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UN challenges, Myanmar crimes, and banker bonuses: The Cheat Sheet

(Manuel Elias/UN Photo)

Here’s the IRIN team’s weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


On our radar:

Dim hopes for progress at the UNGA


As the UN General Assembly kicks off on Monday, we’re watching keenly, but not expectantly, for anything other than the usual soundbites. Our UN correspondent tells us that following the publication of a damning UN investigation into alleged atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine State last year there’s hope that a strong and unified message of condemnation might help efforts to pave the way toward justice. (For why the UN might want to be careful what it wishes for, see below). Otherwise, he says, there appears to be a sense of resignation in the air in New York: on climate change, human rights, and long-running conflicts. An eleventh-hour truce did stave off an offensive on the Syrian rebels’ final stronghold of Idlib, and for three million people in the northwestern province a demilitarised buffer zone agreed this week by Turkey and Russia offers some respite. Yet world leaders appear largely powerless to intervene in the longer term. Same goes for Yemen, where thousands of civilian lives are again at risk as a siege resumes (see below) on the Houthi rebel-held port of Hodeidah. The sombre mood is perhaps why there’s been little fanfare ahead of the gathering from Secretary-General António Guterres: only vague calls for greater “urgency” and commitment to a “rules-based global order”. Multilateralism has taken a battering from Washington in the last two years, with the US withdrawing first from the Paris climate accord and then from the Iran nuclear deal. On Thursday, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley previewed US President Donald Trump's completely unsurprising theme for this year: sovereignty – a favourite, coincidentally, of Russia and China. “We want to continue to build a relationship with those that do share those values,” said Haley. One concrete endeavour will see UN member states vote on the final draft of the new global compact on refugees. Completely non-binding and derided by some as a rich countries’ deal, it is still one of the most significant international agreements on refugees in decades. Look out for more on that next week along with our picks on humanitarian trends to watch at this year’s UNGA.


IRIN’s Director Heba Aly is among those converging on New York. On Thursday, she chaired a discussion at the launch of a new initiative to help refugees become more self-reliant: watch the video here and check the initiative’s 10-point challenge to policymakers and donors. Next week, she’ll be exploring issues as diverse (and lofty!) as “How to Save Democracy” and how to address fragility as a driver of extreme poverty, mass migration, and violent extremism. Both discussions will be live-streamed, so feel free to tune in.


Who’s accountable in Myanmar?


Looming large at the UNGA will be the atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces. After calling for top military commanders to be investigated for genocide, the UN-mandated rights probe this week presented its final report before the Human Rights Council. The 444-page tome presents the investigation’s evidence of violations stretching from Myanmar’s northern borderlands to Rakhine State in the west, where some 725,000 minority Rohingya were driven from the country last year. But investigators believe the military isn’t the only party that should be held accountable: in a 10-page section on “responsibility”, the report devotes nearly two pages to the international community – in particular, the UN itself. The investigators say UN officials in the country failed to hold the government to account for years of rights violations building up to last year’s exodus, and also sidelined people within the UN who wished to a push a more rights-focused approach. Investigators are renewing their calls for an inquiry into UN actions in Myanmar, but they say there has been shockingly little appetite for introspection within the system. Despite last year’s catastrophe, there has been no internal review looking at how to improve the UN approach, and investigators say a number of UN staffers in the country didn’t cooperate with the rights probe. They “appeared to view it as a threat, rather than a means to address the most deep-rooted human rights challenges facing Myanmar,” the report noted.


ICC examination: moving beyond deportation


Speaking of accountability, the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, this week announced she would open a preliminary examination into the Rohingya purge. Even though Myanmar is not a member of the war crimes court, Bensouda had earlier convinced ICC judges that the court could still investigate anti-Rohingya violence, since part of one particular alleged crime – deportation – occurred in Bangladesh, which is a member of the court. Rights groups and Rohingya refugees themselves have argued that investigating deportation alone isn’t enough to account for the scale of last year’s violence. But in her announcement this week, Bensouda also said her examination would consider other crimes against humanity. Read more on Bensouda’s unorthodox legal challenge here.


