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Sri Lankan unrest, Lebanese elections, and disgust at Abu Akleh’s killing: 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

Outrage, sadness at killing of Palestinian journalist

Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh will be buried in her home city of Jerusalem on 13 May (after the Cheat Sheet goes to press), the day after she received state honours in Ramallah. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in attendance alongside thousands of mourners, laid the blame for the iconic newswoman’s killing – during an Israeli army raid on 11 May in the occupied West Bank – squarely at Israel’s feet, saying it was “fully responsible” for her death. Eyewitnesses say Abu Akleh was wearing a vest clearly marked “PRESS”, and Israeli forces shot her nonetheless. Another Palestinian journalist, Ali al-Samoudi, was shot in the back and is in a stable condition. Israeli officials first said Abu Akleh was “likely” to have been killed by “indiscriminate fire” from Palestinian militants, but later said both sides had been firing. They added that a joint investigation (ruled out by the PA, and the efficacy and honesty of which is questioned by rights group B’Tselem) would be needed to determine what really happened. Abu Akleh’s death comes at a time of escalating tensions and violence, and around the one year anniversary of last year’s devastating Gaza war: Two Palestinian attackers killed three Israelis in an axe and knife attack on 5 May. Starting in March, a string of similar deadly attacks on Israelis have corresponded with lethal Israeli military raids in places like Jenin, where Abu Akleh was doing her dangerous job, as she had for decades, when she was killed.

A resignation and a violent unravelling in Sri Lanka

After two months of worsening protests, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has resigned – though his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is refusing to step down. In the worst violence yet, pro-Rajapaksa mobs on 9 May assaulted protesters, leading to at least seven deaths and more than 250 injuries. Anti-government mobs set fire to the Rajapaksa family home, and several properties associated with the family and its supporters. Citing the escalating violence, the military has given security forces “shoot-to-kill” orders and permission to carry out warrantless arrests. Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in decades has seen steeply rising food and fuel costs, and a fatal lack of medical supplies. Government efforts to secure credit lines for the badly cash-strapped nation have failed to lessen the individual economic pressures. President Rajapaksa’s continued refusal to resign has angered many Sri Lankans, who lay the crisis at the feet of the Rajapaksa government – blaming them for systemic corruption and fiscal mismanagement.

All change, apart from political power, as Lebanon heads to the polls

Lebanese inside the country head to polls this weekend (expats voted last week), choosing a new parliament for the first time since 2018. Much has changed since the last elections: Massive anti-government protests broke out in October 2019, in part prompted by a government plan to tax WhatsApp calls to raise revenue in the face of a flagging currency and a shortage of dollars. Then, COVID-19 hit, and by the time a massive deadly explosion tore through Beirut’s port in August 2020, economic collapse had already set in. The Lebanese lira has now lost 90 percent of its value, some 80 percent of the population has been pushed into poverty, and prices of just about everything have gone up. That includes bread, and on Tuesday the World Bank approved a $150 million loan to help Lebanon keep buying wheat and stabilise prices. While there are candidates for change on the electoral lists, Lebanon’s political system is set up in a way that almost ensures the same religious and political elite will remain in power. Those are the same people and institutions that, in a damning report, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights named as “responsible for human rights violations, including the unnecessary immiseration of the population, that have resulted from this man-made crisis”.

The UK’s bad asylum example

The first asylum seekers slated to be sent to Rwanda under a controversial new policy will be informed this week by the UK Home Office. The policy, introduced last month, aims to deter people from crossing the English Channel to seek protection by sending those who irregularly enter the UK to Rwanda for their asylum claims to be assessed. A top UK immigration official told lawmakers that Ukrainians who enter the UK irregularly from Ireland, which has lifted visa requirements for those fleeing Russia’s invasion, could also be deported under the scheme. However, implementing the policy could prove difficult: A first legal challenge has already been lodged, and the Home Office has admitted that LGBTQI+ asylum seekers could face persecution if sent to Rwanda. Meanwhile, the threat of deportation to Rwanda is already negatively impacting the physical and mental health of asylum seekers, according to advocates. And the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is worried that other European countries will attempt to follow the UK’s lead. In fact, Denmark has already said it also intends to start sending asylum seekers to Rwanda – those plans will likely face legal challenge as well. 

