Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Resistance to Sudan’s coup grows
In a test of will, Sudan’s pro-democracy movement has called for a “march of millions” on 30 October to protest this week’s coup that toppled the fragile transitional government. At least 11 people have died in rolling demonstrations since General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who headed the joint civilian-military governing council, seized power on 25 October and temporarily arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Other ministers have remained in detention and activists have gone into hiding. The power grab, accompanied by an internet blackout, came as al-Burhan was due to step down as chair of the ruling council and hand over to a civilian, loosening the army's influence on elections due in 2023. Steps to roll back their control of the economy, and hold the military accountable for deaths of protesters in 2019, have also worried the generals. International condemnation of the coup has been swift. Sudan has been suspended by the African Union; the US has paused $700 million in aid; and the World Bank has frozen its assistance. There have also been calls for the US to pressure Egypt and the Gulf States – long-standing backers of the military – to dilute their support.
Climate crisis, climate migration: All talk, where’s the action?
A flurry of reports about the impacts of the climate crisis on displacement and migration is being released ahead of the UN’s COP26 climate conference, taking place from 31 October to 12 November in Glasgow, Scotland. The overarching theme is that the impacts are already here: a World Bank report from last month predicted 216 million people could be internally displaced by climate change by 2050; and climate displacement already far outpaces displacement by conflicts and violence. Most people remain in their countries of origin, and it’s important for governments and aid donors to help vulnerable communities before people are displaced, according to a report by the IFRC. The first-ever report by the US government examining the link between climate change and migration is being greeted as mostly talk and little action. The world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, including the US, seem more intent on fortifying their borders than on taking bold action to address the climate crisis – spending 2.3 times more on border security than they do on climate finance. Even the aid industry has a long way to go to address its own contributions to climate change, as our recent investigation highlights. For more, read our pre-COP26 feature from Lima, Peru.
EU pulls WHO funding in wake of sex abuse scandal
The European Commission has suspended more than 20 million euros in funding to World Health Organization (WHO) programmes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The move was triggered by the WHO sex abuse scandal that The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation first broke last year. An independent inquiry confirmed widespread allegations of sexual abuse among WHO workers during the Ebola response between 2018 and 2020. Out of more than 80 alleged perpetrators, investigators said more than 20 were positively identified as WHO workers. Nine cases involved rapes, including that of a 13-year-old girl. The commission’s decision came in a 7 October letter to the WHO. The letter was first reported by Reuters and shared with the news outlet by AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign, which seeks to end impunity for sexual offences by UN personnel. The suspension of funds will include five WHO programmes in Congo, including its Ebola and COVID-19 responses. The Commission said it would give the WHO 30 days to respond. After that, it would re-evaluate whether to resume payments or continue the suspension for another 30 days. Last week, the WHO announced a raft of reforms, including an audit to determine whether WHO staff may have failed to report allegations of abuse during the Ebola response. And in what turned out to be a particularly bad week for the UN health agency, a UN Day video that featured WHO Syria staff dancing had to be taken down after it was widely panned as insensitive.
WHO Syria celebrates the UN day. They can't stop surprising us on how careless they are. Instead of this video they should be honoring the 930 health workers who were killed in 10 y in #Syria. The video was deleted later from WHO twitter account after 4 hours pic.twitter.com/1s8WE8WqGc
— Mohamad Katoub (@MhdKatoub) October 27, 2021
Haiti fuel shortage amplifies hunger and health crisis
The gangs terrorising Haiti are creating another crisis for the Caribbean country: a fuel shortage. Truck drivers carrying fuel are too afraid to brave the roads, many of which are controlled by gangs who have kidnapped nearly 800 people this year. The shortages are impacting everything from hospitals (which depend on generators to power life-saving machines) to deliveries of food and aid. Even before the fuel shortages and the 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August, Haiti was facing an acute hunger crisis with more than 4.4 million people in need of food assistance. The country’s security situation has grown even worse since the July assasination of President Jovenel Moïse, who had been accused of using gangs as a tool of oppression and to silence critics. Some gang members (and Haiti’s top prosecutor) have accused Prime Minister Ariel Henry of being involved in Moïse’s killing. One gang leader even offered safe passage of fuel trucks in return for Henry’s resignation. Henry, who has denied any involvement in Moïse’s killing, has vowed to return order to the country, but gangs outnumber police in some parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince. A group of 16 American and Canadian missionaries, meanwhile, is still being held by a gang demanding a $17 million ransom.
