By Philip Pullella and Mitra Taj
PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru - Pope Francis issued a ringing defense of the people and the environment of the Amazon on Friday, saying big business and “consumerist greed” could not be allowed to destroy a natural habitat vital for the entire planet.
 
 
Francis, who has made the environment and climate change a focus of his nearly five-year-old pontificate, made his appeal while visiting a corner of the Amazon in Peru where pristine rainforest and biodiversity is being blighted by mining and logging, much of it illegal.
 
 
“The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present,” the pope told a crowd of indigenous people from more than 20 groups including the Harakbut, Esse-ejas, Shipibos, Ashaninkas and Juni Kuin.
 
 
Thousands of representative of the groups from across Peru walked before him, dressed in traditional regional costumes and feather headdresses and speaking in their native languages, as traditional wind instruments sounded mournfully in a small stadium built to look like a hut in the city of Puerto Maldonado.
 
 
Francis decried the “pressure being exerted by big business interests” seeking petroleum, gas, lumber, and gold and plundering “supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.”
 
 
The pope, whose speech was punctuated by repeated applause and beating of drums, spoke after listening to rainforest residents decry what they called the rape of their land.
 
 
“They enter our territories without consulting us and we will suffer a lot when foreigners drill the earth... and destroy our rivers turning them into black waters of death,” Hector Sueyo, an indigenous Harakbut, told the pope forcefully.
 
 
The southeastern region of Peru known as “Madre de Dios,” Spanish for “Mother of God,” has been badly blighted in recent years by unregulated gold mining, with one effect being dangerous levels of mercury in rivers. Illegal loggers and drug traffickers in other parts of the Peruvian Amazon have killed activists and attacked indigenous tribes that shun contact with outsiders.
 
 
While more regulated, foreign companies have eagerly eyed the Camisea gas reserves in the neighboring region of Cusco. In northern Peru more than a dozen oil spills from a state-operated pipeline have polluted native lands.
 
 
“We cannot use goods meant for all as consumerist greed dictates. Limits have to be set that can help preserve us from all plans for a massive destruction of the habitat that makes us who we are,” the pope said.
 
 
On the first papal visit to the Amazon since John Paul II visited the northern Peruvian city of Iquitos in 1985, the Argentine pope said he had heard the “cry of the people.” He promised that he and the Church would offer them “a whole-hearted option for the defense of life, the defense of the earth and the defense of cultures.”
 
 
Indigenous chiefs in Peru hope the pope’s visit will persuade the government of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker, to give native communities titles to ancestral land and help preserving it.
 
 
“We’re the ones who have been fighting to protect the Amazon the longest,” Julio Cusurichi, the chief of the indigenous federation FENAMAD in Madre de Dios, said in an interview.
 
 
 
COLONIALISM ‘DISGUISED AS PROGRESS’
 
 
 
Alberto Fernandez, a 44-year-old flower shop owner in Puerto Maldonado, said he hoped the Pope would help contain the social ills that have accompanied the city’s rapid growth.
 
 
“There’s a lot of need here ... every day there are more bars and cantinas, more prostitution, more illegal mining ... 30 years ago Puerto wasn’t like this,” Fernandez said. “There were only a couple paved streets, but we lived in peace.”
 
 
The pope urged local authorities and bishops to work to defend young people and women from violence and human trafficking and to improve education and preserve local cultures.
 
 
“Special care is demanded of us, lest we allow ourselves to be ensnared by ideological forms of colonialism, disguised as progress, that slowly but surely dissipate cultural identities and establish a uniform, single ... and weak way of thinking,” he said after watching traditional Ashaninka and Shipibo dances.
 
 
Isolated tribes that shun contact with outsiders were the most vulnerable and must be defended, he said.
Francis, who has also visited neighboring Chile on his trip to South America, bade goodbye to Puerto Maldonado in the Quechua language, and was presented with a native headdress and tapestry.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Europe

By Daphne Panayotatos, Advocate and Program Officer for Refugees International, first published by the New Humanitarian on 13 October 2020

 

‘Greek authorities never wanted to acknowledge that the refugee situation required a sustained response.’

 


WASHINGTON, D.C.- As European countries negotiate a new Pact on Asylum and Migration, “no more Morias” has become a rallying cry: The scorched camp is a palpable symbol of Greek and EU policy failures. The Pact aims to improve “solidarity” and better distribute responsibility for asylum seekers among EU states. But that in itself is not a solution to the humanitarian crises and human rights violations occurring at and within the EU’s borders.

For there truly to be no more Morias, the EU as a whole must recommit to its fundamental values. But Greece cannot wait for an agreement to fulfill the obligations it already has to protect those seeking safety.

This means ending illegal pushbacks and other abuses at the country’s borders – abuses that the Greek government denies are taking place and is failing to investigate – and ensuring access to fair asylum procedures. It also means ending the neglect of refugees whose statuses have already been recognised.

To do this, Greece must increase funding and capacity for refugee integration. In March, Greece cut the eligibility period for ESTIA – an EU-funded and UN refugee agency-administered emergency housing and cash assistance programme – from six months to 30 days. The decision left thousands of people facing homelessness and destitution in the midst of a global pandemic.

To prevent further damage, the Greek government must restore ESTIA’s six-month eligibility period. It must also bolster HELIOS, another EU-funded programme implemented by the UN’s migration agency, IOM. The programme subsidises rent for independent housing for up to 12 months. But because of discrimination, language barriers, and other obstacles that make it difficult for refugees to find leases and qualify for assistance, it falls short. A new pilot within HELIOS to provide refugees with two months’ accommodation is promising. But much more is needed.

The Greek government must also end the hostile operating environment it has created for NGOs. New policies have tightened regulations on NGOs working with asylum seekers and migrants. Billed as an effort to improve transparency around NGO operations, the rules instead suppress independent monitoring of government activities and stigmatise NGOs.

Greece emerged from the pandemic’s first wave relatively unscathed. But emergency measures could not offset a years-long pattern of bad policy.

In July, the Council of Europe’s expert council issued a critical opinion that the new rules violate EU law. But the damage was already done. In June, 22 of the 40 organisations working in refugee camps had to suspend their operations. It is inhumane and counterproductive to cripple groups providing essential support, especially during a pandemic. Yet, the government issued another directive in September that only exacerbated these harmful policies.

The cumulative result of these policies is a woefully inadequate support system for asylum seekers and refugees on the Greek mainland. This means that the housing and integration support for people who need to be transferred from Lesvos to the mainland in the aftermath of the Moria fire simply doesn’t exist. Instead, 20 to 30 asylum seekers and refugees who were previously transferred from the island are returning every day to Lesvos because of the dire situation they encountered when they left.

Greece emerged from the pandemic’s first wave relatively unscathed. But emergency measures could not offset a years-long pattern of bad policy. Wary of a public backlash, Greek authorities never wanted to acknowledge that the refugee situation required a sustained response – they saw it instead as a temporary challenge to be contained on the islands.

The fires that burned Moria to the ground could have been prevented. But with thousands of people still suffering appalling conditions in overcrowded camps, it was inevitable the virus would spread. The EU and other member states were happy to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations and deplorable conditions in Greece so long as the number of people crossing their borders remained low.

The pandemic’s humanitarian and economic toll will likely drive more asylum seekers to the EU, and tensions with Turkey could again flare at the borders. The solidarity measures proposed in the New Pact are unlikely to relieve pressure on frontline states like Greece.

Greece certainly needs other EU countries to step up and do a better job sharing responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers.

But regardless of what happens with the New Pact, Greece must immediately change course to begin respecting its international obligations and acting in accordance with European values. To deal humanely and effectively with the current, manufactured crisis – not to mention future movements of asylum seekers and refugees – Greece and the EU have no other choice.

 

 

International Crisis Group, 14 October 2020


Fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh is decimating towns and cities, displacing tens of thousands and killing scores. Combatants must cease attacks on populated areas and let humanitarian aid through. International actors, notably the UN and OSCE, should send monitors and push harder for a ceasefire.

 

Two weeks into a renewed war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, fighting appears poised to escalate. On 10 October, a Russian-brokered humanitarian ceasefire intended to enable combatants to retrieve the bodies of the dead and exchange prisoners appeared to fall apart as its ink was drying. Both sides have since struck towns and villages, with enormous damage to lives and livelihoods. While it may take time for the parties to return to peace talks, they and international actors must act to stem the mounting human toll. Whatever an eventual settlement entails, it will be closer to hand and more sustainable if the parties stop killing civilians and adding fresh grievances to an already intractable conflict.

As Crisis Group noted in a 2 October statement, the conflict has no simple solution. Since the 1992-1994 war, which pitted Azerbaijani forces against Nagorno-Karabakh rebels backed by the Armenian army and ended with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence, decades of stalled negotiations, outbreaks of violence and hardened positions on all sides have compounded the territorial dispute. Foreign actors matter, but for now cannot impose a lasting peace. The failure of the 10 October ceasefire shows that even Russia, which has a treaty with Armenia and longstanding relationships with both Yerevan and Baku, has only limited leverage. Turkey backs Azerbaijan diplomatically and with military aid, but Baku is not sufficiently dependent on Ankara’s support that threats of its withdrawal, even if they were forthcoming, would end fighting. Europe and the United States have even less influence.

Military casualties already number high in the hundreds and the civilian toll is also mounting. Azerbaijani missile, artillery and drone strikes on Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital of Stepanakert and other towns and villages have turned homes, schools, and much of the region’s infrastructure to rubble. Credible reports indicate the use of cluster bombs, particularly dangerous to civilians and banned by an international convention (although neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are signatories).

