US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

Smoke rises behind destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the village of Baghouz in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province. (File/AFP)
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Updated 19 May 2022

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

  • NGO accuses defense department of “refusal to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths” 
  • US Congress needs to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm, says HRW Washington director

LONDON: Internal US military reviews of operations resulting in civilian harm remain “fundamentally” flawed and require urgent redress despite pledges made last year, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
On Tuesday, the US Department of Defense released a public summary, but not the full report, of an airstrike it conducted against Syria in 2019 in which it acknowledged faults for the handling of the operation but found no one accountable.
Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s disappointing but not surprising the DOD has once again refused to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths.”
She added: “In addition to resolving obvious flaws in its investigative process, the US military should publish the full review, as a show of respect to the victims’ families and to prevent future abuses.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin initiated the review after a November New York Times article condemned an initial investigation for its failure to acknowledge that dozens of civilians had been killed by the strike on Baghouz in March 2019 and alleged individuals within the DOD had sought to cover up the extent of civilian harm.
Despite Austin’s intervention and pledge to create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, HRW said this latest review failed in its commitments to transparency, lacked information from witnesses, used “an overly elastic definition of combatants” and did not provide amends for the civilians harmed.
The NGO claimed the DOD classified all adult males as combatants, regardless of their participation in hostilities, contravening international humanitarian law standards on distinguishing between civilians and combatants; relied on incorrect Syrian allies, rather than properly verifying information received; and provided no evidence of interviews with people outside the US military.
In a statement, HRW said: “Instead, it appears that the military reviewers relied upon the same incomplete information in the review that they relied upon to conduct the airstrike.”
Yager pointed to the failure to investigate as proof that the US Congress needed to intervene to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm.
“We had high hopes for Secretary Austin’s commitments earlier this year to reform, but the many missteps in this inquiry leave us deeply concerned that the US military hasn’t gotten the memo,” she said.

How neglect of health and hygiene issues deepens gender inequality in Middle East displacement camps

Updated 07 June 2023

How neglect of health and hygiene issues deepens gender inequality in Middle East displacement camps

  • Poor access to hygiene products impacts the lives of millions in the world’s conflict and crisis zones
  • Camp overcrowding “can lead to a lack of dignity and privacy, which can also impact mental health”

LONDON: Every month, women and girls living in camps for displaced people face a common challenge — one that, despite being a natural occurrence, disrupts their daily lives in everything from queuing for meals to participating in social life.

Long a relatively neglected health issue, aid agencies say that poor access to menstrual hygiene management products impacts the lives of millions in the world’s crisis-hit regions, deepening gender inequality.

“The lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and facilities can be a significant barrier to the participation of displaced women and girls in training programs and other activities,” said Samara Atassi, CEO and co-founder of Souriyat Across Borders, a women-led charity that supports refugees and internally displaced people in Jordan, Syria and the UK.

Insufficient access to such products and facilities often forces women and girls to resort to “unhygienic practices, such as using dirty rags, leaves or even sand to manage their periods,” Atassi told Arab News.

Social stigma and embarrassment often pose an additional challenge, leading to “isolation and a sense of shame,” taking a toll on their mental wellbeing, she said. Overcrowding in camps in particular “can lead to a lack of dignity and privacy, which can also impact their mental health.” 

Further exacerbating the problem are issues such as inadequate access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. 

A woman sits outside a tent at a camp for those displaced by conflict in the countryside near Syria’s northern city of Raqqa. (AFP/File)

These conditions “can make it difficult to manage menstrual hygiene, further increasing the risk of infections and other health problems,” Sahar Yassin, Oxfam MENA regional gender advocacy adviser, told Arab News.

“Period poverty” is defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, waste management, or a combination of these.

In 2019, experts from academic institutions, NGOs, governments, UN organizations and elsewhere came together to form the Global Menstrual Collective to research the issue. It defined menstrual health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in relation to the menstrual cycle.”

