The Long Road to Justice for Sri Lanka’s Civil War Victims

During the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, around 80,000 civilians became trapped between Tamil Tiger rebels and advancing government troops (Image Source: trokilinochchi)

More than eight years after government forces crushed the northern Tamil Tiger separatists in the bloody final battle of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war, victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by both sides still await a semblance of justice. On a visit to the island nation last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, lamented the government’s failure to establish a hybrid court to try those accused of committing war crimes. De Greiff warned Sri Lanka over its slow progress, stating the delay in investigating alleged abuses ‘‘raises many questions about the determination of the government to undertake a comprehensive transitional justice program’’.

The worst of the alleged abuses took place during the last few weeks of the conflict in May 2009, when government troops cornered the remaining rebels in a thin slice of territory along Sri Lanka’s northeast coastline. The UN and human rights groups have accused the government of extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and indiscriminately shelling civilian ‘no-fire zones’. Meanwhile, the Tamil Tigers have been accused of launching suicide bombings, recruiting child soldiers and using civilians as human shields during the final battle.

It is estimated that in the dying months of the conflict, anywhere between 7,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed. In addition, tens-of-thousands of Sri Lankans – mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority – have disappeared without trace. With progress toward establishing a war crimes tribunal stalling almost a decade after the bloodshed ended, this report reflects on Sri Lanka’s post-war politics and looks at the political controversy surrounding efforts to put war criminals on trial.

The conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers – formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – began in 1983, after rebels fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the northeast killed 13 soldiers in an ambush. Ethnic tensions had long been simmering between the Hindu Tamil minority and the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, since Sri Lanka’s independence from 150 years of British rule in 1948. The LTTE initially carried out a guerrilla campaign consisting of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes targeting security personnel, before a full-scale civil war erupted in the mid-1990s. The two sides eventually signed a ceasefire mediated by Norway in 2002, before violence once again flared in the mid-2000s as the LTTE regained swathes of territory in its strongholds.

After the election of authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the military took the fight to the rebels with renewed vigour. In January 2008, the government formally withdrew from the ceasefire and launched an all-out offensive designed to bring an end to the conflict. Over the next eighteen months, government forces re-took most of the rebel-held territory in the northeast, including the strategically-important town of Kilinochchi, which had served as the LTTE’s headquarters for more than a decade. On 19 May 2009, President Rajapaksa declared the country ‘‘liberated’’ from terrorism, as the remnants of the LTTE laid down their arms after their long-time leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in a shoot-out with government troops.

The final weeks of the conflict were among its most bloody. More then 80,000 fleeing civilians became trapped in a small pocket of territory between rapidly advancing soldiers and retreating LTTE rebels. Alleged war crimes were committed by both sides. International human rights groups accused government forces of shelling civilians in areas which had been demarcated as ‘safe zones’, as well as carrying-out extra-judicial killings of captured Tamil fighters. The LTTE were accused of forcibly recruiting children in an attempt to bolster its rapidly-dwindling ranks, as well as launching suicide attacks in civilian areas and using fleeing civilians as human shields, even reportedly firing in front of crowds to prevent trapped people from leaving the combat zone. Media outlets – notably Channel 4 News in the UK – obtained video footage purporting to show the aftermath of hospitals being shelled, as well as unarmed Tamil fighters being blindfolded and executed by government troops at point-blank range. The footage prompted international outcry and condemnation.

The Sri Lankan government at the time – led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa – denied all allegations of abuse, labelling the unverified video footage as ‘‘fabricated’’ and an outside attempt to destabilize the country. Rajapaksa’s administration rejected all calls for an international inquiry, despite calls by the UN for Sri Lanka to set-up a hybrid court with the involvement of foreign judges.

Hopes for a formal investigation into war crimes were raised in January 2015 following the surprise election victory of Maithripala Sirisena. President Sirisena was elected on a reform ticket pledging to curb the powers of the presidency, fight corruption and protect freedom of speech, marking a clear break from the increasingly-authoritarian strongman-type regime led by Rajapaksa.

President Sirisena’s government has implemented reforms since assuming power in 2015, but a UN-backed war crimes tribunal is yet to be established (Image Source: Russian Government)

Under Sirisena, a degree of progress has indeed been made. The government has initiated public consultations on issues related to the conflict, and last year set-up an ‘Office for Missing Persons’ to trace more than 20,000 people who disappeared during the conflict and its aftermath. Among the missing are activists, journalists and critics of the government along with thousands of former LTTE rebels, family members and Tamil rights campaigners. The government has now acknowledged the problem and announced that family members of missing persons will be issued with certificates, but as yet little progress has been made in finding out the truth of what happened to the disappeared.

