BIOLOGICAL warfare troops have been rushed to the Russian Arctic amid growing concerns over a serious anthrax outbreak.
A total of 40 people – more than half of them children – are now hospitalised amid fears they may have contracted the deadly infection.
This follows the death of 1,200 reindeer suspected of contracting the disease after a contaminated corpse – buried at least 70 years ago – thawed because of a heatwave in the Yamal peninsula in northern Siberia.
Russian experts have blamed global warming for the prolonged high temperatures – of up to 35C – at the Tarko-Sale Faktoria camp, north of the Arctic Circle.
There were dramatic scenes as the Russian army’s Chemical, Radioactive and Biological Protection Corps, equipped with masks and bio-warfare protective clothing, flew to to regional capital Salekhard on a military Il-76 aircraft to deal with the emergency.
They were deployed by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to carry laboratory tests on the ground, detect and eliminate the focal point of the infection, and to dispose safely of dead animals.
Eight new people were admitted for observation to hospital in Salekhard on Friday, bringing the total to 40, said officials, as reported by The Siberian Times.
“As of now, there is no single diagnosis of the dangerous infection,” said a spokesman for the governor of Yamalo-Nenets, Dmitry Kobylkin.
Those in hospital are all from a dozen nomadic families who herd reindeer in the far north of Russia.
save others from depression
Medics were taking precautions to hospitalise any of the ‘at risk’ group who showed any symptoms of ill health.
More than half those in hospital are children, some of them babies.
Other herders have been evacuated at least 40 miles from the scene of the outbreak, first identified a week ago.
Anna Popova, director of state health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, warned: “We need to be ready for any manifestations and return of infection.”
The concern follows an outbreak of the Bubonic Plage in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia earlier this month.
Professor Florian Stammler, of the University of Lapland, Finland, knows the site where the outbreak occurred and described it as a reindeer junction used by many herders.
“Due to the high mobility of herders using this site, utmost care has to be taken for preventing of anthrax being spread all over the Yamal Peninsula,” he said.
Venison from this region is exported to Britain and other EU countries but local officials insisted the precautions they are taking will prevent any threat to this lucrative industry.
A spokesman for the governor insisted: ‘This case won’t affect exports or the quality of meat.’
Russian experts say the hot summer led to the frozen infection being “unlocked by the thawing of a diseased carcass from a long time ago”, reported the news website.
If correct, there is real concern of centuries-old infections reappearing in permafrost regions like Siberia.
The Sakha Republic, east of this region, has some 200 burial grounds of animals that succumbed to anthrax in the past.
Tarko Sale Faktoriya, the focus of the outbreak at Yamal Peninsula
The army unit deployed on Friday is equipped with military helicopters as well as off road vehicles.
They face what the region governor calls ‘an extremely challenging task of liquidating the consequences – and disinfecting the focus – of the infection.
“I think this perhaps will be the first in the world operation cleaning up a territory of mass deer mortality over such distances in the tundra,” he said.
Anthrax is an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, which has been developed as an agent of warfare.
Among its forms are inhalation, which leads to fever, chest pain, and shortness of breath.
The intestinal form presents with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain.
Until the 20th century, it killed hundreds of thousands of people and livestock each year.
Working with dubious sourcing, a group close to NATO’s chief military commander Philip Breedlove sought to secure weapons deliveries for Ukraine, a trove of newly released emails revealed. The efforts served to intensify the conflict between the West and Russia.
In private, the general likes to wear leather. Philip Mark Breedlove, 60, is a well-known Harley-Davidson fan, and up until a few weeks ago, he also served as the commander of NATO and American troops in Europe. Even during his tenure as the military leader of the alliance, the American four-star general would trade his blue Air Force uniform for motorcycle gear and explore Europe’s roads with his friends.
Photos show a man with broad shoulders, a wide gait and an even wider smile. The pictures of the general’s motorcycle tours were recently made public on the online platform DC Leaks. Restraint, it seems, was never Breedlove’s thing.
The photos are the entertaining part of an otherwise explosive collection of Breedlove’s private email correspondence. Most of the 1,096 hacked emails date back to the dramatic 12 months of the Ukraine crisis after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. Thousands died in the skirmishes between Kiev’s troops and Moscow-aligned separatists. More than 2 million civilians fled eastern Ukraine.
Russia supports the separatists with weapons, fighters and consultants. When people began calling for Washington to also massively intervene in 2015, the Ukraine conflict risked escalating into a war between East and West.
The newly leaked emails reveal a clandestine network of Western agitators around the NATO military chief, whose presence fueled the conflict in Ukraine. Many allies found in Breedlove’s alarmist public statements about alleged large Russian troop movements cause for concern early on. Earlier this year, the general was assuring the world that US European Command was “deterring Russia now and preparing to fight and win if necessary.”
