The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly this morning to create the first international treaty regulating the global arms trade, a landmark decision that imposes new constraints on the sale of conventional arms to governments and armed groups that commit war crimes, genocide, and other mass atrocities.
The U.N. vote was hailed by arms control advocates and scores of governments, including the United States, as a major step in the international effort to enforce basic controls on the $70 billion international arms trade. But it was denounced by Iran, North Korea, and Syria, for imposing new restrictions that prevent smaller states from buying and selling arms to ensure their self-defense.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the General Assembly for approving "a strong, effective and implementable arms trade treaty that can strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade."
Kerry said that the treaty "applies only to international trade and reaffirms the sovereign right of any state to regulate arms within its territory. As the U.S. has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment."
Kerry said the treaty would establish "a common national standard" -- similar to that already in place in the United States -- for regulating global trade in conventional arms. It would also reduce the risk that arms sales would be used to "carry out the world's worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes."
The 193 member assembly voted 154 to 3 to adopt the treaty. There were 23 abstentions, including major arms traders like China, India, and Russia, as well as countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, that have been supplying weapons to armed opposition groups in Syria, The treaty, which will open for signatures on June 3, will go into force 90 days after it is ratified by 50 states.
The vote came four days after Iran, North Korea, and Syria -- three governments who would likely be targeted by the new measures -- blocked the adoption of the treaty by consensus, arguing that it failed to bar sales to armed groups or foreign occupiers, and that it would strengthen the ability of big powers to restrict small states' ability to buy weapons.
But the vote revealed broader misgivings about the treaty by dozens of countries -- including Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan -- that the treaty would grant an unfair advantage to the world's largest arms exporters. India's chief negotiator, Sujata Mehta, explained her government's decision to abstain, saying today that the treaty "is weak on terrorism and non-state actors." She previously objected that the "weight of obligations is tilted against importing states."
The United States, which co-sponsored the treaty, said that several U.S. agencies will conduct a review of the treaty before it is presented to President Barack Obama for signature. The treaty would also require ratification by the United States Senate.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) -- which has contended the treaty would weaken Second Amendment gun rights in the United States -- has pledged to fight the treaty's ratification in the Senate.
But U.S. officials and several non-governmental organizations, including the American Bar Association, an attorneys' lobbying group, have challenged the NRA's position, saying the treaty would have no impact on Americans' gun rights. The treaty language recognizes the "legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities."
Iran, meanwhile, protested last week that the treaty had provided specific protections for U.S. gun owners, while failing to provide protections for people living under foreign occupation.
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.
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When France eventually ends its military operations in Mali, the French military intends to position a rapid reaction force somewhere in West Africa to support African peacekeepers facing serious challenges to their authority by Islamist insurgents, according to U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the plans.
French diplomats have begun detailing plans with the United Nations, the United States, and other key powers for a so-called "beyond the horizon" force that would be ready to carry out combat operations within Mali in the event that the Islamic fundamentalist rebels threaten to return en masse.
Paris has not informed its allies where this new force would be deployed, but diplomats said it would most likely be in Senegal, Niger, or Chad, where France maintains military bases.
France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud, meanwhile, has sought to assure his counterparts that Paris will not abruptly pull out of Mali in the coming weeks, saying that the French military presence will be phased out gradually to allow time for a new U.N. peacekeeping mission to get its bearings.
The French military intervened in Mali on Jan. 11, after a coalition of local and foreign insurgents, including members of al Qaeda's North African franchise, launched a military offensive in a series of strategic towns in central Mali, raising fears of a dash to the capital, Bamako, where thousands of French nationals reside. The French force, which has grown to more than 4,000 soldiers, has reclaimed control of several cities that had fallen under control of the insurgents, but sparks of fighting have continued, particularly in the strategic northern city of Gao.
The discussions over the new force mark the first step in an intensive French effort to craft a diplomatic and security strategy that will allow France to reduce its presence in Mali, while ensuring that U.N. blue helmets will be in a position to maintain security.
