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World roundup: May 31 2022
Stories from Mali, Ukraine, Colombia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 31, 1223: The Battle of the Kalka River
May 31, 1902: The Treaty of Vereeniging brings an end to the Second Boer War. In effect the Boer states (the Transvaal and the Orange Free State) surrendered in exchange for an amnesty and a British pledge that, after a period of postwar military control, both states would be allowed to transition to the status of self-governing colonies. Presumably it will not come as a great surprise to learn that the parties agreed to put off any discussion of Black enfranchisement until after the colonies had achieved self-governing status, or in other words indefinitely. It should also not come as a surprise to learn that when they were granted self-governing status (1906 for the Transvaal and 1907 for the Orange Free State) the issue of Black enfranchisement still didn’t come up. The two colonies did agree to merge into the Union of South Africa in 1910, which gained independence (under the British Commonwealth) in 1931.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
In a sign that nothing will fundamentally change in the wake of Lebanon’s May 15 election, Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri was reelected as speaker of the Lebanese parliament for a seventh consecutive term on Tuesday. Berri’s margin of victory was narrow—he took 65 votes in the 128 seat legislature—which is unusual but probably doesn’t signify groundbreaking political change given that he still won the vote. The 84 year old Berri has been speaker since 1992, and while to say the least it would be overly simplistic to lay all of Lebanon’s political failures at his feet, he is a senior figure in the cadre of Usual Suspects who own most of the responsibility for those failures. His reelection, even by a relatively small margin, indicates that those elites aren’t going anywhere.
The governments of Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed a bilateral free trade agreement on Tuesday. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. The agreement, which is the latest outcome (and arguably the culmination) of the “Abraham Accords” normalization pact the two nations forged (with some help from the Trump administration) in 2020. Optimistic predictions estimate the FTA will boost Israeli-Emirati trade from roughly $1.2 billion last year to over $10 billion within five years, as tariffs are gradually reduced. That the agreement comes two days after the far-right Israeli “Flag March” through eastern Jerusalem—which featured marchers chanting “death to the Arabs” and in at least one case spitting on an elderly Palestinian woman—makes it clear that, while Emirati leaders definitely sold the Palestinian cause out two years ago, at least they did so for a hefty price.
It looks like the Iranian government has been throttling internet service in Khuzestan province since early May, presumably around the time protests over escalating food prices began taking hold provincially and across other parts of Iran. It intensified those internet disruptions following the May 23 collapse of a commercial/residential building in the city of Abadan, the death toll from which now stands at 34 with 37 injured. Protests over the building collapse, which authorities are blaming on an isolated case of malfeasance regarding safety regulations but which demonstrators see as an example of systemic corruption, have spread from Abadan to other cities in the province, and have taken a stridently anti-government tone.
The International Atomic Energy Agency released a new report on Monday declaring that Iranian officials have not provided “technically credible” answers to lingering questions regarding the discovery of trace enriched uranium at three undeclared sites. Tehran responded on Tuesday by bemoaning the “politicization” of the IAEA’s reporting on Iran’s nuclear program. That’s really more of a non-response, but you get the idea. Adding more controversy to the Iran-IAEA relationship, the Israeli government is claiming—based on official documents allegedly smuggled out of Iran by Israeli spies back in 2018—that Iranian officials stole classified IAEA documents around 20 years ago and have been using them to dodge the agency’s inspectors. True or not this allegation will presumably reduce the odds of a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal from “slim” to “none,” or at least to “even slimmer.”
The new “president” of South Ossetia, Alan Gagloev, announced on Monday that he’s scrapping his predecessor’s plan to hold a referendum on annexation to Russia on July 17. He’s doing so at least in part because signals out of Moscow have been conspicuously lukewarm about the idea of such a referendum, which wouldn’t be binding on the Russian government anyway. Upon Gagloev’s election as South Ossetia’s new leader earlier this month, the Russian government talked about maintaining “continuity” in its relationship with the breakaway region—not exactly a message of support for annexation.
