On Saturday, 24 November, a suspected chemical weapons attack took place in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The attack, which has not been independently verified, occurred during shelling of the government-controlled city and left an estimated 100 people with severe respiratory problems and other symptoms associated with exposure to chemical weapons. It is unclear who was responsible, although the Syrian and Russian governments accused opposition forces based in Idlib Governorate of perpetrating the attack.
In response, the Syrian and Russian governments carried out airstrikes in Aleppo and Idlib governorates for the first time since September. Idlib and adjoining portions of Aleppo and Hama governorates constitute the last major opposition stronghold within Syria. Fighting in the area has decreased markedly since Russia and Turkey negotiated the creation of a demilitarized zone on 17 September. Of the 3 million people currently living within Idlib Governorate, approximately half are internally displaced.
During October an investigation by BBC News reported that 106 chemical weapons attacks – including nerve agents and chlorine – have taken place in Syria since 2014, with the vast majority perpetrated by Syrian government forces. The use of chemical weapons is strictly prohibited under international law and constitutes a war crime.
On 26 November the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that its Fact Finding Mission will investigate the Aleppo incident. Following a decision in June to expand the OPCW’s mandate, the Fact Finding Mission is now tasked with identifying perpetrators responsible for acts of chemical warfare. Also on 26 November, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad appointed Muhammad Khalid Rahmun as the new Minister of the Interior. During 2017 Rahmun was sanctioned by the United States for his role in chemical weapons attacks as former chief of the Political Security Directorate.
The international community, including the UN Security Council and key regional powers, must ensure that the demilitarized zone is maintained and hostilities do not escalate in Idlib Governorate. All parties to the conflict should cooperate fully with OPCW investigators and ensure that all perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks are brought to justice, regardless of position or affiliation.
Last Wednesday, 21 November, the UN Special Envoy for Burundi, Michel Kafando, briefed the UN Security Council on the human rights crisis in the country. One week earlier UN Secretary-General António Guterres released his latest report on Burundi, warning of continued forced disappearances, torture and other systematic violations of human rights. These concerns were echoed by the Special Envoy, who detailed an ongoing pattern of hate-speech and incitement to violence in the country. Kafando emphasized that the time has come for a significant reassessment of conflict mediation strategies ahead of Burundi’s 2020 elections.
The political crisis in Burundi has been ongoing since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third presidential term in April 2015. Since then an estimated 10,000 Burundians have been victims of arbitrary detention and at least 1,200 people have been killed in politically inspired violence. Approximately 390,000 refugees have also fled the country. Most violations and abuses of human rights have been perpetrated by the national intelligence service, the police and the Imbonerakure – the ruling party’s youth wing. The Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi has found that these violations and abuses may amount to crimes against humanity.
The Inter-Burundian Dialogue, led by the East African Community, was initiated three years ago in order to mediate an end to this crisis. However, in recent months talks have been boycotted by exiled opposition parties and civil society activists. The Burundian government also cancelled its participation in the latest round of talks, which took place during October. Consequently, the root causes of Burundi’s conflict remain unaddressed and insecurity and repression continue.
With the support of the international community, the Burundian government should engage in meaningful dialogue with opposition parties and civil society in order to create conditions for free, fair and transparent elections in 2020. Those elections will not be credible unless the government of Burundi ends systematic human rights violations directed at its perceived political opponents. As a step towards greater accountability and in keeping with past commitments, Burundi should grant immediate access to members of the CoI and allow them to fully investigate all potential mass atrocity crimes committed in the country since 2015.
On 21 November a Guatemalan court convicted Santos López Alonso of crimes against humanity perpetrated in the village of Dos Erres in December 1982 during Guatemala’s bloody civil war. The court ruled that López was responsible for the deaths of 171 people and sentenced him to life in prison. According to the court, crimes against humanity perpetrated in Dos Erres were part of a larger state policy carried out by the ruling military junta.
López was a member of an elite military unit known as the “Kaibiles.” Over several days more than 200 people were killed and many others raped in Dos Erres by the Kaibiles, who suspected the town’s inhabitants of sympathizing with left-wing guerillas. According to the national Commission for Historical Clarification, over 200,000 people – mostly indigenous Mayans – were killed during Guatemala’s conflict. State forces and paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the violations documented by the Commission, which also concluded that “agents of the state committed acts of genocide against the Mayan people.”
Accountability for atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war is long overdue. During November 2015 an appellate court ruled that a 1986 general amnesty did not apply to genocide and crimes against humanity. In addition to López, five other former soldiers have been held accountable for their role in the Dos Erres massacre. In February 2017 two former military officers were convicted of crimes against humanity, including sexual slavery, in the first trial prosecuting sexual violence related to the civil war. Prior to the death of former President and General Efraín Ríos Montt earlier this year, a judge had also ordered him to stand trial for his role in authorizing the massacre at Dos Erres.
The sentencing of López follows the recent conviction of two former Khmer Rouge officials for genocide perpetrated in Cambodia during the 1970s. These decisions represent historic victories for the victims of mass atrocity crimes around the world and are an important reminder that justice can catch up with any perpetrator, regardless of how powerful they may currently seem.