Saturday, March 19, 2016

On Yemen, Inner City Press Asked US State Department Of Saudi Airstrikes Killing 107, UN Says 106, UNICEF 118

By Matthew Russell Lee

WASHINGTON, March 18, updated --  When Inner City Press asked US State Department spokesperson John Kirby about Yemen on March 15, Kirby said "we welcome the fact that there is a cessation of hostilities."
  On March 16, Inner City Press returned to the State Department and asked Kirby's deputy Mark Toner about the Saudi airstrikes in Hajjah which killed, it asked, 41 or 107 people; Toner replied in part that the US could not verify the specifics, see below.
 On March 18, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has put the civilian death toll at 106, in a statement we publish below, while noting that UNICEF in Yemen puts the figure at 118 dead including 22 children:
"In the wake of another deadly airstrike that killed some 106 civilians in a crowded village market in north-western Yemen, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Friday condemned the repeated failure of the Coalition forces to take effective actions to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, and to publish transparent, independent investigations into those that have already occurred.

“The carnage caused by two airstrikes on the Al Khamees market, in north-western Yemen on Tuesday was one of the deadliest incidents since the start of the conflict a year ago,” said Zeid, noting that it was the second such incident in the past three weeks. On 27 February, at least 39 civilians, including nine children, were killed, and another 33 injured, by an airstrike on the Khaleq market in a north-eastern district of Sana`a.

UN Human Rights Office staff in Yemen, who visited the site of the attack in northern Hajja Gvernorate on Wednesday and interviewed a number of eyewitnesses, said the airstrikes had completely destroyed 16 shops in the Al Khamees market, which is the primary shopping area for some 15 surrounding villages. The attack had apparently taken place during the afternoon rush hour when the market was particularly crowded.

There were 24 children among the 106 people reported dead so far. UN staff recorded the names of 96 of the victims, although a further 10 bodies were burned beyond recognition. More than 40 other people were reported to have been injured during the attack.

Since the beginning of the conflict a year ago, the UN Human Rights Office has recorded a total of just under 9,000 casualties including 3,218 civilians killed and a further 5,778 injured (from 26 March 2015 to 17 March 2016).

The UN human rights staff could find no evidence of any armed confrontation or significant military objects in the area at the time of the attack, beyond the presence of a check-point some 250 meters away from the market usually manned by a small group of policemen and Houthis.

“Looking at the figures, it would seem that the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of airstrikes,” the High Commissioner said. “They have hit markets, hospitals, clinics, schools, factories, wedding parties – and hundreds of private residences in villages, towns and cities including the capital Sana’a. Despite plenty of international demarches, these awful incidents continue to occur with unacceptable regularity. In addition, despite public promises to investigate such incidents, we have yet to see progress in any such investigations.”

“It would appear to be the case that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones -- which are protected under international law -- is at best woefully inadequate,” Zeid said. “And at worst, we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the Coalition. There is an obligation to distinguish at all times between military targets and civilians. The Houthis and their allies have also been responsible for indiscriminate ground attacks resulting in civilian casualties, which I also condemn and which could qualify, likewise, as international crimes.”

One year on from the start of the conflict, the UN Human Rights Chief lamented the failure of the two sides to the conflict to agree a peace deal, adding he hoped that an announcement by a Coalition spokesman on Thursday that Saudi Arabia was planning to scale back major combat operations would indeed lead rapidly to a full ceasefire and peace agreement.

“I urge both sides to swallow their pride and bring this conflict to a halt,” Zeid said. “The people of Yemen have suffered enough. A very poor country is having its limited infrastructure decimated, and people are struggling desperately to survive.'"
 On March 16, Inner City Press returned and asked Kirby's deputy Mark Toner about the Saudi airstrike in Hajjah, full video here from Minute 56:28; Vine hereUS transcript here:
QUESTION: Inner City Press. I want to ask about Yemen and something about the UN.


Inner City Press: On Yemen, yesterday, Mr. Kirby said that we welcome the fact that there’s a cessation of hostilities. And then, as I’m sure you know, there was a big airstrike in Haja province – some people say 41 killed --


Inner City Press: -- some say 107. What do you say to that? And related back to the genocide question, also still on Yemen, Sudan is part of the coalition. Sudan has troops in Yemen with the U.S.-supported coalition. And I’m wondering, how is that – does that – does the genocide finding as to Omar al-Bashir in Darfur have any implication for the U.S. not being part of a coalition or militarily cooperating with a government whose head of state is charged with genocide by the ICC and was found by Colin Powell to --

MR TONER: So to your first question, we’re certainly aware of the reports that civilians may have been killed or injured during a strike, I believe, near a market in Haja province. I can’t at this time – cannot verify the specifics. We remain deeply concerned by the devastating toll of the crisis in Yemen, both in terms of civilian casualties, but also, obviously, in terms of the humanitarian situation that Yemen faces. We urge all sides to comply with obligations under international humanitarian law.