Some observers contend that many of the missing Tamils have been abducted by military and intelligence officers, and have either been killed or may still be being held in state-run detention centres. Some evidence has emerged to support this theory, with campaign groups such as Freedom from Torture and the International Truth and Justice Project presenting harrowing witness accounts and first-hand testimonies detailing detention and torture in military camps. Whilst these accounts are unverified, they have been supported by a number of legal and medical experts.

In the year after his election victory, President Sirisena spoke at the UN General Assembly of the importance of confronting his country’s past, pledging to ‘‘follow a process of truth-seeking, justice, reparation and non-recurrence’’. He appeared to back-up these words with action in September 2015, after tentatively agreeing to the terms of a UN Security Council resolution to establish a hybrid court – made up of both Sri Lankan and international judges – to put on trial those suspected of committing war crimes during the Tamil conflict. The move was praised by most member states.

Yet progress in establishing such a tribunal has been slow, and Sirisena appears to have backtracked on some of his early promises. A reconciliation consultation committee appointed by Sri Lanka’s government recommended earlier this year that ‘‘international participation in the court should be phased-out’’ once the ‘‘required expertise and capacity has been built-up’’ among locally-appointed judges. The tribunal has still not come to fruition, and Sri Lanka received a two-year extension in March this year to fulfil its commitment to the UN resolution, further delaying the process.

Last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, warned the government in Colombo that further delays in making good on their promise to establish a war crimes tribunal involves significant risks. After a two-week visit to Sri Lanka, he said ‘‘no-one should be under the impression that waiting is a costless alternative’’, adding that the ‘‘failure to achieve progress in fully addressing issues’’ related to the civil war ‘‘constitutes a denial of justice’’.

The longer it takes to establish the truth and secure justice for what happened in the final weeks of the conflict back in May 2009, the frustration of victims and tensions between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities will inevitably rise. Many Tamils still hold grievances and perceive repression at the hands of the state – particularly at the hands of the military – who retain a dominant presence in the northeast of the country. These suspicions will surely continue to fester for as long as relatives of the deceased and the disappeared sense a continued lack of accountability for abuses committed by state actors during the war, and an absence of justice for its thousands of civilian victims.

President Sirisena’s government has undoubtedly made progress through the introduction of limited reforms, yet accusations of human rights abuses and impunity for state actors continue to be made. It is time for the tougher and more controversial issues related to the final stages of conflict to be tackled – including confronting allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes on both sides – if reconciliation is to be achieved and Sri Lanka is to finally move on from a dark chapter in its history.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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Indonesia unmoved by West Papua independence struggle

Indonesia has exercised sovereignty over West Papua since a disputed 1969 UN-backed referendum. President Joko Widodo’s position is supported by neighbouring Australia (Image Source: DFAT, Timothy Tobing)

In the Indonesian province of West Papua, a movement for independence has existed since the early 1960s. Located at the country’s easternmost point, West Papua came under Indonesian control in a disputed UN-backed referendum in 1969, sparking an independence struggle which has taken place far from the gaze of the outside world.

Over the past five decades this seemingly intractable conflict – and its competing narratives – have been largely forgotten by those outside the region. In recent years however, the dispute has gained greater international attention as a result of more organized efforts on the part of independence activists, alongside a growing network of concerned politicians around the globe.

Yet despite this upturn in media coverage, civil society action and political manoeuvring, the call for a new referendum on West Papua’s future remains unlikely to be granted.

The origins of the dispute date back to the mid-20th Century, when the area was under Dutch colonial control. Indonesia became an independent state in 1949, yet West Papua remained under Dutch control throughout the 1950s. As calls for West Papua’s own independence grew throughout the decade, leaders in the area held a Congress in 1961 and for the first time raised their own flag – known as the ‘Morning Star’.

Conflict over the territory soon broke-out between Indonesia, West Papua and the Dutch colonisers, until a UN-sponsored treaty – known as the New York Agreement – was brokered in 1962. The agreement initially gave control of West Papua to the United Nations, before transferring control to Indonesia with the promise that a referendum would be held on the future of the territory.

When the ballot – known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’ – was finally held in 1969, it did not resemble a referendum as had been promised by the UN. The Indonesian military selected just over one-thousand West Papuan leaders to vote on behalf of the entire population. All of those eligible to take part voted in favour of the territory being incorporated into Indonesia – yet reportedly did so within an atmosphere of intimidation and under the threat of violence.

In a much-criticized move, the decision was later authorized by the UN, and West Papua was officially incorporated into Indonesia. Local resentment against the decision was strong, with many labelling the referendum as an ‘Act of No Choice’. The perceived injustice following the referendum result gave rise to the independence movement which has spawned in the decades since, and this injustice remains a key motivating factor amongst those still seeking independence today.

