In August 2019, reports from NASA and NGOs drew the world’s attention devastating forest fires in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. The fires have shed light on the plight of the indigenous communities of the rainforest, who are hit by both the fires and the political circumstances in the region.
The Amazon fires resulted from a rise in illegal land grabbing and logging. Loggers in the area use a technique known as “slash and burn”, a land-clearing method that involves the cutting and burning of plants. The land is cleared in order to make room for agriculture, livestock, logging and mining. The technique leads to increased deforestation and carries a high risk of forest fires in the dry season. The large increase of the fires and deforestation in the Amazon increased the threat of global warming and related environmental issues.
The majority of the Amazon rainforest lies in Brazil. In 2000, a plan by the Brazilian government to protect the rainforest resulted in the gradual decline of deforestation. However, when President Jair Bolsonaro came into power in 2019, his administration reversed course on these environmental policies. By summer 2019, the deforestation reached its greatest height in over a decade.
The encroachment of illegal loggers and mining companies has particularly affected the indigenous populations of the Amazon, amplifying the persecution they have suffered since deforestation began in earnest during the 1980s. In 1988, the Brazilian constitution was re-written following the end of decades military rule. The new constitution, which reflected the visions of a democratically run government, automatically granted the indigenous people permanent possession of the lands they traditionally occupied. Unfortunately, indigenous lands that have been granted demarcation still face frequent illegal invasions by settlers and mining and logging companies.
During his campaign for the presidency, Bolsonaro’s platform showed little regard for the indigenous population of Brazil. His key policies included revoking the protected status of indigenous reserves, opening the land for large-scale mining and agribusiness. Since taking office, the Bolsonaro administration has made enacted some of these campaign promises. The administration has made significant changes to the environmental policies that were seen to be “suffocating the economy”. One of Bolsonaro’s first acts as president was to shift the power to regulate and create indigenous reserves, moving this power from the National Indian Foundation Agency to the Agriculture Ministry. As a result, throughout 2019, indigenous populations faced increased persecutions and attacks on their land.
Bolsonaro’s policy changes have correlated with an increase in deforestation and attacks on indigenous people. Illegal loggers and land grabbers continue to encroach on indigenous lands in their attempts to clear trees in the Amazon. Despite reports of these actions, the government denies their policy changes have resulted in the activities of the illegal loggers.
In January 2019, the administration vowed to put a stop to the illegal practice. However, a month later, NGO Reporter Brasil, found that 14 fully protected indigenous territories are under attack from landgrabbers and illegal loggers, with no visible government protection. In the year that has passed since Reporter Brasil’s findings, there no signs of slowing.
The indigenous people are facing increasing rage, hate, prejudice and intolerance from surrounding areas, leading to several deaths. In 2019, ten indigenous people were killed by groups conducting illegal encroachment. Seven among the ten killed were indigenous leaders working to protect the forest and non-contact tribes within the rainforest. Despite the continuous calls to halt increasing violence against the indigenous people, there has been no real effort from the government to protect or support them.
The government’s inaction, and the Bolsonaro administration’s attitude towards the indigenous community suggest it is unlikely that they will get the reassurances they need. It will most likely take international pressure to stop the killing and persecution of the indigenous people and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, is in the midst of a slow-growing Islamist insurgency with the districts of Mocimboa de Praia, Palma, Montepuez and Macomia most affected. The unrest looks set to continue into the new year and beyond. In the close of the previous year a reported 65,000 people were displaced and over 600 people are estimated to have been killed as a result of the spreading violence which began in October 2017. The group’s modus operandi so far has been fairly unsophisticated, although in recent months this has expanded from attacks mainly targeting civilians with remote village raids, burning down of homes and businesses, killing residents with machetes and occasionally firearms; to abductions, beheadings, raiding of police stations, ambushes along major roads and increased violent clashes with government defences forces and contracted mercenary groups. While the month-to-month pace of attacks has been inconsistent, there has been a general increase in violence over the past year, particularly in the months leading up to the close of the year, suggesting a growing confidence among the militants. The reported beheading of 10 members of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group on 25 Nov 2019 is an example of the shadowy insurgency’s increasing operational boldness.
