By Robert Malley, President & CEO of Crisis Group
BRUSSELS - It’s not all about Donald Trump.
That’s a statement more easily written than believed, given the U.S. president’s erratic comportment on the world stage — his tweets and taunts, his cavalier disregard of international accords, his readiness to undercut his own diplomats, his odd choice of foes, and his even odder choice of friends. And yet, a more inward-looking United States and a greater international diffusion of power, increasingly militarized foreign policy, and shrinking space for multilateralism and diplomacy are features of the international order that predate the current occupant of the White House and look set to outlast him.
The first trend — U.S. retrenchment — has been in the making for years, hastened by the 2003 Iraq War that, intended to showcase American power, did more to demonstrate its limitations. Overreach abroad, fatigue at home, and a natural rebalancing after the relatively brief period of largely uncontested U.S. supremacy in the 1990s mean the decline was likely inevitable. Trump’s signature “America First” slogan harbors a toxic nativist, exclusionary, and intolerant worldview. His failure to appreciate the value of alliances to U.S. interests and his occasional disparagement of traditional partners is particularly self-defeating. His lamentations about the cost of U.S. overseas intervention lack any introspection regarding the price paid by peoples subjected to that intervention, focusing solely on that paid by those perpetrating it. But one ought not forget that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the same election season, and Barack Obama, as a candidate in the preceding ones, both rejected foreign entanglements and belittled nation building. Trump wasn’t shaping the public mood. He was reflecting it.
The retrenchment is a matter of degree, of course, given the approximately 200,000 active-duty U.S. troops deployed worldwide. But in terms of ability to manipulate or mold events around the globe, U.S. influence has been waning as power spreads to the east and south, creating a more multipolar world in which armed nonstate actors are playing a much larger role.
The second trend, the growing militarization of foreign policy, also represents continuity as much as departure. Trump exhibits a taste for generals and disdain for diplomats; his secretary of state has an even more curious penchant to dismember the institution from which he derives his power. But they are magnifying a wider and older pattern. The space for diplomacy was shrinking long before Trump’s administration took an ax to the State Department. Throughout conflict zones, leaders increasingly appear prone to fight more than to talk — and to fight by violating international norms rather than respecting them.
This owes much to how the rhetoric of counterterrorism has come to dominate foreign policy in theory and in practice. It has given license to governments to first label their armed opponents as terrorists and then treat them as such. Over a decade of intensive Western military operations has contributed to a more permissive environment for the use of force. Many recent conflicts have involved valuable geopolitical real estate, escalating regional and major power rivalries, more outside involvement in conflicts, and the fragmentation and proliferation of armed groups. There is more to play for, more players in the game, and less overlap among their core interests. All of these developments present obstacles to negotiated settlements.
The third trend is the erosion of multilateralism. Whereas former President Obama sought (with mixed success) to manage and cushion America’s relative decline by bolstering international agreements — such as trade deals, the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear negotiations — President Trump recoils from all that. Where Obama opted for burden-sharing, Trump’s instinct is for burden-shedding.
Even this dynamic, however, has deeper roots. On matters of international peace and security in particular, multilateralism has been manhandled for years. Animosity between Russia and Western powers has rendered the United Nations Security Council impotent on major conflicts since at least the 2011 Libya intervention; that animosity now infects debates on most crises on the council’s agenda. Trump is not the only leader emphasizing bilateral arrangements and ad hoc alliances above multilateral diplomacy and intergovernmental institutions.
Then again, much of it is about Trump, inescapably.
The most ominous threats in 2018 — nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and a spiraling confrontation pitting the United States and its allies against Iran — could both be aggravated by Trump’s actions, inactions, and idiosyncrasies. U.S. demands (in the North Korean case, denuclearization; in Iran’s, unilateral renegotiation of the nuclear deal or Tehran’s regional retreat) are unrealistic without serious diplomatic engagement or reciprocal concessions. In the former, Washington could face the prospect of provoking a nuclear war in order to avoid one, and in the latter, there is the possibility of jeopardizing a nuclear deal that is succeeding for the sake of a confrontation with Iran that almost certainly will not.
(A third potential flashpoint that didn’t make it into our top 10 — because it came so late and was so unexpected and gratuitous — is the Jerusalem powder keg. At the time of writing, it has not yet exploded, perhaps because when one is as hopeless as the Palestinians there is little hope left to be dashed. Still, the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for purely domestic political reasons, with no conceivable foreign-policy gain and a risk of explosion, must rank as a prime example of diplomatic malpractice.)
As with all trends, there are countervailing ones often propelled by discomfort that the dominant trends provoke. Europeans are defending the Iranian nuclear deal and may end up deepening their own common security and strategic independence, President Emmanuel Macron is testing the reach of French diplomacy, and international consensus on action against climate change has held. Perhaps African states, already leading efforts to manage crises on the continent, will step up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or another of the continent’s major conflicts. Perhaps they or another assortment of actors could make the case for more engagement and dialogue and for defusing crises rather than exacerbating them.
These may seem slender reeds on which to rest our hopes. But, as the following list of the International Crisis Group’s top 10 conflicts to watch in 2018 unhappily illustrates, and for now at least, they may well be the only reeds we have.
1. North Korea
North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing coupled with the White House’s bellicose rhetoric make the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula — even a catastrophic nuclear confrontation — higher now than at any time in recent history. Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017 and the increasing range of its missiles clearly demonstrate its determination to advance its nuclear program and intercontinental strike capability. From the United States, meanwhile, comes careless saber-rattling and confusing signals about diplomacy.
Kim Jong Un’s push for nuclear arms is driven partly by fear that without such deterrence he risks being deposed by outside powers and partly by perceived threats inside North Korea, notably elite rivalries, the tightly managed but still unpredictable impact of economic reform, and his difficulty in controlling information flow — including from foreign media channels.
The aggressive tone from Washington reflects equal urgency in the opposite direction. At least some senior officials believe North Korea must be prevented at all costs from advancing its nuclear program, in particular from being able to strike the continental United States with a missile carrying a nuclear payload. After crossing that threshold, they believe, Kim Jong Un will conclude that he can deter Washington from protecting its allies and thus impose demands — from lifting trade restrictions to expelling U.S. troops, all the way to Korean reunification on his terms. Those same officials appear convinced that he can be dissuaded from retaliating in the event of limited, targeted military action.
For now, the United States is implementing a “maximum pressure strategy”: corralling the Security Council into tougher sanctions, pressing China to do more to strangle its neighbor’s economy, conducting large Air Force and Navy drills, and signaling directly or through congressional allies that it does not fear military confrontation. Despite conflicting messages from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Trump administration is making clear that it is not interested in talks whose goal would be anything short of North Korea’s denuclearization, an objective as worthy as it is delusional. As the White House sees it, the approach is working: U.S. military action is no longer unimaginable for either North Korea or China. It hopes the former will be compelled to back down and the latter will get them there.