Aid donors face annual report card


An annual survey out this week from the Center for Global Development checks whether richer countries are making a serious contribution to the betterment of other nations. The Commitment to Development Index doesn’t just look at aid, but ranks efforts in migration, trade, investment, security (including the arms trade), technology, and the environment. The Nordics come out well, Germany is ranked equal third, and, well, let’s just say the United States has dropped a few places since last year.



In case you missed it:


HODEIDAH, Yemen: After another round of UN-mediated peace talks failed to take off in Geneva, the battle for the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah has resumed. Aid groups are once again warning that the battle will be disastrous, with water already in short supply and famine still a threat. Here’s a helpful briefing from International Crisis Group on the politics at play and the likely fallout.


ISLAMABAD: The future of some 2.4 million refugees and undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan remains volatile. This week, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, pledged to grant citizenship to Afghan refugees – only to backtrack on his promise two days later after a political backlash. Pakistan has long been a refuge for Afghans, but that welcome has worn thin. Hundreds of thousands are pushed out of the country in deportation drives each year. Those numbers have fallen this year, yet the government has set multiple deadlines for Afghans to leave. The most recent deadline is fast approaching: 30 September.


LAKE VICTORIA: At least 136 people have drowned and dozens more are missing and feared dead after a ferry overturned near the largest island in Lake Victoria, east Africa. Tanzanian officials say the aging, overcrowded MV Nyerere capsized on Thursday afternoon, the latest in a string of similar incidents going back to 1996, when some 800 people died.


SOUTH SUDAN: An Amnesty International report out this week accuses the South Sudanese government and allied militias of carrying out "war crimes" of "staggering brutality" during an offensive earlier this year. The report slams the government for continuing to give the perpetrators free rein to commit fresh atrocities in Leer and Mayendit counties.


One to listen to:

No nos compete


Here’s a treat for our Spanish-speaking (and -listening) readers: an episode from the NPR podcast Radio Ambulante, focusing on the aftermath of the earthquake that hit central Mexico last September, killing more than 360 people and forcing more than 100,000 to flee their homes (other impact estimates are significantly higher). The episode – “No nos compete” (It’s not our problem) – focuses on the efforts to rebuild schools. Originally, the government said the quake left 13,000 schools with some sort of damage, including 577 totally destroyed. They estimated rebuilding would cost $680 million. Later, those figures were confusingly revised to 20,000 damaged, 210 destroyed, and $1 billion for reconstruction. The Radio Ambulante team unpacks a confusing, bureaucratic process, and finds some students returning to their studies this year in tents. And for English-speakers, here’s a translation.

Our weekend read:

Reporter’s Diary: Back to Lesvos


The Moria detention centre on the otherwise idyllic Greek island of Lesvos houses some 9,000 people in a facility built for one third of that number. No surprise then that it’s a complete mess, with raw sewage running out of its main entrance and the regional government threatening to close it down unless the Greek government improves conditions fast. Well, it hasn’t done that, but it has belatedly begun to ease the pressure, this very morning transferring a first group of 100 asylum seekers to the mainland amid promises to relocate 2,000 by the end of the month. In our weekend read, regular IRIN contributor Eric Reidy gives his reflections on returning to Moria two years after he first reported from Lesvos, during the height of the mass exodus across the Aegean in 2016. The first in an ongoing series from our correspondents in the field, his reporter’s diary offers a telling personal perspective on issues not just ignored but “amplified by time and neglect” and allowed to “break people down”.

And finally:

Codepink funk on Fink

Giant investment manager BlackRock has decided to place a big bet: on sustainability. In a January letter to company CEOs, the firm’s boss, Larry Fink, wrote that every company must “show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” His views carry some clout: BlackRock controls $6 trillion. On 1 November, the NGO International Rescue Committee plans to give him its John C. Whitehead Humanitarian Award – which “honors the value of civic engagement” – at a fundraising dinner. In 2016, the IRC, led by Briton David Miliband, gave the award to the family of a banker, John Mack, and appointed him as a director. Activists Codepink are campaigning against Fink’s award, pointing out that BlackRock has holdings in (and profits from) arms companies that cause suffering.


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