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Post-disaster crackdowns in Libya, aid theft in Somalia, and… UNGA: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

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

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‘Reform or rupture’ at UNGA

The world is inching closer to “a great fracture”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned as global leaders converged in New York. “It’s reform or rupture,” he added. So, did a week of high-level summits and sideline chatter at the UN General Assembly pull us back from the brink? The agenda was ambitious: kickstart systemic reform, accelerate climate action and pandemic preparedness, and reverse poverty backslides. Realistically, world leaders are nudging forward on some counts but spinning their wheels on many others. Overhauling the unequal global financial system is now a top-of-mind issue after years of advocacy from smaller, vulnerable nations. But few hard promises emerged from a midweek Climate Ambition Summit meant to stir action. The World Health Organization hailed a heads-of-state summit on preventing pandemics as “historic”, but critics say the resulting political declaration was short on actual commitments. And that’s not to mention addressing the humanitarian crisis in Sudan or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – despite a high-level summit on the former and fiery speeches on the latter. This year’s general debate is scheduled to wrap up on 26 September. After that, the UNGA session will continue with far less fanfare, working its way through a long policy agenda that includes everything from earthly taxation to cooperating in space.

Ceasefire but no solution over Nagorno-Karabakh

ceasefire came into effect on 20 September in Nagorno-Karabakh, ending two days of fighting in the contested territory but leaving its future in limbo. Most of the international community recognises Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, but the population of around 120,000 ethnic Armenians rejects Azerbaijani rule and considers it a de facto independent state, the Republic of Artsakh. Two major wars have been fought over the territory since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most recent in 2020Deadly flare-ups – like last week’s offensive by Azerbaijan (which it framed as an anti-terrorist campaign) – have occurred sporadically in between. Aid groups have reported difficulties and long gaps in their ability to deliver food and medicine to the territory since Azerbaijan began a blockade of the main access road in late 2022. Conditions inside have reportedly deteriorated, with residents saying they fear starvation. Negotiations have now begun on the terms of the ceasefire, which reportedly require Armenian separatists to disband and give up their weapons. That hasn’t happened yet, and trust between the sides is low.

Divided and desperate in Libya’s Derna

The forces that control Derna, the Libyan city that suffered major losses when two of its dams broke under the weight of flood waters earlier this month, have reportedly imposed strict restrictions on both journalists and aid workers. This crackdown, along with a temporary stoppage of communications, began after protesters took to the streets demanding answers for the lack of warning and preparation for the storm that hit northeastern Libya in mid-September. Demonstrators were blamed for setting fire to the Derna mayor’s home. Given the restrictions, it has been difficult to get reliable information out of Derna. The official death toll from the storm stands at more than 4,000, with 8,000 people still missing. Thousands more victims are still believed to be buried under the rubble, and bodies are being buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, concerns are growing about a disease outbreak. Several people have reportedly become ill from drinking contaminated water, leading officials to divide the city in four to contain any potential spread.  

The ‘cost of inaction’ on Sudan

The conflict between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces is now in its sixth month, and the human toll keeps climbing. Army airstrikes killed dozens of civilians in Khartoum last week, and flames engulfed landmark buildings over the weekend. UN agencies said more than 1,200 refugee children have died in camps since May due to malnutrition and measles, and over six million people across the country are now just one hunger measure away from famine. Speaking at a high-level side event this week at UNGA to highlight the “cost of inaction” and discuss the constraints facing aid agencies, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said the UN had only managed to get aid into Khartoum on three occasions since June. Convoys from the eastern city of Port Sudan – the main base of relief operations and the scene of fighting earlier this week – to the westernmost Darfur region are taking between two to six weeks to organise, Griffiths added. Take a trawl through our recent Sudan reporting for more.

New Sahel juntas double down on militarist approach to jihadists

The military juntas in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, have formed a new defence pact – the Alliance of Sahel States – tasked with fighting jihadist groups and combating foreign aggression. The pact could be activated should the Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc, launch a threatened intervention in Niger, which experienced a coup in July. The alliance could also spell the end of the G5 Sahel, a French-supported regional military grouping that was formed in 2017 but has been seen as ineffective. Militant groups linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State have been weaving across the three neighbouring countries in recent years, creating one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Unpopular civilian rulers have been toppled by disgruntled soldiers who have won local support by breaking ties with the former colonial power, France. But the juntas are reproducing a military-first approach that is costing civilian livesstirring new rebellions, and creating additional humanitarian needs in the process.

Somalia aid diversion seen as different from Ethiopia’s

Despite a UN investigation finding that food theft and extortion is rife in Somalia’s displacement camps, USAID – the county’s largest food donor – is reportedly not planning to withhold aid. Reuters quoted a USAID official as saying the Somali authorities were committed to investigating the UN’s findings, and that the case differed from Ethiopia, where the agency and the World Food Programme (WFP) have imposed a six-month aid freeze. The alarm over systematic food theft in Somalia follows a confidential report commissioned by the UN secretary-general that found that powerful local clan-based networks have been extorting food rations from the victims of drought and conflict. The EU has temporarily suspended new funding to WFP until better controls are in place – although it’s a move likely to have only marginal impact as WFP has already received 80% of the EU’s pledged funding. The UN report identified “gatekeepers” – private individuals who manage camps – as imposing ration taxes on the displaced, backed by the threat of violence. Some 3.8 million people are displaced in Somalia. Read The New Humanitarian reporting on gatekeepers here and here.

