MS Risk Blog

‘Yellow Vest’ Protests in France

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This month, French protests against the proposed January 2019 fuel tax increase by President Emmanuel Macron have spiralled into a wider display of popular discontent and has emerged as the ‘yellow vest’ movement. The movement includes different social categories such as students, farmers and truck drivers all under the banner of ‘The People’ against Macron’s government that is perceived as not representing their interests.

Macron is suffering his lowest popularity in his 18-month presidency and is no stranger to French protests, however this protest was significantly different as the backlash came from right-wing conservative elements in the countryside that have felt marginalised with the policies of the young, talented former banker.  In Macron’s rapid rise to power, the environment was placed at the forefront of his agenda, which months later has reaped a whirlwind of mass political violence that have taken the government by surprise. The protest was able to successfully tap into the rebellious ‘barricades’ culture of the French nation and bring in other marginalised persons to its cause.

Saturday 17 November marked the first day of road blockades across France, with around 290,000 protesters all distinguishably wearing the yellow vests that all drivers must carry in their cars by law. Although, the protest was organised through social media, no visible leaders have emerged but instead are shown to reject ties to main political parties or unions. The following day, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that the government will not back down on proposed fuel tax increases that are intended to help pay for Macron’s green policy. On Saturday 24 November, further ‘yellow vests’ blocked traffic and motorways around the county, while a large-scale demonstration took place in Paris that ended with an evening clash with police on the Champs-Elysees. At the end of the week, 166,000 demonstrators were recorded across France and 8,000 in Paris. Finally, on November 27 the protests made headway as Macron offered minor concessions proposing to adjust fuel tax increases in case of rising oil costs and called for an extended national consultation. The concessions did not stop the ‘yellow vests’ from calling a new protest on Saturday 1 December, once more on the iconic Champs-Elysees. The Prime Ministers’ attempts to talk with the protestors have not progressed as the meeting would not be broadcast on TV.

The impact of the ‘yellow vest’ protests has already shown that mass political violence has succeeded in changing Macron’s previous uncompromising resolve. Macron’s abandonment of the fuel-tax hike has damaged his image and shown ‘the people’ that the unshakeable President can be brought to heel. The concessions have not managed to appease the protestors that see too little too late, but having tasted blood, might be not wanting to stop there and continue until toppling the government. Macron faces difficulty in reconciling centrist policies alongside stagnant wages, 9 per cent unemployment and high taxes. Sociologist Michel Wieviorka has said that “If people compare Macron to Louis XVI, it’s a warning that he has hasn’t learned the lesson of history,” “They don’t literally want his head, but it’s a strong message that they don’t feel listened to”.

The Implications of UK Weapons Sales and Military Hardware to Saudi Arabia in Yemen

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The death of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi has brought about renewed questions over Western involvement with Riyadh and as a result, the implications of weapon sales to Saudi Arabia.  Using data compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade and the European Commission, the Middle East Eye reported that EU countries have approved the sale of more than $86.7bn in arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE since 2015. This has amounted to more than 55 times the donations made to the UN’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has also revealed that the UK was the second biggest supplier of Saudi Arabia’s major weapons export between 2013-2017.

Yemen is at the forefront of a humanitarian crisis. Although peace talks are currently underway in Sweden between representatives of the Yemeni government and Houthi delegates, fighting in Yemen still continues. Throughout November, conflict in the rebel-held city of Hodeidah has intensified with the port now being targeted by air strikes. The Saudi-led coalition have repeatedly bombed Hodeidah since 2015 in an attempt to gain control over the city and its port. The majority of Yemen’s aid, medicine and food imports enter the country through Hodeidah port, so it being attacked has meant that importing has been severely impacted. Earlier in November, Yemeni and international NGOs warned that approximately 14 million people, half of the country’s population, are now on the brink of famine. On 1 December, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock declared that Yemen was on the verge of a major catastrophe and that conditions had hugely deteriorated since his last visit in October 2017. Lowcock emphasised the UN’s aim in ensuring that the port remains open in order to allow civilians to have access to fundamental imports.

