Local Lebanese media reported on Monday 10 August that Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab is set to resign within hours after the entire government stepped down. This comes as anti-government protesters continue to demand political change after last week’s explosion in Beirut, which killed more than 160 people and injured around 6,000.
The 4 August port warehouse detonation of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city, compounding months of political and economic turmoil. Sources have indicated that the cabinet, which was formed back in January, was due to meet on Monday, with a number of ministers wanting to resign. The information and environment ministers resigned on Sunday, along with several lawmakers. On Monday, state-run National News Agency reported, citing the conduct of the government in the aftermath of last week’s blast, that Justice Minister Marie Claude Najm had reassigned earlier in the day.
The South China Sea is developing into a perfect storm for potential conflict as an unwitting host of competing claims and counterclaims of ownership – involving China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia – heightens the risk of a miscalculation, and military conflict. Couple that with America’s foreign policy of naval patrols and air reconnaissance missions in the disputed area, under the freedom of Navigation principle. As China and America play-out their rivalry and tensions in multiple arenas, amid the backdrop of China’s South-East Asian neighbours, wary of Beijing’s increasing assertion of its geo-political, military, economic, and diplomatic heft, there is little doubt that the South China Sea is a metaphor that brings it all to the boil.
Analysts have noted that in the grip of a global pandemic, China has sought to establish a dominant position in the area. In the last few months, Beijing has announced plans to carry out military drills in August that simulate the capture of the Dongsha Islands – which Taiwan currently controls. The New York Times also reports of allegations that China’s Coast Guard Vessel “rammed and sank” a Vietnamese fishing boat. Beijing has been accused of “stalking” a Malaysian oil vessel in waters belonging to Malaysia. The Philippines lodged a formal diplomatic compliant of a warship, purportedly Chinese, said to be pointing its radar system at a Philippine Naval Vessel. There have been reports of Chinese fishing boats turning-up in the Natuna Islands. This is an area that is internationally recognised as being part of Indonesia’s economic exclusive zone, but Chinese trawlers, backed by Chinese Coastal guard units, chase-out Indonesian fishers. The Chinese Foreign ministry sees the matter differently:
“Whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters,” is the official rejoinder.
Maps produced by China lay claim to large swathes of the South China Sea through its self-styled “Nine-Dash line”. An International Tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines in its disputes over the Spratly Islands. The Arbitration Tribunal established that China’s “Nine-Dash Line” interpretation has no legality in international law. Beijing rejected the Tribunal’s ruling. That begs the question: of what significance are these waters? The South China Sea holds a strategic allure: first, as a vital shipping lane for global trade. It is estimated that one-third of global trade flows through these waters. The South China Sea is also reported to be rich in natural resources, including petroleum and gas, which crystalizes the geo-political tussle over its ownership.
“I think it’s fair to say we’re on the front line,” said Evan A. Laksmana, a senior researcher and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “If China feels it needs to provide some retribution of some kind, if we are seen as escalating, Southeast Asia would be looked at first.” There have been calls for ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia to beef up its military security in the face of not only China’s claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, but its building of military bases and research stations on artificial reefs.
There is no doubt China holds considerable clout in South East Asia. Indonesia calls China its biggest trading partner. Philippines, under the leadership of Rodrigo Duterte has made the pivot from America to the embrace of China to benefit from its investments, trade, and further potential economic ties. The consequence of accommodating a Chinese economic hegemony, or call it the stick and carrot approach is what Professor Alexander Vuving of Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu means when he says: “The Chinese want to create a new normal in the South China Sea, where they are in charge, and to do that they’ve become more and more aggressive.”
