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We should not forget the dangers hiding under Afghan soil | Opinions

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Sanctions introduced after the Taliban takeover should not serve to hinder de-mining efforts in Afghanistan.

Today, due to displacement, economic collapse, and a disintegration of social services including health and education, most Afghans are living in increasingly precarious conditions. Up to 23 million Afghans are facing acute hunger – more than half of the country’s population. As the world is rightfully looking at Ukraine, we must not forget Afghanistan.

The current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is to some extent the result of the international sanctions introduced after the fall of the Afghan government last August. While sanctions can be a legitimate political tool, they must not put civilians at risk.

Some threats these sanctions pose to the lives of Afghan civilians are very visible, but others are hidden under the soil – waiting to explode.

Decades of conflict have littered Afghanistan with land mines and other explosive remnants of war. As a result, today the country is one of the most contaminated in the world.

A few weeks ago, four children lost their lives in Herat, Afghanistan when an old grenade exploded in their hands. A couple of months ago, nine children perished in a similar accident in the village of Degnan in Nangahar Province.

Since the beginning of 2022, many more have been killed, hurt and wounded in this way. In 30 years, more than 41,000 civilians have lost their lives to unexploded ordnances. In 2021, 79 percent of the victims were children.

Together with local partners, DRC has worked with humanitarian mine action in Afghanistan since 1999 – conducting mine clearance activities, destroying unexploded ordnance from old battlefields, and providing risk education to civilians to teach them how to avoid being harmed. First and foremost, to save lives, but also because de-mining operations are crucial for Afghanistan’s future. Without de-mining, Afghans harmed by decades of war cannot build themselves a safe future in their country. Without effective de-mining operations, farming cannot happen, internally displaced people cannot return to their villages, and education cannot be effective as children cannot go to school.

Now, the efforts to clear Afghanistan of mines and unexploded ordnances are hanging by a thread. With the current international sanctions, it is a more difficult task than ever before to get specialised mine clearance tools into the country. So there is a risk that lifesaving Afghan-led de-mining activities will have to be radically scaled down.

The pressures introduced by sanctions may soon result in the collapse of Afghanistan’s de-mining ministry. Such a collapse would be a painful setback for the people of Afghanistan and for the efforts to clear their land of dangerous remnants of war. Capacities built and knowledge gathered over decades could suddenly be lost. The vast majority of the ministry’s employees have been in their jobs for years and have worked tirelessly in partnership with the international mine clearance community. Regardless of who is in power in the country, these employees deserve investment and support.

Paradoxically, the risk of collapse is happening at a time where there is a momentum to increase the space in which we can work, and to expand operations into areas that have been left contaminated by deadly weapons for too long. With the decrease in fighting since August 2021, there is now greater access to communities and more of the country than ever before. We are standing in front of a unique window of opportunity to scale up de-mining work, with the potential to save countless lives. It is an opportunity we must seize.

To do this, there is an urgent need for restoring international support to the people of Afghanistan and for immediately introducing sanctions exemptions that clearly allow for the full resumption of de-mining operations in the country. For the sake of Afghanistan’s people, the international community should urgently seek ways to engage with and not turn its back on the successful efforts to build up the country’s de-mining capacity. It is time to act and to implement flexible financial solutions to help sustain the efforts of brave Afghans working to clear their land of mines.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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UN experts condemn Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing, demand probe | Israel-Palestine conflict News

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A panel of United Nations human rights experts have condemned the killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh and said it may constitute a war crime.

In a news release published on Friday, the UN’s Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) called for a thorough and independent investigation into her death.

“Authorities have an obligation not to harm journalists and to protect them from harm under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” the experts said according to the statement. “The killing of Abu Akleh, who was clearly performing her duties as a journalist, may constitute a war crime.”

Abu Akleh, a veteran reporter with Al Jazeera, was killed on Wednesday while covering an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. She was wearing a helmet and a vest that clearly identified her as a journalist.

Abu Akleh's coffin being carried
Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran reporter with Al Jazeera, was killed on Wednesday while covering an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin [Abbas Momani/Pool via Reuters]

“We demand a prompt, independent, impartial, effective, thorough and transparent investigation into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh,” according to the statement.

“The killing of Abu Akleh is another serious attack on media freedom and freedom of expression, amid the escalation of violence in the occupied West Bank.”

