This outgoing year, while fresh unrest caused serious instability in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Sudan, long-running conflicts continued in Syria and Yemen. United Nations “Blue Helmet” peacekeepers suffered losses and injuries, particularly those serving in the peacekeeping missions in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR). Nevertheless, the UN reaffirmed its commitment to protecting those caught up in the fighting.
Syria: peace denied by a ‘gulf of mistrust’
The grim ten-year milestone of the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 350,000 people, saw the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, work tirelessly to advance the peace process, amid what he called the “slow tsunami” of crises, with economic collapse compounded by COVID-19, corruption and mismanagement.
Several times throughout the year, Pedersen delivered his realistic assessment of the humanitarian and security situation in the country, characterised by what he called a “gulf of mistrust” between warring parties, and frequent attacks on civilians.
Attempts to find agreement on a new constitution for Syria began in October, but these efforts proved fruitless, at least for now. Pedersen acknowledged that the outcome was a disappointment but urged the members of the Constitutional Committee to continue their work.
Yemen: ‘knocking on the door of famine’
The desperate people of Yemen faced the highest levels of acute malnutrition since the beginning of the conflict there in 2015, with over half the population facing severe food shortages. UN food relief agency chief David Beasley warned in March that millions were “knocking on the door of famine”.
Spring saw a dramatic deterioration in the conflict, with fighting expanding on several fronts, and the UN confirmed that the country remained the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
A new UN envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, was appointed in September, with no illusions about the difficulty of bringing peace and stability to the country, as a UNICEF report showed that some 10,000 children had been killed or maimed since the beginning of the fighting.
Is there really hope for an end to the fighting? Yes, says the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which released a report in November showing that, if the warring parties can agree to stop fighting, extreme poverty could be eradicated within a generation.
Afghanistan: Taliban takeover
International attention turned to Afghanistan following the shockingly swift military victory by the Taliban, who swept into the capital, Kabul, in August following the withdrawal of most international troops by June.
The Taliban’s takeover had been preceded by a marked increase in violence: Particularly horrific were the bombing of a girl’s school in Kabul in May, which killed at least 60, including several schoolgirls.
The following month, 10 deminers from the HALO trust were killed in the northern region, in an attack described by the Security Council as “atrocious and cowardly”, and a report released in July revealed that more women and children were killed and wounded in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 than in the first six months of any year since records began in 2009.
As it became clear that the Taliban had become the de facto rulers of Afghanistan, the UN focus shifted to ensuring that humanitarian support remained as strong as possible: millions faced starvation with the onset of winter, and aid flights to Kabul resumed in September. In December, the World Food Programme (WFP) urged countries to put politics aside and step up support to avert a potential catastrophe.
‘Grave uncertainty’ in Ethiopia
The northern Tigray region has been the epicentre of fighting in Ethiopia, between government troops and the regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The unrest exacerbated humanitarian concerns: in February, people displaced by the violence were reportedly reduced to eating leaves to survive. By June, the WFP estimated that some 350,000 people were at risk of famine.
There were persistent reports of human rights violations in Tigray, including disturbing news of abuse of civilians, and aid workers being targeted. Three employees of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) agency were killed in June, and in July senior UN officials appealed for immediate and unrestricted humanitarian access to Tigray, and for an end to the deadly attacks on aid workers.
However, violence continued to escalate, and the country was under a state of emergency by November, when the UN rights office shared reports of people of Tigrayan origin being rounded up and arrested in the capital, Addis Ababa and elsewhere.
The UN political chief, Rosemary Di Carlo, told the Security Council that the future of the country was now shrouded in “grave uncertainty”, and was affecting the stability of the entire Horn of Africa region.
Myanmar: a challenge to regional stability
The decision of Myanmar’s military to detain the country’s top political leaders and government officials in a coup, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, was roundly condemned by UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in February.
The detentions were followed by a state of emergency, and a violent, widespread crackdown on dissent. Nevertheless, demonstrations against the takeover grew in February, leading to the killing of several protestors.
The UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener, warned that the situation in the country was a challenge to the stability of the region.
During the months that followed, protests continued, violence against demonstrators escalated, and senior UN officials condemned the actions of the military. A UN report in April raised fears that the coup, coupled with the impact of COVID-19, could result in up to 25 million people – nearly half of the country’s population – living in poverty by early 2022.