Paris is hoping to begin work as quickly as possible on a resolution that would formally establish a new African-led peacekeeping mission, responsible for maintaining security in several northern Malian towns and support political talks between the country's government in Bamako and insurgents, thus paving the ground for national elections. French officials are hoping to convene a Security Council meeting as early as Wednesday to begin the push for a new resolution.
But the French are facing a major hurdle from Mali's rulers, who came to power as a result of a military coup and who fear that a U.N. force would not only be too weak to confront their northern enemies, but prod them into yielded power to a newly elected government. Diplomats say work on a peacekeeping mission cannot proceed until the Malian leadership makes a formal, and unequivocal, request to the United Nations for troops.
U.N.-based sources said that they expect France, and possibly other Western governments, to contribute a small number of staff officers in the eventual U.N. mission's headquarters. But the vast majority of troops will come from the region. There are currently more than 5,000 African troops from Chad, Niger, and other West African countries in Mali. The African troops, which are currently supporting the French and Malian military campaign against the country's insurgency, are expected to serve in the new U.N. peacekeeping mission.
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Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, quietly floated the idea of organizing a U.N. peacekeeping force to help stabilize Mali after France puts down the Islamist insurgency there.
Rice made the remarks in a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday evening, though she noted that the Obama administration had not yet officially decided to back a force of blue helmets. But she said that the existing plan to send an African-led force to the country to train the Malian army to retake control of northern Mali from the Islamists had been overtaken by the French intervention.
Rice said that the original U.N. plan -- which envisioned the Malian army as the "tip of the spear" in a military offensive against the Islamists -- is no longer viable, according to an official present at the meeting. She said the mission would likely shift from a combat mission to a stabilization mission, requiring a long-term strategy to hold territory and build up local institutions. French combat forces are unlikely to remain in Mali to do that job. "We need to be open to a blue-helmeted operation," she said, according to another official at the meeting.
The French action has sent U.N. diplomats and military planners back to drawing board to try to fashion a long-term security strategy for Mali. Several African countries, including Benin, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, and Togo, that were planning to train the Malians to fight are now mustering forces to support the French combat operation.
The African forces lack many of the basic necessities, however, including fuel and transport. The Nigerian force commander of the African troops had to borrow a vehicle from the Nigerian embassy in Bamako, according to a U.N. official . A contingent from Togo arrived in Bamako with only enough rations to last about three days, the official said.
At a Jan. 19 summit, leaders of a West African coalition of states called for the urgent deployment of African forces and urged the United Nations to "immediately furnish the logistical support" for the African countries. The United Nations agreed to send a senior military advisor to Bamako to help coordinate the African's military planning, but it stopped short of supplying logistical support to the African forces on the grounds that it would compromise the U.N.'s impartiality.
"The United Nations must consider with the utmost care the issue of supporting offensive military operations in the light of the overall global mandate of the Organization," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a letter to the Security Council this week. "I am obliged to bring to the attention of the Security Council the assessment of the Secretariat that, if the United Nations were to provide logistics support to military forces engaged in an offensive operation, it would place civilian United Nations personnel at grave risk, and undermine their ability to carry out their current tasks in the region."
U.N. officials say they expect Ban to get an earful from African leaders over his refusal to supply forces. African leaders are meeting at an AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Sunday and Monday. These officials have noted that the U.N. provided military support to African-led military operations in Somalia, and that U.N. peacekeepers have backed up offensive military operations by the Congolese government. Herve Ladsous, a former French official who serves as the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, favors more active U.N. support for the Africans.
"The house is still divided; some feel we need to help the Africans," said one U.N. official. "We already do it in Somalia; how do you explain to the Africans why you can't do it in Mali?"
The debate over the future of Mali is playing out just as France has declared an initial victory in their effort to drive back the Islamist offensive, which had seen fighters move south from their northern stronghold and capturing the town of Konna on Jan. 10. The insurgents put up a far tougher fight than the French had initially anticipated, extending their control over southern towns of Diabaly and Douentza.