Speaking to the broader peace process, as you know, Secretary Kerry was just there. I was with him over the weekend, as was poor Dave here. And we were on a trip to Saudi Arabia. But one of the things that we discussed – he discussed, rather, with both the Saudi – His Royal Highness King Salman, also the crown prince, and the deputy crown prince as well as Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir – they talked about the need for a political solution to the situation in Yemen. And so we support the UN efforts to that end.

In terms of your second question, I’m actually – I just don’t know the specifics about that or what prohibits us – you’re saying why we would not have been part of this, are we prohibited from taking part in that?

Inner City Press: No, no, I guess I was saying – you were saying that there – or people were saying in this first round that there were some legal implications if you make a finding of genocide. And I don't know if those include not working with --

MR TONER: But I’m not sure whether they pertain to --

Inner City Press: -- the government who --

MR TONER: I’d have to – yeah, I can take that question. I don't know.

QUESTION: Okay. And do you know – just one other – because I think the question was taken yesterday.


QUESTION: I wanted to ask about this corruption case about the UN. Today, in the Southern District of New York, the former deputy permanent representative of the Dominican Republic pled guilty and has pledged to cooperate against the former president of the General Assembly, John Ashe. I wanted to know the State Department’s position on it, and also on the Government Accountability Project. They wrote a letter – a public letter to the U.S. Mission to the UN urging them to get involved in opposing retaliation by the UN against the press that has been reporting on the corruption scandal. I think that some members of Congress are actually now – but I haven’t seen anything from the State – from the U.S. mission. So I’m wondering, is the State Department aware of the corruption case, and also separately of this GAP letter, and what’s their response to it?

MR TONER: I would imagine we’re aware. I’m not, unfortunately. I apologize we haven’t gotten back to you on that. We’ll take it.

At the March 13 press conference of US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts, French Jean-Marc Ayrault, Italy's Paolo Gentiloni and the foreign minister of Germany, Yemen came up this way, from Kerry:
"We discussed Yemen, where we have agreed to work even more closely together in the next days to explore the possibilities of the political solution, and we both agree that it would be desirable to see if we can find a similar approach as we did in Syria to try to get a ceasefire. So we’re going to continue to work on that quietly, and we have a team of people who are going to continue to be working together to that effect."
Kerry mentioned it only in connection with his talks with Saudi Arabia -- no mention that the Saudis are responsible for two thirds of deaths, according even to the UN's Prince Zeid -- and Al Jazeera, cutting away, mentioned only Syria and Libya. France 24 wasn't even covering the press conference, stuck on an old show about Asia.
  Kerry spoke of medical aid in Syria; Inner City Press has been reporting -- even as the UN Secretariat ousts and harasses it -- on a developing resolution in the UN Security Council. The Saudi Ambassador said UNOCHA does not even want an aid access resolution on Yemen; the UN has not contradicted it.
  France's Ayrault spoke mechanically of support for Ban Ki-moon's envoy on Yemen. But where is he? 
On March 15, Inner City Press asked US State Department spokesperson John Kirby, from the US transcript:
Inner City Press: I want to ask about Yemen.  I saw the Secretary’s comments when he was in Saudi Arabia about possibility of a ceasefire similar to Syria and something about having teams on the ground working on that.  So I wanted to know – it seems like there’s talks between the Houthis and the Saudis that don’t involve Saleh or even Hadi.  It seems – what’s the U.S.’s – like, what was he referring to?  Is it – does he view direct negotiations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia as a positive thing?  Is that the ceasefire he’s talking about?  And what’s the role of the UN envoy, who seems not to be part of those talks, and of Mr. Hadi going forward?  Is he the future president of Yemen or is he – has time passed him by?

MR KIRBY:  So there’s a lot there.  There – we still continue to support the UN special envoy and his efforts.  That’s not going to change.  And when the Secretary was in the region over the weekend, Yemen was – as he said, was a significant point of discussion with Saudi leaders.  Nothing has changed about our support for the UN special envoy and his efforts to get a political process going and move forward.  And the United States is going to remain firmly behind that effort.