Thousands of people jammed the streets in her hometown of Jerusalem Friday for her funeral and burial. Israeli police kicked and beat mourners with batons as they carried her body from the hospital in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, nearly causing the pallbearers to drop the coffin.

Israeli forces also attacked the hearse as it carried her body, to snatch Palestinian flags from it.

“Al Jazeera Media Network denounces this violence in the strongest terms, and holds the Israeli government fully responsible for the safety and security of all the mourners and the family of our colleague Shireen,” the broadcaster said in a statement Friday.

Abu Akleh was buried next to her parents at the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery.

INTERACTIVE Journalists killed by Israeli forces
[Al Jazeera]

The UN experts said Abu Akleh’s killing came as violence has been on the increase in the occupied West Bank and Gaza in recent years. Last year, according to the statement, marked the highest number of Palestinian deaths resulting from confrontations with Israelis since 2014. It also came amid a high rate of attacks against Palestinian journalists.

At least Palestinian journalists have been killed since 2000, and hundreds more have been injured.

“The role of journalists, especially in a context of heightened tension and marked by continuous abuses, like the occupied Palestinian territory, is critical,” the experts said.

“Lack of accountability gives carte blanche to continue the litany of extrajudicial executions. The safety of journalists is essential in guaranteeing the freedom of expression and media freedom.”

large crowd during funeral
Al Jazeera has accused Israeli of deliberately killing Shireen Abu Akleh [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

The Israeli military said its initial investigation into Abu Akleh’s death showed that a heavy firefight was under way in Jenin approximately 200 metres (about 220 yards) from where she was killed, but that it was unable to determine whether she was shot by Israeli forces or Palestinian fighters.

In a statement issued Friday, the military said Palestinian gunmen recklessly fired hundreds of rounds at an Israeli military vehicle, some in the direction of where Abu Akleh was standing. It said Israeli forces returned fire, and that without doing ballistic analysis, it cannot determine who was responsible for her death.

Reporters who were with Abu Akleh, including one who was shot and wounded, said there were no clashes or fighters in the immediate area when she was killed.

Al Jazeera has accused Israel of “blatant murder” and have called for an independent investigation into her death.

Rights groups have said that Israel rarely follows through on investigations into the killing of Palestinians by its security forces and hands down lenient punishments on the rare occasions when it does.

Abu Akleh, 51, had joined Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language service in 1997 and rose to prominence covering the second Intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s.



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How US blacklisting of IRGC is stalling Iran nuclear deal revival | Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps News

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Washington, DC – After weeks of optimism around the prospect of restoring the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year, the fate of the agreement appears to be in limbo again with no further talks on the calendar and Washington’s attention focused on Ukraine.

The push to revive the deal seems to have stalled over the US designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “foreign terrorist organization”, with American officials reluctant to meet Tehran’s demand to remove the group from the blacklist to seal the deal.

The 2015 nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions against its economy.

Former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran. In turn, the Iranian government started escalating its nuclear programme well beyond the limits set by the JCPOA.

President Joe Biden and his top aides say they are committed to reviving the deal through mutual compliance but have warned that the clock is ticking. Here, Al Jazeera looks at where things stand – and what US analysts say is halting a return to the agreement.

What is the IRGC?

The IRGC was established as a branch of the Iranian military by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the 1979 revolution.

It was meant to be an ideologically driven force, loyal to the revolution and the new form of government that it produced after the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Soon after its founding, the IRGC played a major role in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.

Now the force operates as part of the military, with conscripts joining its rank to fulfil the country’s mandatory military service requirements. But the organisation maintains its own interests and projects inside and outside of Iran – answering ultimately to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC’s Quds Force, which is responsible for the group’s foreign operations, has been vital to Iran’s regional policies, including its support for various paramilitary groups across the Middle East.

“The IRGC really goes to the heart of the Islamic Republic as a political system,” said Sina Toossi, an Iranian-American political analyst. “It was designed at its inception to be separate from the Iranian army, and a military force that is tasked with preserving the Islamic Republic as its core priority.”

Why did the US blacklist the force?

The Trump administration added the IRGC to the US Department of State’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTO) as part of its post-nuclear deal, “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

“This is the first time that the United States has designated a part of another government as an FTO,” then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at that time.

