All posts by jamesreinl

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and world affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 35 countries and won awards for stories from Sri Lanka, Congo, Somalia, Haiti and Iran. His work has appeared on Al Jazeera, BBC, Foreign Policy, PRI's The World, Fox News, France 24, CBC, The Times, CBS News, dpa, RTÉ and APTN. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Sussex University and a postgraduate diploma in journalism.

Can Libya’s refugee nightmare get any worse?

Campaigners point fingers at the fragile Libyan government and its international partners.

NEW YORK // Observers inside Libya’s detention centers for migrants and refugees use words like “nightmarish,” “inhuman” and “hellish” to describe the dirty, over-crowded facilities where torture, rape and other horrors have taken place.

Detainees, mostly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who got caught in Libya on their way to Europe, complain of hunger, disease and forced labor. Thuggish guards allegedly beat and flog them, amid the chaos of Libya’s spiraling civil war.

Despite repeated pledges to shutter Libya’s detention centers for migrants and refugees, they remain open, in what campaigners describe as a collective failure of Libyan officials, the United Nations and the European Union.

On July 2, a detention center on a military base at Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli, the capital, was hit in a double military strike that left 53 detainees dead and more than 87 others injured.

On the day of the attack, scared detainees tried to flee the carnage, but guards kept the doors locked, blocked windows and shot at those who tried to exit. The second, deadlier strike came minutes later.

After the Tajoura tragedy, officials from Libya’s United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) promised to shutter detention centers. The European Union and the United Nations agreed that it was time to close them once and for all.

Authorities moved the 600 Tajoura detainees to a UN migrant processing facility in Tripoli, but within weeks, some 200 detainees were again locked up. Little changed at the other 18 facilities nominally under GNA control, housing a total of about 5,000 refugees and migrants.

Tajoura’s new inmates include migrants picked up by Libya’s coast guard after their vessel capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on July 26 — a disaster claimed the lives of 150 passengers when they drowned.

“These are awful warehouses for stocking commodities, not human beings,” Vincent Cochetel, the special envoy for the Central Mediterranean situation at UNHCR, told The World.

More than 600,000 refugees and migrants are currently in Libya, with about 5,000 held in GNA centers. Detainees are not technically criminals and no formal charges have been brought against them, but they were caught entering or exiting Libya without legal papers.

Some 3,800 of them are close to the front lines of fighting in Libya’s civil war. Inmates frequently say they can hear heavy caliber guns firing nearby. A tragedy like Tajoura could happen again tomorrow, Cochetel said.

The strikes on Tajoura occurred after renegade military chief Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which gets support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and others, launched an attack in early April to seize control of Tripoli.

While pro-GNA forces weathered the initial LNA attack, fighting has ground to a stalemate on the outskirts of Tripoli, with both sides resorting to air attacks in recent weeks. The GNA blames the LNA for the Tajoura strike and consequent deaths, a charge the LNA denies.

“Enough is enough because people can just die from bombing those detention centers,” Cochetel said by phone from Tunisia. “Let’s assist those people out. It’s doable. We do it in other countries — so why not in Libya?”

A UNHCR plan involves the “phased and orderly” release of batches of inmates from detention centers and resettling them in western Libya’s towns and cities, with support from aid groups, Cochetel said.

Women and children would go to a new, open facility in Janzour, west of Tripoli.

The UN’s envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, floated the plan to the UN Security Council on July 29, urging envoys to press Tripoli to “take the long-delayed but much-needed strategic decision to free those who are detained in these centers.”

The Security Council has yet to act. Some GNA officials may be taking steps anyway. Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha has announced plans to close lockups in Tajoura, Misrata and Khoms in what Cochetel calls a response to international censure.

“This is a source of embarrassment and condemnation for the country and some authorities take the view that there’s too much bad press from these detention centers and there are other ways to manage migration pressure,” Cochetel said.

Still, progress will be slow, he added. Some detention centers are run by local militias who do not always follow Bashagha’s orders. Some guards and managers have financial stakes in keeping detention centers open and pocketing cash from forced labor schemes.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has uncovered rings of smugglers, militiamen and criminals who run kidnapping, ransom and slave rackets, with networks stretching inside detention centers.

HRW researchers highlighted the case of Abdul, a teenage refugee from Sudan. Guards at al-Karareem detention center, near Misrata, beat him on the soles of his feet with a hose after an attempted breakout by other inmates, they said.

HRW also bashed the European Union for funding a scheme that sees Libya’s coast guard intercept migrant boats at sea before returning those found onboard to the turbulent North African country, and holding them in places like Tajoura.

EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said that caging migrants was “completely unacceptable” and that Libya’s lockups should be shuttered, but that the bloc would continue funding a coastguard scheme that stops migrants from reaching Europe.

“Our priority is saving lives at sea and putting an end to the cruel and inhumane business mode of the smugglers,” Kocijancic, the bloc’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, told The World.