There is strong presence of British weaponry in Yemen as a result of arms deals with Saudi Arabia. In June 2017, the High Court of Justice in England ruled that it was legal for the UK to continue their arms exports to Saudi Arabia. According to the summary of the High Court, the UK also provided logistical and technical support to the Saudi military, in addition to engaging in weapons deals. This included providing advice to the Saudi military on equipment usage, as well as UK liaison officers having insight into Saudi targeting procedures and access to post-strike mission reporting. The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent Bethan McKernan has been reporting on the Yemen conflict since 2015 and spoke in a Guardian podcast uploaded 6 November about Britain’s possible role in the war. Speaking of the ‘cottage industry’ in major cities in Yemen where civilians collect and resell scrap material and debris from bombing raids, she spoke of people finding serial numbers when rummaging through shells. Then, through using the internet, many have traced the numbers back to UK and US companies. The Guardian further reported that there are British personnel stationed in bombing control rooms in Riyadh and technicians overseeing and refuelling planes. Therefore, Britain selling weapons to Saudi Arabia will result in their usage in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition.

The continued Saudi use of Western weapons is highly likely to trigger a response from Iran either by smuggling armoury into Houthi-held areas or by further blocking aid. An Iranian response is very probable seeing as there is a strong relationship between the Iranians and the Houthis which is thought to date back since 2013. The Saudi-led coalition conducting air strikes on Houthi-controlled areas such as Hodeidah could result in the Houthis retaliating, most likely by firing missiles at the Saudi-led coalition and further restricting and siphoning off aid in an effort to reassert their position. The Houthi’s need for weaponry would therefore increase, meaning that Iran is more likely to smuggle pieces of weaponry into the country which the Houthis will then weld together and use to improvise missiles. The pieces are smuggled through the Red Sea to the port of Hodeidah, thus the stationing of the rebels puts them in a prime position to receiving these shipments. Bombarding the Houthis therefore is only likely to make them attack further which will increase fighting between the parties. They are less likely to back down as they are supported by a powerful dominant country which is able to supply them with weaponry.

A consequence of increasing Iranian involvement in the conflict is the possibility of Iran’s already dire relationship with the US and Saudi Arabia growing worse. November has highlighted the mounting tensions between Iran and the US, played out directly through the implementation of US sanctions and also highlighted through the fighting in Yemen and Syria. Arguably, the Yemen conflict can be seen as a proxy war between the US and Iran. On 5 November, the newly reinstated US sanctions on Iran came into full force, with the Trump administration revealing the full extent of the restrictions on Iran’s shipping, energy and financial sectors. Iran has reacted with hostility to these sanctions with President Hassan Rouhani urging Muslims across the world to unite against the US. The continuity of Iranian involvement is likely to further strain US and Saudi relations with Iran, possibly leading to the US imposing even stricter sanctions on the region and deliberately making it harder for the country to trade. This may result in repercussions such as the removal or limitation of temporary waivers given to China, India, Japan and South Korea, allowing them to continue trade with Iran. This would ultimately impact negatively on Iran’s global status.

Consequently, the increased Iranian rearming and attacks of the warring parties would lead to increased conflict, thus further extending the war. The consequences of an even more lengthy war is an aggravated humanitarian crisis which would place further significant economic challenges and pressure on humanitarian charities, organisations and governments across the world. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has come about through a number of means. The Houthis blocking and siphoning off aid has meant that people cannot access food or medical supplies. The constant Saudi bombardment of towns and cities has led to deaths, injuries and destruction of infrastructure. These problems are even more compounded through the lack of medical care and treatment in the region. Additionally, thousands of people have been displaced and have lost their homes, with children unable to attend school and fulfil their educational requirements. The war has had huge repercussions on the future generation’s education and job prospects, which in turn will greatly affect Yemen’s economy in the future.

