Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
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On our radar
Is a Rohingya ICC case a ‘pathway to justice’ for China’s Uighurs?
An International Criminal Court investigation into crimes allegedly committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority may have cracked open a side door to another long-elusive inquiry: probing China for its crackdowns on the Muslim Uighur population. This week, two exiled Uighur groups filed a complaint to the court in The Hague, urging investigations of senior Chinese officials for alleged genocide and crimes against humanity – citing the precedent-setting Rohingya case. It’s the first attempt to use the ICC to press China on its treatment of the Uighurs – including the internment of a million people in the northwestern Xinjiang region. The question of jurisdiction is the common link between the ongoing Rohingya investigation and the Uighur complaint. China, like Myanmar, is not a signatory to the treaty that established the ICC, which can’t investigate non-members without a referral from the Security Council (highly unlikely given China’s permanent seat on the UN body). But in the Rohingya case, the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, successfully argued jurisdiction by showing that some abuses – the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people – took place in part in Bangladesh, which is an ICC member. The Uighur groups are pushing a similar strategy, citing forced deportations of Uighurs from two member countries: Cambodia and Tajikistan. “For too long it was assumed that nothing could be done by the world’s criminal court,” said the groups’ UK-based lawyer, Rodney Dixon. “There is now a clear legal pathway to justice.”
Jihadists on the move in northern Nigeria
It’s been a brutal few weeks in Nigeria’s troubled northeast. On Wednesday, the jihadist group Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) killed at least 35 soldiers in an ambush along the Maiduguri-Damboa road, and 30 are still missing. It’s the third attack on that route to southern Borno by ISWAP since mid-June. The group was also responsible for a failed assault on the town of Damasak in northern Borno on 2 July. In the attack, in which two civilians were killed, a UN helicopter was hit as it came in to land. All UN flights have since been suspended pending a security review – a blow to humanitarian operations that depend on the choppers to transport staff. The abduction of four aid workers and a security guard by ISWAP last month underlines just how dangerous roads in the countryside now are. Government control stops at the perimeter trenches dug around garrison towns like Damasak, and Mungono, which ISWAP also has in its gun sights. Meanwhile, according to a new video, the rival jihadist group Boko Haram has forged ties with militants in northcentral and northwest Nigeria – where so-called “bandit” attacks are increasing.
Let’s talk about EU migration policy, says Germany
Germany took over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union earlier this month, and is making migration a main area of focus. The body sets the overall political direction and priorities for the EU, and Germany is expected to focus on overhauling the EU’s asylum system and strengthening border controls. The German presidency has also revived the controversial idea of establishing processing centres at the EU’s external borders to determine whether people are eligible for asylum before permitting them to enter Europe. Rights groups say that such a system would erode the right to asylum and lead to camps on Europe’s borders. So far, talks have focussed on increasing highly controversial support for the Libyan coast guard and establishing a quota mechanism to allocate people rescued from the Meditrranean Sea – a source of contention since 2015. Europe’s approach to migration continues to be under scrutiny as Malta and Greece are accused of using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to crack down and engage in legally dubious practices. This week, Greece extended movement restrictions on asylum seekers living in camps for the fifth time since the pandemic began – even as it welcomes back tourists. And in an apparent strategy to disrupt the work of rescue NGOs, the SEA-WATCH 3 became the third NGO rescue ship to be placed in administrative detention by Italy over “irregularities,” after its crew rescued more than 200 people at the end of June.
A ‘killing field’ in Burkina Faso
A town in northern Burkina Faso has been turned into a “killing field,” with bodies dumped on roadsides, under bridges, and strewn in fields, according to Human Rights Watch – which points the finger at government security forces in a report this week. The bodies of at least 180 men have been found in the town of Djibo since November. The majority of the men were from the Fulani ethnic group, which is regularly stigmatised for allegedly collaborating with extremists. US Africa envoy, Tibor Nagy, called the report “very troubling” and threatened to withdraw security assistance to the country. Extrajudicial killings by Sahelian security forces are becoming increasingly common as jihadist attacks surge in the region. In neighbouring Mali, soldiers conducted 101 executions in the first three months of the year, according to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the country, while more than 100 people were reportedly killed by Nigerien soldiers between March and April. Meanwhile, the number of internally displaced Burkinabe is approaching almost one million – up from 90,000 in early 2019 – with children facing particularly severe hardships, as our latest on the ground reporting explores.
Lockdowns lock out Venezuelan migrants
For migrants who fled Venezuela, an extension of COVID-19 lockdown measures in neighbouring countries are making life increasingly difficult. Many of the two million Venezuelans in Colombia, for example, are now unable to work and pay rent and have ended up sleeping on the streets, awaiting help or a way back home. Bogotá recently announced an additional two weeks of lockdown, until 1 August, to control the pandemic. Meanwhile, more than 71,000 Venezuelans have returned to their country, where they face strict quarantines in unsanitary sites. The social and economic crisis there has been “exacerbated” by sanctions and the pandemic, while a “profound political crisis” continues and detentions continue, UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet reported to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. A survey by researchers at three Venezuelan universities confirmed that the once solidly-middle income country is now the poorest in the Americas: 80 percent of the population cannot afford a basic food basket. About five million Venezuelans have left since 2015.
