Photo: “Renegade helicopter pilot Oscar Pérez was killed in a nine-hour long siege near the capital, Caracas, on Monday, the Venezuelan government has confirmed.” Though on the run, he attended at least one opposition march. (via BBC News)
Democratic Republic of Congo
After the UN human rights office called on the DRC to not use force against protests, Congolese police have completely ignored this request. On Friday the 12th of January in the capital Kinshasa, they fired teargas at dozens of churchgoers, who were mourning the deaths of seven people killed in the protests that took place two weeks ago against President Joseph Kabila. This was done supposedly to prevent the gathering from evolving into a political demonstration. As a result of Kabila’s refusal to step down, there have been several protests and consequent deaths and militia violence in the past two years. There is deep fear that the DRC will relapse into civil wars.
The persistence of Kabila to remain in power with no mandate and to keep his opposition weak and fragmented is fueling resistance amongst several institutions and groups. For instance, the Catholic church, with broad credibility in the DRC, “has emerged as a lightning rod for opposition” against Kabila. Moreover, as announced by a senior UN official on Wednesday at a news conference in Geneva, militias in eastern DRC are uniting in opposition to Kabila. They, along with additional militia groups in the country, are in agreement with regards to the political agenda and the transition of the DRC without President Kabila.
The IOM has furthermore stressed the gravity of the situation in the DRC and that its breaking point has been reached with around 7.7 million people suffering an acute food emergency and 4.3 million displaced.
As political impasse and violence persist in the DRC, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is voicing serious concerns and calling “upon all political actors to exercise maximum restraint and to address their differences peacefully”. They reiterate the significance and importance of a timely and swift implementation of the 31 December 2016 Agreement and the recently adopted electoral timeline. The UNSC stresses that they “are essential for a peaceful and credible electoral process, a democratic transition of power, and the peace and stability of the DRC, as well as in supporting the legitimacy of the transitional institutions”.
In a movement of opposition to new proposals in parliament that further restrict abortion access, thousands of Polish women took to the streets this week. The demonstrations were organized in more than 50 cities across Poland by a coalition of women’s rights groups. The proposal they’re presently protesting eliminates one of the last legal reasons for abortion – severe illness or deformation of the fetus that endangers its or the mother’s life. In the same week, parliament rejected a separate “Save Women” proposal that would have moderately liberalized abortion access for women in this country with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The failed proposal had advocated greater access to abortion, free contraception, and sex education in public schools. The ruling Law and Justice party, in close association with the Catholic Church, has been continuously eroding abortion legality in Poland and will likely continue forward with these aims.
In the international sphere, Poland’s relations with the EU are becoming ever tenser. On Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker stated, “We are not at war with Poland. We have a dispute with the Polish government”, to address growing concerns about the country’s failure to yet comply with the EU and reverse its controversial judicial reforms. Three months remain for the country to comply, but negotiations have not led to any concrete progress thus far. Also in EU relations, the Polish Energy Minister has stated that he does not expect the country to be able to meet the ambitious targets set by European lawmakers for renewable energy. This is in accordance with the policy of the Law and Justice party that sees “renewable energy as unstable and a threat to the country’s heavily coal-reliant industry”.
Relations between Poland and the US seem to be friendly this week as Polish President Andrej Duda compliments Donald Trump on his war against ‘fake news’, saying that “his country’s leaders are also the victim of false reports accusing them of undermining democracy and the rule of law”. At the same time this week, Poland is requesting an increase in the number of US troops in Poland. This comes after and in addition to the 2016 announcement that NATO would deploy additional battalions to the region against Russian threats.
In the summer of 2017, a pilot named Oscar Pérez used a stolen helicopter to throw grenades at a government building. On Monday this week, the Venezuelan government located him, and Pérez posted a video of himself stating he and his compatriots were attempting to negotiate with officials. In the video, one of several on social media, he is holed up in a house outside Caracas that the government is targeting as a ‘terrorist cell.’ Pérez declares they do not want to fight, that there are civilians inside whose lives should not be endangered, and that they want to see their families. In his first video, he appears calm and composed. Later in the day, his videos show him tired and bloodied, claiming that the officials aren’t looking for a surrender, but instead to kill Pérez and his collaborators. “They’re shooting at us with RPGs”, he said. The shootout concluded with several deaths, both of police and of those with Perez. Perez’s body was among the seven dead on his side. A top opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, has accused the killings of being extrajudicial, as there was no due process of law. The government released a press statement saying the officer’s lives were in danger as Pérez and his followers continually fired on them, although this contradicts Perez’s narrative. Rights advocate groups and opposition party members are calling for an investigation into the killings. Regrettable as his death is, Pérez may now become a martyr for opponents of Maduro.
Since last summer, Perez had been on the run while the government searched for him, the subject of ‘Wanted’ posters posted around Venezuela. In December, he posted a video of himself and a small armed group taking control of a military outpost and smashing a portrait of President Maduro. His summer attack coincided with a wave of protests against the socialist government. Perez, during his hiding for the past six months, released videos calling for citizens to resist the government and rebel against Maduro, blaming it and him for the country’s economic issues. He called for Venezuelans to fight back, but was perhaps demoralized by the dissolution of protestors following Maduro’s consolidation of power when he established his own loyal Congress.
The United States of America
It has been one year since the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, but the government is still working to resolve the chaos of that day. In the face of mass protests, police used pepper spray and flash-bang grenades against demonstrating citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing members of the Washington DC police department for assault and deprivation of constitutional rights, like free expression, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process. It also raises claims for “false arrest and imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of the DC First Amendment Assemblies Act”. Spencer Kaaz, a DC protestor, says “It’s textbook 101 repression procedure. Arrest dissidents, intimidate and harass them, cause financial and emotional difficulty” about the response to the inaugural turmoil. His trial is scheduled for March of 2018.
Last year, 234 people were arrested or charged with a crime, and of them 59 still await trial. Protestor Dane Powell pleaded guilty to felony rioting and assaulting a police officer. He was given a four-month prison term. On Thursday of this week, the government announced dropping 129 cases against protestors: all those without felony charges. Those still awaiting decisions were charged with felonies “ranging from inciting a riot to destruction of property.” While previously, the government’s intention had been to pursue group trials through most of 2018, the acquittal of all six defendants in the first batch likely led to a shift in their approach.
President Trump sparked intense controversy over his recent ‘shithole’ countries remark, and the strong backlash continues. Protests of the remark have occurred both within the US and abroad. Some of the largest took place this past week on the streets of New York and Miami, and outside the US embassies in Haiti and South Africa. Condemnation of the comment took place in many other forms across Africa and the Caribbean, in many of the nations that Trump targeted with his disdainful comments.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have been discussing plans to return thousands of Rohingya who fled an army crackdown Myanmar over the past year.
On Tuesday, the two countries came to an agreement to return the refugees within two years. The process is to begin next Tuesday. Bangladesh is to establish 5 transit camps on its side of the border, and Myanmar has also agreed to establish a transit camp to house 30,000 people.
While the UNHCR was not officially involved in this agreement, it is expected that the organization will be heavily involved with helping coordination. A briefing note by the UN Refugee Agency underlines the importance of the refugees willingly returning home to Myanmar. In particular, the refugees note that their legal status and the security in the Rakhine state are vital factors in their decisions. The recent spate of targeted attacks by the Myanmar army on Rohingya, ostensibly to quell radical members of the Rohingya, added to years of ethnic tension, discrimination, and abuse, and causing Myanmar to come under serious international scrutiny.
The greatest issue, says UN Secretary-General Guterres, would be to leave the returning Rohingya in a permanent state of transit, stuck in the camps without a home to return to. The timeline is less important than the security of those returning.
Amnesty International advises that without a stabilization of relations within Myanmar, forcing Rohingya refugees to return there would be a ‘violation of international law,’ against the principle of non-refoulement.
