World roundup: March 23 2021
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Ethiopia, Brazil, and more
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Programming note: Foreign Exchanges will be taking its spring break next week, so Thursday’s roundup will be our last until April 6, barring some unforeseen development in the interim.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 22, 1739: Nader Shah’s Iranian army sacks the Indian city of Delhi.
March 23, 1879: A small Chilean army defeats a much smaller Bolivian force at the Battle of Topáter, which helped trigger the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific. The conflict, fought over a variety of issues including control of Pacific shipping routes and nitrate deposits in the region, ended with Chile victorious over a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance. The resulting settlement saw both defeated countries ceding territory to Chile, including Bolivia’s entire parcel of Pacific coastline.
March 23, 1991: The rebel Revolutionary United Front, with the support of Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, invades Sierra Leone, kicking off the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone Civil War. After a succession of governments and with considerable foreign help, especially from Britain, the Sierra Leone government emerged victorious. The RUF was later charged with committing a vast array of war crimes, and Taylor, after a stint as president of Liberia, was eventually tried and convicted on 11 war crimes counts by the post-war Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for March 23:
124,789,601 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,223,745 active, +485,786 since yesterday)
2,745,383 reported fatalities (+10,206 since yesterday)
For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here
In today’s global news:
The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases suggested on Tuesday that drug maker AstraZeneca is fudging its latest data on the efficacy of its COVID vaccine. The company announced that its shot showed 79 percent effectiveness in a recent trial involving participants in the US, Chile, and Peru, with no heightened risk of blood clotting of the sort that’s caused several European countries to temporarily suspend its use. But NIAID says some of the data released along with that announcement is “outdated,” thus raising questions about its accuracy. I am neither a doctor nor a scientist so I will refrain from commenting here except to note that this new controversy could push those same European countries to revisit their recent decisions to start using the AstraZeneca vaccine again.
On another vaccine-related front, World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Monday that global inequality in the distribution of COVID vaccines is “becoming more grotesque every day.” Wealthy Western nations are in many cases broadening the pool of people eligible for vaccines while in most poorer countries people at critical risk (health workers and the elderly) are still unable to get vaccinated due to lack of supply. Put in concrete terms, Israel (excluding Palestinians) leads the world with 112.5 doses administered per 100 people, while Nigeria has administered an average of zero doses per 100 people. Aside from being morally repugnant, the inequity is self-defeating inasmuch as the failure to inoculate people in poorer countries means that humanity’s overall recovery from the pandemic will be held back. It is in wealthy nations’ self-interest to ensure adequate vaccine supplies on a global level and that’s still not enough to get most of them to do the right thing.
Along with oil demand, which is already returning to pre-pandemic levels, COVID also reportedly depressed the arms industry, which grew by a mere 0.7 percent last year. That’s pretty good, relative to many other economic sectors, but it’s that industry’s weakest showing since 2013. Fortunately if there are two things human beings will be eager to get back to doing it’s driving cars and killing one another, so the arms business is likely to rebound. But it may take a little while, as arms sales are usually made years in advance and a number of major expos and other kinds of big weapons showcases had to be called off in 2020 due to lockdown measures.
3612 confirmed coronavirus cases (+96)
785 reported fatalities (+14)
Human Rights Watch is accusing the Houthis of making “indiscriminate” and “unlawful” attacks on heavily civilian parts of Yemen’s Maʾrib province, where they’re currently engaged in an effort to capture Maʾrib city and surrounding oil fields. This may mean they’re firing weapons into or near the displaced persons camps near the city, which house hundreds of thousands of Yemenis forced by the war to flee from other parts of the country. It’s unclear whether Houthi artillery and/or drone strikes have caused civilian casualties in Maʾrib but it is believed that they’ve displaced more civilians, including some who were already displaced.
Speaking of Houthi drones, the group says it launched an attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport on Tuesday. I suppose that could be considered their response to Monday’s Saudi ceasefire offer. Quincy’s Annelle Sheline examines the inadequacies of that offer and of the US-Saudi “peace” effort more generally:
Given that the recent ceasefire proposal largely reasserts offers that were already on the table, it is likely that the Saudis’ primary objective was to demonstrate that they are trying to resolve the conflict, therefore shifting blame for ongoing hostilities to the Houthis. Using his State Department Twitter account, Lenderking tweeted support for the Saudi ceasefire. Yet if the Saudis and the United States were actually dedicated to ending the war and “easing the suffering of the Yemeni people,” as Lenderking’s tweet stated, they would lift the blockade that continues to starve Yemenis of food and fuel. Instead, the Saudis have escalated air strikes on Yemen, striking Sana’a as well as the grain port of Salif, further exacerbating food insecurity.