“We’re doing [this] because the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government. This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”

Antony Blinken
‘As a practical matter, the designation does not really gain you much,’ Antony Blinken says of IRGC blacklisting [File: Bonnie Cash/Pool via Reuters]

What did the FTO designation do?

Not much, analysts and officials said. With the IRGC leadership under a host of other “terrorism” and human rights-related sanctions, the FTO designation did not fundamentally change the way the Revolutionary Guard operates.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers last month that blacklisting the IRGC had a minimal impact on the organisation. “As a practical matter, the designation does not really gain you much because there are myriad other sanctions on the IRGC,” Blinken said.

He explained that the “terrorism” label imposes a travel ban on Guard members, many of whom were conscripted into the organisation without having a say as part of their military service, but said “the people who are the real bad guys have no intention of travelling here, anyway.”

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, said the designation is “superfluous and symbolic”.

“The IRGC is under all kinds of other sanctions, and nobody is going to be doing business with them,” Slavin told Al Jazeera.

Then, why is Iran insisting on de-listing the IRGC?

Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, another think-tank in the US capital, detailed several elements that make the “terrorist” label a critical issue for the IRGC itself:

  • Prestige: “They don’t want to be called terrorists. Internationally, it’s not a good thing to have hanging around their necks.”
  • Iranian politics: “It could also undermine them within the Iranian cutthroat politics. You could see a situation where other factions within the regime will go after IRGC – ‘You are the ones that result in us being isolated’.”
  • Fear of assassinations: “They believe that it gives the United States a green light or blank cheque to assassinate anybody in the IRGC senior command; if they’re on the terrorism list, then there might be more assassinations in the way the US carried out against [Quds Force commander] Qassem Soleimani back in 2020.”
  • Economic interests: “There are literally hundreds of companies in Iran that have ties to the IRGC. So getting off the terrorism list will help just a little bit in terms of their business operations and ability to make money.”

For her part, Slavin said de-listing the IRGC is also crucial for Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, who she says has not been able to secure any major achievements since coming into office last year.

“It’s internal politics I think more than it is external. Raisi is not popular … So they’d like to be able to say, ‘Look, we got this out of the Americans’,” she said.

What is stopping Biden from de-listing the group?

In practice, nothing. Just as Pompeo designated the IRGC under Trump, Biden can ask Blinken to undo the move. And there is a recent precedent for that; early into the Biden administration, the US reversed a Trump-era decision to add Yemen’s Houthi rebels to the FTO list.

But the issue is “politically sensitive” for Biden, Slavin said.

The US president is already facing mounting pressure from legislators and others against returning to the nuclear deal, and a concession on the IRGC will certainly turn up the heat from hawks in Congress, including some Democrats. The Quds Force and its allies are accused of targeting American troops in Iraq and other parts of the region.

Last week, the US Senate in a 62-33 vote passed a non-binding amendment opposing the de-listing of the IRGC; sixteen lawmakers from Biden’s Democratic Party joined Republicans in passing the measure.

Still, Slavin said any political damage that reviving the 2015 deal could create for Biden would not be serious. “I don’t think Biden is really engaged by this in the same way certainly that [Barack] Obama was. And if it’s got any potential political downside, I think he’s just going turn away from it,” she told Al Jazeera.

Vantaka also said Biden could go through with the deal and “own it”, despite fears of being perceived as weak on Iran, because foreign policy is not a top priority for voters, who will head to the polls in November for important mid-term elections.

What has the US said so far?

Despite the IRGC impasse, Biden’s top aides continue to say they are still committed to restoring the JCPOA based on mutual compliance. And while US officials have been reluctant to divulge details of the indirect talks with Iran in Vienna, Blinken has suggested that the Guard’s “terror” designation falls outside the purview of the nuclear deal and therefore requires separate concessions from Iran.

“Irrespective of the nuclear negotiation – just with regard to the FTO – it would require Iran to take certain actions and to sustain them,” he told lawmakers last week, without specifying the exact steps.

So for now, it appears that Washington is refusing to de-list the IRGC strictly to secure a deal. The JCPOA only addresses Iran’s nuclear programme and US-led nuclear-related sanctions.