He also said that we welcome reports that there is a reduction in violence between Houthis and the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia.  We welcome the fact that there is a cessation of hostilities, quite frankly, that appears to also be holding.  That’s a good thing, because we’ve long said that there needs to be an increased effort by the international community to get humanitarian aid and assistance to so many Yemeni citizens who are in need, and that’s hard to do when there is still violence going on between both sides.

So we welcome this – that development, and we welcome the news that there are discussions between the two sides.  If those discussions can lead to a resolution of the conflict and to a continuation of the reduction of violence, that too is a healthy thing.  But it doesn’t mean that we aren’t also going to continue to support the UN track here, because we still believe that that is an important part of putting in place a sustainable governing structure, one that the Yemeni people clearly deserve going forward.  So it’s both, it’s both.  And he’s very much focused on both tracks and I think you’re going to continue to see that be the case going forward."
 On March 15, a Saudi airstrike killed at least 106 civilians in northern Yemen... 
On March 14, Inner City Press had asked UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric:
Inner City Press: on Yemen, there are obviously a lot of reports now that the Saudis are negotiating directly with the Houthis.  This was referred to by some degree by John Kerry in his visit to Saudi Arabia over the weekend.  Where is the envoy?  Is the envoy part of this?  Is this outside the envoy…

Spokesman:  We referred to it, as well, on Thursday or Friday where this is something that the envoy welcomes and has been encouraging for some time.
 But is he involved?
  On March 5 Inner City Press published another exclusive: UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed's email to UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, which contradicts what envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed most recently told the Security Council. The email exclusively published by Inner City Press shows flexibility on the Houthi side, with the prospects of meeting in Jordan or Morocco, while the Saudis insist on sending low level representation. The email is published in full, below.
 On March 7, two days after exclusively publishing Envoy IOCA's email to Feltman, Inner City Press asked UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq about it. He did not deny the email, instead saying that the envoy is working hard.
 But on March 8, when lead UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric gave a read-out of whom the Envoy met in Riyahd, there were no Houthis mentioned. 
 Inner City Press then asked Dujarric of the multiply-sourced Houthi - Saudi meetings: was Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed not even involved? If he was, why were the Houthis not included in Dujarric's litany of the Envoy's meetings? Vine hereFrom the UN transcript:
Inner City Press: On Yemen, you'd said that the envoy had been in Riyadh.  Yesterday, I'd asked Farhan [Haq] about this email that the envoy had written to Jeff Feltman about his discussions with the Houthis.  And now there's a report that the Houthis are, in fact, now in Riyadh and met at some level with the Saudis.  So, since the Houthis weren't listed in your readout of interlocutors, does he have anything to do with that, or is that a track outside of mediation--