"This operation has been a success so far," said France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud. "Its primary goal has been met: the terrorist offensive against the south has been stopped thanks to the joint action of the Malian and French forces. The towns of Diabaly, Konna, and Douentza have been retaken by the Malian forces, with French support."
But senior U.N. diplomats believe that the fight has only begun, and that armed insurgents have simply beat a tactical retreat, and are likely to begin using traditional guerrilla tactics, launching targeted raids on the allied forces remaining behind to hold towns recently abandoned by the rebels. Despite public claims that the Malian army has been engaged in the fighting, some Western diplomats have acknowledged that the Malian army had all but collapsed into total disarray, leaving it to France to do the fighting. With the first phase of the French counteroffensive concluded, France will now trying to train the Malians and other African forces to hold the towns they have captured.
"It appears that in the western area, armed elements have moved closer to the Mauritanian border," Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, told the Security Council on Tuesday. "The risk of infiltration and further attacks by these groups on southern towns, including Bamako, remains high."
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The U.N. Security Council today voted unanimously to establish a U.S. and European-backed African military force to rebuild Mali's troubled military, and to begin preparing it for a possible military offensive to retake control of northern Mali from a coalition of Malian separatists and Islamic extremists.
The European Union plans to send military trainers to Bamako in the coming months to begin training the Malian army, which -- disgruntled by the government's inability to counter insurgent forces -- staged a military coup in March and forced the removal of the interim leader this December.
A reconstituted and reequipped Malian army is intended to lead a campaign to conquer the north. But the supporting African force -- which is expected to be made up of several thousand troops from West Africa and the Sahel -- is unlikely to be sent to Mali before September or October, 2013.
The Security Council resolution does not specify what role the United States would play in the military campaign against al Qaeda and its allies. But it provides wide legal scope for foreign governments, including the United States, to "take all necessary measures" -- including the use of lethal force -- and provide "any necessary assistance, " including military training, equipment, intelligence and logistics, in support of the Malian fight against Islamic extremists.
The Obama administration has harbored deep misgivings about the ability of a Malian-led force to prevail in combat with al Qaeda and its allies. But today's vote ended weeks of tense negotiations between France, which was determined to authorize a new intervention force before the year's end, and the United States, which wanted to wait until the country had elected a new civilian president.
Washington agreed to co-sponsor today's resolution after securing a commitment from Paris to ensure that the United States and other Security Council members would be give another shot at reviewing the military plan before the force receives a green light for offensive operations.
Following the vote, France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud said a military attack on Islamic forces in northern Mali was not inevitable, however, and that his government still held out hope that the crisis could be resolved through political dialogue with Mali's moderate northern insurgents. The resolution, he said, "is not a declaration of war."
Long a model of African stability and democracy, Mali's civilian government has faced a series of existential threats to its rule this year, including a rebellion in northern Mali by an alliance of Malian Touareg's and al Qaeda linked groups, primarily Ansar Dine, followed by a military coup by soldiers embittered by the failure of President Amadou Toumani Toure to adequately supply troops seeking to put down the rebellion.
In recent months, Islamic militants -- including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement of United and Jihad in West Africa -- have seized control the uprising, driving out their erstwhile Touareg allies from key northern cities, including Timbuktu and Gao, imposing sharia law, and committing widespread human rights abuses. Their presence has raised concern in Washington, which is expected to help train, equip, and provide transport for the new force, known as the African-led International Support Mission, or AFISMA.
But the political turmoil in Mali has complicated Washington's role. U.S. law restricts financial assistance or military aid to Mali, because its democratic government was ousted in a coup in March, led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who remains the power behind a fragile transitional government. Earlier this month, the military again showed its strength and displeasure, ordering the arrest of the interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, and forcing his resignation. Django Sissoko was later named to replace him.
