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UN Week- 1/9/2012

January 11, 2012

This blog entry is written by members of our blogging community and expresses those experts’ views alone.

by John and Douglas Carey
Contents of this issue: A UN vocabulary game to raise food for the hungry; capital punishment in Saudi Arabia; mercenaries and private security companies in Iraq.

A UN vocabulary game to raise food for the hungry., the online game that allows players to improve their vocabulary while fighting global hunger by making donations to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), crossed a milestone today as it reached one million registered players on January 5th.

On, players face increasingly difficult vocabulary questions and for every correct answer, they earn 10 grains of rice, which is donated to WFP and paid for by sponsored banners on the site.

The online game also allows players to choose from 45,000 questions in various subjects, including flags of the world and literature, and in six languages – English, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

The game reaches an estimated 1.3 million players per month and has raised almost 100 billion grains of rice, enough to feed five million people for a day in countries in need of food aid. Give it a try; it’s great fun.

Capital punishment in Saudi Arabia

The United Nations human rights office expressed alarm on January 6th at the significant increase in Saudi Arabia’s use of capital punishment in the past year. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the number of executions in the country almost tripled last year compared with 2010.

“We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to respect international standards guaranteeing due process and the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and to reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed,” OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.

“What is even more worrying is that court proceedings often reportedly fall far short of international fair trial standards, and the use of torture as a means to obtain confessions appears to be rampant,” Mr. Colville added. Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty for a wide range of offences, including the charge of sorcery and witchcraft, for which a woman was executed last month.

OHCHR also expressed grave concern at the recent sentencing of six men convicted on charges of highway robbery. The men were condemned to “cross amputation” – a form of punishment which involves the amputation of the men’s right hands and left feet.

“We call on the authorities to halt the use of such cruel, inhuman, degrading punishment,” Mr. Colville continued, noting that as a party to the Convention against Torture, Saudi Arabia is “bound by the absolute prohibition” against the use of torture and other forms of cruel punishment.

Last October, OHCHR voiced deep distress over the execution of 10 men who were publicly beheaded in the country’s capital, Riyadh, while underscoring that about 140 of the 193 UN Member States are now believed to have either abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium.

Mercenaries and private security companies in Iraq.

After eight years of occupation by Coalition forces, the security sector in Iraq faced a vacuum that opened the door to private military and security companies, said experts from the United Nations Working Group that monitors mercenaries and mercenary-related activities in July 2011.

A Working Group member named Gómez, who met with fellow experts Amada Benavides de Pérez (Colombia) and Alexander Nikitin (Russian Federation), said that with the departure of international forces, the number of military contractors would rise to an estimated 5,500. Many of them would be hired to protect the diplomatic corps, as well as the multinationals operating in the commercial sector.

In that context, the Working Group was recommending that the Iraqi Government finalize and adopt legislation to regulate the contractors’ conduct.  Indeed, Iraqi authorities were still operating under the guidelines for military contractors set up by the Coalition Provisional Authority.  While the immunity given to contractors by that framework had been withdrawn, Iraq’s Parliament had not yet instituted its own laws, which, Mr. Gómez suggested, should foster transparency and accountability.

He further noted that prosecutions in contractors’ home countries had not yet met with success, pointing, in that regard, to the case against contractors alleged to have killed 17 civilians in Nissour Square four years ago, which was still pending in United States courts.

Comparing the different approaches to private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Nikitin stressed that the Afghan authorities had introduced a bold model to cut the quantity and functions of private military and security companies.  Iraq’s approach had been much slower, he said, noting that the lingering presence of the contractors after the decrease of the official military presence would create a new legal situation that underlined the need for an international instrument.

Mr. Gómez said that, owing to a gap in international law, a binding instrument was clearly needed.  While discussions were being held at the intergovernmental level in Geneva on a regulatory instrument, Western countries were not supporting that approach.  They were instead working for a self-regulatory instrument in which the companies would control themselves through a voluntary code of conduct.  In contrast, the Working Group was proposing a binding instrument on States that would include such elements as measures on licensing, the establishment of a national monitoring authority, options for criminal and civil proceedings and methods for providing justice and compensation for victims.

Mr. Nikitin clarified that the thrust of the Working Group’s efforts was not to push private military and security companies out of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, but to draw a red line between allowable and prohibited activities.  He emphasized that international conventions were not directly applicable to companies, but to States.  In that vein, Mr. Gómez added that the instrument would propose a number of functions that States should not outsource under any circumstances, such as intelligence gathering.

Ms. Benavides pointed out that mercenaries were understood as individuals, while private military and security companies were legal entities operating under the framework of a contract, which was one reason why the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, and Training of Mercenaries did not apply.  The Working Group’s intention in drafting the proposed convention was to hold the companies responsible for human rights violations when they used force on behalf of States.

Asked to compare the Group’s proposal to existing regulatory regimes, Mr. Nikitin pointed to the well-developed practices of regulating the export and import of arms, with 172 countries providing annual information on their arms sales and purchases.  That register might monitor the sale of a tank, while the instrument on military and security contractors would address the employment of a tank driver.  Among other things, the convention would establish a database of companies operating on the international market and require signatories to exchange information on their contracts with private companies.  He stressed that since private military and security companies traded in lethal skills, they should be regulated as strictly as the arms industry.

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