America under President Trump has held a more hawkish China policy than recent US administrations and that has led to clashes over trade, telecoms giant Huwawei, Covid-19, and the security status of Hong Kong. The upshot is South East Asian countries, and China will be competing for strategic control of the South China Sea. For America, Beijing’s disputes with its neighbours offers the perfect context – for lack of a better description: to duke-out what many analysts have predicted will be the defining rivalry of the 21st century. It is quite ironic that there is scarcely any acceptable mechanism for arbitration to this geo-political powder keg involving naked display of might and ambition of a rising power, and a perfect excuse for intervention by an established one. I guess this script has déjà vu written all over it.
On June 23, 2020, Malawians cast their vote for a new president in fresh polls that facilitated a rerun of the highly contended presidential election results from the May 2019 poll. This election was significant for the precedent it stood to create in relation to the country of Malawi and the continent of Africa.
The dual significance of the election results was that they were a moment of firsts for both Malawi and Africa. A first election in Malawi that was the result of intervention from the judiciary which the opposition also went on to win. This represents another watershed moment in the democratisation process in Malawi. For Africa, Malawi is the only country on the continent to have achieved such a feat, the only other country to have come close is Kenya in 2017- although the incumbent won the election rerun. This is a highly symbolic victory which gives other opposition parties in Africa the hope that they too could set precedents in their own countries. Well wishes from current and former opposition leaders in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe attest to this. More importantly, in the wider context Malawi’s astounding results at its second go at the presidential elections is a welcome break away from the worrying trend of elections in Africa that seem to further entrench authoritarianism rather than further the democratisation process.
The election results follow a landmark ruling from February 2020 where the constitutional court annulled the presidential election results from 21 May 2019. Fresh elections were ordered to be held within 150 days, according to the court ruling. The court also judged that the first-past-the post system was unconstitutional; a gain of more than 50% would be required in future elections. That ruling in of itself represented a watershed moment in Malawi’s history because the May 2019 election was the first to be legally challenged since Malawi’s independence in 1964 and all future elections would not be contested in the same manner which has implications for how political parties will contest elections and possibly make alliances, as evidenced by the June 2020 elections. This was significant because it demonstrated that the judiciary could be politically impartial, and more importantly could make and enforce a judgment that would not be undermined or ignored by the president or ruling party as has been the case in some African countries when it comes to court rulings. The months of unrest and instability, even after the constitutional court ruling demonstrated the vested interests many Malawians, particularly some sections of its civil society had in ensuring that this historic ruling and moment would not be lost or wasted by attempts to undermine and reverse the ruling; calling the months since last year’s election “the year of mass protests”. This period was notably marked by former President Peter Mutharika’s attempts to reverse the constitutional court ruling with stalling tactics such as his refusal to assent to Parliament’s electoral reform bills and rejecting the recommendation to fire the MEC commissioners, including launching appeals to challenge the ruling from February 2020. This period has been a threat to Malawi’s long-cherished domestic stability. A petrol bomb thrown into the opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM) party headquarters on May 5, 2020, killed three innocent people. While largely peaceful, ongoing protests since the announcement of the 2019 election have, on occasion, turned violent with stores being looted and cars set on fire. Police have arrested over 200 people in connection with these crimes. Police have also been accused of sexually assaulting 17 women while cracking down on post-election protests.
The June 2020 elections resulted in the opposition led by Lazarus Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) winning 2.6 million of the 4 million votes cast, which represents about 59%. Contrastingly, the incumbent Peter Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) only managed to secure 1.7 million votes, which is about 39%. After 26 years in opposition Chakwera’s MCP party unseated the incumbent DPP to win the presidency in a united 9-party coalition, the Tonse Alliance, that also included Saulos Chilima who was Chakwera’s running mate and formerly Mutharika’s vice president until he left the DPP in 2018 to form the United Transformation Movement. Chilima has been widely credited as having played a critical role in both Mutharika and Chakwera’s successful campaigns for the presidency, his savvy marketing strategy and ability to appeal to voters in all regions of the country is what arguably makes him kingmaker of sorts in the Malawian political landscape. Traditionally Malawian elections have historically shown regionalised and ethnic voting patterns, with presidential candidates drawing on compartmentalised strongholds, therefore Chilima’s ability to generate a crossover appeal was a critical advantage in the Chakwera camp.
