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World roundup: June 29 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, South Africa, Belarus, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
June 29, 1444: Albanian rebel leader Skanderbeg (George Castriot) defeats a considerably larger Ottoman army at the Battle of Torvioli by outmaneuvering the Ottomans and striking their forces from behind. This was one of the first major engagements in Skanderbeg’s 1443-1468 rebellion and his surprising victory earned him significant support from Hungary and the papacy.
June 29, 1613: The Globe Theatre in London is destroyed when, during a performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry VII, a stage cannon malfunctions and sets the structure on fire. Only one person was hurt, apparently. The structure was rebuilt the following year but was closed down for good (or at least until its 1997 revival) by Puritan authorities during the First English Civil War.
June 29, 1881: Sudanese religious leader Muhammad Ahmad declares himself to be the Mahdi and begins to establish an independent political entity, kicking off the 18 year long Mahdist War against the British Empire.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to The Wall Street Journal, several Russian cargo ships currently under US sanction have been making regular calls at Turkish ports—over 100 such calls since May 2022. This would seemingly make NATO member Turkey one of the linchpins of Russia’s sanctions avoidance schemes, which is to say the least somewhat awkward. This report will likely add to the numerous tensions between Turkey and the rest of the alliance heading into next month’s NATO summit.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal released on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that he’s revised his judicial overhaul plan to remove a provision that would allow the Israeli Knesset to override a Supreme Court ruling with a simple majority vote. This was the most contentious part of the overhaul, so by removing it Netanyahu is clearly hoping to tamp down on the broad public opposition to the overall project. The overhaul will still give the government increased power to appoint new judges, though in the interview Netanyahu also indicated that he’d modified that part of the plan to make it less contentious. These comments drew quick backlash from right-wing extremists in Netanyahu’s cabinet, whose support he’ll likely need to pass any version of the overhaul. There’s been no reaction from opposition leaders, who could step in to help if they like Netanyahu’s changes and for some reason wanted to throw him a lifeline.
European Union officials have reportedly told the Iranian government that the EU is going to adopt a number of ballistic missile-related sanctions against Iran in violation of the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal. Those sanctions are currently under the auspices of the United Nations but the plan apparently is to adopt them as EU measures when their October end-date comes around. EU members are concerned about the prospect of Iran supplying missiles to Russia and will justify the extension by citing Iran’s violations of the same nuclear accord. Of course, you may be thinking, Iran didn’t start violating the 2015 deal until the United States decided to run the whole thing through an industrial grade shredder back in 2018, and that would be a fair point except for the fact that the EU is the EU and Iran is Iran, meaning the former can do what it wants and the latter has no recourse. The sanctions probably won’t impinge much on Iran’s missile development program but they could affect any negotiations on replacing the 2015 deal with a less ambitious arrangement.
According to Eurasianet, the governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan have signed an agreement to establish a jointly-owned “logistics company” whose primary aim would be to develop a new corridor for shipping cargo across Asia that bypasses Russia. The three countries have been developing what’s known as the “Trans-Caspian International Transport Route” (AKA the “Middle Corridor”) for a while, and the logistics company is viewed as the next step to overcome the trans-Russia route’s main advantage, i.e. that there are no international borders that need to be crossed when shipping cargo across Russia. The route still lacks the infrastructure to handle large amounts of cargo, but given Russia’s current geopolitical situation there could be interest in investing in an alternative route to bring products from China to Europe.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Wazhma Sadat argues that more sanctions against the Afghan Taliban are only going to heap further suffering on the Afghan people:
Last month, several Republican senators introduced a bill to impose tougher sanctions on the Taliban. The Taliban Sanctions Act, introduced by Sen. Jim Risch, requires U.S. President Joe Biden to sanction the Taliban for their terrorist activities, drug trafficking, and human rights abuses. Although the bill correctly highlights the Taliban’s undeniable human rights violations, it is utterly misguided. Economic sanctions will only harm the people of Afghanistan, not the Taliban; instead of introducing new sanctions, existing ones should be lifted immediately.
Growing up under the Taliban’s rule as a child, I experienced firsthand the colossal negative impact of the economic sanctions and isolation on our lives. As a 5-year-old, I wondered if my parents would have to make the painful decision of selling one of us for the rest of us to survive.
Ultimately, my family joined the millions of displaced Afghans who left their homes in search of a better life. We drove, walked, and rode on donkeys to get to a border in search of food and safety. Night after night, I would go to bed hungry, waiting for a miracle that would end my suffering. But that miracle never came, only war did.
