Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Armed clashes on the streets of Beirut
At least six people were shot dead in Beirut on 14 October, after gunshots rang out at a protest demanding the removal of a judge investigating last August’s port explosion. The violence appeared to be sectarian in nature, as the demonstration (which led to armed clashes) had been organised by two Shia Muslim groups – Hezbollah and the Amal movement – and the fighting took place in a stronghold of a Christian political party, the Lebanese Forces. Hezbollah accused the LF of firing the first shots, while the LF said it was the result of “uncontrolled weapons in Lebanon” (a reference to Hezbollah’s arsenal), and accused Hezbollah of using religious divisions to stop the port blast probe. Whoever started it, civilians were forced to flee their homes and duck for cover in nearby schools as gunmen fought it out in scenes reminiscent of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. It was yet another dark day for a country that is in such dire economic straits that its two main power plants recently ran out of fuel, leaving Lebanon without state-generated electricity for 24 hours.
Crimes against humanity in Libya?
On 8 October, at least six people were killed and dozens more wounded by guards who opened fire at asylum seekers and migrants attempting to escape en masse from an overcrowded detention centre in Tripoli. This came after the Libyan authorities rounded up and detained at least 5,000 asylum seekers and migrants in the capital, starting on 1 October. Earlier this month, the UN’s top human rights body said it believes crimes against humanity have been committed in the detention centres. So far this year, more than 26,000 migrants and asylum seekers have been intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard and returned to the centres, where they face a well-documented cycle of abuse. Despite the human rights concerns, the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, is reportedly aiming to deliver new patrol boats to the Libyan Coast Guard.
The link between climate disasters and global energy shortfalls
Blackouts and power cuts, surging demand, and record gas and coal prices – there’s a global energy crisis brewing, and extreme weather and disasters are at least partly to blame. Several states in India have seen power outages. Blackouts have hit China’s northeast industrial hub. There are warnings of power cuts on the horizon in the UK. Multiple factors drive energy shortages – note Lebanon’s overlapping crises, above – but climate-fuelled disasters do play a clear role. In India, heavy monsoon floods disrupted the domestic coal industry, while high global prices have squeezed imports. Demand is soaring in China, in part because of its own severe floods that uprooted 100,000 in Shanxi, its northern coal heartland. Harsh cold spells drained natural gas stocks in Europe, and predictions of a bitter, La Niña-fuelled northern hemisphere winter have turned economists into keen weather-watchers. Of course, this couldn’t come at a worse time for climate action, as global leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow for the COP26 summit (aiming, ultimately, to slow the climate heating that supercharges these weather extremes). Some world leaders who touted emissions reductions in the lead-up – China had announced it would cut coal consumption and stop funding coal abroad – are now speaking of ramping up production or instituting consumer fuel subsidies.
Gang violence compounds Haiti’s colliding crises
Since a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti just two months ago and killed more than 2,200 people, aid has slowed to the affected areas because of worsening gang violence, COVID-19 infections have spiked, and a record number of Haitian migrants (more than 7,500) have been deported from the United States and other countries. The worsening security situation has compounded Haiti’s overlapping humanitarian crises. Kidnappings have soared since the 7 July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse – Haiti is now believed to have the highest rate of kidnappings per capita in the world. With more than 160 rival gangs patrolling the Caribbean country’s major transport routes, aid delivery has been hampered, nearly 20,000 people have been displaced, and health services have been disrupted. Just days after the 14 August earthquake struck Haiti’s southern peninsula, gangs kidnapped two doctors treating quake survivors in the capital. Haiti is expected to hold elections next year. For now, however, gangs outnumber police in some parts of the country.
More disasters + less investment on risk prevention = ?