West Papua is located in eastern Indonesia. It borders Papua New Guinea to the west, and is separated from northern Australia by the Arafura Sea (Image Source: US Library of Congress)

Resistance has taken several forms. An armed guerrilla group – called the OPM (Free Papua Movement) – was formed in 1970, and has carried out a number of attacks on Indonesian security forces and against multinational corporations operating in the area, particularly in the mining and resource sector. In recent decades, the independence movement has become more peaceful and political in nature, particularly since the fall of Indonesia’s former military dictator, General Suharto, in the late 1990s. In 2000, a public congress was held, and the Papuan Presidium Council (PDP) was formed in an attempt to gain recognition for the independence struggle; yet this project eventually failed after crackdowns by the Indonesian security forces and internal divisions within the group. More recently, several campaign groups have formed and have become better organized, holding demonstrations in the region and in other countries, to raise awareness of the situation.

Over the last five decades, information on the situation in West Papua has been difficult to obtain and verify, as foreign journalists and non-governmental organizations have largely been banned from the province. However, numerous human rights violations have reportedly been carried-out by the Indonesian security forces, including accusations of torture, murder, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. In addition, many people from other parts of Indonesia have been moved into the province, in what could be viewed as an attempt to lessen the influence of West Papuan culture.

The conflict long-ago reached a point of stalemate, with the dispute refusing to recede despite the fact that almost 50 years have passed since the original referendum took place. There are multiple reasons why the dispute has become so intractable, not to mention the firmly-ingrained competing interpretations of the situation, which prevail on each side of the debate.

From the perspective of the West Papuan independence movement, the grievances felt in the 1960s have not subsided over time, and continue to drive the struggle today. First and foremost, the perceived historical injustice at the way the referendum was conducted remains strong. Other secondary factors have added to this feeling of injustice in the years since, including reports of human rights violations, cultural marginalization and economic disadvantages.

From the perspective of the Indonesian government, the territory was always rightfully obtained under a legal referendum, with the result sanctioned by the UN, thus resulting in legitimacy to govern and support from the international community. Many of Indonesia’s allies and closest neighbours – notably Australia – have long supported Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua. The province has come to occupy a central location in Indonesia’s national imagination, and is of huge economic importance due to its rich mineral resources. As a result, Indonesia has gone great lengths to secure control over the area, through maintaining a strong military presence and effectively closing the region off to international observers.

The campaign for West Papua’s independence has gathered pace in recent years, with an increasing number of demonstrations being held. (Image Source: Nichollas Harrison)

In recent years, Indonesia has been accused of carrying-out large-scale arrests of demonstrators and members of the independence movement, whilst the government has repeatedly urged other nations to respect Indonesia’s sovereignty. In this sense, the status-quo has undergone little change.

Yet last year, the independence campaign appeared to pick up pace, with a global conference on West Papua held in London in May 2016. Members of the ‘Free West Papua’ movement were in attendance, along with members of the ‘International Parliamentarians for West Papua’ (IPWP) group, including the current UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. At the meeting, prominent pro-independence leader Benny Wenda urged the UN to initiate and supervise a new vote for independence in West Papua, to make up for the perceived failings of the 1969 UN-backed vote.

The reinvigorated pro-independence campaign serves as evidence that despite Indonesia’s tight control of the province, and despite doubts over whether West Papua would be able to survive as an independent nation, calls for a new referendum are unlikely to subside. In fact, the independence movement appears to be more resilient and better-organized than at any time in recent history.

The involved parties are aware that persuading Indonesia to hold a new referendum is an unlikely prospect. Yet irrespective of the campaign’s long-term success or failure in terms of achieving an independence vote, it serves an important purpose in raising awareness of the human rights situation faced by civilians in West Papua.

Since being elected in 2014, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has visited the region and shown greater interest in its development than his predecessors, raising hopes of an improved economic and human rights situation for the local population. If President Widodo is serious about his pledge to improve livelihoods and repair Indonesia’s damaged reputation in West Papua, then opening-up the region to foreign journalists and human rights organizations would be a positive first step.

Cyprus: an island divided, but for how much longer?

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Since 1974, a heavily-guarded UN buffer zone has divided Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities (Image Source: Jpatokal)

After more than four decades of division, recent peace talks between leaders on both sides of Cyprus’ infamous Green Line have led to a renewed sense of optimism, bringing fresh hope that the long-troubled eastern Mediterranean island could finally be reunified. Since 20 July 1974, Cyprus has been split across the middle, with a 180km-long UN buffer zone separating the Greek-Cypriot south from the Turkish-Cypriot north. Despite the failure of several previous attempts at resolution, there now appears to be a greater chance of success due to a growing political will – reinforced by firm commitments from the island’s leaders – to achieve reunification.