But this approach means a race against time — with Washington almost certainly on the losing side. Restrictive measures will not bite immediately, and they will bite the North Korean leadership last; ordinary citizens will suffer sooner and worse. Feeling threatened, Pyongyang is more likely to accelerate weapons development than halt or slow it. Both China and South Korea support tighter sanctions and are as frustrated with Pyongyang as they are alarmed by the prospect of U.S. military action. But South Korea has little power to alter the situation, China’s willingness to pressure North Korea may be reaching its limit, and its influence over a fiercely independent neighbor resentful of its reliance on Beijing is easily overstated. While Chinese President Xi Jinping fears the prospect of war on the peninsula bringing chaos, a possibly U.S.-aligned regime, and U.S. troops to his doorstep, he also fears that squeezing Pyongyang could precipitate turmoil that could spill over into China.
Without a viable diplomatic offramp, Washington risks cornering itself into military action. Even a precisely targeted attack would likely provoke a North Korean response. While Pyongyang would think twice before initiating a conventional strike on Seoul, it could take other steps: an attack on a soft South Korean target; an asymmetric strike against U.S. assets on or around the peninsula; or crippling cyberattacks. These might not immediately trigger regional conflict, but they would provoke an unpredictable escalation.
A successful diplomatic initiative ultimately will need to address two competing preoccupations: U.S. and wider international fears of what the Pyongyang regime would do with an advanced nuclear capacity, and the regime’s fear of what might happen to it without one. The U.S. government should marry its sanctions and those of the U.N. to a clear and realistic political goal. An incremental solution could include pauses on North Korean testing of its missile system or weapons, before Pyongyang crosses what the White House sees as a red line; the United States agreeing to less provocative military exercises; and consensus on humanitarian support even as sanctions kick in. That might not satisfy anyone. But at least it would provide the space needed to explore a more durable resolution.
2. U.S.-Saudi-Iran Rivalry
This rivalry will likely eclipse other Middle Eastern fault lines in 2018. It is enabled and exacerbated by three parallel developments: the consolidation of the authority of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s assertive crown prince; the Trump administration’s more aggressive strategy toward Iran; and the end of the Islamic State’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria, which allows Washington and Riyadh to aim the spotlight more firmly on Iran.
The contours of a U.S./Saudi strategy (with an important Israeli assist) are becoming clear. It is based on an overriding assumption that Iran has exploited passive regional and international actors to bolster its position in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. Washington and Riyadh seek to re-establish a sense of deterrence by convincing Tehran that it will pay at least as high a price for its actions as it can inflict on its adversaries.
The strategy seems to involve multiple forms of pressure to contain, squeeze, exhaust, and ultimately push back Iran. It has an economic dimension (via U.S. sanctions); a diplomatic one (witness vocal U.S. and Saudi denunciations of Iran’s regional behavior and Riyadh’s ham-handed attempt to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation); and a military one (so far exerted principally by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and by Israel in Syria).
Whether it will work is another question. Although recent protests in Iran have introduced a new and unpredictable variable, Tehran and its partners still appear to be in a strong position. The Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Russian air power, is prevailing in Syria. Across Iraq, Iran-linked Shiite militias are entrenching themselves in state institutions. In Yemen, Tehran’s relatively small investment in backing the Houthis has helped them weather the Saudi-led campaign and even launch missiles of unprecedented range and accuracy into Saudi territory.
Despite demonstrating its resolve to confront Iran and its partners, Riyadh has been unable to alter the balance of power. Forcing Hariri’s resignation backfired, not just because he later withdrew it, but also because all of Lebanon united against the move and Hariri then inched closer to Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah. In Yemen, Riyadh turned the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against each other, but in doing so further fragmented the country and complicated the search for a settlement and a face-saving Saudi exit from a war that is enormously costly not only to Yemenis but also to Riyadh’s international standing. The Trump administration confronts similar obstacles. Thus far its belligerence, refusal to certify the nuclear deal, threats of new sanctions, and launching of several strikes at and near regime targets in Syria have done little to reverse Tehran’s reach.
With so many flashpoints, and so little diplomacy, the risk of an escalatory cycle is great: Any move — new U.S. sanctions that Iran would see as violating the nuclear deal; a Houthi missile strike hitting Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, for which Washington and Riyadh would hold Tehran responsible; or an Israeli strike in Syria that kills Iranians — could trigger a broader confrontation.
3. The Rohingya Crisis: Myanmar and Bangladesh
Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis has entered a dangerous new phase, threatening Myanmar’s hard-won democratic transition, its stability, and that of Bangladesh and the region as a whole.
An August attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, prompted a brutal and indiscriminate military response targeting the long-mistreated Muslim Rohingya community. That assault led to a massive refugee exodus, with at least 655,000 Rohingya fleeing for Bangladesh. The U.N. called the operation a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. The government has heavily restricted humanitarian aid to the area, and international goodwill toward Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning state counsellor, has dissipated. Her government retains its hard-line stance toward the Rohingya and resists concessions on even immediate humanitarian issues. In this, it has the support of the population, which has embraced the Buddhist nationalist and anti-Rohingya rhetoric disseminated through state and social media.
Pressure from the U.N. Security Council is critical, and Western governments are moving toward targeted sanctions, which are a key signal that such actions cannot go unpunished. Unfortunately, these sanctions are unlikely to have a significant positive impact on Myanmar’s policies. The focus is rightly on the right of refugees to return in a voluntary, safe and, dignified manner. In reality, however, and notwithstanding a late-November Bangladesh/Myanmar repatriation agreement, the refugees will not return unless Myanmar restores security for all communities, grants the Rohingya freedom of movement as well as access to services and other rights, and allows humanitarian and refugee agencies unfettered access.
While publicly, Bangladesh’s government is trying to persuade Myanmar to take the refugees back, privately it acknowledges the hopelessness of that endeavor. It has neither defined policies nor taken operational decisions on how to manage more than a million Rohingya in its southeast, along the Myanmar border, in the medium- to long-term. International funding for an under-resourced emergency operation will run out in February. All this — indeed, the very presence of a large population of stateless refugees — creates enormous dangers for Bangladesh. Conflict between refugees and a host community that is heavily outnumbered in parts of the southeast and faces rising prices and falling wages is an immediate risk. The refugees’ presence also could be used to stoke communal conflict or aggravate political divisions ahead of elections expected in late 2018.
There are risks, too, for Myanmar. ARSA could regroup. It or even transnational groups exploiting the Rohingya cause or recruiting among the displaced could launch cross-border attacks, escalating both Muslim-Buddhist tension in Rakhine state and friction between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Any attack outside Rakhine would provoke broader Buddhist-Muslim tension and violence across the country. Acknowledging the crisis, implementing recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and disavowing divisive narratives would put the Myanmar government — and its people — on a better path.