But some proponents of diplomacy say the blacklisting of the IRGC was part of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” and was aimed to achieve what it is doing now – making a return to the JCPOA more difficult.

“If the US really wants to turn the page with Iran and pursue sustained engagement and get away from these policies of maximum pressure, then this designation is going to be a major issue because for the Iranians, it goes to the core legitimacy of their system,” said Toossi, the analyst.

What’s next?

With the nuclear talks on ice, European intermediaries have been trying to resolve the issue with EU coordinator Enrique Mora visiting Washington and Tehran recently.

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani also met with Raisi and Khamenei in Tehran this week in a visit that partly aimed to help resolve the standoff.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Friday Iran’s response to Mora’s push to revive the deal was “good enough”, adding that “these things cannot be resolved overnight”. But a State Department spokesperson told the AFP news agency the same day that a return to the agreement “remains far from certain”.

Washington has been warning for months that there will come a point when the deal’s non-proliferation benefits become moot because Tehran is gaining irreversible nuclear knowledge. We are not there yet, the Department of State recently said.

Both Vantaka and Toossi suggested one possible solution to the impasse: Keeping the Quds Force on the FTO list while removing the broader “terrorist” label on the IRGC.

The Department of the Treasury named the Quds Force as a “specially designated global terrorist” in 2007, so keeping it on the Department of State’s FTO would not be a major change from the pre-Trump status quo, Toossi said.

Slavin said another way to tackle the IRGC situation is through further negotiations after reviving the deal.

“The Iranians can agree and the Americans can agree that they will discuss this issue in follow-on talks, which is what the US has always wanted, frankly,” she said. “And these follow-on talks can deal with whatever anybody wants them to deal with, including additional sanctions relief for Iran.”



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The ‘new’ PM will not be a panacea to Sri Lanka’s problems | Opinions

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This week saw the most serious unrest in Sri Lanka since the aftermath of the Easter Bombing in 2019. A month-long protest in Colombo, calling on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, was attacked by pro-government mobs.

Protesters retaliated swiftly, chasing down those who took part in the attacks, with videos and photos of stripped and beaten Rajapaksa supporters circulating on social media. Eight people died in the ensuing violence across the Sinhala-majority south of the island, with more than 100 properties torched, mostly those linked to the president’s party.

The president’s brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned in the aftermath, fleeing to a navy camp, a notorious torture site, in the Tamil-majority northeast.

He has now been replaced by another old face – the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has occupied the premiership on no fewer than five previous occasions but has never seen out a full term. Wickremesinghe himself has been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption and scuttling opportunities for addressing the decades-old ethnic conflict during his prior stints.

The Rajapaksas’s stunning fall from grace was precipitated by an economic crisis, caused by decades of fiscal mismanagement and exacerbated by their populist policies.

Not even two years ago, Sri Lanka’s most prominent family swept parliamentary elections in a landslide victory, winning a two-thirds majority. The Rajapaksas ruled the roost. President Gotabaya, who also won with a significant majority in 2019, strengthened his powers and consolidated the family’s position in state structures and the economy of the country, amid celebrations by the Sinhala population. His brother, and former president, Mahinda won the premiership, and several other members of the family took control of key ministries. The UNP was reduced to one seat. The Rajapaksa victory was almost absolute, with the vast majority of the Sinhala vote going to their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, which ran on a populist and racist platform, promising prosperity, splendour and the preservation of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy on the island.

After their election victories in 2019 and 2020, the Rajapaksas wasted no time in strengthening their grip on the state and imposing measures that disadvantaged Tamils and Muslims. From increasing militarisation of Tamil areas, harassment of Tamil journalists and NGOs, to issues such as the forcible cremation of Muslim COVID victims, the Rajapaksa government seemed to be intent on showing non-Sinhala communities that they were second-class citizens.

The protests in the Sinhala-majority South, however, did not erupt because of the longstanding human rights concerns and accountability demands, but the economic hardships that the government’s economic policies brought upon them.

The Rajapaksas promised “vistas of splendour” and instead brought poverty and destitution. This resulted in an unprecedented backlash against the government. The continuing protection and promotion of the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony that has underpinned Sri Lanka’s economic policies since independence, means that successive governments have made fiscal policy decisions that are motivated by the desire to maintain the Sinhala-Buddhist ethnocracy, rather than what is in the best interest of the country’s economy and prosperity of all its citizens.

