31 August 2018

Mali Peace Wreckers, Messy Food Aid, and Well-Meaning Celebrities - the Cheat Sheet

Geneva — Every Friday, IRIN's team of specialist editors offers a curation of humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

Tripoli on edge

Heavy clashes broke out in the Libyan capital of Tripoli this week, forcing Libyan civilians to flee their homes and leaving migrants, mostly from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, stranded in detention centres until they could be evacuated. Conditions in the centres are bad enough - see our recent reporting and this from the Global Detention Project - and now some people will have to wait longer for voluntary return to their home countries because there was no safe way to the airport. The UN has repeatedly called for calm, but one ceasefire has already fallen apart, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that the humanitarian situation in Tripoli is deteriorating rapidly.

Mali's spoilers

Armed groups that signed an Algerian-brokered peace deal with the Malian government more than three years ago continue to threaten its implementation. That's the assessment of a new UN report that links signatory groups to terrorist activities, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. Vast sums of money, the report argues, have been invested in the peace process with little return. Meanwhile insecurity is on the rise in central Mali - which was not included in the original peace deal. Islamist militants, once confined to the north, have slowly expanded their presence in the region since 2015, inflaming tensions among ethnic groups and triggering the birth of "self-defence" militias. Fighting among armed groups has intensified in recent months, leaving hundreds dead, thousands displaced and scores of villages burnt. Look out for our full report from the ground on this next week.

Weaponising aid in northern Myanmar

A UN rights probe this week called for Myanmar's top military officials to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide after last year's Rohingya purge. More below about what happened [or didn't] when the Security Council discussed the issue on Tuesday, and, in case you missed it, here are our key takeaways from the investigation. While it's the Rohingya refugee crisis that is under the international spotlight, the UN-mandated mission also found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in northern Myanmar, where a long-running conflict against ethnic armed groups has simmered out of view (some of our earlier reporting on that is here). And in a report released 30 August, Southeast Asia-based rights group Fortify Rights says Myanmar's government has "weaponised the denial of humanitarian aid" to civilians in Kachin State. Authorities have approved less than five percent of humanitarian travel authorisations in the last year and also threatened local aid groups with criminal charges for their humanitarian work in areas controlled by armed groups. This means the more than 106,000 civilians currently displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states aren't getting the food, healthcare, and other basic services they need. Fortify Rights says "authorities responsible for willfully denying lifesaving aid to Kachin civilians may be liable for war crimes".

WFP takes a public look at its principles

Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and operational independence. These "humanitarian principles" guide most conventional relief agencies, at least in theory. But when lofty ideals meet messy reality there are always trade-offs, as decision-makers at the multi-billion-dollar UN World Food Programme recognize as they negotiate with abusive governments and rebels, balance conflicting priorities, or juggle access. WFP has chosen to release an unflinching independent report which asks if it gets these calls right. The evaluation, published in July, gives a mixed report card: WFP programmes get relatively high marks from their end-users for impartiality, but a quarter of staff surveyed couldn't show that they knew the principles well. The report details a number of country operations and includes information on surveys of WFP's partners and even social media sentiment. TL;DR? Try the 17-page summary here.

Yemen report backlash

As we reported on Tuesday, a UN group of experts has accused pretty much every major party in Yemen's three-and-a-half year war of violating international law and possibly of committing war crimes. That includes Houthi rebels and their allies, as well as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and forces loyal to the internationally recognised (but deposed) government of Yemen. Some of those fingered have since clapped back: Abdulaziz al-Wasil, Saudi ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said the report's findings were "not accurate" and did not reflect the fact that the Houthis are an armed militia fighting an internationally recognised government, sometimes firing missiles on Saudi territory. "It [the report] is surprising for us because it doesn't reflect the reality," he said, adding that the Saudis "genuinely want to improve the situation in Yemen." Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, penned his reply on Twitter, saying his country needed to review the report before responding but that Houthi responsibility for civilian suffering needed to be recognised.

A ticking clock to meet climate change pledges

In 2015, the world's governments agreed to landmark commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature rise; they haven't yet agreed on exactly how to do that. Three years later, the clock is ticking. Negotiators must agree on a "rulebook" governing how countries meet their commitments during this year's annual climate summit, to be held in Poland in December. That's why meetings set for next week in Bangkok are important: Climate negotiators will hash out a negotiating text - essentially, the nuts and bolts of what governments will debate in December.