The emails document for the first time the questionable sources from whom Breedlove was getting his information. He had exaggerated Russian activities in eastern Ukraine with the overt goal of delivering weapons to Kiev.
The general and his likeminded colleagues perceived US President Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief of all American forces, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel as obstacles. Obama and Merkel were being “politically naive & counter-productive” in their calls for de-escalation, according to Phillip Karber, a central figure in Breedlove’s network who was feeding information from Ukraine to the general.
“I think POTUS sees us as a threat that must be minimized,… ie do not get me into a war????” Breedlove wrote in one email, using the acronym for the president of the United States. How could Obama be persuaded to be more “engaged” in the conflict in Ukraine — read: deliver weapons — Breedlove had asked former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Breedlove sought counsel from some very prominent people, his emails show. Among them were Wesley Clark, Breedlove’s predecessor at NATO, Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Kiev.
One name that kept popping up was Phillip Karber, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC and president of the Potomac Foundation, a conservative think tank founded by the former defense contractor BDM. By its own account, the foundation has helped eastern European countries prepare their accession into NATO. Now the Ukrainian parliament and the government in Kiev were asking Karber for help.
On February 16, 2015, when the Ukraine crisis had reached its climax, Karber wrote an email to Breedlove, Clark, Pyatt and Rose Gottemoeller, the under secretary for arms control and international security at the State Department, who will be moving to Brussels this fall to take up the post of deputy secretary general of NATO. Karber was in Warsaw, and he said he had found surreptitious channels to get weapons to Ukraine — without the US being directly involved.
According to the email, Pakistan had offered, “under the table,” to sell Ukraine 500 portable TOW-II launchers and 8,000 TOW-II missiles. The deliveries could begin within two weeks. Even the Poles were willing to start sending “well maintained T-72 tanks, plus several hundred SP 122mm guns, and SP-122 howitzers (along with copious amounts of artillery ammunition for both)” that they had leftover from the Soviet era. The sales would likely go unnoticed, Karber said, because Poland’s old weapons were “virtually undistinguishable from those of Ukraine.”
A destroyed airport building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk : Thousands were killed in fighting during the Ukraine conflict.
Karber noted, however, that Pakistan and Poland would not make any deliveries without informal US approval. Furthermore, Warsaw would only be willing to help if its deliveries to Kiev were replaced with new, state-of-the-art weapons from NATO.
Karber concluded his letter with a warning: “Time has run out.” Without immediate assistance, the Ukrainian army “could face prospect of collapse within 30 days.”
“Stark,” Breedlove replied. “I may share some of this but will thoroughly wipe the fingerprints off.”
In March, Karber traveled again to Warsaw in order to, as he told Breedlove, consult with leading members of the ruling party, on the need to “quietly supply arty (eds: artillery) and antitank munitions to Ukraine.”
Much to the irritation of Breedlove, Clark and Karber, nothing happened. Those responsible were quickly identified. The National Security Council, Obama’s circle of advisors, were “slowing things down,” Karber complained. Clark pointed his finger directly at the White House, writing, “Our problem is higher than State,” a reference to the State Department.
Sights on Germany
Breedlove and his fellow campaigners also had the German federal government in their sights early on. In April 2014, Clark sent a mail to Nuland and Breedlove and wrote that Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev had implied there was a “problem with German attitude” concerning its “sphere of influence.”
Efforts by Merkel and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to find a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis were portrayed by hardliners as a readiness in Berlin to let Russia bully Ukraine.
In order to build up pressure for the desired weapons aid, Clark and Karber began painting grim scenarios. If the West were to abandon Ukraine, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Clark prophesized, China would then be encouraged to expand its sphere of influence in the Pacific. It could also lead to NATO’s collapse. The situation could only be prevented with the help of military aid, they argued. On November 8, 2014 Clark sounded the alarm internally after talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, his advisers and senior military and intelligence officials. The Ukrainians were expecting an attack as early as the end of the month.
Breedlove answered, “I will focus on this immediately.” He also wrote, “One of our biggest problems” is that one of the United States’ allies had been denying the findings of its intelligence. The remark was aimed at Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency, which had been much more reserved in its assessment of the situation — a position that in retrospect would prove correct.
‘The Front Is Now Everywhere’
Karber’s emails constantly made it sound as though the apocalypse was only a few weeks away. “The front is now everywhere,” he told Breedlove in an email at the beginning of 2015, adding that Russian agents and their proxies “have begun launching a series of terrorist attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and infrastructure bombings,” in an effort to destabilize Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.
