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Chinese atrocities, Bangladesh floods, and a toned-down Davos: 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

China’s atrocities on file

Tens of thousands of leaked government files and photos from Xinjiang shed new light on the atrocities committed by state security forces against China’s Uighur population, including torture, forced medical injections, and shoot-to-kill orders. The Xinjiang Police Files were obtained from police computers by a hacker who handed it over to researcher Adrian Zenz. Zenz, along with a consortium of 13 media outlets, corroborated and published their findings this week. The files detail daily life within the detention centres, where as many as two million people have been held, but also contain speeches demonstrating Xi Jinping’s personal knowledge of – and participation in – the mass detention. The release coincides with a six-day visit by UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to China – the first such visit in nearly two decades. Bachelet is set to visit Xinjiang, but some rights activists – as well as the US State Department – have criticised the trip as a likely Potemkin village tour. 

Deadly floods hit millions in Bangladesh and India 

Floodwaters have begun to recede in northeast Bangladesh, where millions of people have been affected by the worst flooding to hit the region in two decades. Since the flooding began in mid-May, more than 60 people have been killed in Bangladesh and neighbouring India, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The floods have washed away homes, crops, and infrastructure. UNICEF has warned that more than 1.5 million children are at risk of waterborne diseases and malnutrition. In India, the floods have come on the heels of scorching heat waves in the northwest and central regions. 

Ukraine dominates at Davos

Pushed back from its usual January timing due to COVID-19, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was smaller and less triumphalist than usual. Many discussions at the gathering, which bills itself as “improving the state of the world” (even if it attracts mostly corporate leaders), were humanitarian in nature. With Russia absent, Ukraine sent a large delegation with consistent messaging that “Ukraine is defending the entire world” – as Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov put it. David Beasley, the head of the World Food Programme, warned that Russia’s failure to open Ukraine’s ports was “a declaration of war on global food security”. Russia’s invasion appears to be a turning point in the private sector’s interest and engagement in humanitarian issues (look out for a bonus episode of our Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast on that topic), with many companies providing unprecedented levels of assistance, from in-kind and tech support, to donations, to jobs for Ukrainian refugees. More broadly, however, the relationship between humanitarians and corporates remains messy. “I don’t see as much engagement with the private sector as I hear talk about engaging the private sector,” a corporate foundation leader told one private meeting. “Most of the talk [by aid agencies] is: How can we get a cheque? That’s a huge lost opportunity.” A new report by the WEF, launched at Davos, calls for “a new form of collaboration” between humanitarian and development organisations, businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs.

Look out for more takeaways from Davos (from pandemic equality to the humanitarian harm of cyber) on TNH CEO Heba Aly’s Twitter feed.

Colombia’s elections – making a left turn?

A former member of an armed group is leading in polls ahead of Colombia’s presidential elections on 29 May. Left-leaning Gustavo Petro, a former community leader in the M-19 urban guerrilla movement in the 1970s, and his vice-presidential running mate, Francia Márquez, the country’s first Afro-Colombian to be on the ballot for the position, are more than 10 points ahead of their nearest rivals. Conservative Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, a recent mayor of Medellín, and populist Rodolfo Hernández, businessman and politician in the northeastern region of Santander – also known as Colombia’s Trump – are vying for second place. If no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff on 15 June. Colombia is struggling with a surge in armed violence, while the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened rates of inequality and poverty, including among many of the over 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants in the country. The widely unpopular government of outgoing president Iván Duque, who cannot be re-elected, faced nationwide street protests last year. Look out for our upcoming coverage of the humanitarian issues at stake in Colombia’s elections.

Ethiopia’s new front line

Two months into a shaky ceasefire with rebels in the northern Tigray region, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is now grappling with a security problem involving erstwhile allies. Amhara forces, and an associated militia known as Fano, who contest ownership of neighbouring territory with Tigray, reject the truce. They instead want the rebel movement destroyed. But when Brigadier General Tefera Mamo, the commander of Amhara’s special forces, criticised Abiy on national television last week, he was arrested. More than 4,500 militia members, activists, and journalists have since been detained in a rolling crackdown against those accused of “killings, and creating conflict among the public”. The purge followed repeated clashes between the ethno-nationalists and federal troops in the last few months as Fano launched a recruitment drive. But the dragnet has extended beyond Amhara to include government critics in Addis Ababa. Rights groups have condemned the “arbitrary arrests”.

In case you missed it

BURKINA FASO: Suspected jihadists killed around 50 civilians in the east of the country this week as they tried to escape insurgent control of their rural commune of Madjoari. The victims were travelling to a town in the nearby Paba commune, close to the borders with Benin and Togo, when they were caught and executed. See our latest coverage of the insurgency here.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Uganda says it is overwhelmed by an influx of more than 40,000 refugees fleeing fighting in eastern Congo’s North Kivu province. Since March, up to 500 people a day have been streaming into neighbouring southwest Uganda. A recent joint operation by DRC troops and UN forces against M23 rebels – which has already displaced 72,000 people locally – is expected to force more people across the border.

DISPLACEMENT: The number of forcibly displaced people has surpassed 100 million globally for the first time ever, according to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR. The figure rose in 2021 due to conflicts in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere, but crossed the 100-million mark following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has forced more than 14.6 million people from their homes – including 6.6 million who have fled the country. Environmental disasters are another leading factor in the rise, especially of people displaced inside their countries. 