The United States has insisted that Mali conduct new presidential elections, preferably in April, before any final decision is made to send a Malian-led African force into the north.
The new force, which will be made up primarily of troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Sahel, including Nigeria and Senegal, is intended to put military muscle behind a broader plan to restore stability and democracy in Mali.
Today's resolution urges Malian authorities to commit to a "transitional roadmap," including inclusive political talks with northern groups -- including the Touaregs -- that "cut off all ties to terrorist organizations" linked to al Qaeda. It also calls for holding elections "by April 2013 or as soon as technically possible."
The resolution aims to place a wedge between ethnic Malian rebel groups and the more hardline Islamists, threatening to impose sanctions on individuals who maintain links with al Qaeda and its associates. It also expresses its "readiness to consider appropriate measures" against Malian officers to who stand in the way of the country's transition to civilian rule.
Today's vote, said Ivory Coast's U.N. ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba, speaking on behalf of ECOWAS, "is a great message of hope and solidarity" for Malians "who can now begin to believe [there will be an] end of their nightmares."
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Libya's president Mohammed Magarief today contradicted American claims that the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic film, telling NBC's Anne Curry in an interview broadcast this morning.
"It has nothing to do with this attack," said Magarief, noting that the assailants used rocket propelled grenades and mortar fire in the attack. "It's a preplanned act of terrorism against American citizens."
The remarks came more than one week after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued that the attack, which killed four American nationals, including U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, had been triggered by popular anger from Libyan Muslims offended by the film.
"Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous -- not a premeditated -- response to what had transpired in Cairo," Rice told ABC's "This Week." "We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the...consulate...to replicate that sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons."
Rice's account has come under scrutiny in the following days as the administration's explanation for the attack evolved.
Republicans have criticized the account of the attack, suggesting that the Obama administration is seeking to mask the facts. They have seized on the fact that President Barack Obama has not characterized the attack as an act of terror, even though other senior administration officials have, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
"It is troubling that President Obama refuses to call the Libya attacks on the anniversary of 9/11 an act of terror," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "For weeks President Obama and his administration have failed to acknowledge the facts behind the Libya attack."
Asked to explain the discrepancy, Rice's office referred Turtle Bay to White House spokesman Jay Carney's reaction to the Libyan president claim that the U,S. consulate had been targeted in a pre-planned terror attack. "Over the course of the past two weeks, this administration has provided as much information as it has been able to."
"It continues to be the case that we provided information based on what we know -- not based on speculation but based on what we know -- acknowledging that we are continuing an investigation that will undoubtedly uncover more facts, and as more facts and more details emerge we will, when appropriate, provide them to you."
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The Iranian government tonight turned to the United Nations for help in defending itself against "fabricated and baseless" allegations that it plotted to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C.
In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Iran's U.N. ambassador Mohammad Khazaee voiced his government's "outrage regarding the allegations leveled" against Tehran. "Iran has always condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations."
"The Islamic Republic of Iran underlines its determination to maintain its friendly relations with all regional countries, particularly with its Muslim neighbors," he wrote. "As the Secretary General of the United Nations you have an important responsibility in enlightening the international public opinion about the dangerous consequences of warmongering policies of the United States Government on international peace and security."
The Iranian envoy said his government would share the letter with the presidents of the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council.
The appeal to the United Nations came just hours after the Obama administration alleged that some elements within the Iranian government had orchestrated the assassination plot. The U.S. Justice Department charges against two Iranians -- one of them a U.S. citizen -- accused them of planning a scheme to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington as he dined at a Washington restaurant, the Washington Post reported. The Iranians planned to employ Mexican drug traffickers to kill Jubeir with a bomb.
Senior federal officials told the Washington Post that it remained unclear whether Iran's leadership were involved in the scheme. They said that they thwarted the attack because the Iranian American, Manssor Arbabsiar, was unknowingly hired a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and later implicated officials in Iran's paramilitary al-Quds Force in masterminding the plot.
