Martha O’ Donavan, the American woman who’s arrest CANVAS reported on last week, has been granted bail last Friday. O’ Donavan’s, who is charged with subversion over allegedly insulting President Robert Mugabe on Twitter, her bail was set on $1,000. According to the Washington Post, she did not speak to reporters as she emerged from a prison in the capital, Harare, and left in a U.S. Embassy vehicle. As are the conditions attached to her bail, O’Donovan had to hand over her passport to the Zimbabwean authorities, and has to report to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on Monday and Friday. On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch releases a small report on the most recent clamp down on media in Zimbabwe, calling on the government to create an independent body to impartially investigate police abuses against journalists.
Also late last week, AfricanArguments.org release an opinion-piece by Blessing Miles Tendi, on the role the British authorities might have played in the lay-off of former vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa. “With Mnangagwa’s dismissal,” Tendi argues, “the UK’s alleged strategy [to support Mnangagwa as Zimbabwe’s next president] has not only clearly failed, but its perceived backing for Mnangagwa prompted outrage among many Zimbabweans, further weakening the UK’s image in the country. Moreover, its support for Mnangagwa may have even contributed to his downfall.” Tendi moves on to argue that, besides the fact that UK-meddling in the presidential succession process is a known stick used by Mugabe, the UK should have recognized that associating itself with Mnangagwa would provoke heated domestic opposition because the controversial Mnangagwa has a long history of human rights abuses and violence.
Early this week, Reuters covered a piece by MacDonald Dzirutwe, relating to the building economic crisis in Zimbabwe. According to Dzirutwe, the cryptocurrency bitcoin is becoming a rare protection from the onset of hyperinflation and financial implosion for Zimbabweans. As Zimbabweans are desperately looking into anything they think might retain value, “some are turning to bitcoin out of desperation as their bank deposits lose value almost by the day, while others are using the online currency for housekeeping such as funding family members studying abroad,” the article claims. Bitcoin’s attraction to Zimbabweans also lies in the difficulty of making foreign payments due to government capping or halting transactions which make more money leave the country. For those in Zimbabwe who still have assets, that is.
Then on Tuesday and Wednesday, the army takes over Zimbabwe. Read all about the developments in the last few days on our website!
One day ahead of the court hearing, Human Rights Watch brought out a statement on the upcoming ruling of Cambodia’s highest court on opposition party CNRP. On November 16, the Supreme Court will rule on a case brought at the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen in October to dissolve the CNRP. The Cambodian government has accused that opposition party of trying to stage a “color revolution” – a reference to popular uprisings around the globe – but has provided no evidence of illegality in its court filings. Human Rights Watch stated that “Cambodia’s Supreme Court should resist government pressure to rule on dissolving the country’s main opposition party,” and added that “Cambodia’s international donors and supporters should state clearly that dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) will delegitimize national elections scheduled for 2018.” In the meantime, the opposition itself has seemed to have given up hope for the court-case. As the judge who heads the Supreme Court, Dith Munty, is a member of the permanent committee of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), Mu Sochua, a deputy of Kem Sokha claimed that “there is no chance whatsoever for CNRP to escape dissolution.”
Meanwhile, on that same Wednesday, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who fled to France in 2015 to escape a jail term for defamation, announced he was returning to the CNRP-party. He left that same party in February over fears his membership would lead to it being banned. Rainsy is now running his political operations from Paris. “I’d like to announce that I, Sam Rainsy, became a member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party again from now onwards, whether it is dissolved or not,” he wrote on his official Facebook page. In an interview with Euronews this week, the opposition politicians claimed that he was in no hurry to return to his home country. “He [Hun Sen] would not hesitate to kill me or to kill any other leader of the CNRP…this is a different game. This time, we need a comprehensive solution to the crisis.” The components of such a solution, Rainsy stated, include the release of all political prisoners, an end to an atmosphere of political intimidation, and the re-opening of shuttered media. Although Rainsy acknowledges that this approach will “take time to achieve”, he claims it is the only way to ensure long-term results.
On Thursday, the inevitable happens, as Cambodia’s Supreme Court ordered the main opposition party to be dissolved. Dealing a crushing blow to democratic aspirations in the increasingly oppressive Southeast Asian state, the decision clears the way for the nation’s authoritarian leader to remain in power for years to come. Prime Minister Hun Sen also stated that 118 opposition party members would be banned from politics for the next five years, and the verdict could not be appealed. On that same day, The United States demands that Cambodia reverses its ban on the country’s main opposition, and warns that the dissolution of the party would strip 2018 elections of legitimacy. Reuters reports that Cambodia now faces US and EU sanctions.
Early this week, Human rights groups poured scorn on a Myanmar military investigation into alleged atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, branding it a “whitewash” and calling for U.N. and independent investigators to be allowed into the country. The reactions came after military sources posted the findings of an internal investigation on the Facebook page of its commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, on Monday. The report said “it had found no instances where its soldiers had shot and killed Rohingya villagers, raped women or tortured prisoners. It denied that security forces had torched Rohingya villages or used excessive force,” according to Reuters.
On Monday, Bob Geldof announced that he would returns his Freedom of the city of Dublin honor in protest over Aung San Suu Kyi, who also holds the award. In a statement, the Live Aid founder and musician blasted the Burmese Nobel peace laureate, who has faced widespread criticism over her country’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority. Geldof, originally from Dublin, said: “Her association with our city shames us all and we should have no truck with it, even by default. We honored her, now she appalls and shames us. I do not wish to be associated in any way with an individual currently engaged in the mass ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people of north-west Burma.” On Saturday fellow Irish musicians U2 also criticized Burma’s civilian leader, urging her to fight harder against serious violence inflicted by the nation’s own security forces.
