Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers this round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.
Syria: Less doubt, lots of debate
Evidence is mounting that the Syrian government did indeed use chemical weapons on the Damascus suburb of Douma last weekend. The attack, which killed at least 43 people, has left the international community debating how to respond to the latest overstep of a red line that has been crossed more times than many care to mention. President Bashar al-Assad and Russia, his chief ally, say the accusations are bogus, but the attack was brutal enough (victims reportedly foamed from the mouth and nose) that the remaining rebels agreed to leave Douma in short order. Soon after, Russia announced that the Syrian flag was flying over the town, which had been the last rebel holdout in besieged Eastern Ghouta.
So what now? The UN Security Council failed to pass multiple draft resolutions on chemical weapons in Syria this week; the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says its investigators are on the way; and much of the world seems to be waiting for US President Donald Trump, who tweeted Thursday that an airstrike on Syria “could be very soon or not so soon at all!” The hive of diplomatic activity between Washington, London, and Paris going into the weekend suggests the former is more likely.
A Kinshasa no-show in Geneva
“At war with its own people.” That was the Human Rights Watch verdict after President Joseph Kabila’s government refused to attend today’s UN donor conference on the grounds that the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is overblown and being manipulated by the opposition. Framing the no-show as a “sinister attempt to attract foreign investment and further enrich those in power, while avoiding outside scrutiny,” the advocacy group said Congolese security forces had killed thousands of civilians over the past two years. There was plenty of opprobrium too in Geneva, where the UN and aid agencies were hoping to raise as much as possible of the $1.7 billion they say is needed to help an estimated 13 million people in need of assistance. Belgium has its own issues from its troubled history in Congo – it upped its contribution to a record high of 25 million euros – but even its deputy prime minister, Alexander De Croo, didn’t mince his words: "The absence of the DRC at this conference is not only regrettable; it is incomprehensible. The Congolese government... must take this humanitarian crisis seriously." However, as far as Kabila's government is concerned, the country is being unfairly portrayed as a basket case, a gift to the opposition. It took particular offense at parts of Congo being categorised by the UN as “Level 3” emergencies – but even a controversial 11th-hour decision last week to drop this worst-of-the-worst crisis designation wasn't enough to bring a change of heart about attending the event.
For detailed reportage and analysis of what’s going on in Congo, see our updated in-depth page.
Funding freefall for North Korea
Humanitarian groups say they need $111 million for aid in North Korea this year. The money is earmarked for some six million people – almost a quarter of North Korea’s population. It aims to help with malnutrition, natural disasters, food production and immunisation, as well as water and sanitation programmes. But donors aren’t exactly queuing up to pay. After another year of missile tests, sanctions, and Twitter diplomacy, gaping questions remain over the supposedly forthcoming summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. Funding to North Korea has been in freefall for years, though; this year’s donor appeal bemoans a “radical decline” in pledges since 2012. Last year, aid groups asked for a comparable amount, but only seven individual governments contributed. Even if donors do dish out the cash this year, aid groups may still have trouble getting the money. Sanctions aren’t intended to block aid, but humanitarian groups say banking channels are frequently disrupted because banks, suppliers, and government officials fear breaking the rules. This uncertainty has already claimed a recent casualty: Last year, Save the Children suspended operations in North Korea because of funding problems and, according to the UN, other agencies are also “considering their longer-term sustainability”.
Iraq’s long haul: 15 years and counting
This week marks 15 years since the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, a moment (exaggerated for television) that came to symbolise the US invasion and the toppling of a regime. After years of al-Qaeda violence, three years of war with so-called Islamic State, and a government that admits it has a corruption problem, even the man who first took a sledgehammer to the bronze dictator regrets it. Our Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod is in Iraq right now – keep an eye out for her reporting on a country struggling to deal with the aftermath of horrors that are still being uncovered.
Imagine a world with peace correspondents
“If it bleeds, it leads.” This common critique of sensational and simplistic war reporting was under the spotlight this week as journalists and peacebuilders gathered in New York City to promote alternatives to the “bang bang” approach to covering conflict. Participants, including IRIN Executive Director Heba Aly, called for alternative and more holistic stories from war zones, including coverage that explains root causes and presents local people as subjects rather than victims and reporting that looks at efforts towards peace as much as it highlights tensions and divisions.
In a country like Yemen, for example, it’s easy to focus on the fact that there is no food, no water, no political process, no access for aid agencies. “If you make a list of ‘have-nots’, it can last forever,” said Mike Jobbins, of peacebuilding organisation Search for Common Ground. On the back of a very public critique of a recent column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, which describes the Central African Republic as “maybe the world’s most wretched country,” Jobbins warned against presenting conflict zones as hopeless and encouraged journalists to start telling the other part of the story. He noted, for example, that despite the crisis in Yemen, 90 percent of its schools remain open and many young Yemenis have chosen to go to school instead of joining the ranks of militias.
What if we had peace correspondents, instead of war correspondents? What if journalists began challenging the notion that war is inevitable?
Our weekend read: Afghanistan’s tent cities
The burgeoning tent and shanty cities in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province have become a teeming microcosm for the country's chronic displacement crisis. What does this volatility look like on the ground? Find out this weekend by reading As conflict spreads, chronic displacement becomes a powderkeg in Afghanistan. IRIN visited one crowded district to find families fleeing both the Taliban and the Islamic State, breadwinners with no jobs, and aid groups running out of aid. “The future is somewhat bleak,” one aid worker told IRIN, in a restrained understatement about a province where one in three people is either displaced or a returned refugee.
Conflict drives this displacement – and a death toll that has continued to soar through the first three months of the year. The UN mission in Afghanistan recorded more than 2,250 deaths and injuries from armed conflict from January to March, according to newly released stats. These numbers reflect a decades-long escalation in conflict casualties:
(TOP PHOTO: View of the vote in favour of the draft resolution on Syria. CREDIT: Loey Felipe/UN Photo)