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CWA # 444, 25 March 2021

Conflict Weekly 63
Sanctions on China, Saudi Arabia ceasefire in Yemen, the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, and a massacre in Niger

  IPRI Team

IPRI Conflict Weekly #63, 25 March 2021, Vol.1, No.12

Harini Madhusudan, Poornima B, Akriti Sharma and Apoorva Sudhakar


 
The US and allies sanction China; Beijing retaliates
In the news 
On 22 March, the US, UK, European Union, and Canada announced sanctions against four officials, former and current, in the Xinjiang province for alleged human rights abuses. The US had placed sanctions on two of the officials back in July 2020. The sanctions have also been placed on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary organization from the region.
 
On the same day, China announced the imposition of sanctions on 10 European Union citizens, and four EU entities, calling the sanctions a "gross interference" in its internal affairs and a violation of international law.

On 23 March, the Foreign Ministers of China and Russia met in Guilin and condemned the sanctions that have been placed on them by the West. The two sides called the sanctions unilateral and called on the international community to oppose them.
 
Issues at large
First, the increased international focus on Xinjiang. During the recent period, a BBC documentary describing the systemic assault on women within the re-education camps was released. The United Nations had revealed that more than one million Uighurs and other primarily Muslim Turkic-speaking residents in the region are known to be held in these "vocational skills training centers." In February 2020, the Canadian Parliament had declared China's treatment of the Uighurs as 'genocide.'
 
Second, the US strategy in building a coalition to condemn China on human rights. The coordinated efforts by the four western countries come around the same time when the US following the same: the Quad meeting, the two-plus-two meeting, the US-China talks in Alaska, and the visits by the Secretary of State to various strategic partners across the world. The sanctions aim to send a clear signal of unity by acting together in condemning China.
 
Third, China's response. On Xinjiang, in February, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his address at the UNHRC, announced that China welcomes the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Xinjiang. He stated that there were over 24,00 mosques in the region, and the basic facts would show that there has never been genocide, forced labour, or religious oppression in Xinjiang. The Chinese side is visibly disappointed with the EU joining the sanctions regime and placed sanctions on 10 EU individuals and four entities for "maliciously spreading lies and disinformation." 
 
In perspective
The sanctions have been announced at a time when the US is seeking to repair the relations with its NATO allies. Though the scale of the sanctions placed is not alarming, the coordinated efforts by the four countries reflect a strong message. Chinese human rights violations, as the reason for the sanctions, figure to be ill-timed, considering the fact that there are multiple ongoing human rights violations that have not been addressed by the same groups of nations. The tit-for-tat nature of the sanctions is a sign of brewing hostilities, as well as a clear expansion of the number of actors in the dispute between the US and China.
 


Yemen: Saudi Arabia announces ceasefire
In the news
On 23 March, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia announced a ceasefire proposal to end the war in Yemen. The terms of the ceasefire include the following: reopening of the airport in Sanaa, allowing regional and international flights to operate; permitting the import of food and fuel through the Hodeidah port; and, restarting negotiations between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.
 
The Houthis have dismissed the proposal citing there is "nothing new." In April 2020, Saudi Arabia had called for a ceasefire amid the coronavirus outbreak, which the warring parties eventually violated. Following the recent proposal, some Iranian news agency - Mehr News reported that Saudi Arabia was "forced" to suggest a ceasefire, underlining that the Houthis have the upper hand in Yemen's conflict.
 
Issues at large
First, the unending war with a serious humanitarian crisis. The war in Yemen has been ongoing since 2014; it has intensified with the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with material backing from the US. Over the years, Yemen's situation has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Yemen has wtinessed millions of people displaced, a cholera outbreak, a devastating flood, widespread poverty and food shortage leading to massive malnutrition among children.
 
Second, a devastating war with no clear objectives. Neither the Saudi-backed coalition forces nor the Houthis seem to be having a clear political objective. There seems to be no clear winner after seven years of war. Previous peace efforts have had only limited scope and have not been inclusive. The war is seen as a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh. 

