Weekly Report: 17 August 2018


August 17, 2018

A Congolese health worker tends to patients prior to the launch of the vaccination campaign in the DRC this week. (Reuters)


This Monday, an explosion in the rebel-held town of Sarmada close to the Turkish border killed at least 36 people, including twelve children. According to the White Helmets rescue group, at least ten people were rescued from the rubble. The building was suspected to be storing weapons and ammunition, but also was home to many civilians that had fled the initial conflict of the war.

On Tuesday, the Russian military pledged its forces to help UN peacekeepers to restore patrols along the Syrian frontier with the Golan Heights, which are currently under Israeli occupation. This reflects a growing trend of Russian trying to exert influence in the region, as the Russians have fairly good relationships with both the Israelis and the Assad regime in Syria.

This week, details are beginning to emerge about the disappearance of Razan Zaitouneh, one of Syria’s most prominent human rights activists. Zaitouneh went missing at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in December of 2013, after she was seen being abducted by unidentified gunmen at the Violation Documentation Center in Douma, a rebel-held town in the Eastern region. The most recent clue as to what happened to Zaitouneh was the appearance of graffiti in the recently reclaimed Tawbeh Prison, dated 2016 and signed by Zaitouneh.

As the conflict in Syria seems to be drawing to a close, Israeli leaders are looking to seek a truce in Gaza for the time being – particularly as the Israeli government is concerned about Iranian presence in Syria moving forward. Although Netanyahu would not comment about any potential strategic links, many analysts believe that a fear of Iranian influence in the region is leading to a more conciliatory approach to Gaza.


This Wednesday, former Bolivian presidents Carlos Mesa and Jorge Tuto Quiroga met with a representative from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) in Bolivia, warning him that if the results of the 21F referendum are not honored, tension will increase. Both presidents also challenged Evo Morales, current president of Bolivia, consult the commision – and respond to any “clear and transparent” legal conclusions that it may come to.

As a result of pushback from indigenous leaders, the government agreed to allow the Commission of the International Court of Nature Rights (TIDN) to the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) to ensure that that the indigenous land is not being misused or exploited by the government. However, leaders of the TIPNIS sub-centers have warned that they would not be allowing representatives to enter this Saturday, with no response from the government as to how it will be guaranteed on the ground.


On Tuesday, the National Assembly of Nicaragua agreed to a drastic cut to the national budget in response to the anti-government unrest over the past few months, which has derailed the economy. What was adopted constituted a 9.2 percent reduction of the 2018 budget, meaning that spending will be $180 million less than it had been last year.

A representative of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy told the BBC that Nicaragua protests must remain peaceful as they evolve into what he has described as a “national revolt” by all kinds of people. On Wednesday, thousands of Nicaraguans marched through the capital, demanding those anti-government protesters that have been jailed since the beginning of the conflict be released. This demonstration was organized by the Civic Alliance, a group of unions, business groups, students, and various others.

North Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered a speech this Monday, stating that his country hopes to make great strides in the relationship between South Korea and the DPRK at an upcoming summit in Pyongyang.  Moon claimed that building a greater trust between the two is key to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, and vowed to work towards this end – as well as facilitate peace between the DPRK and Washington. The next summit is planned to take place at the end of September.

A heat wave in North Korea has led to a widespread food shortage, something that is highly alarming given the amount of malnutrition that most North Koreans already face. Temperatures have soared to an average of 39 degrees Celsius across the country, with impacts that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies described as “potentially catastrophic.”  


On Tuesday, Myanmar political analysts expressed concerns regarding whether an agreement between the government and several United Nations bodies could be successful in safely repatriating Rohingya to the Rakhine state in Myanmar. Leaders of several human rights organizations, such as the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, have explicitly stated that they do not think that the current agreement will work to safely return the refugees, especially as Rohingya are still not considered citizens under Myanmar’s legal system.

Myanmar’s government also asked Bangladesh to suspend aid provided to 6,000 Rohingya people stranded on the border between the two countries. They are stuck in a ‘no man’s land,’ and are refusing to return to Myanmar for fear of their personal safety. They are continually uncertain as to whether Myanmar will actually provide any sort of assistance to them, and fear that they will have nothing to depend on if Bangladesh indeed decides to stop giving aid.


After former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman decided to release secretly-taped conversations from inside the Trump campaign and Trump White House, many government officials are bracing themselves for the potential impact of future leaks. As she has been releasing these tapes slowly, there is no way to know for certain how much information she actually has on the inner workings of the Trump administration – and all scandals that accompany it.

