Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Aid diplomacy for northwest Syria
Aid groups are warning of dire consequences if the Security Council does not renew a resolution that lets the UN bring assistance across Turkey’s border into rebel-held northwest Syria without the permission of President Bashar al-Assad. A group of 29 NGOs says there will be a “humanitarian catastrophe” should the authorisation, which expires 10 July, not be extended. The cross-border operation provides food, vaccines, and other aid to 2.4 million people each month, according to the UN. Mark Cutts, UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, said “we know that many people are going to suffer, people are going to die” without the renewal. Millions are already suffering, but the diplomacy to come is about much more than humanitarian needs. As Aron Lund explains in this analysis, internal Russian politics and the war in Ukraine are among the factors that play into how diplomats will cast their votes. Meanwhile, new UN figures estimate that more than 306,000 civilians have been killed over ten years of war in Syria (in March 2022 the conflict crossed the 11-year mark). Those numbers don’t include the more than 100 people murdered over the past year and a half in northeast Syria’s dangerous al-Hol camp, which is home to 55,000 people, including both victims and supporters of the so-called Islamic State. Hear more from analyst Aron Lund here:
A deadly week on global migration routes
At least 23 dead at the border between Morocco and Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla. Fifty-three dead in the back of a tractor trailer near San Antonio, Texas in the US. At least 30 missing and presumed dead – including three one-year-old babies – following a shipwreck off the coast of Libya. Another 13 or more dead after a boat travelling from Senegal to the Spanish Canary Islands caught fire. Twenty bodies found abandoned in the desert near Libya’s border with Chad. All of these incidents took place within the last week and involve refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. Despite occurring along different routes, humanitarian groups and critics point out that the deaths are linked by harsh migration policies in the US and Europe, which have made it more difficult and dangerous for people to cross borders. Overall, nearly 50,000 deaths have been recorded along migration routes around the world since 2014, when the UN’s migration agency, IOM, started keeping track. The number is undoubtedly an undercount.
Missed opportunities (and subtle shifts) at the G7
G7 leaders emerged from their annual summit touting billions in promised spending on emergency aid, food, and climate change, but humanitarian groups say it falls short of what’s needed. The Group of Seven nations – the biggest (and mostly Western) funders of the global aid system – pledged $4.5 billion to fight global hunger during the 26-28 June leaders’ summit in Germany. The amount is “a drop in the bucket”, aid group MercyCorps said, warning there wasn’t enough focus on strengthening food systems to withstand future shocks. Others wanted to see more on climate change – particularly financing commitments in lower-income countries. Funding is only one issue; G7 nations could have cancelled debt to help address the inequality that makes communities vulnerable in the first place, Oxfam said. Start Network, which advocates for aid reforms, said G7 leaders needed more specifics on preventing emergencies, including policies that make humanitarian aid financing more anticipatory. Buried in the 28-page G7 communiqué were subtle changes from previous summits. This year’s document explicitly spoke of scaling up “action and support” to “address loss and damage” – a touchy subject at yearly COP climate summits. Also new, in light of abortion restrictions in the US, is stronger wording on “the importance of access to emergency sexual and reproductive health services in humanitarian crises”.
Rwanda under scrutiny as DR Congo rebels gain ground
The M23 rebel group had as few as 100 fighters when it relaunched its on/off insurgency in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo late last year. The group now numbers up to four times that and is behaving increasingly like a “conventional army”, the UN said this week. M23 was responsible for the last major rebellion in DRC, seizing large chunks of territory in 2012 and 2013 before a UN-government operation forced its fighters into Rwanda and Uganda. Kinshasa and the US accuse Rwanda of backing the current offensive – just as UN investigators did in 2012 – though Kigali denies involvement. Foreign support would help explain M23’s battleground professionalism and acquisition of sophisticated long-range weapons, which the UN says could overwhelm its peacekeeping mission on the ground. More than 160,000 people have now escaped the fighting, which threatens to close in on Goma – a major eastern city – and trigger a wider regional conflict of the kind that shook DRC in decades past.