In an email to Breedlove, Clark described defense expert Karber as “brilliant.” After a first visit, Breedlove indicated he had also been impressed. “GREAT visit,” he wrote. Karber, an extremely enterprising man, appeared at first glance to be a valuable informant because he often — at least a dozen times by his own account — traveled to the front and spoke with Ukrainian commanders. The US embassy in Kiev also relied on Karber for information because it lacked its own sources. “We’re largely blind,” the embassy’s defense attaché wrote in an email.
At times, Karber’s missives read like prose. In one, he wrote about the 2014 Christmas celebrations he had spent together with Dnipro-1, the ultranationalist volunteer battalion. “The toasts and vodka flow, the women sing the Ukrainian national anthem — no one has a dry eye.”
Karber had only good things to report about the unit, which had already been discredited as a private oligarch army. He wrote that the staff and volunteers were dominated by middle class people and that there was a large professional staff that was even “working on the holiday.” Breedlove responded that these insights were “quietly finding their way into the right places.”
Highly Controversial Figure
In fact, Karber is a highly controversial figure. During the 1980s, the longtime BDM employee, was counted among the fiercest Cold War hawks. Back in 1985, he warned of an impending Soviet attack on the basis of documents he had translated incorrectly.
He also blundered during the Ukraine crisis after sending photos to US Senator James Inhofe, claiming to show Russian units in Ukraine. Inhofe released the photos publicly, but it quickly emerged that one had originated from the 2008 war in Georgia.
By November 10, 2014, at the latest, Breedlove must have recognized that his informant was on thin ice. That’s when Karber reported that the separatists were boasting they had a tactical nuclear warhead for the 2S4 mortar. Karber himself described the news as “weird,” but also added that “there is a lot of ‘crazy’ things going on” in Ukraine.
The reasons that Breedlove continued to rely on Karber despite such false reports remain unclear. Was he willing to pay any price for weapons deliveries? Or did he have other motives? The emails illustrate the degree to which Breedlove and his fellow campaigners feared that Congress might reduce the number of US troops in Europe.
Karber confirmed the authenticity of the leaked email correspondence. Regarding the questions about the accuracy of his reports, he told SPIEGEL that, “like any information derived from direct observation at the front during the ‘fog of war,’ it is partial, time sensitive, and perceived through a personal perspective.” Looking back with the advantage of hindsight and a more comprehensive perspective, “I believe that I was right more than wrong,” Karber writes, “but certainly not perfect.” He adds that, “in 170 days at the front, I never once met a German military or official directly observing the conflict.”
Great Interest in Berlin
Breedlove’s leaked email correspondences were read in Berlin with great interest. A year ago, word of the NATO commander’s “dangerous propaganda” was circulating around Merkel’s Chancellery. In light of the new information, officials felt vindicated in their assessment. Germany’s Federal Foreign Office has expressed similar sentiment, saying that fortunately “influential voices had continuously advocated against the delivery of ‘lethal weapons.'”
Karber says he finds it “obscene that the most effective sanction of this war is not the economic limits placed on Russia, but the virtual complete embargo of all lethal aid to the victim. I find this to be the height of sophistry — if a woman is being attacked by a group of hooligans and yells out to the crowd or passersby, ‘Give me a can of mace,’ is it better to not supply it because the attackers could have a knife and passively watch her get raped?”
General Breedlove’s departure from his NATO post in May has done little to placate anyone in the German government. After all, the man Breedlove regarded as an obstacle, President Obama, is nearing the end of his second term. His possible successor, the Democrat Hillary Clinton, is considered a hardliner vis-a-vis Russia.
What’s more: Nuland, a diplomat who shares many of the same views as Breedlove, could move into an even more important role after the November election — she’s considered a potential candidate for secretary of state.
As the Saudis Covered Up Abuses in Yemen, America Stood By.
The United Nations has long been bullied by its most powerful members, and U.N. secretaries-general have usually been forced to grit their teeth and take it quietly. But few nations have been more publicly brazen in this practice than Saudi Arabia, and earlier this summer, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon managed to get in a dig at the Kingdom over its blackmail-style tactics. Ban openly admitted that it was only after Riyadh threatened to cut off funding to the U.N. that he bowed to its demand to remove the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where it has launched a harsh military intervention, from a list of violators of children’s rights contained in the annex of his annual Children and Armed Conflict report. “The report describes horrors no child should have to face,” Ban told reporters. “At the same time, I also had to consider the very real prospect that millions of other children would suffer grievously if, as was suggested to me, countries would defund many U.N. programs.”
But the secretary-general wasn’t done. “It is unacceptable for U.N. member states to exert undue pressure,” Ban added. The removal of the Saudis from the list was also, he claimed, “pending review.”