Ultimately Malawi’s second go at the elections represented a strong political will to implement and deliver democracy at all costs, including the total neglect to maintain preventative measures to halt the spread of coronavirus as large rallies were held all over the country, with little social distancing in sight. Furthermore, the events that led up to the elections and the subsequent result is perhaps the amalgamation of deep-rooted frustrations with a struggling economy, rampant corruption and lack of police reform that are yet to be addressed in a meaningful way, and this will be one of Chakwera’s greatest challenges in his presidency.
Although Malawi’s elections present a welcome break away from some of the more problematic aspects of African politics and its electoral processes, this result is probably more meaningful in the Malawian context in terms of tangible gains and a symbolic victory in the African context. The Malawi example presents an insightful case study of how meaningful democracy, rather than mere window dressing, can be implemented with integrity when the political will is sufficient, however it is perhaps ambitious to assert that the Malawi example can replicated in other African countries in the same manner. There are a variety of factors in the Malawi case that are not necessarily the same in other African countries which brought about the results of the 23 June 2020 rerun, there is no one-size- fits- all process when it comes to democratisation in Africa. Although a lot of credit has been given to sustained pressure from civil society in order to bring out Malawi’s electoral result and on 21 May 2020 the resignation of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), Jane Ansah- how the civil society is made up and operates in separate countries is not ubiquitous. Further to this there are other demographic factors such as the history of a country and its political parties and how this in turn influences the political economy of the electoral and general political landscape. Another relatively exceptional contributory factor is that Mutharika was unable to utilise the Malawi Defence Forces (MDF) to antagonise dissenters, leading him to fire General Vincent Ndundwe in March 2020 after Ndundwe was perceived to have ‘protected’ anti-government protestors. The MDF is regarded as an institution which can be counted on to uphold the constitution in times of political crisis. Malawi has been an exception for decades in a continent where armies often prop up governments, crush dissent and interfere in mainstream politics.
Malawi’s presidential election rerun, and its results have a more significant impact nationally than they do regionally, mainly because of the difficulty in replicating a similar set of events in another Africa country- owing to the range of individual country factors that are usually not ubiquitous. The highly charismatic personalities such as Saulos Chilima who are viewed as authentic and trustworthy by the electorate, have long been in embedded in the political fabric of Malawi and his strategic contribution is among a list of catalysts that have been part of an ongoing process which has eventually led to the 23 June 2020 outcome. Malawi’s exceptional results in the presidential election rerun is a demonstration of its democracy maturing. It stands as an encouraging positive example in the African continent , particularly for opposition parties, that where the political and public will for democratic integrity is present, change or at least steps to change are in the realm of possibility.
In a report, Amnesty International stated that police enforcing COVID-19 lockdowns across Europe disproportionately targeted ethnic minority and marginalized groups with violence, discriminatory identity checks, forced quarantines and fines. “Police violence and concerns about institutional racism are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic and coercive enforcement of the resulting lockdowns have exposed just how prevalent they are. The triple threats of discrimination, unlawful use of force and police impunity must be urgently tackled in Europe,” Marco Perolini, Amnesty International’s Western Europe Researcher, said.
Asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants in camps and shared accommodation were targeted in selective quarantines in Serbia. Serbia placed them under a strict 24-hour mandatory quarantine and deployed the military to monitor the curfew. The governments in Bulgaria and Slovakia brought in mandatory quarantines on Roma settlements, actions which Amnesty International called discriminatory. Over 50,000 Roma in Bulgaria were cut off and suffered severe food shortages under mandatory quarantines. The median income in Roma neighbourhoods also dropped by 61 percent between March and May 2020 according to a survey listed by AI. In Slovakia the military was tasked to enforce them. AI stated that the military is not suitable to carry out public health measures and should only be used in law enforcement settings where there is a clear reason showing that regular police officers are insufficient. No such reason existed in these cases, AI said.