In general, the Saudis and the Hadi government continue to act as if they have the upper hand. The United States buys into this fiction while also pretending to be a neutral arbiter, rather than acknowledging that it overtly supports one side in the conflict and lacks all credibility with the other. If the Biden administration is serious about trying to resolve the conflict in Yemen, the United States cannot so blatantly support the Saudis.
The longer the war goes on, the weaker the Hadi government’s position becomes, while the Houthis grow stronger. Although the Saudis seem to hope that this dynamic will shift, all parties must recognize that the Houthis continue to improve their position. Similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Houthis have a stronger interest in their homeland than any foreign invader will.
3,061,520 confirmed cases (+26,182)
30,316 reported fatalities (+138)
I don’t know how much credence to give this, but an outlet called “GZERO Media” is reporting that the Biden administration will formally recognize the Armenian Genocide, in part (apparently) because Joe Biden is angry with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s unclear when this recognition would take place but it would likely coincide with Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on April 24. Again I don’t know whether this is a genuine scoop or somebody at the White House sending Erdoğan a message or something else entirely.
803,041 confirmed cases (+4494)
14,066 reported fatalities (+30)
Iraqi officials say they’ve made a “formal request” for talks with the Biden administration about the disposition of the remaining US military forces in Iraq and the Biden administration is now saying they’ll be holding a “strategic dialogue” with the Iraqi government in April. The nature of that dialogue isn’t entirely clear. There hasn’t been much to say about the push to get the Pentagon to vacate its Iraqi premises since the country’s parliament passed a resolution calling for the US to shove off after the Qasem Soleimani hit last January, but the very influential Fatah coalition (the political arm of Iraq’s very influential Popular Mobilization militias) has kept a steady drumbeat on this issue. I suspect the Biden administration will be even less amenable to leaving Iraq than the Trump administration was.
829,689 confirmed cases (+925) in Israel, 228,044 confirmed cases (+2068) in Palestine
6122 reported fatalities (+13) in Israel, 2478 reported fatalities (+20) in Palestine
A rocket fired out of Gaza landed somewhere in southern Israel proper on Tuesday, to no apparent effect. It will undoubtedly generate some kind of Israeli retaliation but as far as I know that hasn’t happened yet.
The rocket may have been meant to help celebrate Israel’s election—its fourth in less than two years—about which it is far too early to draw any major conclusions. Early exit polling suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have a very narrow path toward maintaining his grip on power. It looked like Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its coalition partners had secured 53-54 Knesset seats, close enough to a 61 seat majority that Netanyahu only needed to win over former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s far right Yamina alliance (which may have secured 7-8 seats) to secure it. This may still be the case, but subsequent exit polling has shifted the narrative from “slim Netanyahu victory” to “continued stalemate.”
The array of “anti-Netanyahu” forces, led by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, may have won 59 seats, just two shy of a majority. But there’s no obvious path for them to obtain those last two seats short of winning Bennett over to their side, and even if they can do that there’s so much ideological diversity under the “anti-Netanyahu” umbrella that it’s virtually impossible to imagine all the parties coalescing into a workable governing coalition. At this point if I had to guess I would say Israel has just experienced yet another inconclusive election. But we’ll see.
Speaking of elections, the Palestinian Authority will be holding one in May, barring a postponement or cancellation, and new polling from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows that neither of the two main contenders, Fatah and Hamas, will be be able to win the election outright. The survey shows both parties at around 30 percent (Hamas perhaps a bit lower), a far cry from a majority. Fatah’s standing is hurt badly by the existence of splinter groups led by former party members Mohammed Dahlan and Nasser al-Kidwa, as polling shows a unified Fatah slate would garner around 43 percent of the vote. Fatah would likely have an easier time forming a coalition than Hamas and some kind of “unity” government is not out of the question.
196,709 confirmed cases (+648)
11,680 reported fatalities (+43)
A massive Taiwanese-owned cargo ship has reportedly run aground inside the Suez Canal, creating major traffic jams at both ends of the waterway. This doesn’t really seem like a major global emergency but it could wind up being a pretty massive inconvenience for global shipping, and anyway if you click that link there are some wild photos of the situation that you may enjoy.
13,308 confirmed cases (+0)
90 reported fatalities (+0)
It seems that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has not provably been seen in public since March 5. I say “provably” because Rahmon’s government has issued videos of his alleged activities since then, but there’s no indication when those videos were filmed. Nowruz is a big public deal in Tajikistan and it’s out of character for Rahmon to miss it like this, so there’s a decent chance he’s either ill or no longer among us.