Having survived, and studied, both war and poverty, I cannot think of a more damaging policy for Afghan people than economic sanctions against the Taliban.
More inter-communal violence involving the Kuki and Meitei peoples left at least two people dead and four wounded on Thursday. The shooting incident took place in Imphal, the state capital, on the same day Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi arrived for what is supposed to be a two day visit to the state to assess the situation. The Kuki are objecting to the Meitei community’s effort to gain protected tribal status from the Indian government. As the Meitei are a majority in Manupur, the Kuki and other minority communities there argue that they should not get the quotas and other legal considerations that come with such a status.
According to Reuters, the US and Dutch governments are collaborating on a plan to block China from acquiring advanced chip-making equipment in another effort to undermine China’s high tech sector. Dutch officials could announce as soon as Friday new restrictions on the sale of certain technologies from the firm ASML to would-be Chinese buyers, while the US is likely to invoke export controls that would block additional ASML tech from being sold to six Chinese facilities.
AFP is reporting a “massive explosion” in the vicinity of the Sudanese army’s headquarters in Khartoum on Thursday that “was felt across” the city. There’s no indication who or what caused the blast or what the aftereffects might have been but I think it’s reasonable to assume this isn’t good news for the Sudanese army.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is reportedly about to name John Godfrey as its special envoy for Sudan. Godfrey is already US ambassador to Sudan, or whatever is left of it, and there are serious questions about whether he, or anybody else, can do both of these very full time jobs (one representing US interests in Sudan, the other trying to coordinate a regional response to the conflict there). According to Foreign Policy the administration is kind of thumbing its nose at Congress, which has been calling for a special envoy, by naming one who won’t really be able to do the job.
A new report from Human Rights Watch accuses the Burkinabé military of committing a wide array of human rights abuses in Burkina Faso’s Séno province earlier this year. Said abuses included disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture, mostly targeting members of the Fulani community over their perceived links to jihadist militant groups.
The Biden administration has reportedly taken a step toward resuming humanitarian aid programs involving Ethiopia by informing Congress that it no longer considers the Ethiopian government to be a serial human rights violator. The US cut off aid to Ethiopia on human rights grounds during the federal government’s 2020-2022 war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a decision that also forces international financial institutions to suspend their Ethiopian business. There’s evidence of the Ethiopian government’s continued human rights abuses related to that conflict, but the US is apparently prepared to overlook that in the same of repairing the geopolitically significant US-Ethiopia relationship.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
An incident of inter-communal violence near Kinshasa left at least 20 people dead earlier this week. Fighters from the ethnic Yaka Mobondo militia reportedly attacked a bus carrying members of the rival Teke community on Monday in Mai-Ndombe province. The Yaka and Teke have been at odds with one another for several months over a number of grievances, mostly related to land ownership.
The South African government has reportedly decided to go ahead with hosting the next BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) leaders summit in August, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international legal issues. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest back in March over the alleged forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Because South Africa is an ICC member state, authorities there would technically be obliged to arrest Putin if he entered the country, which they would prefer not to do. This led to speculation that they would ask China—which is not an ICC member—to take over hosting duties. It’s unclear how the South Africans expect to get around their ICC obligation, though they could simply ignore it as they did when then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited the country to attend an African Union summit in 2015. Alternatively, Putin could just skip the summit—he’s apparently yet to RSVP.
Satellite imagery shows a fair amount of work being done on a Belarusian military base in the town of Asipovichi, not far from Minsk. This is likely the facility where the Belarusian government is planning on housing the thousands of Wagner Group fighters that are expected to follow their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, into Belarusian exile. Wagner’s imminent relocation to Belarus is raising alarms among Eastern European NATO/EU member states like Poland, whose leaders are now demanding EU financial support for new defense spending. I’m not sure if they think Prigozhin and his 8000 or so men are just going to try to march into Warsaw one day, but I have to say that seems unlikely. What is more likely is that governments in Eastern Europe are going to hype some perceived Wagner threat as a way to get NATO and/or the EU to underwrite part of their defense budgets.
