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Addis under threat, atrocity warnings in Myanmar, and Musk v Beasley: 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

Tigray rebels close in on Ethiopian capital

A year ago this week Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched what he called a “law enforcement” operation against the rebellious Tigray People’s Liberation Front, promising it would all be over in a flash. He was badly wrong: Tigrayan forces – now partnered with rebels from Oromia – have taken a string of strategic towns outside Tigray and are edging ever closer to Addis Ababa. Some analysts predict an imminent push on the capital, while others expect the rebels will first seek to sever supply roads into the city. African and Western countries have increased calls for ceasefire talks, but it’s all falling on deaf ears. Tigrayan forces are promising regime change as they seek to break a federal siege that has pushed hundreds of thousands of people in their region into famine. And Abiy called this week on civilians to rise up and “bury” the rebels – which he’s previously labelled “rats”, “weeds”, and “cancer” – in a Facebook post later taken down by the social media company. Reports, meanwhile, suggest a new crackdown against ethnic Tigrayans is underway in Addis Ababa. Dangerous days lie ahead.

Echoes of past atrocities in new Myanmar crackdowns

The backdrop is different but the tactics are alarmingly familiar: Rights groups warn of atrocity crimes on the horizon as Myanmar’s military continues its post-coup crackdown in the country’s northwest. Roughly 40,000 people have been displaced since the February coup in parts of Chin State, and in the Magway and Sagaing regions, where an armed anti-coup resistance movement is challenging the military junta. Rights groups say part of the town of Thantlang, in Chin State, was set ablaze by military shelling in late October. Save the Children says its office there was set on fire; humanitarian groups have very little access to the entire area. Similar military tactics have accompanied previous crackdowns: steady troop build-ups, internet blackouts, burnt homes dubiously blamed on fleeing combatants, fleeing civilians, and highly selective humanitarian access. In 2017, a military purge forced some 700,000 Rohingya people from their homes in Rakhine State, south of Chin – the culmination of decades of persecution that has multiple courts investigating genocide and other crimes. The root causes of today’s crackdowns may differ, but the potential for wider violence remains, Rohingya diaspora organisations warned in a 1 November statement: “The Chin people are at extreme risk of a large-scale military offensive and would face similar human rights violations as we faced.”

COP success, or COP-out?

As the COP26 talks wrapped up a first week in Glasgow, tens of thousands of climate crisis protesters – a broad coalition of youth activists (including Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate and Sweden’s Greta Thunberg), Indigenous groups, and environmental organisations – took to the streets of the Scottish city. The jury is still very much out on how much progress is being made. After a slew of speeches by heads of state and a raft of new or renewed commitments to cut deforestation, methane emissions, and coal production, many campaigners see the devil as being in the detail and are asking for more specifics and less greenwashing. Among those accused of posturing is Brazil, which joined this week’s pact to reverse deforestation but where forest destruction hit record levels between August 2020 and July 2021. The Brazilian government claims to be increasing its climate ambitions, but actually shifted its baseline year for cutting CO2 emissions forward, leaving new commitments on a par with earlier ones. Meanwhile, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and US climate envoy John Kerry said new finance pledges to developing nations helping them transition away from fossil fuels may mean a long-missed $100 billion-a-year target could be reached in 2022. The big picture? The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that new commitments made since the start of COP26 would hold the rise in global temperatures to 1.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, an improvement over the UN’s 2.7 degrees estimate ahead of the conference, yet still above the 1.5 degree ambition in the Paris Agreement. Humanitarians warn that far bigger and faster cuts are needed for the world’s most vulnerable populations, many of which are already experiencing deadly or life-altering impacts from climate change.

Tit-for-tat attacks raise sectarian concerns in Iraq

A series of events unfolding in eastern Iraq has some worried about the return of deadly sectarian violence of the sort the country has suffered through many times before. Last week, gunmen killed 11 people in a largely Shiite village in eastern Iraq’s Diyala province, in an attack blamed on remnants of the so-called Islamic State. Revenge attacks reportedly followed on a nearby Sunni village, including the burning of crops and homes, forcing some people to flee. These were said to have included the participation of members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – a group of mostly Shia militias now technically under the umbrella of the country’s state security forces. The Iraqi government sent troops and delegations to the region, but tensions remain high. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, supporters of the PMF’s political parties are camped outside the Green Zone, protesting alleged fraud in the 10 October elections that saw them lose around two thirds of their seats in parliament.

Syrian refugees face Turkey deportation over banana vids

At least seven Syrian refugees have been arrested in Turkey and are facing deportation for participating in a TikTok challenge that showed them eating bananas – an imported food item that has become out of reach for many Turkish consumers as the country’s economy suffers from high inflation. The social media trend began in response to another video posted in October of a Turkish man arguing with a young Syrian woman and telling her he couldn’t afford to eat a single banana while she was buying them by the kilo. The dramatic response to the videos underscores the growing animosity towards refugees in Turkey. The country hosts the largest refugee population in the world – including around 3.7 million Syrians. More than 10 years since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many Turks scapegoat Syrian refugees for the country’s economic struggles. In August, mobs attacked and vandalised Syrian cars and homes in the Turkish capital, Ankara, following a murder, and opposition political parties now openly call for Syrian refugees to be expelled. Human rights organisations say it is not safe for refugees to return to Syria and have documented cases of people who have returned being arrested, arbitrarily detained, tortured, and even killed. 

