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Maduro Re-elected for Second Term in Venezuela

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Presidential elections were held in Venezuela on 20thMay 2018 resulting in incumbent Nicolas Mauro, of the United Socialist Party (PSUV), being re-elected for his second six year term having won 67.8% of the votes. With the original election date being scheduled for December 2018, many analysts have called the election a ‘show’ election, with it having the lowest turnout in the country’s democratic history.

Concerns over the elections were openly voiced in the run up to the vote, with concerns over irregularities and changes to the election date being cited by many as well asinternational condemnation and allegations of vote buying and electoral fraud. A number of Venezuelan NGO’s including the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory expressed concerns over the legitimacy of the proposed election. The Human Rights Watch was also quoted in early May as saying the elections in Venezuela had ‘no credibility’. This statement was in part brought about due to Maduro disqualifying the majority of popular leaders of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) and other members of opposition groups from being able to take part in the elections. Back in December 2017, Maduro disqualified a number of opposition groups including Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action from running in the elections due to accusations of boycotting the Mayoral elections. There were legitimate allegations raised regarding the elections, such Maduro offering recipients of state benefits a “prize” if they came out to vote. The prize meant struggling individuals would receive much-needed food and supplies, with the desired outcome being an increasingly reluctant public being compelled to vote for him in order to obtain this prize.

The results of the election have been rejected by a number of groups including the United Nations, the European Union, Lima Group and the Organization of American States. A number of countries have also followed suit, with Canada releasing a statement saying it does not recognise the legitimacy of Venezuela’s presidential election and has since recalled their ambassadors from Caracas in protest. Canada also imposed targeted sanctions on 14 Venezuelan officials in response to what they were calling “illegitimate and anti-democratic presidential elections”.

The fallout from Venezuela’s suspect elections continued, with the EU imposing sanctions on the country in response to the elections.The EU is reportedly preparing to impose more targeted sanctions against officials in the South American country and has made calls for there to be fresh Presidential elections. Reports suggest that the sanctions are expected to be formally adopted at a meeting on June 25 in Luxembourg.This is not the first time of late that the EU has imposed sanctions on the Latin American country. In January 2018, the EU introduced a travel ban and an asset freeze to seven Venezuelan individuals and in November 2017, it also imposed an arms embargo upon the country.

Further adding to Venezuela’s woes, the U.S. imposed further economic sanctions on the country in the week preceding the election. In the lead up to the elections, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio announced that “the world would support the armed forces in Venezuela if they decide to protect the people and restore democracy by removing a dictator” whilst Trump noted that “we have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option”.In response, Maduro expelled the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela and his deputy for allegedly conspiring against the socialist government and trying to sabotage the presidential election.

The Venezuelan Government did invited the UN to observe the process, however they refused the offer stating that by going it would ‘give a veneer of legality to a process that lacks it’. With calls continuing by the Opposition for fresh elections, the negative fallout from the elections looks likely to continue.

Plastic Waste Production

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Almost certainly everyone has seen the National Geographic’s picture of a stork trapped in plastic or have heard the news about the whale that died off the coast of Thailand and the fact that more than 80 plastic bags were swallowed by the mammal.

According to the report of the Association of Plastic Manufacturers, 335 million tonnes of plastic is produced globally a year, which means nearly 1 million ton a day. That is an incredible amount. Half of that amount is produced in Asia. Almost one-third of the global amount is produced in China alone, 4% of it in Japan and 17% is produced by the rest of the Asian countries. Unfortunately, only a fraction of this amount is recycled, the rest is usually dumped in the oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is floating between Hawaii and California, is estimated to be as big as 1.6 million km², which is nearly the size of Indonesia. Plastic pollution is one of the most recent and most deadly threats mankind is facing as it has huge impacts on the life of people and causes problems in nature as well. Currently, countries are trying to tackle the issue on a national level with some multinational initiatives.

In Hong Kong, the food delivery service Deliveroo and Ocean Park have committed to reduce their use of plastic. By the end of the year this partnership aims to make non-plastic packaging options available to all their restaurants worldwide. While Ocean Park teamed-up with more than 800 local restaurants to draw attention to plastic use through schemes like No Straw Friday.

The Indonesian government declared a cooperation with clerics from the country’s two biggest Muslim groups, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, to change consumer behaviour pertaining the use of plastic shopping bags. Jakarta is desperately trying to end its dependency on plastic bags and pledged to reduce its waste volume by 30% by 2025.