An analysis by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP), “The Security Sector in the State of Emergency: Testing Democracy”, stated that “During the 52 days it spent in a state of emergency, Serbia failed the test of democracy, thanks to a series of failings and irregularities in the conduct and control of the security sector”. It states that the police did not always conduct themselves professionally, proportionately or as politically neutral agents who are primarily concerned with citizens’ needs and rights. The BCSP also writes that the Serbian Armed Forces “took on public security assignments for which it lacks training and clear procedures, which proved to be a problem particularly when it came to securing refugee and asylum centres”. Soldiers armed with automatic rifles have been seen patrolling the streets of the capital Belgrade and other cities throughout the lockdown. Their presence and the unclear rules of their engagement has raised concerns about compliance with international law on the use of force. Amnesty International recommended that military forces should only be deployed if properly instructed and trained to comply with human rights, and that they be subject to civilian command and oversight. Furthermore, Serbia has had one of the strictest lockdowns as it banned residents in centres for refugees and migrants from leaving at all, except in medical circumstances.
Meanwhile migrant camps in Bulgaria were heavily policed, with authorities even using drones with thermal sensors to take temperature of residents in Roma settlements in some municipalities. While drones have been used in other European countries, Bulgaria selectively targeted the Roma population. Marinov, Minister of the Interior, threatened to implement even more coercive measures “to protect the general population” if Roma failed to comply with the social distancing measures. Furthermore, members of government have on occasions engaged in discriminatory speech. The Bulgarian National Movement party referred to Roma as a collective threat that needs to be “controlled and contained”. In response, on May 13 two UN human rights experts called on Bulgaria to stop using hate speech against Roma in its response to COVID-19 and halt police operations targeting Roma neighbourhoods. Furthermore, Amnesty International said that such coercive approaches contradict evidence-based public health best practice. According to AI, a more effective response to this health crisis is grounded in respect of human rights, including policies that increase trust in authorities. Conferring further powers to the police should be a last resort, and less restrictive measures that encourage compliance with restrictions should be tried first. Furthermore, imposing prison sentences will probably exacerbate public health problems as the risk of COVID-19 spreading in certain prisons and other places of detention is elevated.
Five Roma settlements were placed under mandatory quarantine in Slovakia which were enforced by both police and military. While authorities argued this was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Roma settlements had already been subjected to increased policing in recent years. The Slovak government has been criticised for testing Roma locations and imposing quarantines without providing them with the necessary means to protect themselves, such as providing access to water and sanitation. The residents have also complained about unlawful use of force by police officers during the pandemic and that they were not given information about the conditions and duration of the quarantine. Serious cases of unlawful use of force in addition to allegations of ill-treatment of Roma by police has also been reported in Romania. One video showed police beating Roma men as they lay handcuffed on the ground. After several such incidents, the European Roma Rights Centre raised concerns about the police violence against Roma that occurred in the context of COVID-19 emergency measures.
It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is an exceptional situation wherein states may be required to adopt extraordinary measures. In fact, international law allows the use of emergency powers necessary to protect the right to health in such circumstances. Such measures should however be based on credible scientific evidence and be grounded in legitimate public health goals. They should not target certain groups of people, nor be overly intrusive or left without proper oversight. Yet we have seen several examples of this occurring in eastern European countries. Lockdown measures have disproportionately restricted minority groups’ human rights. Disproportionate restrictions on freedom of movement of ethnic minority groups and refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, with no evidence of them presenting an objective threat to public health or security puts unnecessary and disproportionate burdens on these people. While authorities have tried to justify such measures by arguing that these people were not complying with social distancing rules, it is near impossible for them to comply in absence of support, especially those living in poverty. Furthermore, law enforcement officials have responded to people breaking curfews and restrictions on freedom of movement by using excessive force.
