Mounting police-state measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are now resulting in stand-offs between executive and judicial authorities. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, for the third time in 10 days on April 16 publicly dismissed Supreme Court rulings to respect fundamental rights while enforcing quarantine regulations. First, on March 26, the court ordered the government to release individuals who had been detained while grocery shopping. Then on April 8, the court explicitly provided that the government lacked proper statutory backing to detain citizens. After both rulings, Bukele took to Twitter, urging security forces to be strict with the lockdown and reiterating that violators will be placed in a containment facility. The third order states that the Bukele administration must respect the COVID-19-related rulings. Again, Bukele responded on Twitter, declaring that "five people will not decide the death of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans." Security forces have already arbitrarily detained hundreds of people in the containment centers, where rights observers charge they face an increased risk of spreading COVID-19. (HRW, CISPES, Jurist)
A state of emergency has been declared in Chile following protests that erupted Oct. 18—initially over transit fare hikes in Santiago but quickly escalating to an uprising over general economic agony. Radicalized youth have blocked thoroughfares, burned buses and ransacked shops, while whole families have filled the streets in a nationwide cacerolazo—beating pots and pans to express outrage over the high cost of living. Protesters have similarly taken the streets, erected barricades and clashed with police in Lebanon, where a state of "economic emergency" has been declared. Again, demonstrations were initially sparked by government plans to impose a tax on text messaging, but protests have continued even after the tax was rescinded in response to the upsurge of popular anger Oct. 17. Demonstrators have revived the slogan from the 2011 Arab Revolution, "The people demand the fall of the regime."
Donor countries and aid organizations are protesting a UN decision to centralize coordination of aid operations for Syria in Damascus—a move they say hands more power to the regime of Bashar Assad, and will make it harder to deliver aid to millions in rebel-held parts of the country. UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock's decision was announced at a closed-door meeting in early April to alter the system the UN has used for the past four years. That system was designed to ensure aid is delivered on the basis of need to both government and rebel-held territories—known as the "Whole of Syria" approach.
Even amid growing media portrayals that Bashar Assad has won the war in Syria, the first real hope has emerged that the dictator will face war crimes charges before the International Criminal Court. A group of Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan after surviving torture and massacres this week submitted dossiers of evidence to the ICC in an attempt to prosecute Assad. Although Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, which establishes the court's jurisdiction, lawyers in London are citing recent precedent set by the ICC in extending jurisdiction for the crime of forcible population transfers across international borders. London barrister Rodney Dixon of Temple Garden Chambers, representing the group of 28 refugees, said: "The ICC exists precisely to bring justice to the victims of these most brutal international crimes... There is a jurisdictional gateway that has opened up finally for the ICC prosecutor to investigate the perpetrators who are most responsible." In his letter to chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, Dixon notes last year's ICC ruling on Rohingya refugees, allowing an investigation of non-signatory Burma to proceed. (The Guardian, BBC News)
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights issued a statistical report on the number of Syrian war victims on the occasion of World Human Rights Day Dec. 10. The statistics show that 560,000 people have been killed since March 2011, including civilians, soldiers, rebel fighters, and "martyrs" who died under torture in the regime prisons. The Observatory found: "Over 93 months...Syrians have been crushed between the jaws of death, with each day declaring a decrease in their numbers..." The Observatory documented the deaths of 104,000 Syrians in the regime's prisons, likely under torture in most cases, with 83% executed in these prisons between May 2013 and October 2015. In this period, 30,000 were killed in Saydnaya prison alone, according to the Observatory. The remainder of the total were killed in fighting, with civilians constituting a large plurality at 111,330. The rest were from various armed factions.
With the fall of Syria's southern province of Daraa to Assad regime forces earlier this month, only Idlib in the north remains as a last pocket of opposition control. The besieged rebel forces there are anticipating a final offensive by Assad and his Russian backers. The pro-Moscow Al Masdar News headlines that Damascus is preparing for the "mother of all battles in Idlib," with the Syrian Arab Army's elite Tiger Forces to lead the offensive. But a complicating factor is that Turkey is occupying areas of Idlib, which means an offensive there threatens international escalation. Speaking to reporters in Ankara before heading for a summit of emerging market countries in South Africa, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would speak there with Vladimir Putin about how to resolve "the issue of Idlib." (YNet)
At least 270,000 people—about a third of the population—have been displaced by the Assad regime offensive on Daraa governorate in southern Syria since June 19. UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesman Mohammad Hawari confirmed the figure July 2, saying it "exceeded our expectations of 200,000." The agency expects the number to rise, with civilians fleeing to the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights—but with both countries refusing to allow entry. The UNHCR said about 164,000 displaced are now in camps and villages in the neighboring small opposition-held governorate of Quneitra, close to the Golan border. (See map.) The Assad offensive to regain Daraa governorate, where the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, has been backed by Russian air-strikes, violating a "de-escalation zone" Moscow had declared with the US last July. UNHCR noted reports that "suggest indiscriminate attacks on health facilities, schools, civil defense centers, and offices of local NGOs."
As the Assad regime, backed by Russian air-strikes, opens its offensive on the Free Syrian Army's Southern Front in Daraa governorate—and towns start to fall to pro-regime forces, with thousands fleeing their homes in fear of reprisals—the Trump White House has issued a statement to the rebels, warning, "[Y]ou should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us." This despite Washington's earlier warning to Assad and Putin that any violation of the so-called "de-escalation zones" would have "serious repercussions," including "firm and appropriate measures." (Reuters, Reuters, DW) Not surprisingly, this betrayal comes just as Trump reportedly told King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House that he is seeking a deal with Putin on terms for a withdrawal of remaining US forces from Syria. Reports indicate the deal will be on the agenda when Trump meets with Putin in Helsinki next month. (CNN)