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Omicron selfishness, record humanitarian needs, and a new republic: 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

Pandemic treaty talks begin, as Omicron highlights inequities

As the Omicron COVID-19 variant continues its global spread, World Health Organization (WHO) member countries agreed on 1 December to begin negotiations on an international pact to prevent and control future pandemics. Initially conceived as a legally binding treaty, a fuzzier proposal is expected to be ready by May 2024, covering issues from data sharing to equitable distribution of vaccines to drugs derived from research. The emergence of Omicron, first identified in South Africa in early November, has underlined the “‘me-first’ approaches that stymie the global solidarity needed to deal with a global threat”, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week. South Africa has felt “punished” for announcing the variant’s discovery, with countries banning flights to the southern Africa region. That has further damaged lockdown-bruised economies – even though there is still no clear evidence where Omicron originated, or how long it has been in circulation outside southern Africa. Tulio de Oliveira, the epidemiologist who led the South African team that sequenced the genome, tweeted that “border restrictions deter nations from alerting the world to future variants”. They also place a disproportionate burden on the lives and livelihoods of the world’s poorest, the WHO has warned. For more on South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination programme, read our full story.

Uganda chases ADF into Congo

Uganda has launched a cross-border military operation against the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The incursion, sanctioned by the Congolese government in Kinshasa, began with air and artillery strikes against ADF forest bases in Ituri and North Kivu provinces on 30 November. It’s unknown how many Ugandan troops are involved or the duration of the mission. The intervention follows a string of ADF attacks in Kampala, including a twin suicide bombing on 16 November that killed four people. The ADF, originally a Ugandan rebel group, has operated in DRC since the late 1990s and has links to so-called Islamic State. It has killed at least 2,000 civilians since 2017, but is believed to have some local support – and Congolese military connections. The Ugandan intervention has had a mixed reception in DRC. Some hope it will end the insurgency, although the ADF’s playbook is to avoid military confrontation and punish the civilian population. Others are concerned Kampala’s troop presence will trigger action by its regional rival, Rwanda. Both Kampala and Kigali have a long history of interference in the east.

How high can it go?

Humanitarians are requesting more money than ever – $41 billion – to reach 183 million people in need across 63 countries. The ask, from the UN’s 2022 Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO), is nearly double the amount requested in 2019. The number of people in need has grown exponentially – a 250 percent increase since 2015. The rise is due to a confluence of factors: rapidly escalating conflicts and crises in places like Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Afghanistan, where the budget for 2022 (4.44 billion) is more than three times that of 2021 (1.3 billion); mounting vulnerability due to climate change; and the knock-on effects of COVID-19, which have impacted almost every sector. Antenatal-care visits have fallen by 43 percent and 23 million children worldwide missed basic childhood vaccines in 2021, extreme poverty has seen an uptick after two decades in decline; 870 million students face disruptions to their education; food insecurity is at unprecedented levels, with up to 811 million people undernourished. The pandemic’s impacts show no signs of relenting, especially in humanitarian contexts – only 4 percent of the 7 billion vaccines administered have reached countries with a humanitarian response plan. This year, donors fell more than 50 percent short of what humanitarians requested. Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian chief, acknowledged in a press conference, “we are aware that we won’t get the $41 billion”. But as the needs continue to outstrip donors’ funding appetite, who will fill the gaps? And if no one ponies up, will the ask only grow ever bigger next year as needs are compounded? 

Idlib’s harsh winter

Temperatures have begun to drop for the winter in northwest Syria, at the same time as the Turkish lira – adopted last June in much of the rebel-held territory to avoid the negative impacts of inflation in the Syrian currency – crashes to new lows. This means the more than four million residents of the region, many of whom have already been forced to flee their homes and are without a stable income, are finding it even harder than usual to buy basics like food, fuel, and diapers for their kids – most of which are imported from Turkey. At the same time, aid groups are warning that people living in the camps in the northwest (as well as elsewhere in Syria, and in neighbouring Lebanon), will suffer as the grounds flood, and makeshift shelters leak or collapse from wind. The airstrikes that still kill civilians in and around Idlib are almost impossible to see coming, but the brutal – and sometimes deadly – exposure to winter weather has become all too predictable.

Latin America leads the way in post-COVID hunger spike

Latin America already had the unwanted distinction of being the region hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the scale of its health and economic fallout. It can now add rising hunger into that classification. A report by five UN agencies said the region, as well as the Caribbean, led global losses in terms of food insecurity in 2020. The 13.8 million additional people who went hungry in 2020 compared to 2019 – an increase of 30 percent – brought rates for Latin America and the Caribbean back to levels not seen in 15 years. For the region as a whole, the UN overview said hunger affected an estimated 267 million people, or 41 percent of the population, easily exceeding the global average of 30 percent. The rise accentuates a trend in the region that since 2015 had been running counter to a stabilisation of hunger elsewhere in the world – at least until the pandemic. Countries with the highest rates of hunger in 2020 were Haiti (46.8 percent), Venezuela (27.4 percent), and Nicaragua (19.3 percent), followed closely behind by Guatemala and Honduras, which were severely impacted by drought and hurricanes in 2020. Meanwhile, women, also confronted by rising gender violence during the pandemic, faced higher levels of moderate or severe food insecurity compared to men – at nearly 42 percent versus 32 percent.