The economic and moral imperative for investing in disaster prevention is well known, especially as world leaders wake up to the inevitable consequences of the climate crisis. And yet UNDRR, the UN agency devoted to disaster risk reduction, reports that despite the weight of evidence in support of a preventative approach, state commitments made through the Sendai Framework show a disappointing trend: Between 2010 and 2019, of a total of $1.17 trillion of Official Development Assistance (ODA), only 11 percent ($133 billion) was spent on disasters. And of this, only $5.5 billion, or 0.5 percent, was aimed at risk reduction measures before disasters strike. Although data about risk reduction financing can be difficult to ascertain, the research found that – with a few notable exceptions – it is countries with high disaster-induced mortality that receive the most negligible levels of financing for prevention and preparedness. In a statement to mark this week’s International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said this must change, adding: “effective risk reduction relies on international cooperation and global solidarity… dramatically increasing funding and support for climate change adaptation and resilience-building.”
Ebola flares up again in eastern Congo
Another Ebola outbreak has emerged in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with two cases – a three-year-old boy, who died, and a 42-year-old woman – confirmed so far by health officials. Three people from the same neighbourhood as the toddler also died in September with Ebola-like symptoms but were not tested for the virus. Genetic sequencing has linked the new cases to the 2018-2020 Congo outbreak, which claimed more than 2,200 lives and is the second deadliest on record. Flare-ups related to past outbreaks aren’t uncommon as Ebola is known to persist in the body fluids of some survivors. An earlier cluster of cases in February killed six people before tailing off in March. Congolese rights groups called on international responders to avoid repeating past mistakes as they counter the new outbreak. Last month, a damning report found that the World Health Organization had failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the 2018-2020 epidemic – a probe triggered by our investigation. This week, the WHO announced that a staff member dedicated to preventing sexual exploitation and abuse is among those supporting the latest response.
Has a key Nigerian jihadist died?
The Nigerian military says Abu Musab al-Barnawi, leader of the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), is dead. But the insurgent group is yet to comment, and the military has provided no details – including when he was supposed to have died. “It all remains speculative,” one well-informed analyst told The New Humanitarian. “All we do know is that he was injured [a few months ago].” Young and charismatic, al-Barnawi has played a key role in the jihadist movement. He emerged this March as interim leader, spearheading an ISWAP offensive that inflicted significant losses on the Nigerian military in the northeast, as well as on the group’s main jihadist rival, Boko Haram. If al-Barnawi is dead, the transition to a new leader is expected to be relatively smooth. “ISWAP is one of the more ‘democratic’ jihadist groups,” said the analyst. “We’ve seen a succession of leaders voted in [and out] in shura [ruling council] meetings over the years.”
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: The second attack in a week on a Shiite mosque in Afghanistan killed at least 33 people and injured dozens in the southern city of Kandahar on 15 October, according to media reports citing Taliban authorities. A branch of so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for an earlier 8 October blast in the north’s Kunduz province, as well as an attack that killed scores outside Kabul’s airport in August.
BANGLADESH: A UN agreement signed with Bangladesh’s government could scale up aid to Rohingya refugees on a controversial island camp. But advocacy groups say the UN must ensure Rohingya are free to leave Bhasan Char, or risk enshrining policies “more akin to detention than refuge”. Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights said the 9 October agreement does not guarantee freedom of movement. Several Rohingya have died at sea trying to leave the flood-prone island, where there are limited aid services. A diarrhoea outbreak ran through the island camp earlier this year, reportedly killing four and sickening nearly a tenth of the camp’s 19,000 residents.
BURKINA FASO: Fourteen men have gone on trial accused by a military court of murdering Burkina Faso’s former president, Thomas Sankara, in a 1987 coup. The chief defendant – Sankara’s successor and one-time ally, Blaise Compaoré – is being tried in absentia from Côte d’Ivoire, where he lives in exile. Sankara is remembered by many for his revolutionary, anti-colonial politics that was widely celebrated across Africa.
CAMEROON: There was fury this week in English-speaking western Cameroon over the killing of a five-year-old girl by a gendarme – who was subsequently lynched. The girl died when the gendarme opened fire at a checkpoint in Buea, the capital of the Southwest region, hitting the car she was travelling in. Her death was seen as part of a pattern of heavy-handed policing in Cameroon’s two anglophone regions, facing an anarchic secessionist crisis.
