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Nigeria aid rethink, Tigray access, and UN cronyism: The Cheat Sheet

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(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

Attack leads to aid ‘review’ in northeast Nigeria

An attack by jihadist fighters this week on the garrison town of Dikwa and its humanitarian hub is forcing aid agencies to rethink their deployment to all vulnerable “deep field” locations in northeastern Nigeria, a senior aid official told The New Humanitarian. Twenty-six aid workers were forced to shelter in the hub’s recently constructed bunker on 1 March – and into the next day – as the assault by Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) continued. It was the fourth attack this year on Dikwa – one of the Nigerian military’s so-called “super camps'' and where it has concentrated its forces. ISWAP ransacked and torched the hospital and the offices of several international NGOs in the town. They also assured residents they weren’t the targets and wouldn’t be harmed if they stayed indoors, and reportedly distributed money. Six civilians died in the fighting. Hussaini Abdu, CARE’s country director, who told TNH of the “review”, added, “there’s a feeling of helplessness: the realisation that we are targets for these people, and also that we can’t get protection from the government.” Aid work has been suspended in Dikwa, where close to 100,000 displaced people from the countryside have sheltered. Abdu said he was particularly shocked that the town's people vandalised aid offices after the attack. “Maybe it’s our own fault over how we engage with communities, but that really hurt,” he added. For more on the evolution of aid worker security globally, read our recent 25-year timeline.

UN asks Ethiopia to allow Tigray massacre probe

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called this week on the Ethiopian government to let independent monitors into Tigray to investigate possible war crimes. It comes as another massacre in the conflict-affected region was reported by CNN. The events, near a monastery called Maryam Dengelat, reportedly occurred over three days in late November, early December and fit a similar pattern to a 17 December massacre at Axum that had already been widely reported: Eritrean troops as the alleged perpetrators of extrajudicial killings alongside the Ethiopian government’s campaign against the rebel Tigray People Liberation Front. But all the armed groups involved are accused of abuses. Civilian demonstrators were allegedly shot and killed by security forces in the second week of February, according to the UN's human rights office. A lengthy government statement committed to human rights investigations, and better humanitarian and media access. But while food assistance deliveries and aid worker travel permissions have increased for Tigray, supplies are far from reaching all those in need, the UN says. Humanitarian access remains "highly restricted", and there has been large-scale looting of aid supplies and facilities, according to the updates from the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, which estimates that only about 79 percent of the 4.5 million people needing help are in accessible or "partially accessible" areas. Eritrean troops, who are also accused of looting and other civilian abuses, remain on the ground.

‘We are used to sanctions’: Myanmar’s coup veers to violence

Myanmar’s security forces are suppressing countrywide anti-coup demonstrations with “shoot to kill” tactics that may amount to crimes against humanity, rights watchdogs say. Security forces shot and killed dozens of peaceful protesters this week as the crackdown on demonstrations against the 1 February coup violently escalated. The UN’s Human Rights Office said it documented at least 54 deaths by 4 March, though other groups say the numbers are higher. With violence rising, aid groups working in Myanmar are facing internal questions about how to deal with military authorities, aid workers told TNH. Cash shortages, sporadic access, and pressure on frontline staff are also squeezing aid to hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar’s remote conflict zones. The UN Security Council was set to meet for an emergency session on 5 March. But foreign governments’ statements promising tough action on Myanmar’s junta have been “empty rhetoric” and even counter-productive, some analysts say. Following discussions with the army this week, the UN’s special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said she warned military officials that strong Security Council measures may be on the horizon. Their response: “We are used to sanctions… we have to learn to walk with only [a] few friends,” Schraner Burgener told reporters.

Hold the presses and put down the ironing, it’s almost International Women’s Day

Yes, that headline was written by TNH’s ‘lady’ investigations editor and meant to be provocative. The day (8 March) was celebrated – or ignored, as Wikipedia points out – as early as 1908, but only officially recognised by the UN in 1977. Even so, most countries mark the day in name only (Good luck trying to find an International Women’s Day greeting card). While it’s nice to have a designated day to acknowledge women’s many achievements and push for more change, recent headlines speak volumes about the continuing struggles for women and girls – particularly in the pandemic era. Rates of gender-based violence, including femicides, have spiked. Reproductive health and freedoms have been rolled back in many countries. And women and girls are doing more unpaid work now than they ever have. Sexual abuse and exploitation has also continued in aid settings, despite pledges of “zero tolerance” policies by the UN and NGOs, and there has been little help from donor countries willing to contribute money to programmes meant to tackle the problem. But it hasn’t been all bad for women. There are a record number of female political leaders. Argentina also just legalised abortion, and it may soon be legalised in Haiti. In Afghanistan, too, a new law allows for mothers’ names to be included on children’s birth certificates and ID cards – a significant change that gives added rights to women, especially those who have been widowed or fighting custody battles. Glass half full? You be the judge. Read more of our coverage

Five deaths at Syria’s al-Hol camp

Médecins Sans Frontières said this week that one of its staff members had been killed in the tent where they lived in al-Hol, the camp in northeast Syria that is home to around 64,000 people, including both supporters of the so-called Islamic State and those who fled the group. It is not exactly clear how the MSF aid worker was killed in the 24 February incident, but just a few days later three children and one woman were killed when a fire broke out at the camp, which has become known for desperate and dangerous conditions. “Accidental fires are not uncommon” in al-Hol, according to the UN, as people bring cooking stoves inside their tents in the cold winter. In addition, tensions have been running high for some time: MSF says there have been more than 30 killings in the camp since January. Some Syrians have been allowed to leave al-Hol and return home in the past few months, but the future for those left behind – especially an estimated 10,000 children and their mothers from foreign countries that don’t want them back – remains grim.