Khazaee said the "Islamic Republic of Iran strongly and categorically rejects these fabricated and baseless allegations, based on the suspicious claims by an individual. Any country could accuse other countries through fabrication of such stories. However, this would set dangerous precedents in the relations among states."
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Full text of the Iranian letter follows:
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
No. 1110 11 October 2011
I am writing to you to express our outrage regarding the allegations leveled by the United States officials against the Islamic Republic of Iran on the involvement of my country in an assassination plot targeting a foreign diplomat in Washington .
The Islamic Republic of Iran strongly and categorically rejects these fabricated and baseless allegations, based on the suspicious claims by an individual. Any country could accuse other countries through fabrication of such stories. However, this would set dangerous precedents in the relations among States.
Iran has always condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Iran has been a victim of terrorism, a clear recent example of which is the assassination of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists in the past two years carried out by the Zionist regime and supported by the United States .
The Iranian nation seeks a world free from terrorism and considers the current US warmongering and propaganda machine against Iran as a threat not just against itself but to the peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region. The Islamic Republic of Iran warns against the implications of this horrible scenario and submits that the continuation of such divide-and-rule policies could have detrimental effects on peace and security.
The US allegation is, obviously, a politically-motivated move and a showcase of its long-standing animosity towards the Iranian nation. The Islamic Republic of Iran categorically and in the strongest terms condemns this shameful allegation by the United States authorities and deplores it as a well-thought evil plot in line with their anti-Iranian policy to divert attention from the current economic and social problems at home and the popular revolutions and protests against United States long supported dictatorial regimes abroad.
The Islamic Republic of Iran underlines its determination to maintain its friendly relations with all regional countries, particularly with its Muslim neighbors, and invites all to be vigilant against the vicious campaigns targeting stability and peace and friendly relations among States in our region.
As the Secretary-General of the United Nations you have an important responsibility in enlightening the international public opinion about the dangerous consequences of warmongering policies of the United States Government on international peace and security.
I am sending identical letters to the President of the Security Council and the President of the General Assembly. It would be appreciated if this letter could be circulated as a document of the General Assembly under the agenda item 83 and of the Security Council.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurance of my highest consideration.
H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon
United Nations, New York
cc: H.E. Mrs Ogawu
President of the Security Council
cc: H.E. Mr. Nasser
President of the General Assembly
United Nations, New York
Osama bin Laden may be dead, but he's not forgotten.
The U.N. Security Council sanctions committee responsible for tracking the Taliban's and al Qaeda's financial assets will send out a reminder to U.N. member states that Osama bin Laden's financial assets are still subject to a U.N. freeze.
"The Security Council's Al Qaeda Taliban Sanctions Committee welcomes the news on 1 May 2011 that Osama bin Laden will never again be able to perpetrate acts of terrorism," according a statement to be issued later today. "The committee underlines that the name Osama bin Laden continues to appear on the consolidated list of individuals and entities associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban and stresses that assets and other relevant measures... continue to apply to the name of Osama bin Laden."
The 15-nation committee "wishes to take this opportunity to remind states that they should continue to implement these measures in accordance with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations."
I guess that means nobody gets to keep those 500 euros reportedly sown into his clothing.Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Richard Falk, the U.N. rights researcher who provoked fury from the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon for saying the U.S. government and media had apparently covered up evidence challenging the official U.S. claim that the terrorist group Al Qaeda carried out the 911 terror attacks, says he was misunderstood.
"I wish to be absolutely clear," Falk said in a statement. "I do not endorse the theory that the U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. What I did do, in my personal blog, in which I was discussing the differing perceptions that develop after political assassinations and deeply tragic events, including the murder of Olaf Palme, the 9/11 attacks and the recent killing in Arizona, was argue that investigations must be seen to be, transparent, exhaustive and honest.