On the same day that the bilateral agreement was reached, police fired on protesters in Rakhine State. More than 4,000 Rakhine Buddhists gathered around Mrauk U to protest a ban on commemorating the fall of the ancient Arakan kingdom. Seven were killed and more still rushed to the hospital with injuries.
This week, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has continued spreading his New Zimbabwe narrative, preaching unity, forgiveness, and change. During a meeting with Trevor Ncube, chairman of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), the holding behind Zimbabwean newspapers NewsDay, Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard, Mnangagwa stated that he has discarded populist politics, but will make hard decisions to restore Zimbabwe’s lost economic glory. “As a leader, you don’t have to take the nation where they want to go, but to where they ought to go. If you want to remain in power, you will do what people want even if it’s not good (for the country). But if you want to leave a legacy, then you have to make tough and hard decisions which will change their lives,” he said. Also this week, during a visit to neighboring Mozambique, Mnangagwa promised that Zimbabwe would hold elections within four or five months. On Thursday, Mnangagwa gave his first interview with an international news organization since taking office in November. The Zimbabwean President is strongly “seeking to build bridges with the West”, he told Financial Times. Alec Russell’s full interview with President Mnangagwa will appear on FT.com on Friday.
Then on Tuesday, the BBC and Newsday report on the latest developments in the government’s fight against corruption. As several (former) high ranking government officers are summoned before Parliament over leakages and corruption in the diamond-mining sector, Robert Mugabe might be called upon to appear and be questioned intensely. “There are no sacred cows in terms of the oversight role of Parliament, and there is nothing that even stops us from calling Mugabe, who first mentioned the issue of the $15 billion, from appearing before Parliament and asking him how he came to know about that,” according to Norton MP Temba Mliswa, the chair of the Mines and Energy Portfolio Committee. In 2016, Mugabe claimed that $15 billion worth of diamond revenue was unaccounted for, a claim that continues to dominate political discussions on accountability to this day.
Sam Rainsy, former opposition CNRP leader, announced the creation of the new Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) on Sunday, reported Reuters. The CNRM “would provide a new structure that nobody can harm or dissolve”. Besides Rainsy, members include his wife Saumura Tioulong and deputy presidents of the former CNRP, Eng Chhai Eang and Mu Sochua. They invited others to join “to protect the will of the Cambodian people through free, fair and inclusive elections”, while also calling on the authorities to release former party leader Kem Sokha alongside other political prisoners. Rainsy further tweeted, the movement could call on the people for peaceful protests and strikes, as well as on the security forces to align with the people.
This move has been labeled “desperate” by a government spokesperson on Sunday, and different Cambodian opposition voices have also expressed their doubts and disapproval. Kem Sokha’s former cabinet chief stated he did not see a need for this new movement as the dissolved CNRP had gained three million votes and should continue within the same framework. Others added that this might endanger other (former) CNRP members and that people were afraid to protest.
Prime Minister Hun Sen seemed to equate the announcement of the new movement and possible protests with possible chaos. However, he pledged to not let this happen, reported the Phnom Penh Post. After Sam Rainsy had further stated that postponing the otherwise “illegitimate, meaningless and useless” elections “until they ‘meet minimum international standards’”. Among other things, Rainsy said this would avoid any violence. On Thursday, Hun Sen reacted by announcing that the elections would go ahead as scheduled. Furthermore, Cambodia’s government announced “it will closely investigate” the new movement and, if found illegal, might take legal action, reported Radio Free Asia. The news outlet also reported that the Ministry of Interior would not allow demonstrations. Meanwhile, Hun Sen appointed his son-in-law as the new deputy national police chief in what Reuters describes as “move apparently aimed at consolidating his power”.
In the new 2018 Freedom House Report, Cambodia received a downward trend arrow due to the “crackdown on the political opposition include[ing] the dissolution of the main opposition party and treason charges against its leader”. In an article for the Diplomat, David Hutt takes a closer look at the new CNRM and asked on Wednesday “Does Cambodia’s Opposition Movement Really Matter?”. Last Saturday, Vannarith Chheang made a case against Cambodia sanctions in another Diplomat article, as she thinks “a punitive approach will not stop the country’s democratic collapse.