The current phase of negotiations between Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci began in May 2015, and significant progress has been made over the last two years. Recent media reports – as of January 2017 – have indicated that the talks are now entering the latter stages, with a final deal expected to be announced in the near future. However, whilst this apparent progress should be welcomed, it is important to apply a note of caution and avoid celebrating prematurely. As talks continue further into the year, it must be acknowledged that the issue of reunification is complex and fraught with many difficult and emotive issues, which will not simply be resolved overnight – irrespective of the outcome of the current discussions.

In order to better understand the complexity of the issues to be resolved, it is first necessary to return to to the roots of Cyprus’ division, and trace the key developments across four decades of a conflict which has remained frozen in time.

In the aftermath of WWII, Cyprus initially remained under British colonial control despite the desire of many Cypriots to unify the country with Greece. Cyprus, however, never came to be under Greek control. Instead, it became a sovereign nation after being granted full independence from Britain in 1960, on the basis of a power-sharing agreement between the Greek and Turkish populations resident on the island. The Greek-Cypriot community leader – Archbishop Makarios – became president, whilst it was determined that a Turkish-Cypriot should hold the position of vice president. The status-quo didn’t last long: in 1964, inter-communal clashes broke out after Makarios proposed constitutional changes which undermined the shared governmental structure, and the fragile system of power-sharing broke down. Following these events, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to patrol the Green Line, which by the mid-1960s had been set up to divide the Greek and Cypriot sectors of the island’s capital city, Nicosia.

Events gathered pace in the summer of 1974. First, Greece’s nationalist government deposed Greek-Cypriot leader Makarios in a military coup, in an attempt to move forward the process of unification between Cyprus and Greece. In response to the coup, Turkish troops invaded the shores of Northern Cyprus on 20 July, quickly advancing inland before stopping at the line of division which ran through the centre of Nicosia. From that day onwards, Cyprus has remained divided in two, with the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities partitioned by a heavily-guarded buffer zone.

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Planes lie in ruin at Nicosia Airport, which has remained frozen in time since being abandoned four decades ago (Image Source: Dick Elbers)

In the four decades since – despite being split in two – Cyprus has remained largely at peace. The northern section of the country – named the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – declared independence in 1983, yet remains recognized only Turkey. Meanwhile, the southern part of the country became a member state of the European Union in 2004, whilst the local economy has grown and the tourism industry has flourished. The only reminders of the conflict are found in the buffer zone, which is up to 7 kilometres wide in places. The landscape within the prohibited zone remains exactly as it looked at the time of abandonment 1974, with the now-defunct Nicosia International Airport serving as a lasting physical symbol of the four-decade-long stalemate. Numerous towns and villages are effectively frozen in time, after their residents fled at the height of the conflict.

Today, Cyprus has more than 1 million inhabitants. Around 80% of the population are Greek-Cypriots living in the south, most of whom are Orthodox Christians; whilst 20% are Turkish-Cypriots living in the north, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims. The internationally-recognized government of the Republic of Cyprus controls the southern two-thirds of the island, whilst the remaining one-third of territory north of the buffer zone is controlled by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

All previous attempts to negotiate a resolution have failed, first in 1987, and more notably in 2004. As part of the 2004 attempt, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put forward a proposal to make Cyprus a federation of two separately-administered states. The idea was the cause of much optimism at the time, but was ultimately rejected by Greek-Cypriots in a referendum – despite being accepted by the Turkish-majority population in the north. The rejection of the 2004 deal now serves a signal of just how difficult the dispute is to resolve, indicating how simmering tensions and a long-standing lack of trust between the two communities could stand in the way of future efforts.

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The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence in 1983, but is only recognized by Turkey. The southern Republic of Cyprus is recognized by the UN, and became an EU member state in 2004 (Image Source: Golbez)

In the decade since, however, there is a sense that the political atmosphere on the island has shifted markedly, allowing for a new-found sense of optimism which has enveloped the current round of negotiations. The island’s leaders – Greek-Cypriot Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot Mustafa Akinci – share a mutual commitment to pursue reunification, and appear to have more in common than previous generations of politicians on the island. When the talks first began in May 2015, both leaders enthusiastically promised to meet regularly, in order to maintain momentum and continue moving forward with the peace process. Towards the end of 2016, the negotiations – brokered in Switzerland by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – significantly gathered pace, leading to hopes that a settlement could be reached before the end of the year, and before Mr Ban’s term as UN head came to an end. However, despite significant progress in a number of areas, this deadline has now passed and intense discussions have continued into the new year.

