South Sudan slippage, preferential US aid, and a high-profile UN resignation: The Cheat Sheet

Leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement In Opposition (SPLM-IO) Riek Machar shakes hands with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir in Entebbe, Uganda, 7 November 2019.
Leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement In Opposition (SPLM-IO) Riek Machar shakes hands with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir in Entebbe, Uganda, 7 November 2019. (Reuters)

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

On our radar

A peace postponed in South Sudan

President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar have agreed to delay the formation of a coalition government in South Sudan by 100 days beyond a 12 November deadline, giving time for regional efforts to resolve outstanding disagreements. These include the creation of a new unified national army and the number of new states to be created and their borders – issues that threatened to wreck the peace deal negotiated last year. “The key question is what will change during this 100 days? They’ve already had more than a year and achieved virtually nothing of substance,” said analyst Klem Ryan. But amid concerns that no agreement could have led to the collapse of the current ceasefire, Alan Boswell of the International Crisis Group said the extension “veers us off the cliff edge”. But, he added, “we must see sustained political mediation at [the] highest levels to move this forward”. The year-long ceasefire has allowed the country’s tentative recovery after five years of war, but problems persist, including the lack of press freedom. In the run-up to next week’s deadline, several journalists have been thrown out of the country for their coverage of events. One was regular TNH contributor Sam Mednick.

‘Penced off’

The American aid department USAID has allegedly been pressured by US Vice-President Mike Pence into making grants to benefit minorities in Iraq in ways that risk violating the law. According to a report from ProPublica, a package of $4 million of grants announced in October included funds for two politically sensitive nonprofits rejected for funding last year: the Catholic University in Erbil and the Shlama Foundation. ProPublica reports that a senior USAID official was pushed out after funds didn’t go to Iraqi groups favoured by Pence in 2018. Insiders then coined a phrase: Middle East USAID official Maria Longi had been "Penced". USAID has boosted support for religious minorities under the Trump administration. So far, despite being legally restrained from favouring any religion over another, this support has largely been for non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority countries. As TNH reported in August, US funds going to help Christians and Yazidis in Iraq could "breed resentment" if it is seen as disproportionate to others and these changes are part of wider moves to reshape USAID spending. USAID told ProPublica all its grants were awarded in line with the rules.

More trouble at UNRWA

Things haven’t been going too well for the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA. First, as we reported last year, President Donald Trump halted some $350 million of US funding, putting education, medical care, camp housing, and other services at risk for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees living in the occupied territories and the wider Middle East. Filling that gap has been a major problem, and now the commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, has resigned after an inquiry found “managerial issues that need to be addressed”. A July report from Al Jazeera said UNRWA’s internal ethics body had submitted a report accusing the agency’s leadership of “abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives”. The UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which took up the inquiry, has not finished its work or revealed what it has found. Given this week’s events, we assume it’s serious.

Rice and landslide risks

Flooding fields to grow rice, a common irrigation technique, worsened deadly landslides and soil liquefaction during last year’s earthquake and tsunami disaster in Palu, Indonesia, according to a new study. The research, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, warns of previously unknown landslide risks in other earthquake-prone areas. More than 4,800 people died after earthquakes and tsunami waves struck Palu in Central Sulawesi. Many of the casualties came from soil liquefaction – where stretches of land turned to liquid and engulfed entire neighbourhoods. Researchers found nearly all the landslides emerged along a single line – an aqueduct used to flood rice fields. Damage maps showed the worst of the impacts occurred mainly in heavily irrigated areas – researchers believe landslides wouldn’t have happened without this intensive irrigation. While the study underscores there are worrying new risks, it’s also an opportunity to prevent future disasters through better agricultural planning: “This is a human-caused hazard, and it can have a human solution,” the lead author said.

