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Yemen starvation, Tigray rebel abuses, and Afghanistan’s crisis within: 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

Starvation as a war crime in Yemen

Yemen’s six and a half year war has – when the public has paid attention – perhaps become best known for causing widespread hunger that has hovered on the brink (but not yet met the official definition of) famine. As this newly released report from Yemeni watchdog group Mwatana and international legal partnership Global Rights Compliance explains, the use of starvation as a method of war is actually a war crime, albeit one that is difficult to prove and prosecute. It’s also a crime that may have been committed by both main parties in Yemen’s war: the Saudi Arabia- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition, as well as Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthi rebels). This meticulous report looks at everything from the bombings of fishing boats, to the landmines that have prevented civilians from accessing food and water, to the obstruction of “indespensible aid, including food”. It is long and may get into the weeds on legal details, but it also shows the very human side of every single incident it documents – like how the destruction of one water pump can throw an entire village into crisis. 

Abuses multiply as Tigray rebels advance

US officials have blamed Tigrayan forces for looting aid warehouses in the Amhara region, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced during a recent rebel offensive. Sean Jones, the head of USAID in Ethiopia, told state television the rebels “have caused a great deal of destruction” in every village they have entered in Amhara. Media reports have also documented extrajudicial executions committed by rebels as they expand the 10-month conflict to new parts of Ethiopia. Criticism of military forces had previously centred on Ethiopian troops and their allies, which first entered Tigray in November 2020. The federal coalition withdrew from the region – amid battlefield losses – in late June, but Addis Ababa has since blocked aid convoys from entering. No humanitarian trucks have reached those in need since 22 August, according to the UN, which blamed “logistical and bureaucratic impediments” for the delay. Some 100 trucks a day are thought to be needed to avert the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade.

Donor funds tilt to Afghan neighbours, as crisis builds within

About 16,500 and rising – that’s the improbably low number of Afghans who have reached neighbouring countries this year as of 1 September, the UN’s refugee agency estimates. UNHCR says it’s almost certainly a vast undercount. But aid agencies – and Western donors – are making contingency plans for a far greater outflow. Aid groups are prepping a $300 million response plan for a potential “worst-case scenario” where 515,000 cross to border countries like Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Donors, too, are queued up, with millions already announced in plans that are clearly geared – some more explicitly than others – towards keeping Afghans in the region (and not on the migration trail to Europe). But fear of the Taliban is not the only thing that might drive displacement – either internally or across borders. Afghanistan is in the throes of a severe drought, the economy is cratering, and food prices are soaring. On top of this, public healthcare may be on the brink of collapse because donors have frozen funds, according to the Afghan NGOs that power the system in rural areas. For donors, funding anything in Afghanistan is politically precarious with the Taliban at the helm. But as plans gear up in nearby countries, many are warning of a humanitarian catastrophe within Afghanistan – which may well push people to leave their homes after all.

Extent of Haiti quake needs emerges

The UN has appealed for funding to cope with Haiti’s escalating humanitarian needs after last month’s 7.2-magnitude earthquake, which killed more than 2,200 people, injured more than 12,000, and destroyed some 53,000 homes. It estimates that 650,000 people are in need of emergency assistance. Access to safe water is a rising concern – the temblor weakened water and sanitation lines that were already damaged by the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. UNICEF is also warning of continued delays in children’s education – already disrupted over the past two years by political insecurity and COVID-19. Healthcare also remains a concern, with nearly 60 hospitals in the southern peninsula destroyed or damaged. In addition to treating the injured, an estimated 18,000 women are due to give birth over the next six months and 28,000 more are currently pregnant. Some may need emergency caesarean sections. Access also continues to thwart aid delivery. Gangs, which have displaced roughly 19,000 people, have been blocking transport routes out of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Some roads and bridges also remain closed. Even before the 14 August earthquake, nearly half of the Caribbean country’s population – 4.4 million people – were facing acute food insecurity. Those needs are expected to grow. 

A political thaw in Venezuela?

Facing a political standstill, waning support from some of its international supporters, and local politicians clambering to run for office, Venezuela’s opposition announced it will now participate in November’s regional and municipal elections. Three years after it began boycotting elections organised by the government of President Nicolás Maduro, Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader recently released from detention, said “a process of coexistence” was needed between the two sides. The shift in tactics comes as the government and opposition begin Norway-brokered talks in Mexico and amid an ongoing humanitarian crisis that has driven out 5.6 million people, mostly to other countries in the region. A worrying rise in COVID-19 cases has led a local health NGO to demand that the government declare a national emergency. Meanwhile, Venezuelan bishops issued a terse message to authorities following devastating landslides that affected 35,000 people and caused 20 deaths, saying the National Guard was impeding aid distribution.

Mapped: 50 years of weather-related disasters

The number of disasters has increased by a factor of five over the past 50 years. That’s according to the World Meteorological Organization’s new atlas – a statistical overview of global impacts from extreme weather, climate- and water-related hazards between 1970 and 2019. The more than 11,000 related disasters during the period accounted for over two million deaths and $3.64 trillion in economic losses. Over 90 percent of deaths occurred in developing economies, with drought being the deadliest hazard overall. But it’s not all bad news. Deaths due to disasters have decreased by almost threefold over the five decades, which the report attributes to improvements in early warning systems. Still, only half of the 193 WMO members have multi-hazard early warning systems and, the report notes, severe gaps remain in weather observation capabilities, especially in Africa and island states. 