On the same day Human Rights Watch calls on the Burmese government to withdraw the protest ban for Yangon, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Myanmar for talks with the country’s leaders. Tillerson was expected to hold talks about the situation in northern Rakhine state, meeting with leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s powerful military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who is in charge of operations in Rakhine. U.S. lawmakers and activists are urging Tillerson to sanction Myanmar’s military if it doesn’t stop what a top United Nations official has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya Muslim minority. More skeptical opinion makers see the visit as to show Trump administration takes human rights seriously.
Late last week, VOA News reports that The United States and Italy have organized an informal U.N. Security Council meeting on Venezuela. The meeting is aimed at preventing the crisis in that country from turning into a security threat, in the face of a crumbling Venezuelan economy. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley will chair the informal meeting, which will include addresses from U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein and Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro. Haley is urging the U.N. Security Council to turn its attention to the situation in Venezuela, which has until now maintained that regional organizations were best suited to address the crisis. Permanent council members Russia and China boycotted the talks.
As the meeting happened on Monday, Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council to put strong, multilateral pressure, on the country, without which the human rights and humanitarian crisis will only get worse. According to HRW, the council should focus on the regime’s descent into authoritarian rule, the widespread brutal force to react on protests, a humanitarian crisis evolving out of the political crisis, and the impact emigration has on neighboring countries.
Before the first round of debt-restructuring talks took place starting from Monday, Venezuela claims to have reached an agreement to refinance and restructure the debt with Russia. As that deal was finalized on Wednesday, Venezuela’s other main creditor and ally China has chosen not to go along with the offer of debt relief. The Chinese foreign ministry on Wednesday expressed confidence that Caracas could “properly handle” its debt crisis, adding that financial cooperation was “proceeding normally”.
Spain remains deeply divided over the independence question of its Catalonian region. The Spanish prime minister Rajoy on Tuesday ruled out negotiating the future status of Catalonia with its ousted leaders. If up to him, “all of those who deceived Catalonia should be barred from public life”, Mr Rajoy stated in his first interview after imposing direct rule over Catalonia, adding that “in political terms they are off limits”. These remarks are a smack in the face of Catalan President Puigdemont. In an interview published on Monday by Belgian newspaper Le Soir, Mr Puigdemont had said that he believed agreement with the Spanish government was possible on something short of full independence for Catalonia.
Then, early this week Madrid announced that it believes Russian-based groups used online social media to heavily promote Catalonia’s independence referendum last month in an attempt to destabilize Spain. Although Catalonia’s separatist leaders have denied that Russian interference helped them in the vote, Spain’s defense and foreign ministers said they had evidence that state and private-sector Russian groups, as well as groups in Venezuela, used Twitter, Facebook and other Internet sites to massively publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion behind it in the run-up to the referendum. According to CNN, however, the Spanish government could not “say with certainty” if the Russian government was behind it, Defense Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal claimed.
Early this week, close to 60 people are reported to have been killed in air strikes on a rebel-held town in northern Syria. Atareb is located in an area of Aleppo province that is part of a so called “de-escalation zone”, established earlier this year by Russia and Iran – which support the Syrian government – and Turkey, which backs the rebels. The zones are credited for creating a decline in violence, but intermittent clashes have continued while humanitarian access is minimal. It is not clear whether the strike was carried out by Syrian government warplanes or those of its ally Russia.
Then on Tuesday, a Foreign Ministry statement, carried by state-run media, said that US troops in Syria supporting the international coalition to defeat ISIS have no right to be there. “The presence of the US forces or any foreign military presence in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government constitutes an act of aggression and an attack on the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Syria’s state-run news agency quoted an unnamed source in the Foreign Ministry. The comments came a day after U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said “we are not going to just walk away right now” before the U.N-backed political process yields results. The US-led coalition has cited UN Security Council Resolution 2254 to justify its presence in Syria, which calls for “member states to prevent and suppress terrorist acts” specifically committed by ISIS, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, among others. Kurdish officials also stated that they want the U.S. troops to remain in the country to help prevent clashes with pro-government forces, which are also battling IS.
On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council is due to vote on rival U.S. and Russian bids to renew an international inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Washington and Moscow have put forward a draft resolution on renewing the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), tasked with identifying perpetrators of Syria’s toxic gas attacks. According to Reuter, “diplomats say there is little support among the 15-member council for the Russian draft, which Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has said aims to correct “systemic errors” of the inquiry.” Late on Thursday, Russia vetoed a US-sponsored resolution that would have extended its mandate. “For the tenth time on Syria, and the fourth time on chemical weapons, Russia has actively obstructed the international community’s ability to identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks,” Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, said after the vote. After Russia lost a procedural vote at the Security Council on Thursday and was ordered to put its resolution up for a vote before the US proposal, it withdrew its own resolution.
The United States of America
Despite the fact that the ongoing situation between the United States and North-Korea proceeds to scare many on this planet, the battle of words between the Trump-administration and Kim Jong-un also develops into something which looks like a fight between two six-year old’s. Late last week, after President Trump claimed North Korea’s leader insulted him by calling him an ‘old lunatic’, he hit back with a tweet saying: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’” As Trump has been working hard to rally global pressure against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program on his most recent Asia-trip, one could wonder if the laughtivism is part of his tactic, demonizing North Korea, and keeping it apart from the international community.
On the weekend, right before Trump’s last stop on his Asia-tour, various groups staged a series of protests against the scheduled visit of US President Donald Trump in the Philippines. At least 1,500 protesters gathered on Monday at the beginning of the ASEAN Summit activities. According to the protests groups, their biggest concern is “US encroachment on the sovereignty of nations in Asia through war and one-sided economic relations.” The activists are also protesting against the plan of the US government to fund the administration’s campaign against illegal drugs. The Philippines will be Trump’s last stop on a marathon tour that has taken him to Japan, South Korea, China as well as Vietnam.