ETHIOPIA: Two senior UN officials in Ethiopia have been recalled after accusing senior colleagues – in a leaked interview with a journalist – of sympathising with Tigrayan rebels. Media reports identified the recalled officials as Dennia Gayle, country representative of UNFPA; and Maureen Achieng, the head of IOM in Ethiopia. The affair further damages an already hamstrung aid mission, the neutrality of which has been repeatedly undermined by Addis Ababa.
MOZAMBIQUE: The leader of the rebel faction of the main opposition party, Renamo, has been killed by the army. Mariano Nhongo died in fighting in central Sofala province on 11 October. Attacks by the splinter group have undermined a ceasefire and peace process signed between the party and government in 2019.
TURKEY/SYRIA: Amid fears Turkey is about to launch another cross-border incursion into Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said the 10 October killing of two Turkish police officers in northern Syria is the “final straw”, blaming the missile attack on the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey-backed rebels control parts of northern Syria, and Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist group.
UK: Updated guidance from the UK’s Home Office says sending Afghans back to Afghanistan presents “no real risk of harm”, and that Afghans must present evidence of specific reasons – other than being a civilian affected by conflict – to qualify for protection in the UK. The guidance could pave the way for deportations to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – although the UK is not currently returning rejected asylum seekers to the country.
YEMEN: New modelling published this week in the journal Nature predicts that an oil spill from the FSO Safer – a decaying oil tanker stranded off Yemen’s Red Sea coast thanks to political bickering – would cause an environmental catastrophe that could close all port and desalination access, disrupting clean water supply for as many as 9.9 million people, and food for up to 8.4 million.
YEMEN: The UN Human Rights Council voted late last week to shut down its own investigation into war crimes in Yemen, in a move rights groups condemned as a failure. Many said that Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition fighting on the side of the Yemeni government in a six-and-a-half-year war, lobbied heavily against renewing the investigation’s mission.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 re-ignited the Black Lives Matter movement in America and across the world. It also sparked global conversations about racial justice, including in the humanitarian sector. Our weekend read shares insights from two questionnaires we sent out in August 2021 – one went to 21 of the largest international aid organisations, the other had responses from more than 150 aid workers – to get a sense of what actions have since been taken. We asked questions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the staff of aid agencies, and also about localisation. On the face of it, aid organisations (at least the 12 that responded in some way) have done all the right things: developing new policies, taking on DEI as a core value, and diversifying recruitment. But many of the aid workers surveyed said the changes barely scratch the surface of what’s needed, and some cited uncommitted leadership and lingering cultures of silence. The clear takeaway: A lot of the world’s largest aid organisations need to do a lot more to walk the DEI talk.
For more, listen to our Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast on Diversity in the aid sector
*Failed in London, try the United Nations?
Sometimes, life gives you second chances. Take Matt Hancock, for example. The UK’s former health secretary who was lambasted by members of his own party for the government’s bungled handling of the COVID-19 crisis, has a swish new UN role meant to help African countries recover from the pandemic (yes, really). A recent report by UK lawmakers found that the government was slow to react to the pandemic and pursued a fatalistic approach that cost lives. Hancock resigned four months ago after being caught on camera breaking pandemic-related social distancing rules (canoodling with a female aide who was not his wife). Vera Songwe, a UN under-secretary-general, said she believed Hancock’s “expertise and leadership” would help African countries’ recovery and long-term growth in the wake of the pandemic. Less than three percent of Africa’s population, however, has been vaccinated against COVID-19, and Hancock himself has been criticised for not backing patent-free vaccines that would benefit low-income countries. Hancock’s position – UN special representative for financial innovation and climate change for the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) – is unpaid. However, it is unclear what – if any – perks might come with the job. Neither Songwe nor UNECA responded to questions from The New Humanitarian.
*Shortly after publication on 15 October, the UN withdrew the job offer to Hancock.
It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.
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