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Syria torture verdict, Darfur clashes, and a massacre in Tigray: The Cheat Sheet

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Louise O'Brien/TNH

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

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Landmark Syria torture verdict

A German court this week convicted a former member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, the first verdict in a case rights groups hope will pave the way for more trials related to the country’s 10-year war. Eyad al-Gharib was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for his role in arresting people who were later tortured. German prosecutors used the principle of “universal jurisdiction” to try al-Gharib and co-defendant Anwar Raslan. Countries that recognise universal jurisdiction can try cases involving war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide even when the alleged actions happened outside their borders and were perpetrated by or against non-nationals. A verdict for Raslan, a more senior security official accused of overseeing the torture of thousands of prisoners before he defected to the opposition, is expected later this year. For more on the case, and why it is important to investigators and victims, read our piece from last April.

Darfur clashes despite peace deal

Almost 200,000 people have been displaced in Sudan’s Darfur, just weeks after a peacekeeping mission had its mandate ended, and a few months after rebel movements in the western region signed a peace deal with the country’s transitional government. The New Humanitarian is currently on the ground in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state, which has been at the epicentre of recent clashes. In January, hundreds died after Arab militias attacked non-Arabs living in a displacement camp on the outskirts of the city. The displaced – mostly from the ethnic Masalit group – have since moved into the centre of El Geneina, occupying schools, mosques, university buildings, and empty backyards across the city. A slow-moving humanitarian response has left many without basic assistance for over a month. The Sudanese government has promised to protect civilians as the UN-African Union peacekeepers pull out, but communities here have little faith in local security forces, and appear to be arming themselves. Many fear a new phase of conflict is coming – in El Geneina and beyond. Look out for our upcoming reports from West Darfur for more.

Tigray massacre investigated

Eritrean troops killed scores of civilians in the Tigrayan town of Axum last November, according to Amnesty International. The massacre had been reported by activists and eye witnesses before, but evidence was scant. Amnesty reports that after Ethiopian and allied Eritrean troops took the town from the rebellious Tigray People’s Liberation Front, 10 days of looting, intimidation, and executions began. Amnesty received accounts of 240 killings, but could not confirm them in detail. Most killings, witnesses said, happened in retaliation for a 28 November raid by TPLF fighters, supported by some of the local population. Amnesty also found evidence of mass graves and indiscriminate shelling in satellite imagery. In response, Ethiopia’s human rights commission said it also had evidence of killings by Eritrean soldiers but had not completed its investigation. Eritrea denies the massacre, calling allegations “outrageous lies”. The Ethiopian government said it would investigate. Since the three-month war began, widespread human rights violations have been reported, while independent media and human rights visits are generally denied. Humanitarian needs are growing, and international aid groups say the response operation has not been allowed to scale up sufficiently.

Wealthy countries ‘undermine COVAX’

Ghana this week became the first country to receive COVID-19 vaccines through the UN-backed COVAX programme, which aims to ensure equal global access. But it comes more than two months after wealthier countries started vaccine rollouts. Rights groups and aid agencies have accused richer countries of vaccine-hoarding and queue-jumping in the rush to buy up early supplies. “It’s a very small, late start, when what we need right now is a massive injection of doses,” said Kate Elder, vaccine policy advisor with Médecins Sans Frontières. At the same time, India’s Serum Institute – the manufacturer providing 71 percent of the doses currently available to COVAX – is warning of delays to global supplies. The company has been “directed to prioritise the huge needs of India”, CEO Adar Poonawalla tweeted on 21 February. It’s unclear how this will affect COVAX distribution plans, which call for enough vaccines to cover 3.3 percent of participating countries’ populations by mid-2021. The World Health Organization's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that several high-income countries are directly approaching manufacturers, including the Serum Institute, even though they already have other deals in place. “These actions undermine COVAX,” Tedros said.

UK committee mulls the future of aid

Weeks after the British government announced its intent to slash its overseas aid budget by up to 70 percent, the parliament’s International Development Committee,  responsible for scrutinising the UK’s aid budget and policies, held an evidence session on 22 February for its forthcoming inquiry on the philosophy and culture of aid. The purpose was to better understand not only why the UK gives foreign aid, but also how aid delivery can be improved. The six witnesses called – from civil society and academia in the Global South and the UK – made it very clear what they believe is wrong with today’s model: power and decision-making inequities, systemic racism, and the lingering effects of colonialism. Among other challenges, they asked: Do current measurement models and tools – the logframe or Sphere Standards, for example – reflect what success looks like in the eyes of affected communities? Is direct implementation really the most effective role for international NGOs to play? Why does the current system value international expertise over indigenous knowledge? Do aid allocations prioritise the preferences of taxpayers, or those whose lives are impacted by them? Witness Arbie Baguios, founder of Aid Re-imagined, said the “ethical compass” of the upcoming inquiry should be steered by the values and interests of aid recipients. Baguios and another witness, Themrise Khan, recently laid out their visions for the Future of Aid as part of a series for TNH. For more, check out our Rethinking Humanitarianism coverage.