It noted that people should have access to information about menstruation, life changes and hygiene practices, the ability to care for themselves during menstruation, as well as access to water, sanitation and hygiene services.

It also highlighted the importance of the ability to receive a diagnosis for menstrual cycle disorders and access to health care, a positive, supportive environment in which to make informed decisions, and the ability to participate in all aspects of life, such as going to work and school.

Period poverty affects an estimated 500 million people worldwide — but is perhaps more keenly felt by those who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, or those reaching puberty while living in overcrowded and poorly equipped camp settings.

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that women and girls account for about 50 percent of any displaced or stateless population.

At the end of 2021, the Middle East and North Africa accounted for about 16 million forcibly displaced and stateless people, with the largest numbers fleeing conflict in Syria and Yemen, according to the UNHCR figures.

However, the reproductive health of women and girls in refugee and internal displacement camps continues to face neglect by donors. A 2019 survey by UNHCR found that just 55 percent of women’s needs were met with regard to menstruation products.

Nicola Banks, advocacy manager at the UK-based charity Action for Humanity, told Arab News that the UK had recently reduced “funding for its flagship program on sexual and reproductive health, Women’s Integrated Sexual Health,” which supports marginalized populations in Asia and Africa.

“Cuts to SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) programs ... could result in reduced access to menstrual hygiene products, education and reproductive health services, potentially exacerbating period poverty,” Banks said.

A displaced Iraqi woman who fled Mosul sits with her child as they wait to enter Syria. (AFP/File)

During humanitarian crises, relief and aid efforts are chiefly focused on what are considered the most immediate needs — food, shelter and medicine — while menstrual hygiene products are often ignored, according to a report published in September 2022 by the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA.

Another critical challenge to menstrual hygiene management is a lack of education, which can lead to misconceptions about menstruation, further perpetuating stigma and shame, said Atassi of Souriyat Across Borders.

Owing to this pervasive sense of stigma and shame, many girls aged 10-18 in refugee camps in Turkiye continue to have limited access to accurate information about menstruation, meaning few are fully informed before reaching menarche, or the first menstrual cycle, according to the UNFPA report.

The study, “Menstrual hygiene management among refugee women and girls in Turkiye,” emphasized that this important yet vulnerable population lacked a complete and accurate conception of menstruation, with the main source of information being the mother or another female family member.



A 2019 UNHCR study found that only 55 percent of women’s needs were met in regard to menstruation products.

Oxfam’s Yassin says that this lack of education, combined with period poverty, “is closely linked to gender-based violence in the MENA region, where the cultural taboo surrounding menstruation precludes women and girls from discussing it openly, leading to misinformation and/or lack of information.”

Forms of gender-based violence, or GBV, linked to menstruation include “early marriage, lack of privacy, safety, and sexual harassment,” she said.

To conceal evidence of their menstruation, women in displacement and refugee camps often find themselves forced to venture alone to secluded areas, which exposes them to the potential for sexual violence. But the threat is also present in toilet spaces inside the camps.

A 2021 statement by Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, revealed that “one in five refugees or internally displaced women have faced sexual violence,” adding that the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the issue.

Syrian-Kurdish displaced women stand behind a wire fence at the Qushtapa refugee camp. (AFP/File)

“In many cases, GBV is a result of violations of SRHR, such as female genital mutilation/cutting, child marriage, intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence,” said Banks of Action for Humanity.

“While education, empowerment, and ending violence are critical components of gender equality, they cannot be addressed in isolation from SRHR.”

For Oxfam’s Yassin, “by addressing period poverty and providing better menstrual hygiene management infrastructure and accessible facilities, we can not only promote gender equality and prevent gender-based violence but also support women’s and girls’ health, economic empowerment and well-being.”

Despite efforts by several NGOs and UN agencies to alleviate the burdens caused by period stigma and poverty, menstrual hygiene management remains a largely unaddressed issue in refugee and displacement camps.

“As an organization that is committed to empowering women, we recognize the importance of providing comprehensive sexual education,” said Atassi of Souriyat Across Borders. “Unfortunately, we currently do not have an education project inside the IDPs camps. 