Since 10 October, fighting has spread to the streets of Hadrut, a town 40km south of Stepanakert and well within Nagorno-Karabakh itself, rather than being limited, as it was during the first days of the war, mainly to the unpopulated adjacent territories controlled by Armenian forces since the 1992-1994 war. According to the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, as of 12 October, at least 31 civilians had been killed in the region and over 100 injured, many seriously. Some 70,000-75,000 people, half the region’s population and 90 per cent of its women and children, have fled their homes. Many are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. With a continuing pandemic and rapidly cooling weather, the mass displacement could have severe public health consequences.

On the other side of the front lines, Azerbaijani officials report 42 civilians killed and 206 injured as of 12 October. Most attacks have hit Azerbaijani cities near the breakaway territory, but some have struck civilian areas hundreds of kilometres away, including the Absheron peninsula, where the capital, Baku, is located. Azerbaijan accuses Armenian forces of using cluster bombs and Scud missiles. Particularly hard hit are the country’s second-biggest city of Ganja and a town, Mingachevir, which hosts a large water reservoir and serves as a regional electricity hub. Ganja was hit again within 24 hours of the weekend’s ceasefire. Journalists tell Crisis Group that several hundred people, mostly women and children, have evacuated front-line areas.

Many outside actors have expressed alarm. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has joined calls for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, while the European Union, Slovakia, and a variety of humanitarian organisations promise aid, though the fighting hampers aid delivery. Moreover, no international aid can reach Nagorno-Karabakh itself without Azerbaijan’s blessing, which Baku has not granted, leaving only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has maintained a permanent office in the region since the 1990s. With international borders closed due to COVID-19, if fighting escalates to engulf more of Azerbaijan and Armenia, it will result in many displaced who have nowhere to go.

With the collapse of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, both parties look set to escalate fighting, with prospectively grave consequences. Azerbaijani advances fuel Armenian fears and counter-strikes. The attacks on civilian areas to date may be mistakes or efforts by combatants to deter further escalation by the other side. If intentional or with insufficient care for protecting the civilian population, they violate international law. Even if not, they are causing tremendous suffering. They are counterproductive to an eventual peace, hardening hostility and rendering a sustainable settlement more remote.

Ideally, both sides would return to talks, but even absent that, it is critical that they cease targeting civilians and undertake efforts to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering. They must eschew cluster bombs, stop targeting population centres and provide corridors for the evacuation of the wounded and dead and the delivery of humanitarian aid. International actors, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which has overseen negotiations since the end of hostilities in 1994, and its co-chairs France, Russia and the U.S., other capitals worldwide and international organisations should speak in one voice and specifically call for such measures. Countries that provide weapons to the parties, including Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Pakistan and Israel, and those through which deliveries transit, including Iran and Georgia, should cease provision and transit, at least when it comes to systems credibly reported to have been used in attacks on civilian targets (Georgia has already stopped weapons transit through its territory).

The UN Security Council can play a role. First, the council, which has to date discussed the crisis in private and released a press statement calling for calm, should now convene an urgent public meeting on the escalating fighting and attacks on civilian areas. It should insist the parties abide by the 10 October Moscow agreement on a humanitarian ceasefire and facilitate the safe, unhindered and sustained delivery of lifesaving aid, including providing full and secure access to the region for humanitarian actors. Going further, the council should adopt a resolution calling for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, beyond the limited humanitarian one agreed in Moscow. The resolution should also condemn the parties for endangering the lives of civilians and call on them to return to talks under the Minsk Group co-chairs’ auspices.

As for the OSCE and its Minsk Group, they should step up efforts on the ground. Mitigating harm to civilians will require coordination across front lines even as fighting continues. The Minsk Group process has frustrated both sides (and particularly Baku) in its failure over three decades to deliver a lasting peace. Still, it provides a format for the parties to carry out such coordination. In the wake of the Moscow agreement, which called for a return to Minsk Group talks, the co-chairs reported that they and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (OSCE CIO PR) were working with the ICRC to explore “modalities and logistics for the return of remains and detainees”. They also report that they continue to engage the conflict parties on a long-term settlement. Building upon this work, the OSCE should resume its field activity in the region, suspended in March as a result of COVID-19, and work with military and diplomatic representatives of the warring parties and the ICRC to develop guidelines and a contact mechanism to facilitate the humanitarian measures outlined above.

This expanded field activity should include means to monitor and “verify” the Moscow agreement’s or any new ceasefire, as the Russian and Armenian foreign ministers called for in a 12 October press conference. One tool might be a version of the investigative mechanism to study incidents that Yerevan, Baku and OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries agreed to put in place, along with an expansion of the OSCE CIO PR’s office, after four days of clashes in 2016. This could give OSCE monitors the unrestricted access they would need to Nagorno-Karabakh and, if expanded, any parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia under fire. In the past, Baku resisted the mechanism, despite having agreed to it on paper. At the time, Azerbaijan sought to regain control over the adjacent territories through negotiations before agreeing to new mechanisms that it feared would solidify the status quo. But Baku may be more amenable to granting monitors temporary access to its territory and that of Armenia to investigate recent attacks, while active hostilities continue. Whatever its specific tools, the OSCE should consider making its monitors’ and investigative reports public,given the lack of objective, neutral reporting on the conflict and rampant biased information and disinformation.

The UN could support the OSCE’s monitoring. The two institutions already have a strong relationship. The OSCE Minsk Group could tap UN expertise on observer missions and investigative techniques in warzones as it designs a way forward. The UN could be even more active in its support if the Security Council requests that the UN Secretary-General dispatch, in coordination with the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office’s Personal Representative, military and civilian observers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider conflict region.

Such a mission could observe the ceasefire and document and report on violations of international humanitarian law committed during the fighting. Once the OSCE’s monitoring mission takes shape, the UN mission could withdraw. Such missions would require the conflict parties to guarantee members’ security, which in itself could help limit violence.

These steps will not, in and of themselves, end the war. But they would save lives and improve prospects for a real peace, whenever it may come.

 

By Mark Trevelyan

BAKU - Fighting that broke out on Sept. 27 over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh quickly became the deadliest for more than 25 years in a long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.


WHERE AND WHAT IS NAGORNO-KARABAKH?


It’s a mountainous, forested patch of land that sits inside the territory of ex-Soviet Azerbaijan and is recognised under international law as part of that country. But the ethnic Armenians who make up the vast majority of the estimated 150,000 population reject Azeri rule. They have been running their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan’s troops were pushed out in a war in the 1990s. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 but at least 200 people were killed in a violent flare-up in 2016. Nagorno-Karabakh survives almost totally on budget support from Armenia and donations from the worldwide Armenian diaspora.


WHY HAS FIGHTING BROKEN OUT NOW?


Tensions between the two sides have been building over the summer, and spilled into direct clashes on Sept. 27. The timing is significant because the outside powers that have mediated in the past - namely Russia, France and the United States - are distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming U.S. presidential election and a list of world crises from Lebanon to Belarus. Lower-level clashes in July prompted only a muted international response. Turkey, which held large military exercises with Azerbaijan in July and August, has been even more conspicuous in its support compared with past crises. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said Ankara will stand by Azerbaijan “with all its resources and heart”.


WHAT ARE THE RISKS?


Past outbreaks of fighting have killed some 30,000 people since 1988. Military and political analysts say they have witnessed an increase in deployment of heavy weaponry such as rockets and artillery, bringing a higher risk of civilian casualties that would make it harder to pull the two sides back from all-out war. That in turn could draw in other powers such as Turkey and Russia and destabilise the South Caucasus region, an important corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas.


WHAT COULD STOP THE FIGHTING?


Russia potentially holds the key: it has a mutual defence pact with Armenia and a military base there, but also enjoys good relations with Azerbaijan and has no interest in the conflict spreading. Moscow brokered a humanitarian ceasefire that went into effect on Saturday though it quickly came under strain. If its diplomacy succeeds, Moscow could earn kudos for ending the fighting at a time when it is under intense criticism on other fronts, including over its backing for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed election and over the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Siberia, which Germany says was carried out with a nerve agent.

 

VAROSHA, NORTHERN CYPRUS - Northern Cyprus said on Tuesday it will reopen the beach area of an abandoned resort in no-man's land, a move condemned by Greek Cypriots and likely to conjure up memories of the 1974 Turkish invasion that partitioned the island.

Ersin Tatar, premier of the breakaway state of Northern Cyprus, made the announcement in Ankara alongside Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who said he backed the decision on Varosha, sealed off within barbed wire for decades.

The move could weigh on Turkey's dispute with European Union members Cyprus and Greece over territorial rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tensions had eased after Ankara and Athens agreed to resume talks, but Cyprus, a close ally of the Greece, promptly condemned the move to partially reopen the abandoned resort and said it would file a recourse to the United Nations Security Council.

Greece also criticised the move, and said it would support Cyprus.

"God willing, we will start to use the Maras beach on Thursday morning together with our people," Tatar said, using Varosha's Turkish name. Northern Cyprus is only recognised as a state by Turkey.

Sources in Cyprus said the plan was to open up about 1.5 km (1 mile) of beachfront to the public and not the approximately 6 square km (2.3 sq miles) inland that includes abandoned hotels and residences which its population of 39,000 people fled in 1974 during a Turkish invasion following a Greek inspired coup.

"We hope that the whole of Maras is opened to use after ongoing work is completed by respecting property rights," Erdogan said, pledging support for Turkish Cypriot officials.