“We engage with the Libyan coast guard and provide training, including on human rights, to enhance their capacity to save people’s lives and make Libyan territorial waters more secure for everyone.”

But Judith Sunderland, a director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW, said the EU should go further and take responsibility for search-and-rescue sea operations and ensure that no rescued migrants are sent back to Libya.

The bloc should “press Libyan authorities to release all arbitrarily detained migrants” and strengthen UN schemes to evacuate migrants and refugees out of Libya, including settling more of them in European cities, Sunderland said.

“We hoped that the tragedy at Tajoura would have given some real impetus to pledges that were made, but we haven’t really seen that,” Sunderland said.

“There’s no excuse for not coming up with viable plans to release refugees and migrants and evacuate them to safer places, including Europe.”

Still, getting anything done is a challenge in Libya, which has seen little but chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed president Muammar Gaddafi and saw the country spiral into a civil war that continues today.

Addressing the council, Salame called for a truce despite the fact that neither side looked like it was going to “silence the guns.” With arms still flowing, he warned of a “full-blown civil war with serious, potentially existential consequences for Libya and its neighbors.”

Article originally appeared on PRI’s The World.

Obituary: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe

Love or despise him, Mugabe was one of the most consequential of Africa’s post-colonial leaders.

At his best, Robert Mugabe could rank beside such revolutionaries as Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara. In the 1970s, he was Africa’s teacher-turned Marxist rebel against white rule who declared: “Our votes must go together with our guns.”

He remains a Zimbabwean liberator who defied the West but Mugabe, who died on Friday aged 95, will also be remembered by some as an autocrat who butchered opponents, rigged votes and gobbled up cake at lavish birthday parties while his people went hungry.

“Mugabe was one of the most consequential of Africa’s post-colonial leaders. He remains highly regarded by many for his leadership role in the insurgency against white minority rule,” Brett Schaefer, Africa analyst at The Heritage Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

“But the violence and chaos resulting from his struggle to hold on to power led to thousands of deaths, millions of refugees and economic impoverishment. Mugabe’s legacy will forever be stained by his destructive and murderous acts.”

Mugabe was born under British colonial rule in Southern Rhodesia in 1924, the son of Bona and Gabriel, a carpenter. Despite poor school and job prospects for most black people, he gained a Jesuit education and thrived in academia.

Frustrated by racism and white-settler rule, Mugabe embraced socialism and grew more hardline. He spent 11 years in jail, waging a rebellion from behind bars via his resistance movement, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

The fierce bush war brought white settlers to the negotiating table and led to a British-brokered accord in 1979.

By the end of the following year, Mugabe was elected prime minister of the newly-founded Republic of Zimbabwe.

His early socialist reforms brought teachers and medics to rural backwaters and boosted grain harvests.

But Mugabe also launched a crackdown on political rivals in the Matabeleland region that claimed the lives of some 20,000 Ndebele civilians.

After serving two terms as prime minister, he abolished the position and became president in 1987, a post he held for 30 years.

“He was a ruthless authoritarian, not burdened by democratic practice. But don’t mistake him for a much larger machine that operates in Zimbabwe – the ruthless ethos Mugabe represented is deeply-embedded in his political party, ZANU-PF,” academic Stephen Chan told Al Jazeera.

“They believe that those who fought in the Liberation War, from the beginning, against all odds, deserve to rule. Now they have entrenched modes of financial practice within Zimbabwe’s economy that they don’t want to give up.”

Zimbabwe had begun to recover from conflict, but a land reform policy that saw black farmers take over white-owned farms sparked domestic chaos and global outrage. Western nations slapped sanctions on the country and it was suspended from the Commonwealth.

For Mugabe, land grabs corrected colonial-era injustices and his defiance of Western “imperialism” resonated across the continent.

“The land is ours, we give it to who we please, it’s not the business of Britain to tell us who to give land and who not,” he told Al Jazeera in 2000.

This won Mugabe loyalty from war veterans, cronies and others who seized land; but it also led to an exodus of white farmers, hyperinflation and shortages of foodstuffs that slashed 40 percent off the economy, according to World Bank figures.

“Getting rid of white farmers was one of his biggest mistakes – it led to sanctions and economic collapse,” Tom Wheeler, a former South African ambassador, told Al Jazeera.

“It was catastrophic. The people couldn’t feed themselves any more, while Mugabe’s inner circle was high on the hog.”

In the maelstrom, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged as a political rival. In 2010, Tsvangirai told Al Jazeera that the president had squandered his legacy and “betrayed the liberation that he fought for”.

Mugabe intimidated voters and rigged election outcomes, both the opposition and Western powers have said. Operation Restore Order saw the destruction of the homes or businesses of 700,000 mostly poor backers of the opposition in the capital, Harare, in 2005.

“The way he ran roughshod over the rule of law was an unmitigated disaster,” John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, told al Jazeera.