The Ukrainian government is probably not going to get the guarantee of future NATO membership it’s seeking at next month’s summit, but it may be on the verge of getting something else it’s been after for several months—long-range HIMARS ammunition. According to the WSJ the Biden administration is warming to the idea of providing Ukraine with the Army Tactical Missile System, which has a maximum range of nearly 190 miles. That’s quite a bit farther than Ukraine’s current HIMARS ammunition, far enough to strike targets in Crimea and well inside Russia proper. The US has resisted Ukrainian demands for the ATACMS thus far primarily out of concern that the Ukrainians would use it to attack Russia. That’s still a concern, but like every other weapons system the US has resisted sending to Ukraine at one time or another (heavy artillery, Abrams tanks, F-16s, etc.), it seems Washington is about to relent. One wonders what the Ukrainians will demand next.
Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti took to social media on Thursday to say that he’s prepared to hold new local elections in four majority Serb communities in northern Kosovo that have been in an uproar since their previous elections in April. Serbs boycotted those votes, resulting in the election of ethnic Albanian mayors amid turnout in the low single digits. Kurti said that his government will hold new elections if 20 percent of voters in those communities sign a petition demanding it, and if all goes well he also indicated that he would reduce the police presence in those communities in hopes of easing communal tensions.
It seems Wednesday’s anti-Islam demonstration in Stockholm, which featured a Quran burning, didn’t go over terribly well in the Islamic world. Multiple Middle East and North African governments condemned the incident and there were protests outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad. The Moroccan government recalled its ambassador from Sweden and a number of countries summoned their Swedish ambassadors to complain. The displeasure was perhaps most significantly felt in Turkey, given that the Turkish government remains the primary obstacle to Sweden’s accession to NATO. The Quran burning is unlikely to improve Sweden’s prospects.
The Bolivian government has reached deals that could be worth more than $1.4 billion with the Russian firm Rosatom and the Chinese Citic Guoan Group to develop the country’s massive lithium reserves. Bolivia holds an estimated 21 million tons of lithium, making it the world’s largest lithium reserve holder, but so far it hasn’t been able to exploit those reserves economically. Any viable extraction is still probably several years off, and that’s assuming a best case scenario.
A car bombing wounded four members of the Mexican National Guard in Guanajuato state late Wednesday. That region is apparently plagued by cartel violence, with the the Santa Rosa de Lima and the Jalisco New Generation cartels battling one another for turf. It’s unclear whether police were the intended target in this instance.
Meanwhile, the massive heat wave that’s battering parts of the southern US has also brought scorching temperatures to much of northern Mexico:
Mexico has registered at least 112 heat-related deaths so far this year, with more than half of those occurring in one northern state, Nuevo León, according to the health ministry. That compares with just four heat-related deaths registered in the same period last year across the country.
The arrival of rain in recent days delivered relief to some places in Mexico, while the “heat dome,” formed by high-pressure atmospheric conditions combined with climate patterns in the Pacific Ocean, has been drifting out of Mexican territory into the southern United States.
Still, blistering temperatures are baking parts of northern Mexico. Temperatures in the city of Hermosillo in northwestern Mexico are forecast to hover around 109 degrees through the weekend, after surging to 121 degrees on Sunday, among the highest temperatures registered anywhere in the world that day.
Finally, Forever Wars’ Spencer Ackerman unpacks the UN’s latest report on the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay:
I HAD A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, so I couldn't attend Monday's press conference at the United Nations with Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the U.N. special rapporteur who conducted what they call a "technical visit" to Guantanamo this year. But Ní Aoláin's report, released Monday, speaks for itself in detailing what Guantanamo continues to be. More subtly—but still plainly—it highlights how closing Guantanamo is just the beginning when it comes to ending the legacy of Guantanamo.
Ní Aoláin's bottom line is that even though only 30 people remain in cages at Guantanamo, out of 780 people once held there, abuse at Guantanamo is ongoing. She has nice things to say about the Biden administration's commitment to the rule of law, as manifested by the very low bar of allowing her access to Guantanamo. That's throat clearing ahead of this: "[S]everal U.S. Government procedures establish a structural deprivation and non-fulfilment of rights necessary for a humane and dignified existence and constitute at a minimum, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment across all detention practices at Guantánamo Bay."
Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment is the language of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a party (although with caveats asserting Washington's discretionary adherence). It is a very deliberate finding released on a very deliberate day, as Monday was the U.N. day commemorating victims of torture. All that is consistent with Ní Aoláin's unflinching earlier finding, from April, that the experience of several detainees at Guantanamo "may constitute crimes against humanity."
Note as well that she's saying this is a "structural" feature of Guantanamo, and a continuing one. It's not a deviation experienced by this-or-that detainee or a regrettable mistake of the past. This is Guantanamo 2023.
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