Amnesty's report details 'devastating year of mass violence'

By Mike Wooldridge
World Affairs correspondent

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe human rights of men, women and children are being trampled upon according to Amnesty

Amnesty International's newly published annual report makes for decidedly sober reading.

But that's to be expected given the atrocities committed in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Central African Republic and other countries.

"This has been a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones," the secretary general of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, wrote in the foreword.

And the human rights campaigning group strongly criticises governments.

"In the year marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, politicians repeatedly trampled on the rules protecting civilians, or looked away from the deadly violations of these rules committed by others," Mr Shetty said.

"The United Nations was established 70 years ago to ensure that we would never again see the horrors witnessed in the Second World War.

"We are now seeing violence on a mass scale and an enormous refugee crisis caused by that violence.

"There has been a singular failure to find workable solutions to the most pressing needs of our time."

'Powerful signal'

One such workable solution, Amnesty International suggests, would be for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain - to agree not to use their right of veto to block action in response to situations of genocide and other mass atrocities.

Salil Shetty takes the view that this would be a "game changer" for the international community and the tools it has at its disposal to help protect civilian lives,

He also believed it would send a powerful signal to perpetrators that the world would not sit idly by while mass atrocities took place.

The idea that the five powers would voluntarily renounce their veto rights in such circumstances has been around for some time.

image copyrightAFP
image captionCountless towns were decimated by violence in 2014, including the Syrian city of Kobane
image copyrightAFP
image captionMilitant groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria have been responsible for thousands of deaths and casualties
image copyrightAFP
image captionAmnesty says 2015 will be another difficult year for refugees around the world

Indeed the French government has been at the forefront of such an initiative, and it seems to have been gathering momentum.

Amnesty says it intends to get the weight and influence of its seven million supporters and activists behind it.

It argues that if the use of the veto in the Security Council had already been restrained in this way then it could have prevented Russia using its veto repeatedly to block UN action over the violence in Syria.

This might have resulted in President Bashar al-Assad being referred to the International Criminal Court, in achieving greater access for badly needed humanitarian aid and in further ways of helping civilians.

The British government has not yet made a specific commitment in favour of the voluntary renunciation of the veto.

But the Foreign Office said in response to the Amnesty report: "The proposal put forward by France offers an important contribution to the wider debate on reform of the Security Council.

"The United Kingdom wholeheartedly supports the principle that the Security Council must act to stop mass atrocities and crimes against humanity.

"We cannot envisage circumstances where we would use our veto to block such action."

image copyrightReuters
image captionAmnesty wants the UN Security Council to do more to protect civilians from brutal regimes

Amnesty International fears that 2015 could be another bleak year for human rights.

It predicts that more civilian populations will be forced to live under the quasi-state control of brutal armed groups.

There will be deepening threats to freedom of expression and other rights including violations caused by new draconian anti-terror laws and unjustified mass surveillance.

It also says and there will be a worsening humanitarian and refugee crisis.

But Amnesty says its aim is to get governments to "stop pretending that the protection of civilians is beyond their power".

Cycle of violence

It acknowledges that the coming into force last year of the Arms Trade Treaty was a success. But it wants much more to be done to tackle what it calls "the bloody legacy of the flooding of weapons into countries where they are used for grave abuses by states and armed groups".

Anna Neistat, Amnesty's senior director for research, said: "Huge arms shipments were delivered to Iraq, Israel, South Sudan and Syria in 2014 despite the very high likelihood that these weapons would be used against civilian populations trapped in conflict.

"When IS took control of large parts of Iraq it found large arsenals, ripe for the picking."

The human rights group also argues that further restrictions on the use of explosive weapons, which cannot be precisely targeted or which otherwise have wide effect in populated areas, could have helped to save thousands of lives lost in recent conflicts.

If Amnesty is robust in its challenge to governments, the British government maintains that it is an exaggeration to accuse the international community of paralysis.

The Foreign Office said the Security Council had acted effectively on a number of issues over the past year for example, 100,000 peacekeepers were deployed globally, to address conflicts and help states build peaceful societies.

"The underlying drivers of abuse are discrimination, impunity and inequality," said Mr Shetty.

"If we do not stop these, all we will have is a cycle of violence."

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