Still at an early infancy, the exact origins or who the insurgents are is unknown. Despite their increased activity, the motives, ideology and objectives of the militants remain unclear, largely due to a lack of public statements from the group, however it is likely that the group is looking to create a new social order that could afford them greater economic and political power. Although there are no formal links with local, regional or international extremist networks, including Somalian regional terror group Al-Shabaab, the insurgents are known locally as ‘Al-Shabaab’. There have been reports that the Islamic State (IS) is said to be operating in Northern Mozambique under the umbrella of its so-called Central Africa Province Branch which it declared in April 2019, however there has been no verified collaboration or merger between the two groups. The insurgent group has been referred to by several other names including, ‘Ahlu Sunna Wa-Jamma’ (ASWJ). Mozambique’s ‘Al-Shabaab’ or ASWJ, is the radical activist sect that split off from a sub-organisation within the Islamic Council of Mozambique, called “Ansaru-Sunna” formed in the 2000’s. The insurgency is most likely rooted in the historically unequal distribution of political and economic power among the predominant ethnic groups in the province. Although Cabo Delgado is wealthy in natural resources such as gas, oil and minerals, it ranked among Mozambique’s poorest provinces.
ASWJ may not have any established motives or objectives, however their most recent activities indicate that further violence can be expected at least in the Cabo Delgado province over the next 6 months. In light of the wider instability that is affecting Mozambique, from its environmental crisis to the continued unrest being propagated by the opposition Renamo’s break away dissident faction, ASWJ is likely to seek to take advantage of, and build on its own momentum it has created in Cabo Delgado in recent months. The ‘strategic retreat’ which it reportedly forced the Russian mercenary Wagner group to take on 25 November 2019 was a symbolic victory that signalled the insurgent group’s capability of diversifying their modus operandi and taking on other targets that are not limited to civilians or remote villages. On 5 December 2019, further attacks were launched on the country’s defence and security forces where at least 18 people died and on 19 December 2019 it was reported that ASWJ had been raiding police property in order to enable them carry out their attacks in Cabo Delgado. The operational tactics may have remained fairly unsophisticated, however ASWJ has become more brazen with their attacks while the government has been very slow in combating this, and there are a number of factors for this. The first is that the government’s party line was an initial denial of an Islamic insurgency in favour of holding onto the belief that opposition Renamo’s break away militant faction ‘Military Junta’ was responsible for the attacks. This has not been helped by the fact that threats of violence by Military Junta have been issued and on 28 December 2019 Military Junta took responsibility for the attacks on vehicles travelling through the centre of the country, which resulted in 10 deaths. In response the government deployed army escorts to address that issue. President Nyusi on 19 December 2019, made a pledge to end the insurgent attacks, however since the insurgent attacks began in October 2017 the primary use of the military as a means to weaken the militants has proven to have little impact on the group’s capabilities. Without a clear government strategy aimed at addressing the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, the violence is likely to continue and potentially escalate if the group is not contained in its infancy. Currently ASWJ does not appear to be competing with a rival armed group for dominance in Cabo Delgado, while on the other hand, the government is dividing its defence resources between dealing with the armed groups in Central Mozambique as well as in Cabo Delgado, this is another factor that is likely see the violence continue as the insurgency takes advantage of the opportunity. The north, like other parts of Mozambique, is still recovering from the devastation caused by Cyclone Kenneth, added to this that Mozambique is within the region of Southern Africa that is facing severe drought and is likely to enable ASWJ to enact strategic violence in the Cabo Delgado province. The province’s long history of marginalization by the state is not likely to be addressed in under 6 months and the lack of accessibility to the region gives the militants in Cabo Delgado a strategic advantage for the foreseeable future.
Throughout December 2019 there has been some new military developments in Eastern Europe. NATO has increased its presence in the region and Russia has announced that it is the first country to possess hypersonic weapons. There is not much trust between the two, especially as both seek to build more military power to deter the other. While one excuses their actions as defensive, the other considers them aggressive – and respond with what they again consider as defensive measures. Thus, the cycle continues.
Eastern Europe has become the centre of this security dilemma as it is situated between the two. Estonian defence minister Jüri Luik said that Russia’s actions showed it was a serious security threat. Lithuanian defence minister Raimundas Karoblis added that “Russia is the only external existential threat” they have. As such several countries in the region clearly consider Russia the major security concern. Consequently, NATO has sought to strengthen its Eastern flank throughout December. Its efforts in Eastern Europe have included deploying rapid response forces, embedding units under the Baltic states’ forces command, building up equipment arsenals, and conducting increasingly complex exercises. UK troops were sent to Estonia and German troops to Lithuania to reassure their allies on the eastern side of NATO. In addition, Romania’s president said that 120 air defence troops would be sent to Poland to support NATO’s presence there.
This positioning of military forces in Eastern Europe was considered necessary to deter the alleged increased Russian aggression. Defence leaders have said that the deployment of the enhanced forward presence battalions in the Baltics have significantly reduced the risk of military conflict in the region. Looking at the future, using American troops to bolster defence against Russia remains a top priority to strengthen security in Eastern Europe. In addition, strengthening the Baltic states’ air defence has been cited as a priority when considering a situation where they would be faced with Russia’s capability. Defence minister Luik said that NATO is the only organisation that can deter the Russian aggression against its neighbours.
Russia fear the prospect of its neighbours joining NATO as this would leave it surrounded by pro-Western states. Valášek, a researcher focusing on security and defence, said that “Moscow’s general strategy has been to deter what it perceives as challenges to its political order and territory(…) and dominate its immediate neighbourhood…”. The tensions between the two have only increased as Russia revealed that its hypersonic weapon had now become operational. In what was either a move for increased transparency or a show of power, Russia recently demonstrated the weapon for American inspectors. Russia claimed that the Avangard is capable of travelling at 27 times the speed of sound and dodge missile defence systems that tries to block it. Its difference from a regular missile warhead is that the latter follow a predictable path after separation while the Avangard can make maneuvers, thus making it much more difficult to stop.
The US and Russia has been working on these types of weapons for years. The Russian military is the first one to own this new class of nuclear weapon, meaning other militaries can currently not defend themselves against it. As such defence strategies against hypersonic weapons will likely be high on Western countries’ agenda. US officials have already discussed putting sensors in space to ensure fast detection of such weapons. While Western countries are most likely not far from developing these weapons themselves, Russia is currently pulling ahead in the global arms race – and that will no doubt trouble NATO going into 2020.
This development has been viewed by many as a concerning sign for the future of warfare. The concern that an arms race has begun between Russia and the US only rose when the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Russia and the US broke down earlier in 2019. The relationship between the two has been particularly strained since 2014. The annexation of Crimea and Russia’s backing of separatists in Ukraine means that all civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO are suspended. The alliance has a difficult task as it must encourage dialogue with Russia in order to reduce these tensions while also backing its neighbours, like Ukraine. NATO stated their committal to remain open to dialogue and to create a constructive relationship with Russia in the December 4 Declaration by the Heads of State participating in a NATO Leaders Meeting in London. However, according to NATO this can only happen when Russia’s actions make it possible.
“Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security”, the Declaration said. While the Cold War and the Soviet Union is a long time ago the tensions between the West and Russia continues to be high. It is difficult to see how the security dilemma in Eastern Europe can be solved as this would require agreements on issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, arms control, and sanctions. For the moment these appear insolvable.
The United States’ assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has heightened security concerns about shipping in the Gulf region, notably the Strait of Hormuz, as the world warily awaits to see how Iran will respond to the killing of its military commander. The US strike that killed the military commander effectively marks a significant escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran, with Iran launching a ballistic missile attack days later. On 8 January, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crewmembers on board. The reason for the crash is currently under investigation, with Iranian authorities blaming technical issues, though the crash’s timing, just hours after Iran launched missiles at US targets in Iraq, has provoked speculation about other possible causes. On 9 January, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced during a press conference that evidence suggested an Iranian missile brought down the aircraft by accident. With Iran already rejecting the claims, tensions are likely to further escalate in the coming days and weeks as further information pertaining to the crash is released.
KILLING OF SOLEIMANI
On 3 January 2020, US officials announced that Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, had been killed by a US air strike in neighbouring Iraq. Soleimani had spearheaded Iranian military operations in the Middle East as head of Iran’s elite Quds Force. He was killed at Baghdad airport, along with other Iran-backed militia figures, early on Friday in a strike that was ordered by US President Donald Trump. Speaking shortly after the confirmation of the strike, President Trump disclosed that Soleimani was “directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of people.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stated that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack as he announced three days of national mourning.
On 8 January, Iran carried out a ballistic missile attack on air bases housing US forces in Iraq. More than a dozen missiles were launched from Iran, striking two air bases in Irbil and Al Asad, west of Baghdad. The strikes, which occurred at about 2:00 AM local time (10:30 PM GMT), occurred just hours after the burial of Soleimani. While it is believed that the strikes were in retaliation of Soleimani’s killing, with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stating that the attack was a “slap in the face” for the US, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif later issued a statement on Twitter, claiming that the attack was self-defence while denying that Iran was seeking to escalate the situation into war. So far there has been minimal response from Washington, with President Trump tweeting that all was well and that casualties and damage were being assessed.
Soleimani was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The Quds Force, which is an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, reported directly to the ayatollah and Soleimani was hailed as a heroic national figure. Under Soleimani’s leadership, Iran had bolstered Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as other pro-Iranian militant groups, effectively expanding its military presence in neighbouring Iraq as well as in Syria, where it orchestrated Syria’s offensive against rebel groups in that country’s long-running civil war. The US however has called the commander and the Quds Force terrorists, holding them responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US personnel. A statement released by the Pentagon shortly after his death disclosed that Soleimani had been “developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” adding that “this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”
The crash of flight PS752 has further complicated tensions with Iran, with Western leaders stating that evidence suggests that the plane had been hit by a surface-to-air missile, possibly in error. US media have speculated that the airline may have been mistaken for a warplane as Iran prepared for possible US retaliation, while a new video released on 10 January appears to show a plane being hit by a projectile over Tehran. Iran however has rejected the suggestions, with the country’s civil aviation chief stating on Friday that he was “certain” that the plane was not it by a missile. During a news conference on Friday, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization (CAOI) chief Ali Abedzadeh repeated his view that a missile was not the cause of the crash. He told reporters, “the thing that is clear to us and that we can say with certainty is that this plane was not hit by a missile,” adding “as I said last night, this plane for more than one and a half minutes was on fire and was in the air, and the location shows that the pilot was attempting to return.” The statement comes after Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei on Thursday accused the US and its allies of “lying and engaging in psychological warfare” in their speculation over the cause of the accident. Separately an Iranian official disclosed on Friday that there was documentation to prove that the plane had a mechanical issue before take-off. According to the official, it was not signed off for flying, but Ukrainian airline officials had overruled these objections, though no further details have been released.
Iran has promised to carry out a full investigation, though there are growing concerns about the transparency of its findings. While Iran initially indicated that it would not hand over the recovered “black boxes” to Boeing, the plane’s manufacturer, or to the US, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has since confirmed that it has been invited to take part in the investigation and would send a representative. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada and France’s BEA air accident agency have also confirmed that they have been invited to take part in the investigation. TV images from the crash site on Thursday depicted a bulldozer to clear debris away, raising concerns that vital evidence could have been removed. The “black box” flight recorders have been recovered from the wreckage, with Iran’s official Irna news agency reporting that they will be opened on Friday.
All 176 passengers and crewmembers on board the plane were killed. Victims of the crash include 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians as well as nationals from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Afghanistan and Germany. In the wake of the crash and missile attacks a number of airlines have announced that they are re-routing flights that fly over Iran and Iraqi airspace. Major carriers include Air France, Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Taiwan’s Eva Air, which have all announced that they will opt for different routes for their flights to and from Europe. The US Federal Aviation Agency has restricted commercial US flights “from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran and the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.” Russian authorities have also recommended that their country’s airlines avoid the same areas. As of 10 January 2020, Turkish flag carrier Turkish Airline and Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines as well as Qatar Airways continue to fly over Iran as usual. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have both disclosed that they are monitoring the situation, though they have not yet diverted flights.
IMPACT ON SHIPPING INDUSTRY
In the wake of Soleimani’s death, the missile attack and crash of flight PS752 tensions between the US and Iran have significantly risen and there has been growing concern about shipping in the Gulf region. In particular, the airplane crash has demonstrated how fragile the current situation is, indicating that the shipping industry could also fall victim to unintended consequences stemming for the heightened tensions.
The Gulf’s waters however have already been considered as being vulnerable to Iranian retaliation ever since President Trump in 2015 withdrew the US from the nuclear deal, which Tehran had signed with world powers, and imposed sanctions on the country. The Strait of Hormuz a narrow but strategically important waterway, links crude producers in the Middle East with key global markets. In May and June 2019, the waterway became a focal point in heightened US-Iran tensions when six oil tankers were attacked in, or near, the waterway. Furthermore, Iran has in the past repeatedly vowed to disrupt oil and petrochemical flows through the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes, in the event that it was unable to export its crude.
With the current dramatic escalation of tensions between the US and Iran, there are increasing concerns that a widening conflict could disrupt global oil supplies and impact shipping in the region. With a number of countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which have both backed President Trump’s maximum pressure strategy against Iran, calling for restraint since Soleimani was killed, it is likely that any response from Iran will be asymmetric in nature, resulting in the shipping community and vessels transiting this region needing to take additional precautions while also being prepared for the unexpected. While so far, shipping flows via the Strait of Hormuz have had little change since the targeted killing of Soleimani, it is likely that Iran will resume threatening commercial shipping in the Gulf and could launch similar attacks to those that were carried out last year.