GREECE: After a recent uptick in attempted crossings, the Greek government said it will no longer allow asylum seekers or migrants to enter the country. Around 600 people on nine boats were pushed back to Turkey by the Greek Coast guard on 24 May. The increase in crossing attempts is thought to be connected to political tensions with Turkey, providing another example of asylum seekers being used as pawns in a political dispute resulting in rights violations

KASHMIR: Violence broke out in Kashmir after separatist leader Mohammed Yasin Malik was sentenced to life in prison on 25 May. A Delhi court found Malik guilty of funding terrorism, among other crimes – charges he derided as politically motivated. On 25 May, police fired tear gas at protesters, some of whom reportedly threw stones, and arrested at least 10 in midnight raids.

MIGRATION: The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has announced a four-year plan to assist and protect people along the most dangerous migration routes in Latin America and the Caribbean. The IFRC is appealing for more than $100 million to support over 2.2 million people between 2022 and 2025. In 2021, migrants from more than 40 countries crossed the Darién Gap, a deadly overland route between Colombia and Panama, it noted. Earlier this month, as numbers on the route – particularly of Cubans, Haitians, and Venezuelans – continued to spike, we published an interactive story that followed the footsteps of one Cuban asylum seeker over eight months and through eight countries. Check it out here.

MOZAMBIQUE: The tempo of insurgent attacks in northern Cabo Delgado is increasing. At least three people in a village in Macomia district were beheaded, and an undisclosed number of women abducted, the police said this week. So-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the uptick in violence in Macomia. At least 24 counties have sent troops to support the Mozambican government, whose small and badly-equipped army reportedly includes as many as 7,000 “ghost soldiers” in its ranks.

SEXUAL ABUSE: A former UN communications specialist has pleaded guilty in a US court to “sexually assaulting an internationally protected person” in Iraq, and making false statements to cover up another sexual assault. Karim Elkorany – whose residence is listed as New Jersey – also confessed to drugging 17 more victims and and sexually assaulting 11 of them. He will not be convicted of those crimes as his admission was part of a plea bargain.

THE GAMBIA: The government plans to prosecute former president Yahya Jammeh for murder, rape, torture, and other alleged crimes during his two-decade rule. The charges are part of a list of recommendations against 70 named individuals contained in a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission report released this week. The report also calls for the creation of an international tribunal to try the suspects outside the country. Jammeh is currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea, which has no extradition treaty with The Gambia.

UNITED STATES: On 20 May, a judge issued an injunction preventing the Biden administration from rescinding Title 42, a pandemic era policy that has severely restricted access to asylum at the US-Mexico border since March 2020 on public health grounds. Leading epidemiologists have rejected Title 42 as “scientifically baseless and politically motivated”, but the policy is now unlikely to end anytime soon.

WHO: The World Health Organization's members have re-elected Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as director general for another five years. The vote was held by secret ballot, but he also ran unopposed. The UN agency has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also been criticised for its handling of a sex abuse scandal involving workers – and others – during the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2018 and 2020. After an investigation into the cases last year, Tedros said he took “ultimate responsibility”, but he dodged questions over whether he considered resigning over the scandal.

YEMEN: Talks are underway between Yemen’s warring sides to re-open roads to the besieged city of Taiz, and other provinces, as the deadline nears for the end of a two-month ceasefire. The discussions between representatives from Yemen’s internationally recognised government, and the country’s Houthi rebels, began in the Jordanian capital, Amman, on 25 May. The UN, meanwhile, is trying to extend the truce deadline, which is due to expire next week.

Weekend read


Q&A: Why the disaster prevention agenda is growing more urgent

“The disaster risk reduction movement is searching for its climate change moment.” So Asia Editor Irwin Loy sets up his Q&A this week with the top UN official working on the topic. As Mami Mizutori goes on to explain, prevention is not what people like to focus on. “It’s much easier for everybody to talk about disasters after they happen, and then talk about the need to respond to them, and then relief and recovery,” she says. Reducing disaster risks before larger emergencies happen may not be a sexy subject, but it is an urgent one: With climate change driving more and more extreme weather events around the globe, the gap between needs and aid response funding is growing fast. Mizutori, speaking on the sidelines of a global forum in Indonesia, urged humanitarian actors to therefore embed risk reduction into their work. During the forum, as if to underline her point, two million people became stranded in northeast Bangladesh’s worst floods in nearly two decades (see above), while other parts of South Asia sweltered in record-breaking and deadly heat waves.

And finally…

How Haiti’s crippling debt to France stole its fortunes and future

In one of the most document-rich accounts of Haiti’s colonial debt to France, The New York Times has gone a step further in showing the consequences of that debt. The project involved looking at long-forgotten historical records, hand-written ledgers, and other documents that tell the story of how, just two decades after Haiti achieved independence in 1804, France threatened war, demanding that Haiti pay for land and slaves it lost during its colonial pillaging. Although France reduced its original demand to 90 million francs, the NYT found Haiti’s actual payments totalled 112 million francs over seven decades – the equivalent of about $560 million today. To make sure payments kept rolling in, a French bank eventually took over Haiti’s treasury. By 1911, $2.53 out of every $3 that Haiti earned from coffee taxes went to paying debts held by French investors. In some years, French profits exceeded Haiti’s entire public works budget. Haiti’s woes didn’t stop with the French. The Americans eventually mounted a 19-year invasion, seizing Haiti’s gold, taking control of the country, and rewriting its constitution. The NYT estimates that if it wasn’t for Haiti’s original debt to France, $21 billion would have been put into Haiti’s economy, bolstering the argument for reparations and positing the question of how the debt primed Haiti for poverty, underdevelopment, and governments that were too broke to govern – all precursors to the instability it is experiencing today. To underline that, in three brief weeks between 24 April and 16 May this year, 188 people were killed in gang warfare, according to the UN.

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