According to data compiled by Al Jazeera and the Yemen Data Project, more than 18,000 air raids have been carried out in Yemen since 2015, with almost one-third of all bombing missions striking non-military sites. Schools, hospitals, weddings, funerals and water and electricity plants have been hit, resulting in thousands being killed and injured. Save the Children have stated that around 85,000 young children may have already died of starvation. It is likely that these figures are set to increase if the war is exacerbated further. On 3 December, Reuters reported that authorities have been sterilising water supplies in the rebel-held capital of Sanaa in order to help combat a cholera outbreak. Water supplies at wells, distribution networks and houses have been sterilised. Since the worst outbreak in Yemen’s history began in April 2017, 1.2 million cholera cases have been reported and over 2,500 people have died of the infection. In October this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned of a new escalation, stating that there had been an increase in the number of cholera cases in the country. Problems such as a cholera epidemic are more likely and carry heightened danger due to the destruction of water plants and lack of medical care in the country.

The implications of British weapon sales to Saudi Arabia may be difficult to reverse if Britain does change its mind about selling arms to Riyadh. We may find that these weapons are still used in the future even if legislation is passed in the country banning the creation and usage of such arms. Cluster munitions are still used in Yemen today despite being banned in the UK in 2010. On 3 December,a military official stated that the Saudi-led coalition is continuing to use banned munitions in Yemen. The spokesman for Yemeni Armed Forces, Brigadier General Yahya Saree, spoke at a press conference in Sanaa on Sunday. He stated that in its air strikes on residential neighbourhoods, the Saudi-led alliance continues to use internationally banned weapons such as cluster bombs.

In conclusion, the implications of British weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are that of increasing the likelihood of exacerbating the war through a response from the Houthis and Iran, further straining the relationship between US and Iran. Additionally, a worsening of the war is likely to lead to an increased humanitarian crisis and a greater impact on citizens.

N.B. The Yemen conflict is an ongoing developing situation, so circumstances may drastically change from the time which this report was written (9 December 2018)

Criminal Networks Exploit Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia

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The mass exodus from Venezuela into neighboring countries, primarily Colombia, is turning into one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades in the region, creating ample opportunities for criminal networks to exploit. Colombia is struggling to manage the situation, and the migration into Colombia shows no sign of stopping. As the Venezuelan crisis continues, it is unlikely that the migration to Colombia will diminish in the short to mid-term.  In turn, the exodus has been exploited by armed groups and criminal gangs in Colombia, both recruiting migrants and targeting them for revenue.  Furthermore, the security situation around the border is complex, and the influx of Venezuelan migrants might fuel further conflict between criminal networks.

The UN says that the crisis could reach a point where its comparable to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean in 2015.  Over one million Venezuelan migrants have arrived in Colombia in the last 14 months, about 3,000 more arrive each day and the migration shows no indication of diminishing. Colombia has received the migrants with open arms, however, recently the country has been showing severe signs of struggling to accommodate the migrants. Recently they opened their first migrant camp in the country’s capital Bogotá, and tension has risen as the neighboring citizens to the camp are worried of increased violence in the area.

Economic problems in Venezuela are the key driver of the mass migration. The Venezuelan currency is hyperinflated, with a predicted inflation rate of 1 million percent by the end of the year according to the IMF. 95% of Venezuela’s export earnings stem from oil sales, and the country has depended on their vast oil reserves to secure the economy. But because of the plummeting oil price in 2014 and gross mismanagement of the oil production, their dependence on oil created the economic crisis they now are in. There is currently a food and medicine shortage, making life in Venezuela, in particular for the poor, very hard. Even though actions have been taken by the Venezuelan government to better the situation, it does not seem to work. The problems deepen as the US and EU continue to impose sanctions on the country, and they are not likely to stop until Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, is forced from power. But Maduro shows no sign of stopping, as he continues to consolidate his power. And as long as Maduro is in power, it is unlikely that the crisis will be reversed.

Venezuelan migrants, often poor and desperate, are being recruited by armed groups and street gangs. With promises of profitable employment, or coerced by threats, the criminal networks, primarily the National Liberation Army (ELN) and ex-FARC fighters, recruit along the borders between the countries. Insight Crime reported that the recruits might be receiving up to 50,000 (300 USD) Bolívars per months, equivalent to 27 minimum wages in Venezuela.  This is especially lucrative to the many migrants that don’t have the necessary paperwork to be able to legally work in Colombia. The authorities in Colombia have reported on 27 cases of recruitment of Venezuelans in the period between July and mid-October. In one case, migrants were lured into selling narcotics, after being promised jobs on coffee farms. The recruitments help strengthen the criminal groups and increase their reach through the porous border into Venezuela.

The criminal groups are exploiting the immigrants as a source of revenue. There have been reports of robbing, and the trafficking of Venezuelan migrants is soaring. On 22 November, Colombian authorities exposed a trafficking ring, rescuing 40 Venezuelan migrants forced into prostitution. The women were picked up by criminals at the border town Cúcuta, robbed of their papers, then transported to Colombia’s capital Bogotá where they were forced into prostitution to pay back for the transportation. This is just one example, as Colombian authorities have rescued over 80 Venezuelan women from forced prostitution in the last four months. Besides the women, migrant children are trafficked into forced begging in Colombia as well, and Colombia’s Child Protection Agency have identified 350 Venezuelan children as victims of child labour between March and June. Further, the security of the official passing points to Colombia has been tightened, forcing migrants without papers to pass through clandestine passings, called Trochas. The criminal groups often control these and take a fee for people to pass.

The security situation at the border between Venezuela and Colombia is volatile and complex. Many of the Venezuelan migrants cross the border using Simón Bolívar International bridge, connecting San Antonio del Táchira on the Venezuelan side with Villa del Rosario in Colombia. The crossing is located in close proximity to Catatumbo, a border region characterized by violence and drug wars. Besides the bigger networks, such as the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a number of smaller networks are likely active in the region. Following the power vacuum created by the disbandment of the FARC-guerrilla in 2016, conflicts have continued. Dissident ex-FARC fighters are reportedly active in Catatumbo, trying to establish a post-FARC network. The situation in this area is multi-layered, with criminal networks, armed groups and street gangs fighting amongst each other. The migration wave is likely to destabilize the region further, as the criminal networks struggle to win control over the new opportunities the migrants provide.

As the crisis in Venezuela is not likely to end soon, desperate and poor Venezuelans will continue to pour over the border and provide the criminal networks with additional revenue streams and a hotbed for recruitment. The networks are likely to use this to grow and strengthen themselves. However, the massive exodus might fuel conflicts between criminal groups as they struggle between themselves to exploit the Venezuelans.

Human Trafficking in India

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While looking at security-related incidents, one cannot avoid noticing the increasing rate of human trafficking in Asia. Human trafficking is the third largest organized crime after drugs and the arms trade worldwide. About 80% of it is done for sexual exploitation, the rest is for ransom, forced labour, organ trade, forced marriage, medical trials, illegal adoption etc., and India is considered to be the main centre of this crime in Asia.

According to official Indian statistics, 88,008 cases of kidnapping and abduction were reported in India during 2016 showing an increase of 6.0% over 2015. Out of these 88,008, only 69,599 persons were recovered meaning that 18,409 of them disappeared. But that is not all, because 549,008 adults were also reported missing and 319,627 of them went untraced.  Moreover, 111,569 children were also reported missing and 55,625 of them disappeared without any trace. In addition, it seems that India’s official statistics heavily underestimate the scale of the problem, because a US State Department report from 2013 estimated that up to 65 million people were trafficked into forced labour in India.