From sea rescues to prison?

Prosecutors in Sicily have charged more than 21 people from three search and rescue NGOs with allegedly collaborating with people smugglers in the central Meditarranean in incidents from 2016 and 2017. The NGOs – Save the Children, MSF, and Jugend Rettet – deny any wrongdoing and say the charges are part of a years-long pattern of Italian authorities criminalising civilian search and rescue efforts. If convicted, the people charged could face up to 20 years in prison. A separate Sicilian prosecutor’s office opened a similar investigation into another NGO last week, bringing the number of legal actions taken against organisations conducting search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean to at least 10 in the past year.

In case you missed it

AMERICAS: Parts of Central and South America have become COVID-19 epicentres, but they’re at the back of the vaccine queue, the Pan American Health Organization warned this week. Coronavirus cases are rapidly rising in parts of Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Panama, and Brazil. Areas with large Indigenous populations are especially struggling with overloaded clinics and health systems on the verge of collapse, said PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne.

DENMARK: The Danish government revoked the residency permits of 94 Syrian refugees from Damascus after declaring the city and surrounding countryside “safe” for refugees to return to, becoming the first European country to do so. Human rights organisations strongly condemned the move. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad remains in power after a nearly decade-long civil war that has decimated the country’s economy and seen him imprison and torture tens of thousands people and allegedly use chemical weapons against civilians. 

THE HORN OF AFRICA: At least 20 people drowned after smugglers reportedly forced 80 migrants and refugees off of a boat travelling from Djibouti to Yemen on 3 March. Although traffic dropped significantly due to COVID-19 in 2020, the passage from the Horn of Africa to Yemen is one of the busiest maritime migration routes in the world despite the dangerous security situation in Yemen

IRAQ: The Iraqi parliament passed a law granting compensation and other support to Yazidi women survivors of the so-called Islamic State. Activists have been pushing the bill for years, but some have cautioned that implementing the bill is likely to be a challenge. 

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: The International Criminal Court announced it was opening an investigation into war crimes committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since June 2014, a time period that includes the 2014 Gaza war between Israel, Hamas, and other affiliated Palestinian groups.

PACIFIC: Unusually low wet-season rains caused by La Niña conditions are driving food security warnings for Kiribati, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. The La Niña phenomenon typically brings cooler temperatures, though the effects vary wildly across the globe. Forecasts from aid groups working on food security in the Pacific also warn there could be more cyclones than usual – hitting Fiji, Vanuatu, or Solomon Islands – before the end of the storm season in April. 

SOMALIA: The UN Security Council has extended the mandate of the African Union’s peacekeeping mission, known as AMISOM, by an extra two weeks to 14 March. The withdrawal of the 20,000 AU troops was due to have begun last month and be completed by December. But political instability in Somalia over a delayed election is behind the pause, with Somalia’s re-trained 13,000-strong army deemed still too fragile.

SYRIA: Rights groups have filed a complaint in France that requests a criminal investigation into the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks in Syria’s Douma and Eastern Ghouta. The complaint alleges that President al-Assad and senior officials were responsible for the attacks. A similar complaint was filed in Germany last October.

Weekend read

EXCLUSIVE: The biggest Yemen donor nobody has heard of

After nearly six years of war, Yemenis are facing intensifying violence, widespread hunger, and economic collapse. Humanitarians are warning, again, of famine, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday that it’s “impossible to overstate the severity of the suffering”. But the gravity of the situation doesn’t appear to have convinced donor governments to open their wallets, as earlier the same day a conference raised just $1.67 billion in pledges for the 2021 UN-coordinated aid response, far short of the $3.85 billion needed. The UK has come in for particular criticism for not doing its part, including from Tory backbenchers, after it slashed its contribution to the relief effort in half. As Senior Editor Ben Parker and Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod explain in our weekend read, underfunding has already forced aid groups in Yemen to cut food rations and shutter some aid programmes. But there’s a mysterious new player on the scene called the Famine Relief Fund, and it could be looking to change all this. Managed by big names in the aid world, it appears to have hundreds of millions of dollars to give towards stemming hunger, and fast. But so far there are more questions than answers when it comes to this new fund, including a biggie: Where’s all the money coming from?

And finally…

Shaking things up at the UN

António Guterres is seeking another five-year term as the top UN chief. The tenure of the 71-year-old former UN high commissioner for refugees and ex-prime minister of Portugal ends on 31 December 2021. Guterres is the ninth UN secretary-general. All nine have been men. This year, the incumbent faces some unexpected competition. Arora Akanksha, a 34-year-old Indian-Canadian UN staffer, has thrown her hat into the ring. With no diplomatic experience, only four years with the UN, and no formal member state endorsements, her candidacy is a longshot. But she’s causing a stir, and maybe that’s her point. As both a millennial and a woman, she would bring a fresh worldview to the position. The historically opaque SG appointment process changed in 2015 to become more open and inclusive. But the ultimate decision still comes down to the will of the “P5” permanent members of the Security Council, frustrating groups like 1 for 7 billion who say there’s still a long way to go for full transparency and accountability. For more in a similar vein, read TNH’s Editorial calling for a fair and meritocratic process to replace the blatant cronyism surrounding the UN’s top humanitarian position.

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