In recent months, large sections of the mainstream media – particularly in the West – have often over-simplified the dispute, with the majority of reporting on the issue striking a triumphant tone and emphasizing that a resolution is close. However, this enthusiasm and positivity must be tempered by greater recognition that as the talks reach a critical stage, significant obstacles remain to be overcome, in a complex frozen conflict which has to this point proved intractable.

In particular, discussions on critical issues such as territorial realignment, land swaps, property returns and displaced persons will be highly emotive and fraught with difficulty. When the conflict was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, around 200,000 people were displaced from their homes and driven from their businesses, many of which now lie unoccupied and in a state of ruin, abandonment and disrepair inside the buffer zone. Drawing up new boundaries, determining the control of territory, and deciding upon compensation payments and land returns will be pivotal issues in finding a resolution to the dispute, with both sides so far reportedly unable to reach agreement on difficult questions of this nature.

In addition, two wider issues remain unresolved, surrounding the questions of governance and security. Firstly, it must be determined what the new state of Cyprus should look like, and how it will be administered. Both sides are in broad agreement that the new state should be based on some kind of federal model, yet the extent of power-sharing and the exact nature of governance structures remain unclear. Secondly, the island’s security remains a core issue, which often stokes high emotions on both sides of the Green Line. For citizens in the south, the presence of 40,000 Turkish troops is often viewed as a threat, and to many constitutes an occupation; yet for citizens in the north, the continued Turkish military presence is seen as vital and offers significant reassurance to Turkish-Cypriots. These issues remain particularly contentious, and will require careful diplomacy and compromise on both sides. Finding such compromise, however, will not be easy: a high degree of opposition and scepticism remains in the south, whilst the northern side remains concerned over losing-out on issues of power-sharing and securing a rotating presidency. In any case, any proposed final peace settlement will need to gain the approval of local politicians, in addition to being deferred to the people of Cyprus in a nationwide referendum

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The latest round of peace talks between the island’s Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot leaders have moved the country closer towards reunification (Image Source: Adam Jones)

With the peace negotiations being open-ended and having no set timetable, talk of an imminent end to Cyprus’ division is premature. The political will for reunification does exist, and there remains a strong chance that the talks will be successful, yet the issues are complex and positions deeply-ingrained – meaning that if a solution is to be found, significant compromise will be required on both sides of the Green Line. Even in the scenario where an agreement has been reached, approved and implemented, only time will tell if the two communities can live together in peace and harmony once the physical barrier has been removed.

If this best-case scenario – for so long desired by many Cypriots – does indeed materialize, then the benefits for the island in the coming years – particularly in terms of tourism and economic growth – could be huge. More importantly however, at a time when peace-making is failing miserably in other parts of the region (such as in Syria and Yemen, where attempts at peaceful resolution have given way to years of bloodshed and multiple external military interventions), the reunification of Cyprus would serve as a timely reminder of what concerted and determined diplomacy can achieve.

Counting the human cost of Syria’s destruction

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11 million Syrians have been displaced by the war: 4.8 million have fled the country, whilst another 6.1 million are internally displaced. (Source: Flickr, Jordi Bernabeu Farrus)

Now deep into its sixth year, Syria’s increasingly complex and intractable civil war continues to dominate headlines around the world. After more than half-a-decade of extensive international media coverage, the narrative of the conflict presented to Western audiences is becoming increasingly familiar, with major news outlets focusing predominantly on the fight against Islamic State and the growing role of international actors – the US and Russia – in the conflict.

Whilst this wider geo-strategic context and the global fight against terrorism are certainly important angles from which to report the Syrian civil war, there is a danger that news coverage will become increasingly sanitized and dehumanized as the conflict drags on and as ‘compassion fatigue’ begins to set in amongst audiences. It is therefore vital to ensure that the increased media spotlight on the high politics of diplomacy, military strategy and superpower rivalry does not come at the expense of highlighting the everyday suffering of the millions of Syrians caught in the middle.

This article will seek to explore the direct human impacts of the complex geopolitical drama which has unfolded across the previous six-and-a-half years at the heart of the Middle East, and will endeavour to consider the likely long-term physical and psychological impacts on what remains of Syria’s decimated population once the war comes to an end.

First however, in order to more-fully understand and comprehend the scale of human suffering in Syria, it is necessary to briefly review the major developments since the outbreak of the conflict and outline the key actors involved in the on-going violence.

