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Yemen regression, climate refuge, and a Rohingya genocide ruling: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

Government soldiers walk at the site of a missile attack on a military camp’s mosque in Marib.
Government soldiers at the site of a missile attack last week on a military camp’s mosque in Yemen's central province of Marib. At least 116 people were killed in the attack. (Ali Owidha/Reuters)

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

On our radar

150+ killed as Yemen war worsens again

This week saw a sudden uptick in violence in Yemen, as fierce fighting broke out between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and Houthi rebels in Nehm, around 60 kilometres north of the capital, Sana’a. At least 35 people were reportedly killed in Tuesday and Wednesday airstrikes, and the death toll appears to have risen even further after clashes spread closer to the capital. The skirmishes were prompted by a weekend missile attack on a mosque in a military camp in the central province of Marib, which Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi blamed on the Houthis, who control Nehm and Sana’a. The strike left at least 116 people dead, and comes as momentum looked to be growing for talks on de-escalation in Yemen’s war, which has seen more than 100,000 deaths since 2015 from violence alone, not to mention those from disease and hunger.

Climate asylum?

It’s being called “historic”, a landmark, and a “ground-breaking asylum case”. A UN human rights committee has ruled that countries can’t deport people whose “rights to life” are threatened by climate change at home. Amnesty International said the decision sets a global precedent, clearly linking asylum decisions with climate threats and rights obligations. What’s less clear, however, is how high the bar must be to invoke protection. The ruling concerned the high-profile case of Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific nation of Kiribati who unsuccessfully applied for refugee status in New Zealand, arguing his country was threatened by rising seas. The UN committee actually ruled against Teitiota’s claim – acknowledging the threats but reasoning that Kiribati was taking measures to protect and relocate its population. But the ruling also added that climate change may expose people to greater threats in the future, triggering “non-refoulement obligations”. In other words: countries may well have to protect asylum seekers fleeing climate threats – but not in this case. So what does this mean for people often called “climate refugees” – a term that doesn’t exist in international law? The ruling may have long-term implications, if few immediate impacts, said John Knox, the former UN rapporteur on human rights and the environment: “If the crisis continues to worsen, a similar case in a few years may reach a very different result.”

Myanmar ordered to stop ‘genocidal acts’

The International Court of Justice this week ordered Myanmar to protect its Rohingya minority from “genocidal acts” – the first time a global court has pronounced judgement against Myanmar since the 2017 military purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. The order from the UN’s top court is an emergency injunction in a larger case, launched by The Gambia last year, that accuses Myanmar of violating the Genocide Convention. That case will likely take years, but rights groups see Thursday’s interim ruling – meant to prevent further violence and preserve evidence – as a significant step in pressuring Myanmar. This week, Myanmar released a summary of its own enquiry on the Rohingya crisis: it acknowledged that soldiers may have committed “war crimes” but denied any “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya. In an opinion piece published in the Financial Times before the ICJ ruling, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, suggested international investigations have relied on “inaccurate or exaggerated information”, and called “for domestic justice to run its course” instead. For more, read our explainer on the three parallel attempts to bring accountability for the Rohingya purge.

PHEIC news

The mysterious coronavirus that has infected hundreds in China and spread to at least seven other countries is an emergency – but not yet a global health emergency, the World Health Organisation said this week, after two days of divisive meetings among a deadlocked expert panel. Declaring a PHEIC – or a public health emergency of international concern – may have helped focus global attention and led to WHO recommendations on how best to respond. But such rare declarations – there have only ever been five – can be controversial. Outbreak countries may fear the fallout from an emergency declaration could be worse than the actual disease. In calling for “a more nuanced system”, even the WHO’s emergency panel acknowledged the “restrictive, binary nature” of PHEICs. For now, the coronavirus continues to spread, forcing unprecedented city-wide quarantines at its epicentre in China’s Hubei Province. The WHO says it may reconvene its expert panel as the outbreak evolves, which might rehash the debate on another divisive issue: How do you pronounce PHEIC?


A tough 12 months, a tough road ahead

He invited armed groups to lay down their weapons a few weeks after his inauguration as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo one year ago today. But after his first 12 months in office Félix Antoine Tshisekedi is facing an uphill struggle as conflicts linger and some spread in the eastern regions of Beni, Ituri and South Kivu. To rein in the violence, Tshisekedi wants to invite the armies of neighbouring countries – Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda – into Congo to fight common enemies together. But mounting tensions between the three Great Lakes states – all of which back rebel groups in eastern Congo – could undermine the initiative, analysts warn, as could the engrained hostility many local residents have towards their neighbours after years of foreign meddling. On the domestic front, Tshisekedi has won some plaudits for releasing political prisoners, inviting exiles back home, and ending fees for primary school education. But his influence and vision remains compromised by the lingering power of former leader Joseph Kabila – who supposedly struck a back-room deal that put the new president in power. Interesting times ahead.


In case you missed it

LEBANON:  After months of political deadlock and amid a worsening economic crisis, Lebanon announced the formation of a new government on Tuesday. But anti-government protesters, who have been rallying since mid-October despite an increasingly heavy-handed crackdown by security forces, returned to the streets, saying the government failed to meet their demands.    

MEXICO/GUATEMALA: Mexico detained 800 migrants who had crossed its southern border with Guatemala on Thursday, as it aims to reduce northward migration following threats from US President Donald Trump to hike tariffs on Mexican imports if it does not. For more on the plight of African asylum seekers falling foul of these policy changes, read our recent story.    

SRI LANKA: Sri Lanka’s disappeared – many missing since or before the 26-year civil war ended in 2009 – are “actually dead” and their families will be issued death certificates, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said. It’s unclear how Rajapaksa’s statement will affect the fledgling Office on Missing Persons. Critics say Sri Lanka has failed to enact key post-war reconciliation promises, including properly investigating its missing thousands

SUDAN/SOUTH SUDAN: At least 19 people were killed in an attack by suspected nomadic Misseriya herders on a Dinka village in the disputed Abyei region on the Sudan-South Sudan border. The final death toll could be as high as 32, with about 15 people – including children – abducted.

WINTER: Severe weather is driving up humanitarian needs in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. More than 100 people have died from avalanches and landslides in Pakistan this month; parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region are accessible only by air. Harsh weather in Afghanistan is interrupting aid delivery in Badghis province, including to people who were previously displaced. And heavy rain has triggered floods and widespread damage in southeast Iran.


Weekend read

In eastern Burkina Faso, spreading violence and little international aid

In 2019, jihadist and intercommunal violence raged and spread across three Sahelian countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. It’s arguably in the former where the statistics are most stark: 1,784 schools and 230 health centres across Burkina Faso forced to close; the number of internally displaced people increasing 12-fold, from 47,029 to 560,000. And the situation looks unlikely to improve in 2020. This week, militants killed 36 civilians at a market in northern Burkina Faso, while the parliament passed a controversial measure to give state backing to vigilante groups trying to repel the jihadists. Our weekend read looks at the fast-deteriorating situation in the east of the country, where violence has been spreading from the north. In December, journalist Sam Mednick found little assistance for those displaced and a growing sense of desperation.

And finally...

Green is the new black

Davos, that crucible of plutocracy, can be an unfamiliar and awkwardly uncomfortable habitat for relief workers. The past involvement of The New Humanitarian hasn't been without a bit of cringe. In no particular order, here are some points from the World Economic Forum's annual event – heavy on environmental discussions this year – that caught our eye:


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