With 8 million people on the brink of famine, 1 million declared cholera cases, and over 3 million internally displaced persons, the Yemen war could escalate further in 2018. After a period of rising tensions, dueling rallies, and armed assaults, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced in December that his General People’s Congress was abandoning its partnership with the Houthis in favor of the Saudi-led coalition. Saleh paid for it with his life; he was killed immediately by his erstwhile partners.
Saudi Arabia and its allies — believing that the Houthi/General People’s Congress split opens new opportunities and still convinced a military solution exists — will likely intensify their campaign at a huge cost to civilians. Iran will keep finding ample opportunity to keep the Saudis bogged down, and the more anarchic Yemen’s north becomes, the more likely that violence is to bleed across the border. The Houthis will continue to take the fight to the Saudi homefront, firing missiles toward Riyadh and threatening other Gulf states.
Negotiations, already a distant prospect, have become more complicated. The Houthis, feeling simultaneously emboldened and embattled, could adopt a more uncompromising stance. The General People’s Congress, a pragmatic centrist party, could fragment further. The south is divided, owing partly to the widening rift between forces loyal to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and southern separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates.
There are signs of mounting U.S. discomfort with the indiscriminate Saudi bombardment and the blockade of Houthi-controlled territories. But the Trump administration’s belligerent rhetoric toward Iran encourages all the wrong tendencies in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and its allies should instead lift the blockade of Yemen and reopen civilian airports. Politically, there should be a new Security Council resolution providing for a balanced settlement. The Saudis are loath to concede anything to a group they consider an Iranian proxy, but were they to embrace a realistic peace initiative, the onus would shift to the Houthis to accept it.
The War in Afghanistan looks set to intensify in 2018. The United States’ new Afghanistan strategy raises the tempo of operations against the Taliban insurgency, with more U.S. forces, fiercer U.S. airstrikes, and more aggressive ground offensives by Afghan forces. The aim, according to senior officials, is to halt the Taliban’s momentum and, eventually, force it into a political settlement. For now, though, the strategy is almost exclusively military.
This strategy faces serious obstacles. While hitting the Taliban harder might bring tactical gains, it is unlikely to change the war’s course or the incentives of a locally rooted and potent insurgency. The Taliban currently controls or is contesting more territory than at any time since 2001; it is better equipped and, even if pressured through conventional fighting, it would retain the ability to mount spectacular urban attacks that erode confidence in the government. Besides, between 2009 and 2012, the Taliban withstood more than 100,000 U.S. troops.
Military leaders contend that this time will be different because Trump, unlike Obama, has not set a withdrawal date. That argument holds little water. It also misreads the insurgency: Battlefield losses in the past have not impacted Taliban leaders’ willingness to negotiate. Forthcoming Afghan elections (a parliamentary poll is slated for July 2018; a presidential vote is due in 2019) will suck oxygen from the military campaign. Every vote since 2004 has ignited some form of crisis, and political discord today is particularly severe, with President Ashraf Ghani accused by his critics of monopolizing power in the hands of a few advisors.
The strategy also underplays regional shifts. Thus far, U.S. regional diplomacy has centered on pressuring Pakistan; yet the calculations that motivate Islamabad’s support for the insurgency are unlikely to change. The Taliban also now enjoys ties to Iran and Russia, which claim to view it as a bulwark against an Islamic State branch in Afghanistan that is small but resilient—and also capable of mounting high-profile attacks. Washington’s militarized approach and diminished diplomacy risk signaling to those countries that it seeks not to stabilize and leave Afghanistan but to maintain a military presence. Given that they are likely to perceive such a presence as a threat to their own interests, it could lead them to increase support for insurgents. Nor does U.S. diplomacy on Afghanistan currently involve China, whose increasing clout in parts of South Asia will make it critical to any settlement.
It is true that demonstrating sustained U.S. support might reinforce the morale of the Afghan Army; a precipitous withdrawal, in contrast, could trigger chaos. But as the battlefield tempo increases, the Trump administration should keep lines of communication to the insurgency open and explore the contours of a settlement with Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional powers, however slim prospects currently appear. U.S. allies in Afghanistan should push for a greater diplomatic political component to the U.S. strategy. As it stands, that strategy sets the stage for more violence while closing avenues for de-escalation. Afghan civilians will pay the price.
After nearly seven years of war, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has the upper hand, thanks largely to Iranian and Russian backing. But the fighting is not over. Large swaths of the country remain outside regime control, regional and international powers disagree on a settlement, and Syria is an arena for the rivalry between Iran and its enemies. As the Islamic State is ousted from the east, prospects for escalation elsewhere will increase.
In eastern Syria, rival campaigns by pro-regime forces (supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian airpower) and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (the SDF, backed by the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition), have forced an Islamic State retreat. In Syria and Iraq, Islamic State remnants have retreated into the desert to await new opportunities.
For the regime and the SDF, the fight against the Islamic State was a means to an end. The two aimed to capture territory and resources, but also to build on those gains — the regime by consolidating control; the Kurds by pressing for maximal autonomy. Thus far, the two sides mostly have avoided confrontation. With the Islamic State gone, the risks will increase.
The east is also perilous due to wider U.S.-Iran rivalry and the close proximity of these rival forces. Iranian gains, particularly the corridor linking regime-held parts of Syria to government-controlled Iraq, could provoke the U.S. to attempt to block what it views as a dangerous land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. Iran might target U.S. forces to retaliate against U.S. actions elsewhere or to push the United States out altogether.
In the southwest, Israel could view Iran-backed militias operating on and near the Golan Heights as a direct threat and take military action to push them back. Whether Moscow can prevent any Iranian or Hezbollah presence there, as it has pledged to do, is unclear. Israel may take matters into its own hands, striking Iran-allied forces. That pattern — prodding by Iran, pushback by Israel — could last for some time. But a wider confrontation is only one miscalculation away and could quickly spread beyond Syria, to Lebanon.
One of the gravest immediate dangers, however, is the possibility of an offensive by the Assad regime in Syria’s northwest, where rebel-held areas are home to some 2 million Syrians and into which Turkey has deployed military observers as part of a de-escalation deal with Iran and Russia. Regime and allied forces appear to have shifted some attention from the east to those areas, placing that deal under stress. A regime offensive in the northwest could provoke massive destruction and displacement.
7. The Sahel
Weak states across the Sahel region are struggling to manage an overlapping mix of intercommunal conflict, jihadi violence, and fighting over smuggling routes. Their leaders’ predation and militarized responses often make things worse.
Mali’s 2012 crisis — which saw the Malian army routed from the country’s north, a coup that overthrew the government, and jihadis holding northern towns for almost a year — illustrates how quickly things can unravel. Since then, implementation of a peace deal that aimed to end that crisis has stalled, while instability has spread from the north to Mali’s central region as well as parts of neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Dynamics in each place are local, but governments’ lack of authority and their inability to stem — and, at times, their frequent contribution to — violence is a common theme. Weapons that flooded the region as Libya collapsed after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s overthrow have made local quarrels deadlier. The instability has opened a rich vein for jihadis, who piggyback on intercommunal conflict or use Islam to frame struggles against traditional authorities.