No end in sight for Sri Lankan crisis
Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence continues to spiral out of control, with devastating consequences for the island nation’s 22 million people. Amid a fuel shortage, the government this week announced that only essential services – ports, healthcare, and food providers – would be allowed access to petrol; the rest of the nation was urged to stay home. The announcement follows weeks of protest over a fuel shortage that has resulted in days-long queues for petrol and cooking gas. Schools have been closed and government employees ordered to stay home – just days after being given a four-day workweek to conserve fuel and allow them to grow food. For months, the country’s economy has been in a freefall due to a sovereign debt crisis that has resulted in soaring food prices and a dangerous shortage of medical supplies. Months of protests over the government’s severe financial management have turned violent at times, resulting in hundreds wounded and at least nine killed. The demonstrations have seen a change of government, with several members of the powerful Rajapaksa family – including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – stepping down and the government proposing constitutional curbs on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s power. But there is still no clear end in sight for the economic crisis. Talks this week with the IMF over a possible bailout ended without a deal, though discussions are ongoing.
Reproductive rights: Attacked on US soil, but strengthened abroad?
Women’s healthcare may be under siege in the US, but there are attempts to broaden abortion access globally. Days after a US Supreme Court decision dismantled protections for safe abortions, a congressional committee voted to allow aid funding to be used for abortion access abroad. The US House Committee on Appropriations on 29 June approved a $65-billion foreign operations bill for next year, which removes so-called Helms Amendment restrictions that bar US assistance from being used for abortion. It’s a symbolic move for now – there was similar intent in last year’s bill, but it didn’t survive the lengthy and contentious federal budgeting process. It’s a reminder, however, that progress is possible, and that communities continue to push for healthcare rights. While reproductive health experts say the Roe v. Wade decision is “a catastrophic blow” that will cost lives, they also note that it goes against a clear global trend to liberalise abortion laws and healthcare access – from Benin and Democratic Republic of Congo to Argentina, Colombia, and Thailand. In the US, the Abortion is Healthcare Everywhere Act, first introduced in 2021, aims to repeal the Helms Amendment for good.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: US and Taliban officials met this week to discuss unfreezing Afghan reserves, following Afghanistan’s 22 June earthquake. An estimated 362,000 people were impacted by the quake, which killed more than 1,000. While tens of millions of dollars in relief aid has been offered, far more will be needed to revive an already impoverished area where entire villages have been destroyed. Read our story for more.
BANGLADESH: Flooding continued this week in two districts, raising fears for even more displacement. Already, floods have impacted more than 7 million people, with nearly half a million residing in shelters. While the death toll has been low, officials fear waterborne illnesses are beginning to spread. Severe damage to crops and livestock will likely take a toll on food security in coming months.
CHILDREN IN WAR: UNICEF has identified “266,000 grave violations” against children committed by warring parties between 2005 and 2020, including the killing of more than 104,100 children, the recruitment of 93,000, and the abduction of 25,700. At least 14,200 children were raped, forcibly married, sexually exploited, or subjected to other forms of sexual violence. The UN agency says these numbers likely represent a “fraction” of the true scale of violations against children in conflict.
COLOMBIA: The Truth Commission presented its long-awaited final report on almost six decades of civil conflict, concluding that more than 450,664 people had been killed; 121,768 “disappeared”; and 7.7 million displaced. Recommendations to the country’s newly elected first left-wing president, Gustavo Petro: End the militarised approach to drug cultivation and trafficking and tackle entrenched impunity. Amid renewed violence, rampant poverty, and spiralling migration, Petro has many challenges before him. Read our rundown for more.
ETHIOPIA/SUDAN: The African Union has called for calm following military clashes between Ethiopia and Sudan in the disputed al-Fashqa region. Sudan accuses Ethiopia of capturing and executing seven of its soldiers and a civilian, though Addis Ababa denies responsibility. Al-Fashqa lies within Sudan’s borders but Ethiopian farmers have long settled there.