Third, the different perspectives. The Houthis see the war as an act of aggression by Riyadh. Contrarily, the Saudi Kingdom sees it as a civil conflict, nonetheless acknowledging the invisible hand of Iran. This clash of narratives will question the credibility of the ceasefire. The southern separatists also do not seem to be trusting the Houthis in adhering to the ceasefire regulations. This discord could interfere with the initiative.
 
Fourth, the Houthis on a different leaf. While Riyadh has allowed for partial removal of the blockade on the Hodeidah port, the Houthis have demanded unconditional and complete removal. They also want the release of 14 ships that are under the control of the Saudi-led coalition. The discrepancies in the demands and compromises could render the ceasefire ineffective.
 
In perspective
As the Biden administration has clarified its position concerning the Yemen conflict, withdrawing its support to Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom seeks to refine its image in front of its most important western ally. Mohammed bin Salman's Yemen policy has been severely criticized; he seems to have realized the need for course correction and not further affect Riyadh's ties with Washington.

Unlike the previous time, this ceasefire proposal could gain more traction as there is active US intervention in the Yemeni crisis, something that was underplayed by President Trump. Lack of confidence between the parties, whose involvement is necessary for the ceasefire, is a potential hurdle. Saudi Arabia will be expected to step up its incentives to the Houthis to execute the ceasefire. The ceasefire, in turn, can be an efficient confidence-building mechanism that can cater to further peace efforts to resolve the conflict and tend to the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
 


Sri Lanka: The UNHRC resolution calls for reconciliation and accountability
In the news
On 23 March, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution titled "Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka" in the forty-sixth session. The resolution was drafted by a Core Group including the UK, Germany, Canada, Malawi, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. It was co-sponsored by 40 other countries including the US, France, and Italy. The resolution was put to vote through an e-voting system for the first time.
 
The resolution expressed concern regarding "policies that adversely affect the right to freedom of religion or belief; increased marginalization of persons belonging to the Tamil and Muslim communities; surveillance and intimidation of civil society; restrictions on media freedom, and shrinking democratic space". Further it raised concerns regarding "the prevailing marginalization of and discrimination against the Muslim community, and that cremations for those deceased from COVID-19 have prevented Muslims and members of other religions from practising their own burial religious rites, and has disproportionately affected religious minorities and exacerbated distress and tensions."
 
On 23 March, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena tweeted: "we welcome the majority of 25 of 47 members in the council to have expressed not to vote against SL, amidst heavy lobbying & unsubstantiated statements".
 
Issues at large
First, the UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war. This is the eighth one; the previous resolutions were passed during 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2019. In the latest resolution, 47 countries voted. Twenty-two voted for the resolution including the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Bahamas, Brazil, Bulgaria, Côte d'Ivoire, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Republic of Korea, Ukraine, Netherlands, and Poland. Eleven countries voted against the resolution include Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Russia, the Philippines, Eritrea, Venezuela, Bolivia, Somalia, Uzbekistan, and Cuba. Fourteen countries abstained include the following: India, Japan, Nepal, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, Bahrain, Libya, Mauritania, Namibia, Senegal, Sudan, and Togo abstained from voting.
 
Second, the regional divide. The countries who voted in the favour of the resolution are predominantly American and European countries. The countries who voted against the resolution are predominantly Asian and African countries. In South Asia, two countries (Nepal and India) abstained from the voting and two countries (Pakistan and Bangladesh) voted against the resolution.
 
Third, Sri Lanka and the indifference towards the UNHRC. Sri Lanka views the UNHRC resolutions as interference in domestic affairs. Despite the several efforts of UNHRC to check human rights, the government has remained ignorant towards the human rights abuse of minorities. On 27 January 2020, Sri Lanka announced its withdrawal from co-sponsorship of Resolution 40/1 on 'Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka'. 
 
In perspective
First, the special provision of the resolution. The resolution recognizes the importance of preserving and analyzing evidence relating to violations and abuses of human rights. It also mandates the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights "to collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka." This will enhance the monitoring and scrutiny of human rights abuses in the country.
 
Second, the resolution renews the hope for providing long-awaited justice to the victims of thirty years of civil war, which ended in 2009. There had been a renewal in the human rights abuses in the country after the Rajapaksas came to power in 2019.
 