“However, we strive to support women’s health and hygiene needs through all our relief campaigns.

“Even in the emergency response situations, such as during the (Feb. 6 Syria-Turkiye) earthquakes ... we prioritized the inclusion of women’s hygiene baskets in our relief efforts.

“We believe that by addressing women’s basic needs, we can help them feel supported, safe and empowered.”

US slaps sanctions on Iranian, Chinese targets in action over Tehran’s missile, military programs

Updated 06 June 2023

US slaps sanctions on Iranian, Chinese targets in action over Tehran’s missile, military programs

  • The network conducted transactions and facilitated the procurement of sensitive and critical parts and technology for key actors in Iran’s ballistic missile development

WASHINGTON: The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on over a dozen people and entities in Iran, China and Hong Kong, accusing the procurement network of supporting Iran’s missile and military programs as Washington ramps up pressure on Tehran.
The US Treasury Department in a statement said the network conducted transactions and facilitated the procurement of sensitive and critical parts and technology for key actors in Iran’s ballistic missile development, including Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, which is under US sanctions.
Among those hit with sanctions was Iran’s defense attache in Beijing, Davoud Damghani, whom the Treasury accused of coordinating military-related procurements from China for Iranian end-users.
“The United States will continue to target illicit transnational procurement networks that covertly support Iran’s ballistic missile production and other military programs,” Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Brian Nelson, said in the statement.

US senator presses for declassified report on Al Jazeera reporter’s killing

Updated 06 June 2023

US senator presses for declassified report on Al Jazeera reporter’s killing

  • Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed while covering an Israeli army raid last year
  • US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority conducted an investigation but the report remains classified

WASHINGTON: US Senator Chris Van Hollen called on Monday for declassifying a government report on the death of Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist who was shot and killed while covering an Israeli army raid last year.

One of the most recognizable journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for two decades, Abu Akleh was killed in May 2022 during an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin. Her death triggered outrage across the region.

Israel says Abu Akleh, who was wearing a clearly marked protective press vest and helmet, was likely unintentionally shot by an Israeli soldier but could also have been struck by Palestinian fire. Abu Akleh’s family believes she was killed deliberately, and witnesses to the incident have said there were no Palestinian fighters firing in the area she was standing.

The US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC) conducted an investigation, but the report remains classified. In a statement, Van Hollen, a Democrat on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, said the report contains important insights into her death.

That includes “relevant information and findings about the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces (Israeli military) unit involved in that operation – as well as other IDF units operating in the West Bank,” Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen said that while the USSC team was “unable to conduct an independent investigation” due to lack of access to key witnesses, the report’s public release was still vital to ensuring accountability in the shooting death of a US citizen.

The US State Department, which oversees the USSC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In December, Al Jazeera made a submission to the International Criminal Court over Abu Akleh’s killing. Her family has supported such efforts while urging action by the Biden administration.

Israel insists that its soldiers do not deliberately target journalists and has refused to identify the soldier who may have shot Abu Akleh.