“If ever there was a continent that desperately needs rule of law, it’s Africa. It’s crucial for development and political security. But, for his supporters, it was all about land: Mugabe’s expulsion of whites cancels everything else.” 

While Tsvangirai won more votes in the 2008 election, Mugabe fought back with violence and the threat of greater bloodshed to broker a power-sharing “government of national unity”, in which he held on to the presidency.

“He had no sentimentality at all,” added Chan, author of Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence.

“He could feign normal, human feelings for public consumption; but if Mugabe needed to make a political corpse out of somebody and put a knife in their back, even if they had been a long-standing comrade, with him through thick and thin, he would do it.”

Once a charming pan-African visionary, Mugabe had dropped his socialist ideals and become a petty dictator, clinging to power and lavishing some $250,000 on his 85th birthday party in 2009, while Zimbabweans died of cholera.

In increasingly-erratic public appearances, he railed against Africa’s former imperial overlords. Britain was using “gay gangsters” to undermine him.

Only God – and not “the MDC, not the British” – could unseat him.

The father of four children from two marriages had become a pariah – the “Hitler of the time”, he said.

As economic hardship bit ordinary Zimbabweans, Mugabe was forced to step down by the military in November 2017 following nationwide mass protests.

After his resignation, he continued to live at home in Harare, visiting Singapore multiple times for medical treatment.

Despite his ignominious exit from the political scene, Mugabe’s legacy as a liberator was recognised by his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, when he announced his death on Friday.

“Cde Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” Mnangagwa said in a statement.

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

War is hell. Try doing it in a wheelchair.

Disabled people struggle particularly hard when conflicts erupt. Getting the issue on the international agenda is about as tough as navigating through war-ravaged streets on crutches.

NEW YORK // When military helicopters were buzzing in the skies above her apartment in Aleppo, Syria, Nujeen Mustafa, who suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around, felt like a burden on her family.

Exiting the home involved carrying her down five flights of stairs. Better, they thought, to hide out in the bathroom and hope that barrel bombs dropped by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would not come crashing through the ceiling.

“I knew that I was a dramatic disadvantage for them when it came to the need to escape,” Mustafa, now 20, said.

“It would have helped for me to know there was a way to get out without endangering my family and slowing them down.”

Mustafa’s story is one of survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. In January 2014, the family fled from Aleppo to southern Turkey. In August 2015, she said goodbye to her parents and began a month-long, 3,500-mile odyssey to Germany, with her sister pushing at the rear.

They crossed eight borders, including miles of wheelchair-pushing along gravelly tracks, nights spent in the wilderness and a risky sea crossing on a dinghy alongside dozens of other Syrians who were escaping the conflict.

Now a student in Wesseling, near Cologne, with an infectious smile and an unbridled sense of optimism, Mustafa is campaigning so that people with disabilities get more help when bullets start flying in the world’s hotspots.

Fleeing a war zone is hard for everyone. But try navigating streets of strewn rubble, blast craters and shattered glass in a wheelchair, on crutches or while blind or partially sighted.

Fleeing a war zone is hard for everyone. But try navigating streets of strewn rubble, blast craters and shattered glass in a wheelchair, on crutches or while blind or partially sighted, Mustafa said. A deaf evacuee might not hear dangers just around the corner.

The problem goes beyond Syria, said Shantha Rau Barriga, an expert on disabilities with the New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch.

From Rohingya villages in Myanmar to the battlefields of South Sudan and eastern Ukraine, people with disabilities have an extra set of problems to deal with when towns and cities come under attack.

According to the United Nations, there are more than 1 billion people with disabilities — 15% of the world’s population. An estimated 10 million people with disabilities have been forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.

Conflict is the cause of 16% of all disabilities. As wars drag on, the number of people with missing limbs or other permanent injuries adds up. In Syria, after eight years of carnage, almost one in four people have a disability.

In Cameroon this year, people with disabilities have been among the hardest hit by a separatist conflict in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions that has forced half a million people from their homes.

Families have been forced to make heart-wrenching choices between leaving behind relatives with disabilities or exposing them to week-long journeys through bushland, said HRW’s central Africa researcher Ilaria Allegrozzi.

Those abandoned face abuse when government forces reach their towns. In Cameroon, one woman was mocked by government troops and told to remove her prosthetic leg and crawl around on the floor, forcing her to collect money from nearby rooms that they demanded as a payoff, said Allegrozzi.

Such cruelty is not uncommon, said Vladimir Cuk, executive director of the International Disability Alliance, a campaign group. People with disabilities are at greater risk of rape, abuse and starvation once family members have fled, he said.

Emina Cerimovic, one of HRW’s researchers on disability, saw harsh conditions peak in Greece during the global refugee crisis, when people with disabilities were among the masses from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere seeking new lives in Europe.

There, refugees with disabilities crawled on muddy floors to enter toilets that were not wheelchair-friendly, she said. In one camp, bathroom access was so bad that the parents of an 8-year-old Afghan boy with mental and physical disabilities had to put their son in diapers.