Democratic Republic Congo
Late last week, the UN Human Rights Committee told the DRC to get their human rights record in order. The U.N. watchdog gave Democratic Republic of Congo a year to report on actions it has taken to hold free and fair elections and clean up its rights record. Congo should come back with an explanation by November 2018, rather than after the regular four years between reviews. The Kabila-regime has scheduled elections for December 2018. Where the main opposition parties have rejected the date, other institutions seem to accept that the elections will be delayed more than two full years. The African Union has said the new electoral timetable must be “scrupulously respected” and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stated that citizens are “hungry for democracy and new leadership”.
The streets stayed empty in Kinshasa on Wednesday. Where several civil-movements have called for protests in the last week, on Wednesday the streets stayed calm, after these same movements organized a mass stay-away (une journée ville-morte). The protest was organized by one of the biggest social movements in Congo, named Lutte pour le Changement (#LUCHA), to refuse the election-calendar which was published by CENI last week, and to demand Joseph Kabila to step aside. The call was supported by the biggest opposition fractions. The tactics of a stay-away was also chosen after police forces announced they would hit hard on all gatherings of more than five people around Congo.
The far right seems on the rise in Poland, as 60,000 people marched through Warsaw on Saturday (Poland’s Independence Day), seeing demonstrators tout white supremacist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic messages. The most disturbing fact, however, might not be a banner which said, “pray for Islamic holocaust” and carried signs with slogans like “white Europe of brotherly nations”, while others chanted “pure Poland, white Poland” and “refugees get out!” Most disturbing, however, must have been the fact that, although the country’s government condemned racist and xenophobic ideas, it called the event “a great celebration of Poles, differing in their views, but united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland”. According to New York Times, “the more salient point was the ministry’s defense of the demonstration as an outpouring of patriotism. The only people arrested were some pro-democracy counter-protesters.”
A wholly different protest in Poland late last week, as police had detained 22 people “for disturbing the peace” at the headquarters of Poland’s forest management agency. The activists were calling for the withdrawal of heavy machinery from the Bialowieza forest. For this area, the only remaining primeval forest in Europe, the EU’s high court issued an injunction forbidding the country from continued logging, but Poland’s government has ignored the order, and continued to allow logging. That move unprecedented move, as the first case that an EU member state has ignored such an injunction. According to Deutsche Welle, “many believe the move to open up logging in the Bialowieza forest is a show of strength by the nationalistic Law and Justice (PiS) government, intent on showing the EU, which has accused the government of undermining democracy in the last two years, that it has the power to do what it wishes with its own land.”
The Maldives – On Thursday, the Maldivian Civil Court accepted a case filed by RaajjeTV, over the MVR 500,000 imposed on the station by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC). One of the most important sources of independent news in the Maldives was fined MVR 500,000 on 8 October this year, for allegedly broadcasting content that “threatens national security”. The station has been fined thrice this year, under the controversial defamation law introduced in August 2016. The first fine, MVR 200,000, was imposed in March, while a second fine of MVR 1 million was imposed the same day it paid the first fine. All three cases have been appealed at the Civil Court – Raajje
Kenya – On Tuesday to Kenya’s Supreme Court reviewed petitions challenging President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in last month’s presidential election, in what may be the last chance for legal scrutiny of the vote – Reuters
Hong Kong – The Court of Appeal granted several activists, who were jailed for between eight and 13 months over their involvement in the protests outside the Legislative Council, to proceed to the Court of Final Appeal for permission to appeal. Their 2014 protests were aimed at then-Finance Committee chair Ng Leung-sing forcing a vote on a HK$340 million funding plan for a controversial northeast New Territories development plan – Hong Kong Free Press
CANVAS’ Daily News
Also read what we featured in our daily news section this week:
Last week Friday, US citizen Martha O’Donovan was arrested during a raid at her house in Harare at dawn. O’Donovan who works for Magamba TV is accused of allegedly insulting President Mugabe in a shared tweet, and her arrest is the first after last month’s creation of the Ministry of Cyber Security which focuses on crimes on social media and the Internet in general. If convicted, Martha O’Donovan could face up to 20 years in prison as she is not only charged with insulting the president, but with “’subverting a constitutional government […] [which] is directly related to her role with Magamba TV […] [and it] is what we expected all along, that it was not really about the retweet’”, but a “fishing expedition to get information about her work at Magamba TV”, Doug Coltart, a human rights lawyer in Harare, told Al Jazeera. Among others, Amnesty International condemned the arrest, stating the charges to “confirm fears that this new portfolio will simply be used to punish anyone speaking out against the authorities on social media platforms”. Following the arrest, Zimbabwean officials did not react immediately to requests for comments on the case, reported Al Jazeera.
On Monday, President Robert Mugabe fired his longtime ally and vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, accusing him of “’disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability,’ according to a press statement”, reported CNN. This move is expectedly clearing the way for Mugabe’s wife Grace, leader of the party’s so-called Generation-40 which had opposed Mnangagwa, to take over the vice presidency and eventually succeed Robert Mugabe’s rule. In order for the latter to happen, however, an amendment to the party’s constitution will have to be made to allow a woman to take the vice presidency – expected to take place within the next month. Nevertheless, Minister for Defense Sydney Sekeramayi could represent a competitor for the vice presidency as well. A Southern Africa analyst said that “[Sekeramayi’s] elevation to the VP post would be a strategic move to curb perceptions of a Mugabe dynasty.” This followed President Mugabe having already signaled a deepening divide within Zanu-PF at a rally on Saturday. Meanwhile, Grace Mugabe had “accused Mnangagwa of attempting to ‘carry out a coup’” and said she is ready to become her husband’s successor, wrote Zimbabwe Election earlier on Monday.