In the wake of heightened tensions, the US Maritime Administration on 2 January 2020 issued an alert over potential Iranian action against “maritime interests in the region.” It noted that US commercial vessels operating in the area should review the US Maritime Advisory 2019-012. Meanwhile the UK has again increased its military presence in the Gulf. On 4 January, the UK announced that the Royal Navy will offer to accompany British-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. Britain’s Defence Minister Ben Wallace ordered HMS MONTROSE and HMS DEFENDER to prepare to return to escort duties. The UK has also put military helicopters on standby. There have also been reports that insurance underwriters are likely to increase rates in the coming days to reflect perceptions of a greater war risk for shipping in the Gulf. In May 2019, the Joint War Committee widened the area around the Gulf for “enhanced risk for marine insurers” after a number of attacks targeting tankers. Washington blamed Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards for two sabotage attacks that targeted tankers in the Gulf in May and June. In July, the guards seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf in retaliation for the UK’s detention of an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar. After that incident, the UK navy escorted vessels through the Strait of Hormuz, though those escorts concluded in November in the wake of the tanks being released and tensions between the two countries easing.
OUTLOOK AND GUIDANCE
With a diplomatic solution between the US and Iran currently unlikely, the situation in the Gulf region could destabilize further. Vessels transiting this region are advised of the following:
- Vessels operating in the region must remain vigilant and listen for military warnings at all times;
- Armed private security should not be used as a risk mitigation measure in this region;
- Navigational norms in the Strait of Hormuz should continue to be complied with.
In addition, shipping companies are advised to review BMP5 practices, US maritime advisories, industry releasable threat bulletins, flag security advisories and bulletins, as well as the ship’s hull and machinery, war risk and P&I Insurances prior to transiting this region in order to ensure that the vessel has cover and remains within cover throughout the voyage.
The following vessel guidance should be implemented:
- Undertake a new ship- and voyage-specific threat risk assessment prior to entering any region where there has been an incident, or where the threat has changed;
- Where transit includes passage through a confined strait, if navigationally safe to do so, vessels should consider unmanned machinery spaces (UMS) for the duration;
- Vessels should consider transiting at full speed while ensuring that this is only done where it is commensurate with safe navigation and manoeuvring permits;
- Consider if a day/night transit is appropriate to the threat posed;
- After the risk assessment, review the Ship’s Security Plan and Vessel Hardening Plan;
Carry out security damage control training and exercises prior to entering area of increased risk.
On 14 December, 100.000 people attended a rally in Piazza San Giovanni, Rome. This rally was organized by a grass-roots movement called “Sardines”. The movement was started by 4 activists on 14 November in Bologna. They organized a rally there which targeted 6,000 people to attend. Turns out, some 12,000 people attended it, double the expectations. The movement quickly spread across cities in Italy with dozens of subsequent rallies being held. In December alone, protests have been conducted in various cities such as Milan, Turin, Palermo, Florence, Naples, and Rome, which have been attended by more than 300,000 people in total. The aim of the Sardine movement is to counter the growing support of far-right politics which are being led by Matteo Salvini. The Sardine movement denounces the anti-immigration and Euroscepticism rhetoric which is promoted by the far-right.
Since 2018, Salvini has promoted radical anti-immigration and Euroscepticism throughout his speech. Even though he has already been removed from his position of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, he is still considered as one of the most powerful politicians in Italy. He has gained a huge public support especially in the northern part of Italy through his far-right campaign and his party has never been stronger. Even in the city of Bologna, which is considered as the stronghold for leftist, Salvini has proven to gain much support too recently when his political campaign was attended by some 5,000 people. Therefore, it is believed that Salvini’s removal from his position of power within the Italian government has had very little effect towards his popularity. His far-right idea has captured public attention and support, thus placing him as a significant threat to the current left-wing government for the upcoming election in January. The Sardine movement emerged as the reaction of this growing far-right threat, calling their actions as “the fight towards fascism”.
The Sardine movement is blatantly calling Salvini and his supporters as fascists, as Salvini’s campaign is considered by them as an action of “allowing the worst form of racism to exist”. The dozens of rallies conducted by the Sardine Movement were mainly denouncing the ideas of anti-immigration and Euroscepticism within Salvini’s campaign. However, it has been seen that some protestors were also protesting other issues such as the growth of mafia, poverty, and climate change. By seeing this, it is believed that Sardini’s movement is not a movement which is filled by a very specific demographic, which means that they are not linked to any political party. The movement welcomes everyone who agrees in fighting Salvini’s ideas and prevents him to rise into power. The movement itself can be defined as more leaning towards the left-wing within the political spectrum by looking at their views of equality, anti-racial discrimination, and support of civility in politics. However, their broad public scope and primary end goal shows their independency from any influence coming from particular political party. Therefore, The Sardines Movement can be characterized as a pure form of people controlled movement which fighting the growth of far-right populism as their sole purpose.