For the United States, it was another reminder of what an uncomfortable ally the Saudi kingdom can be (as was the July release of a hitherto classified section of a 2002 report into the 9/11 attacks that suggested, among other things, that the wife of then-Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan gave money to the wife of a suspected 9/11 co-conspirator). No one has become more familiar with this awkwardness than the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, the erstwhile human-rights icon (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell) who has been forced to look the other way as a powerful U.S. ally does as it pleases in Yemen with political, logistical and military cover from Washington. Since news broke of Ban’s decision, I have asked Power’s office for a direct response to Saudi funding threats. Neither she nor her staff has ever replied.
Using their oil wealth as a weapon—and tacitly encouraged by their most powerful ally, Washington, which has supplied Riyadh with targeting assistance, logistical support and daily aerial refueling of coalition jets in Yemen—the Saudis have refused to moderate their stance. “The U.S. silence has been deafening in the face of aggressive Saudi bullying to prevent the U.N. from condemning a horrendously abusive military campaign that has killed and maimed hundreds of children,” said Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy and former U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. “This blatant double standard deeply undermines U.S. efforts to address human rights violations whether in Syria or elsewhere in the world.”
The U.S. silence has been deafening in the face of aggressive Saudi bullying to prevent the UN from condemning a horrendously abusive military campaign that has killed and maimed hundreds of children.”
Ban’s honesty hasn’t helped Washington. While human rights organizations initially pilloried the lame-duck secretary-general—he leaves office at the end of 2016—for bowing to the intimidation of a wealthy donor, many diplomats and U.N. observers said Ban also set an important precedent for calling out powerful member states.
In June, after Ban went public, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner did make one oblique comment, that the U.N. “should be permitted to carry out its mandate, carry out its responsibilities, without fear of money being cut off.” The U.S. itself, however, has already set a precedent for doing just that: after the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO, recognized Palestine in 2011, the United States suspended its contributions worth $80 million annually, or more than a fifth of the agency’s budget. Both the Saudi threat and the U.S. pinch on UNESCO, like the perennial menace of vetoes on the Security Council, undermine the authority vested in the U.N.
U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen has weakened Washington morally at the U.N., allowing Russia and other countries to call the Americans hypocritical for “politicizing” Syrian humanitarian access while supporting a coalition that is blockading anntire country, helping to worsen what in Yemen is numerically the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to U.N. figures for those in need of aid. While the U.S. has highlighted the toll of Russian bombs in Syria, it has been less willing to criticize Moscow’s use of cluster munitions. The weapons are widely banned internationally under a U.N. treaty, but the Pentagon maintains they can be used appropriately. The Saudis offer a prime example of their reckless use in Yemen, where they’ve unleashed them in populated areas. The more flagrant the Saudis are in their behavior, the harder it is for Washington to bury the underlying hypocrisy of its support.
This February, amid a deadly Russian air campaign in support of regime forces aiming to encircle Aleppo, the Security Council met urgently on the humanitarian situation in the city and elsewhere in Syria. But upon leaving the session, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin used the Yemen card, telling reporters, “We are going to propose weekly meetings on the humanitarian situation in Yemen.”
However, when subsequent discussions on Yemen appeared poised to yield a resolution on humanitarian access in the country, the Saudis and other Gulf States met with diplomats from the U.S., France and the United Kingdom to complain. Unlike Syria, for which a similar resolution was passed, no such resolution has been mustered by the Council for Yemen.
The Saudi threat to cut vital funding streams—delivered forcefully, and directly by Riyadh’s foreign minister to Ban and his top political adviser—should come as little surprise to anyone who has watched Saudi Arabia’s erratic and often abusive relationship with the U.N. since the Saudis began bombing Yemen last March.
There is another reason the U.S. has said little about the strong-arm tactics employed by Saudi Arabia: The hypocrisy might be too much to take.
As Saudi behavior grew more careless publicly, both on the ground in Yemen in the halls of the U.N., the silence from Washington, and at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in New York, continued. Ambassador Power even found herself defending an intervention in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians, coincided with the spread of Al Qaeda, and undercut her own passionate work to draw attention to the crimes of the Assad regime in Syria.
But there is another reason the U.S. has said little about the strong-arm tactics employed by its closest Arab ally: The hypocrisy might be too much to take. Just last year, the U.S. was instrumental in keeping Israel off the very annex the Saudis found themselves on this month. Leila Zerrougui, the U.N.’s special representative for children and armed conflict, had endorsed the inclusion of both the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas on the blacklist. In the end, neither was, but the pressure exerted by Washington and Israel occurred largely behind the scenes, according to diplomatic norms that are now under the spotlight.
