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Libya and Morocco disasters, ICRC layoffs, and UNGA’s to-do list: The Cheat Sheet

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Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


On our radar

A staggering death toll, shock, and anger after Libya floods


The death toll from catastrophic flooding in northeast Libya continues to climb, with reported numbers now ranging from 5,000 to as high as 11,300 – and thousands still unaccounted for. People across Libya have stepped up to help, sending convoys of aid across the politically divided country and opening their homes to strangers. Meanwhile, anger is spreading about why two dams in the port city of Derna – which collapsed under the weight of flooding, leading to the destruction of entire neighbourhoods – were allowed to decay. There have also been accusations that authorities ignored warnings about the severity of the storm, contributing to the skyrocketing death toll. International aid requests and pledges have begun to pour in, along with initial shipments. But finding and burying bodies is still a top priority, according to a doctor in Benghazi, an eastern city where many people have taken shelter. “Everyone is still in shock; we still haven’t had time to process our emotions,” said the doctor, who asked to remain anonymous. “Everyone is just walking around, ghosts on the streets.”


Devastation, questions about response follow Morocco earthquake


The critical 72-hour window for finding survivors has passed in Morocco after a deadly earthquake struck on 8 September near Marrakech, though there have been some rescues since. The 6.8 magnitude quake has killed nearly 3,000 people, mainly in remote villages in rural, mountainous regions that are difficult for first responders to access. Rescue teams from Qatar, the UK, Spain, and the UAE are assisting Moroccan authorities, slowly transporting essential supplies, like food and tents, across difficult terrain and roads blocked by rubble. The Moroccan government has come under criticism for not initially authorising teams from other countries to join the relief effort. The government said its selective invitations are aimed at avoiding a poorly coordinated response and do not amount to rejections of support from other countries that have offered help. Rebuilding efforts pose a significant challenge to Morocco, which was already grappling with economic difficulties and drought before this disaster.


Fresh layoffs affect ICRC’s global headquarters


The International Committee of the Red Cross will cut 270 more jobs, on top of at least 1,800 announced earlier this year, as the organisation’s budget crunch stretches into 2024. The cuts were announced on 11 September and will affect about 20% of the Red Cross’s 1,400-person workforce at its Geneva headquarters. The previous round of layoffs affected ICRC’s worldwide staff of some 20,000 employees. The organisation has slashed its budget by a quarter in a matter of months. It launched its largest-ever budget of CHF 2.8 billion ($3.1 billion) in January, only to shrink it a few weeks later, citing extensive funding shortfalls. Its budget for next year is forecast at CHF 2.1 billion ($2.3 Billion). “ICRC delegations will face less capacity to assist those in need,” the organisation said in its news release. Internally, the budget woes have sparked accusations of fiscal mismanagement in some corners and debates over the ICRC’s role and scope after years of expansion. Broadly, humanitarian donor funding continues to rise each year – but not enough to keep pace with what aid groups say are the rising costs of responding to crises. 


Injuries and on-going protests in Syria’s Sweida


Activists said that three people were wounded when security guards from Syria’s ruling Baath Party fired at protesters on 13 September, as protests continue in the southern city of Sweida. Demonstrators have been taking to the streets in Sweida – a population centre for Syria’s minority Druze community – for weeks now. The protests began after President Bashar al-Assad’s government cut fuel subsidies in an effort to address an economic collapse that has hit people across the country. The protests have expanded and taken on an anti-regime bent, but until now have not been met with serious violence. Meanwhile, recent fighting in northeast Syria between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and local armed groups has quieted. But civilians in Deir Ezzor province – the centre of the violence – have been forced to flee their homes and are reportedly struggling to get aid and basic services, including healthcare, clean water, and electricity. 


‘Time of war’ between Mali armed groups and ruling Junta?


Fighting between Mali’s army and a coalition of non-jihadist northern armed groups continued this week, signalling a breakdown in a peace agreement that had held since 2015. The CSP coalition – which includes groups that launched a 2012 separatist uprising – claimed to seize and then withdraw from the the town of Bourem in the Gao region. One of the group’s main signatories, the Tuareg-dominated CMA, said it is in a “time of war” with the junta and called on residents to contribute to the war effort. It also claimed to have shot down a military plane over the weekend, though the army said technical issues brought down the aircraft. Relations between northern armed groups and Mali’s government have been strained since a military junta took power in 2020. But tensions have escalated amid the withdrawal of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali. Armed group leaders are angry that the army and its Russian mercenary allies are taking over peacekeeper camps in territory that is under their control.