After the assault on protesters and the ensuing backlash, the state deployed tactics that are tried and tested among the Tamil population in the northeast, including emergency regulations granting the military and police extraordinary powers. Military vehicles can be seen patrolling Colombo, amid empty streets due to an on-and-off island-wide curfew, with soldiers at checkpoints stopping vehicles.

Tensions remain, with the military and police warning they will shoot violent protesters on sight. Criticism of the government’s response came swiftly – the US State Department expressed concern about the deployment of the military and condemned the violence against protesters.

Amnesty International demanded the immediate rescinding of emergency regulations. Protesters dug in, defying the curfew and rebuilding the encampments that were destroyed by the pro-government goons. Sinhala civil society and opposition parties condemned the government’s actions and reaffirmed their solidarity with the protesters.

The Rajapaksas managed to push even those on the fence to the side of the protesters. They hold the unique record of being the most universally despised government in Sri Lanka’s history: despised by Tamils because of the genocidal attacks during the war and continuing oppression; despised by Muslims for enacting discriminatory policies and engineering ethnic riots against them; and now, despised by the Sinhalese for bringing economic disaster upon them.

The appointment of Wickremesinghe as prime minister is widely seen as a move to allow President Gotabaya to continue in his position in the hope that the protests will eventually dissolve. But this is unlikely to appease the activists, who are standing firm on their demand for the president’s resignation.

For Tamils, Wickremesinghe is a familiar foe, and indeed the main Tamil nationalist parties have slammed his return. The former current prime minister has rejected accountability for war crimes and even claimed that he “saved Mahinda Rajapaksa from the electric chair” and protected state officials from being dragged in front of the International Criminal Court.

He supports the foremost place that Buddhism occupies in the Sri Lankan constitution and is on the record rejecting federalism as a solution to the ethnic conflict – all key grievances of the Tamil people. When it comes to addressing the root causes of the ethnic conflict and the ongoing demands of Tamils for a political settlement, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas are not that different.

The limited inclusion of Tamil political rights, demilitarisation of the Tamil-majority northeast and accountability for war crimes in the protest demands has played a part in the relatively lukewarm participation of Tamils.

As the population in the south of the country sees a new face of the Sri Lankan state, many Tamils are somewhat bemused by the Sinhalese community’s shock that the all-Sinhala military is pointing its guns at its own. Tamil member of Parliament Gajen Ponnambalam, in a prescient speech in Sri Lanka’s parliament in 2020, predicted that the state would turn on the Sinhala population, too. However, the state’s use of force against these largely Sinhala protesters is restrained compared to what Tamils have faced in the northeast. The military is ubiquitous in the northeast, enmeshed in the day-to-day life of the Tamil people. The troops, more than 300,000 of them, are spread across seven regional commands, of which five have bases in the Tamil-majority northeast – less than a third of the island. Loathed by Tamils due to decades of violence meted out against them, the military has become a permanent and sinister presence in the northeast since the end of the war.

On May 18, Tamils will observe Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day. Traditionally this day is marked with gatherings across the northeast. Last year, ten Tamils were arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act for holding remembrance events, with many more reporting intimidation and harassment by security forces. A memorial to the Tamils who had died was destroyed. This year, police are already exploiting the emergency regulations passed to respond to the anti-Gota protests, to intimidate Tamils in Mullaithivu, which has not seen any unrest related to the anti-Gota protests. The police threaten Tamil civilians saying they have orders to shoot those gathered illegally. As preparations for commemorations of the Tamil war dead are underway across the northeast, stakes are high and it will be an early test of Wickremesinghe’s premiership.

The reaction to the anti-Gota protests on May 18, usually marked by “victory” celebrations in the Sinhala south, will also be a crucial indicator of how receptive the protesters are to the concerns raised by Tamils, particularly if as expected the military continues to harass and intimidate those commemorating the day. With an old prime minister occupying the post for the sixth time, what was obvious to Tamils should be obvious to the rest of the population – without a fundamental restructuring of the state that addresses the root causes of the ethnic conflict, and justice and accountability for the mass atrocities that occurred during the war, Sri Lanka is doomed to repeat its past, and stability and prosperity for all its citizens will remain elusive.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.





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