Niger: 137 massacred in the latest attack by gunmen
In the news
On 23 March, a three-day mourning began in Niger in memory of the 137 who were killed in a raid by unidentified gunmen. On the same day, the African Union chairman said the fight against terrorism in the Sahel has to be strengthened urgently.
 
On 22 March, the Nigerien government confirmed the incident, which took place across three villages in the southwestern part of Niger on 21 March. The government statement read, "In treating civilian populations systematically as targets now, these armed bandits have gone a step further into horror and brutality." Further, the statement said the government had launched an investigation "to find the perpetrators of these cowardly and criminal acts, and bring them before the courts."
 
On 21 March, the Constitutional Court confirmed the victory of Mohamed Bazoum as the new President of Niger after elections were conducted in February.     
 
Issues at large
First, the continuing attacks in Niger. The latest attack comes less than a week after at least 58 people were killed in a similar raid by gunmen on 15 March in a neighbouring village. Prior to this incident, on 2 January, as many as 100 civilians were killed in two separate attacks in the same region. As of 23 March, BBC reported that close to 300 people were killed in "jihadist violence."
 
Second, the lack of clarity on the perpetrators. As of 24 March, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack. The BBC quotes a Sahel researcher who said the perpetrators in the latest attack are believed to belong to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Apart from the ISGS, groups like al Qaeda also operate in countries across the Sahel region, especially in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. However, some instances of violence have been linked to ethnic Fulani tribes and their conflict with other communities for access and control over resources.  
 
Third, the victims. Apart from civilians, security forces have also been targeted by the perpetrators. In January 2020, 89 Nigerien soldiers were killed in an attack on a military base. Further, the tactics of violence are similar in neighbouring countries like Mali; a similar attack was targeted at a military base in Mali. Here, 33 soldiers were killed and 14 were injured during the attack for which the IS had claimed responsibility. Among the civilians, children too have been killed during the raids by gunmen.
 
Fourth, failure of government and regional security forces. The government, in cooperation with neighbouring countries, has deployed several forces to address the threat. Further, Bazoum ordered army reinforcement in the region following the attacks on 15 March. However, these operations have not yielded the necessary results.
 
In perspective
First, the increased frequency and scale of attacks and failure of the government to address the issue have caused insecurities among the populations living in the border areas. It is questionable that armed forces are unaware of or unwilling to monitor the movement of hundreds of gunmen towards civilian areas.
 
Second, the onus of introducing measures to curb the violence now lies on Bazoum, who will be sworn in on 2 April. He was elected on his promises to address the insecurity in the region; whether he will be able to walk the talk remains to be seen in the coming few months.
 


Also from around the World
By Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez
 
Peace and Conflict from East and Southeast Asia
China: Beijing releases report on US human rights situation
On 24 March, China released its annual report on the human rights situation in the US. According to the Global Times, the report outlines the "failure of governance in handling the COVID-19 epidemic." Further, it refers to the Capitol Hill riots and calls it a "disorder in American democracy." The report also mentions the "growing discrimination against ethnic minorities" and an increasing divide between the rich and poor. The Global Times says that China's report has exposed the US' statements on the human rights situation in other countries as "hypocrisy and double standards."
 
The Philippines: Over 200 Chinese vessels spotted at Whitsun Reef
On 20 March, a Philippine government body said around 220 Chinese vessels were spotted at the Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea on 7 March. The reef is claimed by the Philippines and China. The government body said the Chinese vessels, which they believe are manned by militias, are "a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to the safety of navigation. On 21 March, the Philippine Defence Secretary called on China to recall the vessels; he equated their presence to a "provocative action of militarising the area."
 
Australia: Two die in floods; nearly 40,000 forced to flee their homes
On 24 March, two men died in the flooding across Australia. These were the first fatalities recorded since the floods started on 18 March. On 20 March, a dam overflowed, leading to flash flooding. On 22 March, the government declared a natural disaster in New South Wales, which is the worst-hit state. As of 24 March, more than 40,000 people had to flee their homes. Further, animals and cattle have also been affected. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, "The expanse of water that went right across that region was quite devastating to see."
 