56,192 confirmed cases (+15)
2466 reported fatalities (+0)
According to Reuters, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is aiming to undermine the Biden administration’s Afghan peace process roadmap by presenting his own peace plan and calling for new elections in six months. Ghani may unveil his proposal at a peace conference scheduled to be held in Turkey next month, but only if that conference is also attended by senior Taliban leadership. Ghani’s call for an early election, if accepted by the Taliban and contingent on a ceasefire, would forestall US plans to install an unelected interim government to oversee the peace process. The Taliban have shown no interest in elections and actively oppose a ceasefire so it seems unlikely they’d find this plan acceptable.
633,741 confirmed cases (+3270)
13,935 reported fatalities (+72)
A motorcycle bombing killed at least three people and wounded 13 more in the Pakistan town of Chaman on Tuesday. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which seems to have been intended to target a passing Pakistani police vehicle. Chaman is a heavily used crossing point into and out of Afghanistan so in some ways it’s fortunate the death toll wasn’t higher.
142,264 confirmed cases (+18)
3204 reported fatalities (+0)
Myanmar security forces shot and killed a seven year old girl in the city of Mandalay on Tuesday after opening fire on a group of anti-junta protesters. Police apparently targeted the girl’s father, in his home, but hit her instead. She is the youngest of the over 260 people (by outside estimates) security forces have killed since last month’s coup. The junta has defended itself by arguing that the protesters are themselves instigating violence, pointing to the alleged deaths of nine members of the security forces to make their case.
90,115 confirmed cases (+9) on the mainland, 11,410 confirmed cases (+12) in Hong Kong
4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 204 reported fatalities (+1) in Hong Kong
Both the French and German governments summoned China’s ambassadors in their countries on Tuesday to complain about sanctions Beijing imposed on several European Union citizens a day earlier. Yes, it does take some gall for these two governments to criticize China for this given that the Chinese government was retaliating for EU sanctions. I guess sanctions are only supposed to go in one direction. China’s foreign ministry, by the way, also summoned several foreign diplomats on Tuesday to complain about the new Western sanctions.
No acknowledged cases
The North Korean military reportedly tested some short-range missiles over the weekend, possibly in a fit of anger over US-South Korean military exercises. Far be it from me to tell the folks at the Washington Post how to do their jobs but I’m really not sure I would categorize this as a “challenge” to the Biden administration, since North Korea also tested short-range weaponry several times while the Trump administration was in office, despite all the comity between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. It doesn’t even appear that the North Koreans heavily publicized this test, which is why we’re only hearing about it days later, and that doesn’t sound very “challenging” to me. Apparently the Biden administration agrees with me, because US officials seem to be downplaying the seriousness of this test.
153,411 confirmed cases (+901)
2564 reported fatalities (+51)
The government that’s been controlling eastern Libya during the country’s civil war handed power over to the new interim national unity government led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Tuesday. That leaves Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity as the only game in town, so to speak, since it had already officially supplanted the government in western Libya last week. It’s now tasked with shepherding the country through an election in December, which may involve holding a referendum on a new constitution sometime between now and then.
162,076 confirmed cases (+208)
2031 reported fatalities (+1)
Although recent attacks targeting Nigerian schools have taken place well outside Boko Haram’s stomping grounds in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state, journalist Philip Obaji sees the group’s handiwork in those incidents:
Boko Haram was once largely unknown outside of Nigeria until its militants infamously abducted 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state in 2014, triggering the viral hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The global campaign was embraced by prominent celebrities and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, at last drawing international attention to the militant group’s insurgency in the country’s northeastern region. While 82 girls were released in May 2017, 112 abductees have still not returned home. Some are presumed to be dead. And efforts to propel the kidnappings into the global limelight haven’t slowed the jihadist group down.
Just recently, the kidnapping of approximately 300 girls in Nigeria’s northwestern Zamfara state on Feb. 26 and the abduction of 27 students from an all-boys college in north-central Niger state one week earlier, was attributed by regional governments to criminal gangs or “bandits”—but the attacks bear all the hallmarks of Boko Haram abductions. The group is likely to continue targeting schools because the attacks help it weaken state security forces while gaining publicity and funding in the form of ransoms.
I think Obaji is right to question the reflex to attribute these attacks to faceless, ideologically-vacant groups of “bandits,” but I’m not sure it necessarily follows that Boko Haram itself is responsible. The group could be working with and/or advising criminal gangs in northwestern Nigeria, or maybe those gangs just figured out what Boko Haram already knew—that kidnapping pays and that schools in Nigeria are very easy targets.
