Syrian Military Linked to More than 300 Chemical Attacks

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via Louisa Loveluck:

The Syrian government and affiliated forces have launched more than 300 attacks using chemical weapons during the country’s nearly eight-year conflict, a report said Sunday.

The findings by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute offer the most comprehensive record to date of presumed chemicals weapons use in Syria, where the long war appears to be winding down.

The tally by the policy group also could be cited as part of possible international war-crimes cases against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) said it had “credibly substantiated” 336 uses of chemical weapons, ranging from nerve agents to crude but dangerous chlorine bombs.


Pope Warns against Rising Nationalism, Defends Universal Human Rights and Migrants

via Vatican News:

It is clear, though, that relationships within the international community, and the multilateral system as a whole, are experiencing a period of difficulty, with the resurgence of nationalistic tendencies at odds with the vocation of the international Organizations to be a setting for dialogue and encounter for all countries.  This is partly due to a certain inability of the multilateral system to offer effective solutions to a number of long unresolved situations, like certain protracted conflicts, or to confront present challenges in a way satisfactory to all.  It is also in part the result of the development of national policies determined more by the search for a quick partisan consensus than by the patient pursuit of the common good by providing long-term answers.  It is likewise partially the outcome of the growing influence within the international Organizations of powers and interest groups that impose their own visions and ideas, sparking new forms of ideological colonization, often in disregard for the identity, dignity and sensitivities of peoples.  In part too, it is a consequence of the reaction in some parts of the world to a globalization that has in some respects developed in too rapid and disorderly a manner, resulting in a tension between globalization and local realities….

Some of these attitudes go back to the period between the two World Wars, when populist and nationalist demands proved more forceful than the activity of the League of Nations.  The reappearance of these impulses today is progressively weakening the multilateral system, resulting in a general lack of trust, a crisis of credibility in international political life, and a gradual marginalization of the most vulnerable members of the family of nations….

Peace is never a partial good, but one that embraces the entire human race.  Hence an essential aspect of good politics is the pursuit of the common good of all, insofar as it is “the good of all people and of the whole person”[4] and a condition of society that enables all individuals and the community as a whole to achieve their proper material and spiritual well-being….

Respect for the dignity of each human being is thus the indispensable premise for all truly peaceful coexistence, and law becomes the essential instrument for achieving social justice and nurturing fraternal bonds between peoples.  In this context, a fundamental role is played by the human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose seventieth anniversary we recently celebrated.  The universal objective and rational nature of those rights ought rightly to be reaffirmed, lest there prevail partial and subjective visions of humanity that risk leading to new forms of inequality, injustice, discrimination and, in extreme cases, also new forms of violence and oppression….

Among the vulnerable of our time that the international community is called to defend are not only refugees but also migrants.  Once again, I appeal to governments to provide assistance to all those forced to emigrate on account of the scourge of poverty and various forms of violence and persecution, as well as natural catastrophes and climatic disturbances, and to facilitate measures aimed at permitting their social integration in the receiving countries….

Concern for those who are most vulnerable impels us also to reflect on another serious problem of our time, namely the condition of workers.  Unless adequately protected, work ceases to be a means of human self-realization and becomes a modern form of slavery.  A hundred years ago saw the establishment of the International Labour Organization, which has sought to promote suitable working conditions and to increase the dignity of workers themselves.  Faced with the challenges of our own time, first of all increased technological growth, which eliminates jobs, and the weakening of economic and social guarantees for workers, I express my hope that the International Labour Organization will continue to be, beyond partisan interests, an example of dialogue and concerted effort to achieve its lofty objectives….

Rethinking our common destiny in the present context also involves rethinking our relationship with our planet. This year too, immense distress and suffering caused by heavy rains, flooding, fires, earthquakes and drought have struck the inhabitants of different regions of the Americas and Southeast Asia.  Hence, among the issues urgently calling for an agreement within the international community are care for the environment and climate change.  In this regard, also in the light of the consensus reached at the recent international Conference on Climate Change (COP24) held in Katowice, I express my hope for a more decisive commitment on the part of states to strengthening cooperation for urgently combating the worrisome phenomenon of global warming.  The earth belongs to everyone, and the consequences of its exploitation affect all the peoples of the world, even if certain regions feel those consequences more dramatically….