In response to these issues, AI recommended that European states explicitly prohibit discrimination, including a system of disciplinary measures for law enforcement officials who breach the prohibition of discrimination; refrain from coercively enforcing lockdown measures and from giving law enforcement officials further powers; implement accountability mechanisms to ensure investigations of allegations of unlawful use of force by police; end discriminatory forced quarantines of Roma settlements; and review penalties imposed for non-compliance with lockdown measures, including cancelling fines against people who are not able to comply with measures because of their socio-economic status. If these recommendations are implemented, the disproportionate effect COVID-19 measures have had on minority groups, asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants can be mitigated.
Yemen’s second front: examining the division between Yemen’s government and separatists in the south of Yemen.July 9, 2020 in Uncategorized
On the 19th of June clashes erupted between Yemen’s internationally recognised government, backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Southern Transitional Council, separatists in Yemen’s south backed by the United Arab Emirates, in the Island of Socotra for a second time this year as both sides battled for control over Hadibu, the islands provincial capital. The fighting occurred after the STC’s forces dispatched large military reinforcements to Hadibu in an attempt to wrest control of the Island from the government. According to reports the STC took control of the Socotra security directorate in the western area of the provincial capital. Figures regarding casualties have not been reported. The last clash between the STC and Yemeni government in the Island of Socotra took place on the 1st of May as an armed unit loyal to the STC fought for control of Hadibu. On the 14th of June, the STC seized a convoy carrying 64 billion Yemeni riyals or hundreds of millions of dollars. The large sum of money came from Russia, where the bank notes were printed, and was on its way to the central bank of the Yemeni government in Aden, the government’s interim capital. The STC commandeered the vehicle as it was leaving the port of Aden. Fighting also took place on the 11th may in the southern Abyan province and lasted for roughly a week as government troops launched an offensive to expel the STC from southern provinces. More than a dozen people were reportedly killed in the fighting. The division between the two sides is considered another front in Yemen’s multifaceted war. Both sides are members of the Saudi led coalition fighting the Iran-Backed Houthis rebels to the north of the country making them nominal allies. However, since 2017 their division has created tensions causing fighting between the two sides as each party seeks to dominate southern Yemeni provinces hindering coalition efforts to defeat the Houthis rebels.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC) is a successionist organization in Yemen’s south backed by the United Arab Emirates. It was formed by a faction within the Southern Movement which works towards the succession of the south from the rest of Yemen. The twenty-six-member council include governors of several provinces in the south of the country in addition to two government ministers. The STC was formed as a response to a presidential decree in 2017 given by the president of the internationally recognised government of Yemen Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi dismissing Aidarus al-Zoubaidi from his post as governor of Aden due to his close ties with the UAE. With the backing of the UAE, the STC was formed and al-Zoubaidi became its president. On the 28th of January 2018 forces loyal to the STC seized control of several government headquarters in Aden in a coup against the government announcing that the STC was starting the process of overthrowing Hadi’s rule in the south. At least ten people were killed and thirty wounded in the fighting. In August 2019, accusing the government of mismanagement and corruption, the STC took full control of Aden and Abyan provinces. On the 22nd of August the southern separatists clashed with government forces in the southern, oil-producing, province of Shabwa. By the 27th of August 2019 tensions continued to escalate in southern Yemen after the UAE backed Security Belt Forces (SBF) lost territories to Hadi’s forces. Government troops advanced on Aden but took positions outside of the city instead of engaging in street fighting to avoid civilian casualties. On the 29th of august 2019 the UAE carried out airstrikes targeting those Yemeni government positions to halt the advance of government forces. The UAE, a coalition member in the fight against the Iran backed Houthis, fell out with the Hadi government accusing Hadi of being aligned with the Islah party, a powerful party considered to be ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In September 2019, Saudi Arabia brokered an agreement between the government and the STC in Riyadh which was signed on the 5th of November 2019. As per the agreement, the STC’s forces in Abyan, Shabwa and Aden were to return to their original positions prior to