As the situation has degenerated, the regional and international response has focused excessively on military solutions. Europeans in particular view the region as a threat to their own safety and a source of migration and terrorism. In late 2017, a new French-backed force known as the G5 Sahel — comprising troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania — prepared to deploy into a field already crowded by France’s own counterterrorism operations, U.S. Special Forces, and U.N. peacekeepers. While military action must play a part in reducing jihadis’ influence, the G5 force raises more questions than it answers. It lacks a clear definition of the enemy, instead envisaging operations against an array of jihadis, traffickers, and other criminals. Disrupting smuggling in regions where that business represents the backbone of local economies could alienate communities. Regional leaders also appear likely to misuse military aid to shore up their own power.
To avoid further deterioration, military efforts must be accompanied by a political strategy that rests on winning the support of local populations and defusing rather than aggravating local disputes. Opening or restoring lines of communication with some militant leaders should not be ruled out, if doing so can help diminish violence.
8. Democratic Republic of Congo
President Joseph Kabila’s determination to hold on to power threatens to escalate the crisis in Congo and a humanitarian emergency that is already among the world’s worst. At the end of 2016, the Saint Sylvester agreement appeared to offer a way out, requiring elections by the end of 2017, after which Kabila would leave power (his second and, according to the Congolese Constitution, final term in office should have ended December 2016). Over the past year, however, his regime has backtracked, exploiting the Congolese opposition’s disarray and waning international attention and reneging on a power-sharing deal. In November, the election commission announced a new calendar — with a vote at the end of 2018, extending Kabila’s rule for at least another year.
The most likely course in 2018 is gradual deterioration. But there are worse scenarios. As the regime clamps down, fails to secure parts of the country, and stokes instability in others, the risk of a steeper descent into chaos remains — with grave regional implications.
There are already troubling signs. Popular discontent raises the risk of unrest in urban centers; in recent days, the violent dispersal of protesters in Kinshasa and other towns has left several people dead. Elsewhere, local militias plague several provinces. Fighting over the past year in the Kasai region has reportedly left more than 3,000 dead, and the conflict in the country’s east claims dozens of lives each month.
International engagement has been lackluster. Disagreements between Africa and the West do not help: Western powers are more critical and have sanctioned some of Kabila’s entourage, and African leaders and regional organizations are reluctant to criticize the regime openly, even as some recognize the dangers behind closed doors. Only more active, forceful, and united diplomacy — and ideally a more engaged Congolese opposition — stand a chance of nudging Kabila toward a peaceful transition. The Saint Sylvester principles (credible elections, no third term for Kabila, an opening of political space, and respect for human rights) still offer the best route out of the crisis.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed over 10,000 lives and constitutes a grave ongoing humanitarian crisis. While it persists, relations between Russia and the West are unlikely to improve. Separatist-held areas are dysfunctional and dependent on Moscow. In other areas of Ukraine, mounting anger at corruption and the 2015 Minsk II agreement, which Russia and Ukraine’s Western allies insist is the path to resolve the conflict, creates new challenges.
Implementation of that agreement has stalled: Moscow points to Kiev’s failure to carry out the Minsk agreement’s political provisions, including devolving power to separatist-held areas once they are reintegrated into Ukraine; Kiev argues it cannot do so while Russian interference and insecurity in those areas persist. Both sides continue to exchange fire across the line dividing Ukrainian troops from separatist and Russian forces.
Yet the east is not the whole story. The Ukrainian state remains fragile even outside areas where Moscow interferes directly. President Petro Poroshenko’s government has not addressed the systemic corruption at the root of many of the country’s problems. Many Ukrainians are losing faith in laws, institutions, and elites. Anger at the Minsk agreement, which Ukrainians see as a concession to separatists and Moscow, is growing, even among reformists.
Given the diplomatic deadlock, Russia’s circulation of a draft U.N. Security Council resolution proposing peacekeepers for Ukraine in September 2017 came as a surprise. There are good reasons to suspect Russia’s intentions. Despite the high costs of its entanglement, little suggests it intends to loosen its grip on eastern Ukraine. The lightly armed force it proposed, whose mandate would include only providing security to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors, would more likely freeze the conflict than resolve it.
Yet Moscow’s proposal opens a window for Kiev and its Western allies to explore how peacekeepers might secure not only the line of separation but also the Ukraine-Russia border, and to create conditions for local elections and the reintegration of separatist-held areas. They should, however, factor in growing animosity toward the Minsk agreement. Europe’s involvement is essential for progress on peacekeeping negotiations and to promote a more measured debate in Ukraine that can halt the nationalist backlash against the Minsk agreement.
Venezuela took yet another turn for the worse in 2017, as President Nicolás Maduro’s government ran the country further into the ground while strengthening its political grip. The opposition has imploded. Prospects for a peaceful restoration of democracy appear ever slimmer. But with the economy in free fall, Maduro faces enormous challenges. Expect the humanitarian crisis to deepen in 2018 as GDP continues to contract.
In late November, Venezuela defaulted on part of its international debt. Sanctions will make debt restructuring nearly impossible. Increasing Russian support is unlikely to suffice, while China appears reluctant to bail Maduro out. A default could provoke the seizure of Venezuelan assets abroad, crippling the oil trade that accounts for 95 percent of the country’s export earnings.
Street demonstrations and clashes that killed over 120 people between April and July subsided after the July election of a National Constituent Assembly composed entirely of government allies. Subsequent polls for state governors and mayors led to major opposition losses amid disputes over whether to participate. But food shortages, a collapsed health system, and spiraling violent crime mean conditions for unrest persist.
While opposition politicians look to the presidential vote, due by late 2018, as an opportunity and entry point for foreign engagement, the government is unlikely to permit a credible vote. It might call early polls, catch its opponents unprepared, and deploy the same voter suppression tactics it has used to win local and regional elections. If the opposition begins to show signs of recovery, Maduro might seek to avoid elections altogether by claiming that external threats warrant a state of emergency. A less probable scenario is that the ruling party splits over who will succeed Maduro; without a formal mechanism, the military would be the likely arbiter. Meanwhile, the weak Venezuelan state will continue to provide a haven for criminal networks and opportunities for money laundering, drug trafficking, and people smuggling, further disquieting Venezuela’s neighbors.
The prognosis for 2018 is further deterioration, humanitarian emergency, and an increased exodus of Venezuelans. Sustained domestic and international pressure — as well as guarantees of future immunity — will be required to push the government toward credible presidential elections.