At a camp in Thessaloniki in Greece, Amin, a Syrian refugee who was deaf, languished in his tent alone for nine months. His hearing aid had gotten soaked while he crossed the Aegean Sea. Unable to converse, Amin was cut off from the world, Cerimovic said.

European Sea crossings are notoriously risky for refugees. For those in wheelchairs, the voyage likely involves leaving one’s chair at the shore, as human traffickers free up space to accommodate more paying passengers.

This happened to Ali, a 22-year-old Afghan refugee with disabilities, whom Cerimovic met in the squalid Moria camp in Lesbos. During his first two months there, without a wheelchair, Ali could not use the showers or toilets.

“How would you feel if someone took your feet away? My wheelchair is my feet.”

There is no quick and easy fix to this problem.

Aid workers are usually overstretched when refugees start fleeing war zones in large numbers. There is seldom enough of the basic necessities — water, food and medicine — to go around, let alone find time to track down hearing aids and crutches.

Still, securing more prosthetics, wheelchairs and other devices for refugee hubs could help ease the lives of people with disabilities. When camp staff hand out food parcels, a line that folks with disabilities can access makes life easier, Barriga said.

Campaigners are lobbying donors, humanitarians and the systems through which they operate, such as the European Union. The UN Security Council should make more legally binding references to disabilities, they say.

Upcoming UN resolutions on South Sudan, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic could add language around disabilities that nudge aid chiefs to think harder about the services they provide, monitor the results and report back afterward, Barriga said.

“It’s not just words on paper,” Barriga said. “It’s a binding commitment made by the UN Security Council which has a ripple effect on UN agencies and the way that humanitarians operate on the ground and at many other levels.”

So far, it has been a case of three steps forward, two steps back.

The annual UN resolution on CAR for 2015 obliged UN officials to “monitor, help investigate and report on violations and abuses” against people with disabilities. But that reference was scrapped in subsequent documents.

In April, Mustafa made a landmark speech to the UN’s top body in New York. She told diplomats that people with disabilities were “invisible” and said more of them should be hired to help run camps and aid programs.

She called for a “world that protects, respects and values” people with disabilities.

To that end, campaigners also want to change how people talk about the issue.

Rather than describe individuals as “disabled,” “handicapped” or “wheelchair-bound,” referring to them as a “person with disabilities” stresses their dignity and humanity, said Barriga.

It goes doubly for Mustafa. While her campaign highlights the plight of people with disabilities in wartime, Mustafa recalls how life with cerebral palsy in Syria was a slog even before fighting broke out in 2011.

Leaving her apartment involved being carried downstairs before the war, too — something only attempted for the annual Persian New Year party. The other 364 days were “like house arrest,” she said.

In Syria, her prospects were dim, even in peacetime. In Germany, where schools and movie theaters often have wheelchair ramps, Mustafa eyes a world of possibility and plans to study psychology at university.

“It’s not just being able to get elevators up and down buildings,” Mustafa said. “The mentality is different here. There’s no underestimation. No pity. No undervaluing a person just because he’s disabled. They push you to reach your full potential.”

This article originally appeared on PRI’s The World.

Radio station of slain Syrian activist faces shutdown

The radio station founded by slain Syrian activist and satirist Raed Fares faces closure amid death threats to staff members and financial crisis as western donors scale back funding.

NEW YORK // Only weeks after the murder of Syrian activist and satirist Raed Fares, the radio station that he founded faces closure amid ongoing death threats to staff members and a cash-flow crisis as western donors scale back funding.

Colleagues of Fares told TRT World they would work to keep Radio Fresh broadcasting a message of democracy and human rights across the northwest province of Idlib, but were struggling to plug a funding gap of an estimated $10,000 per month.

Fares founded Radio Fresh with US State Department cash in 2013 to broadcast news, music and warnings about incoming air strikes, but the Trump administration scrapped funding earlier this year to northwest Syria, saying it’ll rather sharpen its focus on the northeastern territory.

“We’re looking to get funding from the European Union, because the US has withdrawn from northwest Syria,” Lilia Wassef, one of the activists representing Radio Fresh and other civic schemes in Idlib, told TRT World, after meeting officials in Brussels.

“We have now hit rock bottom after Raed’s death. But we must move forward. We must continue Raed’s message and his work. Syria’s democratic movement is an idea, and it will not die with Raed or any of the movement’s icons.”

Raed Fares founded Radio Fresh with US State Department cash in 2013 to broadcast news, music and warnings about incoming air strikes.

Fares, together with his colleague Hammoud Jnaid, was gunned down in his home town of Kafranbel on November 23. The attackers have not been identified, but Fares was previously threatened by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron and former US envoy Samantha Power mourned his death on social media, as did his 30 radio station colleagues and 520 others working on connected community projects, as part of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB).

Fares had planned to travel to Brussels last week to try and plug the US funding gap with meetings at the Service for Foreign Policy Instruments, the European External Action Services and other parts of the EU foreign policy machinery.