Nicos Anastasiades, president of Cyprus's internationally-recognised government - and who as recently as last week was involved in a tense stand-off with his EU peers for his push for sanctions on Turkey, said: "this is an exceptionally unacceptable situation."

Varosha is a suburb of the larger city of Famagusta, which, in Greek - Ammochostos - means "buried in sand". It has a pristine coastline of thick golden sand, most of it in the now out-of-bounds Varosha quarter.

Presently, about 200 metres (660 ft) of it is accessible to the public under the towering shadow of a hotel and a three-storey resort bombed during the war and left rotting since then. The rest of it is fenced off by rusting barbed wire which extends into the sea, guarded by Turkish soldiers.

Nicosia had already been in touch with the governments of the five permanent members of the Security Council in the hours leading up to the announcement, people with knowledge of the matter said.

Tatar had signalled steps to reopen Varosha in August, saying a revival of the area, which contains derelict hotels, churches and residences, would bring trade and tourism benefits.

Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Northern Cyprus on Sunday, with Tatar a candidate.

Varosha has been off limits along ceasefire lines to all but the Turkish military since 1974 and has stood as a bargaining chip in the decades-long dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Several peacemaking efforts have made no significant progress and the discovery of offshore energy resources has complicated efforts to resolve the island's partition.

Mediterranean

Lebanon: The Tragedy of Doing Nothing

By Amer Bisat, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, 21 October 2020


Lebanon’s ad hoc approach to its myriad economic shocks will leave scars that are long-lasting.

 

Almost a year ago, a group of us wrote a “ten point action plan for avoiding a lost decade.” In that document we warned that the “current ad hoc approach to policymaking will lead Lebanon on a path of implosion and political disintegration.” A year later, alas, our worst fears are becoming a reality.

The Lebanese economic implosion was totally predictable. Policy vacuums generate insidious outcomes. An economy is a living organism. If it is not medicated, the organism’s immune system fights infections. Fevers are symptoms of this reaction. In some instances the body prevails, but in others, especially if the infection is powerful or an organism’s immunity is low, the body succumbs. It is the fever that kills the organism, not the infection.

Lebanon today is categorically in the latter camp. The shocks in the past year have been severe, the vulnerabilities are acute, but the crisis is not being properly managed. As a result, the economy is organically adjusting to the new situation. The consequences of this “endogenous” adjustment are grave. The economic collapse is already evident, and the scars will prove long-lasting.

But before delving into the economics of this automatic adjustment and hard landing, the striking anomaly is that a year into the crisis the political class has done very little to contain it. There are three possible explanations for this nonchalance. First, utter incompetence. Second, an intractable political environment that makes collective decisionmaking extremely difficult, especially given the size of the losses that need apportioning. And third, an active decision by the political class to do nothing, since implosion pushes losses onto the population thereby safeguarding the politicians’ vested interests. Regardless of what the correct explanation is, policy neglect is, paradoxically, threatening seismic political shifts that will potentially impact the political class itself. The current attempt by politicians to urgently form a cabinet may well reflect a realization that an economic collapse would undermine their own political survival.

To understand how the economy is automatically adjusting, let us recall the four elements of the economic crises. By late 2019, Lebanon was facing large U.S. dollar supply-demand imbalances; an unsustainable debt overhang; a bloated and bankrupt banking sector; and a public sector that is inefficient and generates deficits. A year into these crises, all four of those problems are being dealt with—but by stealth. However, the automatic levers allowing this adjustment are insidious and detrimental to the country’s long-term prospects.

Start first with the balance of payments. The country’s net commercial needs in U.S. dollars was $12 billion in 2019. In 2020, those needs are down to an estimated $4 billion. In and of itself this is a good thing. However, underneath the adjustment is a 50 percent collapse in the value of imports, which in turn has come about because of a massive currency collapse and a deep recession that has robbed the population of the income needed to import goods. Put differently, the balance of payments is indeed adjusting. But only because the society’s income and wealth are disappearing.

The second element of the crisis is a massive public and private debt overhang that has become impossible to finance and service. All recovery blueprints would certainly recommend bringing debt down to a level the economy can afford. However, the deleveraging was always meant to pursue an orderly approach that would balance the interests of lenders—to maximize the recovery value of their loans—against those of debtors—to reduce the debt burden sufficiently to make it sustainable. Instead, with no active crisis management, the debt overhang is being resolved “organically” through disorganized defaults and bankruptcies.

The banking sector is the third element of the economic crisis. Decades of attracting deposits and on-lending them to the state had made the banking sector gargantuan. Moreover, the debt default and deep recession have bankrupted the sector. Since then the sector has been organically shrinking and cleaning itself up. Admittedly, part of this process is healthy: borrowers are selling their real estate assets to other depositors and using those funds to extinguish debt.

However, other parts of the banking sector’s consolidation are unhealthy. First, there is the phenomenon of large deposit withdrawals in circumvention of capital controls. Those deposits are being funded by the central bank’s depleting foreign reserves. A second phenomenon is that of depositors voluntarily “haircutting” themselves by withdrawing their U.S. dollar deposits in Lebanese pounds at an artificially valued exchange rate. This de facto “poundification” is causing the value of deposits to be inflated away. Banks are indeed being cleaned up. But it is depositors and the central bank’s foreign reserves that are absorbing the losses, not bank shareholders.

The fourth element of the crisis is that of the public sector. The Lebanese state has long been unable to either generate revenues or control spending. While revenues have collapsed over the past year, the spending side of the equation has paradoxically improved. Inflation—itself reflecting irresponsibly loose monetary policy—has dramatically reduced the real value of civil servants’ wages and pensions and, more broadly, public spending on goods and services. Here again, an original sin is being dealt with by stealth, but in a way that is impoverishing the middle class and society at large.

In 2020 alone, Lebanon’s GDP is forecast to contract by 25 percent, an amount equal to that experienced by the United States during the five years of the Great Depression. When measured in dollars, the purchasing power of the Lebanese economy is set to collapse by two-thirds. Inflation, steadily eating into the society’s real income, is rising at an alarming rate of 120 percent. And poverty is rampant, with close to 2 million people unable to afford basic items.

But what these numbers don’t reveal are the structural scars whose impact will be long-lasting. Human capital is fast eroding through a massive brain drain of the young, who are leaving Lebanon or trying to. Equally worrying is the loss of physical productive capacity resulting from widespread business closures. Much more alarming is the security consequences of an economic implosion. Lebanon’s sectarian history is rife with conflict. An economic collapse provides a perfect habitat for a return of violence.

Is there a better way to deal with the crisis? There definitely is. The optimal road map to recovery is well understood and much has been written about it. However, this is not really the place to address that topic. The point, instead, is to stress that the Lebanese organism is too weak to handle the current neglect and paralysis. If the policy vacuum persists, fatal consequences surely await us.

*Amer Bisat is head of sovereign and emerging markets (alpha) at BlackRock and a former International Monetary Fund senior economist. He writes in a private capacity.

 

 

Turkey/Syria: A Fluid Frontier

BY KHEDER KHADDOUR AND MANHAL BAREESH, Carnegie Middle East, 02 October 2020


Turkey is altering the nature of Syrian border areas, perhaps presaging more far-reaching steps

 


The American withdrawal from areas east of the Euphrates in October 2019 was a turning point in the conflict in northeastern Syria. It allowed Turkey to expand into the area, effectively moving its border deeper inside Syria to create a buffer zone with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a heterogeneous alliance of multiethnic armed groups led by the People’s Protection Units, which Turkey sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization it accuses of engaging in terrorist activities.

This expansion has fundamentally altered the nature of Turkey’s border areas with Syria, linking them politically, socially, economically, and in security terms to Turkish provinces just over the frontier. While stopping short of outright annexation, such integration has reshaped the social and economic framework of these regions. It also may lay the groundwork for future, more far-reaching, steps by Ankara in the area.

The U.S. withdrawal was followed by a Turkish military operation known as Peace Spring, which resulted in Turkey’s military taking control over a strip of land between Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad. This established a new border zone, much as Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations had done in other parts of northern Syria. The Peace Spring area is closely connected to Sanliurfa Province in Turkey in terms of administration, services, and trade. However, it is also isolated from surrounding areas inside Syria. The area has strategic importance for Turkey in that it intervened to prevent the emergence there of an entity effectively controlled by the PKK. That is why the expanse between Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad is highly securitized and is not one to which Syrians can easily return today.

Turkish involvement in the area runs deep. Every local council has a coordinator who is affiliated with the province of Sanliurfa. These coordinators help local councils secure the logistical support and funding necessary to carry out service projects. They also help coordinate the delivery of Turkish assistance to local bodies through the Syrian opposition’s interim government. This includes such things as healthcare, property and civil status registration, and education.

The depth of this involvement is illustrated by the fact that when the interim government declared the formation of a local council in Tell Abyad on October 28, 2019, the governor of Sanliurfa, ‘Abdullah Erin, visited the city and expressed his support for the new council. When the local council for Ras al-‘Ayn was formed on November 7, 2019, Erin visited this city as well, stressing that Turkey would continue to rebuild the area and encourage a Syrian refugee return.

In the education sector, the Turks have reopened 146 schools operating in the Ras al-‘Ayn area, enrolling more than 15,000 students. Harran University has also signed a memorandum of understanding to open a branch there soon. Scholarships are given out to a number of students who have achieved high scores on the YÖS Turkish-language exams, especially for universities located in Harran, Mardin, and Hatay.