The conflict began in 2011, after security forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad launched a brutal crackdown on demonstrators taking part in pro-democracy protests which had erupted across the country, forming part of the wider ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. By the end of the year, the country had descended into full-scale civil war as rebels formed the Free Syrian Army to lead the fight against government troops. Over the coming years, the violence dramatically escalated and the situation became increasingly complex, as opposition groups splintered into factions and foreign fighters poured into the country to join Jihadist groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

As the conflict progressed it began to develop pronounced sectarian undertones, sewing division between elements of the Shia and Sunni population. This sparked the involvement of regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have each backed rebel groups aligned with their interests. The conflict has also drawn in world powers such as Russia and a multi-country coalition led by the United States. Russia has been a firm supporter of president Assad’s government and has launched airstrikes against opposition groups, whilst the US and its allies have predominantly targeted IS through an air campaign launched in late-2014, providing support to Kurdish militias and more moderate rebels whilst remaining firmly opposed to the Assad regime. The UN has accused almost all parties of war crimes and the killing of civilians over the course of the conflict, whilst all peace efforts and attempts to secure a meaningful ceasefire have failed.

With no end in sight, Syria is now the battleground for what has become a large-scale ‘proxy war’ with much at stake for regional and world powers – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States – who have all invested significant resources to influence the conflict according to their interests.

However, amidst the chaos and confusion of Syria’s seemingly never-ending destruction, many international observers seem to have overlooked the group which has by far the most at stake and the most to lose in this conflict: the Syrian people.

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Estimates suggest that 470,000 people have been killed during the Syrian civil war. (Source: Flickr, Freedom House)

After 68 – and counting – consecutive months of fighting since the March 2011 crackdown on protestors sparked a tidal wave of bloodshed, the war has resulted in human suffering and a humanitarian crisis on a scale which is almost incomprehensible. In total, a staggering 470,000 people have been killed over the past six-years of conflict, according to a recent report released by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR). Of these deaths, approximately 400,000 were as a direct result of violence, whilst another 70,000 have perished as an indirect result of the war due to the lack of medical treatment, food, water and sanitation. This statistic reflects how the war has created a deadly, almost inhospitable environment within which starvation is rife and disease can spread easily, constituting disastrous secondary effects of the conflict which negatively impact the health and well-being of the population. The death toll in the SCPR report is significantly higher than the 250,000 quoted by the United Nations, which stopped collecting statistics in 2014 as a result of the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from inside the country. The latest figures indicate that almost 12% of Syria’s population has been killed or injured since the conflict began, with an estimated 1.5 million people having been wounded.

The conflict has also sparked the world’s worst refugee crisis since WWII as a result of massive population displacement across the country. In total, around 11 million Syrians – half of the country’s pre-war population –  have been forced to flee their homes. Around 4.8 million have fled across the border into neighbouring countries, whilst 6.1 million people have been internally displaced and 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Syria’s immediate neighbours have taken the largest share of the burden. According to Mercy Corps, 2.7 million refugees have entered Turkey, whilst Lebanon has taken in more than 1 million and Jordan has taken in around 650,000. Even war-torn Iraq is host to an estimated 225,000 Syrian refugees.

Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp serves as a particularly notorious example of the scale of the problem, now effectively constituting a medium-sized city which provides a semi-permanent home to more than 80,000 Syrians. The camp is beset by difficulties: there is a shortage of clean water and food supplies are scarce, whilst sanitation in the crowded settlement is inadequate for such a large number of people, facilitating the spread of contagious diseases such as cholera and polio.

In addition to those still in the region, more than a million Syrians have attempted the dangerous journey to mainland Europe, taking the difficult decision to leave behind livelihoods and family members. Many have faced uncertainties and endured months of hardship living outdoors as the land routes into Europe through the Balkans have gradually been closed, whilst thousands more have attempted the dangerous journey by boat across the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece.

For those who have been unable to leave or have decided to remain in Syria, the impacts of the war on their lives has been severe: families have been torn apart, towns and cities have been flattened, homes have been destroyed and livelihoods have disappeared as the economy has collapsed. Those injured have found it increasingly difficult to seek help, with the World Bank noting that more than 50% of hospitals across Syria have been either completely or partially destroyed, whilst thousands of doctors and nurses have been killed or have fled the country. In a particularly worrying development, hospitals appear to have been deliberately targeted in the northern city of Aleppo, which has experienced repeated bombardment from pro-regime forces. The SCPR report also found that at least 45% of Syria’s children are no longer attending school, which it said would have a ‘’dramatic impact’’ on the country’s future as generations were being lost. The number of children missing out on their education constitutes a disaster for the youth of a country which could once boast of having amongst the highest literacy rates in the Middle East. For the children growing-up in war-torn Syria, future prospects in terms of health are also fading rapidly, evidenced by a dramatic fall in average life expectancy from 70.5 years before the war, to just 55.4 years in 2015.