Egypt, Israel pledge cooperation after border bloodshed

Updated 06 June 2023

Egypt, Israel pledge cooperation after border bloodshed

  • Egypt has said the policeman crossed into Israel while chasing drug smugglers

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to boost cooperation Tuesday after an Egyptian policeman shot dead three Israeli soldiers before being killed, officials said.
El-Sisi received a telephone call from Netanyahu about Saturday’s deadly violence on the normally calm border, the spokesman for the Egyptian president said.
During the conversation, the two leaders stressed “the importance of coordination between the two countries to clarify the circumstances,” he said.
Egypt has said the policeman crossed into Israel while chasing drug smugglers, leading to exchanges of fire with Israeli soldiers.
On Saturday, Netanyahu called the Egyptian shooter a “terrorist” although he has since mostly spoken of the shootings as an “incident.”
El-Sisi offered Netanyahu his “deep condolences,” the Israeli prime minister’s office said.
“The two leaders expressed their commitment to further strengthening peace and security cooperation, which is an essential value for both countries,” it added.
Israel’s border with Egypt has been largely quiet since Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel following the Camp David accords of 1978.
In recent years, there have been exchanges of fire between smugglers and Israeli soldiers stationed along the border.
Questions have been raised about why the Egyptian assailant — reported by Egyptian media to have been a 22-year-old conscript — crossed into Israel and opened fire.
Speaking at the opening of a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said his government had sent a “clear message” to Egypt: “We expect that the joint investigation will be exhaustive and thorough.”
On Tuesday, his office said he had “thanked the Egyptian president for... his commitment to an exhaustive and joint investigation of the incident.”

Iran debates new penalties for veil violations

Updated 06 June 2023

Iran debates new penalties for veil violations

  • Women have been required to cover their hair after the Islamic revolution of 1979
  • But a growing number are defying the law and appearing bareheaded in the streets

TEHRAN: An Iranian draft law that would set new penalties for women not wearing a headscarf in public has sparked heated debate within the Islamic republic’s leadership as more women flout the country’s strict dress code.
Since the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979, women have been required to cover their hair and neck in public places, with offenders facing fines or prison terms of up to two months.
But a growing number are defying the law and appearing bareheaded in the streets.
The trend accelerated during the nationwide protests sparked by the September death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman arrested for allegedly violating the law.
The protests rocked Iran, provoking a crackdown by authorities that claimed the lives of hundreds of people, including dozens of security personnel, and saw thousands more arrested.
Iran’s conservatives, who dominate the country’s parliament and leadership, have passionately defended the dress code and believe relaxing rules would begin a process leading to profound shifts in “social norms.”
But with many Iranians demanding change, in May the judiciary and the government proposed a “Support for the Culture of Hijab and Chastity” bill, to “protect society” and “strengthen family life.”
The text proposes increased fines for “any person removing their veil in public places or on the Internet” but withdraws the threat of a prison sentence.
“This bill reduces the removal of the hijab from a felony to a misdemeanour, similar to a traffic violation but with heavier fines,” sociologist Abbas Abdi said.
After Amini’s death and the subsequent protests, society “no longer accepts that we imprison a woman because she does not wear the veil,” he said.
Since the protests, authorities have imposed a series of measures to enforce Iran’s strict dress code, including the closure of businesses whose staff do not conform with the rules and installing cameras in public places to track down offenders.
In recent days, at least three officials have been sacked or arrested for failing to prevent unveiled women from entering historic sites.
Under the proposed law, the text of which has been published in government-affiliated media, offenders will first receive a warning text message from the police.
A second breach will incur fines of between five million and 60 million rials (around $10 to $120), a large sum for many Iranians. The law would also provide for other penalities, including the confiscation of a woman’s vehicle for up to 10 days.
Defending the bill, judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei stressed the need to avoid polarizing society, saying he understood the “concerns of believers” supportive of the dress code.
As the bill awaits examination by lawmakers, it faces accusations of not being tough enough from ultra-conservatives, an influential bloc in the current parliament.
Relaxing punishments for violations will see “the expansion of a repugnant phenomenon” by “removing legal barriers” for women not wearing a veil, the ultra-conservative newspaper Kayhan said.
Those supporting the law “do not know that the enemy” seeks to “destroy the family as an institution and ultimately, to attack the foundations of the Islamic system” by removing headscarves, the newspaper said.
Social networks and foreign media, particularly television channels broadcasting in Persian, are calling for “social disobedience,” according to some ultra-conservatives.
Within Iran’s leadership “there is no consensus on the hijab,” as some favor repression, while others “believe that other means must be tried,” the sociologist Abdi said.
“The bill satisfies neither the supporters of compulsory hijab nor, of course, the supporters of the freedom to cover up or not.”
A similar situation developed in the 1990s with a law prohibiting the use of satellite dishes, he said.
“It was only implemented for a while before it was dropped.”