Amazon preservation pledges, an assassination in Ecuador, and deadly Hawaii wildfires: The Cheat Sheet
Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Government advances in tense Ethiopia
The Ethiopian military has reportedly recaptured six towns in the embattled Amhara region from local militia forces after a week of fighting. Tensions have been rising since the federal government announced it was dismantling regional forces across Ethiopia, triggering protests by Amhara nationalists who fear their region will be weakened. Amhara forces and allied Fano militia provided crucial support to Ethiopia’s military in the two-year conflict in the neighbouring Tigray region. Amhara leaders now feel sidelined by the November 2022 peace deal, which they played no part in drafting. There is particular concern over the future status of Western Tigray – territory captured by Amhara forces, but which Tigray also claims. Last week, the federal government declared a state of emergency in Amhara after regional authorities lost control to militia forces, who, although not well equipped, could pose a challenge to the government in Addis Ababa if they win widespread support.
Tunisia’s summer of migration infamy continues
At least 41 people have died in the latest shipwreck in the central Mediterranean Sea. The boat left from the city of Sfax in Tunisia on 3 August, according to four rescued survivors who were from Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea. At least 30 more people went missing in other shipwrecks during rough conditions at sea last weekend. The recorded death toll in the central Mediterranean has passed 1,800 so far this year – although the true number is likely higher. Recent departures from Sfax are likely being driven at least in part by xenophobia and violence directed toward Black African asylum seekers and migrants in Tunisia. The situation came to a head at the beginning of July when a Tunisian man was killed during a confrontation in Sfax that prompted attacks against Black Africans. Tunisian authorities then rounded up and expelled hundreds of asylum seekers and migrants to the country’s desert border region with Libya, where at least 27 bodies have since been found. Tunisia’s foreign affairs ministry has described reports about the mistreatment of Black Africans in the country as “disinformation”.
Ecuador’s spike in violence hits presidential campaign
Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was shot and killed at a public rally on 9 August, less than two weeks before the election. Villavicencio had been campaigning against corruption and organised crime. President Guillermo Lasso has declared a 60-day state of emergency. Before entering politics, Villavicencio was an investigative journalist who uncovered corruption cases involving businessmen and politicians, including former president Rafael Correa. Because of his work, he was the target of several assassination attempts and at one point was forced to live in hiding for 18 months. A day after his killing, Ecuador’s second-largest gang, Los Lobos, claimed responsibility in a video and threatened another candidate. Villavicencio is not the first politician to be killed recently in Ecuador. Last month, the mayor of the port city of Manta, a central hub for drug trafficking, was shot. In February a candidate for mayor of the port city of Puerto López was also murdered. So far, the presidential elections haven’t been cancelled, but several candidates have suspended their campaigns. For more, read our series: Gangs out of control.
Amazon preservation pledges amid hottest month on record
Eight countries that share the Amazon rainforest pledged on 8 August to prevent deforestation, but climate activists have criticised the deal for lacking concrete measures and for allowing each country to pursue separate conservation goals. Preserving the Amazon is seen as key to fighting climate change because the rainforest absorbs vast amounts of carbon dioxide and is home to diverse plant and animal species. The leaders of Amazon nations met in Brazil the same day climate scientists announced that July 2023 was the hottest month on record. On Tuesday, Brazilian President Lula da Silva failed to secure a common commitment to end deforestation by 2030. The next day, Amazon leaders joined leaders from the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia in demanding $200 billion per year from rich countries in exchange for the biodiversity preservation performed by countries with extensive rainforests.
Six months from quakes, UN aid deal with Syria’s al-Assad
The UN announced on 9 August that it reached an “understanding” with the government of Syria to allow aid to enter the country from Türkiye through Bab al-Hawa, a key border crossing. The agreement comes nearly a month after the Security Council failed to renew a longstanding (but precarious and frequently changing) resolution that allowed the UN to bring aid across the Turkish border into the rebel-held northwest without the permission of President Bashar al-Assad. The full details of the new agreement with the al-Assad government are not yet clear, but the deal will allow UN assistance to enter the country for six months through Bab al-Hawa. Al-Assad also extended access for three months to two other border crossings between Türkiye and northwest Syria, which he allowed on a temporary basis after a series of earthquakes hit the region on 6 February. The aid is much-needed, but the deal is likely to raise serious concerns for aid groups working in the northwest given past government interference with aid to parts of the country it does not control. Six months after the earthquakes, we asked four Syrian photographers in the hard-hit northwest to take photos of what life looks like today. Watch this video to see their photos and hear their voices:
Hawaii wildfires and El Nino’s looming effect
Wildfires in Hawaii killed at least 55 people in the historic town of Lahaina on Maui, an island in the Hawaiian archipelago. More than 1,000 people are still missing from the blaze, which began 8 August and could become one of the worst disasters in Hawaii’s history since 1960, when 61 were killed in a tsunami. Several fires are still burning on the island, where 1,700 buildings have been destroyed and hundreds of families displaced. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but the combination of drought conditions and winds from Hurricane Dora helped it spread. The US National Weather Service said Dora’s wind gusts of more than 60 mph (96 km/h) knocked out power and forced firefighting helicopters to stay grounded. Meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFCR) has warned that governments and humanitarian agencies need to prepare for simultaneous disasters across the Asia Pacific region as the El Niño phenomenon intensifies. Although the full impact is expected from September to March, countries in the region have already experienced climate-related events in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Intervention or no intervention? Niger’s political uncertainty continues
West African leaders have ordered the activation of a regional “standby” force, increasing pressure on coup leaders in Niger to stand down while still leaving room for a diplomatic solution. Military intervention is a “last resort” to restore Niger’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu said at an emergency 10 August meeting of the regional bloc, ECOWAS. Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria have all agreed to contribute troops. Tinubu, who cut his political teeth battling Nigeria’s military government in the 1990s, has pushed ECOWAS to draw a line against coups. However, military intervention to reverse Niger’s 26 July coup faces resistance within the region. Tinubu is also confronted with domestic opposition, particularly among northern politicians who share deep cultural ties to Niger and are already angered by the cutting of electricity supplies. But Nigeria also has soft power tools. The junta – rebuffing a series of international mediation efforts – met this week with Tinubu’s envoy, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, head of the influential Tijaniyya Islamic sect. Abuja’s diplomatic offer appears to be a now-standard transitional arrangement, the details of which still need to be hammered out.