Europe’s new migration plan looks like more of the same

During a visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa on 19 September, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni announced a new action plan to address migration across the Mediterranean. The week before their trip, 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants landed on Lampedusa in less than 48 hours, overwhelming reception capacity. The plan is largely a recycling of previous pledges made by EU leaders, including increasing deportations, cracking down on smugglers, and strengthening cooperation with African countries. Meanwhile, the EU’s partnership with Tunisia – the main departure country in North Africa this year – is proving how fraught that approach can be. The EU and Tunisia signed a $1 billion euro agreement in July aimed at reducing migration, ignoring a rise in violence, xenophobia, and abuses directed towards Black African asylum seekers and migrants. Last week, Tunisia denied entry to a group of EU parliamentarians, decrying “interference” in the country’s internal affairs. And last weekend, Tunisian police launched a major operation in the coastal city of Sfax, rounding up Black Africans and taking them to unconfirmed locations. 

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In case you missed it

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO: President Felix Tshisekedi wants the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission to begin from the end of this year – a year earlier than planned. Tshisekedi said the increasingly unpopular MONUSCO has failed to effectively tackle violence in the east of the country.

HAITI: The UN Security Council could vote on a multinational force in Haiti within a week, US Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols told Voice of America. Discussions are underway for Kenya to lead such a force to tackle worsening gang violence that has killed more than 2,400 people this year. Meanwhile, one of the most powerful gang leaders in the capital, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, has called for Haitians to help overthrow Prime Minister Ariel Henry

INDIA/CANADA: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accused "agents of the government of India” of killing a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia. Ottawa is investigating “credible allegations potentially linking" New Delhi to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, an advocate for the creation of a separate Sikh state. In the days since, the two nations have expelled each other’s diplomats, and India stopped issuing visas to Canadians. New Delhi also warned its citizens of travelling to Canada, saying there is a risk of “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes”.

KENYA/UKRAINE: Ukraine will establish “grain hubs” in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa to tackle food insecurity. Some 2.8 million Kenyans are in food crisis and, along with Egypt, the country accounted for half of all Ukrainian grain exports to the continent under the now-defunct Black Sea Grain Initiative. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the plan at UNGA following meetings with his Kenyan and South African counterparts, William Ruto and Cyril Ramaphosa, but provided few details.

MALAYSIA/TÜRKIYE: After meeting on the UNGA sidelines, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Türkiye and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim issued a statement condemning “the trend of increasing hatred, intolerance, discrimination and acts of violence against Muslims… that has reached an alarming level in many parts of the world, especially in Europe”. The leaders of Iran and Qatar also used the gathering to address a wave of anti-Muslim sentiments and legislation.

MEXICO: After a spate of fatalities, a freight train operator temporarily suspended services to northern Mexico on 19 September. Numbers of asylum seekers and migrants using the trains to reach the US-Mexico border have been rising. Hopping the train – known as La Bestia (The Beast) – frequently results in death or serious injury.

MOROCCO: Morocco has said it will spend $11.7 billion over the next five years on a reconstruction plan following the earthquake that killed nearly 3,000 people earlier this month. A statement said the cost will be covered by the government’s budget, foreign aid, and a fund set up after the quake. For more on questions over the international media coverage of the disaster, read this column from Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling Patrick Gathara.

SYRIA: The UN resumed aid deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Türkiye and rebel-held northwest Syria this week, following a temporary agreement with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. For more, watch the short explainer video below from Syrian journalist Abd Almajed Alkarh. 

VENEZUELA: Venezuela deployed 11,000 troops to retake the Tocorón prison, which served as the headquarters of the Tren de Aragua. Security forces are now searching for fugitive members of the gang, which exploited the Venezuelan migrant crisis to build a criminal empire across the region. Read our recent report for more

YEMEN: Houthi rebels and Saudi officials concluded five days of talks on ending the war in Yemen, with negotiations believed to be focused on the full re-opening of Sana’a airport and other ports, the payment of public sector salaries, and the presence of foreign fighters in the country. 

Weekend Read

In Venezuela, Maduro’s squeeze on NGOs threatens humanitarian aid

Venezuela has been in the news a lot this week, not least regarding the big development that the United States is to offer temporary legal status to more than 470,000 Venezuelan migrants, the largest ever expansion of people under the designation. But the news back home wasn’t so good. A UN team investigating alleged human rights abuses by President Nicolás Maduro’s government issued a report warning of increasingly intense and targeted threats, surveillance, and harassment aimed at quashing dissent ahead of next year’s elections. Media outlets, too, are complaining of repressive measures that have been curtailing free speech. Our weekend read explores how this is all playing out in the humanitarian arena, where aid NGOs along with other civil society groups say they’re also facing tightening restrictions. In one dramatic move last month, the government removed the president of the Venezuelan Red Cross and liquidated its board. Members of Maduro’s ruling party made accusations of corruption, but aid officials fear authoritarian overreach and a worrying precedent.

And finally…

Ecuadorian drug lord launches music video… from prison

In an outrageous display of defiance, drug lord José Adolfo “Fito” Macías Villamar appeared in a music video filmed inside the Ecuadorian prison where he is serving a sentence for murder and other crimes. The song accompanying the video, entitled El Corrido del León (The Lion’s Ballad), praises Fito and features vocals by his own daughter. The video is the latest salvo in an ongoing war between Ecuador’s government and organised crime. Last month, a presidential candidate was assassinated after denouncing threats he said he had received from Fito’s gang. Outgoing president Guillermo Lasso then tried to transfer Fito to a maximum security prison, but a judge reversed the order. At least seven Ecuadorian politicians have been assassinated this year, while authorities appear unable to staunch the country’s ballooning murder rate. To learn more about “Ecuador’s rapid descent from regional haven to gang-ridden cauldron of fear”, read last month’s article by Carolina Loza León.

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