In China, a company is providing green canvas bags to people they see walking around carrying a lot of plastic bags to use these instead. Beijing banned supermarkets and retailers from offering free plastic bags a decade ago. Production of bags thinner than 0.025mm is also prohibited. The nationwide campaign cut the number of plastic bags by two thirds according to the National Development and Reform Commission. According to the State Post Bureau, at least 50% of all packing materials used in the courier industry should be degradable and two-thirds of the plastic woven sacks should be replaced with reusable cloth bags by 2020.

One can see that there are countless examples of good initiatives Asia-wide to tackle the issue of plastic waste pollution. The ones mentioned above are just a few examples of how nations try to use the best practices to reduce the production and use of plastic. Yet, it does not provide a solution to the plastic that has already flooded the oceans or dumps. One solution might be the practice already tried in the United Kingdom. In England, plastic is used for roads, which are either entirely or partially made from plastic or composites of plastic with other materials. In Carlisle, a recycled plastic material was involved in the resurfacing of the A7. The plastic used was equivalent to off-setting 500,000 plastic bottles and more than 800,000 single-use plastic carrier bags. According to experiences, roads with plastic are more durable than the traditional roads.

Just imagine of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch disappearing from the ocean and resurfacing as part of the road system in Asia.

Trump, Iran and North Korea – Tangible connections and implications

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Iran and North Korea have long kept an eye on each other’s bilateral relations with the United States. Once card-carrying members of an ‘Axis of Evil,’ whose nuclear ambitions simultaneously brought worldwide diplomatic isolation, economic sanction and public attention, the two countries share lonely experiences that partially inform each other’s sense of diplomatic opportunity. No more so is this the case than with counterproliferation negotiations with the United States  — where settled and unsettled arrangements provide useful indicators of opportunity. “The ironies abound,” therefore, as Robert S. Litwak notes, as President Trump withdrew the United States from the settled 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement (otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in the very same speech in which he referenced his speedy negotiations with North Korea. Indeed, many commentators go on to argue that North Korea’s sense of opportunity is now sizeably altered given Mr Trump’s irreverence for international agreement. 

If we wish to understand the implications of Mr Trump’s decision for U.S.-North Korean diplomacy, however, this argument should not be overstated. President Trump did not, in this instance, display fickleness in his personal commitment to bilateral agreement — he has long made clear his disdain for the 2015 accord and, in clear contrast, regularly displays an eagerness to negotiate with North Korea. Hence Mr Kim’s perception of his counterpart’s credibility is most likely intact and his regime’s sense of opportunity, in the short term, is unlikely to be dramatically affected following U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. Instead, the real damage of Mr Trump’s decision concerns the reliability of the United States to abide by its international agreements — and the real display of fickleness lay with the country as a whole. The importance of U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA for U.S.-North Korean diplomacy therefore rests on the North Korean regime’s short-term and long-term agenda, and whether Mr Kim’s concern is for his regime’s immediate or long-term survival. And even if the regime’s priorities solely concern its long-term future (talk of economic integration between North and South Korea, and U.S. investment, certainly suggests this is plausible), the limitations of its bargaining position may incentivise gambling on long-term U.S. reliability. Hence, any argument that centres on Mr Kim’s altered sense of opportunity following U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA deserves several notches of qualification.

Instead, the more tangible implication of President Trump’s decision pertains to his justification to withdraw the U.S. from the JCPOA — rather than the act of withdrawal itself. By couching his decision in terms of the agreement’s breadth (it does not cover the scope of Iran’s malign activities) and depth (its inspections allow for some low-enriched material and are insufficiently robust), Mr Trump set a very high bar for a future North Korean agreement. Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was forced to concede this fact when asked by Margaret Brennan on CBS’ Face the Nation whether President Trump must reach a better deal with Mr Kim than the one struck by the Obama administration and Iran, replying, “I think that’s the case.” Hence an insufficiently broad North Korean agreement pertaining only to the country’s nuclear programme, or one limited in depth to partial denuclearisation, may face domestic charges of weakness and hypocrisy from opposition members familiar with conservative criticism of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. This high bar is made all the more difficult to reach in light of the C.I.A.’s latest assessment that North Korea does not intend to denuclearise, Mr Trump’s insistence that North Korea is willing to fully denuclearise, and the regime’s penchant for double-crossing nuclear inspectors. In a game of expectations, the president is hardly playing safe.