The Saudi intervention has a great deal to do with Riyadh’s fears of its great regional rival, Iran, which has backed the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.It began last March when, following rapid advances of the Houthis, who are allied with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the new Saudi King, Salmon, announced a hastily formed coalition of Sunni Arab states. His son, deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman—more recently the darling of the financial press for his consulting-firm endorsed plans to reform the Saudi economy—was put in charge of the campaign. The coalition’s nominal goal was to reinstate Saleh’s post-Arab Spring successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had fled the country, but also to counter the rise of the Houthis as a proxy of Iran.
With the help of the U.S. military, Riyadh was able to impose a blockade, by air and sea, and commence attacks on their southern neighbor. Prior to the war, Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world and soon commercial stocks of food and fuel, as well as drugs and other medical supplies, were running dangerously low. By September, the U.N. estimated Yemen was receiving just 1 percent of the fuel imports it required. Today, more than 21 million people in Yemen are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance and half the population suffers from food insecurity and malnutrition—figures that dwarf Syria’s.
Another early casualty of the blockade was the access often afforded by the U.N. to foreign journalists and human rights officials working for nonprofit groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In May, two months into the Saudi intervention, and as the civilian death toll in Yemen approached 400, senior U.N. officials in Yemen decided that neither group would be allowed on U.N. flights into and out of the country. At the time, seats on commercial routes operated by the national carrier Yemenia Airway were difficult or impossible to obtain—when the planes ran at all. Those flights were routed through Saudi Arabia, where officials have oversight of passenger manifests.
The U.N. also maintained its own chartered plane, large enough to fit 27 or 28 people, that had begun flying several times a week between Djibouti and the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital of Sanaa. But journalists and human rights NGO workers were banned from those flights as well; U.N. officials based in Yemen, Europe and New York, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and several aid workers said the policy stemmed from the Saudi rejection of a single flight manifest earlier in May that contained several journalists, including reporters from the New York Times and BBC.
Several U.N. staffers suggested the decision seemed to go against Ban’s Human Rights up Front agenda. That initiative, meant to give special privileges to human rights reporting, civilian protection and the prevention of “large-scale” violations of international law, was introduced largely in response to the organization’s inaction during the last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed.
Even those aid workers and U.N. staff that were allowed in have found their trips are dependent on the Saudi government, which approves or denies access for all U.N. flights.
“Should the U.N. allow a government to accept such restrictions, which clearly restrict access to beneficiaries?” asked one aid worker, who spoke anonymously in order to protect their organization’s continued access in Yemen.
Some journalists instead undertook dangerous journeys by sea into Yemen from the African coast. One reporter, Matthieu Aikins, on assignment from Rolling Stone with a cameraman, was smuggled into the country on a 23-foot-long vessel—becoming one of the first Western journalists to break through the blockade and document the toll of the air war. Aikins said that prior to his departure from Djibouti, U.N. officials told him that the Saudis were no longer allowing foreign journalists to travel to Yemen. Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, said she was booked on a flight from Djibouti to Sanaa in late June, before being told “last minute that we were off the list”—forcing her to find alternative travel through Jordan.
As journalists and human rights workers struggled to gain entry into Yemen, the news that did emerge grew direr. In May, Human Rights Watch first reported the use of cluster munitions by the coalition, and by the second half of that month, the U.N. had recorded 1,037 civilian deaths since the start of the Saudi intervention. Many of those deaths were the result of wild and indiscriminant Houthi anti-aircraft fire, but hundreds more were caused by Saudi airstrikes. It was increasingly clear that war crimes could be taking place, but another month would pass before more international journalists began to trickle into the country.
At the U.N. in New York, a new humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, took office at the end of May, inheriting crises in Yemen, Syria and South Sudan, and massive funding gaps across the board. There was one bright spot, or so it seemed—on April 18, the Saudi government pledged to meet a $274 million U.N. “flash appeal” for Yemen, requested just the previous day. But the negotiations that followed, and foot-dragging on the part of the Saudis, would set a pattern for the coming year when Riyadh’s diplomats repeatedly embarrassed O’Brien and his office. Desperate for a steady stream of Gulf money, U.N. officials were accommodating toward the Saudis, a stance that became increasingly dissonant as the civilian toll of their bombs escalated, and the coalition’s blockade meant the U.N. would have to serve ever more famished Yemenis.
“It’s obvious the Saudis were paying and bullying everyone who dared to say anything, and the U.N. unfortunately was boxed in,” said the senior U.N. political official.
It’s obvious the Saudis were paying and bullying everyone who dared to say anything, and the UN unfortunately was boxed in.”