BANGLADESH: Some 300 Rohingya held on Bhasan Char, a silt island on the Bay of Bengal, should be sent to mainland refugee camps to rejoin their families, Human Rights Watch said this week. The refugees had been rescued in April and May from stranded boats turned away from countries like Malaysia, which had cited coronavirus fears. Most refugees have refused government plans to move them to Bhasan Char, a disaster-prone island.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Coronavirus funds are being embezzled by a “mafia network” operating within Congo’s health ministry, according to a confidential letter written by deputy health minister Albert M’peti Biyombo and addressed to the prime minister. Kickbacks are allegedly demanded for government contracts, even as health workers responding to the pandemic – which has claimed nearly 200 lives – protest over unpaid bonuses.
SOLOMON ISLANDS: Even countries with no confirmed COVID-19 cases aren’t spared the pandemic’s impacts. Coronavirus restrictions, and destruction from April’s Cyclone Harold, are exacerbating food insecurity in parts of the Solomon Islands, the Salvation Army said this week. Communities on southern San Cristóbal Island were still waiting for relief supplies, the Solomon Star reported. Like many Pacific nations, the Solomon Islands declared a state of emergency in March and closed its borders. With remote distances and limited infrastructure, many fear Pacific health systems would be quickly overwhelmed if outbreaks emerge.
UKRAINE: Climate change, illegal logging, and deforestation are being blamed for the worst flooding that Ukraine has seen in decades, as the country’s response to a surge in coronavirus cases is complicated by disasters in the east and west of the country. Floods hit 300 towns and villages in western Ukraine in late June, killing several and displacing hundreds from their homes. Meanwhile, deadly fires continue to rage near the eastern region’s front line where ongoing conflict has narrowed access to health services.
In case you missed it
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Recent attacks against civilians by the Allied Democratic Forces militant group could constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to a report from the UN’s Joint Human Rights Office in Congo. The Ugandan Islamist group killed almost 800 people over the past 18 months in an area that was battling the world’s second deadliest Ebola outbreak on record.
ETHIOPIA: At least 239 people have been killed and 3,500 arrested in continuing unrest following the killing of the iconic Oromo protest singer Hachalu Hundessa. Officials said the death toll was the result of lethal force by the security forces and inter-ethnic violence. The government has accused opposition groups of being behind Hundessa’s killing: protesters allege it was the government.
IRAQ: Hisham al-Hishami, a leading Iraqi expert on armed groups – including the so-called Islamic State and the country’s Shiite militias – was killed by gunmen on motorbikes outside his Baghdad home on Monday. No group has claimed responsibility, but some experts believe the assassination was intended to send a message to the government, given al-Hishami’s closeness to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi.
IVORY COAST: The death of Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly on Wednesday has sparked uncertainty around upcoming presidential elections that the 61-year-old was due to run in as ruling party candidate. President Alassane Ouattara may now replace him, standing for a controversial third term that he ruled out in March. Disputed elections in 2010 led to a brief civil war and around 3,000 deaths.
SYRIA: The UN Security Council remains divided over the delivery of aid to civilians in rebel-held Syria. Russia appears willing to allow UN aid through a single border crossing from Turkey to Idlib province, but argues aid should increasingly transit through government-held territory. The first reported case of COVID-19 in Idlib was announced on 9 July.
“I never expected to see what is happening right now, here in Aden,” 32-year-old Dr Ammar Derwish wrote, typing on his mobile phone as he visited patients. “The situation is insane. People are falling down, one by one, like dominoes.” Derwish began taking meticulous notes at the start of the pandemic. He chronicled how the disease spread, its bizarre symptoms, what he did to care for his friends and family, and what it was like as he himself fell ill – all in the midst of Ramadan meals and football matches. His words have now become this diary. “I thought maybe Yemen’s isolation would save us,” he wrote. Yemen has been referred to as both the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis and its most forgotten. His diary offers a look at how the pandemic plays out in a place with little electricity or money for healthcare; a place that has already been through more than five years of war. “I never thought that my notes would make a difference to anyone,” he adds in the introduction. “I still believe they might not. But I want to share this experience. Maybe some people care?”
US arms cache claim denied
The military spokesperson had, on the face of it, a pretty damning story to tell: an arms cache discovered by his Houthi forces in Yemen was labelled with stickers showing a handshake and the words “United States of America” – the USAID logo, he said. However, a US embassy spokesperson explained that USAID hadn’t used that logo since 1992. The logo was used by the US government’s Mutual Security Agency for military exports from 1953 to 1961 – before USAID was created and took over the logo. (Here’s another example found in South Sudan.) The cache in Yemen is therefore likely 60 or more years old – making its discovery less interesting. Perhaps more interesting is that new supplies of arms are not hard to come by: the UK decided this week to resume sales to Saudi Arabia, a party to Yemen’s conflict. Exports had been suspended after a court-ordered review.