The UNGA’s daunting to-do list


A week of high-level meetings kicks off at the UN General Assembly in New York on 18 September with a decidedly ambitious to-do list: Reform the global financial order, avert a climate catastrophe, nip the next pandemic in the bud, and get those 17 Sustainable Development Goals back on track. Official summits on climate ambitions, the SDGs, and a trio of meetings on global health are meant to steer the focus, while world leaders (or their designates) will take turns pushing their talking points during the general debate. There’s a near-infinite stream of side events and evening receptions stretching across Manhattan. Late-comers may be out of luck: The “Pandemic Action Network Happy Hour” is full. But may we suggest this instead: A 19 September double-header on refugee leadership and local aid financing, the latter co-hosted by The New Humanitarian. This, too, is at capacity, but the live stream is open to all.

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In case you missed it

CHINA-AFGHANISTAN: On 13 September, China became the first country to appoint a new ambassador to Afghanistan since the Taliban retook control of the country. In a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, top Islamic Emirate officials, including acting Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund and acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, welcomed Zhao Xing as Beijing’s new envoy to Kabul. The Islamic Emirate hopes Zhao’s arrival will be a first step toward greater global engagement with their government, which is still awaiting international recognition.


GLOBAL WITNESS REPORT: More than 1,900 land and environmental defenders were killed around the world in the past decade, according to a new report from the NGO Global Witness. Land and environment defenders are people who try to peacefully protect their homes, livelihoods, and the environment from the negative impacts of extractive industries and industrial farming. Most of those killed were in Latin America, particularly in Colombia and the Amazon rainforest. 


HAITI: The President of the Dominican Republic, Luis Abinader, closed the country's air, sea, and land borders with neighbouring Haiti on 15 September due to a water dispute, after suspending visas for Haitians earlier in the week. The Dominican Republic accuses Haiti of diverting water from the Massacre River by digging a canal. 


KENYA: Teachers working in northern Kenya, fearful of growing al-Shabab attacks, have called for army protection after their demands for transfers out of the region were rejected. The jihadist group, waging a long-running insurgency in both Somalia and Kenya, has killed four teachers in the past two months alone.


LEBANON: Fighting has resumed in the south Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, causing new deaths and injuries and forcing more people to flee their homes. While the exact death toll is not yet clear, UNRWA, the UN’s Agency for Palestine Refugees, says that 18 people are reported to have been killed in the camp since clashes between political factions began on 7 September. 


SUDAN: Army airstrikes in Khartoum have resulted in nearly 50 civilian casualties over the past week, the highest death toll in the city since conflict broke out five months ago. More than five million people across the country have been displaced by the fighting, according to IOM.


US ARMS TRACKER: The Biden administration has introduced a system – the Civilian Harm Incident Response Guidance (CHIRG) – to investigate the misuse of American-made weapons by foreign governments causing harm to civilians. Even while announcing the new tracker, the administration approved $235 million in military aid for Egypt on 14 September after withholding the aid for two years over human rights concerns.

US-MEXICO BORDER: At least 686 people died or disappeared attempting to cross the US southern border last year, making it the deadliest land migration route in the world, according to a new report from the International Organization for Migration. The number is likely a vast undercount, as many deaths are believed to go unrecorded. Overall, IOM reported 1,457 migration deaths throughout the Americas last year. 



Weekend read

Investigation | Is the UN really climate neutral? No.

Ever clicked a button to offset your long-haul flight emissions? Great, but did you go the extra mile to confirm your money was well spent? This question lies at the heart of our latest investigation into the UN’s carbon offsetting portfolio. The UN calls itself 95% or more “climate neutral”, but that claim is based almost entirely on carbon offsets. In a year-long investigation, reporters from The New Humanitarian and Mongabay managed to gather details on carbon credit purchases from 33 UN entities, representing more than 75% of the UN’s offsetting portfolio since 2012. Some 40% of those credits were bought from hydro or wind projects that climate experts say mostly fail to meet emissions targets and are often worthless. And more than a dozen of the projects in the UN’s offset portfolio were linked to reports of environmental damage, displacement, or health concerns. Reporters also found that many of the UN agencies had little knowledge of what they had bought. We know what you may be thinking. The UN isn’t in the same class as fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil or Saudi Aramco. But as Joe Romm, one of the climate scientists we interviewed, put it: “It matters what the UN does. The UN is effectively overseeing the world’s effort to address the climate problem.” And whose money is the UN spending, again? Ours.

And finally…

The human rights implications of the war on drugs

The international community spent more than $900 million on counternarcotics efforts around the world between 2012 and 2021, with many of these efforts contributing to widespread human rights abuses, according to a new report from Harm Reduction International (HRI). The US and the EU spent $550 million and $282 million respectively on programmes that supported drug control policies in countries like Afghanistan, Vietnam, Honduras, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mozambique, and Peru. Much of the funding ended up supporting punitive and prohibitionist drug control policies that led to mass incarcerations, capital punishment, civilian deaths, the destruction of livelihoods for poor farmers through forced eradication, and the use of forced drug treatment programmes, according to the report. HRI is calling on governments to “stop using money from their limited aid budgets” to support harmful – and even deadly – anti-drug policies.

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