That October, after the Saudis finally announced agreements with nine U.N. agencies to disburse the money (the terms of which have never been made public), Riyadh undertook an elaborate press junket in New York, lauding its humanitarian programming in Yemen. Looking glum and uneasy, U.N. humanitarian chief O’Brien highlighted the U.N.’s relationship with the Saudis’ King Salman Humanitarian Aid & Relief Center. By then, the U.N. had recorded 2,355 civilian deaths in Yemen, the majority from coalition airstrikes, which O’Brien that summer told the Security Council had in some cases violated international law. It later became clear that the Saudi delegation had effectively dragged O’Brien to the U.N. briefing room after a meeting in Ban’s office upstairs.
The U.N., O’Brien told reporters, couldn’t afford to turn down any aid, including from Saudi Arabia, “because that is existential.”
It was during the same junket, at a separate event in New York, where Riyadh’s ambassador to the U.N., Abdallah al-Mouallimi, admitted for the first time, to this reporter, that the coalition had bombed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in northern Yemen earlier that week (the bombing took place almost at the same time as O’Brien’s news conference with the Saudis). The ambassador, however, blamed MSF for providing incorrect coordinates. A miniscandal ensued, during which the ambassador falsely claimed to reporters that he had been “misquoted or the quotations were taken out of context.” On several other occasions, Mouallimi has denied the use of cluster munitions by the coalition, despite extensive documentation by human rights groups and journalists. He routinely calls into question any U.N. reporting indicating the Saudi coalition has killed civilians, even as that number surpasses 2,000.
Other powerful U.N. member states, like Russia, are well known in U.N. circles for performing elegant logical contortions when confronted with incriminating evidence, such as the civilian toll from Moscow’s strikes in Syria. But the Saudis are inexperienced and can appear petulant in the spotlight. Last year was also perceived as a low point in the Kingdom’s history: The Iran nuclear deal it lobbied against was signed; its interests in Syria took a serious blow as Russia acted to prop up the Assad regime; oil prices bottomed out around $30 per barrel; and its intervention in Yemen was not only attracting unwanted attention, but was by most measurements a failure.
One Western diplomat recalled how expertly the U.S. and Israel were able to pressure Ban into removing Israel from the same Children and Armed Conflict annex—a development that angered many, but garnered far less attention. Not so for the Saudis. “It’s the difference between how big corporations handle things and how the Corleones handle things,” said the diplomat.
Their erratic behavior came to a head in February, when Saudi officials sent a series of letters to the U.N. and aid organizations, warning them to leave areas under Houthi control. If taken literally, that meant the majority of Yemen’s populated areas, including Sanaa, where U.N. operations were headquartered. A first letter, sent on February 5 to O’Brien’s agency, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), ominously asked that the U.N. “notify all the international organizations working in Yemen about the necessity of relocating their headquarters outside the military operations area to be away from regions where the Houthi militias and the groups belonging to them are activating, in order for the Coalition forces to guarantee the safety and security of the international organizations.” Another letter, marked “urgent” was sent directly to NGOs from the Saudi Embassy in London.
O’Brien responded within 48 hours, reminding Saudi Arabia of its obligations under international humanitarian law, and explaining that the U.N. would continue to serve Yemen’s communities. In a subsequent letter to the OCHA chief, Mouallimi walked back Saudi demands, clarifying that humanitarian workers should not be near military bases belonging to the Houthis and supporters of Saleh—still a vague assertion when 2,000-pound bombs are in play. To aid workers in Yemen, the unprompted Saudi communications showed, at best, a country dangerously fighting war from the hip, making things up as it went along. Even if the letters were simply an attempt to comply with international law gone awry, humanitarians already had reason to be concerned: just weeks earlier, a leaked Security Council Panel of Experts report counted 22 coalition attacks on hospitals during the war.
A month later, in March, as the Children and Armed Conflict report was first passed among diplomats, there was separate talk in the Security Council of a humanitarian resolution aimed specifically at Yemen, potentially with explicit language on the protection of civilians. Mouallimi, evidently concerned about the prospect, called a news conference in the same briefing room, which he moderated on his own—a rarity for most ambassadors. There he told reporters in no uncertain terms that O’Brien’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had, in fact, told him that there was no need for such a resolution. “You can quote them on that,” he said, speaking for the U.N.
Less than two weeks after the news conference, Saudi-coalition jets killed more than 100 civilians in a market in northwest Yemen, according to U.N. investigators.
“It would seem the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of airstrikes,” said U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, in the aftermath of that attack.
