The United Nations’ newly appointed Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, arrived in Damascus on Tuesday for a three-day visit.
Upon his arrival, Pedersen spoke to reporters saying he is looking forward to substantial and productive talks with Damascus. He is scheduled to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem shortly after his arrival.
For the Norwegian diplomat, this is the first visit to the war-torn country since he assumed the post, following last year resignation of his predecessor, Staffan de Mistura.
Syria pullout tied to Kurd protection, ISIL defeat
Officials in the government of President Bashar al-Assad set the tone for the new envoy’s tenure shortly after news of his appointment in October last year.
“Syria will cooperate with the new UN Envoy, Geir Pedersen, provided he avoids the methods of his predecessor,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad said, quoted by Al-Watan newspaper.
Al-Assad’s opponents have said the change in UN envoy would have little effect on the fate of the country as international will and consensus were lacking.
Pedersen is UN’s fourth envoy who will attempt to find a peaceful solution to the war-torn country since the conflict erupted in 2011.
Prior to his role as the UN special envoy to Syria, Pedersen was Norway’s ambassador to China. He also covered the role of Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN from 2012 to 2017.
Pedersen was also a member of the Norwegian team to the secret negotiations that led to the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Pedersen’s predecessors – Staffan de Mistura, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi – have all been unable to halt the conflict despite dogged diplomacy and repeated rounds of talks.
In August 2012, Annan had resigned as the UN and Arab League mediator after six months of fruitless efforts, complaining of a lack of support for his mission.
Former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi then took over the role of the UN special envoy and in early 2014 organised the first face-to-face negotiations between the government and the opposition in Geneva. But the talks failed to achieve anything concrete and Brahimi stepped down.
In early 2016, there were three rounds of indirect negotiations between the regime and the opposition groups in Geneva under the supervision of the UN’s third special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
They hit an impasse over ceasefire violations and al-Assad’s role in any political transition.
In December 2017, at the end of the eighth round of negotiations, de Mistura accused Damascus of causing the collapse of the talks by refusing to seek real dialogue with the opposition. In January 2018, a ninth round of UN peace talks was held without success in Vienna.
In October 2018, de Mistura announced he was resigning for “purely personal reasons”. The same month, the head of the UN humanitarian task force for Syria, Jan Egeland, also quit.
It will now fall to Pedersen to broker peace in the conflict, which has left more than 400,000 dead and caused millions to flee.
The Syrian president, who has been in power for more than 18 years, has now reclaimed much of the territory he lost at the beginning of the war, largely thanks to the military backing of veto-wielding UN Security Council permanent member Russia.
Opposition groups across Syria have little or no clout on the ground and negligible bargaining power in negotiations with Damascus.
Al Jazeera and news agencies
Why the Women’s Tennis Association rallied for Peng Shuai
A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress. The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of…
A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress.
The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who last month accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct, and Meng Hongwei, the former head of Interpol, who disappeared on a trip to China in 2018 and 18 months later pleaded guilty to corruption. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Following Meng’s disappearance, Interpol largely appeared to accept his resignation letter and Secretary-General Jurgen Stock told the Associated Press news agency that the international police body was forbidden by internal rules to investigate.
Things could have turned out the same for Peng, a world-class athlete and Olympian, after a social media post about her ordeal with Zhang was deleted, except that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) immediately began to push back. Prominent tennis players also followed suit, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
The WTA has also continued to raise questions even after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN shared an email on Twitter – purportedly from Peng – saying that she was “not missing” or “unsafe” and that reports of her allegations were “not true”. She reemerged in public a few days later and spoke to the International Olympic Committee over a now heavily-criticised video call.
“[It] remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said afterwards, stressing that the organisation remained concerned about her wellbeing.
The alleged email from Peng Shuai to Steve Simon that was aired on state broadcaster CGTN last month [CGTN/Twitter via Reuters]After the WTA’s repeated expressions of concern about Peng Shuai’s wellbeing, the IOC said it had held a video call with the player and released a still photo from the call [IOC via EPA]Late on Wednesday, the WTA announced the “immediate suspension” of all tournaments in China and Hong Kong. China hosted nine WTA events in 2019 and a year earlier signed a 10-year deal to host the WTA finals in Shenzhen, according to Reuters news agency.