It should be noted, however, that President Trump is not short of large-scale contradiction and hypocrisy in his public messaging, meaning any ‘sale’ of a North Korean agreement might not accommodate the president’s critique of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Mr Trump’s contradictions survive because they are framed by friendly media outlets as consistent with the president’s agenda, character, victimisation etc., and it is the audience of these outlets — the party-political base — that is the focus of Mr Trump’s sales pitch. Indeed, it is certainly not difficult to imagine how a partial, narrow deal on North Korea might be framed by these outlets and opinion commentators as a ‘win’ for President Trump, following the perceived success of walking away from the JCPOA. 

Yet any sale of a North Korean agreement would surely be constrained by these media commentators’ stated reasoning for Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the JCPOA. For instance, in continuing to focus on the agreement’s admittance of limited low-enriched nuclear material, any future praise for a North Korean agreement that involves partial denuclearisation would likely avoid reference to this partiality. Consequently, within this hypothesis, what might be described as a ‘communications gap’ opens up, where fringes of Mr Trump’s political base remain open to hawkish criticisms of a deal that have not otherwise been refuted. These criticisms may arise following a mid-term election defeat, or they may precede a presidential primary or, indeed, a general election. If given enough momentum within the Republican Party (a big if), they may, under certain conditions, incentivise President Trump to distance himself from a North Korea agreement either before or after its public pronouncement.

If we wish to find a triangular connection between the U.S., Iran and North Korea resulting from President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the best places to start looking are therefore Fox News and other base-friendly conservative media outlets. The ‘sale’ of any future North Korean agreement is indirectly affected by these outlets’ portrayal of Mr Trump’s justification for his withdraw from the JCPOA. Hence there exists a thin but tangible thread connecting Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and the fortune of a U.S.-North Korea agreement. Whilst commentators are therefore quick to draw a connection between the act of withdrawal itself and U.S.-North Korean diplomacy, a more immediate, tangible connection between Iran, the United States and North Korea can be found in the justifications underpinning this withdrawal.  

ETA’s Dissolution and the Future

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The Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), roughly translated as the Basque Homeland and Liberty, dissolved itself in May 2018. The dissolution of the group marks the end of a 60 year violent struggle that caused the death of 800 people. The group were fighting for the independence of the Basque state, located in the north of Spain but historically the southern part of France as well. Spain has not forgiven the ETA for the violence they perpetrated and has vowed to continue persecuting the members for crimes they have committed.

The ETA splintered from the Basque Nationalist Party after the party refused to take up armed rebellion in 1957. The group was heavily influenced by Marxist ideologies and aimed for revolutionary socialism. The group faced a lot of brutality from Franco’s regime, which included arbitrary arrest, beatings, and torture. After Franco’s death in 1975 the newly elected democratic leaders reached out to ETA to come to peace. The group instead increased it’s assassinations and bombings of high-ranking Spanish military officers, judges, and government officials. However, due to their methods, and their indifference theses attacks killed many civilians. The group was financially reliant on robberies, kidnappings and revolutionary taxes on businesses to run its political wing Herri Batasuna. They went through several ceasefires in the 90’s and 2000’s but none of them stuck. Their last victim in Spain was in 2008 with their final murder being a French police man in 2009 after a botched car theft.

The group has been losing influence for a long time. This pressure on the group has not always been pleasant, with the torture of an estimated 4,000 detainees and even a state sponsored death squad responsible for the deaths of 27 people in the neighbouring country of France. However, Spain has moved away from these tactics but still continued to investigate and arrest any members of the group that they could. They also banned any politicians that were associated with the group from running for office. In 2008 police arrested Garikoitz Aspiazu, a suspected leader of the group, in southern France. Members have been hunted all over the world with Kemen Uranga Artola being arrested in north London in 2012. Mikel Irastorza was the last leader arrested by police in 2016. The continued pressure on the group by police forces across the globe as well as the lack of support from the Basque community has made it hard for the group to continue leading them to dissolve their group this May.

Going forward peacefully may be hard as sixty years of violence is hard for both sides to let go. Spain’s interior minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, stated that the dissolution of ETA would not stop Spanish courts from continuing to investigate and arrest members of the group in the future. Basque is not the only area that has pursued independence from Spain, Catalonia’s recent independence vote demonstrated Spain’s willingness to be very aggressive towards the area. It has also shown that Spain can hold grudges as they continually stymied any attempt to get former president Carles Puigdemont elected. This makes it likely that Spain will stay true to it’s word and chase down ex members of ETA.

