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Can a pandemic treaty ‘decolonise’ global health law?
Negotiations on a global pandemic treaty are underway. Among the big questions as discussions kicked off in Geneva on 27 February: How will the legally binding accord be funded? How will it avoid the “catastrophic” inequity of the COVID-19 response? And how will countries be held accountable for their promises? The treaty aims to better prepare for and prevent the next pandemic. Some experts say it could be a “first step to decolonising international law for infectious diseases” by redistributing resources. In an early draft, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed that it control 20% of global vaccine supplies (along with tests and other pandemic-related tools). What the final version looks like, however, will be torn apart, thrashed out, and pieced back together in a process not expected to finish until May 2024. The bulk of actual negotiations will be behind closed doors – prompting warnings that, if the pandemic treaty is to be meaningful, civil society groups must have a say.
Hundreds killed in clashes over contested Somaliland regions
More than 200 people have died in three weeks of fighting around a disputed town in Somalia’s northern breakaway region of Somaliland. Médecins Sans Frontières said on 1 March a hospital it supports in Las Anod was hit for the fourth time in “indiscriminate” shelling that has depopulated the town. The medical charity described the situation as “desperate”; more than 95,000 refugees have reportedly fled into neighbouring Ethiopia after three weeks of clashes. Local militias around Las Anod are fighting to pull three regions – Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn – away from Somaliland, with the aim of rejoining Somalia. Meanwhile, Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia that is also in a territorial dispute with neighbouring Somaliland, has sent in troops to support the militia. Somaliland has claimed that the jihadist group al-Shabab is also fighting in Las Anod – an allegation denied by Puntland. Somali leaders in Mogadishu have called on Somaliland to allow the three regions to decide their own futures. The international community has called on all sides to abide by an earlier announced ceasefire.
US welcomes Ukrainians while Afghans left in limbo
More than 271,000 Ukrainians have been admitted to the United States since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year – far exceeding the goal of 100,000 set by President Joe Biden’s administration last March. More than 117,000 entered through a private sponsorship programme that allows US citizens to financially support Ukrainians to come to the country and stay for up to two years. Other Ukrainians crossed the US-Mexico border before the private sponsorship initiative was launched or entered the United States through the official refugee resettlement programme. Meanwhile, hundreds of Afghans protested in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, on 26 February over long delays in their US resettlement process. After the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the United States opened two programmes meant to provide fast-track visa access for at-risk Afghans who had worked for US or US-affiliated entities in Afghanistan. However, these programmes have reportedly stalled, leaving many in vulnerable positions in Pakistan, struggling to access essential services. For a refreshingly different take on refugee resettlement, check out the first instalment of our new Flipping the narrative series: ‘It’s like living in a waiting room to nowhere’.
WHO chief tours quake devastation in rebel-held Syria
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited rebel-held northwest Syria on 1 March, highlighting the dire humanitarian situation in the region almost a month after it was rocked by devastating earthquakes. The death toll across southern Türkiye and northern Syria has now topped 51,000. A massive relief and reconstruction effort has kicked into gear in Türkiye, where more than 45,000 people were killed and 1.5 million left homeless. In northwest Syria, tens of thousands have been made newly homeless in a region where 1.8 million people displaced by Syria’s nearly 12-year civil war were already living in camps. Cholera cases are surging as living conditions have worsened in the camps since the earthquakes. There is little prospect of aid organisations or local authorities being able to provide many more sanitary, longer-term housing solutions any time soon. The UN has negotiated with the Syrian government to open two more border crossings to allow aid to enter rebel-held areas of northern Syria. Aid access to the region has long been a politically fraught issue, especially as critics say President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is using the earthquakes to attempt to break out of more than a decade of global isolation.
Warning signs in northern Mali
Mali’s military junta has picked plenty of fights since seizing power in 2020. It has rowed with neighbouring countries, sparred with its former colonial ruler, and battled with jihadists. As if this wasn’t enough, it is also now locked in a dispute with non-jihadist armed groups (including former separatists) who control major towns in the north. These groups signed a 2015 peace deal with Bamako and pro-government militias and, although no side has committed to fully implementing it, fighting did at least subside. Relations, however, have become strained again since the junta allied with the Russian mercenary Wagner Group in late 2021. Armed group leaders worry that the allies are plotting a new war in the north, while the junta has accused them of violating the 2015 deal and colluding with “terrorists”. It is unclear if the war of words will escalate, but a return to fighting would certainly have a major humanitarian impact.
WHO-appointed commissioners at odds with UN report on sex abuse scandal
Two women appointed by the WHO to lead an investigation into an aid worker sex abuse scandal during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have criticised a UN report that effectively cleared three senior WHO managers accused of misconduct. A recent report from the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) concluded that the managers didn’t violate agency rules in handling a sexual exploitation case involving a UN doctor buying land for a woman he allegedly impregnated, but critics said this was only because of a “loophole”. “The restrictive approach favoured by WHO is an absurdity,” Aïchatou Mindaoudou and Julienne Lusenge said in a statement reported by The Associated Press, adding that any ambiguities in policy should be “interpreted in favour of potential victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, with the view of maintaining accountability.” Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, WHO’s director for prevention and response to sexual misconduct, said at a 28 February news conference in Geneva that outside experts will be called in to give advice on the discrepancies between the OIOS findings and those of the WHO-appointed independent commission. The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation first reported on the scandal in 2020. It has been one of the largest in the UN’s history, involving more than 100 women and girls who said aid workers lured them into sex-for-work schemes in the midst of the crisis.