A close ally reported, Mnangagwa then fled Zimbabwe and is expected to arrive in South Africa late this week, stating he had “fled from ‘assassins’”, wrote The Guardian. However, in a statement Mnangagwa announced he would come back to lead Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe is said to be facing unprecedented political challenge and Grace Mugabe is “far from a popular person”. Sections within Zanu-PF, Zimbabwe’s security establishment and much of the international community would have preferred Mnangagwa as a candidate, though he is despised by other parts within Zimbabwe.
On Wednesday, the Constituent Assembly passed a wide-reaching law also known as the “anti-hate law”, as it prohibits Venezuelans to spread messages instigating violence or hate through television, radio and social media, instead obligating public and private media “’to broadcast messages aimed at promoting peace, tolerance, equality and respect’”, reported the Associated Press. The law has been criticized for “crack[ing] down on dissent by criminalizing peaceful protests” and for further limiting free speech. The legislation also addresses political parties promoting “‘fascism, intolerance or national hate’” which cannot register with the National Electoral Council, seemingly targeting opposition parties. Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado has, however, stated that this will not intimidate the opposition, “’[w]e are not afraid of them.’”
Freddy Guevara, Venezuelan opposition politician, has been seeking refuge in the Chilean embassy since Saturday, as Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly had been investigating against him for the suspected involvement in anti-government protests and the Venezuelan Supreme Court ordered him to be stripped of his immunity and prosecuted. As of Tuesday he had not yet applied for asylum, but the Chilean Foreign Minister had stated on Monday that Chile would be willing to grant political asylum. Guevara, who is the vice president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly which had been replaced earlier this year by the Constituent Assembly introduced by Nicolas Maduro. Other Venezuelans have sought protection from Chile as well.
Last week, President Maduro invited bondholders to attend a meeting to address possible debt restructuring for Venezuela in Caracas on November 13. However, some investors have voiced concern about holding the meeting there and are now calling for a more “neutral and safer”, reported Reuters. Besides, they criticized the decision to put Vice President Tareck El Aissami who is accused of drug trafficking, in charge of the proposed meeting. Another main actor within the negotiations would be economy minister and financial head of the state oil company PDVSA, Simon Zerpa, who is alleged of corruption. Both El Aissami and Zerpa are on US sanctions and on the Specially Designated National list which could make a possible negotiation for US bondholders illegal. Meanwhile, Venezuela is further struggling with its debt situation and a possible default, as important PDVSA payments are still missing when they had been due last Friday, reported the Financial Times. Some bondholders were expecting the money to arrive soon, speculating about a delay’s possible reasons as there had not been an official statement about such. Others pointed out, Venezuela had clearly missed the deadline anyhow. At the same time, the Russian Finance Minister announced on Wednesday that Russia agreed to the restructuring of about $3 billion of loans. Though a small amount in comparison to the total debt, this could help Venezuela with other payments, wrote the NY Times.
The United States of America
On Sunday, another deadly mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, a small community in Texas, shocked the United States when a gunman entered a church with a semi-automatic weapon. 26 people were killed and 20 others wounded (10 of them in critical condition as of Tuesday) by the perpetrator who was reported to have been found dead in his car after a short chase. This devastating event followed only after about a month of the Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest in US history. While on an official trip in Asia, President Trump voiced his compassion with the victims and their families. It became known that the Pentagon “had failed to furnish information about the gunman’s criminal record from his U.S. Air Force service to a national database that should have prevented him from legally purchasing the firearms he bought”, wrote Reuters. The incident then sparked renewed discussion about gun violence in the US. Whereas Donald Trump had stated a mental health problem, not gun laws to have been the problem in this case, others have called for tighter regulation. CNN reported on gun violence being a more complicated issue than just ‘mental illness’, referring to Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University who said “’[a] history of violent behavior…a far better predictor of future violence than mental illness’” and “[c]alling gun violence a mental health issue is to scapegoat and stigmatize people with mental illness”. Relating to various studies conducted, a column in the NY Times reported on a correlation between gun ownership and lose gun regulation, and mass shootings.
Another topic constantly present in the media, was President Trump’s visit to several Asian countries, starting with Japan, going to South Korea, China and later Vietnam. The two major topics for his trip have been US trading relations in the region, as well as dealing with the current North Korean crisis. In this context, Foreign Minister “Tillerson pointed out that Trump, in a speech in Seoul, had ‘invited the North Koreans to come the table,’ in line with the Chinese desire for a negotiated solution” though Trump was also prepared for a “’military response’ if he deemed the threat serious enough”, wrote Reuters on Thursday. In South Korea, protesters called for peace ahead of the US President’s visit to their country. There, a canceled visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea had caught the media’s attention. The South China Morning Post had speculated on Monday, that President Trump “may appear so focused on North Korea that he shows little affinity for the broader range of issues in the region, from South China Sea tensions to regional counterterrorism. This could fuel concerns in some countries that agendas are not aligned and that the administration cares little for them.” A conclusion on such a question can probably only be answered after Trump has finished his trip with his last stop in Vietnam, where the US President might also meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ahead of this visit, Vietnamese President Rodrigo Duterte had warned Trump of addressing the country’s human rights issues.
Democratic Republic Congo
While aid organization Caritas continued to highlight the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Kasai, DRC’s electoral commission announced the long-awaited presidential elections to take place on December 23, 2018, after it had been repeatedly delayed. Official results are then scheduled to be announced on January 9, 2019, followed by the inauguration of the new President on January 13. Incumbent President Kabila has ruled the country since 2001 and was supposed to step down after his second term had ended in December 2016. Kabila however refused to do so, triggering protests during which dozens of people were killed. Reuters wrote that “[w]ith no imminent election in sight, a political crisis has set in that is fueling increasing militia violence and lawlessness in Congo’s east and center.” The opposition has claimed Kabila is using the delays to remove term limits preventing him from running for election again, following examples of presidents in Rwanda and Congo Republic. “He denies that, but has not categorically said he will step aside”, while claiming delays are due to complicated registration conditions, reported Reuters. In reaction to the late announcement of election-day, the opposition accused the electoral commission to work in favor of Kabila and three large opposition parties “presented a united front to reject plans for elections in December 2018”, stated Bloomberg. They urge President Kabila to step down by the end of 2017 and hold new presidential elections no later than mid-2018.