Wassef, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, attended instead, and detailed the value of the radio station and women’s empowerment projects. Her colleagues have made similar requests to the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ).

An EU official confirmed talks with Wassef’s delegation and said they supported radio station staff, who are widely viewed as a moderate voice amid Syria’s turbulence, but that they were not ready to replace US funding just yet.

The radio station, and other URB projects, were “presented as a successful example of the critical role that civil society plays in Idlib in countering radicalisation and in supporting the population,” the EU official told TRT World, under condition that his name was not used.

“No specific project proposal was discussed or figures presented but their demands were about the need to step up support to civil society and the work of civil actors on the ground. The EU has always been at the forefront of recognising the critical role that civil society plays.”

Importantly, the official noted that Fares was “tragically killed by HTS”. While it was widely assumed that the al-Qaeda-linked group was behind the assassination, it had not previously been confirmed by officials.

A US State Department official declined to comment on Fares. In May, the department said it had cut all funding to Syria’s extremist-run northwest. In August, Washington confirmed that $230 million for Syrian “stabilization projects” would be spent elsewhere.

Abdy Yeganeh, from the non-profit group Independent Diplomat, advises URB in Brussels and at other international confabs. He said the radio station, like other pro-democracy projects in Syria, was operating at a limited capacity and faced an uncertain future.

“Raed was such an energetic character on the ground and his death was no doubt a major loss at a difficult time for Radio Fresh, which, like other civil society groups in Idlib and beyond, has struggled as the US and Western donors have scaled back their stabilisation funding,” Yeganeh told TRT World.

According to Yeganeh, European donors had followed Washington’s lead, by cutting cash for groups that embodied the spirit of the 2011 uprising by rejecting both Assad and the religious hardliners that had gained prominence as the war dragged on.

Other civil society groups – such as The Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian Center for Freedom of Media and Expression and Baytna Syria – were also struggling to pay the bills as donors turned their backs on moderates, Yeganeh said.

“While donors may be adapting to the new realities in Syria and the greater likelihood of Assad’s survival for now, this is still a short-sighted policy step. Civil society actors on the ground, like Radio Fresh, remain the best illustration of Syria’s only credible alternative to tyranny and extremism,” Yeganeh said.

Fares, 46, became a prominent voice of dissent in the early days of the revolution, using videos, skits and protest placards referencing American culture that often went viral on social media to criticise the Syrian military, religious extremists and Western leaders.

In 2013, he produced a satirical video called the Syrian revolution in three minutes, in which Syrians dressed up as cavemen ridiculed the global community’s failure to protect civilians from bombings by government forces and chemical attacks.

In 2014, Fares survived being shot in the chest by armed militants. In June this year, he criticised the US government’s decision to freeze funding to humanitarian groups, saying it undermined efforts to combat extremism.

“Without groups like Radio Fresh to provide alternative messages, another generation will take up arms to found the Islamic State’s second and third editions,” Fares wrote in the Washington Post, a daily US newspaper.

The plight of Radio Fresh comes as the war in Syria is winding down. Assad has retaken most of the country with the help of Russia and Iran, although US-backed armed rebels and militias such as the YPG still hold significant territory.

Russia and Turkey, which backs Syrian rebels, agreed in September to create a demilitarised zone around the insurgent-held Idlib, but exchanges of shelling have been common since then and the first airstrikes since the deal hit the area on November 25.

This article originally appeared on TRT World.

Falling apart? UN peace deal for Yemen ‘too vague’, Oxfam says

Lack of specific orders results in continued fighting around Red Sea port city of Hodeidah as 21-day deadline expires.

United Nations // The UN’s peace deal for Hodeidah, in war-ravaged Yemen, is unravelling because the text lacked specifics on how rebel forces should vacate the Red Sea port city, the British charity Oxfam says.

Dina el-Mamoun, the aid group’s head of policy and advocacy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, said the UN’s Stockholm Agreement agreed last month between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government was “too vague”.

“There is an issue with the actual agreement, which is actually quite vague,” Mamoun told Al Jazeera.

“The UN should have made clear these basic issues that go to the heart of the agreement: who needs to hand over what and to whom.”

Under the terms of the UN-brokered deal, the Houthis were expected to hand over control of the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Isa, to “local security forces in accordance with Yemeni law”.

However, both sides have disagreed over the meaning of the text. The government says it means the ports should be handed over to the officials who ran the facility before the Houthis seized Hodeidah city in late 2014.

The Houthis, meanwhile, insist the deal refers to the officials currently running the port, who are their allies.

“How can the UN expect a vague agreement to translate, in reality, to what is intended without making it clear?” asked Mamoun.

“An agreement that leads us to a state of confusion over what was agreed is not what we needed.”

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, met Houthi rebels and members of his monitoring team in the country over the weekend before heading for Saudi Arabia to ensure the peace deal is fully implemented.