In another example of what Turkey is doing, last May it allowed 85 combined harvesters to pass through its territory from areas captured in the Euphrates Shield operation to the area of Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad in order to harvest wheat and barley. This was necessary as there is no direct connection between the two areas under Turkish control. According to sources on the ground, the Turkish authorities also granted entry permits to 1,500 farmers during the harvest season so that they could move through Turkey to harvest their land in Syria. After the end of the harvest, transit procedures will be eased in order to move seeds to the Euphrates Shield areas. The Turkish aid groups IHH and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, as well as the Turkish Red Crescent, are also involved in the area, filling the gap left by U.S. and European aid agencies no longer active there.

The Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad area is highly connected to Turkey but has closed its boundaries with the rest of Syria. This has encouraged smuggling. According to people on the ground, building materials are cheaper in the Peace Spring areas, where they are stored. Steel costs $500 per ton in these areas, but $650 per ton in Raqqa, controlled by the SDF. A ton of cement costs $42 in Peace Spring areas and $100 in Raqqa. The opposite is true for fuel products, because SDF-controlled areas produce oil. A barrel of fuel oil costs $37 in Peace Spring areas but just $15 in Raqqa, while gasoline costs $84 per barrel in Peace Spring areas and $40 per barrel in Raqqa.

This indicates that while the area is technically in a border zone with Turkey, it also acts as a border between Turkey and the rest of Syria. The fact that it is closely connected to Turkey yet remains isolated from Syria makes an imminent large-scale refugee return unlikely. Asked about the prospect of refugees returning, a local commander stressed the deficiencies in local infrastructure and the difficulties in procuring sufficient resources. “The electricity, water, and food are just enough for us. We don’t want anyone to come back,” he said.

The idea behind Turkey’s reshaping of Syria’s northern border areas is not to seize these territories for Turkey, but to create a buffer zone with the SDF to absorb the impact of any confrontation with the group. These parts of Syria will likely remain Syrian, but under Ankara’s heavy influence. That said, the situation could create more options for Turkey in the future. But for now, as its administration of these areas has in many ways been successful, Turkey may be encouraged to replicate such a model east of the Euphrates.

 

 

Lebanon: Peripheries of Poverty

BY MICHAEL YOUNG, Carnegie Middle East Center, 29 September 2020


In an interview, Kawthar Dara discusses how regional disparities have added to Lebanon’s fragility.


Kawthar Dara is a Lebanese economist with longstanding experience in diverse disciplines, mainly in socioeconomic development, public financial management, and public expenditure policy analysis. Dara has worked with various international organizations, donors, and government agencies in Lebanon and the region. She had also done work in policy development, economic and fiscal analysis, social protection, planning, costing and budgeting, public-sector operations, socioeconomic research, and program coordination and management. She has acted as a policy advisor to ministers and taken part in promoting and advancing key policy reforms such as public financial management reforms, social protection system reforms, poverty targeting mechanisms, pension, health, and education policies. Recently, she published an article with Carnegie titled “Marginalization Cost: Regional Disparities Fueling Lebanon’s Fragility.” Diwan interviewed Dara in late September to discuss her article.


Michael Young: What is the main argument of your recent Carnegie article?


Kawthar Dara: I argue that growing regional disparities have contributed to Lebanon’s overall fragility. Recent developments—including the exacerbation of the economic and social crisis in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic—have further deepened existing inequalities as underprivileged regions have been hit harder by the implications of these crises than other regions.


MY: Why did you focus on regional disparities, and how have these affected Lebanon in the past?


KD: Regional disparities have existed in Lebanon for as long as the country has existed and have endured during the country’s history, even in the periods of greatest prosperity. Peripheral areas such as northern Lebanon, the Beqa‘ Valley, and southern Lebanon have always suffered from multidimensional vulnerabilities, including poverty and low income, the poor quality of health and education, high unemployment, low economic activity, weak investment, and poor infrastructure. When left unaddressed, these regional fragilities led to social unrest threatening the country’s security and stability.

On another front, these peripheral regions enjoy untapped economic potential. If they were explored and properly integrated into the national economic cycle, this could help Lebanon attain inclusive and sustainable economic growth. For instance, the Beqa‘ is home to vast agricultural land which is currently underutilized and is being continuously threatened by chaotic urban expansion, and this at a time when Lebanon is facing a serious food security threat.

The Beqa‘ is also home to one of the most prominent international heritage sites and numerous touristic attractions—Baalbek, ‘Anjar, and other places. This would place the area in an advanced position for local, regional, and international tourism. The same can be said of northern Lebanon, which has great agricultural potential, for example in the ‘Akkar plain, natural tourist attractions, and prominent trade gateways, including the Tripoli port and the Syrian border.

All this untapped potential in peripheral zones is much needed now to put Lebanon back on a sustainable growth track. This is particularly true given that the revival of the country’s traditional economic pillars, the heavy reliance on banking and financial services, may take a long time to occur. Economic alternatives should be seriously pursued in those regions that were neglected in the past. This would hit two birds with one stone by reducing inequalities among regions on the one hand, and boosting the economic contribution of these regions to national output on the other.


MY: One of the issues you address is education. What is going on in this sector as Lebanon struggles with a severe economic crisis?


KD: Education has been one of the most critical sectors affected by the crisis and more importantly by the spread of Covid-19. Prior to the crisis, Lebanon relied on the private schooling system to educate around 70 percent of students. However, private education is costly and adds a heavy burden on households. The crisis and Covid-19 led to a severe decline in income levels for a significant proportion of households. These households can no longer afford private schools and have shifted to public schools as the only available alternative.

Therefore, additional pressure has been exerted on the public educational sector as a result of a sudden increase in demand. We must note that it has also hosted around 250,000 refugee students since 2011, so that the number of non-Lebanese refugee students is almost equivalent to the number of Lebanese students. The high demand versus the uncertainty of educational resources may threaten equal access to quality education across Lebanon’s regions.

Another relevant aspect that may threaten such access is associated with Covid-19 and the alternative learning techniques pursued to ensure social distancing and pandemic containment. Online learning is suggested as one of these alternatives to ensure that the school year will not be lost. However, this requires reliable and continuous access to the internet and to a power supply. Yet this is far from guaranteed across Lebanon, with some regions having extremely low access to both, not to mention the relatively high cost associated with securing internet connectivity, if it is available. This will result in high dropout rates, particularly in that parents may resort to negative coping mechanisms to compensate for the loss of household income, such as making their children work instead of pursuing their learning.


MY: More generally, how bad is the situation today for Lebanese on both the social and economic level?


KD: This period is judged to be the worst that Lebanon has faced since its independence or at least since the civil war. Lebanon went through a similar crisis during the 1980s—in other words during the peak time of the Lebanese conflict. However, today’s crisis is much deeper and more severe, denoting an economic freefall that will eventually lead to a complete economic collapse.

Several events occurred concurrently and have contributed to this situation. These include a severe economic contraction estimated at 18–20 percent in 2020 caused by a loss in confidence and a slowdown in aggregate demand; an unsustainable debt crisis that led to an effective default on foreign currency bonds in March 2020; a deterioration in the value of the local currency, which has lost more than 80 percent of its value; an unprecedented deficit in the balance of payments; a chronic fiscal deficit; a loss of revenue sources; the depletion of foreign currency reserves; an uncontrollable price increase of over 110 percent on a year to year basis; rising unemployment, which has reached 30–35 percent; an increasing brain drain that is causing irreversible losses in the country’s human capital; a failing banking sector; not to mention an extended political stalemate and the absence of proactive decisionmaking mechanisms at a time when the contrary is most needed.

Over and above this, Covid-19 has compounded the crisis and increased its complexity. It has had direct implications for the public health system as well as further slowing, or even halting, certain economic activities as part of pandemic containment measures.

Lastly, the blast in Beirut port on August 4 was the straw (even if it was hardly a straw) that broke the camel’s back. It resulted in a high number of casualties, the massive destruction of a significant part of the capital’s housing stock, the closing of thousands of firms permanently or temporarily, more than 100,000 employees out of work, again either temporarily or permanently, and thousands of households left without shelter.

The accumulation of these events in less than a year has meant increased vulnerabilities that have pushed people further into poverty and deprivation. Prior to the blast it was estimated that around 50 percent of the Lebanese population would be living under the poverty line in 2020. Now the estimates are even higher, given that the socioeconomic implications of the port blast have affected the whole of Lebanon, not just the areas around the port.


MY: What can be done today to reduce regional inequalities?


KD: The situation is difficult, but has also placed Lebanon in a quandary. Given the fiscal and debt crises, Lebanon should follow strict measures to contain its fiscal deficit and reduce indebtedness. The economic contraction means that revenues are going down, negatively impacting the government’s budget. On the other hand, the growing need for public services, mainly in disadvantaged regions where poverty levels are deepening, calls for further spending in those areas to provide essentials such as health, education, and social protection. The complex policy tradeoffs mean that controlling the fiscal deficit is implausible.

To break the vicious circle Lebanon has to seek external support to address its emerging needs. Critical reforms should be in place, however, to ensure that foreign funds are channeled to the neediest regions and tackle priority sectors and services. This would require strengthening the planning process at the local level to inform policies at the center and better prioritize spending.

 

 

Syria: Report reveals ‘no clean hands’ as horrific rights violations continue

GENEVA - Despite a reduction in largescale hostilities since a ceasefire in March, the UN Syrian Commission of Inquiry reported on Monday that armed actors continue to subject civilians to horrific and increasingly targeted abuse.

