Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Ten years since the Ghouta attack in Syria
This week marks 10 years since the Syrian government dropped chemical weapons, likely including sarin gas, on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. A reported 1,144 people were killed. Most of them were civilians, and survivors remember chaos as people foamed at the mouth and suffocated to death. The incident precipitated a series of investigations into the use of chemical weapons in the war. Most observers blamed the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which denied it had used chemical weapons but agreed to give up and destroy its stockpiles. Alleged attacks using the banned weapons continued after 2013. Today, 10 years later, there is no peace, no justice for survivors, and day-to-day life is getting even harder. The Syrian currency is falling yet again, prices of food and fuel are soaring, and there’s no clear path to ending the war, let alone to talking about it. For an overview of the toll taken on those who chose to flee, see our 2021 interactive report: Syria: A Decade of Flight.
Surprise election results in Guatemala give way to familiar challenges
The apparent victory of anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo on 20 August may have taken some in Guatemala by surprise, but the issues awaiting him are sadly familiar. There are formidable challenges to taking the reins in a country where the civil war and violent dictatorships have weakened institutions and allowed criminal organisations and corruption to grow. Arévalo’s campaign tapped into public discontent over crime and corruption, which he has promised to address along with malnutrition and a slowing economy. Not everyone is pleased: After a contentious election period, his opponent has not yet conceded, the election results have not been certified, and on 24 August the Organization of American States asked Guatemala to provide security for Arévalo, citing reports of plots to kill him. Guatemala is one of Latin America’s most unequal countries, with nearly half of its 18 million population living below the poverty line and 3.5 million facing acute food insecurity. The country is a transit point for northward migration, and thousands of Guatemalans leave each year. For more on challenges facing Latin America, see our series Gangs Out of Control. Also, watch this video for five key facts about Guatemala and its elections:
The Rohingya’s forced exodus from Myanmar, six years later
On 25 August 2017, Myanmar’s security forces began a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims living in the country’s Rakhine state. More than 700,000 Rohingya escaped the campaign of killings, rape, and arson – which left at least 6,700 dead – by fleeing across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh. Six years later, conditions for refugees living in a series of crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar have been dismal. The population of the camps is now one million, making them the largest refugee settlement in the world. Recent cuts to World Food Programme rations are having a major impact on the lives of Rohingya in the camps, and women say they are at risk of abductions, abuse, and sexual harassment. Today, there is still little prospect of the Rohingya being able to return home to Myanmar, where they continue to face discrimination and violence from the ruling military junta. The precarious situation in Bangladesh and the continued hostility in Myanmar has led to fears that, if the international community fails to meet its financial commitments to the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands will be at even greater risk.
Elections in Zimbabwe off to a chaotic start
With ballot paper shortages forcing the extension of voting into a second day, Zimbabwe’s general elections are looking far from smooth. The opposition Citizens Coalition for Change has already cried foul, accusing the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa of “primitive” vote rigging. Deepening the unease, the police arrested 41 civil society election monitors who were checking the tabulation of results by a historically partisan electoral commission. Zimbabwe’s cost-of-living crisis, unemployment levels, and food shortages should be election kryptonite for the ruling ZANU-PF. But its control of state institutions, and ferocious intimidation of opponents, has skewed the contest. A well-funded, security-linked NGO has also played a new and significant role. It was involved in pre-poll voter registration, doled out food at campaign rallies, and menacingly manned “exit poll survey desks” outside voting stations. Foreign lenders and donors have set free and fair elections as a precondition for talks to resolve Zimbabwe’s debt crisis. But Mnangagwa may be calculating that winning a second term is his first priority.
Who’s to say what’s behind a new BRICS bloc?
The expansion of the BRICS bloc, which originally grouped together five of the world’s large so-called emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – was immediately billed as “an attempt to reshape the global world order and provide a counterweight to the US and its allies” by Western media. Yet to so many others, the selection of Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE from a pool of over 40 countries that had applied to join clearly demonstrates the appetite for cooperation outside existing multilateral frameworks. And that’s without even mentioning the debates around de-dollarisation and the bloc’s establishment of the New Development Bank. Yet the coming together of non-Western countries to establish mechanisms to secure their mutual interests was framed as an anti-Western enterprise by Western media from the get-go. As the saying goes: When one is accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Niger coup highlights destabilising effects of EU migration policies
Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum’s support for EU migration policies was one of several factors that contributed to him being ousted in a military coup one month ago, according to analysts. Niger has long been a major transit country for West African asylum seekers and migrants trying to reach North Africa and Europe. The business of transporting people to the Libyan border generated lucrative profits, including for members of the Nigerien military who collected bribes. Bazoum, in his previous role as interior minister, was the major figure behind the implementation of a 2015 law that led to a crackdown on migration. “The Europeans requested us to reduce the number of migrants that were entering Libya. Without the law, we didn’t have any way to do that,” Bazoum told our Migration Editor, Eric Reidy, in a 2018 interview. Thousands of asylum seekers and migrants returning to their countries through UN-run programmes have been stranded in Niger since last month’s coup. Meanwhile, the African Union announced this week that it has suspended Niger due to the military takeover, and the West African regional ECOWAS bloc rejected the proposal of Niger’s coup leaders for a three-year transition to democratic rule as a “provocation”.
