Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Regional leaders threaten force to reverse Niger coup
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has threatened a military intervention in Niger if coup leaders do not restore the presidency of Mohamed Bazoum by Sunday, 6 August. The threat could be a bluff, though after a spate of recent military takeovers, regional leaders fear a soft response might send the wrong message to other adventurous soldiers. ECOWAS has experience in such deployments and its current leader, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, is keen to demonstrate the institution still has teeth. But analysts warn an intervention could lead to a long-lasting occupation that would further damage the legitimacy of Bazoum and his unpopular (and often anti-democratic) ruling party. Junta-led Burkina Faso and Mali have said military action would amount to a “declaration of war” on their countries, and the coup leaders – motivated by personal grievance and broader structural issues – are showing little interest in backing down. As the Nigerien intellectual Rahamne Idriss put it: “The reality has really changed, indeed, by force; but force cannot bring it back.”
RSF atrocities mount in Darfur
The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and allied militias have wiped out at least 27 towns in Darfur since Sudan’s conflict commenced in April, according to Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab. Their latest attack, on the town of Sirba, in West Darfur state, reportedly resulted in hundreds of civilians being killed. West Darfur has been the epicentre of the recent violence, and has seen the RSF (which are led by Darfuri Arabs) target members of the non-Arab Masalit group. Hundreds of thousands of Masalit civilians have fled across the border to eastern Chad and are living in dire conditions. The World Health Organization has reported the deaths of 65 malnourished children in border areas, and the recent onset of the rainy season has compounded the humanitarian misery. Darfur experienced a major armed conflict that gained international attention in the early 2000s. Violence flared again during Sudan’s now derailed political transition, but a peacekeeping mission was drawn down in late 2020.
Will Haiti see Kenyan boots on the ground to tackle gang violence?
Kenya says it’s considering leading a multinational force to quell gang violence and unrest in Haiti, but the proposal has come in for some criticism. Kenya has relatively little experience in leading such missions, and most of its police officers don’t speak French or Haitian Kreyòl. Kenya’s police force has also been accused of human rights abuses, killings, and torture. That said, Kenya was one of the few countries to consider leading an armed force despite repeated calls for such assistance from the UN and the United States, which is unwilling to send troops as it has done in previous missions. The US, which holds the presidency of the UN Security Council, is expected to put forward a resolution seeking authorisation for the mission in the coming weeks. The mission could involve as many as 1,000 Kenyan police officers, who would train Haitian police and “restore normalcy”, according to Kenya’s Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua. The Bahamas has also committed to sending 150 personnel to support the mission, if it is approved. Haiti remains in political limbo with no elected officials. Elections have been put on hold indefinitely due to gang violence that has exploded since the 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moïse: At least 530 people were killed this year just by 15 March, and more than 2,000 have been kidnapped for ransom over the past 24 months, according to UN figures. For more on how the violence is affecting civilians, read these three women’s accounts of how they were repeatedly raped by gang members.
Crypto stumbles, and Big Aid pushes ahead on biometrics
Scan your eyeball; get some free crypto. What could go wrong? Quite a bit, according to Kenyan regulators. The government ordered biometric cryptocurrency and digital ID startup Worldcoin to stop operations, spooked by the idea of thousands of people handing over their data to a private company with little oversight. Worldcoin, co-founded by the CEO of the company behind AI-powered ChatGPT, has grand ambitions: proving “personhood” in the age of AI and deep fakes, making digital financing widely available, even enabling democracy. Like other blockchain-based tech, its proponents point to potential uses in crises: Transferring digital cash seamlessly across borders will enable direct aid (while bypassing the humanitarian system), they say. But regulators and watchdogs from Kenya to Germany are more concerned with immediate questions around privacy and the risks of handing over sensitive biometric data. These are risks the humanitarian sector has been slow to clue in on. Separately, a new report from The Engine Room, a tech non-profit, said emergency aid is in a “key moment of flux” on biometrics: It’s waking up to potential harms, but influential aid agencies and donor governments are pushing ahead despite low tech literacy and unclear benefits: “Non-technologists are making decisions about biometric technologies without the knowledge to empower them to do so safely and responsibly.”