Dire climate warnings, and a familiar solution

More floods, more drought, and more people on the brink of humanitarian emergency: A trio of new reports are another reminder of what’s coming down the climate crisis pipeline. Some 700 million could face the threat of displacement due to drought by the end of the decade, according to a report released for a summit of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (the drought-focused parallel to the more well-known UN climate treaty). Droughts already last 29 percent longer than they did 20 years ago, the report said. Elsewhere, new research from the University of Bristol found supercharged cyclones could more than double the number of people facing extreme floods in South Asia (already a substantial tally). Big disasters are killing fewer people thanks to better preparedness, but repeat hazards multiply the impacts nonetheless. Climate campaigners say the world must limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But there’s already “a 50:50 chance” the world could temporarily hit that mark in the next five years, warned a briefing from the UN’s meteorological agency, the WMO. It may sound dire, but there’s a solution at hand, as always: Big emitters must tighten up (and stick to) their climate commitments, says a coalition of think tanks formed to press the message in the lead-up to November’s COP27 climate summit.

A Burundian olive branch

Burundi’s President Évariste Ndayishimiye has said he is prepared to negotiate with the country’s two main rebel groups, should they reach out to his government. But it’s unclear if the fighters would do that, especially given ongoing operations against them. The FNL and RED-Tabara both have bases in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter is the strongest of the two and has conducted a string of attacks in Burundi since 2015 – the year ex-president Pierre Nkurunziza won a disputed third term in office, triggering waves of political violence. Reports suggest a significant number of Burundian troops have crossed into DRC in recent months to track down RED-Tabara fighters. The group is one of a number of foreign rebel movements in DRC, where nearly three million people were displaced last year. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians are, meanwhile, still living in refugee camps, afraid to return to a country where the killing and torture of ruling party opponents is rife.

In case you missed it

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Civilian deaths at the hands of armed groups have doubled over the last year in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, despite a government-declared state of siege. Dozens of critics of the draconian measure, including members of parliament, pro-democracy activists, and human rights workers, have been detained since it was introduced last May, Amnesty International says in a new briefing.

EL SALVADOR: A court has sentenced a woman to 30 years in prison for miscarrying during an obstetric emergency. While a number of Latin American countries recently introduced legislation allowing for abortion, El Salvador prohibits the procedure even in cases of rape and incest. Over the past two decades, over 180 women have been prosecuted in the country after experiencing medical emergencies. Activists throughout the region are bracing for ripple effects if the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

GENEVA: Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week – the aid industry trade fair of sorts – has wrapped up its in-person segment in Geneva. The three-week summit continues online for another week. Read our take for a tasting menu from sessions on this year’s hot topics.

LITHUANIA: More than 2,500 asylum seekers and migrants are still being detained in the EU member state nine months after a political showdown between the EU and neighbouring Belarus led to a spike in migration along the bloc’s eastern border. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, the asylum seekers and migrants don’t have access to fair asylum procedures in Lithuania and are being held in inhumane conditions that are affecting their physical and mental health.

MOZAMBIQUE: The International Monetary Fund has approved $456 million in budgetary support, the first financial assistance to Mozambique since it was suspended by the IMF six years ago over a $2.7 billion “tuna bond” scandal, in which the son of the former president is implicated. The new credit facility will support economic recovery and help reduce public debt.

NORTH KOREA: State media announced the country’s first ever case of COVID-19, with a nationwide lockdown reportedly starting 12 May. None of its 26 million population is vaccinated, raising concerns about the spread in a nation with poor medical facilities. Previously, North Korea rejected vaccines and medical assistance from China and South Korea, but it may now be signalling its desire for help.

SOMALIA: Lawmakers vote to select the country’s next president on 11 May. The candidates include two former presidents, an ex-prime minister, as well as incumbent Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as “Farmajo”. Only one woman is standing. Tensions have increased in the run up to the long-delayed poll, reflected in soaring AK-47 prices.