Last weekend, Turkish President Erdogan’s spokesman announced that the Russian-sponsored Syrian peace congress would be postponed, originally scheduled for November 18. Though an official new date has not been announced, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on Tuesday he hopes for them to take place in the near future and for the UN to support holding the congress.
Meanwhile, the Syrian army declared victory over ISIS as their last stronghold was captured in Albu Kamal, though some fighting continues in the desert area close to the town. Reports said that during the fight in Albu Kamal, many had surrendered or fled. The fate of ISIS’ last commander Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, however, remains unknown. Moreover, a new phase of guerilla warfare is somehow expected, considering experience in the past and ongoing tensions within Syria and Iraq, as well as the region as a whole, involving Saudi Arabia, Iran and Hezbollah. Reuters also referred to Western security chiefs stating that ISIS’ loss of territory “does not mean an end to the ‘lone-wolf’ attacks with guns, knives or trucks plowing into civilians that its supporters have mounted around the world.”
The Associated Press reported via The Washington Post that in the meantime, the United States and Russia are nearing an agreement on the resolving of the Syrian civil war, said to focus on “’deconfliction’ between the U.S. and Russian militaries, reducing violence […] and reinvigorating U.N.-led peace talks.” With ISIS defeat, both countries “are losing their common enemy in Syria and will remain in a proxy battle” in which both support different actors within Syria, increasing the need for closer communication. The two countries “have been at odds for years over” Assad’s involvement in the future of Syria. An illustration of the divide between Russia and other Western countries this week, was a clash during a Security Council meeting about a report accusing Syria of a chemical weapon attack.
In a unanimous statement made on Monday, the UN Security Council strongly condemned the violence forcing thousands of Rohingya to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh. It expressed “grave concern” on reported human rights abuses, called on the government to “ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine State, to restore civilian administration and apply the rule of law”, and urged both the governments in Myanmar and Bangladesh to work together to “allow the voluntary return of all refugees in conditions of safety and dignity to their homes in Myanmar”. The Guardian wrote that the Council further “said the government must address the root causes of the crisis by allowing ‘equal access to full citizenship.’” The newspaper further reported that the statement included most demands which had been part of a draft resolution presented last month by Britain and France, while China had opposed some of its details. According to diplomats, before China agreed to the statement, “language on citizenship rights was watered down, along with a demand that Myanmar allow a UN himan rights mission into the country”, wrote the Guardian. In the statement, the Security Council calls on Myanmar for cooperation with the UN and encourages UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to appoint a special advisor on the crisis. The statement caused criticism from both, the Myanmar side for exerting “’undue political pressure on Myanmar’”, warning of sanctions possibly exacerbating religious tensions, as Myanmar’s ambassador Hau Do Suan stated, as well as from rights groups which accused the Council for not doing enough by not including the threat of sanctions.
After a land rights activist died of his injuries being beaten in the context of claiming back land, activists are calling for a thorough investigation, beside a general urge to address rising territorial disputes and land rights in Myanmar. A majority of the population lives in rural areas, depending on agriculture for their living. On Friday, a court in Myanmar sentenced a Singaporean and a Malaysian journalist, along with their local driver and interpreter, to two months in prison, after an arrest last month for flying a drone over the parliament.
On Monday night, several hundred of people walked silently in Warsaw in memory of Piotr Szczesny, a man who died at the end of October after setting himself on fire in front of the Palace of Culture, a landmark in Warsaw, in protest of the current government’s policies. The Polish government has been led by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) for two years and has been, among other things, criticized of jeopardizing the freedom of the media and judicial independence (also see our last Weekly Report featuring Poland). Reuters reported that Piotr Szcezsny had scattered leaflets around himself stating he loves freedom above all and that was the reason for committing the act of self-immolation, hoping his death would shake the conscience of people. A protester on Monday told Reuters, he “was full of respect” for Szczesny and that he was worried about the political situation in his country. He said “Many people live in the conviction that politics doesn’t concern them. Politics is us, we ordinary people create politics.” Project Syndicate wrote in more detail about what Szczesny addressed in his letter, and further presents some of the mixed reactions to his drastic action. It concludes that “[a]fter an act of despair such as what Poland witnessed this month, the first priority should be to mourn the victim. The second should be to channel the despair that many are feeling in ways that nurture hope.”
Further underlining its current nationalist stance, Poland announced planning to ban Ukrainians with “anti-Polish views” at the end of last week, though little is known about the details of the policy. Polish Foreign Minister Waszczykowski said this measure followed disrespect exhibited at a Polish cemetery in Lviv which had been part of Poland before World War Two. Waszczykowski also said that while Poland is sympathetic of Ukraine’s struggles with Russia, “historical issues” should not be pushed aside. Poland itself is currently home to 1.5 to 2 million Ukrainians.
Foreign Affairs published an in-depth article assessing the reasons for continuing popularity of PiS within Poland despite international criticism, stating an effective combination of social conservatism and nationalism with welfarism to be the crucial factor. “Poland’s ruling party has responded to two of the major issues of contemporary European politics—identity and inequality” and “has cleverly positioned itself as an anti-establishment party representing the Polish people against corrupt liberal elites”, as well as against Western Europe, making use of a current unpopularity of Western social models. Another aspect mentioned in the article is the weak, divided and unsure state of the current opposition.