Skirmishes continue in and around the Red Sea port city despite the looming 21-day redeployment deadline imposed under a UN Security Council resolution, which set a withdrawal target of Tuesday.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq did not directly answer Oxfam’s criticism, but said rebel and government leaders did not agree despite a “collective recognition of the urgency” of ending hostilities.

“Despite both parties consenting to the Stockholm Agreement, there is still a lack of common interpretation of the implementation and sequencing of the Hodaidah agreement,” Haq told Al Jazeera.

“This is of course driven by the lack of trust among the parties and their apprehension with respect to making operational concessions, outside of a comprehensive political solution to the conflict in Yemen.”

Haq urged both sides to respect the ceasefire and redeploy their forces in accordance with the deal.

“Anything short of that goal could derail the fragile progress being made to address the situation in Hodaidah,” he added.

Both sides have been accused of violating the ceasefire agreement over Yemen’s port city Hodeidah, with the sound of missiles and automatic gunfire a near-daily occurrence for the thousands of civilians who still reside in the city.

The agreement, the first significant breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, was part of confidence-building measures intended to pave the way for a wider truce and a framework for political negotiations.

Under the deal, international monitors are to be deployed in Hodeidah and a Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) including both sides, chaired by Retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, will oversee implementation.

Cammaert’s team will not be uniformed or armed, the UN has said, but it will provide support for the management of and inspections at the ports, and strengthen the UN presence in the city.

Yemen has been wracked by violence since 2014 when the Houthis stormed south from their stronghold of Saada and overran much of the country, including the capital Sanaa where they toppled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government.

The conflict escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who accuse the Houthis of being Iranian proxies, launched a military coalition that began air attacks against Houthi positions in an attempt to reinstate Hadi.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera English.

Rocket man and Zionist penguins: The week in UN diplomacy

A look at key Middle Eastern moments from an engaging week of statecraft at the United Nations

UNITED NATIONS // Over the years, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has hosted some standout moments of political theatre. The key event this year was United States President Donald Trump’s debut speech, in which he threatened North Korea’s “rocket man” with annihilation.

Trump’s vow to “totally destroy” the hermit Asian nation of 26 million people along with its missile-toting leader, Kim Jong Un, certainly made the General Assembly’s biggest headline, but the gabfest in New York was not lacking in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s feeble “dad gags” from the marble dais to Trump’s signal that he would pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Middle East Eye picked out the key events for the region from the diplomatic din.

Bibi’s penguin friends

It’s been a tough few months for Netanyahu. The corruption probe is closing in, his wife Sara faces an indictment over $100,000 of dining bills and, all the while, there are foes across Israel’s borders and within his coalition government.

The pressures of leadership may account for some of the screwball moments in a 25-minute UN speech that was loaded with quips alongside his more usual shtick of pro-Israel eulogies and censure of regional bogeyman Iran.

For starters, the Likud leader took delegates on a journey to Antarctica, for the improbable revelation that the flightless birds swimming in the southern hemisphere’s icy waters are “enthusiastic supporters of Israel”.

“You laugh, but penguins have no difficulty recognising that some things are black and white, are right and wrong,” he said.

He was wrong about the first part: the audience had not laughed.

Next, he showcased his exasperation at denunciations of Israel from UN agencies. Netanyahu cited US tennis legend John McEnroe and affected a half-plausible New York accent to recite the athlete’s trademark line: “You can-not be serious!”

Finally, Netanyahu regaled a shrinking crowd with a yarn about Israel’s holy sites.

For proof, they could look in the Bible, he said. The book is not just a “great read” that he studies weekly and recommends “highly,” but also one that gets “4½ out of 5 stars on Amazon,” an online shopping website.

For some delegates, it was not just Netanyahu’s jokes that were cringe-worthy. His fawning praise of the 45th US president raised a few eyebrows. It began by recalling Trump’s visit to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall in May.

“When the president touched those ancient stones, he touched our hearts forever,” Netanyahu said.

He peppered his speech with venerations of Trump. The president’s words from the same podium earlier on Tuesday morning had been “bolder” and “more courageous” than any other he had heard uttered under the UN’s domed roof, he added.

He was not the only leader that gave admiring speeches regarding Trump.

Before talks with his US counterpart on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Trump’s commitment to Middle East peace would help yield the “deal of the century” in the region.

A good week for Qatar

The Gulf island of Qatar got a boost in its 108-day-old rift with four neighbours at the UN headquarters this week.

First, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani used his podium set piece to attack Saudi Arabia and its blockade colleagues. Later on Tuesday, his face-time with Trump was viewed as a signal that the US will not prioritise one Gulf ally over another.

From the UN rostrum, Sheikh Tamim accused his neighbours of using a boycott on food, medicine and other items to “destabilise” Qatar and extract policy concessions. “Isn’t this one of the definitions of terrorism?” he asked.

