Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Vaccine equity is the new global challenge, and Western countries are scrambling to fend off accusations of selfishness. Just 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all COVID-19 vaccinations, while 130 countries have received none at all. In the new soft power competition, China is pointing out it is exporting more doses than it shoots into the arms of its own people. Taking up the vaccine diplomacy challenge, France this week proposed that five percent of vaccines from G7 nations should be sent to poorer countries. The UK, which along with the United States, has ordered four times more than it needs – says it will donate surplus doses. The US, though, is skipping joining the equitable rollout bandwagon until there is “sufficient supply” to meet its domestic demand. It has, however, announced a $2 billion donation to COVAX, the vaccine funding facility. Pricing is an additional sore point for poorer countries, who are paying far more for doses than Western nations. South Africa and India are leading demands for a patent waiver that would allow cheaper global generic production.
A rebel advance in Yemen
Houthi rebels have stepped up their advance on the central Yemeni city of Marib, leading to heavy ground fighting, shelling, airstrikes, an unknown number of deaths, and putting thousands of civilians – maybe hundreds of thousands – in the line of fire. Until last year, Marib and the gas-rich wider province had been relatively calm, a base for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthis but also home to many people (as many as a million, UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council this week) who have fled other parts of the country and may now have to go on the run again. If it continues, the offensive is likely to be catastrophic for these people, many of whom are already struggling to get the aid they need. Taking Marib would also be a major strategic victory for the rebels, likely reducing any incentive they may have left to negotiate in Yemen’s war, which has been disastrous for civilians on pretty much every level. As Martin Griffiths, the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, put it: “The quest for territorial gain by force threatens all of the prospects of the peace process.”
Afghanistan: Troop deadlines and conditional aid
Afghanistan’s next make-or-break moment is fast approaching: 1 May is the deadline for the United States and other countries to withdraw all military forces, based on last year’s US-Taliban peace deal. President Joe Biden’s administration is conducting a “thorough review” of the Trump-era deal, and NATO allies are weighing what to do with their own forces. After a meeting of the alliance’s defence ministers this week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there was still “no final decision”. The NATO “Resolute Support” mission has about 10,000 troops from 36 countries remaining in Afghanistan; the US says 2,500 Americans are left, mostly under the US-led NATO mission. Either option – a full withdrawal, or breaking the Taliban agreement – is volatile. Yet emphasising “either/or” military scenarios overlooks other developments. There’s the repeatedly stalled peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which some analysts say needs more support. And making international aid conditional on issues directly affecting Afghans most at risk – protecting women’s rights, ensuring girls can attend school, for example – is another untested lever reflected in donor policy. A new report on gender equity by SIGAR, the US Congress-appointed watchdog, suggests making US assistance “to any future Afghan government” conditional on women’s rights. And a briefing by the ODI think tank points to a December education deal between UNICEF and the Taliban: “That the Taliban is willing to negotiate a national agreement with a UN agency demonstrates its desire for aid – and international recognition,” the report stated, while noting it’s unclear “how the Taliban would react to donor conditions on aid in the future”.
What happened to the UK national accused of child rape in Congo?
When a British national serving in a UN peacekeeping mission was accused of raping a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Kingdom could have sought criminal charges. It didn’t, according to campaign group Code Blue. The girl’s mother reported the alleged rape in 2017. When Congolese authorities chose not to pursue the case, the girl’s mother went to MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. It was only after the UN launched its own investigation that the man – a civilian – was reportedly fined and dismissed, Code Blue said, citing the director of the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, Ben Swanson. Because Congolese authorities didn’t pursue the case – and the UN can’t prosecute crimes – the United Kingdom could have chosen to exercise “extraterritorial jurisdiction” because of the man’s nationality. It is unclear what, if any, actions the UK took to investigate or pursue criminal charges. Scandals involving UN peacekeepers or aid workers involved in sexual abuse and exploitation continue to make headlines. Late last year, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office committed to tackling sexual abuse and exploitation, and putting “victims, survivors and whistle-blowers first”. The FCDO did not immediately respond to The New Humanitarian for comment.
Turkey/PKK tensions raise fears of Sinjar offensive
Tensions are running high in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where Turkey blames the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the recent deaths of 13 Turkish hostages in a cave, while the PKK blames Turkish air raids. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to intensify ongoing military operations against the group, which has been waging an insurgency inside Turkey for decades, saying: “We will smash them in their caves.” Turkey has already been targeting Kurdish militants in northern Iraq and northern Syria for months, with civilians caught in the middle (as they so often have been in clashes inside Turkey). Now there’s growing concern that Turkey will go all in against PKK-allied groups in Sinjar, the historic homeland of the Yazidis, where the so-called Islamic State infamously killed and abducted thousands of people and forced the rest into flight. This could be extremely complicated, given the various armed groups operating in the area. It would also likely be devastating for those Yazidis who have returned to Sinjar, many of whom are already struggling with a lack of jobs, housing, and much-needed mental healthcare.