their advances into these provinces. Their places would be taken up by local security forces within 15 days. Military and security forces in Aden would be redeployed outside of the city of Aden. Most importantly, the STC’s forces in the south were to be unified and placed under the defence ministry’s control before being redeployed to fight Houthi rebels. The president would then appoint a prime minister who would form a cabinet that included STC members. Essentially, this agreement was supposed to place the STC’s forces under the government’s control. But by late 2019, it was clear that the agreement was not being implemented on the ground. On January 1st 2020 Yemen’s southern separatists pulled out of the committees meant to implement the Riyadh agreement. According to a member of the STC’s presidential council Salim al Awlaqi, in an announcement on Twitter, that the withdrawal from the committees was in response to the violence in Shabwa province which the STC blamed on the Islah party whose forces are, according to Reuters, the backbone of the internationally recognised government’s forces. On the 26th of April 2020 the STC announced that a self-rule administration in regions under their control would be established. The group, in a statement, declared a state of emergency and said it would “self-govern” the key port city of Aden as well as other southern provinces accusing the Yemeni government once again of corruption and mismanagement. The government claimed that the move would have catastrophic consequences and that it amounted to a withdrawal from the 2019 Riyadh agreement. On the 18th of June 2020 Saudi Arabia proposed a framework to end the latest standoff between the nominal allies in the war against the Houthi rebels as violence surged between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis who currently control Yemen’s official capital Sanaa. The proposal is similar to the 2019 RIaydh agreement in that it calls for a ceasefire, particularly in Abyan province, and for a unity government to be formed by a prime minister appointed by Hadi which includes STC members. Saudi efforts yielded fruit. By the 22nd of June 2020 the Yemeni government and the STC agreed to a ceasefire and to begin talks to implement not the new Saudi framework but the 2019 Riyadh agreement.
The security implications resulting from fighting between the Yemeni government and the STC are significant particularly with regard to the Saudi-led efforts to defeat the Houthis in Yemen. Houthi cross border attacks via drones and missiles launched toward Saudi Arabia have only increased since the division between the government and the separatists started and are becoming more advanced. On the 23rd of June 2020 Houthis rebels claimed to have carried out their largest military operation ever against Saudi Arabia targeting the Saudi defence ministry and a military base in Riyadh. Houthi claims are corroborated by reports that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen shot down a large number of missiles and booby-trapped drones fired from Houthi-held Sanaa. Furthermore, despite the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts, the Houthi group have only increased their territory since the start of 2020. On the 1st of March, already in control of Sanaa, Houthi rebels seized the city of Hazm, capital of the Jawf province after weeks of intense fighting in a major blow to the coalition. The fall of Hazm means that the group is drawing nearer to the central province of Marib approaching the south where the Saudi backed government and the UAE backed STC have been fighting for dominance. Houthis then captured strategic areas within Marib including SIrwah and Tabab al-Bara allowing a tighter control over the strategic Tala Hamra hills. Prior to this, on January 28th 2020, the rebels seized a key supply line linking Marib with Jawf located along the border with Saudi Arabia. Infighting within the coalition has only helped such strategic gains by the Houthis. Furthermore, the division between the Yemeni government and the STC have highlighted strategic differences and clashing interests between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Abu Dhabi withdrew the bulk of its forces from the conflict in Yemen in late 2019 after it ensured its local allies including the STC, are practically in control of most of the south allowing Abu Dhabi access to the area’s naval facilities essential for its strategic plans to control bases from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Saudi Arabia is not only concerned about the withdrawal of a key partner in the conflict but also has to deal with the southern threat to the Yemeni government the UAE leaves behind and continues to support creating tensions between the two Gulf states which are not only allies in Yemen but on various fronts to contain Iranian influence in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. Yemen’s second front prolongs the continuing five-year multifaceted war in Yemen. The country has been embroiled in civil war since the capture of Sanaa by the Houthis in 2014. Over 100,000 people have been killed in the war and millions suffer from medical and food shortages creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.