Tajik authorities say their security forces killed at least five people on Tuesday in what they’re still categorizing as an “anti-terror operation” in eastern Tajikistan’s restive Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Assuming they’re all members of the Pamiri community, which seems a reasonable assumption, they join at least a couple of dozen Pamiri who had already been killed since the start of this “operation” earlier this month. Despite the Tajik government’s copious use of the “t-word,” which justifies anything and everything by way of response, the operation seems meant to suppress Pamiri opposition to a rumored government plan to divide Gorno-Badakhshan into two provinces and strip both of the region’s autonomous status.
According to Myanmar authorities, at least one person was killed and nine others wounded in a bombing in the city of Yangon on Tuesday. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but officials are unsurprisingly pinning the blast on anti-junta resistance fighters.
Elsewhere, the United Wa State Army, the main security force for Myanmar’s effectively independent Wa state, called on Tuesday for the junta to negotiate with its opponents. The UWSA hasn’t been involved in Myanmar’s civil war, Wa state’s autonomy having been established several years ago, but its input could carry some weight. In particular, the Wa state government’s close ties with China could suggest that they’re delivering this message with the support of the Chinese government, which would likely oblige the junta to listen.
The Philippine government on Tuesday lodged a “diplomatic protest” over the Chinese government’s imposition of a three and a half month fishing ban in waters of the South China Sea that Manila claims as its own maritime territory. The protest is unlikely to have any practical impact on Chinese behavior, but it could make things awkward for Philippine President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. He’s indicated he’ll try to improve relations with China when he assumes office next month. Current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made strengthening relations with Beijing a priority as well, yet he’s leaving office having made no apparent progress on settling the two countries’ long-standing dispute over competing South China Sea claims.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s effort to get Pacific island nations to sign up en masse for a new trade and security arrangement, modeled on Beijing’s recent policing agreement with the Solomon Islands, came up a bit short on Monday. Wang’s virtual meeting with foreign ministers of ten Pacific nations ended with those nations holding off on a decision, at least for now. Wang has, however, been successful in signing bilateral agreements during his Pacific tour. On Tuesday, he and Tongan officials signed a handful of deals for collaborative efforts in areas like policing and fishing. The previous day, Wang and Samoan officials signed a deal promising “greater collaboration” between China and Samoa. Neither party went into any detail beyond that vague headline.
With all races in Australia’s May 21 parliamentary election now projected it appears that new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party has won 77 seats, enough for a sole majority in the 151 seat House of Representatives. The result gives Labor some freedom to maneuver legislatively without the need to maintain a coalition, though as it only controls 26 seats in Australia’s 76 seat Senate it will still need some legislative help in that body. Albanese’s full cabinet should be confirmed sometime this week.
Tunisia’s influential UGTT union announced on Tuesday that it’s calling for a nationwide strike on June 16 to protest an International Monetary Fund-mandated freeze on public sector wages. UGTT represents over 1 million workers at various state-owned enterprises and this strike could fuel increasing opposition to Tunisian President Kais Saied’s seizure of power. That opposition has been growing as much over perceptions that Saied is ignoring the ailing Tunisian economy as over concerns about his assumption of near-dictatorial political authority.
A new United Nations report issued Monday records some 320 human rights abuses attributable to Malian security forces in the first quarter of 2022, up from just 31 such abuses in the last quarter of 2021. It further finds that 543 people were killed amid Mali’s ongoing conflict against jihadist groups in the first quarter of 2022, up from 128 the previous quarter. That includes people killed by the jihadists themselves as well as militias and other armed groups, but the report attributed 248 of those killings to official Malian security forces. The report implies that Malian security forces have given up on human rights as they’ve traded French/European Union military support for Russian mercenaries, though it doesn’t explicitly talk about the foreign angle.