10 Conflicts to Watch in 2018
By Daphne Panayotatos, Advocate and Program Officer for Refugees International, first published by the New Humanitarian on 13 October 2020
‘Greek authorities never wanted to acknowledge that the refugee situation required a sustained response.’
WASHINGTON, D.C.- As European countries negotiate a new Pact on Asylum and Migration, “no more Morias” has become a rallying cry: The scorched camp is a palpable symbol of Greek and EU policy failures. The Pact aims to improve “solidarity” and better distribute responsibility for asylum seekers among EU states. But that in itself is not a solution to the humanitarian crises and human rights violations occurring at and within the EU’s borders.
For there truly to be no more Morias, the EU as a whole must recommit to its fundamental values. But Greece cannot wait for an agreement to fulfill the obligations it already has to protect those seeking safety.
This means ending illegal pushbacks and other abuses at the country’s borders – abuses that the Greek government denies are taking place and is failing to investigate – and ensuring access to fair asylum procedures. It also means ending the neglect of refugees whose statuses have already been recognised.
To do this, Greece must increase funding and capacity for refugee integration. In March, Greece cut the eligibility period for ESTIA – an EU-funded and UN refugee agency-administered emergency housing and cash assistance programme – from six months to 30 days. The decision left thousands of people facing homelessness and destitution in the midst of a global pandemic.
To prevent further damage, the Greek government must restore ESTIA’s six-month eligibility period. It must also bolster HELIOS, another EU-funded programme implemented by the UN’s migration agency, IOM. The programme subsidises rent for independent housing for up to 12 months. But because of discrimination, language barriers, and other obstacles that make it difficult for refugees to find leases and qualify for assistance, it falls short. A new pilot within HELIOS to provide refugees with two months’ accommodation is promising. But much more is needed.
The Greek government must also end the hostile operating environment it has created for NGOs. New policies have tightened regulations on NGOs working with asylum seekers and migrants. Billed as an effort to improve transparency around NGO operations, the rules instead suppress independent monitoring of government activities and stigmatise NGOs.
Greece emerged from the pandemic’s first wave relatively unscathed. But emergency measures could not offset a years-long pattern of bad policy.
In July, the Council of Europe’s expert council issued a critical opinion that the new rules violate EU law. But the damage was already done. In June, 22 of the 40 organisations working in refugee camps had to suspend their operations. It is inhumane and counterproductive to cripple groups providing essential support, especially during a pandemic. Yet, the government issued another directive in September that only exacerbated these harmful policies.
The cumulative result of these policies is a woefully inadequate support system for asylum seekers and refugees on the Greek mainland. This means that the housing and integration support for people who need to be transferred from Lesvos to the mainland in the aftermath of the Moria fire simply doesn’t exist. Instead, 20 to 30 asylum seekers and refugees who were previously transferred from the island are returning every day to Lesvos because of the dire situation they encountered when they left.
Greece emerged from the pandemic’s first wave relatively unscathed. But emergency measures could not offset a years-long pattern of bad policy. Wary of a public backlash, Greek authorities never wanted to acknowledge that the refugee situation required a sustained response – they saw it instead as a temporary challenge to be contained on the islands.
The fires that burned Moria to the ground could have been prevented. But with thousands of people still suffering appalling conditions in overcrowded camps, it was inevitable the virus would spread. The EU and other member states were happy to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations and deplorable conditions in Greece so long as the number of people crossing their borders remained low.
The pandemic’s humanitarian and economic toll will likely drive more asylum seekers to the EU, and tensions with Turkey could again flare at the borders. The solidarity measures proposed in the New Pact are unlikely to relieve pressure on frontline states like Greece.
Greece certainly needs other EU countries to step up and do a better job sharing responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers.
But regardless of what happens with the New Pact, Greece must immediately change course to begin respecting its international obligations and acting in accordance with European values. To deal humanely and effectively with the current, manufactured crisis – not to mention future movements of asylum seekers and refugees – Greece and the EU have no other choice.
International Crisis Group, 14 October 2020
Fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh is decimating towns and cities, displacing tens of thousands and killing scores. Combatants must cease attacks on populated areas and let humanitarian aid through. International actors, notably the UN and OSCE, should send monitors and push harder for a ceasefire.
Two weeks into a renewed war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, fighting appears poised to escalate. On 10 October, a Russian-brokered humanitarian ceasefire intended to enable combatants to retrieve the bodies of the dead and exchange prisoners appeared to fall apart as its ink was drying. Both sides have since struck towns and villages, with enormous damage to lives and livelihoods. While it may take time for the parties to return to peace talks, they and international actors must act to stem the mounting human toll. Whatever an eventual settlement entails, it will be closer to hand and more sustainable if the parties stop killing civilians and adding fresh grievances to an already intractable conflict.
As Crisis Group noted in a 2 October statement, the conflict has no simple solution. Since the 1992-1994 war, which pitted Azerbaijani forces against Nagorno-Karabakh rebels backed by the Armenian army and ended with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence, decades of stalled negotiations, outbreaks of violence and hardened positions on all sides have compounded the territorial dispute. Foreign actors matter, but for now cannot impose a lasting peace. The failure of the 10 October ceasefire shows that even Russia, which has a treaty with Armenia and longstanding relationships with both Yerevan and Baku, has only limited leverage. Turkey backs Azerbaijan diplomatically and with military aid, but Baku is not sufficiently dependent on Ankara’s support that threats of its withdrawal, even if they were forthcoming, would end fighting. Europe and the United States have even less influence.
Military casualties already number high in the hundreds and the civilian toll is also mounting. Azerbaijani missile, artillery and drone strikes on Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital of Stepanakert and other towns and villages have turned homes, schools, and much of the region’s infrastructure to rubble. Credible reports indicate the use of cluster bombs, particularly dangerous to civilians and banned by an international convention (although neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are signatories).
Since 10 October, fighting has spread to the streets of Hadrut, a town 40km south of Stepanakert and well within Nagorno-Karabakh itself, rather than being limited, as it was during the first days of the war, mainly to the unpopulated adjacent territories controlled by Armenian forces since the 1992-1994 war. According to the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, as of 12 October, at least 31 civilians had been killed in the region and over 100 injured, many seriously. Some 70,000-75,000 people, half the region’s population and 90 per cent of its women and children, have fled their homes. Many are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. With a continuing pandemic and rapidly cooling weather, the mass displacement could have severe public health consequences.
On the other side of the front lines, Azerbaijani officials report 42 civilians killed and 206 injured as of 12 October. Most attacks have hit Azerbaijani cities near the breakaway territory, but some have struck civilian areas hundreds of kilometres away, including the Absheron peninsula, where the capital, Baku, is located. Azerbaijan accuses Armenian forces of using cluster bombs and Scud missiles. Particularly hard hit are the country’s second-biggest city of Ganja and a town, Mingachevir, which hosts a large water reservoir and serves as a regional electricity hub. Ganja was hit again within 24 hours of the weekend’s ceasefire. Journalists tell Crisis Group that several hundred people, mostly women and children, have evacuated front-line areas.