No let-up in Yemen fighting
Fierce fighting around the central Yemeni province of Marib continues, as Houthi rebels close in on the strategic region, which is controlled by forces allied with Yemen’s internationally recognised government and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition. Battles have been raging around Marib (and in other nearby provinces) for months now, forcing thousands of people to flee home each week. More than 85,000 Yemenis have been displaced at least once this year, and aid organisations cannot always get to them. The Yemeni watchdog group Mwatana for Human Rights said on 26 October that the warring parties have committed “grave violations” of international law and international human rights law during the Marib offensive, including “targeting humanitarian organisations with restrictions and harassment that affected their operations” to help stranded civilians in need.
Electoral tensions surface again in Congo
The next presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t due for another two years but tensions are already building. On 26 October, the country’s constitutional court swore in a new electoral commision chief – Denis Kadima – whose independence is challenged by opposition and church leaders that consider him too close to President Félix Tshisekedi. Religious groups are constitutionally mandated to pick the commission leader but were unable to come to a consensus. Protests in the capital, Kinshasa, on 16 October turned violent as opposition supporters tore down a statue of Tshisekedi and clashed with his followers. The commission’s credibility was badly tarnished in 2018 when polls saw Tshisekedi take power thanks to an alleged deal with former president Joseph Kabila. Evidence suggests the real winner was in fact Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate. The run-up to the long-delayed election saw millions of people flee their homes.
Dengue fever flare-ups stretch from India to Afghanistan
Dengue outbreaks are flaring across a wide swathe of South Asia, testing healthcare systems already overstretched by the COVID-19 pandemic. Outbreaks of the mosquito-borne disease have erupted in parts of northern and western India, Pakistan, and even Afghanistan – where the health system has largely collapsed in the aftermath of the Taliban’s resurgence. In India, soaring dengue caseloads are putting pressure on hospitals in Delhi and in states like Punjab and Rajasthan. Across the border in Pakistan, “alarming” surges in Islamabad and elsewhere have pushed health authorities to ask Pakistan’s Red Crescent Society for support. Outbreaks in parts of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan, killed four people in October, Tolo News reported. Dengue is common in tropical and sub-tropical climates, but research suggests climate change is expanding the reach of the mosquito species that carry the virus. Dengue was once rare in most of Nepal, for example, but is now seen as “an annual epidemic”. Afghanistan recorded its first-ever cases only two years ago.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN FOOD: More than half of Afghanistan’s population will face crisis or emergency levels of hunger in the coming months, according to a 25 October food security analysis. The threats are driven by a crumbling economy – worsened by swift aid freezes following the Taliban’s August takeover – and a severe drought spanning three quarters of the country.
AFGHAN RETURNEES: EU aid policies for Afghanistan have focused in part on stemming migration flows to Europe, but the UN is recording record numbers of people pushed home. More than one million undocumented Afghans have returned since January, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. Most of this cyclical traffic is from Iran, where a stumbling economy has driven deportations and voluntary returns in recent years.
BELARUS/POLAND/GERMANY: More than 6,000 asylum seekers and migrants – mostly from Iraq and Syria – have entered Germany from Poland this year. That number far exceeds normal levels and is a result of Belarus’ authoritarian ruler, President Alexander Lukashenko, using irregular migration to retaliate against the EU for imposing sanctions in response to human rights abuses. Far-right vigilantes from across Germany have mobilised to conduct patrols at the border, and German police recently dispersed a group of 50 armed with pepper spray, a machete, and batons.
BRAZIL: A Senate committee has recommended that the general prosecutor’s office charge President Jair Bolsonaro over errors in his handling of COVID-19, which has killed over 607,000 people so far in Brazil. A 1,200-page investigative report found that the president was “the main person responsible” in the government during the pandemic. While few expect the chief prosecutor, a political appointee, to charge Bolsonaro, the president was briefly banned from YouTube after broadcasting a video message suggesting COVID-19 vaccines were allowing UK citizens to contract AIDS faster.