GRAND BARGAIN: Signatories to an agenda of reforms aimed at helping the humanitarian system respond more efficiently to crises, known as the Grand Bargain (GB), wrapped up their first annual meeting of the upgraded version – Grand Bargain 2.0 – this week in Geneva. Sixty-five international and local organisations signed a statement to extend GB 2.0 beyond 2023 and to urge senior political leadership to unblock persistent obstacles to implementing change. The document also noted that GB 2.0 pledges – particularly on localisation and financing – must be put into action around the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as the hunger crisis in East Africa.
HAITI: Government officials said that at least eight inmates recently starved to death at an overcrowded prison that ran out of food two months ago in the southwest city of Les Cayes. The UN warns that some 4.5 million Haitians are facing high levels of food insecurity, with some 1.3 million at emergency levels. A deadly earthquake in August 2021, combined with escalating gang violence, a fuel shortage, and a broken food system, have contributed to the Caribbean country’s food crisis.
INDIA: Thousands marched in Rajasthan this week, following the release of a video that appeared to show two Muslim men killing a Hindu man. The latest demonstrations come amid weeks of simmering religious tension, which have spilled into deadly protests as well as diplomatic backlash. The US envoy for international religious freedom said this week that he was concerned about the potential for mass killings of Muslims.
ISTANBUL PROTOCOL: There’s now an updated version of the Istanbul Protocol, which sets out international standards for investigating and documenting acts of torture and ill-treatment, and provides guidance for medical, legal, and judicial professionals involved in such cases. The revised version – the product of six years’ worth of work – offers a roadmap on how to implement the protocol. It also reflects recent legal discussions on torture prevention, accountability, and remedies for victims.
NIGERIA: Civilians will be given licences to carry weapons in Nigeria’s northwestern Zamfara state, where heavily armed criminal gangs – known simply as bandits – have killed hundreds and caused mass displacement in recent years. Security analysts and community leaders in Zamfara expressed fears that the measure could deepen insecurity and communal tensions.
As Ferdinand Marcos Jr. becomes the new president of the Philippines, succeeding outgoing leader Rodrigo Duterte, he inherits more than just the keys of Manila’s Malacañang Palace. Three years after the autonomous region of Bangsamoro was declared in five mainly Muslim provinces in southern Mindanao, the peace process is in urgent need of a reboot. For this in-depth analysis, researcher Haroro J. Ingram travelled from the Maguindanao floodplains to jungle camps in the mountains of Lanao del Norte, and to Marawi City on the banks of Lake Lanao, to speak to ministers, ex-fighters, guerrilla and military commanders, and local returnee facilitators. Amid widespread dissatisfaction at a stalled “normalisation” process marked by broken government promises on money and training, he found renewed conflict and a demobilisation target less than half met. Why, former MILF combatants asked, should they disarm if a host of other groups don’t have to? But critics of Marcos Jr. aren’t holding their breath that he will reinvigorate the peace effort. His campaign was, after all, marred by allegations that the atrocities of his father’s rule were being whitewashed.
Happy anniversary, ICC. Now, about Ukraine…
It’s 1 July, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) is marking its 20th anniversary – just as the Ukraine conflict may push the controversial war crimes court to reassert its muscle. As the world’s only permanent war crimes court, the body is intended to hold individuals accountable for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression. Yet it has had a disappointing record over its two-decade tenure. Despite ongoing investigations around the globe, it has been criticised for a focus on Africa. It has made only a handful of convictions, and higher-level perpetrators have dodged prosecution. With the absence of key states as parties to the ICC – including the US, China, Israel, and Russia – the court has been accused of pandering to the most powerful. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine may change that: A surge of recent Western support includes 7.25 million euro from the EU to help the ICC scale up its investigations into war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine.