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Myanmar’s aid routes, Sudan’s tense transition, and decolonising weather data: The Cheat Sheet

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

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

Myanmar: Troop build-ups on one border, cross-line aid on another?

As concern grows over military build-ups in western Myanmar, diplomats are discussing routing humanitarian aid into the coup-ravaged country via its eastern front. The United States and Thailand discussed cross-border aid during meetings this week, officials from both countries said. Separately, Thailand also hosted meetings covering “possible transmission routes… in delivering assistance for the people of Myanmar”, its foreign ministry said. Myanmar advocacy groups have long called for aid to be channelled through local civil society organisations – and for international groups not to engage with the military junta, which imposes stiff restrictions on aid (as did the previous civilian government). Stepping up cross-border aid would be a boon for those living along the Thailand-Myanmar frontier, but conditions are also worsening beyond the reach of existing border aid. Military crackdowns on anti-coup resistance movements have displaced some 40,000 people in parts of Chin State, and in the Magway and Sagaing regions – all in Myanmar’s west. The military has built up heavy weaponry and troops and shut down internet access in recent weeks, sparking warnings of a pending crackdown. At least 15,000 people have fled to border states in India since the coup, according to UN estimates, though local groups say the numbers are higher. The US-based Chin Human Rights Organization is calling on donors to support cross-border aid – this time, from India.

Is Sudan’s transition coming unstuck?

Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese protested this week in support of the country’s democratic transition, which is facing its gravest crisis yet. Tensions between military and civilian leaders – who have shared power awkwardly since the 2019 ouster of Omar al-Bashir – flared in the aftermath of an attempted coup last month, which both sides blamed on each other. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a top military figure who chairs the Sovereign Council ruling Sudan, called for the dissolution of the cabinet led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a civilian. Security services have also reportedly slapped travel bans on almost a dozen civilian officials. Though authorities have made recent progress on economic issues – obtaining promises of debt relief and new international funding sources – several aspects of the transition remain stalled, most notably implementation of a country-wide peace agreement. Unrest is also building in eastern Sudan, where protesters have blocked roads and shut down ports, and in Darfur, where communities have competing visions of the increasingly troubled transition.

Brighter days ahead on weather data

The lead-up to next month’s crucial COP26 climate crisis gathering in Glasgow has been marked by a string of disappointing developments: from Russia’s Vladimir Putin pulling out and warnings that China’s Xi Jinping won’t attend, to concerns that poorer countries will be under-represented due to COVID-19 vaccine inequality. But it hasn’t all been bad news. One under-reported but potentially significant development happened this week at the World Meteorological Congress in Geneva, with the 193 member states agreeing sweeping measures to ensure vital weather data – temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and surface pressure – is shared between wealthy countries and poorer neighbours. Even as extreme weather events and climate-related disasters become more common, the ability of some of the most-affected poorer nations to predict and prepare is still often hampered by a lack of information. At COP, the WMO hopes to announce the first $50 million tranche of a new financing mechanism that would allow developing countries to access computer modelling run by some of the world’s richest nations.

Mixed messages on Syrian refugee returns

The head of UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, spent some time in Syria over the past week, meeting with displaced people who have gone back home, and (as per his tweets), speaking with the Syrian government on “ways to strengthen coordination as we address internal displacement, and to cooperate in removing obstacles to the return of refugees.” Filippo Grandi’s mention of return did not go over well with many online, coming shortly before the release of a new report from Human Rights Watch that documents abuses against refugees who have returned to Syria, including arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappareance. Most people who go back, the watchdog group says, struggle to get by. Amnesty International put out its own research that came to the same conclusion – Syria is not safe for returnees – just last month. Wednesday provided yet another reminder that while much of the country is not in the state of war it once was, that doesn’t mean it’s peaceful either: Fourteen people were reportedly killed by a bomb on an army bus in Damascus, and later in the day government airstrikes in the northwestern province of Idlib killed at least 11 people, including four children on their way to school. 

WHO promises SEA overhaul after Ebola scandal

The World Health Organization has promised to overhaul its operations in the wake of an independent inquiry that found WHO workers sexually abused women and girls during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The inquiry was triggered by an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Short-term actions will include providing more medical and psychosocial help to survivors and victims, help for learning a trade, resources to start a small business, as well as supporting children born as a result of sexual abuse through educational grants and the covering of medical fees. Probes and audits into potential misconduct will also continue after some staff were accused of failing to initiate investigations of alleged abuse. An initial $7.6 million will also be allocated to preventing and responding to sexual abuse allegations in 10 countries with high risk profiles. Those include: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, the DRC, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Venezuela, and Yemen.

Aid disruption reality check

During the COVID-19 pandemic and resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, many have speculated – even hoped – that they will represent an important turning point for humanitarian action. This week, key figures in the aid sector took stock of disruption over the past 18 months at ALNAP’s three-day virtual annual meeting. Since the start of 2020, the humanitarian research group has found some positive shifts in areas like localisation, flexible funding, inter-agency coordination, and new attention to aid worker mental health and well-being. But change doesn’t come easily for the sector, and, as Alice Obrecht, ALNAP’s head of research and impact, said in her keynote, “it may still be too early to tell what impacts COVID-19 and the decolonisation debate are going to have on the system.” Will many of the changes turn out to be superficial and short-lived? Is a return to business as usual to be expected? Time, indeed, will tell. 

