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Inklings | UN double standards on staff torture claims

Notes and musings on how aid works, from The New Humanitarian’s policy editors.

The header image for the Inkling's newsletter entry of 12 June, 2024. On the top left you see Inklings written in a serif font with an ink bleed effect and underlined with a burgundy color line. On the bottom right we see a list of the main topic: WFP and the search for value for money

This is another edition of Inklings, where we explore all things aid and aid-adjacent unfolding in the wilds of Geneva, on the front lines of emergency response, or in the dark corners of online aid punditry.

It’s also available as an email newsletter. Subscribe here.

Today: The different responses to UN staff torture claims in Ethiopia and Gaza, mapping debt and crises, and why what happens in space matters to humanitarians.

On the radar|

‘A two-week ordeal involving torture’: Ethiopian security forces allegedly detained and tortured humanitarian staff with little public pushback from the UN. That’s one of many details found in an evaluation report published this month on the “failed” collective aid response in Tigray and northern Ethiopia – a scathing review that’s particularly critical of what’s labelled as a “dysfunctional” and “unaccountable” UN leadership team in the country. “The response made few, if any, collective statements against the blockade imposed against Tigray, the harassment, arbitrary arrests and detentions or torture of UN and non-UN humanitarian staff, or the practice of starvation as a weapon of war,” the report states. UN internal records showed physical violence, threats, intimidation, harassment, detentions, arrests, and confiscation of aid equipment. Informants also told the report’s authors of strip searches, the detention of family members, and multiple torture cases, including “a two-week ordeal involving torture that a humanitarian staff underwent”. 

  • Meanwhile, in Gaza: When UN staff in Gaza alleged they were abused in detention by Israeli authorities in April, the response was more public. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, issued a report shortly after and spoke of it in the press. The abuse claims included: “severe physical beatings and treatment akin to waterboarding… beatings by doctors when referred for medical assistance; exposure to and being attacked by dogs; threats of rape and electrocution; threats of violence with guns pointed at them; verbal and psychological abuse; threats of murder, injury or harm to family members; humiliating and degrading treatment; being forced to strip naked and being photographed while they are undressed; and being forced to hold stress positions.”
  • Fail: The Ethiopia report’s lead evaluator, Ed Schenkenberg, said he was told the word “failure” was used too many times. His opinion piece, published here last week, calls for accountability, and warns that the problems resonate beyond Ethiopia. In Sudan, for example, he says “UN agencies lack a clear strategy, and are ineffective in negotiating unimpeded access. Growing the public understanding of why the UN fails in civil wars is instrumental to fostering much-needed reforms on how it operates.” For the record, the words “fail”, “failed”, or “failure” appear 14 times in the 123-report.

What’s banned: Here are a few things Israeli authorities aren’t letting into Gaza, according to humanitarians working on protection: mine action supplies, sanitary pads, dignity and menstrual health management kits, and recreational material for children.

  • Mine inaction: Clearing debris laced with unexploded weapons and ammunition will take years in Gaza, and “is going to be incredibly problematic”, a UXO disposal expert tells my colleague Will Worley.

Data points|

It’s harder to invest in social services when debt interest payments are eating into your revenue. New stats show how a growing number of countries are handcuffed by debt.

A record number of countries spent more than 10% of their revenues on public debt interest payment, according to calculations from the UN’s trade and development arm, UNCTAD. Here’s what that looks like, mapped against the Inform Risk Index, a metric the humanitarian system uses to weigh vulnerability.

The list includes Pakistan, which took on more in debt than it did in humanitarian aid during record 2022 floods, according to one analysis, and spent nearly 60% of its revenue on interest payments a year later. It also includes the United States, which was the sole “developed country” – a classification used by UNCTAD – to breach the 10% mark. The US has also inched up to a “medium” risk level on the Inform index.

The number of African countries spending larger shares of revenue to service debt has tripled since 2010, as this chart shows:

With record public debt levels, governments are spending more on interest than they do on healthcare, education, or other services that might help communities withstand crises. As climate change worsens, countries are plunging into a cycle of debt. As Group of Seven leaders meet this week, there are renewed calls for debt pause clauses and other reforms to the international financial system.


C7: Italy plays host to that G7 summit from 13-15 June. The parallel civil society gathering, the C7 or Civil 7, has issued its 34-page communiqué in a bid to influence developments. The humanitarian section warns of a “bleak” funding situation and says the system “has been forced to undertake a radical prioritisation of actions... effectively providing aid to some, while denying it to others.”

UCG: A Norwegian Refugee Council report employs this seemingly innocuous abbreviation for unconstitutional changes in government. The report uses case studies in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Afghanistan to examine the problem of donors cutting development aid in “politically estranged settings” – a widely used tactic that heaves more pressure on humanitarians.

UNOOSA: The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs is staging its Conference on Sustainable Lunar Activities on 18 June in Vienna. The goal: to “foster a meaningful discussion on lunar cooperation in view of our collective vision of bringing the benefits of space to all humankind”. The ICRC, meanwhile, hosts a 27 June event to talk about protecting civilian services on Earth (including those used in humanitarian responses) from “outer space military operations”. 

End quote|

“We are forced to celebrate the opening of a window every time a door slams.”

That was Suze van Meegen, NRC’s head of operations for Gaza, on a press call after a 11 June humanitarian conference co-hosted by Jordan, Egypt, and the UN.

The conference hit some familiar notes – calls for a ceasefire, to open up aid crossings and fund humanitarian response, to plan for recovery, to end Israeli occupation, and, broadly, to stop destroying Gaza – and produced this pithy joint statement.

Meanwhile, at least 55% of all structures in Gaza are destroyed or damaged, according to a recent satellite analysis – and Gaza is running out of tents.

Have any tips, recommendations, or indecipherable acronyms to share with the Inklings newsletter? Get in touch: [email protected]

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