The UN called for an urgent international response to prevent the crisis from becoming a catastrophe for the whole of Southeast Asia but, by September, the power of the military seemed to have become entrenched. In December, the UN rights office warned that the country’s human rights situation was deteriorating at an unprecedented rate.
Mali: a peacekeeping danger zone
UN-backed attempts to broker peace in Mali, following 2020’s military coup, could not prevent a deteriorating security crisis in 2021.
The country, in Africa’s Sahel region, retained its status as the world’s most dangerous posting for UN peacekeepers and, sadly, more of them were to pay the ultimate price whilst serving their duty.
The first deadly attacks on the UN blue helmets took place on January 14 when four were killed and five wounded, and another attack left a further peacekeeper dead just two days later.
The following month, a temporary operating base of the UN Integrated Stabilization Mission for Mali (MINUSMA) in Kerena, near Douentza in Central Mali was attacked, resulting in the death of one peacekeeper and the wounding of 27 others.
In April, the UN peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, warned that ‘blue helmets’, and the Malian Defence and Security Forces, continue to suffer repeated attacks and significant losses, while some large towns live under constant threat from armed groups.
The death toll continued to rise: attacks in October and November left two peacekeepers dead whilst, in December, seven were killed and three seriously injured, when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in the Bandiagara region. To date, more than 200 peacekeepers have been killed in Mali.
Their presence in the country, however, remains essential: some 400,000 people have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict, and around 4.7 million are reliant on some form of humanitarian aid.
Hotspots of tension
- Visiting Burkina Faso in December, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet lamented the fact that the West African nation faces “a multitude of challenges with severe impacts on a wide range of human rights of its people”. One attack in a rural part of the country in June left at least 132 dead, whilst another in August led to the death of around 80.
- Cameroon remained beset by tension throughout the year, with separatists in the English-speaking regions of the country fighting to create their own state. The UN revealed in December that over 700,000 children have been impacted by school closures due to insecurity and violence.
- The Central African Republic was hit by a wave of violence following presidential elections in late December, 2020, targeting civilians and UN peacekeepers. Hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the violence, and the senior UN official warned the Security Council in June of an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis”.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo suffered yet another year of violent attacks against civilians, with incidents reported on UN News practically every month, from a series of village killings in January, to the condemnation of mass human rights abuses in July, and the thousands fleeing fighting in November. Throughout the year, aid workers and UN peacekeepers also came under attack.
- Haiti was already in a drawn-out political, security, and humanitarian crisis, long before the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July. By October, the senior UN official in the country was warning that Haiti was undergoing “one of the most fraught periods of its recent history”.
- Iraq was the scene of deadly bomb attacks, including a suicide bombing at a busy Baghdad market in January, and another in the capital just before the Eid al-Adha holiday in July. In November, the UN Mission in the country condemned an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, when his house was hit by a drone attack.
- Niger underwent a deadly Spring, during which hundreds of civilians were killed in terror attacks. In January, around 100 died in the west of the country as a result of armed violence, and some 200 civilians were killed in the Tahoua region in March, including around 30 children.
- In Nigeria, Mass kidnappings continued to be a threat to schoolchildren: UN chief António Guterres called for the unconditional release of around 30 students abducted from a school in the northwest of the country in March, and many schoolchildren remain missing following earlier kidnappings.
- Unrest in Palestine and Israel escalated in May, with at least 60 youngsters killed in the occupied Palestinian enclave of Gaza and another 444 injured over a fraught 10-day period. After 11 days of rocket and air attacks, a ceasefire was reached between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas, by which time some 240 were reportedly killed, and thousands injured, the majority in Gaza.
- In Somalia, following months of escalating tensions and violence, the UN welcomed summit talks in Spring, which were followed in August by an electoral agreement between the Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, and the heads of Somalia’s federal member states.
- People in most parts of South Sudan are coping with extreme violence and attacks, a UN-appointed investigation found in February. The UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, warned that, a decade after the country achieved independence, more children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance than ever before.
Sudan’s experiment in joint power-sharing between the military and civilian leaders, following the ousting of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019, was derailed in October by a military coup. With the Prime Minister later restored to his office, the UN Envoy, Volker Perthes, told the Security Council in December that, whilst discussions on the way forward are underway, restoring trust will be a challenge.