Early in the crisis, Trump had sided with Riyadh and called Qatar a “funder of terrorism”. But he has since worked to broker a way out of the impasse. Before his sit-down with Sheikh Tamim, he told reporters the dispute “will be solved pretty quickly”.

Sheikh Tamim said Washington’s “interference will help a lot”. That may be true. This week, a Bloomberg story said Trump had talked the Saudis and Emiratis out of their plans to use military force against Qatar earlier in the face-off.

“Those who oppose Qatar were obviously looking for signs that Trump would throw the emir under the bus. But it’s now clear that the US is trying to resolve the crisis in a way that doesn’t put the blame on any one party,” analyst Sigurd Neubauer told MEE.

Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute, a think-tank, agreed. “Whatever Riyadh says, more countries worry about Saudi-spread extremism than they do about Qatar-funded terrorism,” he told MEE.

Iran nuke deal has a half-life

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran looked like it was decaying faster than an unstable isotope.

Trump called it “an embarrassment” during his speech to the 193-nation assembly and later tantalisingly told journalists he had already decided if he would move to pull the US out of the accord, but did not elaborate.

He is due to report to the US Congress by 15 October on whether to certify that Iran is upholding its side of the bargain, under which it accepted limits on its nuclear work. That could lead to Congress re-imposing sanctions and an unravelling of the deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani bit back, saying the internationally backed accord should not be upended by “rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” in a clear swipe at Trump.

Netanyahu, who has long railed against a deal that was brokered during Barack Obama’s presidency, urged leaders to “fix it, or nix it”.

Despite frantic diplomacy between the US and its co-signatories on Wednesday, including the first face-time between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, it remains unclear which route Trump will take.

Doha up, Riyadh down

Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s heavyweights, typically plays a king-size role at General Assembly confabs. This year, its highest-ranking envoy has been Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, as Riyadh kept a lower profile than usual.

Jubeir attended sessions on Rohingya bloodshed and Syria’s civil war and met with British counterpart Boris Johnson, among others. But the foreign policy jamboree did not make fertile ground for Saudis this year, UN insiders told MEE.

The row with Qatar has dragged out longer than expected, Riyadh faces growing outrage over civilian body bags from its coalition war in Yemen and it could soon be named on the UN’s “list of shame” of armed groups that harm children.

“Saudi Arabia cares about its reputation and has built a narrative that it is addressing concerns over civilian casualties during its war in Yemen,” said Dragica Mikavica, from the pressure group Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.

Shaming Riyadh for abuses in Yemen at the UN would be laudable, but may not affect real change, she added. “It would likely not seriously deter its backers and arms suppliers in Britain and the US,” Mikavica told MEE.

The kingdom is also in the crosshairs of a civil case in US courts – enabled by the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) – which allows Americans to sue Riyadh over its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

Terry Strada, who lost her husband on 9/11, said petrodollar lobbying potential has waned.

“The tide has turned and their money does not buy them the influence that it used to in Washington,” Strada told MEE. “You know why? It’s because they’re guilty. It’s not a secret anymore.”

Elsewhere at UNGA

There was plenty of other Middle East action at UN headquarters this week. On Thursday, the Security Council approved the creation of a UN investigation unit to collect evidence against fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq for future war crimes and genocide prosecutions.

Earlier, British Prime Minister Theresa May took aim at Facebook, Google and other social media giants, urging them to more swiftly remove “terrorist content” from the internet and aim to stop it being uploaded in the first place.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his podium slot to warn that a Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq this month could lead to fresh conflicts in the region. He later threatened to impose sanctions against the potential splitters.

Diplomats were unusually optimistic about Libya. UN envoy Ghassan Salame unveiled a roadmap to break a political stalemate in the North African country, which is ruled by three competing governments and has seen little but turmoil since a 2011 uprising.

Despite the scale of human suffering they produce, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen were notably absent from the lips of many envoys this week. With little prospect of diplomatic breakthroughs in either war, world leaders seemingly focused on more pressing headaches.

This article first appeared on Middle East Eye.


Undocumented migrants await Trump’s next move

Cafes, churches and playing fields are quieter than usual, as undocumented immigrants lay low amid the crackdown

NEW YORK // With such slogans as “Resiste” and “No Deportaciones” emblazoned on the walls, there is little doubt that La Morada, a restaurant in a gritty district of New York, is more than your average taco-serving Mexican diner.

Sure, their Oaxaca-style tortilla, mole sauce and steaming hot chocolate delight locals. But the Saavedra family that owns and runs the eatery sees itself as a Bronx bastion against a revived immigration crackdown under United States President Donald Trump.

“There’s obviously a very palpable fear in our community and we want to be ready for the worst-case scenario,” Marco Saavedra, 27, a college graduate who serves dishes while fighting his asylum claim to remain in the US, told Al Jazeera.

“We’re still waiting to see how Trump does it, through courts or executive action. But we’ve got to be ready.”

Business has slowed since Trump’s inauguration in January as Latinos watch their pennies in uncertain times, said his sister, Yajaira Saavedra, 28. The bistro’s weekly civic meetings and “know your rights” workshops are, however, busier than before.