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Syria once had one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East, yet now less than 45% of children attend school. (Source: Flickr, Jordi Bernabeu Farrus)

It must not be forgotten that as well as having to contend with poverty and deprivation, those who remain in Syria continue to face the fear of violence on a daily basis. Amnesty International’s 2015-2016 Country Report on Syria summarizes the multiple threats faced by Syria’s civilian population, and details horrific human rights abuses which have been carried out by multiple actors in the conflict. The report’s introduction states that government forces and non-state armed groups have ‘’committed war crimes, other violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses with impunity’’ across the duration of the armed conflict, whilst US-led coalition and Russian airstrikes have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

The report goes into further detail, providing specific examples and outlining the main types of violence perpetrated against civilians by a range of actors on the ground. It says that government forces have carried out ‘’indiscriminate attacks that directly targeted civilians, including bombardment of civilian residential areas and medical facilities with artillery, mortars, barrel bombs and…chemical agents, unlawfully killing civilians.’’ Regime forces were also accused of ‘’enforcing lengthy sieges, trapping civilians and depriving them of food, medical care and other necessities’’, whilst the government’s security forces are blamed for the arbitrary arrest of thousands of ‘’peaceful activists, human rights defenders, media and humanitarian workers’’, with detainees often subjected to systematic torture and ill-treatment at the hands of their captors.

In addition, the report accuses numerous rebel and jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State, of carrying-out ‘’direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks including suicide bombings…and alleged chemical attacks’’, whilst perpetrating numerous unlawful killings of non-combatants.

The report did not accuse international actors of intentionally seeking to inflict harm upon the civilian population, but noted – as has widely been reported in the media and by observers on the ground – that scores of civilians have been killed in airstrikes carried out by both Russian warplanes and US-led coalition forces.

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Much of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed, leaving millions homeless and without access to adequate supplies of food, water and medical equipment. (Source: Flickr, Freedom House)

Overall, the scale of death and human suffering inflicted upon the Syrian population since hostilities began in 2011 is impossible to fully comprehend, in spite of the shocking nature of statistics documenting the number of those killed and injured. It is clear that over the course of the conflict, civilians have borne the brunt of violence: they have been attacked purposefully and indiscriminately by almost all armed groups operating on the ground, and are subjected to the additional fear of being killed in airstrikes carried out by international forces.

When the tragedy that is the Syrian civil war does eventually come to an end, it will leave behind a population both physically and psychologically scarred, with the effects reverberating across generations. The fighting will end at some point in the future and the Syrian people will begin to rebuild their country, as international actors re-focus their attention elsewhere in line with readjusted priorities and interests. The spotlight of the international media will also fade away, and for audiences in the West the Syrian war will likely become a distant memory – however as the world’s eyes look elsewhere, the very real experiences of suffering and the imprint of the war will remain in the minds of the Syrian people for decades to come.

DRC: political instability threatens to re-ignite Africa’s deadliest war

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More than 6 million people have been killed in the DRC’s long-running conflict, with the most intense period of fighting taking place from 1998-2003. (Image Source: MONUSCO)

Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has experienced decades of almost continuous conflict. Africa’s largest country, with a burgeoning population of more than 79 million people, has arguably been the site of the deadliest war in the post-WW2 era: a brutal conflict which has taken place beyond the view of the western news media; remaining far from the eyes of western publics and politicians. Despite more than 6 million civilians killed and millions more displaced, the neglect of the DRC’s devastation has been striking: there have been few front-page headlines, and even fewer calls for intervention in a country deemed strategically unimportant to western powers.

Since the most deadly period of the conflict ended with a peace agreement in 2003, low-intensity violence has continued in the East of the country largely un-noticed by the outside world, barring a few brief moments of heightened publicity such as the ‘Kony 2012’ social media campaign, and after the 2013 military defeat of the notorious M23 rebel group. At present, the risk of escalation and a return to full-scale conflict is higher than at any time in recent memory, as the country is fast becoming engulfed in political instability.

The renewed fears of violence come amid concerns that President Joseph Kabila, who has won two previous elections and been in office since 2001, is attempting to cling to power despite a two-term constitutional limit on the length of time a president can serve. In May, opposition leader Moise Katumbi was charged with plotting a coup against the incumbent regime, just hours after he declared his intention to run as a candidate in November’s presidential election.

The situation is creating an increasingly hostile political environment within the country, with critics accusing President Kabila of seeking to delay the vote in an attempt to remain in power whilst the constitution is amended. National Assembly member Olivier Kamitatu Etsu has accessed Kabila of ‘’deliberately sabotaging the electoral process’’. However the President has consistently denied this, with the DRC’s Ambassador to the United States, Francois Balumuene, stating that Kabila remains committed to holding free and fair elections. In May, the country’s highest court ruled that Kabila should stay in power until elections are held, and the government has claimed that the poll is simply being delayed whilst logistical issues are resolved and the electoral register is updated. The division amongst the political elite is already causing tensions amongst the general population, leading to fears of renewed violence based on political affiliation. There were reports of clashes between police and Katumbi supporters at several of his rallies earlier this year, with tear gas being fired on at least one occasion.