An annual report to Congress has claimed that China is increasing its military capacity in order to be able to conduct strikes against US and allied targets in the Pacific Ocean. The document also warns that China may be preparing for a contingency under which it will attempt to unify Taiwan by force. China has also decided to grow its space program, despite the fact that it is viewed as a champion state against the militarization of space.


Making good on its promises to respond to last month’s elections, the United States government has decided to expand visa bans. In addition to lengthening visa restrictions already in place against an undisclosed number of Cambodian officials, the new visa restrictions will target those “both inside and outside the Cambodian government” who have contributed the most to the recent backslide in Cambodian democracy. This announcement came on the same day that the official results of the elections were announced, which showed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party winning all contested seats.

This Thursday, the trial of Australian filmmaker James Ricketson has begun in Cambodia. He was accused of spying and arrested on June 3rd, 2017 after he was photographed flying a drone about a rally for the now-defunct Cambodia National Rescue Party. There is nothing to indicate exactly who he was accused of spying for. Ricketson has been in a Cambodian prison for over a year, having been denied bail.


Despite the looming deadline for the Mexican government and the statements of American officials such as Robert Lighthizer, American President Donald Trump claimed that a breakthrough would not yet come in negotiations between the United States and Mexico regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement. The American Congress, itself, has already missed the window of a deadline for approving any revised deal in this section – seeing as the Congress that would vote on it will be one that has changed hands in the midterm elections.

However, the United States and Mexico have recently agreed on a joint plan to take down Mexico’s drug cartels, who estimates say can be blamed for approximately 150,000 murders since 2006. The details of this joint plan are unknown; all that has been announced is that it will financially target kingpins and their affiliates, similar to the plan that led to the capture of the Sinaloa cartel leader known as ‘El Chapo.’

The Maldives

This week, Human Rights Watch reported that governmental intimidation of the political opposition and media alike in the Maldives post a very real threat to the possibility of free and fair elections in September of 2018. The full report released by HRW, which comes to about 52 pages, details how the government of President Abdul Yameen Abdul Gayoom has used legislation and decrees to silence dissenters, arbitrarily arrest critics, and overall impinge on the rights of the citizens of the Maldives.


This week, the MDC Alliance filed a petition against the election of Zanu PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa as president, claiming that his party has evidence of “mammoth theft and fraud.” However, Zanu-PF declared on the 13th that it will be defending its electoral win. The judges of the constitutional court will have two weeks to rule on this case and determine if, indeed, any fraud has taken place.

Mnangagwa stated on Friday that he is unconcerned by the American decision to continue to sanction Zimbabwe, and stated that he would instead seek to continue “bringing development” to Zimbabwe. Amnesty International’s new leader also levied critiques against the Zanu-PF government and stated that his first act as leader of AI would be to write to Mnangagwa to ask after the whereabouts of Itai Dzamara, a high-profile activist who was abducted in 2015 by suspected state agents under former Zanu-PF President Robert Mugabe.  


Despite the order on the part of the government to halt new hydropower projects, developers have continued to do work on the various mega-dams on the Mekong River,  regardless of the dam breaches last month that killed 35 people and displaced thousands. According to developers working at one dam project in northwestern Laos, the government has not personally reached out to notify them. Certain developers are continuing building, citing a difference in the materials between the dam that was breached and their own projects. This is believed to be the result of an imbalance in power between the federal and regional governments in Laos, as regional governments ultimately have more sway over what goes on in their respective provinces.


Will Nguyen, an American citizen detained for 40 days in Vietnam as a result of his participation in protests against plans to establish special economic zones within the country, has returned to Houston, Texas after being deported for a conviction of “disturbing the public order.” It is believed that his deportation is partially the result of interference from American officials, including the U.S. embassy in Vietnam, which helped to ensure that he was treated well.

According to Amnesty International, Vietnamese authorities must investigate allegations that activists were beaten by police officers this Wednesday at a private gathering that celebrated pre-Communist era songs. This is yet another incident in a disturbing trend where police officers in Ho Chi Minh city have increasingly begun to use excessive force and ill-treatment against prisoners, with claims of torture coming to the forefront as well.

On Thursday, a court in northern Vietnam sentenced an activist to 20 years in prison, found guilty of attempting to overthrow the Communist government. In addition, prominent environmental activist Le Dinh Luong was also sentenced to 5 years’ house arrest for encouraging others to join a group for Vietnamese exiles in the United States, which the government brands as a terrorist organization.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo

This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for free access in responding to the DRC’s recent outbreak of Ebola, which has appeared in the more war-torn areas of the DRC. WHO has been working closely with the Minister of Health, Dr. Oly Ilunga, and helped to launch the Ebola vaccine for health workers in the hospital in Beni, close to where the outbreak began. The WHO delegation also visited the Emergency Operations Center in Beni, which was built by the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The most recent death toll given by the DRC’s government has been 41 people killed, something that has increased by a fifth in only a week. The chief of the WHO has called for all warring parties to cease hostilities, as the virus does not discriminate between groups and all will be in danger. This message, broadcast this Thursday, can hopefully incentivize armed groups to allow medical workers to intervene in at-risk populations, especially as a new vaccine has shown some promising effects in preventing the spread of Ebola.