The dispute arose over Falk's blog post on 911 on government's propensity for secrecy in the face of awkward truths. Here's the passage that got Falk into hot water:
The arguments swirling around the 9/11 attacks are emblematic of these issues. What fuels suspicions of conspiracy is the reluctance to address the sort of awkward gaps and contradictions in the official explanations that David Ray Griffin(and other devoted scholars of high integrity) have been documenting in book after book ever since his authoritative The New Pearl Harbor in 2004 (updated in 2008). What may be more distressing than the apparent cover up is the eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events: an al Qaeda operation with no foreknowledge by government officials. Is this silence a manifestation of fear or cooption, or part of an equally disturbing filter of self-censorship? Whatever it is, the result is the withering away of a participatory citizenry and the erosion of legitimate constitutional government. The forms persist, but the content is missing.
After the post, Hillel C. Neuer, the executive director of U.N. Wacth, sent a letter to Ban Ki moon condemning the remarks, and calling for Falk's removal. "As he did again this month, Mr. Falk has repeatedly called into question the fact that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were indeed terrorist attacks," Neuer said in prepared testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee Monday. "Instead he calls for exploring the possibility that 9/11 was an "inside job"carried out by the U.S. government."
Ban quickly condemned Falk's blog posting. Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva Monday, Ban said: " I condemn this sort of inflammatory rhetoric. It is preposterous -- an affront to the memory of the more than 3,000 people who died in that tragic attack."
Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for Falk's removal. "Mr. Falk endorses the slurs of conspiracy theorists who allege that the September, 2001, terrorists attack were perpetrated and then covered up by the U.S. government and media," she said."In my view, Mr. Falk's latest commentary is so noxious that it should finally be plain to all that he should no longer continue in his position on behalf of the UN."
Falk, who serves as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestininian Territories Occupied Since 1967, claimed "the pro-Israel group, UN Watch..deliberately distorted comment I made my personal capacity, on my blog," to have him fired from his unpaid job. In a blog post Thursday, he accused Neuer of "publicly attacking me in consistently irresponsible and untruthful ways, presumably with the intention of diverting attention from my criticisms of Israel's occupation policies in the Palestinian territories."
In response, U.N. Watch issued a statement saying "Mr. Falk's ad hominem attacks on UN Watch are a pathetic attempt to divert attention from his own action...By attempting to justify his despicable denial of Al Qaeda's carrying-out of the 9/11 attacks as a mere call for “investigations,” Mr. Falk resorts to the same transparent tactics used by Iran's Ahmadinejad and other hate-mongers who seek to deny other great atrocities of history, each with their own hateful political agenda."
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The popular overthrow of Tunisia’s former leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has served as an inspiration for protesters in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and other Arab countries. But the Tunisian regime also emerged this week as a symbol of the excesses of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. A U.N. report revealed that the Tunisian government was practitioner of the poulet rôti (or rotisserie), the notorious torture technique which involves tying a detainee's wrists together under the knees and passing a pole between the arms and thighs.
Martin Scheinin, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, released a damning report this week on Tunisia’s use of secret detention centers in order to coerce confessions through torture and mistreatment. The 20-page report -- which is based on a field visit to Tunisia in January 2010 -- provides a chilling, if unsurprising, look at the repressive practices that prevail in the Middle East and played no small part in stoking Tunisia’s public uprising. It also provides further evidence of how Tunisia, like other authoritarian governments in the region, has used the war on terror to pass a set of vague and sweeping anti-terrorism laws that often target nonviolent dissidents and opposition figures.
"[I]t appears that the scope of application of the terrorism provisions in the law has grown too wide and should be reduced," the report states. "Any anti-terrorism law that is not properly confined to the countering of terrorism within the limits of human rights law is problematic … because it may unjustifiably restrict the enjoyment of human rights pertaining to the exercise of peaceful activities, including dissent and political opposition through legitimate associations."