“It’s really crazy that the Women’s Tennis Association has more credibility right now than Interpol in pushing back on China’s gross human rights abuses, abduction of members of its organisation, and poking holes in what is just thinly-veiled coercive statements and propaganda,” said Michael Caster, co-founder of the human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, which monitors disappearances in China.
China’s foreign ministry has accused critics and media of “malicious hyping” and politicising Peng’s disappearance from public view.
Meanwhile, Zhang, the high-ranking party member at the centre of Peng’s allegations, has not been seen in public in several weeks, according to Caster.
He described Peng’s situation as part of the same “playbook” used by the Chinese government when concerns are raised about the wellbeing of a citizen or foreigner living in China – from human rights lawyer Wang Yu to Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin who went on to become one of the founders of Safeguard Defenders.
“These farcical public presentations from Peng Shuai are clearly scripted as part of a propaganda effort and we say that because we’ve seen this movie before,” Caster told Al Jazeera.
In announcing the suspension of tournaments, the WTA’s Simon stressed that China’s handling of Peng’s case was not acceptable and should not be allowed to become acceptable.
“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep sexual assault under the rug then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback,” Simon said in a statement. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
Game, set, and match to the @WTA in the grand slam for sports and human rights in #China! Steve Simon announces WTA’s decision to suspend tournaments in China… via @WTA https://t.co/LlZ7yW86BQ @hrw @MinkysHighjinks @hrw
— Sophie Richardson (@SophieHRW) December 1, 2021
I applaud Steve Simon & the @WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world. The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.
This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports. https://t.co/PHiU0S7Prw
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) December 1, 2021
Other international sporting bodies have already been targeted by Beijing over positions taken by their players and officials.
China briefly stopped airing NBA games after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy protests and erased Premier League football player Mesut Ozil from the Chinese internet after he spoke out against China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs.
More recently, games involving the NBA’s Boston Celtics have been pulled from broadcast in China as Enes Kanter, their centre, continues to make criticisms about President Xi Jinping and China’s treatment of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet while also voicing support for Taiwan.
Moment of reckoning
The WTA, however, had political momentum and timing on its side allowing the organisation to take a calculated risk, says Simon Chadwick, a professor of international sports business at Emlyon Business School in France.
Peng’s case and allegations of sexual misconduct also come at a moment of reckoning in the sports world over #MeToo allegations and mental health following the public struggles of athletes like Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles.
“Number one for the WTA is that women and girls are their core business. It’s what the organisation is founded upon and to not be seen as supporting someone who apparently has gone missing would undermine what the WTA does,” Chadwick said.
“My feeling is that the WTA probably made a calculation and decided that it stood to lose more globally by not saying anything, then it stood to lose by essentially standing up to China.”
Chadwick says that despite considerable investments in the Chinese tennis industry, women’s tennis has not taken off there as quickly as the WTA initially anticipated.
Its deal with China has also struggled as a result of the pandemic. So far, Shenzhen has hosted only one WTA finals event in 2019. The 2020 final was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, and the 2021 event was moved to Mexico following another Covid-19 outbreak in China.
The NBA came under pressure in China after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters in 2019 [File: Xihao Jiang/Reuters]That may give the WTA the kind of latitude unavailable to groups like the IOC, which is due to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February. That organisation has also suffered as a result of the pandemic with the Tokyo Olympics, pushed back a year and not attended by the usual number of spectators.
Following Peng’s disappearance, the IOC has said it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China” following questions about Peng, according to the Associated Press.
Emma Terho, the IOC Athletes Commission Chair, said on Twitter that the organisation prefers a policy of “quiet diplomacy”.
Based in the Republican state of Florida, the WTA may have also felt some political pressure beyond Beijing.
Washington is mulling a boycott of the Winter Games protest against human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, notes Chadwick.
“I wonder to what extent there may have been some political pressure from within the United States put on the WTA to respond in the way that it did. I think from the perspective of the WTA, they reacted very, very quickly… unusually quickly, within a matter of two or three days, he said. “And that is extremely unusual.”
On Wednesday, Simon expressed regret at having to suspend events in China, but he said he was “greatly concerned” at the risks players and staff could face if events were held in the country in 2022.
He once again urged Beijing to prove Peng was free, and able to speak “without interference or intimidation” and to fully investigate the allegations of assault.