SOUTH SUDAN: A peace agreement supposed to end five years of civil war in South Sudan has instead fuelled conflict, according to a report from UN experts. Despite procedural headway, the peace process is captive to elite interests, while ceasefire violations between signatories have intensified. See our latest from the country for a similarly gloomy account.

SYRIA: International donors at the EU’s annual Brussels conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” pledged nearly $6.7 billion in aid for “2022 and beyond”, far short of the $10.5 billion the UN says it needs to support Syrians, Syrian refugees, and their host communities this year alone. Aid agencies have called the result “disappointing” and “woefully inadequate”, given growing needs both inside and outside the country after 11 years of war.

TOGO: Eight soldiers were killed and 13 wounded in an attack on an army post in northern Togo by gunmen suspected to be linked to an al-Qaeda-affiliated group based in Mali. Security experts have long warned that Sahelian insurgents are looking to expand their operations to coastal states like Togo.

UKRAINE: A 21-year-old Russian soldier accused of killing an unarmed civilian pushing a bicycle will be the first person to stand trial for alleged war crimes in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion at the end of February. More than 10,000 alleged war crimes are being investigated by the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general. On 12 May, the UN Human Rights Council voted to set up a Commission of Inquiry to also investigate alleged violations. 

UNITED STATES: At least 11 people drowned and 31 were rescued on 12 May after a boat carrying asylum seekers and migrants capsized near the US island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. The boat is thought to have departed from the Dominican Republic, but most of the passengers on board were from Haiti. Economic fallout from the pandemic, political instability, endemic violence, and environmental disasters are pushing a growing number of people from Caribbean and Latin American nations to try to reach the US, including by sea. 

Weekend read

‘The invisibles’: A Cuban asylum seeker’s dangerous odyssey

Will, a Cuban asylum seeker, began his 6,000-kilometre journey from Venezuela to the United States last August. He’s one of the tens of thousands of people who make similar treks every month, braving one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world – fraught with natural hazards, armed groups, and uncertainty. Through phone calls and texts, The New Humanitarian kept in touch with Will on his journey north and pieced together the route he took. Follow him from Acandí through the Darién Gap, a treacherous jungle corridor between Panama and Colombia where migrants are at the mercy of armed groups and smugglers. Then track his trip through Central America, where he was robbed and forced to work to raise enough money to pay his way into Nicaragua. Finally, read how Will – like so many of his fellow migrants and asylum seekers – spent weeks in Mexico, trapped waiting for documentation to continue north. Without work and fearing kidnapping, extortion, and robbery, this last step of the journey was also one of the most difficult. After four long months, Will, unlike most, did eventually succeed in reaching the United States. To follow his journey in full and learn more about the natural, criminal, and bureaucratic challenges asylum seekers like Will face, immerse yourself in this interactive weekend read, complete with video, audio, and photographic footage.

And finally…

I’m feeling a change that is coming, coming

What’s next for UNOPS, the embattled agency facing questions about its handling of millions in funding? The dust is still stirring following a New York Times piece (and earlier reporting by Devex and a former UN official) examining the leadership of the UN Office for Project Services – and what appear to be high-risk loans and grants with little to show. So far, the head of the agency, Grete Faremo, has resigned, and the US says its funding to UNOPS will be “paused” until a UN investigation report (internal, for now) is released. Some of the side details border on the absurd: There’s a matchmaker to a future US president, an ocean-themed pop tune by British singer Joss Stone, and even a performance by Faremo herself, replete with a backing band. At the centre, however, is some $63 million earmarked for investments, including for apparently unbuilt housing projects planned across the globe. Then there are the larger questions to come for UNOPS itself. The agency says it’s a self-financing operation; it implements projects and even contracts staff on behalf of other, more lumbering agencies. So while the spotlight may now be focused on questionable infrastructure loans, the agency’s reach extends throughout the system – and to the very top. One recent example: The agency is hiring a senior adviser on climate change. It’s nominally a UNOPS job, but it’s a key advisory role in the signature climate programme spearheaded by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

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