Israel: A Week of Turmoil

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On Monday, Gaza witnessed the deadliest day of violence since the 2014 Gaza war. Tens of thousands protested and clashes erupted along the Gaza border against the US transfer of its embassy to Jerusalem. The “March of Return,” as Palestinians are calling the protest campaign that began in March, has intended by its creators to publicize global awareness that about two-thirds of Gaza residents are considered Palestinian refugees.

For seven weeks, protesters have gathered on the Gaza side of the border with Israel, with scores of deaths over that period before the violence ratcheted this week as 58 Palestinians were killed and more than 2700 seriously injured.  The Israeli troops have used live ammunition on the demonstrators as Israel considers attempts by Palestinian protesters to approach the fence a threat to its sovereignty and has framed its responses to these protests as a lawful defense of the Israeli border. The Israeli authorities have dropped leaflets over Gaza warning Palestinians to not approach the fence. However, the military maintains it is only targeting those instigating violence and has sought to use nonlethal deterrents — including drones that drop tear gas — to counter the protests. Hamas has been accused of exploiting the “March of Return”, whilst Israel has said a significant number of those killed were members of various militant Islamist factions in the Gaza Strip, using the mass demonstrations as cover to infiltrate into Israel and carry out possible terrorist attacks. Israel has faced international condemnation over the deaths, from the UN, UK, France, Russia and others. “I don’t know of any army that would do anything differently if you had to protect your border against people who say, ‘We’re going to destroy you, and we’re going to flood into your country,’” Mr. Netanyahu stated. Other Israelis have said that if thousands of angry Palestinians breached the Gaza fence, the outcome would be far bloodier. Doctors without borders said that they are overwhelmed by the Gaza carnage: “In one of the hospitals where we are working, the chaotic situation is comparable to what we observed after the bombings of the 2014 war, with a huge influx of injured people in a few hours, overwhelming the medical staff.”

The Palestinians and United Nations human rights officials say Israel remains an occupying power in Gaza, making it subject to certain obligations to protect civilians under international law, because the Israelis exert effective control over most of Gaza’s land, air and sea borders. Israel has rejected that argument, asserting that it voluntarily departed Gaza 13 years ago. While Egypt could theoretically do more to ease the travails of Gaza’s population, analysts say that, “Egypt sees it as political quicksand.” Tensions between Israel and Egypt are rising, with President Sisi warning for regional instability, but there have been reports that Egypt has managed to restore calm in Gaza as protests have dropped off over the past hours, by pressurising Hamas. Hamas has rejected these reports and said that they will continue the protests increasing concerns over the stability in Israel while back in February they had stated that a likelihood of war with Israel is possible. Israel on Wednesday welcomed another embassy in Jerusalem just two days after the landmark move by the United States, even as the diplomatic fallout over Gaza bloodshed intensified with Israel and Turkey trading bitter recriminations. Leading the charge was Turkey, which on Tuesday expelled Israel’s ambassador and consul. Israel retaliated with its own expulsions of top Turkish diplomats.

Turmoil in Israel is continuing, with fears over a war likelihood between Iran and Israel growing the past few days. Israel and Iran lurched closer to an all out war on Thursday after the Israeli military struck the majority of Iran’s bases in Syria in response to what it said was a Iranian rocket barrage fired at the Golan Heights. Israeli carried out its largest wave of airstrikes in Syria since the 1973 war, striking around 50 Iranian military bases, supply depots, and intelligence sites as well as Syrian regime air defence batteries, the Israeli military said. The wave of strikes was in response to a barrage of 20 rockets which Israel said were fired by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard towards the Golan, a mountainous region that Israel annexed from Syria after capturing it in 1967. Israel has said repeatedly it will not allow Iran to build up a permanent military presence in Syria and is prepared to go to war to stop it. Nasrallah said Hezbollah and its allies Iran and Syria “will respond at the appropriate time and place and with the appropriate method” to Israel’s Syria raids, while adding, “This landmark rocket attack has launched a new phase.” He warned “the next response would be in the heart of occupied Palestine should any red lines be crossed.”

While tensions are rising in the region, the UK government issued a travel warning amid the Gaza protests and the direct attacks between Israel and Syria, advising people to avoid travelling to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and confirming that there is an increased risk of instability in the region with the likelihood of terrorist attacks very high. With the Gaza protests bound to escalate further, and amid the exchange of attacks between Israel and Iran, Israel is entering a quagmire. Analysts have said that we are now facing a new reality where Iran is attacking Israel directly and trying to harm Israel’s sovereignty and territories.