190,594 confirmed cases (+1692)
2693 reported fatalities (+19)
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made two relatively anti-climactic admissions on Tuesday—one, that Eritrean soldiers have been operating in Ethiopia’s Tigray region since last November’s war between Abiy’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation front; and two, that those Eritrean soldiers, as well as Ethiopian personnel, have committed “atrocities” against Tigrayan civilians. Neither is exactly breaking news, but it’s significant that even Abiy has realized he needs to come clean, though he also accused TPLF remnants of exaggerating the extent of the atrocities. Abiy insisted that his government will investigate reports of abuses by Ethiopian forces and intimated that he would prefer not to have the Eritrean military in Tigray, though it’s unclear whether that means he never invited them or that he invited them but now feels they’ve overstayed their welcome.
REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
9564 confirmed cases (+0)
134 reported fatalities (+0)
Speaking of anti-climaxes, results made public on Tuesday show that Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso won reelection in Sunday’s contest with a whopping 88 percent of the vote, amid over 67.5 percent turnout. The margin may well be accurate but the turnout seems possibly exaggerated, given that the opposition mostly boycotted the vote. Nevertheless, the particulars matter less than the overall outcome, which was assured well before the first ballot was cast.
1,565,732 confirmed cases (+11,476)
30,431 reported fatalities (+333)
Georgetown’s Anatol Lieven argues that it’s time for the West to stop selling weapons to Ukraine and raising the likelihood of a military conflict in which it would almost certainly hang Kyiv out to dry:
The Biden administration needs to make a strategy of crisis prevention its top priority in dealing with Russia. For if the frozen conflict in Ukraine again becomes an actual war, the West would not intervene, and the Ukrainians would lose — an outcome both humiliating and dangerous for the United States, which has portrayed Ukraine as an important partner.
Simply put, the Georgia-Russia War of 2008 should teach us that to arm other countries for war with more powerful neighbors when you have no intention of fighting to save them is not only irresponsible, it is deeply immoral.
Lieven believes the likeliest flashpoint for a Russia-Ukraine conflict isn’t in Ukraine, it’s in Moldova. Specifically, any Ukrainian attempt to cut the lines of contact between Russia and pro-Russia separatists in Moldova’s Transnistria region would probably trigger a Russian military response. The West likely would not intervene, shattering Ukraine’s hopes and potentially sending a message to other small nations in the orbit of regional hegemons around the world, and no I’m not specifically talking about Taiwan but now that you mention it that’s a pretty good example.
350,551 confirmed cases (+1281)
9190 reported fatalities (+86)
Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová called for Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s resignation on Tuesday to try to end the discord that’s destabilizing Matovič’s governing coalition. Matovič has already offered to resign, though he made his resignation contingent on several guarantees, including that he would be given another cabinet post and that Sulík would be removed from his post. On Monday Economy Minister Richard Sulík resigned, fulfilling the latter demand. Justice Minister Mária Kolíková resigned on Tuesday in what is beginning to look like an exodus from the cabinet, and more may follow unless Matovič steps down. Which means Slovakia may be on the verge of a snap election.
12,136,615 confirmed cases (+84,996)
298,843 reported fatalities (+3158)
The Brazilian Supreme Court handed another major legal victory to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Tuesday, ruling that former judge Sergio Moro had been “biased” in adjudicating the 2017 corruption case against Lula. They consequently threw out significant pieces of evidence that had been used to secure Lula’s conviction, meaning that any effort to retry him will be severely hampered. A judge annulled that conviction earlier this month, potentially (pending an appeal that may now be impossible) opening the door for Lula to challenge incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro in next year’s election. The ruling may create a precedent that enables multiple people convicted under the “Operation Car Wash” anti-corruption drive to challenge those convictions.
30,636,534 confirmed cases (+58,705)
556,883 reported fatalities (+936)
Finally, if you’re a fan of the military-industrial complex then you’ll absolutely love what TomDispatch’s Todd Miller says is developing along the US-Mexican border:
I’ve been coming to this stretch of border since 2001. I’ve witnessed its incremental disfigurement during the most dramatic border fortification period in this country’s history. In the early 2000s came an influx of Border Patrol agents, followed in 2007 by the construction of a 15-foot wall (that Senator Joe Biden voted for), followed by high-tech surveillance towers, courtesy of a multi-billion-dollar contract with the Boeing Corporation.
Believe me, the forces that shaped our southern border over the decades have been far more powerful than Donald Trump or any individual politician. During the 2020 election, it was commonly asserted that, by getting rid of Trump, the United States would create a more humane border and immigration system. And there was a certain truth to that, but a distinctly limited one. Underneath the theater of partisan politics, there remains a churning border-industrial complex, a conjunction of entrenched interests and relationships between the U.S. government — particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — and private corporations that has received very little attention.
The small border town of Sasabe and its surrounding region is a microcosm of this.
The cumulative force of that complex will now carry on in Trump’s wake. Indeed, during the 2020 election the border industry, created through decades of bipartisan fortification, actually donated more money to the Biden campaign and the Democrats than to Trump and the Republicans.