Democratic Republic Congo
After violent acts by security forces in the context of recent demonstrations, the UN human rights office called on DRC not to use force against protests, reported the UN News Centre late last week. Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also underlined “that ‘necessity, proportionality, non-discrimination and accountability are key principles that underpin the use of force for the management of peaceful assemblies,’” and pointed out the importance of ensuring the exercise of freedom of association, peaceful assembly, opinion and expression. According to her, “credible and independent investigations” should also be conducted in cases of alleged use of excessive force and human rights violators “should be brought to justice.” The DRC authorities should further hold “constructive dialogue with the opposition”. Furthermore, the UN is to investigate into the attack leading to the death of 15 peacekeepers in DRC in December, the bloodiest attack in DRC’s UN Mission (MONUSCO) since 1999 so far. Investigators are also set to examine other assaults on UN personnel in the area, and to subsequently make recommendations on the prevention of such incidents in the future, reported Al Jazeera.
From Monday to Wednesday, two days of national mourning for recent deaths caused by flooding and mudslides in the capital Kinshasa were held in DRC. According to an Agence France Press article on News24, this comes in the context of a concern of a recent cholera outbreak as it bares higher risk for contamination. As CANVAS has been reporting the past months, DRC is already facing a humanitarian crisis, particularly in the Kasai region, which the UN has compared to those of Syria and Yemen. Michael Arunga from Christian Aid now published an article on ReliefWeb, highlighting the necessity of humanitarian assistance, but also especially of peace initiatives. According to Arunga “Without peace, there can be no end to this humanitarian crisis.”
As Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang paid an official visit to Cambodia on January 10 and 11 in the context of the sixth Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting. China pledged more financial support for the cooperation framework between the countries of the Lancang-Mekong river, including Cambodia, all maintaining large trade relations with China. Li Keqiang also met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, underlining their relation as “neighbors with profound friendship”. The two countries agreed on a “deepening bilateral comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” and signed 19 bilateral documents in various areas, including those of politics, economy and culture.
Internally, Cambodia witnessed the 39th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the Cambodian genocide between 1975 and 1979 leading to the death of about 1.7 million Cambodians. Tens of thousands, more than in the past years, attended a rally led by Hun Sen on Sunday. According to Agence France Press, the Prime Minister used this event to “burnish his reputation as saviour of the nation” at a time of firm control over Cambodia. The Khmer Times reported that Hun Sen further highlighted his “government’s success in preventing a colour revolution”, accusing the opposition of having “attempted to collude with a foreign power to overthrow the government.”
The National Police announced the need to collect financial information of 118 senior members of the resolved main opposition party, reported the Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday. Another official stated asset seizures as a possibility in the case of continuance of the “purported ‘colour revolution’ overseas”. According to The Post, a political observer stated there was no reason for such inquiry “reserved for serious crimes.” Also this week, a woman was sentenced to one year in prison for posting a Facebook video accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of ordering the murder of government critic Kem Ley last year, wrote Radio Free Asia. While a former soldier was sentenced for the murder, government involvement in the incident is still widely suspected. Also on Tuesday, the Khmer Times reported on a new media pass being introduced by the end of January. According to the Information Ministry, it will be used to “easily manage and collect data from journalists.” It will only be valid for one year, opposing to the former three years, and “[if] there is a report that a pass holder behaves contrary to the profession, we will take action accordingly,” said an Information Ministry official.
On Wednesday, the two Reuters journalists who had been arrested on December 12, have been officially charged at a Yangon court with “obtaining state secrets”, wrote NY Times. They are accused of violating the colonial era Official Secrets Act with a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison. The two had been invited to meet with police officials, were handed unidentified documents and subsequently detained by the police. Reuters President and Editor in Chief, Stephen Adler, “called the move to prosecute the reporters ‘a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom,’” being one of the voices condemning the decision. Lately, journalists have not been able to conduct their work in Rakhine state and many journalists reporting on abuses have been imprisoned. The next hearing of the two Reuters journalists is set for January 23.
The two had been investigating about a mass grave which was found outside Inn Din village. In this context also on Wednesday, the Myanmar military officially admitted killing ten Rohingya who had been found in the grave. “The army’s unprecedented acknowledgement came after months of denial of any wrongdoing towards the persecuted Rohingya minority”, wrote Al Jazeera. Officials explained that armed “‘Bengali terrorists’” attacked soldiers in September and ten of them were first detained, but later killed as “’it was found that there were no conditions to transfer’” them. Amnesty International’s regional director, James Gomez, called this account “an ‘appalling’ attempt to ‘justify extrajudicial executions.’”