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: The first door-to-door polio vaccination campaign in three years could restart on 8 November in Afghanistan with Taliban approval, UN agencies announced. But worker safety remains a question mark: At least eight health workers involved in polio vaccinations have been killed this year. An offshoot of so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan has claimed some of these attacks, and has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians since the Taliban’s August takeover.

BRAZIL: A Senate report was presented on 20 October recommending that President Jair Bolsonaro be prosecuted for crimes against humanity and other charges for his mishandling of Brazil’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolsonaro has been accused of minimising the threat and ignoring recommended health guidelines, resulting in countless unnecessary deaths. 

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: A unilateral ceasefire announced by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra on 15 October has been welcomed as a “critical step” towards reconciliation with rebel forces. It’s hoped the truce will reinvigorate a 2019 peace deal between the government and 14 armed groups. The country has been plagued by armed violence for nearly a decade.

ETHIOPIA: Federal forces on 21 October launched their fourth airstrike this week on the Tigray capital, Mekelle. The government insists it’s targeting rebel positions, but the Tigray People's Liberation Front claimed the aim is to inflict civilian casualties. The escalating air war has been accompanied by a new ground offensive by Addis Ababa.

HAITI: Haitian gang leaders holding 17 American and Canadian missionaries have threatened to kill them if a $1 million ransom isn’t paid for each of them. The group, which includes several children, has been held captive by the “400 Mawozo gang” for a week. Since the start of the year, nearly 800 people have been kidnapped in Haiti, including 50 foreign nationals, according to the Haiti-based Centre for Analysis and Research for Human Rights (CARDH). 

ITALY: The captain of an Italian oil rig supply boat was sentenced to one year in prison by a court in Naples for returning 101 asylum seekers and migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to Libya in 2018. The conviction is likely the first of its kind, and human rights defenders hope it will dissuade private vessels from cooperating with Libyan authorities to return people rescued at sea to Libya – something that has happened at least 30 times since 2018. 

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Hospitals in Papua New Guinea are “barely coping” as COVID-19 again threatens to overwhelm the Pacific nation’s health system, the government says. Health experts say low vaccination rates and vaccine hesitancy are a major problem. Less than one percent of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 – one of the lowest tallies in the world.

POLAND: The body of the eighth person to have died at the Poland-Belarus border in recent months was found on 20 October. The Polish parliament recently passed a law allowing security forces to push people back from the border and enabling asylum claims submitted by those entering irregularly to be ignored. Lawmakers also approved plans for a $410 million border wall. The moves come as Belarus’ authoritarian ruler, President Alexander Lukashenko, continues to use irregular migration to retaliate against the EU for imposing sanctions in response to human rights abuses. 

SOUTH ASIA FLOODS: Dozens are dead in floods and landslides across parts of Nepal and northern India as heavy rains continue during what’s typically the tail end of the monsoon season. Landslides killed at least 64 people in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, while at least 88 people are dead in Nepal. Separately, at least 36 people have died in severe flooding in southern India’s Kerala State, with more rains expected.

SYRIA: COVID-19 has been surging through northwest Syria’s Idlib province for weeks now, overwhelming already limited hospital capacity. Amidst oxygen shortages, health workers are struggling to cope with the wave, as the Delta variant appears to be spreading particularly quickly in the region’s many displacement camps

Weekend read

Syrian war crimes on trial in Germany: Will justice be lost in translation?

In the coming weeks, a judge will hand down a verdict in a historic war crimes trial against members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security services. But the words “guilty” or “not guilty” won’t be read inside Syria, at a regional tribunal in the Middle East, or at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Instead, the trial is being held in a small court in Koblenz, southwest Germany. That’s because Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, which holds that certain crimes are so grave they can be prosecuted anywhere. But as our weekend read by Charlotte Bailey explains, this spirit of internationalism hasn’t trickled down into the day-to-day operations at Koblenz, making it the latest in a series of international trials to suffer from what experts call the “outreach gap”: When justice happens far from where the crimes were committed, or in a language other than the one the victims speak, it often fails to include the people it is ostensibly meant to serve. There are innovative ways to fill this gap – some courts have turned to comics and theatre – and, in Koblenz, the producers of a podcast have been broadcasting updates and analysis about the trial in English and Arabic, hoping to reach beyond the local German audience. As producer Noor Hamadeh said of the trial: “It’s against Syrian officials, and it has a much larger impact beyond Germany... It seems that the court isn’t really accommodating that. I think, as a result, a lot of Syrians don't necessarily feel that the trial is theirs.”

And finally…

Who’s missing from this photo of UK diplomats meeting Taliban leaders in Kabul this month?

For starters, there’s a rather stark absence of women in the room. It’s not an anomaly, as Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr outlined in a lengthy Twitter thread (#sausageparty). In photo after awkward photo, women are missing from aid or government delegations meeting with the Taliban. Several women hold senior roles at UN agencies or international NGOs in Afghanistan, and the Taliban have not refused to meet with women. But “by continuing to have only men in negotiating teams, diplomats, donors, and aid agencies are legitimising the Taliban’s patriarchal view of the world,” Barr wrote in an opinion piece this week. Some aid groups have quietly taken a similar position, hesitant to scale up emergency aid without guarantees that female staff can work with no restrictions. Under the Taliban, authorities have quashed women-led demonstrations, told most female government workers to stay home, and left most girls’ schools closed even while boys returned. Shaharzad Akbar, the head of Afghanistan’s rights commission (which was evicted from its offices under the Taliban), urged aid groups not to normalise Taliban policies: “Don’t exclude women,” she tweeted.

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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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