Anglophone separatist militants apparently attacked a village in Cameroon’s Southwest region on Sunday, killing at least 24 people and wounding another 60. As far as I know there’s no confirmation that this attack was carried out by separatists, only claims by local authorities. That said, it’s hard to think of another group in that region who might have carried out an attack like this. The village is close to the Nigerian border but it’s pretty far south for this attack to have been carried out by, say, Boko Haram or ISWAP.
Elsewhere, Cameroonian security forces reportedly freed a number of hostages taken by anglophone separatists in a raid in the country’s Northwest region on Monday. Among the captives rescued were a Cameroonian senator. Authorities say the raid “neutralized” somewhere around 12 militants. It’s unclear whether that figure means they killed 12 militants or includes the three they claim to have captured.
The Eritrean military shelled the town of Sheraro in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region over the weekend, killing one 14 year old child and wounding at least 18 other people. That coincides with a claim by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front that the Eritreans attacked TPLF fighters in the same area, sparking a battle in which the TPLF says its personnel killed more than 300 Eritreans. That claim is unconfirmed and there’s been no comment from Eritrea. The Eritrean military was a major player in the first phase of the Ethiopian civil war, supporting federal forces against the TPLF. But that conflict has been fairly quiet for several weeks, and prior to that the Eritreans had reduced their role. Assuming the TPLF’s narrative of events resembles reality, it’s unclear what prompted the Eritreans to attack.
In news from Russia:
The European Union has finally ironed out its internal disagreement over a Russian oil embargo, announcing on Tuesday a plan to ban imports of Russian oil arriving by sea within the next six to eight months. The embargo exempts imports of Russian oil that arrive via pipeline, a concession to three heavily dependent Russian customers—Czechia, Hungary, and Slovakia. That means it covers around two-thirds of Russian oil sales to Europe, though with fellow pipeline importers Germany and Poland also planning to phase out Russian oil by the end of the year the hope is that this embargo will reduce Russian sales to EU states by as much as 90 percent. Bulgaria, whose refineries at present can only handle Russian oil, also received an exemption until the end of 2024, intended to give it time to convert its refineries to accommodate alternative suppliers.
The impact this embargo has on Russian revenues remains to be seen. Moscow can divert excess supply to other buyers—China and India would be the two most significant. It will likely have to sell at under market price, but given that market price is currently around $123 per barrel (Brent crude) even at a discount that oil will still bring a hefty return. Over a long enough term, though, this could be a significant economic blow.
The oil agreement allowed the EU to move forward on its sixth major package of sanctions against Russia. In addition to the embargo, this package includes the removal of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, from the Swift financial network, as well as bans on three Russian broadcasters and an expansion of the EU’s Russia travel ban/asset freeze blacklist. Also on Tuesday, the Canadian government added 22 individuals and four entities to its sanctions blacklist.
And in Ukraine:
Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk reported on Tuesday that Russian forces are now in control of at least half of that city, which has been the focus of their Donbas offensive for several weeks. Luhansk oblast governor Serhiy Haidai went further, claiming a bit later in the day that the Russians had seized “most” of Severodonetsk. The Russian capture of Severodonetsk would effectively put all of Luhansk oblast in their hands, and the prospect of that outcome has sent thousands of people fleeing the province in recent days. Most are heading to Bakhmut, in Donetsk oblast—which may not be far from a Russian seizure itself—and from there on to Dnipro and points west.
As for the Russians, once Severodonetsk is in their hands they’ll likely look further west to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. That assumes the slow pace of this offensive and its (likely) heavy casualty rate don’t eventually wear the Russian military out the way they seem to have worn the Ukrainians out.
The Biden administration is reportedly close to rolling out its next tranche of arms shipments to Ukraine. This round is likely to include long-range artillery platforms but not long-range ammunition, as Joe Biden has reportedly decided against sending Kyiv weaponry that could in theory strike targets deep inside Russia. What this probably means is that Ukraine will get the Multiple-Launch Rocket System it’s been requesting, but equipped to fire relatively shorter range rockets as opposed to long range missiles. Even that could significantly increase the range at which the Ukrainian military is able to strike its Russian counterpart, potentially putting Russian supply lines at risk.