Meanwhile, a militant group saying to fight for Rohingya rights has admitted responsibility for an attack on a military truck in Rakhine State last Friday. BBC reported that in 2017, “an armed Rohingya insurgency has grown” and the assaults launched in August were what triggered the fierce military response. VOA also reported of new fighting between the military and other ethnic armed groups, especially over the past months in the country’s north. This seems particularly significant in light of the upcoming third Peace Conference next month. Most observers are not confident that “any significant progress will be made in the months ahead.” Before Auung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took power in January 2016, Myanmar’s current civilian leader had vowed to make the peace process the top priority on her agenda. To do so, she would be seeking to advance the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement from November 2015 which had been signed by eight ethnic armed groups – excluding some bigger groups from the north.
In the context of ongoing tensions between Poland and the EU, Prime Minister Morawiecki said this week “he could convince Brussels that Poland was forming its first independent judiciary since the post-war communist era” with ‘dialogue’, wrote BBC. Tuesday, the Prime Minister replaced the positions of Defense Minister as well as Foreign Minister in a current, major cabinet reshuffle seeking to “mend ties with the country’s EU partners”. According to BBC, Morawiecki said Poland does not “want to be a dogmatic, doctrinaire or extremist government”, after a meeting with the EU Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker and Vice-President Frans Timmermans.
Meanwhile as The Times reported, European Council President Donald Tusk said he had no doubt that the Polish government might intend to get out of the European Union. The Independent as well as The Guardian published pieces this week, warning of Europe’s “illiberal alliance” of Poland and Hungary who are slowly turning away from European Union norms, “prefer[ing] ‘conservative nationalist’ states to democracy”.
Inside Poland, the Parliament passed a reform bill early Thursday, aiming at the country’s election process, now leaving it for decision to President Andrzej Duda, after the Senate had already supported the bill in December. The changes it would introduce might seem insignificant first, but changes included the selection process of officials for Poland’s National Election Commission and its National Election Bureau. As a result, the ruling party might be able to bring control over elections and “further weaken democratic checks and balances”, wrote the Washington Post. Furthermore, the Polish Parliament debated two draft laws regarding abortion, one seeking to liberalize the law and the other aiming to ban abortion in cases when the foetus is deformed, wrote Euractiv.com and AFP. This brings the topic back on the agenda more than a year after tens of thousands, especially women, went to the streets of Poland to stop a further tightening of the already restrictive law. Besides, Poland’s National Broadcasting Council lifted a controversial fine which the Scripps Networks Interactive station TVN had been set to pay in December. The body’s regulator announced the decision after hearing other positions, analyses and arguments. The council further stated to create a Media Round Table, wrote Broadband TV News on Thursday.
On Monday, the Maldives opposition alliance started discussions to find a single candidate for the 2018 presidential elections in which each party voiced their terms for such a candidate, reported Avas. Main opposition leaders include former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed, as well as Gasim Ibrahim from the Jumhoory Party and Sheikh Imran Abdulla from the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party. According to Avas, Chair of the meeting and main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was confident about the ‘reform alliance’ being able to succeed in their undertaking. On Thursday, Member of Parliament Qasim Ibrahim expressed certainty that whichever opposition single candidate would be get chosen, he or she would be able to win “at least ‘eighty percent’ of all votes”, reported Raajje. He also urged the government to “release political prisoners and encouraged his supporters to remain ‘steadfast and true to their principals.’” Last year, the MP himself had been sentenced to a jail term for bribery allegations as the third of four opposition leaders to receive a jail sentence.
Meanwhile, Avas reported on the Maldivian government seeking to amend the penal code to add specifications concerning corruption and embezzlement which it does not contain so far. Attorney General Mohamed Anil disclosed on Wednesday, that the government now looks to make two major amendments including some recommendations made by the Maldivian Anti-Corruption Commission. This comes after the current penal code was only adopted in 2015 after a decade in the making, replacing the former 1968 code.
After growing influence of China in the Maldives, the latter now forged a new agreement with another East Asian country. During the first visit of a Japanese Foreign Minister to the island state, the two countries agreed to cooperate closely within Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The latter seeks to establish cooperation with countries of similar values “to contribute to stability” in an area reaching from East Asia to Africa, and it “is being promoted as China strengthens ties with Indian Ocean countries”, wrote the Japan Times. At the same time, while an EU election follow-up mission already came to the Maldives last Saturday, a senior EU delegation is expected to arrive for their visit tomorrow.
Over the course of the week, the Syrian government has stepped up its offensive against key rebel-held areas in northern Syria. According to CNN, President Bashar al-Assad has resumed airstrikes on rebel-held areas in places like Idlib province, where medical organizations say several hospitals and medical facilities have been hit over the past two weeks. The renewed military attacks have also caused several thousands to flee their makeshift homes. Officials stated that around half of the civilian population of 2 million people in Idlib province have already been living in “extremely dire” circumstances before being forced to flee again in the current winter cold. Meanwhile, rebels launched a counter attack against the Syrian government forces and their allies on Thursday, seeking to roll back an advance that is fuelling tension with neighboring Turkey.
In that same week, the Turkish authorities have made it clear they will continue operation Euphrates Shield, in Syria’s Afrin and Manbij regions, bordering with Turkey, which was launched in 2016. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this on Tuesday during a parliamentary address to his ruling AK Party. Ankara is working closely with President Bashar al-Assad’s main allies Russia and Iran, but has stepped up criticism of the regime’s behavior. Only last month, President Erdogan said it was impossible to advance with Assad in power, describing him as a “terrorist.” In recent days, according to ArabNews, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying that “regime forces are striking moderate opposition with the pretext of fighting against Al-Nusra (Front),” referring to the latest developments in Idlib-province.
Then on Thursday, Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council to act in the Eastern Ghouta situation. Mainly the safety and rights of children are in danger, according to the human rights organization. Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, stated that “Syrian and Russian forces appear to view the lives of children in Eastern Ghouta as utterly disposable.” Based on their own research conducted over the month of November, the organizations conclude that the attacks in Eastern Ghouta are apparently indiscriminate, in violation of the laws of war. The attacks, led by Syrian-Russian forces, killed eight children and destroyed or damaged four schools in the period under research, October and early November. The attacks resulted in the closing of schools, depriving many children in the besieged area of access to education.
Late last week, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa made a home visit to the leader of the country’s main opposition party MDC-T, Morgan Tsvangirai, who has been battling cancer. According to Mnangagwa, who was accompanied by his deputy and former military leader Constantino Chiwenga, Tsvangirai was “recuperating very well” following his colon cancer diagnosis two years ago. Nevertheless, the opposition leader still looks frail, and talk of him stepping down continues. Early this week, Tsvangirai himself hinted towards stepping down, which would mean the first national elections since 2002 without the political veteran. According to Associated Press, Tsvangirai said he is “looking at the imminent prospects of us as the older generation leaving the levers of leadership to allow the younger generation to take forward this huge task.”
On the weekend, Reuters reports about two former Zimbabwean ministers loyal to Mugabe, who are now charged with corruption. Former minister of Foreign Affairs Walter Mzembi and ex-energy minister Samuel Undenge were charged with “criminal abuse of office”, their lawyers said. Both men denied wrongdoing, as they were granted bail one day after their first appearance in the court. The duo joins former finance minister Ignatius Chombo, former mines minister Walter Chidhakwa, and several other officials, who are out on bail on similar corruption related charges. Some voices have been speaking about the real reason behind their prosecutions being the men’s support for former first lady Grace Mugabe to take over from her husband as President of Zimbabwe.
Finally this week permanent under-secretary in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Simon McDonald, visited Zimbabwe. McDonald is the second high-profile British government representative to visit Zimbabwe within three months, which positivist spirits see as sign of the improving relations between governments in Harare and London. In the last two decades, the relationship between Mugabe and the UK severely soured, mainly due to sharp differences arising from its 2002 elections as well as the more aggressive turn of the land redistribution program, finally leading to its withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 2003. With President Mnangagwa’s focus on economic recovery, Zimbabwe might have prioritized its external relations now.
Deputy Timoteo Zambrano who had represented the opposition coalition “Democratic Unity Roundtable” at talks between the opposition and President Maduro’s government in the Dominican Republic, announced last weekend that he will no longer do so, published Panam Post. According to the article, Zambrano stated that censuring and questioning by leaders of the coalition, and even accusations of collaborating with the Maduro regime, had led him to do so. This comes at a time, where Zambrano lost the election for President of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled but sidelined National Assembly (NA), “rais[ing] doubts about the true motivations for Zambrano’s resignation, as the allegations that he is a collaborator with the Maduro regime are not new.” Omar Barboza, former governor and new leader of the NA, is also involved in the talks which are seen to be falling apart.
An article published by Foreign Affairs last Friday, addresses “The Tragedy of the Venezuelan Opposition” which, despite Maduro being widely unpopular, has not managed to keep up the electoral support it had received in the 2015 NA elections. Besides the President “chang[ing] the rules”, the article blames the inability to convey the opposition’s commitment towards their vision of a more democratic future and internal divisions for these developments. Nevertheless, in light of the shared difficulties “truly committed democrats” might still be able to create a more effective opposition “with a positive policy program”, and the current crisis might proof a new opportunity for the opposition.
Meanwhile, The Guardian reported of some opposition leaders talking about a coup d’état being the only realistic chance for regime change. Some say the Venezuelan military could play a role in turning the tide towards a more democratic future as most officers seem to be against the current chaos, according to Julio Borges, former NA President. Political analysts have, however, deemed such a coup “unlikely due to a growing and mutually beneficial alliance between the Maduro government and the military”, labelled as a “civic-military partnership”.
Maduro had ordered the temporary shutdown of traffic between Venezuela and three Caribbean islands, allegedly due to large smuggling activities, though the timing of the decision was unclear. At the same time, the US introduced sanctions for four more Venezuelan officials, accusing them of being engaged in political repression and corruption, being part of the Maduro regime. After Maduro had ordered the issuance of nearly $6 billion in “Petros” on Friday, the NA outlawed the cryptocurrency, “calling it an effort to illegally mortgage the cash-strapped country’s oil reserves”, wrote Reuters early this week.
The United States of America
Early on Friday, BBC reported on President Trump’s plan to continue the suspension of key sanctions on Iran, having decided on the extension of sanction reliefs for additional 120. This comes after European states had urged the US to uphold the agreement “which helped end a long crisis”, describing it as vital for international security. However, according to officials, Trump who sees the 2015 agreement as flawed, is “expected to set a deadline for Congress and European allies to improve the deal or the US will abandon it”. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin expects Trump to introduce “a separate set of sanctions, which are likely to target Iranian businesses and people allegedly involved in missile tests, supporting terrorism, and human rights abuses.” Further information is expected in an official announcement later today.
Within the US, Steve Bannon had been unable to handle pressure from criticism from conservative circles and the Republican Party following remarks attributed to him in the new book ‘Fire and Fury’, questioning “President Trump’s mental fitness and disparage[ing] his son Donald Trump Jr.” After his firing as Trump’s chief strategist and having been the leading figure behind the Trump campaign, Bannon now stepped down from his post as executive chairman of hard-edge nationalist Breitbart News, reported the NY Times on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, a San Francisco judge temporarily barred the Trump administration from ending the so-called DACA program, protecting young people from deportation after their parents had brought them illegally to the US. The decision to rescind DACA in September last year had been repeatedly challenged in court. US District Judge William Alsup now ruled that the program has to continue while litigations are being resolved, and that while first-time applications for protection did not have to be processed, those applications for renewal did. This comes when Trump and congressmen are seeking to introduce immigration reforms, including for the ‘Dreamers’ – those covered by DACA. For the reforms, President Trump announced at a meeting on Tuesday, to support a two-phased approach, first focusing on DACA and funding for the wall, alongside “other restrictions that Democrats have opposed”, then addressing “even more contentious issues” such as possible citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, wrote Reuters.
Tunesia – Early this week, street protests broke out and led to violent clashes as demonstrators lamented steep increases in prices as a result of government austerity measures. The government arrested more than 300 people and started deploying the military. – The Guardian
South/North Korea – The first officials talks after two years between the two countries were held this week and led to the agreement to start military talks, as well as to send a North Korean delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in the South. – Reuters/South China Morning Post
Hong Kong – Lawyers defending nine leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement demonstrations called the charges faced by their defendees “’unconstitutional’ and ‘unnecessarily’ formulated to increase pressure”, and asked the Judge to remove a so-called double inchoate charge – Hong Kong Free Press
Mexico – While the NY Times published an in-depth article about different areas dealing with the most violent period in Mexico’s history, last weekend six officials were killed in XXX, causing fears among aspiring candidates and for the democratic process ahead of the upcoming presidential elections – Al Jazeera
Iran – The continued protests in Iran led to thousands of arrests and human rights activists are largely concerned about the detainees treatment in prison, especially after at least three deaths of imprisoned demonstrators in a notorious jail. In an interesting opinion piece by Nazila Fatih who already followed earlier protests in Iran, the author asks whether the protests will help the hard-liners. – NY Times