On 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell.  Within a few months, an end would come to the last legacy of the Second World War: the painful division of Europe decided at Yalta and the Cold War.  The countries east of the Iron Curtain recovered freedom after decades of oppression, and many of them set out on the path that would lead to membership in the European Union.  In the present climate, marked by new centrifugal tendencies and the temptation to erect new curtains, may Europe not lose its awareness of the benefits – the first of which is peace – ushered in by the journey of friendship and rapprochement between peoples begun in the postwar period.


Assad Regime Using Mass Murder to Empty Prisons of Political Opponents

via the Washington Post:

As Syria’s government consolidates control after years of civil war, President Bashar al-Assad’s army is doubling down on executions of political prisoners, with military judges accelerating the pace they issue death sentences, according to survivors of the country’s most notorious prison.

In interviews, more than two dozen Syrians recently released from the Sednaya military prison in Damascus described a government campaign to clear the decks of political detainees. The former inmates said prisoners are being transferred from jails across Syria to join death-row detainees in Sednaya’s basement and then be executed in pre-dawn hangings.

Yet despite these transfers, the population of Sednaya’s once-packed cells — which at their peak held an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 inmates — has dwindled largely because of the unyielding executions, and at least one section of the prison is almost entirely empty, the former detainees said.


Propping Up Autocracy Will Bring Neither Justice Nor Stability to the Middle East

In their campaigns for the presidency, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have held up stability as their preeminent goal for the Middle East and argued against efforts that would undermine autocracy in the region, even to the point of opposing the replacement of the Assad regime, which has committed mass slaughter and countless other crimes against humanity in Syria. Working to foster the spread of democracy and human rights is not seen as a vital national security interest by either populist nationalists or liberal nationalists. Some reject a belief in universal human rights, while others argue that the people of the region simply lack the capacity to live in free societies, respect human rights, and participate politically. Often, this line of thinking is paired with the argument that autocracy had been providing the region with stability and order. The historical record and sources of the present unrest point to the opposite conclusion.

In a recent speech, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power explained why autocracy is actually the source of much of the instability, violence, and injustice in the region:

It was not the United States or the coalition of which we were a part that shattered the tenuous stability of the Qaddafi’s tyrannical rule; it was the Libyan insurrection, which was a thoroughly Libyan-driven occurrence. Once the Libyan people had decided to contest Qaddafi’s rule, he would not have been able to restore order – whether by repression or even by brutal massacre. On the contrary, had Qaddafi gone forward and carried out his threats, it would almost certainly have galvanized more fighters to join the ranks fighting against him. So the increasingly common claim that our standing by would somehow have made for a more stable Libya just isn’t right….

So here’s the question: What is the U.S. role in promoting inclusive, accountable governments and robust civil societies that we know are so crucial to advancing our long-term interests in the region?

Now, this question rests on a premise that some in the region – and even in our own country, including a few prominent presidential candidates – might contest. That premise is that the way the countries of the Middle East will achieve greater stability and security over time is by moving toward governments that have to answer to their own people, and that respect human rights. People who challenge this premise tend to argue that strongmen are the only forces that can hold these societies together, and that it was the very collapse of the region’s strongmen that led to the rising violence and turmoil that harm U.S. interests today. One almost encounters a kind of nostalgia for the autocrats who are seen to have maintained order back in the day.

It is true that, for decades, undemocratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa – many of them in fact ruled by strongmen – offered a veneer of stability, particularly when compared to the current upheaval. But the leaders did not grow the political or economic institutions in their society, and, by refraining from pursuing political evolution, they set the stage for much more disruptive revolution. The wave of popular uprisings that spread across the region in 2011 represented a clear rejection of the corrupt, ineffective, and abusive machinery that had stifled people’s aspirations for so long.