30 years for Congolese warlord

He was nicknamed “The Terminator” for his role in orchestrating a series of gruesome massacres in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s northeastern Ituri province in 2002 and 2003. Now, 17 years later, Bosco Ntaganda, former commander of the Union of Congolese Patriots militia – and a one-time army general – will finally pay for his sins after judges at the International Criminal Court sentenced him to 30 years in prison for 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ntaganda was once considered a symbol of international impunity as he strolled around eastern Congo’s main city of Goma – enjoying expensive restaurants and tennis courts – despite a 2006 ICC arrest warrant. In 2012, he founded a new rebel group known as M23, but a year later, as his support base dwindled, he surrendered to the American embassy in Rwanda. Discussions will soon begin on reparations for the warlord’s many victims, though back in Ituri – scene of some of his worst crimes – conflicts are flaring and humanitarian needs are rising once again.

In case you missed it

BURKINA FASO: Three days of national mourning has been declared following an ambush on Wednesday on a mining company convoy that killed 38 people and left 60 wounded. Nobody has claimed responsibility, but the tactics – a bomb attack on the military escorts – suggests Islamist insurgents. France has announced it will be sending ground troops to Burkina Faso to support the embattled government.

ETHIOPIA: A locust outbreak is worsening and could spread to neighbouring Kenya, Eritrea and Sudan, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned. Farms in the regions of Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, and Somali regional states have been affected, with some farmers in Amhara facing a complete loss of teff, a staple crop.

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Israel’s supreme court said Tuesday that the government can proceed with the deportation of Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s director for Israel and Palestine. Israel’s interior ministry had previously refused to renew Shakir’s visa because they said the US citizen had advocated for a boycott of the country, a position the watchdog “vigorously contested”.

SOMALIA: More than 540,000 people have been affected by floods in southern Somalia with farmland, infrastructure, and roads destroyed in the worst-hit areas. Some 370,000 people have been forced to leave their homes for higher ground. Many of the open-air makeshift camps lack clean water, sanitation, and food supplies – and the rains are continuing.

THAILAND: Gunmen in the restive south killed 15 people at a security checkpoint. Violence in the south, where disparate Malay Muslim insurgents have clashed with security forces in Buddhist-majority Thailand, has killed at least 7,000 people in the last 15 years (and more than 200 people in 2018).

YEMEN: The Yemeni government and United Arab Emirates-backed southern separatists signed an agreement on Tuesday that aims to end a months-long standoff over the city of Aden between supposed allies in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels. The deal calls for an Aden-based cabinet with an equal number of members from the country’s north and south, and for fighters from the powerful Southern Transitional Council to be absorbed into Yemen’s national army.

Weekend read

Aid workers question USAID counter-terror clause in Nigeria

A malnourished child is brought into your camp and urgently needs food or treatment. You’re an aid worker, but you can’t help them. Why? Because they might have been “formerly affiliated” with violent extremists, and first you need to call a supervisor in Washington and check it’s ok. Our weekend read looks at the new counter-terror clause USAID has foisted upon aid agencies operating in northeast Nigeria. It’s not just impractical, aid workers say, it also violates humanitarian principles and could put them in harm’s way if they start screening for Boko Haram militants and their neutrality is jeopardised. USAID is the biggest donor by far in Nigeria, but UNICEF has already turned down funding because of the new clause.

And finally...

‘The people’s weatherman’

U Tun Lwin, a popular Myanmar meteorologist whose prescient warnings of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 fell on deaf ears, died on Monday, his family announced. He was 71. Tun Lwin headed Myanmar’s meteorology department in May 2008 when he tracked and warned of the storm barging toward his country. Facing a referendum on a new constitution, however, the military junta controlling Myanmar refused mass evacuations and did not issue public warnings. Nargis would be recorded as one of the world’s deadliest-ever storms, killing more than 130,000 people. Tun Lwin retired a year later and became an outspoken advocate for disaster preparedness and climate change awareness, maintaining a Facebook page where he issued daily forecasts. In a remembrance published this week, an editor with The Irrawaddy newspaper called Tun Lwin “the people’s weatherman”, relied on by farmers and city-dwellers alike: “When people experienced gusts of wind or were drenched by unseasonal rains, they would ask each other, ‘Has U Tun Lwin said something about it?’”

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