The Commission’s 25-page report documented continuing violations by nearly every fighting force controlling territory across the country.
It also highlighted an increase in patterns of targeted abuse, such as assassinations, sexual and gender-based violence, and looting or appropriation of private property.


And civilian suffering has remained a constant feature of the crisis.

“For nearly a decade all calls to protect women, men, boys and girls have been ignored”, said Commission of Inquiry Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “There are no clean hands in this conflict but the status quo cannot endure”.


No ‘scintilla of evidence’


With a focus on violations taking place away from large-scale hostilities, the report found that enforced disappearances and deprivation of civil liberties continued throughout the first half of the year, to instill fear and suppress dissent among civilians or for financial extortion.
It documented a multitude of detention-related violations by Government forces, the Syrian National Army (SNA), Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and other parties to the conflict.

“All parties in Syria detain civilians without a scintilla of evidence or due process”, Commissioner Hanny Megally declared.

The report concluded that not only do recent cases of enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and deaths in the custody of Government forces, amount to crimes against humanity, but they also serve to exacerbate tensions with southern governorates – leading to further clashes.

“All those arbitrarily deprived of their liberty must be released”, he continued, adding, “the international community can and must do more, particularly regarding the camps in the northeast where they can have immediate impact if they have the political will to act”.


Army transgressions


The SNA may have committed war crimes in Afrin and surrounding areas in the north – including hostage-taking, torture and rape – along with killing and maiming scores of civilians through the use of improvised explosive devices, as well as during shelling and rocket attacks, according to the report.

Additionally, army pillaging and appropriation of private land was rife, particularly in Kurdish areas, and satellite imagery revealed the looting and destruction of priceless UNESCO heritage sites.


Relentless suffering


Nearly a decade into the conflict, the deepening economic crisis, impact of sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, have further diminished prospects of Syrians attainting an adequate standard of living, the report notes.

Moreover, living conditions across the country remain deplorable and barriers are omnipresent in large swathes of Government-controlled areas.

“The dramatic increase in those suffering from food insecurity in Syria in the first half of 2020 is deeply concerning”, said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “All barriers to the provision of humanitarian aid must be removed”.


Repatriation required


While recognizing the complexities of the situation, the Commission found that the SDF’s long-term internment of allegedly ISIL-associates in the northeast, amounts to unlawful deprivation of liberty in inhumane conditions, that cannot continue in perpetuity.

The Commission called upon Member States to take back from Syria their nationals who are allegedly associated with ISIL, particularly children and their mothers.


Going forward


The report concluded with several recommendations, chiefly a call for all parties to pursue a long-lasting, nationwide ceasefire – in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).

To save lives, the Commission called for immediate and large-scale prisoner releases, given that overcrowded prisons across the world, have proved to be breeding grounds for COVID-19.

The Commission also urged the Government to take urgent, comprehensive steps to reveal the fates of those detained or disappeared.
“I urge all parties to the conflict to heed these recommendations, in particularly regarding achieving a sustainable peace”, upheld Commission of Inquiry Chair.


The penholders


The UN Human Rights Council has mandated the Independent International Commission of Inquiry – Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Karen Koning AbuZayd and Hanny Megally – to investigate and record violations of international law in Syria since March 2011.

 

 

North Africa

By Thomas Hamamdjian, first published by The Africa Report on 20 October 2020

PARIS - Things have been going badly between President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Chief of Staff Saïd Chengriha, in recent weeks despite a friendly presidential visit at the Ministry of the National Defense headquarters on 10 October.

Several issues have contributed to the build-up of tensions between the two men, including: foreign policy, constitutional reform, interference in the management of security and defence matters and appointments and changes made by Tebboune in different institutions.

Growing tensions

The dismissal of retired General Major Abdelaziz Medjahed from his position as defence and security adviser to the President surprised many. He is very close with Chengriha as he was not only his direct superior for many years but also a trench mate during the war on terrorism in the early 1990s.

His new assignment at the National Institute of Global Strategy is seen as putting the man who was supposed to ensure coordination between the army and the presidency in the closet.

Medjahed would would also have been involved in international security issues involving Algeria, notably the Libyan and Sahelian crises. A role that annoyed Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum and the head of foreign intelligence Youcef Bouzit.

Another bump in the road between Tebboune and Chengriha are the recent visits – separated by just a few days – of head of AFRICOM, Stephen Townsend and the American Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper.

“The American visit to Algeria felt like an attempt to force the National People’s Army (NPA) into intervening more directly with Libya and Sahel at a time when the United States is withdrawing from Africa” said a retired a senior Algerian officer.

Too friendly with Washington?

“Having received both sends a bad signal to the Americans,” added the military, suggesting that President Tebboune has been too complacent with Washington.

Not to mention the anti-Russian and anti-Chinese statements that Esper made in Tunisia on the evening of his visit to Algiers, exasperating the Chief of Staff, who two days earlier had hosted the boss of the Russian military cooperation, Dmitri Shugaev.

“From the start, Chengriha was hostile to the army’s involvement in politics and wanted to distance himself from his predecessor. He has two concerns: improving the image of the army in the eyes of public opinion, following the scandal of generals on the run or in prison for corruption offences. The second is to rebalance power by reducing that of the Ministry of Defence’s [led by Tebboune himself], which has become a stronghold of power.

While Ahmed Gaïd Salah received the posts of Chief of Staff and Minister of Defence while overseeing the intelligence services, such presence does not interest Chengriha, who considers the ministry to be a political and administrative institution rather than a military one.

On the other hand, Chengriha has not been in favour of the opening of services which, since the death of Gaïd Salah, are increasingly under the control of the president and his security adviser, General Haj Redouane. General Major Bouzit, head boss of the external services, has become particularly active in the president’s entourage.

Additionally, the army also has its own idea on the reform of non-intervention and wants to put it forward.

Although it recognises that the country’s security is not limited to border control, it fears that the constitutional review led by the president could lead it to engage in external operations that could be synonymous with meddling or occupation.

The mention of “peace restoration” missions, which the Army finds too vague, was present in the first draft of the constitutional revision. It has since been withdrawn.

 

By Farid Alilat, First published by The Africa Report on 28 August 2020


Appointed in 2017 as the head of the army’s signals, information systems and electronic warfare department Major General Abdelkader Lachkhem was dismissed and replaced by Maj. Gen. Farid Bedjghit, who had until then headed the École Supérieure des Transmissions in Kolea. Director of the organisation and logistics department of the Army General Staff Gen. Ali Akroum was removed and replaced by Maj. Gen. Houes Ziari.

The leadership of the directorate of military production was not spared. Its chief, Maj. Gen. Rachid Chouaki, was removed, as was Maj. Gen. Mohammed Teboudelette, who was in charge of military equipment.


Special Relationship


Lachkhem’s ouster is another step in the vast operation of dismantling the networks set up by Ahmed Gaïd Salah, former Chief of Staff of the Army and deputy defence minister who died last December of a heart attack. Chief of staff since 2004, Gaïd Salah had gradually made himself the unquestioned and undisputed boss of the military.

Those he had placed in the army and intelligence hierarchies were for the most part loyal to him and made him Algeria’s strongman after the forced resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019. Salah’s death and his replacement by Maj. Gen. Said Chengriha thus sealed the fate of these supporters, who were seen as too close to the former chief of staff.

A key Gaïd Salah ally, Lachkhem had been under investigation since last April, notably for his alleged involvement in the exfiltration of Chief Warrant Officer Guermit Bounouira, who was recently extradited from Turkey. A former private secretary to Gaïd Salah, Bounouira fled Algeria in March to seek asylum in exchange for highly sensitive information and documents.

He was unsuccessful. “It was a question of principle for Turkey,” explains a source close to Turkish military intelligence. “[Bounouira’s] return will make it possible to further strengthen ties between Algeria and Turkey.” Placed in detention in the military prison of Blida, in the company of some 20 high-ranking officers, Bounouira is being prosecuted for high treason.

The former head of the national gendarmerie, Gen. Ghali Belksir, who is on the run abroad, is also being prosecuted on the same charge. A judge at the Blida military court has issued an international arrest warrant for him. According to our information, Belksir was, until recently, on holiday in southern Spain with his brother.

Another key man in the Gaïd Salah system, Gen. Belksir had overseen investigations into corruption that sent more than 20 former ministers, two former prime ministers, several oligarchs and other leaders of the Bouteflika clan to prison.

The fall of Gen. Lachkhem, who also does not have immunity from prosecution, harkens back to the downfall of Gen. Wassini Bouazza, another key figure in the Gaïd Salah universe. A former boss of the dreaded internal security directorate, Bouazza was sentenced in June to eight years in prison for “forgery and the use of forged documents, assault, possession of firearms and type IV ammunition”.

Protected by Gaïd Salah, to whom he owed his meteoric rise, Bouazza was a specialist in dirty tricks, of which Tebboune was a victim when he was a candidate for the presidential election in December 2019. For Bouazza, this conviction is a prelude to further legal problems, as he is being re-investigated for much more serious crimes.


Without fanfare


Bouazza, Belksir, Lachkhem, Bounouira: all four are part of Gaïd Salah’s legacy, which is in danger of disappearing.

They are not the only ones who are part of this legacy, but they symbolise the dark side of the governance of the Bouteflika-Gaïd Salah years. Blackmail, corruption, abuse of power, hiding abroad, intelligence deals with foreign powers: the actions of the “Gaïd boys” have played a clear role in the degradation of the military’s image. Hence Tebboune’s quest to make radical changes in practically all the institutions of the armed forces and intelligence services.