Some have argued that the United States should have prevented the Arab Spring, or that different policy choices could have preserved the old order. But the truth is that once the citizens of the region lost their fear – and that was a big threshold they had to cross – once they lost their fear and took to the streets, the strongmen would have needed to use significant violence to try to put the genie back in the bottle – violence of a scale that the United States could not have aligned. Violence that would have never succeeded in the end in turning back the clock.

Let me be clear: the old system was not the source of stability – it was itself at the root of so much of the violence we see in the Middle East today. Autocratic rule is bad for the future of the region and it is bad for the interests of the United States.

Rather than invest in their people, strongmen use their nations to enrich themselves and to crush independent checks on their power. To give just one example, it is estimated that, at one point, approximately one in five people in Libya was on the payroll of Qaddafi’s Orwellian security apparatus. Just think about that: a fifth of a country paid to police itself. Imagine if those resources and that energy had been directed to Libyan schools or Libyan hospitals.

In addition, autocrats routinely stoke ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions that can quickly lead to explosive violence. They recognize that one of the most effective ways to entrench themselves in power is to persuade members of one group or another that their survival depends on patronage and protection. Similarly, they are also quick to repress the rights of minorities when they see such actions as a useful distraction, or as an opportunity to strengthen their own hand. In this way, the tension fueled by strongmen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, igniting divisions between communities that have long lived together in relative stability. And the fiber that binds pluralistic societies together is much easier to tear apart than it is to sew back together.

Another reason we should be wary of supporting strongmen is that they foster a climate of fear and despair that can be exploited by terrorist groups to grab territory, as we have seen, and to attract new members. Extremist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda have seized upon the frustration that builds up in places where people feel they have no agency to overcome the injustices they endure. These groups promise them a delusional but nominally righteous pathway in which to channel their resentment.

Now no suffering, no matter how profound, can justify terrorism. Nothing can justify a person violently attacking innocent human beings. ISIL is a monstrous, nihilistic movement that has inflicted immeasurable suffering that goes well beyond what its members themselves have experienced. My point is only that that the systematic repression and atrocities that despots rely upon to maintain their grip on power creates a climate of instability and despair that extremist groups have used to help recruit.

Consider Syria, again. No single factor has been a bigger boon for the recruitment of groups like ISIL than the horrors committed by the Assad regime. Each time the Syrian military has gassed a civilian neighborhood; or barrel-bombed a school, hospital, or bread line; or cut off another community from vital humanitarian aid, starving helpless men, women, and children to death – every time the Assad regime has not just succeeded in inflicting tremendous suffering on Syrian people, it has fueled the hatred that ISIL and extremist groups use to draw more fighters to their cause, including thousands of foreign fighters holding American and EU passports.

Thanks to the cessation of hostilities, some of these horrific practices have been reduced. But we still see persistent violations and indiscriminate regime attacks.

The Assad regime also provides an example of the fourth reason autocrats make for bad and unreliable partners: they often support terrorism when they see it as advancing their narrow self interests. During the war in Iraq, the Syrian government allowed its territory to become the main transit route for terrorists traveling to Iraq to fight the American-led coalition. The Syrian government also has sponsored the terrorist group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon for decades. And while Assad presents himself as the only man standing in the way of ISIL overrunning Syria, he conveniently omits that it was his own government that released up to a thousand violent detainees, including many individuals who had been radicalized in his own appalling prisons, and he did that in order to justify his government’s crackdown on peaceful protesters. Just think about that for a moment: a dictator deliberately, cynically strengthens the hand of terrorists in order to try to gain Western support and create a pretext for crushing nonviolent dissent. Similarly, Qaddafi consistently sponsored terrorist groups and attacks during his reign, including the infamous Lockerbie bombing. Is it really credible to argue that partnering with leaders like these will help us fight terrorism over time?