Not unrelated: 2018 has been a year of extreme weather around the globe, from once-in-a-century flooding in South Asia, to wildfires and heatwaves over stretches of the Western Hemisphere, to extreme storms and unusually sopping-wet monsoon seasons elsewhere. Scientists say climate change makes extreme weather more unpredictable and more intense, but attributing specific disasters to climate change is still an emerging field. Notably, Japan's meteorological agency recently issued a paper saying there's evidence that extreme rain and soaring temperatures there in July "may be linked to global warming". Read the findings here.

MYANMAR: Dozens of villages were flooded and more than 63,000 people displaced in Myanmar's Bago Region, north of the commercial hub of Yangon, when part of a dam breached on 29 August. This adds to monsoon season woes in Myanmar, where floods drove 164,000 people from their homes through June and July.

LAOS: In other damming news, there are mixed messages over in Laos, where Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbour this month declared a freeze on new investments in hydropower projects - then quickly announced it was moving forward with plans for regional consultations to build the Pak Lay dam on the Mekong River - a typically perfunctory process. What gives? Laos said the new project doesn't represent a "new investment", as it had technically been approved by the government before the freeze, which came as a response to the partial collapse of a dam in southern Attapeu province in July.

SOUTH SUDAN: Having declined to do so two days earlier, South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar on Thursday put his initials to a revitalised peace agreement aimed, perhaps quixotically, at ending more than four years of civil war. Two weeks ago, Machar, President Salva Kiir, and other opposition groups signed a key power-sharing accord. But Machar insisted he would only put his full signature to the peace deal if his concerns about how decisions are reached in an enlarged cabinet, amonf other issues, are addressed. No date has been set for the final signing ceremony.

New phase of lawlessness grips Congo's Kasai region

Towards the end of last year, the scale of the crisis unfolding in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Kasai region finally became too large to ignore. Many of the world's main media outlets, including the BBC, belatedly rushed correspondents to report from the ground on the millions who faced starvation; the UN declared it the highest level of emergency - on a par with Yemen, Iraq, and Syria - and humanitarian assistance was rapidly stepped up. The rebellion erupted in 2016 and was already raging by the summer of 2017, when dozens of mass graves were discovered. The media machine has long since moved on, but as Luke Dennison reports in our weekend read, the crisis continues, even if the Congolese government disagrees. Dennison, based in the eastern town of Goma, spent a week travelling around the southern region and found new displacement and hunger. The Kamuina Nsapu militia, at the heart of the initial rebellion, has split but is still a potent force, and armed robberies and banditry are on the rise. The aid response is once again stretched, with health clinics woefully short of supplies to treat malnourished children. Perhaps the BBCs and CNNs of the world will find reason to return to Kasai sooner rather than later.

Raising awareness, raising hackles

That old chestnut, the role of celebrities in "raising awareness", came around again this week. Actress Cate Blanchett addressed the UN Security Council. Blanchett said she spoke about the suffering of the Rohingya people as a witness, "not an expert". As a UNHCR goodwill ambassador (from the UK), she appealed to the council (chaired by the UK): "please let us not fail them again". An A-list celebrity council appearance is not without precedent (George Clooney on Darfur, for example) but the subject matter has rarely been as grave: a UN panel had just accused the Myanmar military of genocidal intent in its assault on the Rohingya.

So who's raising whose awareness now? Some critics on social media found Blanchett's role inappropriate. In the calculus of public attention, the Rohingya issue does seem to need a boost. The global media coverage database GDELT shows the Rohingya slipping from the media limelight over the last year. (The graph shows the numbers of articles about either Blanchett or Rohingya as a proportion of the total). Cynics pointed out that Blanchett has a new film to promote. Data suggests her star outshone the Rohingya issue during the Cannes film festival and at the June release of her last film, Ocean's 8. Our completely unscientific poll suggested mixed feelings about Blanchett's efforts, but 47 percent said her role was "good", and less than a quarter said it was "ridiculous or obscene".

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