In case you missed it

EU/LIBYA: Already this year, around 3,600 asylum seekers and migrants have been intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard – compared to around 2,500 who have made it to Europe from Libya. Between 16 and 22 February, more than 1,300 people were intercepted, and at least 41 died in a shipwreck amid allegations the Libyan Coast Guard is increasingly interfering with rescue efforts by NGOs. People who are intercepted are placed in detention centres where they face extortion and abuse.

MALAYSIA: Malaysian authorities deported 1,086 detained migrants to Myanmar this week, defying a court order and drawing condemnation from rights groups and UN watchdogs. Rights groups say refugees and asylum seekers were among the group returned to Myanmar, where protests and crackdowns continue following the 1 February military coup.

NIGERIA: Police in northwestern Zamfara state say unidentified gunmen kidnapped more than 300 schoolgirls from a school in the town of Jangebe on 26 February, the latest in a string of similar abductions in recent months. For more on the lawlessness in the state, read Senior Africa Editor Obi Anyadike’s recent report.

PAKISTAN: Gunmen killed four aid workers this week in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, formerly a Pakistani Taliban stronghold that borders Afghanistan. UNICEF said the women were staff members of a local college outside the district. For a deep dive into the dangers facing humanitarians, read our 25-year timeline published this week.

RWANDA: An exiled Rwandan opposition politician has been shot dead in South Africa in what his party suspected could be a political “assassination”. Seif Bamporiki was killed as he delivered furniture in Nyanga, a tough Cape Town township. At least two other Rwandan dissidents have been murdered in South Africa over the years – including former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, who was strangled in a hotel room.

SAFEGUARDING: After three years of internal changes to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation in its work, Oxfam has been released from special regulatory controls. The England and Wales Charity Commission demanded reform after the NGO was revealed in 2018 to have mishandled abuse by its staff. The commission welcomed Oxfam’s progress, but said safeguarding is never “done”, and all charities must have “robust and effective” measures in place.

UIGHUR ‘GENOCIDE’: Canada’s parliament has voted overwhemingly to declare China’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs a “genocide”. Although the motion passed 266 to 0, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and most members of his cabinet abstained. The United States made a similar declaration recently, saying that China’s repression of the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity. Canada’s motion follows a BBC report alleging systematic rape, sexual abuse, and torture in China's "re-education” camps, where rights groups believe up to a million Uighurs and other minorities have been held. 

US/IRAN/IRAQ/SYRIA: President Joe Biden ordered what the Pentagon described as a “proportionate military response” to attacks against US and coalition personnel in Iraq, with airstrikes on 25 February hitting a number of facilities in eastern Syria used by Iran-backed militias.

YEMEN: Fighting has continued unabated around the Yemeni city of Marib, forcing thousands to flee their homes and prompting warnings that it could cause violence to spread further across the country and worsen the humanitarian crisis.

Weekend read

Latin American women battle shadow pandemic of gender-based violence

It’s not easy being a woman or a girl in Latin America – the region has some of the highest rates of femicide in the world – but the coronavirus pandemic has made it even harder. As Paula Dupraz-Dobias reports in our weekend read, gender-based violence has skyrocketed since the pandemic began, with numbers up by more than half in Colombia and Peru, and leaping too in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. To tackle this ‘shadow pandemic’, the UN has released $25 million in emergency funding, yet very little humanitarian funding to fight COVID-19 has been dedicated to fighting GBV. Lockdown restrictions have forced many clinics and shelters to close, making women and girls even more vulnerable. Violence also increased against transgender women and men. Despite some promising innovations – phone apps have been developed to alert authorities to violence, and code words are being used in some pharmacies – many challenges remain. One of those is tackling stubborn machismo attitudes and getting men to address the problem, as protesters demanded in Argentina this week. For more on how women and girls are faring in this and other crises, check out our SheSaid series of reporting, and don’t miss this week’s story from Kabul on why tuberculosis is affecting more women than men.

And finally…

West Africa’s piracy war

The piracy map of the International Maritime Bureau has a cluster of flags plonked in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea. That’s because it’s by far the most dangerous place in the world to be a seafarer – 130 of the 135 sailors taken hostage globally last year were taken in these waters. This “unprecedented rise” in the Gulf of Guinea drove a global increase of a third in piracy incidents in 2020 compared to 2019. The latest attack was in January, when a Turkish cargo ship, the M/V Mozart, was boarded. Although the crew got to the citadel, the most secure place on the ship, the pirates broke in, killed one sailor, and abducted 15. There has been a flurry of demands for action from European ministers and shipping lines. In response, the EU has introduced a “permanent maritime presence” to support regional security efforts. Nigeria, whose oil-producing Delta region is the centre of the piracy, is set to launch its long-awaited “Deep Blue Project” in the next few months. The $195 million procurement deal involves the deployment of two special mission vessels, aircraft, helicopters, and drones supplied by an Israeli security firm. That increased maritime capacity means Nigeria will have less need for the approximately 200 privately owned escort vessels manned by Nigerian naval personnel at a cost of $8,000 to $10,000 per day, Bloomberg reported.

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