In case you missed it
CHILE: Twenty-six people have died in hundreds of wildfires that have consumed nearly 460,000 hectares of land and destroyed more than 2,400 homes since late January. While large tracts of forest land continue to burn, local authorities worry that emergency housing won´t be ready in time for winter. The wildfires are the worst in living memory in Chile, which has been gripped by recurrent drought and rising temperatures over the past decade.
CLIMATE LAW: More than 100 countries are backing Vanuatu’s bid to bring climate change to the International Court of Justice. Some 105 nations are co-sponsoring a resolution to be tabled at the UN General Assembly – the key step to nudge the issue before the UN’s top court. Among the notable omissions: big polluters and economic engines like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, and the United States.
CYCLONE FREDDY: Nearly 400,000 people have been affected by a tropical cyclone that hit Madagascar and Mozambique last month, according to the UN’s aid coordination agency, OCHA. Tropical Storm Freddy has led to significant rainfall and displaced tens of thousands of people.
ETHIOPIA: The Ethiopian government is seeking support for a motion to terminate the mandate of a UN-ordered inquiry into abuses committed during the Tigray conflict, news outlets reported this week. Eritrean soldiers have, meanwhile, been accused of massacring hundreds of civilians in Tigray in the days before a peace agreement was signed in November 2022.
ITALY: Nearly 70 people have been confirmed dead following a shipwreck in rough water just off a beach in southern Italy on 26 February. The boat set sail from Türkiye four days earlier, taking a more dangerous route that has become increasingly popular as hardline policies – including pushbacks – have made it harder for asylum seekers and migrants to reach Greece. The shipwreck also comes as Italy’s far-right government has been cracking down on search and rescue NGOs.
NIGERIA: Bola Tinubu, political “kingmaker” and former governor of Lagos state, has been declared the winner of a high-pressure presidential election. However, his two main rivals – Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi – have rejected the result and are heading to court amid concerns over poll fraud and the ineptitude of the electoral commission.
SRI LANKA: Thousands of Sri Lankan workers across a range of sectors held demonstrations and strikes on 1 March in protest of government spending cuts imposed to access an IMF bailout. An ongoing economic crisis has turned into a humanitarian one, with a new survey from Save the Children revealing that 50% of families have reduced the amount they feed their children. For more on Sri Lanka’s economic decline, read our August 2022 story, launching our Emerging hunger hotspots series.
TUNISIA: Racist and xenophobic comments about sub-Saharan African migrants made by President Kais Saied have touched off protests and drawn condemnation from the African Union. In a speech on 21 February, Saied claimed sub-Saharan African migration to Tunisia was part of a conspiracy to change the country’s demographics to be “purely African” and blamed migrants for crime and violence. Reports of attacks on Black migrants and Tunisians have skyrocketed, and Saied has also been cracking down on political opponents as Tunisia’s economy and democratic transition flounder.
UK MISSING: More than 500 potential or confirmed victims of trafficking were categorised as missing between 2020 and 2022, according to UK Home Office data obtained by the Guardian. The majority of the children who went missing were Albanian boys, and the majority of missing adults were Vietnamese men. In January, the UK admitted that some 200 child asylum seekers had gone missing since 2021 from hotels where they were under the care of the government.
WFP: American Cindy McCain will be the next head of the World Food Programme. The current chief, David Beasley, confirmed the news in a congratulatory tweet that headed off the announcement from the UN agency itself. McCain, whose appointment was first reported by Devex, begins her term in April amid spiralling global food insecurity.
YEMEN: Aid groups are warning of “donor fatigue” after a 27 February pledging event raised $1.2 billion for Yemen – a quarter of what humanitarian responses will cost in 2023 for a conflict stretching into an eighth year. Two thirds of Yemen’s population need emergency aid. “The money pledged today is nowhere near enough,” said Ferran Puig, Oxfam’s country director in Yemen.
In May 2017, government forces began besieging Marawi, a provincial capital on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. It took five months of heavy shelling and street-by-street fighting to root out Maute rebels linked to so-called Islamic State – at the cost of more than 1,000 lives, and of forcing some 360,000 people from their homes. It has now been almost six years since the country’s longest urban battle, so why have so few civilians returned? Travelling to Marawi in mid-2022, filmmaker Frederick Gillingham found hundreds of families still in temporary accommodation, and many potential returnees locked in long ownership disputes due to their lack of title deeds. Most couldn’t afford costly rebuilding permits, while others were frightened to proceed with reconstruction work in case the promised compensation never came. Gillingham’s short film exposes the harsh realities those still marooned outside their home city face, and explores how survivors and former fighters have been enduring an awkward co-existence in dire economic circumstances.
Why are pregnant Russian women flying to Argentina to give birth?
A new phenomenon is worrying Argentinian authorities: Since the Ukraine invasion, a rising number of pregnant Russian women are travelling to Buenos Aires to give birth. Russian citizens don't need a visa to enter the country as tourists and babies born on its soil automatically get citizenship. Additionally, their parents are given permanent residency and work permits. Official data shows that in the past year, 10,777 Russian women entered the country, and that 5,800 of them declared being in the third trimester of their pregnancy. In early February, Florencia Carignano, director of the National Migration Department, confirmed the trend, after 33 expectant women arrived on the same flight. She said these women and their families often leave after the birth, giving local lawyers the task of regularising their situation and obtaining Argentine passports for them. While fear of persecution for opposing President Vladimir Putin appears to be the main motivation, Argentinian authorities are investigating whether the trend could also be linked to transnational organised crime.