What is an alternative to autocracy that can better promote long-term security, justice, prosperity, and peace in the region? Powers explains:

So if we have such profound concerns about autocratic behaviors, who or what are we for? I’ll just lay that out here. We are for pluralistic, inclusive governments that empower all their people, regardless of their sect, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, rather than pitting them against one another. Governments that give a share of power to all groups through transparent, democratic processes, and give their citizens the tools to hold those in office and those in civil and public service accountable. We are for governments that give their people a chance to provide for their families through honest means, rather than creating a system where corruption and patronage is the only way to get by or to get ahead. We are for governments that empower women and girls, both because it is right thing to do and because countries where women enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities are, on average, more prosperous, healthier, more democratic, and more peaceful. We are for leaders who give people a path to participating in their societies without having to take to the streets in protest. We are for institutions that are built to empower their people, rather than to exploit them; to serve their people, rather than to repress them. We are for using political processes, institutions, and negotiations to resolve conflicts, rather than using violence. We are for rule of law, rather than rule by law.

Disagreements will inevitably exist over the exceptionally complex question of how to promote this form of government in the region. But recognizing that this commitment to basic rights, good governance, and political participation aligns both with our most cherished values and the key overall goals of US foreign policy is critical. Propping up brutal dictatorships is not only unjust; it will never bring the stability that its proponents desire and promise.

 


Human Dignity 2016

The Institute for Church Life of the University of Notre Dame recently hosted a lecture and conference on human dignity: “The End of Human Dignity? Recovering the Intellectual Appeal of Human Dignity for the Theological and Philosophical Imagination.” The event featured Cardinal Onaiyekan, Cyril O’Regan, Leon Kass, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and David Walsh, and numerous other prominent philosophers and theologians. Here are some of the highlights from those live-tweeting:


What is the Whole Life Movement?

At its core, the whole life movement is dedicated to protecting the life and dignity of all people. It is rooted in a belief in the innate dignity and worth of every single human being. Each human being is a person with innate and equal value, and human life is sacred. From these premises comes the belief that it is never permissible to intentionally and directly take an innocent life. But the wanton disregard for life present in unjust social structures and the dehumanization of others in ways short of direct killing are also incompatible with the whole life commitment to human life and dignity. Indirect threats to life, such as the absence of access to healthcare or food, are also fundamentally incompatible with the vision of government and society the whole life movement aims to achieve: the common good. Protecting the life of all people is intimately connected to creating conditions that reflect the dignity of every single person, conditions that allow each person to reach their full potential.

The whole life movement is not a rival of the pro-life movement. Instead, it seeks to purify the pro-life movement of its inconsistencies. A pro-life movement that ignores infant mortality rates, starvation, or the degradation of the environment simply does not deserve the label ‘pro-life.’ It becomes a mere euphemism for supporting laws that restrict access to abortion. It becomes detached from the understanding of human dignity and worth that should animate the movement. Only a whole life approach can make the pro-life movement authentically pro-life. Read More


Twenty Years Later: Honoring the Victims and Survivors of Srebrenica

US Ambassador to United Nations Samantha Power spoke at the UN commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica. You can watch the full video below. Her concluding remarks highlight the lessons that should be drawn from Srebrenica:

In closing, let me simply appeal to all gathered here that the resolve induced by the horror of Srebrenica be extended not only to commemorating the past, but to do far more to prevent genocide and mass atrocities in the present. When those indicted for genocide — today — are able to travel freely, when some would find greater fault with an international court than with those alleged to have perpetrated horrific mass atrocities, when Member States of the United Nations would provide money and weapons to regimes that would gas their own citizens, the sense of impunity that Ratko Mladić felt will reign elsewhere, and we will fail those who need us in the present.

We must never forget the genocide in Srebrenica. We must always honor its victims, its survivors.

But we must never forget also that our words will ring hollow if in the here and now we don’t believe the unbelievable, if we don’t end the culture of impunity that exists in so many places around the world, and if we don’t strengthen our resolve to protect those who count on us all.

Check out the full video: