Weekly Report: 08 December, 2017 — CANVAS

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Photo: “Opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla gives a speech to thousands of supporters taking part in a demonstration claiming that he won the November 26 elections, near the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in Tegucigalpa on Sunday.” (Photo: Agence France-Presse, via South China Morning Post)

Venezuela

Last Saturday, members of Venezuela’s government and opposition coalition met in the Dominican Republic to resolve the Venezuela’s political crisis. The parties however failed to reach an agreement and set a new meeting for December 15th. The talks held at the Foreign Ministry in Santo Domingo were “difficult, heavy, hard and full of debate and confrontation” according to opposition political Julio Borges, while Venezuela’s information minister Jorge Rodriguez sounded more hopeful stating his side to be “’deeply satisfied’ with the two-day talks.” Reuters stated that few Venezuelans expect further talks to bring a breakthrough, considering the opposition’s current divided and demoralized state. Opponents have accused President Maduro of exploiting the talks to buy more time, while he accuses the opposition of preferring violence. According to an anonymous source, the two sides did not compromise on any key points.

Amidst Venezuela’s deep economic crisis and hyperinflation, Nicolas Maduro announced the introduction of a new crypto-currency in the country, the “Petro”. While Maduro said it is supposed to be backed by oil, gas, gold and diamond reserves, not many other details are known about the currency, which is usually not backed by governments or central banks. The opposition said such plans needed congressional approval and many doubted credibility and any potential success for the plans. “Still, the announcement highlights how sanctions enacted this year by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration are hurting Venezuela’s ability to move money through international banks”, Reuters wrote. Meanwhile, a subsidiary of one of China’s biggest state-owned oil companies filed a lawsuit in the US against PDVSA, Venezuela’s national oil company, which could be interpreted as a sign of shrinking Chinese patience with Venezuela’s unpaid debts.

On Tuesday, Venezuela’s UN Ambassador Rafael Ramirez announced his resignation claiming he “was removed for expressing ‘opinions’ critical of the Venezuelan president”, wrote Deutsche Welle. The news outlet further referred to analysts warning “of a growing purge as Nicolas Maduro gears up for presidential elections in 2018.” In the past week, UN Watch called on UN officials to condemn a ‘fake investigation’ into Venezuela’s human rights record by Alfred de Zayas who was set to spend a week in the country. Following his visit, some news outlets have reported about his statement of ‘no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, […] condemning international sanctions’.  However, according to a Scoop article among others referring to UN Watch’s call, de Zayas is “known as a cheerleader of the Maduro regime”, and “a long-time defender of Fidel Castro and a hero to Holocaust deniers for his writings accusing the World War II allies of committing ‘genocide’ against Germany” said UN Watch’s executive director.

  1. Reuters (crypto-currency)
  2. Reuters (government-opposition talks)
  3. Scoop.co.nz (criticism of ‘fake investigation’)

Democratic Republic Congo

On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a new report, documenting “the repression of peaceful protesters, activists, journalists, and political opposition leaders and supporters in Congo in December 2016 and the covert recruitment” by security forces. They recruited at least 200 former rebels from the M23 armed group from Uganda and Rwanda. Among other things, the report states that the rebels were instructed to use lethal force if necessary and “suppress any threat to Kabila’s rule.” The rights group put their findings into perspective with more protests planned for the upcoming weeks and said that they “raise concerns about further violence and repression.” With the report, HRW also published an interview with the researchers about their work.

Amnesty International also called on DRC to investigate into and stop the ‘heavy-handed police crackdown’. Only last week the police arbitrarily arrested more than 200 protesters (of which 100 remained in detention on Friday) who were calling for President Kabila to step down before the end of the year, killing one and leaving dozens more injured during the protests throughout the country. Furthermore, “Journaliste en danger”, a Reporters without Borders partner, reported  and condemned last Friday that four journalists and technicians of a Catholic radio station had been arrested, held and tortured by DRC state security forces in Kabinda, wrote eNCA (an independent media outlet from South Africa). A student protest demanding their release was broken up by police as well.

BBC reported of aid agencies reporting of 1.7 million people who have fled their homes this year, making DRC “worst-affected by conflict displacement in the world”, the second year in a row. According to the news outlet, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s DRC director has called this “a mega crisis” and warned to react now to prevent worse in “a race against time.” More recently refugees have also been arriving in Tanzania, but they have especially been crossing the border to neighboring Zambia, where humanitarian activities have been ‘hugely underfunded’, just like in DRC itself, said a UN spokesperson according to VOA.

  1. HRW
  2. BBC
  3. eNCA

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Zimbabwe

After newly installed President Emmerson Mnangagwa installed his cabinet late last week, many saw the new cabinet as a betrayel of his promises. Critics said the line-up showed Mr Mnangagwa had no plans to bring real change to the country despite hailing a “new democracy”, according to the BBC.  Military chiefs remain in charge of the foreign affairs and land portfolios, and not even one opposition voice was included. After a massive outcry, two ministers of the original group got replaced. Education minister Lazarus Dokora, who is seen as the main responsible for the decline in educational standards over the last few years, did not return. Petronella Kagonye becomes labour and social welfare minister in place of Clever Nyathi, who becomes a special adviser to the president on national peace and reconciliation. Real reform seems to be of no priority to Mnangagwa. Opposition-leader Tendai Biti represented the disillusionment among Zimbabweans, tweeting “”We craved change, peace & stability in our country. How wrong we were”.

Pursuance and prosecution of former Mugabe-loyalists has also started in Zimbabwe. On Friday, VOA reports that Zimbabwe’s central bank has ordered banks to freeze accounts belonging to former Higher Education Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo and former Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere. These measures are taken amidst claims that Moyo and Kasukuwere were involved in corrupt activities while working for the Zanu PF government. One day earlier, Ignatius Chombo got freed on bail by a Harare-court, as he faces fraud charges dating from 2004-2009 when he held a ministerial role. A close ally of former president Robert Mugabe, Chombo was the first Mugabe loyalist to be charged with a crime.

On Thursday, the UK Telegraph reports on Mnangagwa’s apparent new policy of “inclusiveness” starting to yield real results. Seventy-one-year-old Rob Smart was “whooped with joy” when he was told that he can return to his farm in eastern Zimbabwe this week. He and his family, were evicted at gunpoint from their farm in the east of the country nearly six months ago by several gangs loyal to former first lady Grace Mugabe. In a reaction to the decision, Mnangagwa-adviser Chris Mutsvangwa, said: “Land reform is over. Now we want inclusiveness. All citizens who had a claim to land by birth right, we want them to feel they belong and we want them to build a new country because this economy is shattered.” Symbolic deeds of a still fragile new regime, or real reform?

  1. BBC
  2. News24
  3. Telegraph

Cambodia

This week, Cambodia and the Philippines announced to have concluded a new defense agreement, further advancing their bilateral cooperation which has been highlighted since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016. While various agreements have been signed since the end of the Cold War, the two countries only decided more recently to set up a Joint Commission for Bilateral Consultations, serving as a forum to review past agreements and explore new possibilities of cooperation, whose second meeting in six years was held this week. As for the new defense pact, few details are known.

After the US announced on Wednesday to introduce visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the ongoing crackdown against political opposition and freedom of expression, Cambodia’s government called on the US to reconsider the decision. Ruling party spokesman Sok Ey San did so, accusing the US of “’having double standards’ by contradicting what he called U.S. President Donald Trump’s ‘policy of non-interference’ in the affairs of sovereign states”, while Cambodia maintained the US decision would not impact internal affairs, wrote Radio Free Asia. Former CNRP President Sam Rainsy who lives in self-imposed exile since 2015 and whose party was recently dissolved, welcomed the visa restrictions but urged the US and other members of the international community to take further measures against the current Cambodian government. Prime Minister Hun Sen who has been in power for more than 32 years, this week accused Sam Rainsy “of ‘treason’ for calling on Cambodia’s military to disobey the prime minister’s orders to kill protesters, and said the former CNRP chief will face additional legal action for his comments” – while Rainsy is already subject to convictions “widely seen as politically motivated”. Meanwhile, the Irish Times reported of Cambodia’s independent press’ ‘fight for life’ as the government has been shutting down media.

  1. The Diplomat (defense agreement)
  2. Radio Free Asia
  3. Irish Times

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Poland

Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has named its development and finance minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to take the place of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo who filed resignation on Thursday. Morawiecki, 49, who has become known for taking on tax evasion and bolstering the welfare state, takes his new position amid what is expected to be a “borader government reshuffle to prepare the rightwing party for votes due in the next three years”. Outgoing Szydlo has overseen the “sweeping changes to state institutions in Poland” which have met critical voices for undermining democracy and the rule of law. Szydlo herself had been “one of the country’s most popular leaders”, wrote Abc News on Tuesday, when a tweet by Szydlo had already hinted at her leaving the position. The news outlet further wrote that “[w]hile the ruling Law and Justice party and Szydlo herself are both popular among Poles, Morawiecki could be better prepared to represent the country internationally as Poland faces off against the EU over legal changes seen as attacks on the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, the European Commission is to sue Poland alongside Hungary and the Czech Republic for refusing to take asylum seekers, accusing them of non-compliance with their obligations. After unsatisfactory replies to earlier procedures, the Commission has decided to move to the next stage. BBC wrote that Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister reacted by saying that “his government was ‘ready to defend its position in the court’.”

  1. The Guardian (new PM)
  2. BBC (European Commission)

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Myanmar

After having received criticism for not mentioning the Rohingya refugees publicly by name during his visit in Myanmar, Pope Francis explained on Sunday he did not want to risk shutting the door on dialogue with the country’s leaders, reported CNN. He said his views had already been well known and he had been able to “go beyond his public words” during private meetings. As the Pope was talking to the press after his visit to Bangladesh, he also stated he was deeply moved when meeting Rohingya refugees.

On Tuesday, Myanmar received renewed international pressure when Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, made reference to possible genocide when addressing the situation in Myanmar and operations against the Rohingya in a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. After he had already talked about ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ before, he now “elevates the charge to te gravest of crimes against humanity”, wrote the NY Times. Al-Hussein said that scale and gravity of the atrocities “warrant investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague”. Even though the team has not yet been allowed into Myanmar, an ongoing fact-finding mission by the UN Human Rights Council has been collecting information and heard “allegations of ‘extreme severity,’ including genocide.” Additional investigations are being conducted by a UN special representative, focusing on sexual assault and violence by the Myanmar military. Al-Hussein urged the UN General Assembly to establish a separate body for investigation of individual criminal responsibilities of involved authorities in Myanmar.

  1. CNN
  2. NY Times

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The United States of America

On Saturday, the Senate decided to pass the tax reform also known as the GOP tax plan, which had been protested throughout the US beforehand. The bill was adopted by a small margin of 51-49 in the Republican-controlled Senate. Contrary to what President Trump had said about the tax reforms, economists have found that it will likely only hold limited benefits, for a short time, for the middle class and for the poorest of the country, while benefitting companies and wealthy households. The “biggest losers” of the tax reform will be mostly high-tax areas, graduate students, government workers and public school teachers, often being Democrat, claimed Bloomberg and others. Moreover, it is said to drive up national debt. As debates continue, the bill has not fully passed due to differing versions in the House and Senate, which is now being worked on by a conference committee. The Washington Post wrote that Trump said on Wednesday: “There are very, very few people that aren’t benefiting by [the tax package], but there’s that tiny little sliver, and we’re going to try to take care of even that very small group of people that just through circumstances maybe don’t get the full benefit of what we’re doing”, though it was not clear whom he was referring to. The Post article reported that rich New Yorker friends had voiced concerns “that the current plan would drive up their taxes and hurt his home state.”

On Monday, the US and South Korea jointly launched aerial-drills, to enhance readiness and operational capability and to ensure peace and security on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. military had said, according to Reuters. The exercise which North Korea called a provocation, comes a week after it had tested what it said to be “its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile ever in defiance of international sanctions and condemnation.”

In the Middle East, President Trump’s announcement on Wednesday of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital and moving the US Embassy there has sparked strong reactions globally and in the region, fostering ongoing tensions. BBC wrote that the “status of Jerusalem goes to the heart of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians”, as both sides make their claims to the city which is home to key religious sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians, especially in the East. While Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed the US move and labeled it a “historic landmark” and being “courageous and just”, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed the decision to be unacceptable and to undermine any peace effort. Leader of the Islamist movement Hamas, Ismail Haniya, has called for a “new intifada” and sees the American move as an aggression against his people. UN Secretary General António Guterres stated this “would jeopardise the prospect of peace for Israelis and Palestinians”, being an issue which had to be negotiated between the two parties. The UN Security Council has called for a meeting to discuss Trump’s decision today. His announcement has caused widespread protests and sometimes violent clashes in the Palestinian territories, but also beyond the region.

  1. ABS-CBN News
  2. Reuters
  3. BBC
  4. The Guardian

Syria

As UN-led Syian peace talks started last week, mediator Staffan de Mistura announced that the talks will be extended until mid-December. He said that current talks are taking place “against ‘quite a backdrop of intense diplomatic activity, in recent weeks to find a political solution to the Syria crisis, following important meetings in Vietnam’s DaNang, Russia’s Sochi, and Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh”, wrote the UN News Center. De Mistura highlighted that ‘no preconditions’ should be raised by the parties. The mediator noted that the warring parties not meeting in the same room was not a ‘deal-breaker.’  He said that while discussions have been covering the 12 points/principles plan including points for the future of Syria and have started addressing the issues of how to proceed on a new constitution, the issue of the presidency had not come up.

Based on the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local sources, Al Jazeera reported that Israel fired missiles at Syrian sites on Saturday and Monday. According to the Observatory “the targets [were] warehouses and locations belong to the regime forces and their allies”. Another source said “the Israeli raid was aimed at government military sites and positions of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement”.

The BBC reported that Jan Egeland, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Syria, has reprimanded Russia and Iran for not increasing their efforts to give aid organizations access to Eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel enclave just outside Damascus. Egeland, who is also secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, called “the failure to persuade the Syrian government, their ally […] ‘complete impotence’.” Around 400,000 people are trapped in the area, where Joint UN and Syrian Red Crescent aid convoys have not been able to supply enough nutrition and medical supplies for all the people. Among them are desperately ill children waiting for permission to leave, “despite the area, which has been besieged since 2013, being designated as a ‘de-escalation zone’ by Russia, Iran and Turkey”. A BCC journalist stated that Egeland seemed “visibly angry when discussing the inability of the UN and its partners to evacuate people with life-threatening medical conditions”. Civilians “are also reported to have been killed in air and artillery attacks by government forces in the past month, though a ceasefire is now in place.”

  1. UN News Center
  2. Al Jazeera
  3. BBC

In-other-News

Other News

Honduras Tens of thousands had flooded the streets of Honduras in opposition to what has been seen as a turn in the dragged vote counting in favor of incumbent President Hernandez after elections almost two weeks ago, plunging the country into its worst political crisis since a military coup in 2009. The election counts have been accused of vote count fraud, making Hernandez the winner after first polls had signaled his opponent Nasralla to win. Protests were violently suppressed, leading to 11 deaths, until the Honduran police surprisingly defied orders stating it did not want to repress and violate the rights of the Honduran people anymore. The Honduran election tribunal has now announced a recount of 4,753 ballot boxes “that have cast a shadow on the results of the country’s presidential election, […] bowing to a demand by the Organization of American States (OAS).”

Spain – On Tuesday, the Spanish Supreme Court withdrew an international arrest warrant for Puigdemont “in order to bring his case “back solely under Spanish jurisdiction, leaving him without an international legal stage to pursue his independence campaign”, as Reuters writes. On Thursday, nearly 50,000 people, many traveled from Spain, marched through Brussels’ European quarter in support of Catalan independence and the region’s ousted president who had fled to Belgium and is likely to be detained in Spain due to “pending pending investigation on charges of sedition, rebellion, misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust.” Catalonia is set to go to the polls on December 21st.

Ukraine – In what Agence France Press called a “dramatic showdown between hundreds of Saakashvili supporters and the Ukrainian authorities”, the former Georgian president was freed from a Ukrainian police van. Mikheil Saakashvili had been arrested on Tuesday on “charges of assisting criminal organisations.” He had been President of Georgia until 2013 after the so-called Rose Revolution, before coming to Ukraine to work as a governor of the Odessa region until “falling out with [President] Poroshenko”, who had stripped Saakashvili of his passport. According to AFP, “Saakashvili urged the crowd to march to the Ukrainian parliament and demand the impeachment of the president”, after emerging from the van.

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CANVAS’ Daily News

Also read what we featured in our daily news section this week:

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