The method chosen by the Algerian President, one without fanfare, contrasts with the Bouteflika era, where the dismantling of the intelligence and intelligence services between 2013 and 2015 had turned into a media circus, causing significant damage in an environment where secrecy and confidentiality are traditionally of great importance.

Chief of Staff Chengriha, who replaced Gaïd Salah, had experienced major differences with his predecessor, whom he had reproached for his brutal management of the Hirak protesters after Bouteflika’s forced resignation.

 

 

STOCKHOLM - SIPRI has published a new Policy Paper that explores the impact of protest movements on state–society relations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Nearly a decade after the Arab Spring, the substantial political change that many across MENA have hoped for has yet to be seen. In fact, as the 2019 wave of protests shows, street protests continue to endure in the region, often over the same recurring issues.

This paper takes a regional approach to understanding the state of the social contract in MENA countries. It describes, country-by-country, the impact of protest movements, or their absence, on relations between society and the state, and the likely effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on those relations. It then examines the roles and impact of external actors, and the attitudes that they have adopted towards protests.

Based on this analysis, the authors recommend that the European Union (EU) adopts a new approach to regional security and stability that takes the needs of the populations as the starting point. This would involve a broader EU agreement on priorities in MENA that emphasize aspects that answer those needs.

For the full text, visit: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/sipripp56.pdf

 

STOCKHOLM - SIPRI has published a new Policy Paper that explores the impact of protest movements on state–society relations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Nearly a decade after the Arab Spring, the substantial political change that many across MENA have hoped for has yet to be seen. In fact, as the 2019 wave of protests shows, street protests continue to endure in the region, often over the same recurring issues.

This paper takes a regional approach to understanding the state of the social contract in MENA countries. It describes, country-by-country, the impact of protest movements, or their absence, on relations between society and the state, and the likely effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on those relations. It then examines the roles and impact of external actors, and the attitudes that they have adopted towards protests.

Based on this analysis, the authors recommend that the European Union (EU) adopts a new approach to regional security and stability that takes the needs of the populations as the starting point. This would involve a broader EU agreement on priorities in MENA that emphasize aspects that answer those needs.

For the full text, visit: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/sipripp56.pdf

 

Research Papers & Reports

GENEVA/WASHINGTON - A stillborn baby is delivered every 16 seconds, which translates into nearly two million infants over the course of a year that never took their first breath, according to a new UN report published on Thursday.

A Neglected Tragedy: The Global Burden of Stillbirths, released by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), reveals that 84 per cent of these grievous episodes occur in low and lower-middle income countries.

The first-ever joint global estimates also point out that stillbirths remain a challenge for high income countries, where a mother’s level of education is one of the greatest drivers of inequity, and ethnic minorities may lack access to sufficient quality health care.

“Losing a child at birth or during pregnancy is a devastating tragedy for a family, one that is often endured quietly, yet all too frequently, around the world”, lamented UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.


COVID factor


And the report attests that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely lead a further rise.

A pandemic-induced 50 per cent reduction in health services, could cause nearly 200,000 additional stillbirths over a 12-month period in 117 low and middle income countries, according to modeling done for the report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Muhammad Ali Pate, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank, and Director of the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children and Adolescents, spelled out: “COVID-19 has triggered a devastating secondary health crisis for women, children and adolescents due to disruptions in life-saving health services”.

Poor quality of pregnancy and delivery care; a lack of antenatal and intrapartum services and weak nursing and midwifery workforces are responsible for most of these occurrences, says A Neglected Tragedy.

“Beyond the loss of life, the psychological and financial costs for women, families and societies are severe and long lasting”, Ms. Fore affirmed, adding that “a majority of stillbirths could have been prevented with high quality monitoring, proper antenatal care and a skilled birth attendant”.


Socioeconomic link


But even before the pandemic, few women in low and middle income countries received timely, high-quality care to prevent stillbirths, the report shows – with coverage ranging from less than two per cent to a high of only 50 per cent in eight important maternal health interventions, including C-sections, malaria prevention and pregnancy hypertension management.

"Welcoming a baby into the world should be a time of great joy, but everyday thousands of parents experience unbearable sadness because their babies are still born”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.


Sound investment needed


Despite advances in health services from 2000 to 2019, the annual stillbirth reduction rate was just 2.3 per cent, compared to a 2.9 per cent reduction in neonatal mortality, and 4.3 per cent in mortality among children aged one to 59 months, according to the report.

However, the study maintains that with sound policy, programmes and investment, progress is possible.

“The tragedy of stillbirth shows how vital it is to reinforce and maintain essential health services, and how critical it is to increase investment in nurses and midwives”, the WHO chief upheld.

Because pregnant women need continued access to quality care, throughout their pregnancy and during childbirth, Dr. Pate stressed, “we are supporting countries in strengthening their health systems to prevent stillbirths and ensure that every pregnant woman can access quality health care services”.

 

 

New research: nitrous oxide emissions 300 times more powerful than CO₂ are jeopardising Earth’s future

This article was first published by The Conversation on 07 October 2020

 

Nitrous oxide from agriculture and other sources is accumulating in the atmosphere so quickly it puts Earth on track for a dangerous 3℃ warming this century, our new research has found.

Each year, more than 100 million tonnes of nitrogen are spread on crops in the form of synthetic fertiliser. The same amount again is put onto pastures and crops in manure from livestock.

This colossal amount of nitrogen makes crops and pastures grow more abundantly. But it also releases nitrous oxide (N₂O), a greenhouse gas.

Agriculture is the main cause of the increasing concentrations, and is likely to remain so this century. N₂O emissions from agriculture and industry can be reduced, and we must take urgent action if we hope to stabilise Earth’s climate.


Where does nitrous oxide come from?


We found that N₂O emissions from natural sources, such as soils and oceans, have not changed much in recent decades. But emissions from human sources have increased rapidly.

Atmospheric concentrations of N₂O reached 331 parts per billion in 2018, 22% above levels around the year 1750, before the industrial era began.

Agriculture caused almost 70% of global N₂O emissions in the decade to 2016. The emissions are created through microbial processes in soils. The use of nitrogen in synthetic fertilisers and manure is a key driver of this process.

Other human sources of N₂O include the chemical industry, waste water and the burning of fossil fuels.

N₂O is destroyed in the upper atmosphere, primarily by solar radiation. But humans are emitting N₂O faster than it’s being destroyed, so it’s accumulating in the atmosphere.

N₂O both depletes the ozone layer and contributes to global warming.

As a greenhouse gas, N₂O has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and stays in the atmosphere for an average 116 years. It’s the third most important greenhouse gas after CO₂ (which lasts up to thousands of years in the atmosphere) and methane.

N₂O depletes the ozone layer when it interacts with ozone gas in the stratosphere. Other ozone-depleting substances, such as chemicals containing chlorine and bromine, have been banned under the United Nations Montreal Protocol. N₂O is not banned under the protocol, although the Paris Agreement seeks to reduce its concentrations.


What we found


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has developed scenarios for the future, outlining the different pathways the world could take on emission reduction by 2100. Our research found N₂O concentrations have begun to exceed the levels predicted across all scenarios.

The current concentrations are in line with a global average temperature increase of well above 3℃ this century.

We found that global human-caused N₂O emissions have grown by 30% over the past three decades. Emissions from agriculture mostly came from synthetic nitrogen fertiliser used in East Asia, Europe, South Asia and North America. Emissions from Africa and South America are dominated by emissions from livestock manure.

In terms of emissions growth, the highest contributions come from emerging economies – particularly Brazil, China, and India – where crop production and livestock numbers have increased rapidly in recent decades.

N₂O emissions from Australia have been stable over the past decade. Increase in emissions from agriculture and waste have been offset by a decline in emissions from industry and fossil fuels.


What to do?


N₂O must be part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there is already work being done. Since the late 1990s, for example, efforts to reduce emissions from the chemicals industry have been successful, particularly in the production of nylon, in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Reducing emissions from agriculture is more difficult – food production must be maintained and there is no simple alternative to nitrogen fertilisers. But some options do exist.

In Europe over the past two decades, N₂O emissions have fallen as agricultural productivity increased. This was largely achieved through government policies to reduce pollution in waterways and drinking water, which encouraged more efficient fertiliser use.

Other ways to reduce N₂O emissions from agriculture include:

- better management of animal manure

- applying fertiliser in a way that better matches the needs of growing plants

- alternating crops to include those that produce their own nitrogen, such as legumes, to reduce the need for fertiliser

- enhanced efficiency fertilisers that lower N₂O production.


Getting to net-zero emissions


Stopping the overuse of nitrogen fertilisers is not just good for the climate. It can also reduce water pollution and increase farm profitability.

Even with the right agricultural policies and actions, synthetic and manure fertilisers will be needed. To bring the sector to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, as needed to stabilise the climate, new technologies will be required.

 

PARIS - Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, global food systems were faced with a formidable “triple challenge” of simultaneously providing food security and nutrition to a growing global population, ensuring the livelihoods of millions of people working along the food chain from farm to fork, and ensuring the environmental sustainability of the sector. Yet policy efforts have not been moving in this direction, and global trade in agriculture and food remains highly distorted.

COVID-19 is compelling policy makers to make urgent decisions to ensure food supply chains continue to function, but the fundamental task is to address these immediate disruptions while also investing in the long-term goal of a resilient, sustainable and productive global food system. Ending inefficient and environmentally harmful support would free up resources for a more forward-looking policy package. The unanticipated shock of COVID-19 underscores the urgency of moving away from “business as usual”.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global humanitarian crisis with tragic loss of life and enormous economic repercussions. At the beginning of April 2020, more than half of the global population was ordered to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. Unemployment rates have soared as businesses have been forced to stay closed; some may never re-open.

