Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Food security warnings in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
A food security crisis is looming in Rakhine State, rights group Amnesty International warned in a report this week accusing Myanmar’s military of continuing war crimes in its latest crackdown. The UN says more than 30,000 people have been displaced this year in clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine rebel group, and humanitarian access has been severely restricted. Amnesty says authorities are also imposing arbitrary restrictions on transporting medical supplies and food between conflict areas. Farmers can’t reach their fields to plant rice for the upcoming harvest. “The ongoing conflict and instability is likely to have a significant impact on long-term food security in a region where a large percentage of the population are subsistence farmers,” Amnesty says. Ethnic Rakhine communities are bearing the brunt of this crackdown, but rights groups say the military tactics follow patterns of previous abuses, including the 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya, also from Rakhine State, into Bangladesh.
Doing wrong to do good
Speaking of war crimes, humanitarian operations in Syria put aid groups potentially on the wrong side of international law. When the International Committee of the Red Cross worked with "evacuations" from rebel pockets in Aleppo, were they part of a forced displacement of civilians (a war crime)? Associate law professor at Oxford University Miles Jackson tackles this in a draft paper on "the problem of the virtuous accomplice". He explores the legal implications with hypothetical examples. One is "a nurse who sterilises equipment to be used by a captor to amputate the arm of a prisoner as torture" – this he calls "mitigating complicity". A second example is helping a vulnerable population where the aid agency knows that parts of that aid will be siphoned off by war criminals: this is dubbed "general complicity". We leave it to the reader to absorb the subtleties that lead to Jackson’s kicker: in exceptional circumstances, "knowingly contributing to an international crime may be the right thing to do”.
Mali – time to talk to the jihadists?
The International Crisis Group notes that military operations aimed at defeating the Katiba Macina jihadist insurgency in central Mali have reached a stalemate, and some Malians are now calling for dialogue – something TNH reported back in 2017. But the obstacles are serious. “Katiba Macina’s demands seem to leave little space for accommodation; it has ties to al-Qaeda-linked militants; and the idea of dialogue generates resistance among many Malians and foreign powers.” Nonetheless, ICG points out, aid groups and religious scholars frequently engage the group to discuss local compromises, humanitarian access, and religious doctrine, so there is pragmatism among the militants. “Given the remote prospects for defeating the Katiba Macina militarily, the Malian authorities should empower religious leaders to explore initial talks with its leaders while seeking a wider dialogue among central Malians, including those sympathetic to the insurgency,” the group argues. For more on the eruption of jihadist violence in Mali and across the Sahel region, read our briefing and this collection of our recent reporting.
War and peace behind Taliban lines
Multiple rounds of US-Taliban negotiations over Afghanistan have produced little so far, but raised plenty of questions. Would the Afghan government survive should US forces leave? Would women’s rights backslide under the Taliban? Will peace talks focused on military objectives compromise humanitarian access? New research adds more voices to the discussion. A study from the United States Institute of Peace think tank draws from dozens of interviews in Afghan areas controlled or influenced by the Taliban (an ever-rising proportion). Civilians, unsurprisingly, simply want an end to the violence. Taliban members reject any power-sharing deal with the current government. And women, including those related to Taliban members, “strongly objected” to restrictions on their lives, including access to schools and healthcare. Many spoke of the importance of addressing Afghanistan’s legacy of conflict. But reconciliation measures have rarely been mentioned so far in the debate.
Drought – forewarned is forearmed
Countries can no longer afford to wait before acting on climate forecasts. We knew six months ago this would be an El Niño year, and yet it was business as usual until crops started wilting in the fields in southern and eastern Africa. Millions of people are going to go hungry this year, when an early mitigation effort could have helped ease the hardship for many households and reduced the financial cost of the humanitarian response. So says World Food Programme climatologist Jesse Mason. His advice: governments must start communicating climate forecast information down to their farmers, and there must be appropriate action – from drought-resistant seeds to insurance and irrigation work. Aid agencies need to reprogramme cash-based transfers so they arrive before the disaster, providing farmers with a buffer, and donors need to be responsive to those needs. “Droughts are no longer in parts of a country, they are in parts of a continent,” and therefore the preparedness and response must be on a similar scale of planning and implementation, Mason said. Look out for more next week when we update TNH’s drought overview.