This week, road and rail service blockages and other demonstrations by pro-independence groups, were disrupting life in Barcelona also affecting universities and schools, though the call for a general strike was left unheard. On Wednesday, the Spanish Constitutional Court officially annulled the unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament, as had been widely expected after an earlier suspension by the court. However, according to a BBC interview, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis stated that the Spanish government will, in recognition of the recent developments in Catalonia, consider changing the constitution to allow legal, nationwide independence referendums in the future. The issue will be addressed by a special committee in the Spanish parliament, the Foreign Minister said, highlighting it was clear that if such referendums would be allowed, only when the whole Spanish population participated. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged Europe this week, to stand up against separatism when Catalan independence has deeply divided Spain.
After ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four ex-Catalan ministers had fled to Brussels, later turning themselves in to Belgian authorities on Spanish arrest warrants, a judge saw no reason to keep them detained and released them quickly on condition they would stay in Belgium and attend court sessions within two weeks. The Catalan politicians had fled Spain and did not show up for questioning in Madrid last week, stating “they wanted to make their voices heard in the heart of the European Union […] maintaining they could not get fair trials”, wrote the Chicago Tribune.
The speaker of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell and four other Catalan government members had appeared at Spain’s Supreme Court and were eventually granted bail after they had testified for their role in the context of the referendum and declaration of independence in Catalonia. Along others, they are facing “charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds”, wrote The Guardian. This ruling might have relieved Puigdemont and others who had fled. Nevertheless, eight other former Catalan ministers along with leaders of the two main pro-independence groups are already in custody, waiting for investigations by Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, following a rejection of an appeal for their release by the high court.
After Cambodia has been tightening its grip on the opposition ahead of next year’s crucial vote and the government asked the Supreme Court to dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Prime Minister Hun Sen called on people to ‘bet’ on the dissolution of the CNRP, saying “’it’s a 1 against 100 odds’” and “’it’s all open for betting’”, wrote Reuters. The news outlet also reported on attempts of showing local populations the benefits of grassroots democracy, such as by local council leader Sin Rozeth who had profited from the US funded National Democratic Institute (NDI). However, as the government is cracking down on opposition activities on all levels and only a small percentage of people who should have registered to vote by November 9 had done so, the “shaky democracy” of Cambodia is at stake.
Reports have stated that Indian and US representatives held talks addressing the current political situation in the Maldives, also touching upon the issue of extremism. Raajje wrote that key points on the agendas had been political detainees, former President Mohamed Nasheed, the trials of a Maldivian MP, as well as events in the Parliament, such as a military siege in Parliament premises. Meanwhile, on a press conference on Tuesday, Maldivian Member of Parliament Riyaz Rasheed “has accused Sri Lanka of assisting alleged opposition efforts to overthrow the Maldivian government”, wrote DaillyMirror Sri Lanka. He said to be concerned about Sri Lanka allowing Maldivian politicians in exile to plot attempts of ousting President Abdulla Yameen, reported DailyMirror referring to the Maldives Independent.
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces decided to temporarily close all Yemeni air, sea and land ports, following an intercepted missile which had been fired towards Riyadh by the Iran-allied Houthi militia on Saturday. Human Rights Watch stated that the attack can likely be classified as a war crime. While it had been announced that aid workers and humanitarian supplies would still be able to pass the blockage, the Red Cross reported it had not been able to deliver some of its supplies. This could threaten the Yemeni population even further, confronting what UN official Jens Laerke called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at the moment”, according to BBC. Yemen is facing a cholera epidemic and the UN says millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine. “The United Nations and international aid organizations have repeatedly criticized the coalition for blocking aid access, especially to the rebel-held north.”
Another headline present in the News this week, was the start of an anti-corruption campaign at the weekend against Saudi Arabia’s political and business elite, including the arrest of 11 princes. This move seems to be part of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s campaign of reform and substantial political, societal and economic change in Saudi Arabia, but also a measure to further tighten his grip on power, as reported in these Reuters and The Guardian articles. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the legal process and a lack of presented evidence for the detentions, and further referred to “a wave of other recent arrests, including of clerics, human rights activists, and intellectuals” in their article.
Another topic which repeatedly headlined international news were the “Paradise Papers”, the world’s second biggest data leak, including 13.4 million documents which were investigated by 96 media companies worldwide. They mostly reveal offshore investment activities and information surrounding ‘tax havens’. The Guardian assembled some of the key findings.
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After the Catalan parliament meets and unilaterally declares independence on Friday, Spain’s senate approves new powers for the Madrid government to impose direct rule on Catalonia that same day. As pro-separatist movements protests dominated the news for weeks, police said at least 300,000 people had turned out in Barcelona, Catalonia’s largest city, for a pro-unity rally on Sunday. Catalonia’s main opposition party said the region’s “silenced majority” was now speaking, according to BBC.
Then, early this week, ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont left Spain and travelled to Brussels, as he is facing sedition charges from the Spanish government after Catalonia declared independence. According to the Independent, “the move comes after Belgium’s asylum and migration affairs minister Theo Francken said the former president could seek asylum in the country.” Saillant détail is that Francken hails from the Flemish nationalist party New Flemish Alliance, which has close ties to the Catalan separatist movement, while the party advocates an independent Flanders and wants it to secede from Belgium. Late on Tuesday, Puigdemont declared he is not seeking assylum in Belgium, but simply working from the countries capital until “a fair judicial process was guaranteed.”
Early on Friday, the crisis in Spain dramatically deepened and extended across the Continent after eight Catalan ministers were jailed by a court in Madrid and a European arrest warrant was issued to extradite the region’s disputed president Carles Puigdemont from Belgium on charges of rebellion and sedition. According to the Guardian, it is understandable “that there is a more than reasonable doubt about the fairness of the highly politicized Spanish courts. The charges launched today are eminently political, and have the objective – as openly stated by various PP party officials – to severely punish and make examples of the leaders of Catalonia’s political and civil society self-determination movement.” Thousands of people took to the streets in Catalan cities to protest the jailing of the politicians, which follows the detention of two other separatist leaders last month on grounds of sedition.