“I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”
Mexico and US to launch plan to stem Central American migration
The vast majority of people heading to the US-Mexico border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.Mexico’s foreign ministry has said the Mexican and US foreign development agencies will work together on a project to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The “Planting Opportunities” project announced on Wednesday will…
The vast majority of people heading to the US-Mexico border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.Mexico’s foreign ministry has said the Mexican and US foreign development agencies will work together on a project to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The “Planting Opportunities” project announced on Wednesday will bring together the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (Amexcid) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and target the three so-called Northern Triangle countries.
Migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has fuelled record numbers of people being apprehended at the US-Mexico border, as asylum seekers have tried to enter the United States after fleeing poverty, violence and political instability.
The surge in arrivals has piled political pressure on the administration of US President Joe Biden, whose Republican rivals have accused him of causing “chaos” at the border.
Mexico’s National Guard has been dispatched along the country’s southern border with Guatemala and along main roads to stem the flow of migrants [File: Daniel Becerril/Reuters]During the last fiscal year, US authorities detained some 1.7 million people along the border.
The US has been increasingly reliant on Mexico to stem the flow of migrants, as it returns to Mexico the majority of people who arrive at the border under a Trump-era border restriction enacted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The US is also in talks with the Mexican government to restart a programme that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their US immigration court hearings.
Both Biden and Mexico’s leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have vowed to tackle what they call the “root causes” of migration.
They have pointed to poverty, lack of education and job opportunities, gang violence, political instability and corruption as some of the leading causes of migration, especially of young people.
The new US-Mexico collaboration will begin in Honduras, with an effort to teach job skills to more than 500,000 at-risk youth, the Mexican foreign ministry said on Wednesday.
The department did not provide details about the programme or how much funding would be allocated for the scheme.
The project will bring together the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation and the United States Agency for International Development [File: Jose Torres/Reuters]As a presidential candidate, Lopez Obrador had touted social programmes aimed at creating better lives for people in Central American countries, which he said would discourage people from leaving.
But those plans were shelved after former US President Donald Trump took office and made hardline, anti-immigration measures the main focus of his government.
In recent years, Mexico has blocked several caravans of people seeking to reach the US. It also has dispatched its National Guard to the country’s southern and northern borders to try to keep people away.
Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns
PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks,…
PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks, which resumed this week after a suspension of almost half a year following the election of the hardliner to the Iranian presidency.European powers are seeking to revive the nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It has been moribund since the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018, prompting Tehran to ramp up nuclear activities as Washington reimposed sanctions.France’s objective is “to see Iran return to full respect for all of its commitments under the JCPOA and that the United States returns to the agreement,” the French presidency said.Macron also “underscored the need for Iran to engage constructively in this direction so that the exchanges allow a swift return to the agreement,” it added.“Iran must return without delay to compliance with all its commitments and obligations … and quickly resume cooperation that allows the (UN atomic energy) agency to fully carry out its mission,” it said.Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, adopted a hard-line approach after just one day of the resumed talks, suggesting that everything discussed during previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated.Speaking to Iranian state television, he described all that has been discussed so far as merely a “draft.”He added: “Drafts are subject to negotiation. Therefore nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on.“On that basis, all discussions that took place in the (previous) six rounds (of talks) are summarized and are subject to negotiations. This was admitted by all parties in today’s meeting as well.”Bagheri’s remarks directly contradicted comments on Monday by EU diplomat Enrique Mora, who is leading the talks.“The Iranian delegation represents a new administration in Tehran with new, understandable political sensibilities, but they have accepted that the work done over the six first rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead, so no point in going back,” he said.Another state TV report highlighted Bagheri in Vienna saying that Iran demands a “guarantee by America not to impose new sanctions” or reimpose previously lifted sanctions.Mohammed Eslami, Iran’s civilian nuclear chief, reiterated this demand in comments to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.“The talks (in Vienna) are about the return of the US to the deal and they have to lift all sanctions and this should be in practice and verifiable,” he said.Raisi’s office said that he urged Macron “to strive with other parties in Vienna to conclude the negotiations and lift the sanctions against Iran.”Raisi said: “Sending a full team to the talks shows Iran’s serious will in these talks.”Referring to the US, he added: “Those who have started to violate the nuclear deal must gain the confidence of the other party for the negotiations to proceed in a real and fruitful manner.”