Poaching local staff; funding local ideas
Eighty percent of local NGOs working on the Rohingya response in Bangladesh report having their staff poached by international agencies, according to a survey released by Cox’s Bazar-based NGO Coast. The research, which included interviews or surveys with staff of 61 local and international agencies, aims to show a snapshot of how the aid sector’s localisation reforms are unfolding during the Rohingya response, nearly two years after some 700,000 refugees were driven into Bangladesh. Local responders like Coast are pushing for changes, including holding coordination meetings in the national language, Bangla, rather than English. Using an appropriate language is a low-tech solution to the sector’s many problems, but there are also high-tech possibilities on the horizon. The Humanitarian Grand Challenge, funded by international donors, is looking for local innovations that can help as-yet-unreached people who need humanitarian aid in conflict areas. Applications for their latest round of funding are open now. Previously funded projects include portable energy systems, a cholera-detecting app, and an evaporative toilet.
In case you missed it
DATA AND GENDER: The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) collects information on incidents of political violence. It's a unique resource for academics and journalists (see our map of rising violence in the Sahel, for example). Thanks to a new partnership, ACLED has produced an analysis of incidents in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East looking at gender differences for the first time. One finding: sexual violence accounts for 34 percent of attacks.
THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The epicentre of Congo’s Ebola outbreak is also being confronted by deadly epidemics of cholera and measles. A massive vaccination campaign is underway in the country, where more than 1,400 people have died from measles this year, and 240 from cholera.
IRAN: The country has confirmed its first case of the wild poliovirus in nearly 20 years, adding to concerns there is a “rising risk” of polio spreading across borders. The World Health Organisation says the sample, detected in sewage, is genetically linked to a sample found recently in Pakistan, which has seen a spike in polio cases this year.
US-MEXICO: US President Donald Trump threatened Mexico with trade tariffs that would rise "until the illegal immigration problem is remedied". Monthly numbers of migrants – most fleeing gang violence and drought in Central America – apprehended at the US-Mexico border have soared above 100,000 this year.
The name Ernest Halilov first crept onto our radar back in 2016 over alleged bid-rigging and kickback schemes involving aid for Syria. In September 2018 it emerged that the "Global Logistician" for Irish NGO GOAL had been banned from doing business with the US government for 10 years for trying to pocket a slice of Syrian aid budgets. The story now gets a little juicier. According to court documents unearthed by TNH Senior Editor Ben Parker, the Turkmen national was detained in Ukraine last year and faces extradition to the United States on a string of felony charges, including bribery and witness tampering. In one instance, he allegedly laid on an overnight shopping spree at the Hilton hotel in Mersin, Turkey, complete with 5-star hotel stay, $1,500 spending money, and Mercedes car service. The extradition request shows the lengths the US authorities are willing to go to crack down on aid fraud. After more than three years of investigations involving hundreds of millions of dollars of aid delivered to Syria through Turkey, the USAID probe is ongoing.
Hackers under fire?
The possibilities of cyber warfare include the idea that hackers for nation states might be combatants and therefore legitimate targets under international humanitarian law. The ICRC has compiled a detailed and eye-opening report on how this type of conflict may evolve, what the risks are, what the law says, and how to mitigate the human cost. The report includes some remarkable anecdotes. For instance, cyber threats are not so new: in 2007, then-US vice-president Dick Cheney had an implanted defibrillator changed to stop the possibility of a hack – to his heart.
(TOP PHOTO: A child walks along a path in the Sin Tet Maw camp for internally displaced persons in Rakhine State, Myanmar, Wednesday 5 April 2017.)