Myanmar: Seven-year-old killed during the military crackdown
On 24 March, protests in Myanmar intensified after the latest military crackdown resulted in the death of three people, including a seven-year-old on 23 March, the youngest to be killed in the conflict. Save the Children and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said since the military started its crackdown, at least 20 people below the age of 18 have been killed. As of 22 March, the total death toll from the crackdown on protests stands at 254. However, on 23 March, the military regime justified itself saying they would not accommodate anarchy.
 
Thailand: PM denies sending supplies to Tatmadaw
On 22 March, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha dismissed reports that Thailand was sending food supplies to the Myanmarese Army, the Tatmadaw. Instead, he said the government was sending food supplies to Myanmarese, who were living in mountainous areas between Thailand and Myanmar. The supplies, he claimed, were being sent on their request. Earlier, the Thai media said that the Thai army had transferred 700 sacks of rice to Tatmadaw units. The media quoted a security official who said that the supplies were given on the orders of the Thai government.
 
Peace and Conflict from South Asia
Bangladesh: Another massive fire breaks out at a Rohingya refugee camp 
On 22 March, a devasting fire swept through the Balukhali camp, a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. The fire is reported to have left 15 people dead, and 400 remain missing, destroying homes and endangering the lives of tens of thousands of refugees. Bangladeshi officials said they are investigating the cause of the massive fire as officials sifted through the debris, looking for more victims. This was the third blaze to hit the camps in four days.
 
India: Mizoram Chief Minister holds talks with Foreign Minister of Myanmar
On 21 March, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga held a virtual meeting with Foreign Minister of Myanmar Zin Mar Aung, the preceding which have not been disclosed. Previously, on 19 March, the Ministry of Home Affairs wrote to four northeast states asking them to be vigilant against the influx of people from Myanmar and added that states and Union Territories had no powers to grant 'refugee' status to any foreigner. In response, Zoramthanga, in a letter to Prime Minister Modi, said "I understand there are certain foreign policy issues where India needs to proceed cautiously. However, we cannot ignore this humanitarian crisis," urging the government to provide asylum, food and shelter to those refugees who arrived in India. 
 
India-Pakistan: Indus water dialogue resumes after two years
On 23 and 24 March, India and Pakistan held the 116th round of the Permanent Indus Commission in New Delhi. The two-day meeting is being led on the Indian side by Indus Water Commissioner Pradeep Kumar Saxena and the Pakistani delegation by Pakistan's Commissioner for Indus Waters Syed Mohammad Mehr Ali Shah. During the meeting, a host of issues, including a discussion on Pakistan's objections about two Indian projects; Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai is expected to be held. Ahead of the meeting, Saxena said, "India is committed towards full utilization of its rights under the Treaty and believes in an amicable solution of issues through discussion."
 
Afghanistan: New round of negotiations begins at the Moscow Conference
On 18 March, Russia hosted the first of three international conferences aimed at reviving the stalled Afghanistan negotiations. The conference was attended by representatives of the Afghan government led by the Head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, Taliban's deputy leader Mullah Baradar, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and several major countries, including China, Pakistan, Iran, India. At the conference, the 2020 UN Security Council Resolution 2513 which opposes the restoration of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was endorsed.
 
Peace and Conflict from Central Asia, Middle East and Africa 
Uzbekistan: Talks on border delimitation with Kyrgyzstan begin
On 24 March, talks on border delimitation began between delegations led by the Uzbek Prime Minister and the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security's Chief. The border issues between the two countries have been "a major bone of contention in bilateral ties since 1991" especially near the enclaves in the Ferghana Valley.
 
Syria: Six, including a child, killed in artillery shelling
On 21 March, six civilians, including a child, were killed, and 16 injured, in an artillery shelling by the government on a hospital in northwestern Syria. According to the International Rescue Committee's country director, the latest incident is the fifth attack on a healthcare facility in 2021. Further, the hospital was located underground; this tactic is commonly adopted "by the opposition to avoid being targeted in the conflict-prone area." Volunteer group White Helmets said the latest incident is a "continuation of the regime and Russia's systematic policy of targeting medical facilities and hospitals."
 