Many outside actors have expressed alarm. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has joined calls for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, while the European Union, Slovakia, and a variety of humanitarian organisations promise aid, though the fighting hampers aid delivery. Moreover, no international aid can reach Nagorno-Karabakh itself without Azerbaijan’s blessing, which Baku has not granted, leaving only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has maintained a permanent office in the region since the 1990s. With international borders closed due to COVID-19, if fighting escalates to engulf more of Azerbaijan and Armenia, it will result in many displaced who have nowhere to go.
With the collapse of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, both parties look set to escalate fighting, with prospectively grave consequences. Azerbaijani advances fuel Armenian fears and counter-strikes. The attacks on civilian areas to date may be mistakes or efforts by combatants to deter further escalation by the other side. If intentional or with insufficient care for protecting the civilian population, they violate international law. Even if not, they are causing tremendous suffering. They are counterproductive to an eventual peace, hardening hostility and rendering a sustainable settlement more remote.
Ideally, both sides would return to talks, but even absent that, it is critical that they cease targeting civilians and undertake efforts to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering. They must eschew cluster bombs, stop targeting population centres and provide corridors for the evacuation of the wounded and dead and the delivery of humanitarian aid. International actors, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which has overseen negotiations since the end of hostilities in 1994, and its co-chairs France, Russia and the U.S., other capitals worldwide and international organisations should speak in one voice and specifically call for such measures. Countries that provide weapons to the parties, including Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Pakistan and Israel, and those through which deliveries transit, including Iran and Georgia, should cease provision and transit, at least when it comes to systems credibly reported to have been used in attacks on civilian targets (Georgia has already stopped weapons transit through its territory).
The UN Security Council can play a role. First, the council, which has to date discussed the crisis in private and released a press statement calling for calm, should now convene an urgent public meeting on the escalating fighting and attacks on civilian areas. It should insist the parties abide by the 10 October Moscow agreement on a humanitarian ceasefire and facilitate the safe, unhindered and sustained delivery of lifesaving aid, including providing full and secure access to the region for humanitarian actors. Going further, the council should adopt a resolution calling for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, beyond the limited humanitarian one agreed in Moscow. The resolution should also condemn the parties for endangering the lives of civilians and call on them to return to talks under the Minsk Group co-chairs’ auspices.
As for the OSCE and its Minsk Group, they should step up efforts on the ground. Mitigating harm to civilians will require coordination across front lines even as fighting continues. The Minsk Group process has frustrated both sides (and particularly Baku) in its failure over three decades to deliver a lasting peace. Still, it provides a format for the parties to carry out such coordination. In the wake of the Moscow agreement, which called for a return to Minsk Group talks, the co-chairs reported that they and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (OSCE CIO PR) were working with the ICRC to explore “modalities and logistics for the return of remains and detainees”. They also report that they continue to engage the conflict parties on a long-term settlement. Building upon this work, the OSCE should resume its field activity in the region, suspended in March as a result of COVID-19, and work with military and diplomatic representatives of the warring parties and the ICRC to develop guidelines and a contact mechanism to facilitate the humanitarian measures outlined above.
This expanded field activity should include means to monitor and “verify” the Moscow agreement’s or any new ceasefire, as the Russian and Armenian foreign ministers called for in a 12 October press conference. One tool might be a version of the investigative mechanism to study incidents that Yerevan, Baku and OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries agreed to put in place, along with an expansion of the OSCE CIO PR’s office, after four days of clashes in 2016. This could give OSCE monitors the unrestricted access they would need to Nagorno-Karabakh and, if expanded, any parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia under fire. In the past, Baku resisted the mechanism, despite having agreed to it on paper. At the time, Azerbaijan sought to regain control over the adjacent territories through negotiations before agreeing to new mechanisms that it feared would solidify the status quo. But Baku may be more amenable to granting monitors temporary access to its territory and that of Armenia to investigate recent attacks, while active hostilities continue. Whatever its specific tools, the OSCE should consider making its monitors’ and investigative reports public,given the lack of objective, neutral reporting on the conflict and rampant biased information and disinformation.
The UN could support the OSCE’s monitoring. The two institutions already have a strong relationship. The OSCE Minsk Group could tap UN expertise on observer missions and investigative techniques in warzones as it designs a way forward. The UN could be even more active in its support if the Security Council requests that the UN Secretary-General dispatch, in coordination with the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office’s Personal Representative, military and civilian observers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider conflict region.
Such a mission could observe the ceasefire and document and report on violations of international humanitarian law committed during the fighting. Once the OSCE’s monitoring mission takes shape, the UN mission could withdraw. Such missions would require the conflict parties to guarantee members’ security, which in itself could help limit violence.
These steps will not, in and of themselves, end the war. But they would save lives and improve prospects for a real peace, whenever it may come.
By Mark Trevelyan
BAKU - Fighting that broke out on Sept. 27 over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh quickly became the deadliest for more than 25 years in a long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
WHERE AND WHAT IS NAGORNO-KARABAKH?
It’s a mountainous, forested patch of land that sits inside the territory of ex-Soviet Azerbaijan and is recognised under international law as part of that country. But the ethnic Armenians who make up the vast majority of the estimated 150,000 population reject Azeri rule. They have been running their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan’s troops were pushed out in a war in the 1990s. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 but at least 200 people were killed in a violent flare-up in 2016. Nagorno-Karabakh survives almost totally on budget support from Armenia and donations from the worldwide Armenian diaspora.
WHY HAS FIGHTING BROKEN OUT NOW?
Tensions between the two sides have been building over the summer, and spilled into direct clashes on Sept. 27. The timing is significant because the outside powers that have mediated in the past - namely Russia, France and the United States - are distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming U.S. presidential election and a list of world crises from Lebanon to Belarus. Lower-level clashes in July prompted only a muted international response. Turkey, which held large military exercises with Azerbaijan in July and August, has been even more conspicuous in its support compared with past crises. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said Ankara will stand by Azerbaijan “with all its resources and heart”.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
Past outbreaks of fighting have killed some 30,000 people since 1988. Military and political analysts say they have witnessed an increase in deployment of heavy weaponry such as rockets and artillery, bringing a higher risk of civilian casualties that would make it harder to pull the two sides back from all-out war. That in turn could draw in other powers such as Turkey and Russia and destabilise the South Caucasus region, an important corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas.
WHAT COULD STOP THE FIGHTING?
Russia potentially holds the key: it has a mutual defence pact with Armenia and a military base there, but also enjoys good relations with Azerbaijan and has no interest in the conflict spreading. Moscow brokered a humanitarian ceasefire that went into effect on Saturday though it quickly came under strain. If its diplomacy succeeds, Moscow could earn kudos for ending the fighting at a time when it is under intense criticism on other fronts, including over its backing for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed election and over the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Siberia, which Germany says was carried out with a nerve agent.
