Brexit backstop legal risk ‘unchanged’: UK attorney general

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Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said a revised divorce deal with the European Union had not given Britain legal means of exiting the so-called backstop arrangement unilaterally. (AFP)
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British Prime Minister Theresa May huddled late Monday with EU leaders in Strasbourg in a bid to salvage the vision of Brexit she set out after coming to power nearly three years ago. (AFP)
Updated 12 March 2019
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Brexit backstop legal risk ‘unchanged’: UK attorney general

  • Theresa May huddled late Monday with EU leaders in Strasbourg in a bid to salvage the vision of Brexit she set out
  • Britain’s main opposition Labour Party announced it would vote against the deal, saying May had ‘failed’

LONDON: Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said on Tuesday a revised divorce deal with the European Union had not given Britain legal means of exiting the so-called backstop arrangement unilaterally if “intractable differences” arose.

Cox’s advice is crucial to winning over euroskeptic lawmakers in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party, and she had hoped that revisions to a Brexit deal over the Irish backstop, or protocol, secured late on Monday would offer enough assurances to get her deal through parliament.

“However, the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have ... no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”

Britain faces a moment of truth Tuesday when parliament votes on May’s ill-loved Brexit plan — a day after she said she secured last-minute changes to the deal from the EU.
May huddled late Monday with EU leaders in Strasbourg in a bid to salvage the vision of Brexit she set out after coming to power nearly three years ago.
The two sides then announced “legally binding changes” to the old agreement aimed at addressing Britain’s needs and getting the deal through parliament.
“Now is the time to come together, to back this improved Brexit deal, and to deliver on the instruction of the British people,” May said.
The three-part package of changes effectively aims to resolve a key sticking point for British MPs over the so-called backstop plan to keep open the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
But late Monday, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party announced it would vote against the deal, saying May had “failed.”
“This evening’s agreement with the European Commission does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May promised parliament,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Political chaos verging on panic has gripped Britain as its 46-year relationship with the European Union nears its scheduled end in 17 days.
The UK still has no roadmap for leaving and is increasingly doubting if the divorce it set in motion in a 2016 referendum will ever even take place.
The main trouble started when May’s deal with the remaining 27 EU nations — pieced together over tortured months of negotiations — suffered a historic defeat in the House of Commons in January.
May has been delaying a second showdown in the hope of wresting concessions from Brussels that could appease lawmakers and save her teetering government, which she claimed to have achieved in Strasbourg.
“It’s this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said after their meeting.
“There will be no third chance.”
Brexit hard-liners from May’s Conservative Party and the DUP, a small Northern Irish party which is part of May’s coalition government, have said they will scrutinize the documents that have been agreed.
The vote is expected at around 1900 GMT.
Another defeat would set the stage for additional votes in parliament this week that could postpone Brexit and possibly reverse it in the months to come.
Any delay may have to be short-lived.
Juncker on Monday said a delay beyond European Parliament elections at the end of May would mean Britain would have to take part in the polls.
The issues tearing apart politicians are the same ones Britons have been arguing over throughout their uneasy stay in the European project.
About half the voters think the former global empire can restore its past glory by striking its own trade deals and limiting numbers of EU migrants.
The other half views themselves as inherently European.
They also remain open to immigration and warn of dire consequences from cutting ties with Britain’s biggest trade partner.
The divisions in parliament follow the same patterns and are also reflected by rival camps in May’s endlessly bickering cabinet.
The actual issue holding up the agreement concerns the technical conundrum of how to keep the Irish border free-flowing once a UK-EU frontier splits it from Britain’s Northern Ireland after Brexit.
The temporary “backstop” solution found in the current deal would keep Britain closely aligned to EU trade rules and Northern Ireland even more so until the sides reach a new trade deal or come up with a better fix.
But those who back Brexit fear getting trapped in this quasi-union with Europe indefinitely.
EU leaders see the arrangement as essential for guaranteeing the bloc’s sovereignty and preserving the peace deal in Northern Ireland.
May has sought to thread the needle by securing a guarantee from Brussels that the Irish solution will not keep Britain permanently tied to the bloc.
A government defeat on Tuesday could see parliament try to take control over what happens next.
May has promised to give lawmakers a vote on Wednesday on whether Britain should simply leave without any deal at all.
The option is fraught with economic dangers and is backed only by the most hardened proponents of the divorce.
If MPs would defeat the “no-deal” scenario, it would be followed on Thursday with a vote on requesting a delay from the EU.
The other 27 nations would need to unanimously back the extension and decide how long it should be.
Their leaders will meet in Brussels for a summit on March 21-22.
Two forces are expected to then spring into action: groups backing a much closer EU-UK union — and ones that simply want the whole thing reversed in a second referendum.