EU: The European Parliament has voted to hold 90 million euros of the 757-million-euro 2022 budget for the EU border agency, Frontex, in reserve until the agency fills vacancies for 20 rights monitors and establishes a functional rights monitoring system. The move is a response to numerous reports over the past year of Frontex complicity in illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants at the EU’s external borders.
IRAQ: At least 11 people were killed by gunmen in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala on 26 October in an attack the country’s security forces blamed on the so-called Islamic State. While Iraq declared victory against IS in December 2017, there are fears that its remaining followers are regrouping and staging scattered attacks.
IRAQ/GERMANY: A court in Munich has sentenced a German woman to 10 years in prison for belonging to IS and allowing a five-year-old Yazidi girl that she and her husband had purchased as a slave to die of thirst. The Monday conviction of the woman, who is a German citizen and was living in Iraq when her husband left the girl chained up outside to die in August 2015, marks one of the first times a member of IS has been held accountable for crimes committed against the Yazidi minority. For more on another universal jurisdiction verdict pending in Germany, this time involving war crimes in Syria, read our story.
ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Israel has designated six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organisations, effectively outlawing their work, in a move that critics say is an attempt to silence groups speaking out about Israel’s repressive treatment of Palestinians.
MYANMAR: There have been nearly 300 attacks or threats against healthcare since Myanmar’s February coup, a 26 October analysis by groups including Physicians for Human Rights found. Rights groups accuse the military junta of weaponising healthcare and the coronavirus response, targeting healthcare workers for treating anti-coup demonstrators, and using health facilities to arrest civilians.
SOMALIA: Fighting in central Galmudug State has killed 120 people and displaced 100,000 in recent days. The conflict – in which hospitals have been shelled – has pitted government forces against the militia group Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa – its former allies in the fight against the jihadist group al-Shabab. Control of Galmudug is seen as key to the electoral fortunes of President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed, known as “Farmajo”.
UGANDA: A suicide bomber killed himself and injured several others on a bus as it travelled to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on 25 October. The blast, on the road from the Democratic Republic of Congo, followed a bomb attack in a Kampala café on 23 October that killed a café worker and injured three others. The police described the device as “crude”. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State in Central Africa, which says it operates in Congo through the formerly Uganda-based Allied Democratic Forces, although exact links are uncertain.
VACCINES: COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to G20 countries have been 15 times higher than what low-income countries have received, UNICEF said, citing data from analytics firm Airfinity. As G20 leaders meet in Rome, rights groups are calling for wealthy countries to reverse vaccine inequality by sharing doses and vaccine technology, including patents.
Native Americans have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19: The Navajo Nation reservation has double the death rate of the worst-affected US state. However, the pandemic has also led to a belated public awakening about the challenges and inequalities faced by Native communities. In our weekend read, Anthony J. Wallace details how this growing awareness has seen millions of dollars of aid being donated to Native-led non-profits like Indigenous Lifeways – whose founder Krystal Curley works to distribute essential goods like water and firewood throughout the Navajo Nation. Many Native Americans still lack access to running water, electricity, and indoor plumbing, while also having to contend with issues like uranium pollution and widespread violence against Indigenous women. But Indigenous activists hope the newfound attention will translate into tangible and lasting progress. As Curley states: “We had the mic for once... And we took it, and we really tried to change something.”
Back to Benin
Two British universities have returned looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria. Cambridge University handed over a cockerel statue, while Aberdeen University returned a bronze that represents the head of an Oba (king) of the former Benin kingdom. The moves are significant as formal requests to return the stolen bronzes – seen as part of the cultural archive of the kingdom – have been made since the 1930s, without much success. Thousands of stolen artefacts are now possessed by Western museums, institutions, or are in private hands. Recent years have seen louder calls for their return. However, the British Museum, believed to hold the majority and most significant bronzes of the stolen collection, has only gone as far as stating its commitment to putting on a display in Benin City.
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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