Global food systems are also under stress, since measures to limit the spread of the disease have spill-over impacts on the movement of people and products. As described in COVID-19 and the Food and Agriculture Sector: Issues and Policy Responses the COVID-19 crisis is affecting supply and demand for food in complex ways.

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, global food systems were faced with a formidable “triple challenge” of simultaneously providing food security and nutrition to a growing global population, ensuring the livelihoods of millions of people working along the food chain from farm to fork, and ensuring the environmental sustainability of the sector. The world’s population is expected to reach almost 10 billion in 2050, requiring a significant increase in the production of affordable, healthy and nutritious food. Global food systems are also essential to the livelihoods of people working on the more than 570 million farms worldwide.

Along the agro-food chain, food systems are an especially important source of livelihoods in developing countries. Moreover, global food systems are not only dependent upon sustainable natural resources, but are responsible for the vast majority of global land and water use, and are an important source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The manner in which food systems absorb, recover, adapt and transform in response to the shock of COVID-19 will shape their level of resilience and their ability to deliver on the longer-term triple challenge. Policies and approaches to address both the dramatic short-term shocks and to enhance long-term resilience are essential, and those that encourage global food systems rather than domestic self-sufficiency will be more effective at meeting the triple challenge.

LONDON - Experts from the NHS, academia and the private sector are today (20 October) joining forces with the government to explore and establish human challenge trials in the UK to speed up the development of a Covid-19 vaccine.

In human challenge studies, a vaccine candidate that has proven to be safe in initial trials is given to a small number of carefully selected healthy adult volunteers who are then exposed to the virus in a safe and controlled environment. Medics and scientists then closely monitor the effect on volunteers 24 hours per day to see exactly how the vaccine works and to identify any side effects.

As with all clinical studies in the UK, the proposed research will be carefully considered by regulators including the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the NHS Health Research Authority through research ethics committees before any research starts.

Using controlled doses of virus, the aim of the research team  will initially be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause Covid-19 infection in small groups of healthy young people, aged between 18 and 30, who are at the lowest risk of harm. Up to 90 volunteers, who are compensated for the time they spend in the study, could be involved at this stage.

Human challenge studies offer the chance to accelerate development of promising vaccines against Covid-19, bringing them to people more quickly – potentially saving thousands of lives.

The studies are conducted under strict conditions – these include a controlled entrance to the facility, careful decontamination of waste and a dedicated laboratory for carrying out tests, all of which help to ensure the study is delivered safely and securely. All the air leaving the unit is also cleaned so there is no risk to anyone outside the unit.

Over many decades, human challenge studies have been performed safely and have played important roles in accelerating the development of treatments for diseases including malaria, typhoid, cholera, norovirus and flu. The trials have also helped researchers establish which possible vaccine is most likely to succeed in phase 3 clinical trials that would follow, usually involving thousands of volunteers.

If approved by regulators and the ethics committee, the studies would start in January with results expected by May 2021.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said:

“We are doing everything we can to fight coronavirus, including backing our best and brightest scientists and researchers in their hunt for a safe and effective vaccine.

“The funding announced today for these ground-breaking but carefully controlled studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines which will ultimately help in beginning our return to normal life.”

Chair of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce Kate Bingham said:

“This research will improve understanding of the virus, the biology of the disease, the signs that a person is protected from infection or developing the disease, the vaccine candidates, and will help in making decisions about research, that it is carried out safely and based on up-to-date evidence. There is much we can learn in terms of immunity, the length of vaccine protection, and reinfection.”

Dr Chris Chiu, from the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London and lead researcher on the human challenge study, said:

“Human challenge studies can increase our understanding of COVID-19 in unique ways and accelerate development of the many potential new COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.

“Our number one priority is the safety of the volunteers. My team has been safely running human challenge studies with other respiratory viruses for over 10 years. No study is completely risk free, but the Human Challenge Programme partners will be working hard to ensure we make the risks as low as we possibly can.

“The UK’s experience and expertise in human challenge trials as well as in wider COVID-19 science will help us tackle the pandemic, benefiting people in the UK and worldwide."

Executive Chairman of Open Orphan, hVIVO’s parent company, Cathal Friel said:

“At Open Orphan we are pleased to be working on behalf of the UK Government and in partnership with two great institutions, Imperial College London and The Royal Free Hospital.

“Our subsidiary hVIVO is the world leader in the testing of vaccines and antivirals using human challenge studies and our contract with the UK Government to develop a COVID-19 human challenge study model will safely accelerate the discovery of effective vaccines and antivirals against COVID-19. We hope our work will not just be valuable for the Company but will also help to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the population.

“Our thoughts go out to all those that have been affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

Chief Executive of the Royal Free London group Caroline Clarke said:

“We are proud to be part of this hugely important partnership which we hope will advance the world’s understanding of COVID-19 as we look to rapidly develop life-saving treatments. The Royal Free Hospital has a great history and tradition of treating and researching infectious diseases and our centre is renowned across the world for its work in this specialist area. We are looking forward to working alongside Imperial College London, BEIS, and hVIVO on such a vital piece of work over the coming months.”

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said:

“A safe, fully approved, and meticulously controlled human challenge model for Covid-19 that is conducted by experienced experts may help in the search for safe and effective vaccines.

“First, for the many vaccines still in the mid-stages of development, human challenge studies may help pick out the most promising ones to take forward into larger Phase III trials.

“Second, for vaccines which are in the late stages of development and already proven to be safe and effective through Phase III studies, human challenge studies could help us further understand if the vaccines prevent transmission as well as preventing illness.”

Implementing Human Challenge studies

When strict conditions are met, there is global agreement through the WHO that human challenge studies can bring important wider societal benefits which should be considered by research ethics committees.  

The first stage of this project will be delivered by a partnership between Imperial College London, the Royal Free Hospital’s specialist and secure research unit in London and industry-leading clinical company hVIVO, which has pioneered viral human challenge models.

The aim will be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a person to develop Covid-19 infection. This is known as a virus characterisation study and will be backed by £33.6m of government investment.

The study will take place in world-class clinical facilities at the Royal Free specifically designed to contain the virus. Highly trained medics and scientists will be on hand to carefully examine how the virus behaves in the body and to ensure volunteer safety. Volunteers will be monitored for up to a year after participating in the study to ensure their long-term well-being.

Once this first phase is completed, researchers will deploy this human challenge model which will provide an unrivalled opportunity to study closely how vaccines work in the body to stop Covid-19.

Although other countries are considering human challenge studies for Covid-19, the UK is a leading country in the science behind and the delivery of these studies and will be the first to seek to establish them, with the necessary infrastructure and skilled workforce already in place.  

It comes as the government is also investing £19.7 million in Public Health England (PHE) to scale up its capabilities in testing blood samples from clinical trials. The investment will fund vital equipment and a new, state-of-the-art laboratory facility at PHE Porton Down – this will accelerate essential testing to measure the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines currently in development. 

These tests are an essential component in supporting the development and regulatory approval of vaccine candidates. PHE’s partner, Nexelis, will be providing scientific expertise and also conducting additional testing for the evaluation of Covid-19 vaccines.

The new investment will enable PHE Porton Down scientists to increase testing capacity, including evaluating individuals’ immune responses as part of the Human Challenge project.

Innovation Minister Lord Bethell said:

“This investment into new facilities at PHE Porton Down will enable its dedicated and expert scientists to accelerate the pace and scale of specialised testing to support the critical work of the Vaccine Taskforce.”

Head of Vaccine Research Projects at PHE Porton Down, Bassam Hallis said:
“This investment will accelerate the development of potentially life-saving vaccines to help get them to the public more quickly.”

Africa

LONDON - In the year since the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights gave fresh impetus to the global campaign for the abolition of the death penalty by declaring the mandatory death penalty “unfair” and a “failure in due process”, at least four countries – Botswana, Egypt, Somalia and South Sudan – have carried out executions, Amnesty International said today.

On 28 November 2019, the African Human Rights Court ruled in a landmark judgement that mandatory imposition of the death penalty was patently unfair, because it denied the convicted person the right to be heard and present mitigating circumstances. In considering the case, brought by Tanzanian death row convict Ally Rajabu against the Government of Tanzania, the court further ruled that the mandatory death sentence fails to follow due process and breaches fair trial standards, by hindering courts from determining proportionate punishment for the facts of the alleged crimes.

“The African Human Rights Court broke new ground in highlighting the inherent unfairness of sentencing people to death without granting them the most basic requirement of a fair trial,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Director for Research and Policy.

“But nearly a year later, Tanzania has yet to implement the judgment. And even more concerning, Botswana, Egypt, Somalia and South Sudan have since carried out executions. As the abolitionist movement commemorate the World Day Against the Death Penalty, we urge all member states of the African Union that still retain the death penalty in their laws to abolish the punishment; and pending abolition to immediately establish an official moratorium on executions, and commute, without delay, all death sentences to prison terms.”

The African Human Rights Court also found that hanging as a method of execution amounts to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment because of the inherent suffering involved.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.

Significant progress towards abolition of the death penalty has been recorded in Africa in the last four decades. While no African country had abolished the death penalty for all crimes 40 years ago, 20 of them have done it to date. Of the remaining countries that retain the death penalty in their laws, 17 are abolitionist in practice; they have not executed anyone in the past 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions.