La Morada – which means both “purple” and “abode” – is not alone. Many taquerias, tamale bars and other Latino comfort food joints across the US have gone quiet. So have football pitches and churches where Sunday services ring out in Spanish.

The reason is simple. Many undocumented immigrants are less eager to risk driving a car and being stopped by police for a broken taillight, only for such routine violations to escalate into deportation proceedings.

“People are being cautious and more conservative due to the uncertainty of the Trump era,” said Yajaira, who benefits from former-President Barack Obama’s policy to defer action against some undocumented child migrants.

Fifty days into office, Trump, a Republican, is coming good on campaign pledges to deport undocumented immigrants in the US and build a wall along its 3,200km southern border.

Department of Homeland Security memos call for the hiring of 10,000 more Immigration and Customs (ICE) agents and 5,000 more Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, and tougher rules on whom will be targeted.

They would include recent entrants, failed asylum seekers, convicts and those charged with crimes. Trump has also moved to strip federal funding from the so-called sanctuary cities and states that limit cooperation with deportation teams.

In December, Pew Research Center found that, when asked, 58 percent of Americans highlighted the importance of deporting undocumented immigrants, while 62 percent stressed that some should be allowed to legalise their status in the US.

Among immigration experts, Trump has many critics. Steven Choi, director of New York Immigration Coalition, a civic group, blasted a “draconian enforcement agenda that wrongfully characterises immigrants as criminals and terrorises our communities”.

Others highlight the cost of Trump’s plans. The 15,000 new immigration officers must all be paid; a wall stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico could cost $40bn, according to the MIT Technology Review.

The Center for American Progress found that ejecting all undocumented immigrants would hurt the US economy by $4.7 trillion over a decade. Deportations may even be pointless, says Pew, as more Mexicans leave the US than arrive nowadays.

In part, Trump is living up to pledges that won him last year’s election, particularly among white voters in parts of Pennsylvania, Michigan and other rust belt states who have watched factories shutter and an epidemic of opioid abuse ravage once-prosperous towns.

“The liberal elite calls for immigration policies, but they don’t see their impact on many of their fellow Americans,” Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a right-wing lobby group, told Al Jazeera.

“Their kids don’t go to the same schools and they don’t live in those neighbourhoods that have to handle an influx of illegal immigrants. The liberal elite is so removed from that reality, it’s like two different worlds.”

For Ray, Trump’s tough talk is already working. The number of illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico to the US fell by 40 percent between January and February, according to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

“Obama talked about an amnesty and minimal immigration enforcement and the borders were swarmed,” said Ray. “Trump talks tough on border control, removing criminal aliens and ending sanctuary cities and border apprehensions drop like a hot potato. Words matter.”

Aside from securing the border, FAIR says US labour laws should be enforced. Once undocumented migrants are sacked by farm owners, eateries and other bosses in the US, they will head back to their motherlands to earn a crust.

Against this backdrop, many undocumented immigrants are readying for a knock on the door by deportation squads. Mexico’s 50 consulates in the US have been deluged with requests for birth certificates, passports and other forms of identification.

Some seek to regularise their status in the US, some undocumented parents want Mexican passports for US-born children in case they get caught in an ICE roundup and their whole family has to head south of the border with them.

Others are getting co-signers authorised on bank accounts and applying for co-guardianship of US-born children so that, if a family carer or breadwinner were deported, it would be easier for their partner to carry on, said Marco Saavedra.

The Cabrini Immigrant Services centre in downtown Manhattan has been overwhelmed. Legal aid slots on Mondays can accommodate 15 clients, but queues of 80 or more applicants mean scores are turned away, said manager Javier Ramirez-Baron.

“People feel attacked and afraid, so they want to see what they can do,” he said. “We’re helping them with their legal cases, their documents and preparing plans in case they’re stopped by police, so they’re ready for any scenario.”

Back in the South Bronx, the Saavedra family gets ready for the evening rush of orders of stuffed Poblano peppers and other deep-fried treats. Chefs, some of them undocumented, chop cactus salads and squeeze limes for fresh guacamole.

They typify the struggles of many Latinos in the US. The parents crossed the border without papers seeking work in the 1980s. Marco and Yajaira joined them years later, but only Yajaira benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) scheme.

Their youngest daughter was born in the US and has citizenship.

Because of this, deportation proceedings against one family member would force difficult decisions upon the rest. This, of course, has been hanging over their heads for years, but the West Wing’s latest occupants give fresh cause for concern.

As far back as 1992, the Saavedras purchased a house outside Mexico City as a potential retirement home. An uncle takes care of the place, but, in recent months, they have bought more furniture to make it liveable.

“I don’t want to entertain it, but we think we’re resilient enough that if we must start another life in Mexico, we can,” said Marco, while musing about what jobs a US education could get him down south. “We always have to have a backup plan.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.