Grim lead-up to elections in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe goes to the polls on 23 August in what’s likely to be a bloody and skewed affair. “Crush them like lice”, a new Human Rights Watch report, warns that ongoing repression by the ruling ZANU-PF has “grossly diminished” the chances of a free and fair poll. The violence against a weakened opposition includes abductions, arbitrary arrests, and murder. Additional thumbs on the scale are the “weaponised” criminal justice system and an electoral commission historically seen as closely aligned to ZANU-PF. And if that weren’t enough, a recently passed law seeks to control any NGOs the government doesn’t like, while a so-called “Patriotic Bill” makes it an offence – worthy of the death penalty – to “undermine the country”. Alongside such sticks is the carrot of pre-election aid distribution to try and sway voters. And it might be working. A survey by the well-regarded Afrobarometer puts President Emmerson Mnangagwa marginally ahead of his main rival, Nelson Chamisa. However, a whopping 27% declined to say who they’d vote for, while 65% said they felt the country was heading in the wrong direction.
No justice – and lingering trauma – 3 years after Beirut blast
Today marks three years since a massive explosion ripped through Beirut’s port, killing at least 200 people, destroying parts of Lebanon’s capital city, and striking a major blow to a country that was already in the midst of a severe economic crisis. The damage was psychological, too, with many in Lebanon already having survived multiple wars and bombings. Since the blast, Lebanon has dealt with rising poverty and hunger, a cholera outbreak, and a political stalemate that has left it with no head of state and a government that acts only in a caretaker capacity. As multiple NGOs and activists have pointed out in their recent call for an international fact-finding mission into the 4 August 2020 blast, there’s still no justice or accountability for the explosion, in large part due to clear obstruction of domestic investigations. Victims’ families, and the country as a whole, have been left waiting for answers. For more on the people living through this tumult, check out our interactive project WhatsApp Lebanon.
In case you missed it
BRITAIN: The decision to cut £900 million ($1.1 billion) from the UK’s overseas development aid budget will lead to almost 200,000 unsafe abortions and thousands of deaths in low-income countries, civil servants warned the UK government in an internal report. The Foreign Office says the cuts – which include a 76% decline in aid for Afghanistan, the suspension of a programme combatting female genital mutilation in Somalia, a reduction in food aid to Somalia, and a loss of healthcare for half a million women and children in Yemen – are being made to hit short-term savings targets before the aid budget is expanded next year.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Central Africans have voted in a constitutional referendum that could allow President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to seek a third term. Opposition parties and civil society groups called on voters to boycott the poll. Touadéra’s government faces renewed rebel activity in the countryside, and a high level of humanitarian need, with 3.4 million people (56% of the population) requiring aid.
COLOMBIA: A six-month ceasefire between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest rebel group, came into force on 3 August. The ELN pledged to cease offensive operations against government forces but said they would defend themselves during the ceasefire if necessary. More than 450,000 people have been killed in nearly six decades of armed conflict in Colombia. If successful, the ceasefire will be the first major victory for President Gustavo Petro, who was elected a year ago on a pledge to pursue “total peace”.
COLOMBIA/US ASYLUM: As part of regional efforts to curb migration, the Colombian government is opening three centres to process Haitian, Venezuelan, and Cuban asylum seekers trying to reach the United States. One of the facilities, in the city of Medellín, has already begun operating. Following the end of pandemic-era asylum restrictions at the US-Mexico border, the administration of US President Joe Biden has put in place a number of new policies aimed at reducing migration. However, a recent court ruling struck down one of the main pillars of the Biden administration’s approach.
DARIÉN GAP: The number of migrants crossing the Darién Gap – a treacherous corridor between Colombia and Panama – has reached a new record high. The government of Panama registered nearly 250,000 crossings during the first seven months of 2023, more than the figure for the whole of 2022. The UN expects the total number to reach 400,000 this year. For more on the humanitarian situation in the Darién Gap, read our Q&A with anthropologist Caitlyn Yates.