“All countries that still retain the death penalty in their laws must respect the right to effective legal representation pending the full abolition of the death penalty. Effective legal representation is an essential safeguard against the death penalty; it is a means of protecting the human rights of people facing the death penalty, particularly their right to fair trial and right to life,” said Netsanet Belay.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2015 adopted a Draft Protocol on the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Africa, but its consideration by AU member states has since stalled.

 

 

By Kevin Mash and Moses Alobo, this article was first published by The Conversation on 09 October 2020


Two experts explain how the continent defied expectations during the pandemic

Kevin Marsh, professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford, and Moses Alobo, programme manager for Grand Challenges Africa at the African Academy of Sciences, explain the continent’s Covid-19 response.


As the threat of a Covid-19 pandemic emerged earlier this year, many felt a sense of apprehension about what would happen when it reached Africa.

Concerns over the combination of overstretched and underfunded health systems and the existing load of infectious and non-infectious diseases often led to it being talked about in apocalyptic terms.

However, it has not turned out quite that way. On September 29th, the world passed the one million reported deaths mark (the true figure will of course be higher). On the same day, the count for Africa was a cumulative total of 35,954.

Africa accounts for 17% of the global population but only 3.5% of the reported global Covid-19 deaths. All deaths are important, we should not discount apparently low numbers, and of course data collected over such a wide range of countries will be of variable quality, but the gap between predictions and what has actually happened is staggering.

There has been much discussion on what accounts for this.

As leads of the Covid-19 team in the African Academy of Sciences, we have followed the unfolding events and various explanations put forward. The emerging picture is that in many African countries, transmission has been higher but severity and mortality much lower than originally predicted based on experience in China and Europe.

We argue that Africa’s much younger population explains a very large part of the apparent difference. Some of the remaining gap is probably due to under reporting of events but there are a number of other plausible explanations. These range from climatic differences, pre-existing immunity, genetic factors and behavioural differences.

Given the enormous variability in conditions across a continent – with 55 member states – the exact contribution of any one factor in a particular environment is likely to vary. But the bottom line is that what appeared at first to be a mystery looks less puzzling as more and more research evidence emerges.


The importance of age


The most obvious factor for the low death rates is the population age structure. Across multiple countries the risk of dying of Covid-19 for those aged 80 years or more is around a hundred times that of people in their twenties.

This can best be appreciated with a specific example. As of September 30th, the UK had reported 41,980 Covid-19 specific deaths while Kenya, by contrast, had reported 691. The population of the UK is around 66 million with a median age of 40 compared with Kenya’s population of 51 million with a median age of 20 years.

Corrected for population size the death toll in Kenya would have been expected to be around 32,000. However if one also corrects for population structure (assumes that the age specific death rates in the UK apply to the population structure of Kenya), we would expect around 5,000 deaths.

There is still a big difference between 700 and 5,000; what might account for the remaining gap?


Other possible contributors


One possibility is the failure to identify and record deaths.

Kenya, as with most countries, initially had little testing capacity and specific death registration is challenging. However, Kenya quickly built up its testing capacity and the extra attention to finding deaths makes it unlikely that a gap of this size can be fully accounted for by missing information.

There has been no shortage of ideas for other factors that may be contributing.

A recent large multi-country study in Europe reported significant declines in mortality related to higher temperature and humidity. The authors hypothesised that this may be because the mechanisms by which our respiratory tracts clear virus work better in warmer more humid conditions. This means that people may be getting less virus particles into their system.

It should be noted however that a systematic review of global data – while confirming that warm and wet climates seemed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 – indicated that these variables alone could not explain most of the variability in disease transmission.

It’s important to remember that there’s considerable weather variability throughout Africa. Not all climates are warm or wet and, if they are, they may not stay that way throughout the year.

Other suggestions include the possibility of pre-existing protective immune responses due either to previous exposure to other pathogens or to BCG vaccination, a vaccine against tuberculosis provided at birth in most African countries.

A large analysis – which involved 55 countries, representing 63% of the world’s population – showed significant correlations between increasing BCG coverage at a young age and better outcomes of Covid-19.

Genetic factors may also be important. A recently described haplotype (group of genes) associated with increased risk of severity and present in 30% of south Asian genomes and 8% of Europeans is almost absent in Africa.

The role of these and other factors – such as potential differences in social structures or mobility – are subject to ongoing investigation.


More effective response


An important possibility is that public health response of African countries, prepared by previous experiences (such as outbreaks or epidemics) was simply more effective in limiting transmission than in other parts of the world.

However, in Kenya it’s estimated that the epidemic actually peaked in July with around 40% of the population in urban areas having been infected. A similar picture is emerging in other countries.

This implies that measures put in place had little effect on viral transmission per se, though it does raise the possibility that herd immunity is now playing a role in limiting further transmission.

At the same time there is another important possibility: the idea that viral load (the number of virus particles transmitted to a person) is a key determinant of severity. It has been suggested that masks reduce viral load and that their widespread wearing may limit the chances of developing severe disease.

While WHO recommends mask wearing, uptake has been variable and has been lower in many European countries, compared with many parts of Africa.

So is Africa in the clear? Well, obviously not. There is still plenty of virus around and we do not know what may happen as the interaction between the virus and humans evolves.

However, one thing that does seem clear is that the secondary effects of the pandemic will be Africa’s real Covid-19 challenge. These stem from the severe interruptions of social and economic activities as well as the potentially devastating effects of reduced delivery of services which protect millions of people, including routine vaccination as well as malaria, TB and HIV control programmes.


Research agendas


Major implications of the emerging picture include the need to re-evaluate African Covid-19 research agendas.

While many of the priorities originally identified may still hold, their relative importance is likely to have changed. The key point is to deal with the problems as they are now rather than as they were imagined to be six months ago.

The same thing applies for public health policy. Of course, basic measures such as hand washing remain essential (regardless of Covid-19) and wearing masks should be continued while there is any level of Covid-19 transmission. However, other measures with broader effects on society, especially restrictions on educational and economic activity, should be under continuous review.

A key point now is to increase surveillance and ensure that flexible responses are driven by high quality real time data.

Kevin Marsh, professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford, and Moses Alobo, programme manager for Grand Challenges Africa at the African Academy of Sciences.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

 

 

Opinion is divided over whether discovery proves Europe was birthplace of mankind, not Africa

LONDON - Scientists may have to rethink the theory that Africa was the geographical origin of our species after unearthing two fossils with ape-like teeth in Greece and Bulgaria.

Researchers uncovered an ancient species of ape called Graecopithecus freybergi or "El Graeco" which they believe to be the oldest known traces of hominins (or pre-humans).

Sarah Knapton, science editor at the Daily Telegraph, says the discovery "rewrites" the history of human evolution.

While experts believe our human lineage split from apes around seven million years ago in Africa, the new fossil discovery suggests Europe was in fact where mankind originated, she writes.

The two specimens are a fossilised lower jaw – previously found in Athens in 1944 – along with a tooth found in Bulgaria in 2009.

"No other fossil and living non-human primate is known with such [molar] roots," the researchers said in a statement, adding that they believed 'El Graeco' was "the oldest known potential pre-human".

"He is several hundred thousand years older than the oldest potential pre-human from Africa: 6–7-million-year-old Sahelanthropus from Chad."

David Begun, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and a co-author on the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, said: "This dating allows us to move the human-chimpanzee split into the Mediterranean area. People need to stop just thinking about Africa as the only possible location for this divergence. It could well have happened in Europe."

The new interpretation is important not simply because of "geographical bragging rights" explains the Globe and Mail, but because it could help "researchers arrive at a clearer picture of how and why hominins developed a unique set of adaptations, including smaller canine teeth and the ability to walk upright, that would later prove to be key evolutionary steps on the road to humanity."

Despite the findings, "there is no question that our species, Homo sapiens, originated in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago and subsequently spread around the globe," adds the paper.

Others are also sceptical about the claim that the research rewrites evolutionary history.

Kieran McNulty, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, says the work on the Greek fossil is "impressive" but it cannot definitively be shown to have originated from a hominin because "so little is known about the deep past of ape species that were not part of the human line".

"It's really difficult to interpret what those earliest common ancestors would have looked like, because all we can see is the end product of millions of years of evolutions in chimps and gorillas," he says.

McNulty added that the "weight of evidence" still favours a hominin origin in Africa.

Retired anthropologist and author Dr Peter Andrews agrees. He told the Daily Telegraph: "It is possible that the human lineage originated in Europe, but very substantial fossil evidence places the origin in Africa, including several partial skeletons and skulls."

"I would be hesitant about using a single character from an isolated fossil to set against the evidence from Africa."

Starvation is being deliberately used as a “method of war” in South Sudan, a UN-backed human rights panel said this week. The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has documented how government forces have intentionally pillaged communities living under opposition control in Western Bahr el Ghazal and “systematically denied” humanitarian access to areas of eastern Jonglei state.

Commissioner Andrew Clapham said the attacks on civilians could “amount to crimes against humanity” – echoing a similar charge by the commission earlier in the year, when government forces and armed groups were accused of war strategies “responsible for the starvation of the population in [northern] Wau and Unity states”.

The commission released a separate report this week also condemning the power-sharing government’s lack of progress in implementing the transitional justice and accountability mechanisms agreed in the 2018 peace agreement. They were supposed to end impunity for killings, rapes, and abductions during the conflict.

Instead, “political violence is spiralling out of control [again] at the inter-communal level but driven by national actors who arm ethnic militias and paramilitary groups,” the commission said.