Asylum seekers pay the price for EU-Belarus spat

The European Commission is being accused by human rights groups of weakening the EU’s asylum laws in response to the migration crisis manufactured by Belarus at the bloc’s eastern border. The proposal put forward on 1 December applies to member states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – which border Belarus – and allows for slower asylum procedures, a longer detention period, and accelerated returns of people whose claims are rejected. Right groups are concerned the changes will increase the likelihood of violations – such as pushbacks – and of people being subjected to sub-standard asylum procedures. In reality, the three member states are already carrying out pushbacks, prompting dozens of NGOs to call on the EU to “restore rights and values at Europe’s borders”. Meanwhile, hundreds of people are continuing to try to enter Poland from Belarus on a daily basis, while others are returning to their home countries via repatriation flights. Multiple observers have pointed out that the numbers attempting to enter the EU from Belarus are comparatively small and should not be a reason to weaken asylum protections. 

In case you missed it

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Rebel attacks in the northwest have killed at least 30 civilians and two soldiers, the government said on 30 November. It blamed the 3R (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation) group for simultaneous raids on the villages of Kaita and Bayengou, near the border with Cameroon. 3R, largely made up of Fulani fighters, is one of the country’s most powerful rebel groups, and there have been escalating clashes since the beginning of November with government troops and mercenary forces

COVID-19 AND MIGRATION: The world is experiencing a mobility paradox due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to IOM’s annual World Migration Report 2022, released on 1 December. The number of people internally displaced due to climate disasters, conflict, and violence increased from 31.5 million in 2019 to 40.5 million in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of people who migrated internationally in 2020 was around 2 million lower than it would have been without the pandemic, the report found. 

IRAQ/GERMANY: A court in Germany sentenced a former member of the so-called Islamic State to life in prison for genocide and other crimes on 30 November, in what is believed to be the first conviction for genocide against the Yazidi minority. The court decided that the Iraqi citizen killed a five-year-old enslaved girl because she was a remember of the ethno-religious group.

LEBANON: Lebanon has opened registration for cash assistance cards intended to help 700,000 families deal with the withdrawal of unofficial subsidies on basics like medication and fuel, but it is not clear if funding has been secured for all of the programme. A majority of the country has been thrown into poverty since a currency crash that began in late 2019.

MYANMAR: A report from Human Rights Watch alleges that the killing of at least 65 people during a March protest in Yangon calling for the reinstatement of the democratically-elected government was planned and premeditated. After interviews and video and photo reviews, HRW concluded that security forces had deliberately encircled the protesters before using lethal force.

RUSSIA/UKRAINE: Tensions are rising along the border as Ukraine accuses Russia of amassing 90,000-115,000 troops in preparation for a possible incursion. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, warned that Europe was returning to a “nightmare of military confrontation”. Experts are divided on where things are heading.

SUDAN/ETHIOPIA: Fighting flared in the disputed al-Fashaqa border region, with Khartoum claiming to have repulsed an attack by Ethiopian forces. Ethiopia denied it was involved and blamed Tigrayan rebels for the clashes. Fresh skirmishes in an already fragile region have raised concerns over the potential for escalation.

TOGO: Jihadist insurgents attacked the northern border town of Sanloaga on 11 November, the first known raid on the West African coastal country. The cross-border attack from Burkina Faso by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Group for Supporters of Muslims and Islam (JNIM), was repelled with no loss of life, the Lomé authorities said.

US/MEXICO: President Joe Biden’s administration will reinstate a controversial Trump-era migration policy known as “Remain in Mexico”, starting 6 December. The programme, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed, has been heavily criticised for restricting asylum access and putting people in harm's way. Biden called the programme inhumane during the 2020 presidential campaign and ended it shortly after taking office. However, a court order is forcing it to be restarted even as the administration still plans to shut it down once and for all. 

YEMEN: The Guardian reports that Saudi Arabia used “incentives and threats” in a lobbying campaign to stop the renewal of a UN investigation into alleged human rights abuses and war crimes in Yemen. A Saudi Arabia and United Emirates-led coalition backing Yemen’s internationally recognised government has been fighting Houthi rebels since early 2015. In October, the UN Human Rights Council voted against extending the inquiry’s mandate, which included investigating all parties in the war.

Weekend read

‘No room for dialogue’: How abuses by Niger’s foreign-funded army derail its anti-jihadist fight

Since 2016, Niger has battled a growing jihadist insurgency linked to a franchise of the so-called Islamic State, but at what cost? Foreign – mostly European – donors have spent heavily on strengthening and equipping the country’s security services. But in our weekend read by Giacomo Zandonini, Tomas Statius, and Moussa Aksar, local rights groups, aid officials, and foreign diplomats explain how the army has killed or disappeared, with impunity, hundreds of civilians during anti-jihadist operations. Grave atrocities were committed in Tillabéri in southwest Niger last year, but the lethargic response to such incidents from both the Nigerien government and its funders betrays a staggering lack of accountability. The EU’s claims that human rights are a priority don’t match its slow and disjointed actions, seen by analysts as shaped more by self-interest and turf wars with new actors like Russia than concerns for the safety of civilians. Local analysts say the abuses are validating militant groups and could drive recruitment, leading to even more deadly violence and muddying the chances of victory over the jihadist threat.

And finally…

The Republic of Barbados

A historic week for Barbados: The Caribbean island became a republic on 30 November, removing Queen Elizabeth II as its official Head of State while celebrating 55 years of independence. From now on, words such as crown and royal will no longer be used in official statements. The ceremony highlighted the role of women, from Prime Minister Mia Mottley; to the appointment of the first president, Dame Sandra Mason; to pop star Rihanna, who received the national hero honour

Barbados was an early slave colony of England. The sugar plantations were run brutally, with an estimated 400,000 enslaved people forcibly shipped in from West Africa. Barbados served as an example of how the British would run other colonies in the region. Also speaking at the ceremony was the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles. He acknowledged “the appalling atrocity which forever stains our history” during his speech at the celebrations. Mottley has long advocated for reparations to be paid to countries affected by Europe’s slavery and colonial past. 

The media has started a guessing game on which country will be next to follow in the footsteps of Barbados by renouncing the British queen.

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