In their fierce struggles against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, and their affiliated groups, the Syrian Arab Army units established full control over new areas in the Hama and Aleppo countrysides on Wednesday. In addition to fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighted that “the US intends to maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria…to [also] provide a bulwark against Iranian influence, ensure the departure of the Assad regime and create conditions for the return of refugees”.
According to Syria’s Deputy Foreign and Expatriates Minister Faysall Mikdad, “the US announcement to form ‘an armed militia’ in the northeastern part of Syria is an attempt to divide Syria and prolong the crisis in the country”. Moreover, he stated that this does not come to the surprise of the Syrian government, as the US makes decisions “which serve American, Gulf, Israeli and western agendas whose aim is to destroy the region”. Since there is no coordination with the Syrian government, this is deemed illegitimate and a breach of international law. Additionally, this is viewed as an aggression on Syria’s national sovereignty. Staffan di Mistura, the UN’s special Syria envoy, announced “he is convening two days of talks between the regime and opposition in Vienna” next week.
Syria’s Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, has claimed that the war waged on the Syrian people is an unjust one bearing negative consequences on them and the country’s development. He stresses the significance of “a new vision” that will drive forward the development process and overcome any obstacles hindering it. Meeting with the human development committee, the aim is to develop “a work mechanism to rebuild the Syrian citizens who were affected by the war and its repercussions”. Thus, fundamental pillars were set for the government’s strategy to “rebuild the Syrian human being and enhance his/her contribution as an active member in every aspect of life”, targeting all the different spectrums and age groups of Syrian society.
The situation in Syria has affected and ended many lives as the former UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, urges Theresa May and other world leaders “not to forget about civilians being bombed in Syria at a time when the UN Security Council has been “driven out of the picture””. Moreover, there is fear that a “new wave of migration” and humanitarian catastrophe may be sparked by the current assault by the Assad regime on the 2.6 million people of Idlib, the last Syrian province under rebel control and a recently designated “de-escalation zone”.
North/South Korea – Following several discussions between North and South Korea, a diplomatic breakthrough resulted in the agreement that athletes from both countries will march together at this year’s Winter Olympics opening ceremony under a unified flag. They also have established a joint women’s ice hockey team for this year’s games. – CNN
Tunisia – The beginning of the new year seems to mark the instigation of revolts in Tunisia as previously witnessed in 1978, 1984, 2001, 2016, and now 2018. However, there is common belief that today’s riots are more dangerous than those of 2011, as Tunisia is experiencing a complete absence of any economic and social development policies. “Citizens believe that the demands of social equality, improvement of socio-economic conditions and attention to the most disadvantaged groups are being ignored by the political parties, who think only of short-term political gain and have no interest in long-term reform.” – European Council on Foreign Relations
The Maldives – After single candidate talks started in the opposition coalition last week, Raajje reported of ongoing tensions between rivals turned allies and former Presidents Gayoom and Nasheed. Amidst a chill in bilateral relations, the Maldives now reassured its ‘India first policy’. The senior EU delegation concluded its visit to the Maldives on Monday, after it met with Foreign Minister Asim on Sunday, but not with the President or Chief Justice. – Raajje (EU visit)
Hong Kong – Joshua Wong, the public face of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, was sentenced to a second term in prison after being on bail pending an appeal in another case related to the protests. He and other activists were “found guilty of contempt of court for blocking clearance of a protest site”. – BBC
Mexico – For the first time, two women representing left-leaning political parties will compete in the election for Mayor of Mexico City. Alejandra Barrales of the CDMX Coalition Front and Claudia Sheinbaum of the National Regeneration Movement are campaigning now for the July 1 election. – teleSUR
Bolivia – In Bolivia, the nation-wide medical strike ended last week after 47 days, soon after the president threatened legal action against the doctors who continued the strike despite the deal – teleSUR. In that same week, Bolivian President Evo Morales lashed out to right wing political actors, blaming them for “lies and conspiracies”, that allegedly try to oppose his rule – teleSUR