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Data deadlock, Myanmar failure, and persistent pirates: The Cheat Sheet

Photo of man with gun and fist in the air in a crowd doing similar Mohammed Huwais/AFP
Yemenis demonstrate during a protest against the suspension of aid provided by the World Food Program in front of United Nations' office in the capital Sana’a on 19 June 2019.

Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

No data, no food: WFP halts aid in parts of Yemen

The World Food Programme (WFP) appears to be making good on an ultimatum it delivered to Houthi rebels in Yemen earlier this week: WFP announced Thursday night that it “has started a partial suspension of food assistance operations” to areas of the country the rebels control, beginning in the capital, Sana’a. In a statement, the WFP said food distributions would be halted to 850,000 people in that city, after negotiations over a biometric registration system the agency says would prevent aid fraud went down to the wire and ultimately failed. The Houthis argue that the biometrics plan runs against national security interests; read our recent article to get the whole story. Pretty much every party in Yemen’s more than four-year war has been accused of wrongdoing, and that includes the Saudi Arabia and UAE-led coalition fighting the Houthis. On Thursday, the UK court of appeals ruled that it was unlawful to continue issuing arms licenses to Saudi Arabia, in a victory for campaigners who argue that British weapons have been used to violate international law. The UK government has temporarily suspended the approval of new arms sales to the kingdom, but plans to appeal the decision.

Piracy worries off West African coast

Although global piracy incidents fell in the first quarter of 2019, West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea remains the world’s most dangerous spot, with 58 percent of recorded attacks, according to the International Maritime Bureau. That’s a continuation of a trend from 2018, when the Gulf of Guinea led the world in piracy and armed robbery, with a doubling of serious attacks in the waters between Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Worldwide in 2018, the region accounted for all six recorded hijackings, 13 of the 18 ships fired upon, 130 of the 141 hostages held, and 78 of 83 seafarers kidnapped for ransom. The coastline off Nigeria saw the most attacks, partly because of "petro-piracy", targeting tankers from Nigeria's rich oil and gas fields. In the first quarter of 2019, Nigerian navy patrols have helped cut the piracy incidents down to 14 from 22 over the same period in 2018. But there seems to be a link between crises on land – from poverty to governmental neglect – that can drive criminality at sea.

All talk, no action on ‘systemic failure’ of UN in Myanmar?

Dysfunctional, impotent, a systemic failure: An internal review of UN actions in Myanmar casts a wide net in analysing conduct in the lead-up to the military purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya in 2017. But it doesn’t lay blame on individual staff or organisations – a key shortcoming, rights groups say. Released this week, the review by Guatemalan diplomat Gert Rosenthal cites “bureaucratic and unseemly infighting” among UN staff divided over how to engage with Myanmar. That created a damaging schism in what insiders were calling a “glaringly dysfunctional” mission months before the Rohingya exodus. Rosenthal said UN inaction in Myanmar “truly can be characterised as a systemic failure of the United Nations”. But Human Rights Watch called Rosenthal’s report “a check-the-box exercise” that fails to hold the system, or specific individuals, accountable. Rights groups have long urged the UN to take a stronger stance in Myanmar, and the question of how to engage with the government, which denies any wrongdoing in its treatment of the Rohingya, is a frequent internal debate for aid groups.

Church-state clash over healthcare in Eritrea

In Eritrea, 22 clinics run by the Catholic church have been shut down by the government, the Congress of Eritrean Bishops stated in a letter to the minister of health. (An unconfirmed translation of the letter is here.) The bishops deemed the 12 June move “unreasonable”, noting in the letter that patients had been sent home and property seized. The government has not offered an official reason for the shutdowns, but analysts told the BBC the action may be retaliation for calls for political reforms in the one-party state, adding that the government sets limits on the provision of healthcare outside the public sector. In an unusual public statement, one of the bishops, Fikremariam Hagos, used a sermon to voice protest against the shutdowns. If recent history is any guide, it will take more than that sermon, or the open letter by African intellectuals and activists, or the social media campaign dubbed “Enough” (#Yiakl), to rattle 28-year president Isaias Afwerki. Statistics on public health in Eritrea are extremely limited, but one study found that the Red Sea state has a total of just 343 primary-level health facilities for a population of more than 5 million.

In case you missed it

CHINA: Heavy rains and floods in southern China this month have killed more than 88 people and forced the evacuation of more than 380,000, the UN says. Disaster management authorities report extensive damage to farmland.

DRC: The Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of the Congo has stretched already limited capacity to tackle other emergencies. In the eastern province of North Kivu, health workers responding to the Ebola epidemic have stopped routine measles vaccines. Measles has claimed 1,815 lives so far this year.

LIBYA: The UN-backed government in Libya said it is launching a new peace initiative for the country and hopes to hold elections by the end of the year. Fighting in and around the capital city of Tripoli has showed no signs of halting since early April, displacing more than 93,000 people and leading to at least 42 civilian deaths.

PERU: Record numbers of Venezuelans have crossed into Peru from Ecuador ahead of new requirements for all migrants to have passports and visas from 15 June. More than 8,000 Venezuelans crossed the day before the measures came into effect. The measures are intended to stem a flow that has seen almost 800,000 Venezuelans enter in recent years, fleeing economic collapse and political dysfunction.

SUDAN: Sudan’s Transitional Military Council has called for an unconditional resumption of talks with pro-democracy activists. Dialogue between the TMC and the Forces for Freedom and Change stalled before collapsing altogether when security forces attacked a protest camp in Khartoum on 3 June, killing more than 100 demonstrators. The proposed talks are expected to be mediated by Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed.

Weekend read

European activists fight back against ‘criminalisation’ of aid for migrants and refugees

From Italy to the Balkans to Hungary, policies intended to discourage migrants and refugees have grown in recent years. Another trend has been emerging too: an increase in legal moves to crack down on those providing assistance – including NGOs performing search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, volunteers in Greece and elsewhere, or people who provide transportation, food, and shelter to asylum seekers. Want to know more? Take some time for our weekend read, where Eric Reidy drills down into the root of the problem: a rather obscure EU directive from way back in 2002 called the “Facilitators’ Package”. Activists say it gives individual states far too much leeway to prosecute people for what one describes as “simple acts of decency”. Efforts are afoot to gather enough data on arrests and prosecutions to persuade the EU to change tack, but even the initiative’s supporters admit they face an uphill battle in the current political climate.

And finally...

‘So basically, you just came here to waste our time collecting our opinions’

UN-appointed rights investigations relay findings to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but does the information ever trickle down to the very people affected? In September, a UN rights probe will present its final report on abuses in Myanmar. One recommendation will be to require all future Human Rights Council investigations to report their findings directly to affected people. “We are also accountable to the people who trusted us with their stories,” Chris Sidoti, a member of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, told TNH. Sidoti believes this would be a first for any UN investigation. Should academic research carry similar obligations? Writing on Oxfam’s From Poverty to Power blog, researcher Christian Chiza Kashurha says study participants frequently ask him when they’ll get to see the results. But this is rarely factored into project designs and budgets. “The communities in which we carry out research projects must be informed of our findings; they must be given a stake in the research results,” he writes. “Otherwise, what is the point of research?”

(TOP PHOTO: Yemenis demonstrate during a protest against the suspension of aid provided by the World Food Program in front of United Nations' office in the capital Sana’a on 19 June 2019.)


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