VAROSHA, NORTHERN CYPRUS - Northern Cyprus said on Tuesday it will reopen the beach area of an abandoned resort in no-man's land, a move condemned by Greek Cypriots and likely to conjure up memories of the 1974 Turkish invasion that partitioned the island.
Ersin Tatar, premier of the breakaway state of Northern Cyprus, made the announcement in Ankara alongside Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who said he backed the decision on Varosha, sealed off within barbed wire for decades.
The move could weigh on Turkey's dispute with European Union members Cyprus and Greece over territorial rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tensions had eased after Ankara and Athens agreed to resume talks, but Cyprus, a close ally of the Greece, promptly condemned the move to partially reopen the abandoned resort and said it would file a recourse to the United Nations Security Council.
Greece also criticised the move, and said it would support Cyprus.
"God willing, we will start to use the Maras beach on Thursday morning together with our people," Tatar said, using Varosha's Turkish name. Northern Cyprus is only recognised as a state by Turkey.
Sources in Cyprus said the plan was to open up about 1.5 km (1 mile) of beachfront to the public and not the approximately 6 square km (2.3 sq miles) inland that includes abandoned hotels and residences which its population of 39,000 people fled in 1974 during a Turkish invasion following a Greek inspired coup.
"We hope that the whole of Maras is opened to use after ongoing work is completed by respecting property rights," Erdogan said, pledging support for Turkish Cypriot officials.
Nicos Anastasiades, president of Cyprus's internationally-recognised government - and who as recently as last week was involved in a tense stand-off with his EU peers for his push for sanctions on Turkey, said: "this is an exceptionally unacceptable situation."
Varosha is a suburb of the larger city of Famagusta, which, in Greek - Ammochostos - means "buried in sand". It has a pristine coastline of thick golden sand, most of it in the now out-of-bounds Varosha quarter.
Presently, about 200 metres (660 ft) of it is accessible to the public under the towering shadow of a hotel and a three-storey resort bombed during the war and left rotting since then. The rest of it is fenced off by rusting barbed wire which extends into the sea, guarded by Turkish soldiers.
Nicosia had already been in touch with the governments of the five permanent members of the Security Council in the hours leading up to the announcement, people with knowledge of the matter said.
Tatar had signalled steps to reopen Varosha in August, saying a revival of the area, which contains derelict hotels, churches and residences, would bring trade and tourism benefits.
Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Northern Cyprus on Sunday, with Tatar a candidate.
Varosha has been off limits along ceasefire lines to all but the Turkish military since 1974 and has stood as a bargaining chip in the decades-long dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Several peacemaking efforts have made no significant progress and the discovery of offshore energy resources has complicated efforts to resolve the island's partition.
Lebanon: The Tragedy of Doing Nothing
By Amer Bisat, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, 21 October 2020
Lebanon’s ad hoc approach to its myriad economic shocks will leave scars that are long-lasting.
Almost a year ago, a group of us wrote a “ten point action plan for avoiding a lost decade.” In that document we warned that the “current ad hoc approach to policymaking will lead Lebanon on a path of implosion and political disintegration.” A year later, alas, our worst fears are becoming a reality.
The Lebanese economic implosion was totally predictable. Policy vacuums generate insidious outcomes. An economy is a living organism. If it is not medicated, the organism’s immune system fights infections. Fevers are symptoms of this reaction. In some instances the body prevails, but in others, especially if the infection is powerful or an organism’s immunity is low, the body succumbs. It is the fever that kills the organism, not the infection.
Lebanon today is categorically in the latter camp. The shocks in the past year have been severe, the vulnerabilities are acute, but the crisis is not being properly managed. As a result, the economy is organically adjusting to the new situation. The consequences of this “endogenous” adjustment are grave. The economic collapse is already evident, and the scars will prove long-lasting.
But before delving into the economics of this automatic adjustment and hard landing, the striking anomaly is that a year into the crisis the political class has done very little to contain it. There are three possible explanations for this nonchalance. First, utter incompetence. Second, an intractable political environment that makes collective decisionmaking extremely difficult, especially given the size of the losses that need apportioning. And third, an active decision by the political class to do nothing, since implosion pushes losses onto the population thereby safeguarding the politicians’ vested interests. Regardless of what the correct explanation is, policy neglect is, paradoxically, threatening seismic political shifts that will potentially impact the political class itself. The current attempt by politicians to urgently form a cabinet may well reflect a realization that an economic collapse would undermine their own political survival.
To understand how the economy is automatically adjusting, let us recall the four elements of the economic crises. By late 2019, Lebanon was facing large U.S. dollar supply-demand imbalances; an unsustainable debt overhang; a bloated and bankrupt banking sector; and a public sector that is inefficient and generates deficits. A year into these crises, all four of those problems are being dealt with—but by stealth. However, the automatic levers allowing this adjustment are insidious and detrimental to the country’s long-term prospects.
Start first with the balance of payments. The country’s net commercial needs in U.S. dollars was $12 billion in 2019. In 2020, those needs are down to an estimated $4 billion. In and of itself this is a good thing. However, underneath the adjustment is a 50 percent collapse in the value of imports, which in turn has come about because of a massive currency collapse and a deep recession that has robbed the population of the income needed to import goods. Put differently, the balance of payments is indeed adjusting. But only because the society’s income and wealth are disappearing.
The second element of the crisis is a massive public and private debt overhang that has become impossible to finance and service. All recovery blueprints would certainly recommend bringing debt down to a level the economy can afford. However, the deleveraging was always meant to pursue an orderly approach that would balance the interests of lenders—to maximize the recovery value of their loans—against those of debtors—to reduce the debt burden sufficiently to make it sustainable. Instead, with no active crisis management, the debt overhang is being resolved “organically” through disorganized defaults and bankruptcies.
The banking sector is the third element of the economic crisis. Decades of attracting deposits and on-lending them to the state had made the banking sector gargantuan. Moreover, the debt default and deep recession have bankrupted the sector. Since then the sector has been organically shrinking and cleaning itself up. Admittedly, part of this process is healthy: borrowers are selling their real estate assets to other depositors and using those funds to extinguish debt.
However, other parts of the banking sector’s consolidation are unhealthy. First, there is the phenomenon of large deposit withdrawals in circumvention of capital controls. Those deposits are being funded by the central bank’s depleting foreign reserves. A second phenomenon is that of depositors voluntarily “haircutting” themselves by withdrawing their U.S. dollar deposits in Lebanese pounds at an artificially valued exchange rate. This de facto “poundification” is causing the value of deposits to be inflated away. Banks are indeed being cleaned up. But it is depositors and the central bank’s foreign reserves that are absorbing the losses, not bank shareholders.