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President Joseph Kabila has been accused of seeking to change the country’s constitution, which would prevent him from seeking a third term in power. (Image Source: MONUSCO)

The current political environment is especially concerning when considering the DRC’s continuing violence and perpetual climate of instability. An estimated 70 armed groups are believed to be currently active in the East of the country, despite the presence of 19,000 UN peacekeepers. In particular, the stronger armed groups such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) continue to terrorize civilians and retain control of rural areas characterized by weak state presence. Millions of civilians have been forced to flee the violence: the UN estimates that there are currently 2.7 million people internally displaced, along with another 450,000 refugees who now reside in neighbouring countries.

The violence in the East of the country is worsening, as armed groups increase in number 13 years on from the end of the ‘Second Congo War’ which lasted from 1998-2003. During the main stage of the conflict, Congolese government forces backed by troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fought rebels supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Five million people were killed during this period alone, until a peace deal was signed in 2003 and a transitional government ushered in. Despite these developments, the war-ravaged country has been plagued by frail governance, weak institutional presence, pervasive corruption and widespread absence of the rule of law. The government did achieve a notable success in 2013, when the largest rebel group M23 was defeated and removed from a key provincial capital, Goma. However, the many remaining rebel groups have splintered further, leading to a more complex situation and a climate of lawlessness in which ordinary civilians have been subjected to rape, sexual violence, extreme poverty and horrific human rights violations.

In hindsight, 2003 offered only a brief flicker of hope for a country reeling from decades of war. The Democratic Republic of Congo has since descended into further chaos: it has resisted all internal and external efforts to set it on a path towards peace, and has become an increasingly complex web of inter-related and over-lapping local conflicts. Remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) persist in some parts of the country, whilst Bakata separatists operate in Katanga province; numerous other rebel groups are active in Maniema and Nyunzu. The extensive number of armed groups adds to an increasingly complex and volatile picture of a country which even after billions of dollars in development aid and the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history, remains incapable of providing even the most basic requirement for citizens of a functioning sovereign state: security. A combination of impunity and continuing economic stagnation, have led to the emergence of yet more armed groups, making the DRC an increasingly fragmented and ungovernable space.

Whilst western attention has remained almost exclusively focused on the civil war in Syria – where over 250,000 civilians have been killed during five years of devastation – the victims of the DRC’s long-running conflict have been comparably neglected when considering the scope of the violence: decades of upheaval with more than 6 million people killed, and hundreds-of-thousands more raped, tortured and maimed. In addition, the DRC remains one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked at 176 on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). Since the war officially ended in 2003, starvation and disease have claimed millions more lives, whilst living standards and health provision have plummeted in many communities still trapped in cycles of violence.

Some analysts contend that the conflict in the DRC is ‘too complicated’ to be taken-up by mainstream news organizations and presented to western audiences, with a distinct lack of the simple ‘good vs evil’ narrative which is often prevalent in western news reporting. For example, in the DRC there is no single ‘aggressor’ to whom blame can be predominantly assigned, such as was the case with Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. However, given the sheer scale of violence in the DRC, there must also be alternative underlying factors which account for the distinct lack of media coverage: for example, sub-Saharan Africa is viewed as being of little strategic importance to the west, whilst stereotypical assumptions of Africa as a space of uncivilized barbarism remain prevalent in many dominant discourses, leading to the complex roots of diverse conflicts across an entire continent being downplayed and under-examined.

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The UN estimates that there are 2.7 million people currently displaced in the DRC, in addition to 450,000 refugees who now reside beyond its borders (Image Source: Julien Harneis)

This continued media invisibility is especially concerning given the most recent developments in the DRC. Firstly, presidential candidate Moise Katumbi was sentenced in June to 3 years in prison on charges which the opposition contends were fabricated and politically-motivated. Secondly, despite renewed calls for dialogue between political parties to ensure a peaceful electoral process, President Kabila has refused to say if he will step-down (as is constitutionally required), and is yet to confirm that the general election will go ahead as scheduled in November.

The main concern amongst observers is that if the current political instability worsens, the complex web of local conflicts in the DRC could be set to rapidly intensify, leading to violence on a nationwide scale in the event of an election-related crisis. This worst-case scenario has not yet materialized and may still be avoided; however if a wave of political violence does spread across the country, Africa’s deadliest civil war could re-emerge to inflict mass suffering on civilians, whose predicament will again remain largely invisible to an outside world focused on developments elsewhere.