In September, as the civilian toll in Yemen continued mounting, Zeid had called for an independent, international inquiry into the conflict. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Dutch representatives introduced a resolution that would have created such a body, only to see their support melt away in the face of intense pressure from the Saudis and their allies. Instead, the council passed a Gulf-authored resolution endorsing a national investigation controlled by the exiled Hadi government. That inquiry was widely seen as biased and unequipped, and moreover had no access to most of Yemen.
According to diplomats, the U.S. was largely quiet during negotiations over the text, allowing the Saudis to bully the Netherlands—literally sitting with them at a coffee table and crossing out sections of the resolution the U.N. human rights chief wanted.
The Yemeni government investigation favored by the Human Rights Council has yet to release any findings. The U.S., which has sold more than $100 billion in arms to the Saudis since 2010, and which continues to support the coalition with targeting and indispensable refueling flights and logistics, defers to the Saudis when asked about investigations into civilian casualties. When it was released on June 2, Ban’s annual Children in Armed Conflict Report confirmed what many diplomats had already seen when the text was distributed as a draft months earlier: that the coalition was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths—some 510 were killed by the coalition—and injuries in 2015. In the annex that accompanies the report, Ban added the Saudi coalition, along with other parties to the conflict in Yemen, including the Houthis and Al Qaeda.
The response was quick: According to senior U.N. officials, several Gulf allies complained to the U.N. about the report, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called Ban over the weekend to express his displeasure. Nevertheless, on Monday, Ban spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told journalists that no part of the report would change in any way. That afternoon, Jubeir called again, this time dialing Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. State Department official who is now Ban’s top political adviser. Feltman, according to diplomats, communicates regularly with Power, although it’s unclear to what extent she was aware of the Saudi messages.
Jubeir relayed far stronger threats to Feltman, including the specter of a break in relations with the U.N. and cuts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to vital U.N. programing including to the organization’s relief agency in Palestine. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest donors to the U.N., funding a number of additional programs in the Middle East. In 2014, Jubeir, then the ambassador to Washington, announced $500 million to assist Iraqis displaced by the Islamic State.
But financial coercion is also a habit of Jubeir’s: According to the New York Times, earlier this year he told U.S. officials and politicians in Washington that Riyadh would sell hundreds of millions in Treasury bonds and other American assets if Congress passed legislation making it easier for the Saudi government to be sued for alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
Shortly after Jubeir’s call to Feltman, Ban’s office announced the coalition would be removed from the annex pending review. At the U.N., Mouallimi said the Saudis were vindicated, and he called the decision “final and unconditional.”
The Saudis might have had reason to be angry. In emerging as a top donor, they have come to expect the same respect that other large donors like the U.S., European Union and Japan enjoy. The U.S., meanwhile, has a history of politicizing its donations, exemplified by the UNESCO cut. And Russia, which has killed hundreds of civilians in Syria—many of them children—was not fingered in Ban’s most recent report. The Houthis, as this month’s report does make clear, are also responsible for gross violations of human rights.
On June 9, after days of outcry from human rights groups, Ban gave his news conference in which he essentially conceded that the decision to take the Saudis from the annex was made to protect U.N. financing, and not because of the merits of Riyadh’s complaints.
On June 9, Ban essentially conceded that the decision to take the Saudis from the annex was made to protect UN financing.
A flummoxed Mouallimi spoke soon after, and, once again, rebutted Ban. The ambassador told reporters that “undue pressure was not exercised,” and he insisted that “the conclusions [of the report] have now been changed.” In fact, according to Ban, the findings of the report, including that 60 percent of child casualties in Yemen were caused by the Sunni coalition, will not be changed. Only the annex was altered to excise the Saudis—and temporarily, pending a review and the furnishing of additional documentation from the coalition. But instead of doing that, the Saudis themselves asked the U.N. to reveal the sources of information used in the report, which was denied.
Richard Gowan, a fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and longtime U.N. researcher, said Ban’s words in July amounted to a rhetorical coup.
“Very few diplomats or U.N. officials dare call them out for their behavior,” Gowan said of the Saudis. “At least this incident has highlighted their tactics.” He added: ”Ban has managed to avoid a total breakdown with Riyadh, yet in doing so still shone a spotlight onto both their behavior in Yemen and their behavior at the U.N.” he added.
There are further signs the U.N. may be changing its tune in Yemen. After POLITICO raised the question of access to flights by the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service, the U.N. said that the current humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick was “fully seized of the concern on the use of UNHAS by human rights organizations.”
“He believes that they, as important humanitarian partners particularly as concerns protection work, should have access to U.N. air services.” The statement added that McGoldrick was “finalizing” discussions “with relevant organizations and hopes to have a positive change to the current approach.”