In case you missed it
BRITAIN: On 7 August, the UK began moving asylum seekers to a controversial barge moored in a port in the country’s southwest. Housing people on the barge – which has the capacity to hold around 500 – is part of the government’s intensifying efforts to try to deter people from crossing the English Channel to claim asylum. Those efforts have drawn rebuke from human rights groups, and the barge itself has been denounced as a “potential death trap”.
ERITREA: A report from a UN independent investigator is putting a fresh spotlight on allegations of torture, sexual violence, forced labour, and abusive conditions in Eritrea’s system of compulsory, indefinite national service. The investigator, Mohamed Babiker, said Eritrea has ignored repeated calls to ensure legal limits for national service. Since winning independence from Ethiopia three decades ago, Eritrea has been led by President Isaias Afwerki, who has never held an election.
HAITI: Protests erupted this week over worsening gang violence in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Humanitarian needs, meanwhile, are skyrocketing. At least 530 people were killed by gangs from January to 15 March this year, and more than 2,000 have been kidnapped for ransom over the past 24 months. The US is expected to draft a UN resolution in the coming weeks to authorise an international armed force to intervene. The Bahamas, Jamaica, and Kenya are considering sending police and troops.
INDIA: Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India’s opposition Congress Party, has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of fueling ethnic and religious tensions in the northeastern state of Manipur. At least 150 people have been killed and 50,000 have been displaced since clashes erupted in May. Gandhi said Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have sown division between Hindus and Christians in the state.
MYANMAR: War crimes and crimes against humanity by Myanmar’s military and allied militias are becoming more frequent and more audacious, according to UN-appointed investigators. The crimes include the targeting of civilians in airstrikes, mass executions, and the intentional burning of homes and, sometimes, entire villages. A series of airstrikes in April killed more than 155 people in one town.
ETHIOPIA: The World Food Program is testing small-scale food distribution, five months after suspending aid deliveries countrywide following the discovery of a massive food theft scheme. WFP said the government – accused of involvement in the fraud – will still play a role in its new delivery system. Aid groups have alleged hundreds of people have died as a result of WFP’s food freeze.
PAKISTAN: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been sentenced to three years in jail and barred from politics in a corruption case, despite widespread protests by millions of the former cricket star’s supporters. The sentencing comes as Pakistan continues to face difficult economic times, including falling currency values and a 29% inflation rate.
ROHINGYA: At least 10 women and seven men drowned when a refugee boat capsized off the shores of Rakhine state in Myanmar. The boat, which was headed towards Malaysia, was full of Rohingya Muslims, who have been fleeing years of violence and persecution in Myanmar. At least 45 others are reportedly still missing. The eight who survived the boat’s capsizing were arrested in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state.
UKRAINE: With Russia stepping up attacks, Ukraine has ordered civilians to evacuate from the Kupiansk district in the northeastern Kharkiv region. Russian forces are advancing in the region, which they captured early in the war before being forced to withdraw. Meanwhile, Ukraine announced it will open a “humanitarian corridor” for cargo ships stuck in its Black Sea ports since the beginning of the war, testing Russia’s blockade of shipping lanes.
Amid all the chaos in Kabul in August 2021, Western nations made a raft of promises to help rescue and stand by their Afghan allies. What those amounted to was a commitment to resettle as many who were likely to be vulnerable under Taliban rule as possible. Two years later, the report card is lamentable. For our weekend read, Asia Editor Ali Latifi teamed up with two other Afghan journalists to take stock. They found that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Afghans remain either in legal limbo in new host countries or trapped abroad awaiting processing by Western nations. Those looking for US visas face 1,000-day waits, while European nations have shuttered programmes or are moving at a snail’s pace. This is leaving many stuck in resettlement camps or holed up in third countries fearing deportation. Some are choosing desperate journeys instead but finding closed borders and hardening attitudes en route. As former BBC journalist Feraidoon Azhand put it from the interminable drabness of his walled-in resettlement camp in Abu Dhabi: “It seems it will take years before we can leave this place”.
The future is now
Perhaps you’re still wrapping your head around what artificial intelligence will mean for aid. The Human Rights Council’s advisory committee – the UN body’s self-described think tank – is way ahead of you. Among the topics on the table during a week of meetings that wrapped on 11 August: neuro-technology and brain interface controls used to “enhance” soldiers, neuro-bioweapons, and the weaponisation of climate geo-engineering. It’s part of preliminary work looking at a range of rights issues raised by new tech, including the military use of emerging technologies. Later this year, the council is slated to discuss “new technologies intended for climate protection” (there’s a thoroughly debated abbreviation, of course: NTCPs). Examples include geo-engineering such as ocean fertilisation, “enhanced weathering”, and solar radiation modification – which, in theory, would cool the planet by reflecting light back into space. What could go wrong? Generative AI may sound a bit plain in comparison, but the military use of AI is still a big part of the committee’s discussion.