US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

Rescuers carry a man who was injured in an attack on a restaurant by Somali Islamist group al Shabaab in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia, October 1, 2016. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 March 2019
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US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

  • The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians

WASHINGTON: There is credible evidence that US military airstrikes in Somalia have killed or wounded nearly two dozen civilians, an international human rights group said Tuesday, charging that the Pentagon is not adequately investigating potential casualties.
US Africa Command officials immediately disputed the allegations laid out in a report by Amnesty International, and insisted that the military has investigated 18 cases of possible civilian casualties since 2017 and found that none were credible.
The seemingly contradictory information underscores the complexities of military operations against the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group in Somalia, involving airstrikes by several allied nations in hostile, remote locations that are difficult to access safely.
The report came the same day that a Somali intelligence official and two local residents said a US drone strike on Monday killed civilians.
The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians. The official was not authorized to talk with the media and did so on condition of anonymity.
Residents concurred with the official’s assessment.
Mohamed Siyad, an elder in Lanta Buro, a village near the farming town of Afgoye, Somalia, told The Associated Press that four civilians including employees of a telecom company were killed.
“They were known to us — they had nothing to do with Al-Shabab,” he said by phone.
Another resident, Abdiaziz Hajji, said that the drone destroyed the vehicle. “Bodies were burnt beyond recognition,” he said. “They were innocent civilians killed by Americans for no reason. They always get away with such horrible mistakes.”
In a rare move, US Africa Command on Tuesday mentioned those possible casualties in a press release about the strike and said officials will look into the incident. But, more broadly, US defense officials said casualty allegations in Somalia are questionable because Al-Shabab militants make false claims or force local citizens to do the same.
Amnesty International, however, said it analyzed satellite imagery and other data, and interviewed 65 witnesses and survivors of five specific airstrikes detailed in the report. The report concludes that there is “credible evidence” that the US was responsible for four of the airstrikes, and that it’s plausible the US conducted the fifth strike. It said 14 civilians were killed and eight injured in the strikes.
“Amnesty International’s research points to a failure by the US and Somali governments to adequately investigate allegations of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in Somalia,” the report said, adding that the US doesn’t have a good process for survivors or victims’ families to self-report losses.
US Africa Command said it looked at the five strikes and concluded there were no civilian casualties. In the fifth case the command said there were no US strikes in that area on that day.
The group’s report and Defense Department officials also agreed that the strikes usually take place in hostile areas controlled by Al-Shabab militants. And those conditions, the report said, “prevented Amnesty International organization from conducting on-site investigations and severely limited the organization’s ability to freely gather testimonial and physical evidence.”
US defense officials told reporters that American troops were on the ground at strike locations in a very limited number of cases. Even in those instances, they said, US troops ordered strikes to protect local Somali forces they were accompanying, and there was little opportunity to investigate possible civilian casualties at that moment.
Still, the rights group concluded that the US military’s insistence that there have been zero civilian deaths is wrong.
“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the US role in Somalia’s war is actually a smoke screen for impunity,” said Brian Castner, a senior adviser at Amnesty International.
US officials countered that they have access to information not readily available to nonmilitary organizations, including observations from people on the ground at the site and post-strike intelligence gathering from various electronic systems. Those systems can include overhead surveillance and data collected through cyber operations and other intercepted communications and electronic signals.
The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
They said the US rigorously assesses targets in advance to make sure no civilians will be hurt or killed.
The officials noted that Kenya and Ethiopia also conduct airstrikes in the region, but provided no details. There are 500 to 600 US troops in Somalia at any time.
The pace of US airstrikes in Somalia has escalated during the Trump administration, from 47 in all of 2018 to 28 already this year. So far more than 230 militants have been killed in 2019, compared to 338 killed in all of 2018.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump approved greater authorities for military operations against Al-Shabab, allowing increased strikes in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who heads Africa Command, told reporters in a recent interview that Al-Shabab controls about 25 percent of the country and the key effort is to help the government regain control of its land.
“The intention is to keep the pressure on that network,” he said.
He said there are three categories of strikes: ones to target senior Al-Shabab leaders, ones to take out training camps or involve Daesh militants in the north, and ones aimed at helping the government increase security and regain control of the country. He said the last group involves the most strikes.