Representatives from FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said that Colombian military officials are attempting to arrest three senior FARC leaders who may have violated the peace agreement with the Colombian government. If this is true, it suggests that some FARC members may continue to be involved in activities such as cocaine trafficking; if such accusations turn out to be true and an arrest is enacted, it is even possible that this may endanger the tenuous peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC, as others may decide to break the agreement in retaliation for the arrests.

Colombian officials are concerned about the rate of deforestation in Colombia, with a particular focus on the Tinigua Park, which is the only place in Colombia that connects the Orinoquia, the Andes, and the Amazon. Between February and April 2018, 3% of the ground cover in Tinigua Park was found to have been cleared for economic purposes. It is suspected that these forests are being cleared for the farming of illicit crops, migration, and pastureland for cattle – something that environmental entities are currently having trouble combatting.


Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro announced on Tuesday that he will end subsidized gas prices as previously planned to cease smuggling from Venezuela to Colombia and the Caribbean. This announcement will hopefully curb the $18 billion USD that Venezuela loses to fuel smuggling annually – something that is incredibly untenable for the Latin American state, as its economy has suffered tremendously in the past few months. Those Venezuelans who hold the “Fatherland-ID,” a government-issued identity card, will still qualify for direct subsidies for about two years.

Across South America, there has been a 900 percent increase in Venezuelan migrants from about 89,000 in 2015 to 900,000 in 2017. This mass exodus from the country is one of the largest mass-population movements in history, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ spokesman William Spindler. Globally, the number of Venezuelan migrants has risen from 700,000 to more than 1.6 million over the same period of time.


Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said this week that he would actively work towards canceling two multibillion-dollar projects in Malaysia, backed by China and his predecessor, Najib Razak.  Although some of the funding for these ventures has already been transferred to Chinese companies, Mahathir is not letting this stop him take a hard stance against the East Asian power. Mohamad also stated that China should respect the free movement of ships in the South China Sea and attacked Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya, both hard stances that are setting him apart from his predecessor.

On Thursday, Malaysia repealed its “fake news” law, which was introduced by previous prime minister Najib Razak; this law was widely criticized as a move to silence critics of Razak’s 1MDB scandal and characterized as an assault on free speech. Mahathir himself was previously investigated under this legislation after lodging complaints against Razak’s administration for attempting to sabotage his registration in the presidential campaign. The Committee to Protect Journalists has applauded this move as an overwhelmingly positive move and notes that it follows through on Mathahir’s campaign pledge to remove the law


On Monday, Cuba began its public discussion to overhaul its constitution, a move that the government is calling participatory democracy – and a move that opposition thinkers are calling a fraud. This overhaul, proposed by the communist party, will be discussed in about 35,000 workplaces and community meetings across the island and will be scheduled to stretch into November – with the new draft being submitted by February.

On Wednesday, a leading Cuban dissident was freed from jail 12 days after his arrest for attempted murder. He was accused of deliberately trying to run over an official from the Cuban interior ministry. This dissident, Jose Daniel Ferrer, is still charged with attempted murder. His release was called for by Amnesty International and the United States State Department, among other organizations. Ferrer, who has previously been imprisoned in 2003, says that it is entirely possible that he won’t know his legal status for the next few years.

Other News:

The Philippines — Tensions in the South China Sea have led the United States to state explicitly that, were anything to happen on the main Filipino-occupied island in the area, would be a “good ally” and defend its ally’s territory.  (Reuters)

Poland  — Poland’s president stated this Thursday that he would veto a law that would benefit larger parties in European Parliament, claiming that this law would move the European Parliament “too far” from proportional representation. (Reuters)

Thailand — Thailand is going to ban imports of over 400 different types of scrap electronics within six months, hoping to mitigate fears that Thailand will be the next global dumping ground for electronic waste after China cracked down on high-tech trash earlier this year.  (Channel News Asia)

Pakistan — The United States military training program for Pakistani soldiers has been suspended amid rising tensions between the two allies, as confirmed by Pakistan’s foreign ministry on Friday morning. (ABC)

Bangladesh – Crackdowns on student protesters have led to the arrest of nearly 100 people on Friday morning in Bangladesh for “violence and incitement in social media.” (The Straits Times)