But there are also signs that the Saudis aren’t keen to change their habits. Earlier this month, at the tail end of trip to the U.S., Prince Bin Salman showed up 45 minutes late for a meeting with Ban, pushing back the rest of the secretary-general’s meeting that day. In a statement following a photo-op, Ban’s office said he was still “open to receiving any new elements from Saudi Arabia,” relevant to the Children and Armed Conflict report.
Two weeks ago, Jubeir met again with Ban, after which the secretary-general’s office said he “welcomed the Coalition’s readiness to take the necessary concrete measures to end and prevent violations against children.” Ban’s office said they wanted the information before a vital Security Council debate on Children and Armed Conflict on August 2.
A separate letter sent by Zerrougui’s office to the Saudis at the end of June, and obtained by POLITICO, was more explicit. Saudi Arabia was expected to “communicate to the United Nations the commitments, measures and actions that it will undertake” in several areas, including in the “reduction of child casualties,” by July 18. That, according to the letter, would help “enable the Secretary-General to report on positive steps that have been taken following his decision to temporarily remove the coalition from the annexes to the report.”
Judging by the language, it appeared to be giving the Saudis a retroactive and permanent way off the list.
By: Samuel Oakford
Samuel Oakford is a journalist based at the United Nations in New York, where he was previously correspondent for VICE News.
We regret to inform you that President Barack Obama signed into law, S. 764, which was the newest manifestation of the DARK Act (Denying Americans the Right to Know).
The DARK Acts were a way to establish federal labeling – i.e. the lack of GM labeling – and would banish all state labeling initiatives under a federal standard. A brief press release by the White House simply mentioned a list of bills and S. 764, “which directs the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard,” was listed at the end. The “disclosure standard” must be an inside joke, because the disclosure involves the consumer having to scan a QR code on a food product to find out about genetically modified ingredients, or call a 1-800 number. These measures might not even happen for another five years.
The federal measure authored by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and fast-tracked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (no committee, no debate) has now quelled all state efforts for clear text labeling of genetically modified organisms in food. This writer wonders whether the state labeling initiatives purposely held off their labeling efforts until 2018 – 2016 at the earliest – in anticipation of this federal measure. After all, the Senators received millions from Big Agri. Read about the tricky business involved in ramming this measure through.
Consumer, food safety, farm, environmental, and religious groups along with several food corporations representing hundreds of thousands of Americans condemned the bill when it was before Congress. The FDA said the bill’s narrow and ambiguous definition of “bioengineering,” would “likely mean that many foods from GE sources will not be subject to this bill” and that it “may be difficult” for any GMO food to qualify for labeling under the bill.
It also directs the Secretary of Agriculture to eventually — at some point in two to three years — come up with a national labeling standard.
However, that standard could be incredibly weak and provide virtually no information to consumers, argue opponents of the law.
[A loophole]… says food products receiving these labels must contain “genetic material.” By the FDA’s reckoning, that would seem to exempt products like oils, starches, and purified proteins even if they were sourced from GE crops.
The law also says that an item is only to be labeled as genetically modified if the modification could not have occurred through “conventional breeding.” The FDA raised concerns that the lack of specificity in the language could open this term up to an overly generous reading.
Just Label It claims that the law allows the USDA to determine what GMO information is provided through the voluntary labeling system and will make it harder for companies like Campbell’s Soup to voluntarily disclose the presence of GMOs. They also claimed that the law would deny local governments from being able to protect farmers and rural residents from the environmental impacts of GMO crops.
I don’t know what kind of legacy the president hopes to leave, but denying one-third of Americans the right to know what is in the food they feed their families isn’t one to be proud of. This law is a sham and a shame, a rushed backroom deal that discriminates against low-income, rural, minority and elderly populations. The law also represents a major assault on the democratic decision making of several states and erases their laws with a vague multi-year
bureaucratic process specifically designed to provide less transparency to consumers.
Indeed, deliberately hiding crucial food information from low-income people – or any American citizen is an act of discrimination in the highest. One that our government has pulled off many times before, standing by as people are unwittingly exposed to some type of toxin.
In the face of so much opposition when it comes to labeling, it’s easy to think, what now, it’s time to give up – If we demand GM labeling, then the companies will refer us to a number or code.
Keep demanding for clear labels! And remind them that the average could not possibly scan each code or call each number of every label. We are talking about an important ingredient – the very make-up of the engineered plant itself, and Americans deserve to know. If labels are this convoluted and shrouded then the consumer can refuse to buy – which is the best food choice they can make anyway.
Remember how Big Food and the Grocers Manufacturer Association claimed that a label would be too confusing, too costly and too scary for consumers – oh, the irony!