Atrocity Alert No. 153: Venezuela, Syria and China

1 May 2019

Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

Opposition ‘uprising’ and government repression leaves Venezuelans at risk of atrocities 

Yesterday, 30 April, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for a popular uprising in what he announced would be the “final phase” of a movement to remove President Nicholas Maduro from power. Guaidó announced the beginning of “Operación Libertad” alongside a number of soldiers near a military base in Caracas. Later in the day there were armed clashes between rival groups of soldiers and police, as well as violent protests across Caracas. Government security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse opposition supporters.

On Tuesday night Maduro appeared on television to announce that the senior commanders of the security forces remained loyal to him and to claim that he had defeated an “attempted coup.” Both Maduro and Guaidó have called for mass demonstrations of popular support to take place later today, 1 May. As this crisis continues to unfold, the risk of further violence is extremely high.

Following several years of widespread protests against the government of President Maduro and an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis, the political conflict in Venezuela escalated when Maduro began his second term in January 2019. Accusing the government of electoral fraud, dozens of states – including many Latin American and European countries, as well as the United States and Canada – recognized Guaidó as interim President. Since then, Maduro and Guaidó have been engaged in an intense struggle for control of the state.

During 2018 independent experts mandated by the Organization of American States (OAS) accused the Venezuelan government of crimes against humanity, including during deadly crackdowns on protests in 2014 and 2017. Most recently, at least 40 people were killed during anti-government demonstrations in January 2019.

Regardless of the outcome of the current crisis and the intensifying struggle for political power in Venezuela, it is essential that all parties respect universal human rights, comply with international law, and uphold their responsibility to protect civilians.

The war against ISIL and the destruction of Raqqa

Between 6 June and 17 October 2017 the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with air support from a United States-led international coalition, engaged in an offensive to liberate the city of Raqqa, Syria, from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Civilians bore the brunt of the battle for Raqqa. While ISIL used civilians as human shields and snipers shot those trying to flee areas under its control, relentless air strikes by the international coalition reduced the city to rubble.

Despite claiming to have taken reasonable measures to minimize civilian casualties, according to a new investigation by Amnesty International and Airwars, the United States-led coalition’s air campaign resulted in more than 1,600 civilians being killed in Raqqa. While the United States has admitted responsibility for the deaths of 159 civilians, they have dismissed the remainder of fatalities as non-credible.

In addition to the high number of civilian deaths, extensive damage to infrastructure raises serious concerns about tactics employed by the international coalition. According to Amnesty and Airwars, with 30,000 artillery shells fired at Raqqa by the coalition in just four months, adequate precautions to distinguish between military targets and civilian areas did not seem to be met. Following the military campaign, nearly 80 percent of the city of Raqqa was uninhabitable, with more than 11,000 buildings destroyed.

ISIL ruled Raqqa for almost four years, claiming it as the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate. While in control of the city, the group perpetrated widespread abuses against the civilian population, including beheadings and crucifixions. Many of these public executions took place in Al-Naim Square, where the killings were often filmed for propaganda purposes and bodies were left on display as a warning to locals. ISIL fighters also consistently used civilian buildings for military purposes and committed extensive war crimes during the battle for Raqqa.

Members of the United States-led coalition should rigorously investigate the civilian impact of its military campaign, including by conducting on-site investigations and interviewing eyewitnesses, and should provide reparations to victims. The international community should also ensure that senior members of ISIL, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities committed in Syria and Iraq.

The Uighurs and potential crimes against humanity in China

The treatment of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region has brought international attention to potential widespread and systematic human rights violations in China. The government’s approach to combatting religious extremism has resulted in the arbitrary detention of up to one million ethnic Uighurs in government “re-education camps.” The Chinese government has also reportedly placed severe restrictions on religious practice and in recent years has engaged in the destruction of Uighur cultural heritage, including through bulldozing mosques.

On 25-27 April UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited China as part of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. According to his Spokesperson, during the visit Secretary-General Guterres “stressed that human rights must be fully respected in the fight against terrorism and in the prevention of violent extremism.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has repeatedly requested access to investigate allegations regarding the camps, but the Chinese government has consistently rejected UN reports of human rights violations.

Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China also face pervasive government surveillance, including through an extensive network of surveillance cameras using facial recognition technology. The government also requires civilians in Xinjiang to download tracking apps on their mobile phones and install QR codes on the outside of Uighur homes.

A recent joint policy brief by the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect asserts that the mass detention of the Uighurs may constitute crimes against humanity under international law. The policy brief provides an overview of China’s response to growing international pressure to halt the persecution of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region and offers recommendations on how to address these issues.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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