The United States of America
On Tuesday, New York was hit by the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11. A 29-year-old man drove a truck into a Manhattan crowd, killing eight and wounding almost a dozen. The man accused of these despicable deeds is an Uzbekistan national who lived in New Jersey and drove for Uber. President Trump reacted on Twitter, claiming that “law enforcement is following this closely.” As the attacks come at a time when the President is pushing for his US travel-ban harder than ever, popular media will not let the attacks unused to prove Donald Trump’s right on the issue.
On Wednesday, the President himself starts phrasing the terrorist attack by the lines of his political stakes. In a tweet, Trump says: “The terrorist came into our country through what is called the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program,” a Chuck Schumer beauty,” referring to the Democratic Senator who introduced the program. Where it was “too early” to talk about weapon-legislation reform after the mass-shooting in Las Vegas last month, Trump has no troubles immediately asking Congress for action after this tragedy. “The United States will be immediately implementing much tougher Extreme Vetting Procedures. The safety of our citizens comes first,” says another one of his tweets.
On Monday, Amnesty International published their latest report on the illegal practice of home-raids as a repressive tactics by the Venezuelan authorities. According to AI, “a vicious campaign of illegal home raids on citizens suspected of dissent” has taken place over the last months, as the report focusses on the period between April and July of this year. Those targeted told Amnesty and local human rights organizations that “security forces and armed men, believed to be members of government-sponsored illegal armed groups, would violently force their way into their homes without judicial orders or any explanation of why there were there.”
On Thursday, TheConversation.com releases a strong piece on the contradictions that characterize the current position of the opposition-coalition in Venezuela. International support has been unprecedented after Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian actions, as a reaction to six months of daily street-protests by the opposition. Back at home, however, things look much more grim, as the opposition coalition has been a fractious and delicate alliance. Moreover, the decision to compete in instead of boycott the October 15 gubernatorial polls under the current circumstances turned out to be a costly misstep. The group is now fighting over whether to boycott December’s municipal elections.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s economic crisis is worsening. Late on Thursday, President Nicolas Maduro said in a televised speech that Venezuela and its state oil company, PDVSA, will seek to restructure their debt payments. After the oil company made a $1.1 billion payment on Thursday, Maduro said that “after this payment, starting today, I decree a refinancing and a restructuring of the external debt.” Meanwhile, Maduro and others in his government have tried to pin the blame on President Trump for Venezuela’s debt problems after Trump slapped stiff financial sanctions on the country in August. If Maduro’s government can’t reach a new agreement with bondholders over the debts it will end up defaulting, which, according to CNN “would trigger a potentially ugly series of events.”
Democratic Republic Congo
Late last week, after her visit to the country, U.S. envoy Nikki Haley said the Democratic Republic of Congo must hold long-delayed elections next year or it won’t receive international help with the vote. After a meeting Friday with the country’s electoral commission, Haley spoke to reporters in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, stating that the DRC needs “free and fair elections to happen in 2018 at the latest, and not the end of 2018 — we need to have them sooner,” calling on President Joseph Kabila to announce elections will take place next year. “The U.S. will not support anything in 2019. The international community will not support anything in 2019,” Haley stated.
Early this week, UN World Food Program head David Beasly stated that a looming humanitarian catastrophe could see 250,000 children starve within months in the Kasai region. The region, which is the size of Germany, has historically suffered from malnutrition, but this was further exacerbated in 2016 by inter-ethnic violence resulting in large-scale killing and the mass destruction of villages and crops. “3.2 million people are at severe risk as we speak. Hundreds of thousands of children are on the brink of starvation. So we need to ramp up. We’re there, we’re ready to go, we need the donors to step in now. If they don’t, not only are people going to die, children are going to die and you’re going to have long term chaos that’s going to cost a lot more,” said Beasly.
Early last weekend, police arrested aspiring Mt Pleasant (Harare) independent MP candidate Fadzai Mahere at a soccer tournament she had organized as part of her campaign activities in the constituency. According to The Standard, “social media was abuzz with opposition activists and other people condemning the arrest,” as it was seen as another episode in Zanu PF “stifling the electoral space as a way of pushing out other players.” Mahere, who has been involved in last year’s #ThisFlag-movement, is known as a fervent ZANU-PF criticaster.
After the re-shuffle of ministerial positions, and the origination of a new ministry responsible for Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation, online surveillance remains a hot topic in Zimbabwe. On Monday, Daily News claims that media platform Facebook has assured its Zimbabwean network users that it will not share their private communication on the platform with the Mugabe-government when there would be such a request. Zimbabwe’s government has been uneasy about social media after several online movements i.a. pastor Evan Mawararire’s #ThisFlag movement, were able to make waves last year. Early last week, BBC reflected on several implications the new ministry will or might have.
On Wednesday, Robert Mugabe raised some eyebrows, by claiming he is in favor of resuming executions in the country in response to rising murder rates. At the burial of a veteran of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle in Harare, the 93-year-old Zimbabwean President stated that “if you hear people are being executed, know Mugabe’s thinking has prevailed.” Human rights groups including Amnesty International have often called on Zimbabwe, which has 92 inmates on death row, to permanently abolish capital punishment.
On Monday, new talks on the Syrian situation kicked off in Kazakhstan. The Syrian government and several armed opposition groups are meeting in Astana for talks aimed at implementing a lasting ceasefire agreement. According to Al Jazeera, “the latest round of Astana-talks is aimed at establishing four so-called “de-escalation zones” in mainly opposition-held areas of the country, with Russia, Turkey and Iran acting as guarantors.” The top-level meeting is expected to call for a six-month ceasefire and the establishment of several no-fly zones. The October 30-31 meeting has also discussed the release of hostages, prisoners, delivery of food and aid to besieged areas, the transfer of dead bodies and the search for missing persons.
