MS Risk Blog

Media Reports: Lebanese Prime Minister To Resign as Government Falls

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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.



Iran’s Lifeline and China’s Foothold: Examining the possible implications of the pending Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership

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On 11 July 2020, the Iranian government was reported to have approved a draft 25-year deal with China on economic, military and security cooperation. Titled the “Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, Iranian officials have publicly stated that there is a pending agreement with China. A copy of the leaked 18-page document has been obtained by The New York Times labelled “final version” and dated June 2020. One Iranian official and several others who have discussed the agreement with the Iranian government have confirmed that it is the actual document waiting to be submitted to the Iranian parliament for approval. In China, officials have not disclosed the terms of the agreement and it is not clear whether Beijing has approved the deal . In the opening sentence of the document it states: “two ancient Asian cultures, two partners in the sectors of trade, economy, politics, culture and security with a similar outlook and many mutual bilateral and multilateral interests will consider one another strategic partners”. This Sino-Iranian pact throws Iran an economic lifeline at time as its economy is under severe pressure from United States sanctions. The pact also paves the way for Chinese influence to extend into the Middle East. The agreement may create further tension between Washington and Beijing, who are currently engaged in a trade war.

Components of the Partnership

The draft agreement, first proposed by Chinese president Xi Jinping in a visit to Iran in 2016, allows for 400 billion US dollars’ worth of Chinese investment in Iran in exchange for heavily discounted oil. China aims to invest in various sectors in Iran including oil and gas, telecommunications, banking, cyber security and transportation. Nearly 100 projects are cited in the deal including the construction of airports, high-speed railways and subways. Moreover, the deal proposes the development of free-trade zones in Maku, located in north-western Iran; in Abadan, where the Shatt al-Arab river flows into the Persian Gulf and on the Gulf island of Qeshm. The draft also proposes Chinese access to Jask, a major Iranian port located just outside the strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf. The strait is a strategically important choke point through which one third of the worlds liquefied natural gas and a quarter of the world’s oil pass. China will also build the infrastructure for 5G telecommunications network in Iran in addition to offering the new Chinese Global Positioning System to help the Iranian government in asserting greater control over cyberspace.  The draft agreement describes deepening military and security ties, calling for joint military exercises, joint research and weapons development in addition to intelligence sharing. This military and security cooperation, according to the draft, will be in place to fight the “lopsided battle with terrorism, drug and human trafficking and cross border crimes”. The draft also allows for 5000 Chinese security personnel in Iran to protect Chinese projects.

Benefits to Iran

If implemented, the agreement gives Iran a critical lifeline. US president Donald Trump has been waging a maximum pressure campaign on Iran’s economy since 2018. Trump’s administration has threatened to sanction countries in Europe and elsewhere who buy oil and other exports from Iran. Trump said the campaign was aimed at eliminating the threat of Tehran’s ballistic missile program, to halt its terrorist activities around the world and to stop its “menacing activity across the Middle East”. Although Trump’s campaign against Iran has not achieved these objectives, it has pushed Iran deep into recession. Iran’s economy was expected to contract by 7.1 percent in 2019 according to the United Nations and by 9.5 percent according to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF estimated that Iran’s reserves of foreign currency have been reduced to 86 billion, 20 percent below their level in 2013. Oil exports have plunged since the US began imposing sanctions again in 2018. The COVID-19 outbreak, the worst in the Middle East, and rising tensions with the US have put further strain on Iran. Thus, the agreement alleviates a great amount of economic hardship from the Islamic republic.

Benefits to China

The most obvious advantage this agreement provides for China is discounted oil. China obtains 75 percent of its oil from abroad and is currently the world’s largest importer of the natural resource at 10 million barrels a day. Iran also provides an additional terrestrial route for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ambitious global infrastructure development strategy Beijing adopted in 2013. However, trade with Iran has not been a priority for Beijing in recent years. China invested less than 27 billion dollars in Iran from 2005 to 2019. Annual investments have dropped every year since 2016. In fact, China has invested significantly more in Arab Gulf countries compared to Chinese investments in Iran. Furthermore, for years China has mostly abided by US sanctions showing that Beijing prioritised trade with the US over ties with Iran. This particular agreement between Tehran and Beijing was proposed only after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed. The JCPOA is an agreement between Iran and major powers including the US to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity in return for lifting sanctions. Therefore, it is possible that China is eyeing other benefits of the deal in addition to its economic dimension.

For instance, this deal possibly allows China a potential foothold in the Middle East, a US dominated area of the world that is becoming increasingly vital to Beijing. About 40 percent of China’s energy needs are imported from the region. Thus, Beijing has significantly increased its economic, political and, to a certain degree, security footprint in the region in the past decade. China became the biggest trading partner and external investor for a significant number of Middle Eastern countries including Iran. Beijing currently participates in anti-piracy and maritime security missions in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden and maintains a military base in Djibouti for such activities. Beijing has increased mediation efforts in crises in the region such as Syria and Yemen. China has conducted joint naval exercises with Iran on three occasions beginning in 2014. China’s energy needs push the country to have a greater presence in the Middle East. Iran is the only major oil rich country in the region not influenced by Washington, which presents an obvious opportunity for Beijing. The Sino-Iranian agreement could provide Beijing with a greater security role to protect its commerce and energy supply in Iran and the Persian Gulf. For example, access to the major Iranian port, Jask, gives Beijing a strategic vantage point in an area where most of the world’s oil transits and has been the strategic preoccupation of the US for decades. The US Navy’s fifth fleet is headquartered in the Kingdom of Bahrain, not far from the strait of Hormuz. China has constructed a series of ports along the Indian ocean creating refuelling and resupply stations from the South China sea to the Suez Canal. The ports are commercial in nature but also potentially have military value. For example, Beijing has access to ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan which are widely considered to be potential foot holds for Chinese military presence.

Impact on relations with US

The pact could also have significant implications for Sino-American relations, potentially creating dangerous flashpoints within their deteriorating relations. The US’s 2018 National Security Strategy identifies China as an adversary and depicts the country as a “revisionist power”. On 23 July 2020 the US ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas. China retaliated by closing down a US consulate in south-western China. The US state department warned that China would be undermining its own stated goal of promoting stability and peace by defying US sanctions and doing business with Iran. The implementation of this deal could signal Beijing’s frustration with Washington. In 2018 the US started a trade war with China imposing sweeping tariffs on Chinese goods to which Beijing retaliated. The US started a major campaign against Huawei, a major Chinese telecommunications company, barring it from involvement from 5G development in the US. Washington also attempted, without much success, to persuade other countries follow suit.  It is likely that Washington will further sanction Beijing if this agreement is implemented. It is also very likely that China will retaliate in like. Sino-American relations are likely to continue to sour over China’s deepening ties with Iran.

Has the South China Sea become a Flash point for conflict?

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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.

Malawi Elections, Take 2

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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.


The Selective Targeting of COVID-19 Measures on Specific Groups in Eastern Europe

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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.