Spokesman Dujarric:  We've seen these reports.  This is something that the Special Envoy has been encouraging for quite some time.  What's your second question?
An hour later in the UN Lobby Inner City Press asked UN OCHA's Stephen O'Brien about what Saudi Arabia's ambassador said March 4, that OCHA does not want a humanitarian access UNSC resolution for Yemen.
  I hadn't seen that, O'Brien politely replied. Inner City Press encouraged him, then, to check it out - the video's on YouTube. Watch this site.
 And dissembling to the Security Council? Likewise, Inner City Press asked Haq about the Saudi Permanent Representative to the UN saying that Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and senior leadership of Stephen O'Brien's OCHA, privately said no humanitarian access resolution by the Security Council is needed.
  Haq insisted to Inner City Press that what O'Brien said in the open session was his position. But Inner City Press pointed out, O'Brien said the "humanitarian IT equipment" the Saudis seized would be delivered to Aden by March 6 - whereas Haq on March 7 said "later this week."
  Inner City Press asked Haq to confirm or deny at least the delivery of the humanitarian IT equipment, by email since Haq's "squawks" over the press floor public address system don't reach it, with UN DPI Banning ICP from its longtime office (petition here). We'll see.
 Here is the email:
"Dear Jeff, I just completed a 2-day visit in Riyadh and wanted to give you a quick update on how things have developed since my discussions with H/Mohamed AbdelSalam last week in Muscat.
I had a private discussion with both State Minister Mussaeed Al Ayban and Abu Ali where I briefed them on the readiness of the Houthis to resume discrete face-to-face meetings with KSA representatives. While they welcomed the progress made and expressed their commitment to go ahead with this track, they also emphasized that:
i) in light of the progress the Coalition has been making on the ground and their advance toward Sanaa, the Houthis should seize this opportunity and discuss in good faith as they are in a weaker position on the ground and their options are narrowing;
ii) KSA will not consider elevating the level of their representation in the KSA-H talks, as Mohamed AbdelSalam had requested. KSA considers that the 2 representatives they are sending are at the level of Mohammed AbdelSalam and the Houthis should not expect a higher representation at this point;
iii) KSA accepted the proposal of Mohamed AbdelSalam to meet in a third country (Jordan). Mohamed Abe Assalem has suggested to me either Morocco or Jordan as the venue.
 I immediately called Mohemad AbdelSalam from Riyadh to share the outcomes of the meeting. He was going to talk to his leadership and revert to me with a confirmation. If the Houthis accept, the Houthi - KSA meeting could go ahead as early as next week, in Jordan. We of course would not participate nor be present. I have however already started coordination with the Jordan Ambassador to Yemen, as needed.
Although we still do not have an agreement for a new cessation of hostilities, we have continued to press for commitment to the De-Escalation and Coordination Committee (DCC), and a range of economic initiatives (especially in relation to the Central Bank's independence and the reactivation of the Social Welfare Fund).
In my meeting with the GoY delegation, I continued to impress upon them the importance of participation of the GoY in the DCC, and to training which we are planning to organize in Amman during the coming weeks. The UK Ambassador informed me that Foreign Minister and Head of GoY delegation AbdelMalik El Mikhalfi today had responded positively to his suggestion.
There are been positive developments on economic initiatives which I have supported as well. Foreign Minister Mikhalfi participated in the Central Bank board meeting last week in Amman together with the Minister for Finance and the CB Governor. DPM/MoFA Mikhalfi acknowledged that significance of the Governor's attendance from Sanaa and was very grateful for my personal efforts to secure his participation with the Houthis, which was seen by the GoY as an important confidence building measure. Mikhalfi agreed on the necessity of developing further economic initiatives including the support for the SWF and SFD. My office is working with the UNCT, World Bank and IMF in order to ensure a sufficient level of technical support for these proposals.
 I am now in Nouakchott for 4 days where I need to renew my G4 visa and will proceed to New York on 16 February ahead of the SC briefing. I intend to remain in NYC until 22 February in order to meet with key Member States and HQ officials. I plan to also travel to Washington DC 19 February and hold meetings there. I look forward to seeing you in New York in a few days.
Best regards, Ismail."
  The above email was sent on February 11 and contradicts what Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the Security Council; meanwhile Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the UN told the press on March 4 that envoy IOCA does NOT want a humanitarian access resolution.
 In the UN Security Council on the Yemen sanctions resolution adopted on February 24, language was added to try to discourage the Panel of Experts from looking into the act of the Saudi-led Coalition. Concessions were made, of a kind not made for or about other countries under sanctions.
  (Inner City Press had to follow the process from outside the UN, literally, the park on 43rd Street across First Avenue, because only days after Inner City Press asked why the UN was so quiet about false claims of Iranian military equipment in a UN WFP aid ship, Inner City Press was summarily thrown out of the UN for seeking three weeks earlier to cover an event in the UN Press Briefing Room, and Banned, without due process. Petition here.)
  On March 4 in the same UN Press Briefing Room, Saudi Ambassador to the UN Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi held an unscheduled press conference to announce that OCHA, whose Yemen pick up the pieces campaign Saudi Arabia largely funds, does not think there's a need for a humanitarian access resolution. If true, some will say that OCHA has been bought.
 Inner City Press asked al-Mouallimi why his Yemeni counterpart had claimed to Inner City Press, on the record, that the WFP ship the Saudis seized contained "Iranian military equipment"? 
Al-Mouallimi said, among other things, the ship DID come from Iran... and the equipment wasn't on the manifest and was "hidden." 
Inner City Press asked him about cluster bomb use; he denied it and many media printed that quote, without more. Inner City Press asked him, if opposed to the UN Panel of Experts looking into the impacts of the Saudi Coalition, who should do it? This was not answered, except to again emphasize how tied the PoE is to the underlying, one-sided resolution.
 At the end, Inner City Press asked Mouallimi to encourage the Yemen / Hadi delegation to hold its press session in this same UN Press Briefing Room, and not for Gulf and Western UNCA scribes only, a spoonfed breakfast,  see below. Al-Mouallimi said he would convey the request. We'll see.
 On March 1, back in on a reduced access pass, Inner City Press asked UN OCHA official John Ging about taking "aid" money from Saudi Arabia while it blasts away at Yemen. Video here.
 Ging said these two are "ring fenced," and that the UN doesn't allow Saudi Arabia to put conditions on aid or where it is delivered.

  Inner City Press asked, what about the Saudi threat that aid workers should leave Houthi-controlled areas? Ging said the UN had pushed back.
But quietly, as was the case with the Saudi diversion of the WFP ship. Does money talk?  Apparently yes.