The report documents alleged crimes committed before the country’s ruler was deposed following several weeks of public demonstrations. It provides another awkward example of a trusted American ally in the war on terror using the global campaign against extremists to justify bad behavior and consolidate power at home. Indeed, the same security apparatus that collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency, which transported suspected terrorists through Tunis, was also responsible for using intimidation and violence to stifle domestic challenges to Ben Ali's rule, according to the report.
"Human rights abuses were at the heart of the problems faced by the people of Tunisia," Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Wednesday. She announced that she has ordered a team of human rights investigators to begin an investigation today into Tunisia's legacy of human rights. "Therefore, human rights must be at the forefront of the solutions to those problems."
Scheinin's report claims that Tunisian authorities routinely deny detainees basic due-process rights, interrogate suspect in secret detention centers, routinely postdate arrest records to circumvent rules requiring detainees be presented before a judge in a timely fashion. It also noted that custody records during the month of his visit showed that authorities at one police detention center detained at least one person each day, "support[ing] the conclusion that counter-terrorism legislation does not only apply to a small group of very dangerous individuals."
The team was allowed to visit the Bouchoucha police detention facility and the Mornaguia Prison, where they interviewed several prisoners convicted of terrorist offenses. But Scheinin was not permitted to visit the interrogation facility at the Sub-directorate for Criminal Affairs of the Police Judiciare, where the "overwhelming majority of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment [were] received by the Special Rapporteur." Here's Scheinin's account of abuse in Tunisian detention.
"The evidence brought to the attention of the Special Rapporteur indicated that suspected terrorists are routinely held in secret in a building of the Ministry of Interior in Tunis," the report claimed. "According to consistent allegations, suspects are regularly subjected to severe beatings on different parts of the body, including genitals, with fists, cables and batons, kicking, slapping, often combined with stripping of their clothes and suspensions (including in the so-called poulet rôti ("roast chicken") position), even in ordinary offices of the [Interior] Ministry. Some reports also described electroshocks and mock-drowning taking place in one particular room in the basement, especially in cases, where suspects resisted to making confessions. Other methods used included extended periods of sleep deprivation, burning with cigarettes, threats with rape, threats to family members and anal rape.… The main purpose of the torture was to extract confessions, and sometimes testimonies about third persons. It normally stopped with the signing of papers that most suspects had not been allowed to read."
Tunisia has been spared some of the worst terrorist violence that has hit other Arab countries; it was the site of two major terrorist attacks in April 2002 and December 2006, which killed a total of 35 people, including foreigners. In 1992, Tunisia tried 265 alleged members of the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) movement following a couple of violent incidents that were blamed on the group. Human rights organizations, according to the report, "described the 1992 trials as unfair." The Tunisian rebel group, which is allegedly linked to al Qaeda and listed on the U.N. terrorist black list, is "suspected of plotting, but not carrying out, attacks on the embassies of Algeria, Tunisia and the United States of America in Rome in December 2001."
The report says that a number of countries, including Libya, Italy, Pakistan, and Syria, have forcibly returned Tunisian terrorism suspects to Tunisia despite the prospects that they will face torture. "Several of the returnees reported having been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment during that period, but none of their allegations are known to have been investigated by the Tunisian authorities." Scheinin said he has also encountered evidence that Tunisian authorities held an Algerian national for 75 days after he was sent to Tunisia by the Central Intelligence Agency. The detainee was eventually repatriated to Algeria.
Since 2003, Tunisia imposed sweeping anti-terrorism laws that have criminalized many nonviolent activities, but provided no clear definition of what constitutes a terrorist act. For instance, it is a crime -- even for medical personnel, clergy, and defense lawyers -- to fail to immediately notify authorities "of any acts, information or instructions which may have emerged concerning a terrorist offence." Individuals can also face up to 12 years in prison for "to an organization or entity, whichever their form and the number of its members, which has, even if coincidentally or incidentally, used terrorism as a means of action in the realization for its objectives." The measure, according to Scheinin, "does not include any requirement that the person must be aware of the terrorist nature of the group."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.