The reasons given for this troubling trend are as varied as India itself. Social inequality, regional gender preference and corruption are all regarded as leading causes of human trafficking.  Even the theory of demand and supply can be cited here referring to the migration of men to major hubs creating a demand for sex resulting in young girls and women being abducted to be used as prostitutes. However, these “young girls and women are not only used for prostitution but also bought and sold like commodity” [to force them into marriages] in many regions […] where female ratio is less than [desirable] due to female infanticide.” Poverty also plays a significant role meaning that being born to a poor family brings with it a higher risk of being sold for money to ensure the survival of the rest of the family.

In conclusion, while the Government of India has undertaken a number of legal measures to fight human trafficking its current jumble of laws dealing with it has done little to crush this thriving businessA new approach of giving greater voice to victims and vulnerable populations in crafting policies that affect their lives, and holds governments more accountable when their rights are violated might be a more viable option.

Top Jihadist Killed in Raid in Mali

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One of Mali’s top jihadist leaders has been killed in a raid carried out in a joint operation by French and Malian forces against a base, located in the forest of Wagadou in the centre of the country, that sheltered the command of Ansar Dine of Macina. On Saturday 24 November, French and Malian authorities both confirmed the death of Amadou Koufa, real name Amadou Diallo, one of the most prominent jihadist leaders in the country who was killed in the raid on the night of 22 November. According to General Abdoulaye Cissé, “after the military operation the terrorist Koufa was seriously injured and taken away by his supporters before he died.” The confirmation of his death comes after France suggested on Friday 23 November that Koufa may have been killed in the operation in the central region of Mopti that “put out of actin” about thirty Islamist militants. The French army also disclosed at the time that the operation targeted a base controlled by Koufa, which was later confirmed by Malian authorities.

Detailing the preparation of the operation, General Cissé disclosed that “for months, the military intelligence services of Mali have collected a mass of accurate information that they shared with partners, including France.” On Thursday night, French forces deployed a number of air assets, including Mirage 2000 aircraft, a number of helicopters, supported by Reaper drones, and a C135 tanker. General Francois Lecointre, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, has emphasized that “the careful preparation and perfect coordination of all the French forces deployed in the Sahel have made this operation a success…”.

This operation represents a major setback for jihadists operating in the region. Sources have indicated that Koufa was a major link between the central and northern regions of Mali and it will likely be difficult to find a natural successor. He was also seen as the spokesperson for JNIM in central Mali. His death though is unlikely to stop any attacks, and may in fact lead to further incidents, with Malian and French forces specifically being targeted. French interests in the region may also be targeted as a result of this operation.

Koufa, a radical preacher, was one of the top deputies to Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), which has repeatedly attacked soldiers and civilians in Mali and in the northern region of neighbouring Burkina Faso. These attacks have effectively shifted Mali’s six-year-old Islamist insurgency from the remote desert north closer to the populous southern region of the country, prompting France to deploy thousands of troops across West Africa’s Sahel region. JNIM was created from a merger of local groups in March 2017. The group was later endorsed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In September 2018, the United States Department of State designated JNIM as a “foreign terrorist organization.”

Video Image of Amadou Koufa

Since Koufa’s appearance in JNIM, intercommunal violence has significantly increased in the central region of the country, affecting the Fulani, who are traditional breeders, against the Bambara and the Dogon ethnic groups, which are mainly engaged in agriculture. The United Nations has indicated that the violence has killed more than 500 civilians since the beginning of the year. Koufa last appeared along with two other influential jihadist leaders from northern and central Mali in a video that was posted on 8 November, in which they called for “continued jihad.” The three included Iyad Ag Ghaly and Algerian Jamel Okacha, commonly known as Abu Al-Hammam. In the video, Koufa addressed Muslims of the world, and more particularly the Fulani communities of the West African countries of Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon and called on all of them to join the “jihad.”