Debt reshuffle leads to downgrades
Trade reductions, welfare spending, and recession due to COVID-19 have increased the chances of debt defaults among low- and middle-income countries. The G20 Common Framework is meant to widen the scope of debt suspension measures taken so far, given the scale of vulnerabilities in the wake of the pandemic. But despite signalling it will renegotiate its borrowing on the terms set by the G20, Ethiopia has already been downgraded by debt ratings agencies. Chad and Zambia also want to reduce their debt service burden under the same framework, according to Reuters. Even though the likely renegotiations have the blessing of the G20, commercial bondholders may be less likely to recover their investment; hence the downgrade. Private investors hold a major share of sovereign debt. Downgrades make it harder for countries to borrow, and measures agreed earlier in 2020 to help countries struggling to keep up with servicing their debt did not include some major creditors, including China, which only postponed, and did not cancel any debt.
In case you missed it
COLOMBIA: Nearly five years after Colombia’s peace accords set in motion a process to investigate crimes during the country’s long conflict, a special court has found that 6,400 civilians were killed by the military and made out to be enemy combatants between 2002 and 2008. This is almost three times the number of so-called “false positives” acknowledged by the public prosecutor’s office over a far longer period.
FACEBOOK: MSF, Save the Children, and the Red Cross were among dozens of nonprofits hit by a row between Facebook and the Australian government. Charities’ pages were blocked and links to their websites denied as Facebook said it was restricting “news pages” to be covered by a future law obliging the company to pay publishers. Facebook reinstated only some of the non-media pages it had restricted.
GUINEA: A new outbreak of Ebola emerged in the southeast of the country last week and is believed to have killed five people (full confirmation is awaited), with two others seriously ill. Close to 19,000 vaccines are on their way, and an inoculation programme could start by 22 February. The World Health Organization has called on six neighbouring countries to be on alert over the possible spread of the virus.
MALAYSIA: Some 1,200 people locked in immigration detention in Malaysia could be deported to Myanmar in the middle of a volatile military coup. Malaysia says the group does not include refugees, but rights groups say the UN’s refugee agency hasn’t had access to detainees since 2019. They’re calling for authorities to stop the planned 23 February deportations. Refugees and asylum seekers were swept up in arrests and xenophobia as Malaysia’s coronavirus lockdowns escalated through 2020.
NIGERIA: More than 40 people, including students and teachers, were abducted on 17 February when armed men wearing military fatigues stormed a government secondary school in north-central Niger State. One student was killed in the assault. It is the second mass abduction in three months. Insecurity continues to deteriorate despite the government replacing all of the armed forces’ service chiefs last month.
SYRIA: A new report from the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria looks back at the last 10 years of war, finding that “parties to the conflict have perpetrated the most heinous violations of international humanitarian law and… abuses of international human rights law” that are likely to constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.
UNITED STATES: The Biden administration has begun the process of admitting asylum seekers to the US who were forced to wait in Mexico under the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy. More than 65,000 people were sent to Mexico under the programme, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols. Around 25,000 still have active claims and will be gradually admitted to the US for the duration of the asylum process after being tested for the coronavirus.
VACCINE HESITANCY: Demand for COVID-19 vaccines far exceeds global supplies, but vaccine hesitancy could soon become “the primary obstacle to global immunity”, warn researchers at the Duke Global Health Innovation Centre. They point to multi-country surveys that suggest rising reluctance to vaccinate. “If this is the case, we will soon find that producing enough vaccines does not translate to enough vaccinations,” the researchers said.
This week marks a decade since the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, but Libyan civilians have still not seen anything that resembles real peace. As Sara Creta reports in our weekend read, even before a year of fighting that began in April 2019, one Libyan town called Tarhouna was suffering under the brutal rule of a militia called the Kaniyat. The group fled last June, leaving behind mass graves, as well as stories of torture, killings, and forced disapearances. Even with the militiamen gone, life is far from back to normal: Homes are destroyed, people are still looking for loved ones, and those who supported the militia – or were perceived to have done so – have taken shelter 1,000 kilometres away and don’t know if they will ever be able to return. Forensic investigators are carefully documenting the evidence of atrocities committed in Tarhouna, but without money to test DNA or a functioning justice system, some wonder how the town can move forward if it doesn’t deal with its past. The same question can be asked of Libya itself, which now has a ceasefire and an interim government, but no mechanisms to reconcile its years of chaos. Hear directly from people in Tarhouna thanks to immersive audio collected from the ground, and see their lives depicted in powerful photographs by Nada Harib.
Out on a limb
Valentine’s Day turned sour for the UN’s agency for women after it was pressured to remove and apologise for an animation intended to celebrate diversity in love. A GIF of three couples featured a seventh person, a Black woman alone on the side, hugging herself. After criticism online saying the portrayal was racist, UN Women withdrew the posting and apologised, agreeing the image “unintentionally played into a negative stereotype of a Black Woman”.
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