Yemen: Save the Children says more than 2,300 children killed in three years 
On 23 March, Save the Children said that more than 2,300 children were killed between 2018 and 2020 in the Yemen conflict, accounting for 25 per cent of the total casualties. The country director for the organization said, "Yemeni children have been living through a horrific and endless nightmare for six years now. Children continue to be killed and injured on a near-daily basis." Further, the organization's CEO referred to the UN's predictions of famine in Yemen and said it "could kill hundreds of thousands of children." However, funds for the organization have dropped by more than 40 per cent in comparison to 2020.
 
Ethiopia: PM admits to the presence of Eritrean troops during the Tigray conflict
On 23 March, for the first time, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that Eritrean troops had crossed the border during the Tigray conflict. However, he said they had entered the border anticipating attacks from Tigrayan forces and "had promised to leave when Ethiopia's military was able to control the border." The admission comes after the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments had denied the presence of Eritrean troops in the conflict zone several times. Further, he referred to the reports of human rights abuses by Eritrean soldiers and said anyone found guilty of raping and looting would be held accountable.
 
Mozambique: Number of IDPs in Cabo Delgado could reach a million by June, say UN officials
On 22 March, senior UN officials said the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Cabo Delgado province could reach one million by June 2021 if the insurgency is not addressed. The Assistant High Commissioners in Mozambique said the number of IDPs had increased from nearly 70,000 in 2020 to 700,000 in just a year. One of the officials said, "If one looks at the speed at which we are seeing the number of internally displaced persons rise, we know that the window of opportunity that we have is closing."
 
Peace and Conflict from Europe and the Americas
Europe: Anti-lockdown protests break out amid surge in cases
On 20 March, protesters rallied across Europe against the reimposed partial lockdowns to curb the surge in COVID-19 cases. In Germany, protesters clashed with police officers who used water cannon, pepper spray and batons against people trying to break through police barriers. Similar incidents were also reported in several other countries, including Austria, the UK, Finland, Romania and Switzerland.
 
Bristol: 14 arrested as 'Kill the bill' demonstrations continue 
On 23 March, 14 people were arrested on the second night of protests against the government's new Police and Crime Bill in Bristol. On the same day, public order officers moved protesters away from College Green in the city, where about 200 people had gathered for a second demonstration. Conversely, police officials have stated that the police officers feel "under siege" and the task of controlling demonstrations during a lockdown is proving "near-on impossible." The demonstrations to "kill the bill" came two days after a peaceful demonstration against the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill erupted into violence with a police station attacked.
 
Turkey: Erdogan withdraws from the Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women
On 20 March, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan withdrew from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence through a presidential decree. The accord which is called the 'Istanbul Convention' had pledged to prevent, prosecute and eliminate domestic violence and promote equality. Although there was no formal reason for the decision, government officials said that domestic law rather than outside would help protect women's rights. The decision prompted protests and criticism from those who said it was necessary to tackle rising domestic violence.
 
Venezuela: Military clashes with an armed group on Colombia border
On 22 March, the Venezuelan National Army clashed with a Colombian armed group. The confrontation occurred in the southwest of Venezuela, in Arauquitao, Apure which border Colombia. President Nicolas Maduro confirmed the incident on national television saying, "We are in Operation Bolivarian Shield, protecting our border from Colombia's abandonment of the entire border, which causes armed groups to come here," adding, that the country would "respond with force" if Colombia's new elite anti-rebel force "dared to violate the sovereignty of Venezuela."
 
The US: Protesters rally against Anti-Asian hate across the country
On 21 March, hundreds of people gathered in New York's Columbus Park in Manhattan's Chinatown to protests against anti-Asian hate. Similar rallies were held in cities including Washington DC, Los Angeles and Seattle. The protests came after the shooting attacks at massage parlours in Atlanta which claimed eight lives, as well as the recent surge in hostilities toward Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino Anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police rose nearly 150 per cent in 16 of the largest US cities in 2020.
 


About the authors
Harini Madhusudan and Akriti Sharma are PhD Scholars; Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Project Assistants at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Poornima B is a TMA Pai Research Fellow and PhD Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
 

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