Top Picks: Astronomic arms sales, aid-resistant airdrops, and a new way to stop Zika?

Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates.

Six to read:

Up in arms

The arms trade has been growing continuously since 2004, and the volume of weapons shipped around the world over the past five years has increased 14 percent over the period from 2006 to 2010. That’s just one of the findings of the Stockholm International Peace Institute, which tracks international transfers of major weapons and presents data for five-year periods. Its latest report shows that Asian countries comprised six of the top 10 arms importers, with India leading the pack at 14 percent of global imports. Vietnam’s imports rose by 699 percent, the highest increase of any country. The Middle East followed Asia in imports. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest importer of arms, with a 275 percent increase over the previous five years. So, who’s selling them all the weapons? The United States tops the list with a 33 percent share of all arms exports. Russia, China, France and Germany rounded out the top five in that order. Interestingly, each of those countries, except Germany, is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Read into that what you will…

For a separate look at how $25 billion in arms sales in 2015 to Saudi Arabia by countries including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States could be breaking their legal obligations under the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty and are causing human suffering in Yemen, check out this alarming report from ATT Monitor.

The Migration Machine

This week Reuters launched a series exploring the stories behind Europe’s migration crisis. The first instalment focuses on the route to Italy via Libya, mostly used by sub-Saharan Africans and which, in many ways, is even more treacherous than the route to Greece via Turkey, preferred by Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. First they must cross the Sahara, where those who die after falling out of smugglers’ pick-ups or after being abandoned in the desert with no food or water are rarely recorded. If they make it to Libya, they run the gauntlet of countless militant groups and ruthless smugglers who often hold migrants for ransom. A brother’s duty tells the story of an Eritrean delivery man living in Albany, New York who had already paid smugglers turned kidnappers $23,000 to release one brother in Egypt’s Sinai desert and his sister is Sudan when he received a call from another brother who had decided to attempt the journey to Europe and was now in trouble in Libya. The piece delves deep into the multi-billion-dollar people smuggling trade between Africa and Europe, drawing on interviews with dozens of refugees as well as smugglers and European prosecutors.

Burundi’s killings “under the radar”

As African leaders and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrive in Burundi this week to try and find a resolution the country’s political crisis, a Human Rights Watch statement has warned that political violence may now be less visible, but is far from over. “Patterns of human rights abuses have shifted,” it says. “Whereas dead bodies on the streets of Bujumbura were a daily occurrence in the second half of 2015, many abuses are now taking place under the radar, with security forces secretly taking people away and refusing to account for them.”

Promises, promises

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has been making a number of promises of late, including the release of political prisoners and his commitment to an inclusive dialogue with the opposition. A few days prior to Ban’s visit, two banned radio stations – Rema FM and Radio Isanganiro – resumed broadcasting. Perhaps un-coincidentally, the latest ACLED violence monitoring report notes a sharp drop in the death toll in Burundi. Only one person reportedly died in political violence in the week of 15 February, compared to 33 in the first week of this month – the highest count so far recorded in 2016.

Darfur fatigue

President Jacob Zuma has made the surprise announcement that he will withdraw South Africa’s 800 troops from UNAMID – the hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Zuma gave no explicit reason for his decision, but Institute for Security Studies consultant Peter Fabricius points out that any notion that peace has broken out in Darfur “is not a view shared by the UN or much of Sudanese civil society.” “Since [Zuma] announced it on the day of South Africa’s budget speech, perhaps it was essentially a cost-cutting measure. Or perhaps he intends redeploying the overstretched SANDF (South African armed forces) elsewhere,” Fabricius suggests in a scathing critique. “But the announcement would surely have been welcomed most enthusiastically by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. One could say Zuma thus did him, wittingly or unwittingly, another big favour – following on the refusal of the South African government to arrest al-Bashir on International Criminal Court (ICC) charges last June when he participated in the African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg.”

Libya war crimes

It’s been five years since Libya’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, and, as Tom Westcott reported for IRIN last week, there’s little to celebrate for the residents of Bin Jawad, a small coastal town living in fear after its takeover by the so-called Islamic State. This investigation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) suggests that life in the rest of the country is equally terrifying. It reports that most parties to the country’s conflict – including the two competing governments – have committed unlawful killings. Various armed groups have secret detention facilities where OHCHR found numerous cases of torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Much of this amounts, most probably, to war crimes, but the court system is weak and impunity rules.  Western countries have belatedly begun expressing concern about the rise of IS in Libya, but as this report – which covers 2014 and 2015 – shows, the suffering of Libyan civilians is nothing new.

One to listen to:

Hacking Zika transmission

While debate rages over the links between Zika, microcephaly and the rare nerve disorder Guillain-Barré, scientists and health experts are desperately trying to come up with a solution, regardless of the strength of that connection. The World Health Organization says at least 15 separate projects are under way to develop a vaccine, but we’re several years away from coming up with a tried and tested formula. The other way of tackling the problem is to look at eradicating or disarming the mosquitoes. As we reported earlier this month, an Oxford-based company, Oxitec, is developing a genetically modified mosquito that produces non-biting offspring that die before reaching adulthood. A team at the University of Swansea has started looking at an alternative solution: manipulating bacteria to use as a Trojan Horse. The idea has been tried with 100 percent success on so-called kissing bugs, which transmit the parasite responsible for Chagas disease. In this fascinating BBC World Service podcast, Professor Paul Dyson, leading the team, explains how it could also be used to combat Zika. “If we can deliver the symbiotic bacteria to that water source in a formulation which will be attractive to the larvae so they’ll ingest it… the bacteria will colonise the larvae and we can… stop the larvae developing further so that the adults never emerge as flying insects. So, effectively, you’re stopping disease transmission in its tracks.”

One from IRIN:

UN admits Syria airdrop failure

When IRIN Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod filed her story “Should airdrops be tried to save starving Syrians?” at the end of January, she wasn’t expecting an imminent change of policy. The World Food Programme had made it abundantly clear: no safe access to airspace; the lack of ground staff to distribute it to the right people; and the difficulty in finding safe drop zones. This was just a no-go idea.

It was with more than a little surprise, therefore, that less than a month later Slemrod discovered that the UN agency was about to attempt a drop over the besieged Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. What had changed? It wasn't exactly clear. Perhaps US-Russian “ceasefire” negotiations had nurtured some assurances about the use of Syrian airspace. Perhaps it was simply time to try the last resort. Whatever the reasoning, it didn’t go according to plan. Activists on the ground quickly informed IRIN of the failure, and, after a little prodding, WFP came clean on the numbers. Of the 21 pallets dropped, only four made it to their intended destination, and even those packages were damaged because of failed parachutes. Had the lentils and rice and other food items landed safely, they could have fed 2,500 people for a month. With reports that dozens of people in the city may already have died of starvation, is it good that they tried or are airdrops just not practical in this context? With WFP apparently preparing for its second attempt, the jury is still out.

Coming up:

Bond Conference 2016: 29 February-1 March in London

Billed as Europe's biggest international development conference, this aid sector gathering next week in London comes after a year of bruising controversies in the British non-profit sector and as international NGOs consider their role ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit in May.