In case you missed it

CÔTE D'IVOIRE: A new laboratory test has found no evidence of Ebola in the samples of a patient thought to be the country’s first case of the disease in 25 years. The suspected case involved a young woman who travelled from Guinea to Côte d’Ivoire. A separate suspected case of Ebola in neighbouring Burkina Faso was also found to be negative this week after laboratory testing in Senegal. 

GREECE: The EU’s executive body, the European Commission, has refused a Greek request for additional border protection funding due to concerns about human rights abuses against asylum seekers and migrants, according to the German news website Der Spiegel. Human rights monitors have accused Greece of systematically pushing asylum seekers and migrants back from the country’s land and sea borders since March last year. The EU reportedly wants to link additional funding to the establishment of a mechanism to monitor fundamental rights at Greece’s borders. 

KASHMIR: Parts of Indian-administered Kashmir plunged back into darkness as Indian authorities enforced lockdowns and internet blackouts following the death of Syed Ali Geelani, a prominent separatist leader. Geelani, 91, died at his home on 1 September. Kashmir spent months without internet following August 2019 crackdowns. High-speed mobile internet was only restored this year.

KENYA: The government has admitted its daily statistics on COVID-19 deaths are an underestimate. The health ministry said it can only confirm the cause of deaths that occur in hospitals; only a few post-mortems are performed in the wider community. That’s the case in much of Africa, and, as a result, the impact of COVID-19 is “vastly underestimated”, according to a study in the BMJ medical journal.

MYANMAR: Monsoon floods and post-coup conflict are combining to aggravate food insecurity across parts of Myanmar. Floods have hit at least 125,000 people since late July, according to the UN, which also reports food shortages in displacement sites in Rakhine and northern Shan states.

NIGERIA: Northwestern Zamfara State has closed all primary and secondary schools after the latest abduction of more than 70 students by “bandits”. A curfew has also been imposed as the government struggles to restore order in a region roiled by attacks on towns and villages, and mass kidnappings. According to UNICEF, at least 950 students have been taken from their schools by armed men since December. 

SEXUAL ABUSE: An independent investigation into sex abuse allegations against Ebola aid workers is expected to wrap up next week in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The probe was triggered by an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. More than 70 women said they were lured into sex for work schemes, with the majority accusing World Health Organization workers. An independent commission, which had initially been expected to present its report in late August, said the findings would now be presented later this month. 

SOMALIA: The African Union is set to deploy a “reconfigured” peacekeeping force to Somalia when the mandate of the current operation – AMISOM – expires at the end of the year. AMISOM has been in Somalia since 2007, defending a string of weak governments against the jihadist group al-Shabab. Without African Union troops, it is believed the capital, Mogadishu, could fall in a matter of days

SYRIA: A new deal came into force on 1 September intended to calm recent fighting in southwestern Syria’s Daraa, where tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee since late July and others are besieged. The details of the agreement have not all been revealed, but it appears similar to one the Syrian government and its Russian allies struck with rebels in 2018.

SYRIA: The World Food Programme said on 31 August that a three-truck convoy carrying 9,600 food rations arrived in rebel-held Idlib from Syrian government-held Aleppo. Aid convoys across front lines (rather than from other countries into Syria) have been difficult to organise and often obstructed by the government, but Russia has been pressing for their renewed use (while, for now, still allowing aid to come into the northwest from Turkey). 

UNITED STATES: President Joe Biden has called for a “historic investment” to tackle the climate crisis after flash flooding and tornadoes caused by Hurricane Ida claimed at least 45 lives on the US East Coast, from Maryland to New York – many of the casualties were in basement flats and lower-income neighbourhoods.

Weekend read

Five years on, Colombia’s coca regions remain at war and distrust is growing

On 24 August 2016, in Havana, Cuba, a landmark accord was announced between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the left-wing rebel group known as FARC. At the heart of the agreement – in addition to FARC demobilisation and reintegration, and victims’ rights and reparations – were two other main planks: comprehensive rural development, and a move away from the militaristic drug war. But five years on, the government is launching airstrikes and deploying special forces, Colombia is producing more cocaine than ever, and violence is soaring. For our weekend read, Joshua Collins travelled to Catatumbo – one of the main coca-producing areas and deadliest conflict zones in the country – to find out why. People there blamed the government for the renewed militarisation and for failing to deliver on the promises of the 2016 deal – not just on crop substitution programmes for coca, but also on schools, jobs, and health clinics.

And finally…

When Ban Ki-Moon got it wrong 

Columbia University Press has agreed to revise the next reprint of former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s memoir, “Resolved: United Nations in a Divided World”. Part of the book touches on the Haiti cholera outbreak that killed an estimated 10,000 people, and was linked back to UN peacekeepers. The Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, which represented some of the victims in a lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed in US courts, challenged what it said were several inaccuracies, as well as the tone of the overall cholera section. Ban, for example, notes that he was “incredulous” that a lawsuit could be filed against him and the UN. Justine Evans of Columbia University Press told The New Humanitarian that “minor factual changes” would be made, including the date the lawsuit was filed, but did not specify what other revisions would be made. Sandra Wisner, a senior attorney with the IJDH, said CUP also agreed to clarify the number of plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit, the amount of damages sought, and to remove a reference that “several” of the lawyers were seasoned class action lawyers. Although Ban issued an apology for the cholera outbreak – it took six years – only five percent of the some $400 million promised to help victims has been raised. “It is another blemish on the UN's legacy in Haiti of introducing cholera, denying its responsibility, and refusing to remedy victims,” Wisner said. 

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It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.

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