In case you missed it
ECUADOR: Voters overwhelmingly supported a stop to oil drilling in a national park that is part of the Amazonian rainforest, considered one of the most biodiverse in the world. Opponents fear the vote will negatively impact the country’s economy, but environmental groups counter with a push to promote sustainable development.
GREECE: The charred remains of 18 people – including two children – found in northeastern Greece near the border with Türkiye likely belong to asylum seekers and migrants killed by wildfires. Amnesty International said Greece and the EU’s harsh migration policies are partially to blame for the deaths. The Greek supreme court has also called for an investigation into racist attacks against asylum seekers and migrants, scapegoated by vigilantes for causing wildfires as the country grapples with an unprecedented number of blazes.
HAITI: A Kenyan delegation arrived in the capital to discuss leading an armed intervention, meeting with Haitian police, government officials, and diplomats on 21 and 22 August. Although the mandate has yet to be approved by the Kenyan government and UN Security Council, critics fear the force may be restricted to protecting airports, seaports, and main roads rather than fighting the gang violence that has killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000 people in the past two years.
JAPAN: Treated water from the site of the Fukushima nuclear plant was released into the Pacific Ocean on 24 August, leading to protests from neighbouring countries, including China, which has since halted the import of all seafood from Japan. In Tokyo, protesters rallied outside the Prime Minister’s home. Japanese officials insist that the water has been treated and that it will be increasingly diluted in the ocean.
PAKISTAN: More than 100,000 people have been evacuated from flood-hit areas in the east of the country, centering around Punjab province. The floods took place after the Sutlej River reached its highest level in 35 years. Hundreds of villages and thousands of acres of cropland were inundated with water after the river burst its banks on 20 August. Pakistan said that heavy monsoon rains prompted authorities in India to release reservoir water into the Sutlej, leading to downstream flooding on the Pakistani side.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Police have been authorised to use lethal force against people involved in tribal conflict; at least 70 people have died in the violence in the past month. The conflict is rooted in land disputes and has grown increasingly deadly due to the involvement of mercenaries and updated weapons. The government is seeking to amend the Tribal Fight Act to impose life sentences on those convicted of instigating tribal violence.
PRIGOZHIN/WAGNER: The presumed deaths of Yevgeny Prigozhin and other key members of the Wagner Group in a plane crash on 24 August raise questions about the mercenary group’s continued hold in countries such as Central African Republic, Mali, and Niger, where it has served as a guns-for-hire force. A Human Rights Watch report last month accused Wagner of helping troops in Mali execute dozens of civilians during operations against jihadists. In June, the group staged a short-lived mutiny against the Kremlin. US officials believe an explosion – perhaps a bomb – may have caused Prigozhin’s plane to crash in Russia.
SUDAN: At least 498 children have died of hunger since April, as conflict has disrupted aid and food supplies, according to Save the Children. The organisation has been forced to close 57 nutrition facilities, and food stocks in 108 remaining facilities are running critically low. Malnutrition is particularly dire in Gedaref and White Nile states. Save the Children was one of several aid groups to cut hundreds of jobs since the conflict broke out.
YEMEN/SAUDI ARABIA: A Human Rights Watch investigation states that Saudi border guards have killed hundreds of Ethiopians as they attempted to cross the border from Yemen. The watchdog group says the guards have “shot people at close range, including women and children, in a pattern that is widespread and systematic”.
When a video went viral in July of two Kuki women being stripped naked, paraded, groped, and allegedly gang-raped by a mob of Meitei men, the world finally began to take a little notice of the ethnic violence gripping the Indian state of Manipur. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India had been “shamed”. But the truth, as our weekend read by Divya Chirayath explains, is that these sorts of sexual attacks had already been going on for months, often acts of supposed revenge stoked by disinformation. The roots of the conflict, which has now claimed almost 200 lives and displaced 60,000 people, are complex, dating back to the end of British colonial rule. While the Meitei people’s quest for scheduled tribe status is part of it, religion, neglect, and government meddling are all playing a role too. Attention on the emerging crisis may already be dwindling, even as those in the relief camps continue to go without much state assistance.
A little closer to a piece of the Moon
India made history on 23 August as it became the first nation to land on the south pole of the Moon. When its Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft made its soft landing, and released a rover named Pragyaan (the Sanskrit word for “wisdom”), India became only the fourth nation to ever successfully land a craft on the lunar surface. It is now in the company of the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China. The Indian Space Research Organisation announced the feat on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, saying the spacecraft and rover were both “Made in India. Made for the moon”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the landing a “remarkable success” that belongs to “all of humanity”. But it may belong to some of humanity more than others, quite literally. Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan was among the millions celebrating the feat online. On X, King Khan, as he is known to his fans and followers, quoted the lyrics of a song from a 1999 film in which he starred: “I’ll break and bring you the Moon, I’ll be famous in this world”. Beyond being India’s most notable celebrity, Khan also has extra special reason to celebrate: A fan has been gifting him land on the Moon for years now.