Top Picks: Rape, rules of engagement, and the missing Rohingya

Basara IDP camp near Sittway, Myanmar Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. Recent tension in Myanmar have forced thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims into makeshift camps
Basara IDP camp near Sittway, Myanmar Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. Recent tension in Myanmar have forced thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims into makeshift camps (David Longstreath/IRIN)

Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates.

Six to read:

Rape as a tool of war

Everyone is reading this shocking report on South Sudan’s conflict by the UN Human Rights Office, cataloguing a state-sponsored campaign of targeted killings, rape and plunder. During five months in 2015, the UN recorded more than 1,300 rapes in just one of South Sudan’s 10 states. But this is dwarfed by the staggering 200,000 rapes of women and young girls the UN regards to be a conservative estimate for the last 15 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This fact is highlighted in TIME magazine’s cover story, which starts in South Sudan but also refers to Iraq and Syria and particularly Congo: “the rape capital of the world”. One Congolese clinic still treats between 1,300 and 1,900 women a year, even though the war officially ended a decade ago. Many women suffer horrific physical injuries that leave them shunned from their communities. But it is the invisible wounds, a gynaecologist explains, that are far more devastating and far harder to repair.

For French-speakers, Swiss daily Le Temps features testimony from Doctor Mukwege, or “L’homme qui repare les femmes” (The man who repairs women). In the past 15 years, he has treated tens of thousands of Congolese rape victims. The level of depravity, he believes, is getting worse. “I see more and more rapes on children, on babies, sometimes less than 12 months old; it’s becoming more common.”

And to understand the journey that follows rape, from seeking justice and acceptance within one's community to finding a way to heal, watch our powerful story of Ziborah Iala, a rape survivor in Kenya.

Where are they now?

Almost a year ago the world’s attention focused briefly on Southeast Asia’s Andaman Sea. Thousands of Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingyas from Myanmar were stranded on the open water after smugglers abandoned their boats amidst a crackdown on human smuggling and trafficking networks. Countries in the region initially refused to rescue them, relenting only after an international outcry. So, what happened to the migrants who made it ashore? This report contains the results of an investigation by two human rights groups, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK and Fortify Rights. In Thailand, migrants including children have been detained indefinitely in overcrowded cells, while Malaysia has provided the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, only “extremely limited” access to survivors of the boat crisis.

Childhood under siege

With talks to end Syria’s war set to begin again next week, this report on minors under siege from the charity Save the Children is a stark reminder of why humanitarian access should never be a bargaining chip. Interviews and focus groups with aid workers and Syrians living under siege provide a harrowing snapshot of what this war has wrought. The group estimates that a quarter of a million children live in besieged areas, and the testimonials collected here tell of malnourished children so desperate that some are eating animal feed, with many suffering from illnesses that would be preventable and treatable with proper medical care. Young people are forced into adult responsibility too soon, missing school, and are psychologically worse off for it. These children – the most vulnerable of an already devastated population – are hungry, sick, and need sustained humanitarian access. Providing it, the charity rightly argues, should be a priority.

Tackling Tough Calls

Hostile intent – those two words proved critical to the scale of civilian casualties amid US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001-2014. According to their rules of engagement, US troops have the right to fire in self-defense when they face hostile intent, defined as “a threat of imminent use of force”. But problems interpreting that phrase have led to deadly mistakes. As the US takes the fight to the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and increasingly trains and supports other countries’ security forces, this report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School draws lessons from past US operations “to encourage military reflection and reform”. It concludes that the definition of hostile intent is “dangerously broad”, allowing too much subjectivity, and – in addition to more specific tactical guidelines – calls for training, leadership, and engagement with locals as proven ways of reducing errors and thus saving lives.


Despite the policy focus on migration, there is a dearth of data and information about the routes and methods that migrants use to reach their destinations. Journeys are often facilitated by smugglers, making their movements difficult to track and monitor. Thanks to a project called the Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism (4mi), created by the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, we now have access to one year’s worth of data on the movements of migrants from the Horn of Africa within and out of the region. The project, which is well visualised with helpful maps and infographics, used a network of local monitors stationed at migration hubs who interviewed migrants and smugglers and submitted their responses using a mobile phone. They gathered detailed information about the profiles of the migrants, their reasons for migrating, their intended destinations and routes, as well as the smuggling business itself.

Accounting for disaster

From floods to droughts and cyclones to earthquakes, Asia and the Pacific were hit hard by natural disasters last year. In fact, almost half of the world’s 344 disasters occurred in the region, according to this report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. South Asia suffered in particular, accounting for 64 percent of global fatalities, mostly due to an earthquake in Nepal that killed almost 9,000 people. So what can be done to minimise risk in “the world’s most disaster-prone region”? At the top of the list of recommendations is building resilience in urban areas, where about 742 million city-dwellers live in areas of extreme or high disaster risk.

One to watch:

Nasty weather we’re having

The good news about the current El Niño – one of the worst seen in over a decade, causing widespread floods and drought – is that climate temperatures should revert to normal by the middle of the year. The other, perhaps good news – depending on whether you’re a glass half full/empty kind of person – is that the chances of a La Niña, the opposite and also pretty horrible weather phenomenon, is about 50/50 for 2016.

Aside from those rays of hope, it’s been a relentlessly grim time for farmers in many parts of the world; and it’s going to continue to be bad for the rest of the year, according to this presentation by FEWS NET, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

Thirty-two out of the 35 countries it monitors will have populations facing crisis or worse – acute – food insecurity, by August 2016. The greatest number of people in need will be in Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen. It’s not just about the weather: conflict will make things a good deal worse.

One from IRIN:

Spies Sans Frontières?

In case you missed it, this months-long investigation by IRIN Editor-at-Large Obi Anyadike into the secretive intelligence-linked firm Palantir reveals a cosying up to aid organisations large and small. The Silicon Valley "unicorn" is exploring the non-profit sector as hedge against a decline in counter-terrorism opportunities. But how close is too close? Find out how UN nuclear watchdog IAEA, dealing with Iran and North Korea, has contracted Palantir at rock-bottom rates, and how it was close to a role in the UN's Ebola response, but walked away.

Coming up:

Five years on, what’s next for Syria – Tuesday, 15 March

This Tuesday bears the unwelcome distinction of marking the 5th anniversary of a conflict that has taken more than 250,000 lives and forced 12 million people from their homes. The Overseas Development Institute marks it with an event discussing the impact of the war on Syrians, and exploring how to look beyond short-term aid to help them rebuild and recover. Bringing together Syrian aid workers, observers and humanitarian officials, speakers include former UN Syria coordinator Nigel Fisher and experts Rana Khalaf, Jon Bennett, and Wesan Sabanneh.

Register to attend the 1600-1730 GMT event or sign up for the live-stream here:

Book launch:

Saving lives and staying alive – Thursday, 17 March

Aid workers are more and more in danger, more likely to be targeted by armed groups, and need to professionalise their approach to risk. Right? Well, not exactly. MSF's affiliate think tank, CRASH, is releasing a book that puts some of these widely-held assumptions about aid worker security to the test. The conventional wisdom needs to be tested and challenged, and given MSF's recent losses, who better to take a fresh look at the safety of humanitarian workers?

Register to come along to the London launch (1830-2000 GMT) here:


Share this article
Join the discussion

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.