EAST ASIA WEATHER: China, Japan, and South Korea have become the latest victims of the extreme global weather patterns that have plagued Asia, Europe, and North America this summer. While South Korea joins a long list of nations suffering extreme heat, China has seen its heaviest rainfall in 140 years, with floods claiming at least 21 lives around the capital, Beijing. Japan, meanwhile, is reeling from a typhoon that has led to at least two deaths and the loss of power to 166,000 households in Okinawa and Kagoshima prefectures.
EL SALVADOR: Despite rising criticism of his security policies, President Nayib Bukele continued his war on gangs, deploying 8,000 troops as he placed the entire central department of Cabañas under military siege to prevent gang members from leaving and break their supply chains. Since March 2022, Bukele has imposed an ongoing state of exception and detained more than 70,000 alleged gang members.
EU: Less than two months after EU countries came to a “historic” agreement to overhaul the bloc’s approach to receiving and processing asylum seekers, the deal that had been reached is back on ice. Rights advocates had criticised the plan for eroding asylum protections, but eastern European countries – led by anti-migration governments – objected to a requirement to share responsibility for receiving asylum seekers. A compromise reached in June fell apart during a meeting last week.
ISRAEL/PALESTINE: For the second straight week, Israel has seen mass protests against the passing of a law that would limit the Supreme Court’s powers, part of a controversial series of reforms planned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-right wing government. While some in the protests have taken on the occupation as part of the cause, the movement has largely been framed as “pro-democracy,” leaving some to question what, if any, impact it will have on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
UKRAINE/SAUDI ARABIA: Representatives from the United States, the EU, India, China, Brazil, and other countries have been invited to attend a gathering in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 5 and 6 August to discuss a peace proposal put forward last year by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Russia was not invited to the talks, which are being seen as an opportunity to rally support from Global South countries that have so far remained neutral following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
YEMEN: The UN says a marine salvage company has begun the removal of more than 1 million barrels of oil from a decaying vessel off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast, in a bid to avoid a potential environmental and economic catastrophe. The UN-led operation, long delayed due to political and financial constraints, involves moving the oil from the FSO Safer to another ship.
On 1 August, we published an exclusive story revealing the toll the war in Sudan is having on local aid workers. Some lost their jobs because their organisations shuttered programmes due to the insecurity, while others can’t collect salaries as the banking system has collapsed. A flipside to this is the story we published the following day looking at the local volunteers who have been providing the backbone of the humanitarian response since conflict erupted in April. These mutual aid groups, as our weekend read explains, sprung out of the neighbourhood activist networks that spent years fighting authoritarianism in Sudan. They have now set up “emergency rooms” across the country to shelter displaced people, support hospitals, and secure food and water supplies. Brandishing people-centred principles, they suggest this kind of decentralised service-delivery offers a vision of a different kind of politics in Sudan – one that could even replace the state itself.
One small step for (woman) kind, or ‘retrograde’ censorship?
The Mexican state of Chihuahua has enacted a ban on song lyrics that promote the “denigration, discrimination, marginalisation or exclusion” of women. Violators could face fines of more than €64,595 (674,000 to 1.2 million pesos). The move, taken by Chihuahua’s city council, comes as Mexico wrestles with an explosion of gender-based violence and femicides, a crisis that has worsened since the pandemic. In Chihuahua alone, seven out of 10 calls to the police relate to domestic abuse. A number of Latin America’s pop stars such as the Puerto Rican reggaeton artist known as “Bad Bunny” and the Mexican balladeer known as “Peso Pluma” may fall foul of the new ban. Both have been criticised for perpetuating violent and sexist attitudes toward women. Other countries have considered similar bans. Earlier this year, carnival organisers in northeastern Spain were told to remove sexist songs from their playlist. The ban has fallen flat amongst anti-censorship advocates. One male lawmaker from Chihuahua, Francisco Sánchez, called it unconstitutional, “useless”, and “retrograde”. However, women’s rights activist, Veronica Corchado, said the move was an important step in addressing a pervasive problem. "The reality is that we have a gender violence problem that cannot be unseen," Corchado told The Guardian.