Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Rumours, crackdowns, and tackling the coronavirus ‘infodemic’
A glut of information – some of it misleading or false – is fuelling an “infodemic” around the coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organisation says. But some governments are responding with heavy-handed measures, using controversial “fake news” laws to crack down on misinformation. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, or APHR, says some Southeast Asian nations are pursuing excessive prosecutions against citizens accused of spreading false information about the virus, which has sickened at least 63,000 people, mainly in China, and spread to at least two dozen countries. In some cases, prosecutions hinge on laws that could be used to censure anti-government critics. APHR is calling on governments to boost emergency health campaigns and media literacy instead. In many at-risk countries, local Red Cross societies have prioritised public communications campaigns meant to stave off rumours and panic. But in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak, quarantined residents still sift through rumours to find the facts: “I do not know where to turn for information anymore,” one resident told TNH. Read more on why Chinese volunteers are sidestepping official aid channels.
A new strategy for tackling jihadists: Dialogue?
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has said efforts are being made to initiate dialogue with jihadist groups, as violence continues to rise in the West African country. In an interview with French media on Monday, the president – known as IBK – said "the number of deaths in the Sahel is becoming exponential and it's time that certain paths be explored”. The idea of negotiating with extremists has gained ground among some Malians and Sahel analysts in recent years, but the government and its partners have so far opted for military action against the al-Qaeda- and so-called Islamic State-linked groups. Two jihadist leaders have reportedly been approached by a representative of IBK: Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of a coalition of Islamist groups known as JNIM, and Amadou Koufa, the head of central Mali’s Katiba Macina group. Koufa has been responsible for much of the turmoil in Mali in recent years, stoking tensions between ethnic groups that led to more than 400 deaths in 2019 alone, according to a report published this week by Human Rights Watch. How far the dialogue goes remains to be seen. Jean-Hervé Jezequel, West Africa project director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) told AFP the announcement was just a “first step”, pointing towards fraught US-Taliban negotiations as an example of the tests that may lie ahead.
No let-up in Libya
The UN Security Council demanded a “lasting ceasefire” in Libya on Wednesday, but despite the resolution – not to mention recent negotiations in Geneva – the country appears to be continuing its 10-month downward spiral. The UN said its regular flights transporting staff in and out of the country had been stopped by the Libyan National Army. Led by general Khalifa Haftar, the LNA has been fighting the internationally recognised government and the militias that back it in and around Tripoli since April. Clashes have forced some 150,000 people to flee their homes and put many civilians, including detained migrants and refugees, in the line of fire. Human Rights Watch said Thursday that Haftar’s forces had used cluster munitions in a residential part of the capital on 2 December, and the UN’s Mine Action Service (UNMAS) said the recent fighting had left many cities “re-contaminated” with unexploded ordnance – in a country that already has the “the world’s largest uncontrolled ammunitions stockpile”.
‘The criminalisation of migration’
A blistering report published this week by Médecins Sans Frontières takes aim squarely at the governments of Mexico and the United States for migration policies it says have effectively criminalised hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing gang violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Almost half (45.8 percent) of those interviewed at MSF healthcare posts in Mexico between May and June 2018 mentioned at least one violent event as a key reason for deciding to migrate. And yet “migration policies based on criminalisation, deterrence and containment are prompting Central American migrants to choose increasingly dangerous options to get to the US,” the report says. For more on how migrants and asylum seekers are being impacted, read our briefing: The fallout of US migration policies in Mexico and Central America.
19 years listed
Somalia-based finance and telecoms group Al-Barakaat was removed from US sanctions listings this week, after 19 years. When the firm, accused by the US of terrorist links, was largely forced out of business after 9/11, millions of Somalis lost access to money transfer, phone, and internet services, causing social and economic disruption. The US move came long after others, including the EU, where Barakaat had challenged the restrictions under European law. The UN had delisted most of the Barakaat group and its officials in 2008. As an expert on the effects of terrorism legislation pointed out recently, getting off a US sanctions list is hard: Nelson Mandela was removed in 2008. He had been elected president of post-apartheid South Africa in 1994.
In case you missed it
CAMEROON: Some 8,000 people have fled Cameroon’s two western regions for Nigeria over the past two weeks, following an increase in attacks by separatist groups who called for a boycott of last Sunday’s parliamentary and municipal elections. Fighting between Cameroon’s security forces and the anglophone rebels – who are demanding independence – has now displaced more than 740,000 people.
LOCUSTS: Swarms of voracious desert locusts reached the northern tips of Uganda and Tanzania this week, and are threatening to spread even further, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warned. The swarms are the largest in east Africa in several decades and have devastated crops in a region where tens of millions of people already face extreme hunger.
MYANMAR: At least 19 students were injured when an artillery shell hit a school in Buthidaung township in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Reuters reported. Renewed clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, have displaced tens of thousands over the last year, and rights groups say civilian casualties are rising.
SUDAN: Former president Omar al-Bashir may be handed over to the International Criminal Court under a new agreement between the government and rebel groups. The deposed strongman – currently jailed in Khartoum – has flouted an ICC arrest warrant since 2009. He is accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed since 2003.
SYRIA: Nearly 832,000 people have been forced to flee northwest Syria in the last two and a half months, and freezing temperatures are compounding an already desperate situation. Many people are sleeping in camps, tents, unfinished buildings, or even out in the open, and several children are already reported to have died from exposure to the cold. Check out our roundup for more.
YEMEN: Obstruction of approvals, funds, and travel is “paralysing” the humanitarian response (see below). Now a report from food security experts suggests the figures on which the aid operation is based are weak and distorted as well. Patchy data is also open to “undue influence” by Yemeni authorities and “self-censorship” by aid groups. The report has no easy answers: “Numbers can be downplayed and exaggerated at the same time”, it says.
Our weekend read from Senior Editor Ben Parker and Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod looks at US and UK threats to slash aid in Yemen. Did they make an impact on the rebel leadership? Since we published, this story has grown legs. According to UN and NGO officials who requested anonymity, after the two countries protested extensive interference and obstruction of aid, the rebel Houthi authorities appear ready to back down on a proposed two percent tax on aid funds. They may also replace a shipment of recently confiscated UN food. But the tax was never enforced, and the UN has heard assurances of humanitarian reform before: the World Food Programme has been in talks since December 2018 to set up a new biometric register of aid recipients to stem fraud, and have yet to start even a pilot phase. A summary of two days of crunch talks in Brussels on aid diversion, obtained by TNH, shows that donors and aid groups will be looking for a lot more: “All restrictions, obstructions and interferences violating humanitarian principles should be sustainably removed immediately and once and for all,” it says.
‘Me, like Trump?’
Italian senators voted this week to lift the immunity of the far-right leader of Italy’s Northern League party, Matteo Salvini, paving the way for him to be prosecuted over allegations he illegally kept more than 100 migrants at sea in July 2019. Salvini may not mind. The former interior minister has said he wants to go to court and is proud of what he did. After the Senate vote, he compared his predicament to that of US President Donald Trump, who accuses opponents on the left of having impeached him because of partisan politics. “Me, like Trump?” he wrote on Twitter. “He has a few more billions and a few more years, but it's a bad little habit of the left, going around in the world, to try to win by judicial means.”