The question of supplying Ukraine with more powerful weapons systems like the MLRS is at the heart of an rift that’s developing within the pro-Ukraine network, according to The Wall Street Journal. Prominent on one side of the divide are France and Germany, whose governments increasingly view the war as a stalemate and question the rationale of sending advanced weapons that risk extending and/or intensifying the conflict and maintaining what they see as a false hope that Ukraine might recover some or all of the territory it’s lost. The other side features the US, UK, and multiple Central and Eastern European states, who want Russia to suffer a significant defeat in Ukraine either for strategic reasons (the US and UK) or because they fear that they might be next on Moscow’s hit list (those Eastern European states especially).
As expected, Colombia’s presidential election is heading to a runoff on June 19 after Sunday’s first round proved inconclusive. What may be a bit unexpected is the identity of the two candidates who made it to the second round. Leftist Gustavo Petro won the first round with a bit over 40 percent of the vote, consistent with pre-election polling, while his opponent will be businessman, former Bucaramanga mayor, and TikTok celebrity Rodolfo Hernández. Most polls had put former Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez in second place behind Petro, but Hernández had been steadily picking up support and at least one recent survey showed him slipping past Gutiérrez to make it into the second round. However, at a bit over 28 percent of the vote Hernández outperformed all of his pre-election polling.
The outcome indicates a strong dissatisfaction with Colombia’s political elite, as both candidates lie outside the mainstream. Of course, Petro is outside the mainstream because he wants to raise taxes on wealthy Colombians and increase welfare benefits, while Hernández is outside the mainstream because he once openly praised Adolf Hitler and has run a mostly content-free populist campaign via social media, of a type that might be familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to US politics from, say, 2016 to the present.
Although their man won the first round, my impression is that this first round outcome should be discouraging to Petro supporters. Colombia’s political establishment is tilted toward the center-right, and if the 23 percent who voted for Gutiérrez decide they’d prefer a fascist to a leftist then they’ll put Hernández over the top in the runoff. This seems a reasonable prediction, especially given that Gutiérrez immediately endorsed Hernández once it became clear he’d missed out on the runoff. While Petro was outpolling Gutiérrez, the establishment candidate, in a hypothetical runoff, he’s at best polling even with the equally anti-establishment Hernández. Sunday’s outcome sent the Colombian peso and stocks higher in trading on Tuesday, the market undoubtedly thrilled at the possibility of the pro-business fascist becoming president instead of the leftist.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Andrea Mazzarino highlights efforts to calculate the War on Terror’s impact on civilians in America’s many war zones:
One imperative has rested at the core of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I helped found in 2011: to account as accurately as possible for how many people have been killed or injured thanks to the decision of President George W. Bush and crew to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with endless military actions across significant parts of this planet. It’s easy to forget how regularly soldiers kill and maim innocent civilians, sometimes deliberately.
According to our count, by 2022, some 387,000 civilians had been killed thanks to war’s violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Civilian deaths similarly occurred in countries like Somalia where President Biden just redeployed hundreds of American troops in another round of the military offensive against the Islamic terror group al-Shabab (which has grown stronger in these years of all-American violence).
People living where the U.S. has fought have died in their homes and neighborhoods from bombings, shellings, missile attacks, and shootings. They’ve died while shopping for groceries or walking or driving to school or work. They’ve stepped on mines or cluster bombs while collecting wood or farming their fields. Various parties in our conflicts have kidnapped or assassinated people as they went about their everyday lives. Girls and women have purposely been raped as an attack on their communities. Human Rights Watch has documented how, in Afghanistan, parties on all sides of the war on terror, including troops and police allied with the United States, have raped, kidnapped, shot, or tortured civilians, including children.