Russia’s military build-up near the Ukrainian border

New satellite imagery shows that Russia has moved battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and self-propelled artillery some 200-300 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, have deployed combat drones along the battle lines against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region. The Pentagon confirmed “unusual” Russian military activity near Ukraine’s eastern border, but Moscow denies a military build-up. Moscow, which said this week it intended to break diplomatic ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has routinely deployed Russian troops to the border, but the new images suggest stepped-up activity. In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, triggering a war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists that saw Ukraine lose much of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that make up Donbas. Some 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict. A new report, also out this week, shows the extent of Russian arms shipments into the region. Separately, Russia has been accused of withholding natural gas shipments to Europe in an effort to fast-track a new Baltic Sea export pipeline. The pipeline to Germany would enable Russia to export gas directly to Europe, bypassing Ukraine and depriving it of billions of dollars a year in transit fees. For more on what life is like for children on Ukraine’s frontline, read our recent photo essay.

In case you missed it

FRANCE: French police will now give asylum seekers and migrants sleeping rough in Calais 45 minutes to gather their belongings before tearing down their encampments, and will offer alternative accommodation to those they evict. The move has been rejected as “window dressing” by activists. In a report last month, Human Rights Watch said French authorities subject asylum seekers and migrants in the area to “degrading treatment” by carrying out repeated mass evictions and limiting their access to food, water, and humanitarian assistance. 

LEBANON/YEMEN: Four Gulf states have pulled their ambassadors from Lebanon after the country’s information minister called the war in Yemen an “aggression” by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Some worry that the row could have serious economic consequences for Lebanon, a country in the midst of a debilitating financial crash.

NICARAGUA: Opposition leaders have called for a boycott of presidential elections on 7 November expected to be won by president Daniel Ortega for a fourth time. Ahead of the polls, Facebook said it banned a troll farm with over 1,000 government-controlled accounts aimed at manipulating public opinion. The increasing authoritarianism by Ortega and his wife and “co-president” Rosario Murillo has led to the detention or house arrest this year of seven opposition candidates, and seen a growing number of critics, including doctors, flee to neighbouring Costa Rica.

SUDAN: It has been a busy week for mediators trying to get a power-sharing government back on track following the 25 October coup. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, put under house arrest by coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is seen as central to reviving the transitional arrangement between civilians and the military. But popular neighbourhood committees, which have led resistance to the putsch in Khartoum, are demanding the full exit of the army from politics and the disbandment of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

TONGA: There are drought warnings across parts of the Pacific nation of Tonga – including its main island, Tongatapu – driven by below-average rainfall. The government warned there could be water shortages if dry conditions continue for another month. Like many Pacific nations, Tonga is at particular risk of disasters made more volatile by climate change, from cyclones to more unpredictable weather.

USAID: Samantha Power, USAID’s administrator, has laid out a new vision for the organisation’s approach to international development. While touted as “bold” by the agency, many themes are familiar to the aid policy crowd: an inclusion agenda and more diverse recruitment pools; putting at least a quarter of development funds directly in the hands of local partners within the next four years; ensuring half of every dollar spent places local communities in the lead by the end of the decade. Power also committed to ramping up global vaccine deliveries, and supporting President Joe Biden’s new climate resiliency and adaptation efforts

VENEZUELA: After meeting with President Nicolás Maduro,  the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor announced the opening of a formal investigation into alleged torture and extrajudicial killings by the government during 2017 protests – the first ICC action of its kind in Latin America. Just weeks ahead of regional and local elections, the Venezuelan president said he would cooperate but rejected the criteria for opening the probe, which Human Rights Watch called a “powerful wake-up call” for abusers and leaders who failed to act. 

YEMEN: Yemen’s Houthi rebels have made further advances towards the central Yemeni city of Marib, with aid groups warning that they are already unable to meet the massive and growing needs of people displaced by the violence.

Weekend read

How migrants and asylum seekers in Libya lost faith in foreign aid

Why do so many refugees in Libya no longer trust international aid groups? This is the question at the heart of our weekend read – a first person account by Libyan politics student and human rights defender Almoatassam Senoussi based on his efforts to help refugee and migrant communities in Tripoli. Senoussi details how they are subjected to widespread discrimination from the local population and deadly crackdowns by the provisional government, while also living in abject poverty without access to shelter and healthcare. Many try to carry on their journeys to Europe only to be returned in part because of the EU’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard. Any foreign assistance they do receive in Tripoli, they see as "a temporary, ineffective bandage” to their struggles, and some frankly don’t even want that anymore. “If we worked for an international aid group, many would have rejected our assistance,” writes Senoussi.

And finally…

How much money to solve world hunger?

Can $6 billion – or roughly two percent of Elon Musk’s wealth – solve world hunger? It certainly made for an interesting headline on a CNN article following an interview with UN World Food Programme boss David Beasley. Musk, the world’s richest person, wrote (on Twitter) that, “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it.” It should be noted that this was in response to a comment that WFP had raised over $8.4 billion in 2020 but had not solved world hunger yet, and that CNN later corrected its headline to say “help solve world hunger”. Of more import, though, was the ensuing Twitter thread between Musk and Beasley. When Musk added that he’d only do it through open-source accounting “so the public sees precisely how the money is spent”, Beasley seemed to backtrack. Interestingly, the viral thread saw a lot of people weighing in with their opinions on the aid industry, with many questioning why there’s such a lack of transparency and ineffective use of resources by aid organisations. As for Musk, he’s yet to pony up.

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