On Wednesday, other peacemaking efforts hit their first complications, as a new, Russian-sponsored initiative to reach a political settlement was rejected by the Syrian opposition. Officials in the anti-Assad opposition rejected the congress scheduled for November 18th to take place in Sochi. Instead, they insisted that any peace talks be held under U.N. sponsorship in Geneva. In their turn, Turkey protested against the invitation of the Syrian Kurdish side to the talks. “Ankara, which views the dominant Syrian Kurdish groups as a national security threat, said it was unacceptable that the Kurdish YPG militia had been invited,” according to Reuters.
On Tuesday, Cambodia’s top-court rejected an appeal to free opposition leader Kem Sokha. According to Reuters, the court argued that “his release could be a public risk as the threat of dissolution looms over his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).” In two weeks time, he Supreme Court is due to rule on the dissolvement of the CNRP, after the government last month filed a lawsuit asking to do so on grounds it was involved in a plot to topple the government.
On that same day, a European Parliament delegation warned Cambodia, as the country could face EU action over aid and vital trade preferences if the human rights situation worsened further. “A serious deterioration of the human rights situation might have implications for development assistance programs and trade preferences,” said the delegation’s chairman Werner Langen. In a reaction to these allegations, undersecretary of state at Cambodia’s Interior Ministry, Huy Vannak, said the European Parliament should keep trade and politics separate.
The European Union will be dispatching a team of their researchers and surveyors to Maldives this week, in order to identify the political condition of the country. The team will also assess the upcoming presidential elections of 2018, basing their research mainly on interviews with MP’s from both the ruling party and the opposition. The visit be the first from an EU delegation since the European Parliament adopted the Resolution No.RC-B8-0549/2017 on the Maldives on 5 October this year, harshly judging the political- and civil rights situation in the country.
On Sunday, a big pro-army rally was hosted in Myanmar’s Yangon. According to the South China Morning Post, “Military songs rang out across downtown Yangon […] as tens of thousands rallied in defense of Myanmar’s army.” Their article goes on to pin-point an interesting contradiction, with that same army as the main subject. Where the international community has widely judged and condemned the army’s “clearance operations” against Rohingya Muslims, support for the army has surged inside Myanmar. An unlikely turnaround, for an institution once feared and hated after 50 years of repressive rule.
After weeks of intense global pressure and UN accusations of ethnic cleansing, Myanmar vowed to take back Rohingya who meet “verification” standards. However, the criteria remain vague, and on Wednesday, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay pointed the finger at Bangladesh for allegedly delaying the repatriation. “The Myanmar government already declared we are ready to receive [the refugees] at any time … but the Bangladeshi government is still considering the agreement between the two countries,” Htay stated.
On Thursday, the United States State Department announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would visit Myanmar later this month. Tillerson will visit the country’s capital, Naypyidaw, where he will meet with senior leaders and officials on actions to address the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State and push for an end to the violence. According to CNN, Tillerson has been increasingly vocal in condemning attacks on Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslims. “What’s most important to us is that the world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area,” Tillerson said at a Washington, DC, think tank earlier this month.
According to United Nations Special Rapporteur Diego Garcia-Sayan, the Polish independence of the judiciary and rule of law are threatened. Garcia-Sayan visited Poland last week and the UN-envoy commented on the government’s planned reforms to Poland’s judiciary, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal as the “first victim” of sweeping changes under the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government, and the president’s proposed changes the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary. Despite the fact that Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski denied the allegations, Garcia-Sayan urged Poland’s political establishment to open up negotiations on proposals to reform the country’s courts to avoid further damage to the country’s judicial system.
The allegations come at a time when the international pressure on Poland increases. Early last week, Human Rights Watch published a new report on the “Eroding Checks and Balances” in the Eastern-European country. According to HRW, the Rule of Law and Human Rights are under attack in Poland. The report provides analysis of the PiS government’s legislative and policy measures that impact human rights and the rule of law in several areas.
On Sunday, the man who set himself on fire ten days earlier and has been identified as Piotr S, died from his injuries. Before setting himself on fire outside of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Piotr S distributed leaflets accusing the right-wing government of “breaking the rules of democracy, damaging Poland’s reputation, destroying the country’s judicial system, and limiting civil rights by discriminating against minorities, immigrants, women, Muslims, and the LGBT community,” according to Buzzfeed.
Iraq – On Sunday, Massoud Barzani, the region’s president since 2005, and the man who led an independence push for the Kurdish region of Iraq for more than a decade, announced that he would quit as president. Barzani’s departure comes after weeks of humiliating battlefield defeats for Kurdish fighters against overpowering Iraqi forces. The Kurds also lost their main economic assets – New York Times
Hong Kong – While on Tuesday the Asian Football Confederation has warned the Hong Kong Football Association over the conduct of fans who booed the Chinese national anthem last month, Hong Kong democracy activist Avery Ng was sentenced to three weeks in prison for throwing a sandwich towards the city’s then-leader which hit a police officer.
Kenya – After HRW’s mid-October report on severe violations by security forces in the electoral period of August 2017, Amnesty International published a similar report this week. While Uhuru Kenyatta was proclaimed as the winner of the latest round of election in Kenya, a whole nation was nervous this week to see what main opponent Raila Odinga’s reaction to his fourth defeat would be.
Tanzania – After a speech on October 29 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzanian opposition-Alliance for Change and Transparency Zitto Kabwe’s was arrested on Tuesday. Kabwe’s speech covered issues including “the quality of life of Tanzanians, the state of the economy and how to defeat the ruling party,” ATC Spokesman Abdallah Khamis said. Tanzanian President John Magufuli has cracked down on opposition to his administration since he came to power in November 2015. Kabwe was released later this week and charged with an act of ‘cybercrime’.