador. The U.N., she added, is “undertaking a review of technical and contractual arrangements in order to further reduce the safety risks associated with United Nations flights…This review may possibly conclude that EGPWS, or other similar systems, should be installed in all aircraft contracted” for U.N peacekeeping missions.
Still, the U.N. assurances did little to mollify the Ukrainian government. In a statement to troop-contributing countries earlier this month, Sergeyev denounced what he views as the U.N.’s reversal, accusing the global body of “dangerously decreasing its attention to safety and security in the area of the helicopters procurement.”
“The overwhelming majority of the U.N.-contracted helicopters will operate without vitally important equipment,” that could imperil U.N. peacekeepers and others who travel on U.N. helicopters, Sergeyev added. “How many new tragedies” are required, he asked, before the U.N. will change its “position on safety and security in the aviation procurement practice?”
U.N. officials and UTair say that there is no evidence yet that the helicopter crash could have been prevented by an early warning system, and that the Russian government and the DRC are still investigating the cause of the crash. Therefore, Guerrero said, “we cannot speculate on the cause of the accident.”
U.N. officials also cite technical problems, noting that they are reluctant to early warning technology until they are confident that the digital maps of the terrain in many of the trouble spots where the U.N. operates, including the DRC and Sudan, are accurate. “The U.N. needs to verify that EGPWS will firstly deliver the expected, anticipated benefits,” and whether it can do so “without endangering the crew and passengers,” Guerrero said. “Aviation avionics and safety systems are highly technical and complex matters.”
Ilya Kimish, a spokesperson for UTair, wrote in an email message that the helicopters it supplies to the United Nations are equipped with “meteorological location” and “radio altimeter” devices that can determine how far their aircraft are from the ground, and can detect other “artificial and natural obstacles” in the flight path. But he said there is a good reason why the U.N. doesn’t require aircraft to use enhanced proximity warning systems. They rely on detailed digital topographical maps and there “is a total absence of topographical maps of Africa.”
Another official said that it is likely that the U.N. will ultimately decide to require the enhanced ground-proximity early-warning systems, or another weather radar system that helps pilots navigate through stormy weather. But the official also said that the more advanced equipment would pose a fresh risk for U.N. pilots, giving them the additional confidence to fly in dangerous weather. The current U.N. policy, the official said, is “if you head into difficult weather you need to land and wait till the weather improves. If you are in doubt don’t fly.” The concern now, the official added, is that U.N. pilots will try to “push the envelope. In the end, it may actually add to the risk.”
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(*Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the EGPWS is standard in the west. After I published this story, Elan Head, the special projects editor for Vertical Magazine, which cover the helicopter industry, contacted me to point out that Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS) for helicopters –more commonly known in the United States as Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS) – are not standard in the United States. In 2006, and again in 2009( following a spike in crashes by helicopter ambulances),” the National Transportation Safety Board, recommended that the Federal Aviation Authority require the installation of the devices on all helicopter ambulance operators. THE FAA has issued a proposed rule to this effect, but yet to adopt it. There is “widespread agreement that this [equipment] is a nice thing to have,” she said. “But the equipment is not standard in the United States.” Turtle Bay regrets the error.)
Courtesty of the United Nations
The 193-member U.N. General Assembly today "strongly" condemned the Syrian government for its "indiscriminate" shelling and bombing of civilian populations and the commission of "widespread and systematic" human rights in a conflict that has dragged on for more than 2 years and left more than 70,000 people dead.
The resolution -- which was co-sponsored by most Arab and Western governments -- was adopted by a vote of 107 to 12, with 59 abstentions. Today's action drove a wedge between the United States, which backed it, and Russia, which opposed it, at a time when the two powers are struggling to start talks between the Syrian government and the opposition on a political transition.
The General Assembly measure is not legally binding on Syria, but it represents the latest in a series of U.N. resolutions highlighting Syria's growing isolation, and ensures that Damascus will continue to face intense scrutiny at the United Nations. But the large number of abstentions, particularly among African countries, reflected broader international disquiet over the resolution's promotion of the Syrian opposition's claim to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The resolution's drafting was spearheaded by Qatar, a Persian Gulf sheikdom that has been arming the Syrian opposition. Qatar has been seeking for several weeks to secure broad international support for a resolution that would elevate the Syrian National Coalition's standing at the United Nations.
The final text stopped short of recognizing the Syrian opposition, though it included a provision that notes the "wide international acknowledgement" of the Syrian coalition "as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."
Damascus and its political allies, including Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, denounced the measure as one-sided, saying any decision about the legitimacy of Syria's leadership should be agreed by Syrians. The resolution, they claimed, also unfairly targeted the government for criticism while making no mention of opposition atrocities or a long string of terrorist attacks by anti-government extremists. While the resolution condemns violence by all combatants and demands that all parties halt human rights abuses, it largely ignores specific allegations of wrongdoing by the armed opposition and anti-government extremists.
"This draft resolution seeks to escalate the crisis and fuel violence in Syria" by undermining the government through the recognition of a "fake representative" of the Syrian people, said Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Al-Jaafari.
Najib Chadban, the Syrian National Coalition's representative to the United States and the United Nations, welcomed the vote for bringing the question of Syria back to the United Nations after months of inaction and "keeping the Syria alive." But he acknowledged "a lot of Syrians are not very happy with the inability of this organization to do something to end the killing." Chadban said the resolution calls on the secretary general to report and that he would begin to lobby other government to transfer the Syrian seat from the government to the opposition when the U.N. credential committee meets in September.
Russia's deputy ambassador, Alexander Pankin, said it was "irresponsible and counterproductive" of the resolution's sponsors to "introduce division" among U.N. members at a delicate moment in U.S. and Russian diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria. The world needs "a unified approach; we don't need destructive initiatives her at the United Nations."
But Rosemary DiCarlo, the second-highest ranking U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said resolution was perfectly consistent with Washington and Moscow's peace efforts "The Assad regime, drawing upon an arsenal of heavy weapons, aircraft, ballistic missiles, and -- potentially chemical weapons -- has killed or injured untold numbers of civilians who for many months manifested their opposition purely through peaceful protest," she said. "In our view, this resolution will send a clear message that the political solution we all seek is the best way to end the suffering of the people of Syria."
The resolution includes a list of longstanding U.N. demands that have never been honored by the Syrian government: For instance, it demands that Syrian authorities "immediately release" thousands of political prisoners; provide "full and unfettered" access to an international commission of inquiry probing rights abuses; and allow unimpeded access to humanitarian aid workers to Syrian civilians, particularly in rebel-controlled areas that can only be reached by crossing conflict lines, or by entering through Turkey. The resolution will ask a U.N. special human rights researcher to present a report in 90 days on the status of Syria's internally displaced civilians. It also asks U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to report on the resolution's implementation within 30 days, a provision that will guarantee Syria remains a topic of debate at the United Nations.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.