The fourth element of the crisis is that of the public sector. The Lebanese state has long been unable to either generate revenues or control spending. While revenues have collapsed over the past year, the spending side of the equation has paradoxically improved. Inflation—itself reflecting irresponsibly loose monetary policy—has dramatically reduced the real value of civil servants’ wages and pensions and, more broadly, public spending on goods and services. Here again, an original sin is being dealt with by stealth, but in a way that is impoverishing the middle class and society at large.
In 2020 alone, Lebanon’s GDP is forecast to contract by 25 percent, an amount equal to that experienced by the United States during the five years of the Great Depression. When measured in dollars, the purchasing power of the Lebanese economy is set to collapse by two-thirds. Inflation, steadily eating into the society’s real income, is rising at an alarming rate of 120 percent. And poverty is rampant, with close to 2 million people unable to afford basic items.
But what these numbers don’t reveal are the structural scars whose impact will be long-lasting. Human capital is fast eroding through a massive brain drain of the young, who are leaving Lebanon or trying to. Equally worrying is the loss of physical productive capacity resulting from widespread business closures. Much more alarming is the security consequences of an economic implosion. Lebanon’s sectarian history is rife with conflict. An economic collapse provides a perfect habitat for a return of violence.
Is there a better way to deal with the crisis? There definitely is. The optimal road map to recovery is well understood and much has been written about it. However, this is not really the place to address that topic. The point, instead, is to stress that the Lebanese organism is too weak to handle the current neglect and paralysis. If the policy vacuum persists, fatal consequences surely await us.
*Amer Bisat is head of sovereign and emerging markets (alpha) at BlackRock and a former International Monetary Fund senior economist. He writes in a private capacity.
Turkey/Syria: A Fluid Frontier
BY KHEDER KHADDOUR AND MANHAL BAREESH, Carnegie Middle East, 02 October 2020
Turkey is altering the nature of Syrian border areas, perhaps presaging more far-reaching steps
The American withdrawal from areas east of the Euphrates in October 2019 was a turning point in the conflict in northeastern Syria. It allowed Turkey to expand into the area, effectively moving its border deeper inside Syria to create a buffer zone with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a heterogeneous alliance of multiethnic armed groups led by the People’s Protection Units, which Turkey sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization it accuses of engaging in terrorist activities.
This expansion has fundamentally altered the nature of Turkey’s border areas with Syria, linking them politically, socially, economically, and in security terms to Turkish provinces just over the frontier. While stopping short of outright annexation, such integration has reshaped the social and economic framework of these regions. It also may lay the groundwork for future, more far-reaching, steps by Ankara in the area.
The U.S. withdrawal was followed by a Turkish military operation known as Peace Spring, which resulted in Turkey’s military taking control over a strip of land between Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad. This established a new border zone, much as Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations had done in other parts of northern Syria. The Peace Spring area is closely connected to Sanliurfa Province in Turkey in terms of administration, services, and trade. However, it is also isolated from surrounding areas inside Syria. The area has strategic importance for Turkey in that it intervened to prevent the emergence there of an entity effectively controlled by the PKK. That is why the expanse between Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad is highly securitized and is not one to which Syrians can easily return today.
Turkish involvement in the area runs deep. Every local council has a coordinator who is affiliated with the province of Sanliurfa. These coordinators help local councils secure the logistical support and funding necessary to carry out service projects. They also help coordinate the delivery of Turkish assistance to local bodies through the Syrian opposition’s interim government. This includes such things as healthcare, property and civil status registration, and education.
The depth of this involvement is illustrated by the fact that when the interim government declared the formation of a local council in Tell Abyad on October 28, 2019, the governor of Sanliurfa, ‘Abdullah Erin, visited the city and expressed his support for the new council. When the local council for Ras al-‘Ayn was formed on November 7, 2019, Erin visited this city as well, stressing that Turkey would continue to rebuild the area and encourage a Syrian refugee return.
In the education sector, the Turks have reopened 146 schools operating in the Ras al-‘Ayn area, enrolling more than 15,000 students. Harran University has also signed a memorandum of understanding to open a branch there soon. Scholarships are given out to a number of students who have achieved high scores on the YÖS Turkish-language exams, especially for universities located in Harran, Mardin, and Hatay.
In another example of what Turkey is doing, last May it allowed 85 combined harvesters to pass through its territory from areas captured in the Euphrates Shield operation to the area of Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad in order to harvest wheat and barley. This was necessary as there is no direct connection between the two areas under Turkish control. According to sources on the ground, the Turkish authorities also granted entry permits to 1,500 farmers during the harvest season so that they could move through Turkey to harvest their land in Syria. After the end of the harvest, transit procedures will be eased in order to move seeds to the Euphrates Shield areas. The Turkish aid groups IHH and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, as well as the Turkish Red Crescent, are also involved in the area, filling the gap left by U.S. and European aid agencies no longer active there.
The Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad area is highly connected to Turkey but has closed its boundaries with the rest of Syria. This has encouraged smuggling. According to people on the ground, building materials are cheaper in the Peace Spring areas, where they are stored. Steel costs $500 per ton in these areas, but $650 per ton in Raqqa, controlled by the SDF. A ton of cement costs $42 in Peace Spring areas and $100 in Raqqa. The opposite is true for fuel products, because SDF-controlled areas produce oil. A barrel of fuel oil costs $37 in Peace Spring areas but just $15 in Raqqa, while gasoline costs $84 per barrel in Peace Spring areas and $40 per barrel in Raqqa.
This indicates that while the area is technically in a border zone with Turkey, it also acts as a border between Turkey and the rest of Syria. The fact that it is closely connected to Turkey yet remains isolated from Syria makes an imminent large-scale refugee return unlikely. Asked about the prospect of refugees returning, a local commander stressed the deficiencies in local infrastructure and the difficulties in procuring sufficient resources. “The electricity, water, and food are just enough for us. We don’t want anyone to come back,” he said.
The idea behind Turkey’s reshaping of Syria’s northern border areas is not to seize these territories for Turkey, but to create a buffer zone with the SDF to absorb the impact of any confrontation with the group. These parts of Syria will likely remain Syrian, but under Ankara’s heavy influence. That said, the situation could create more options for Turkey in the future. But for now, as its administration of these areas has in many ways been successful, Turkey may be encouraged to replicate such a model east of the Euphrates.
Lebanon: Peripheries of Poverty
BY MICHAEL YOUNG, Carnegie Middle East Center, 29 September 2020
In an interview, Kawthar Dara discusses how regional disparities have added to Lebanon’s fragility.
Kawthar Dara is a Lebanese economist with longstanding experience in diverse disciplines, mainly in socioeconomic development, public financial management, and public expenditure policy analysis. Dara has worked with various international organizations, donors, and government agencies in Lebanon and the region. She had also done work in policy development, economic and fiscal analysis, social protection, planning, costing and budgeting, public-sector operations, socioeconomic research, and program coordination and management. She has acted as a policy advisor to ministers and taken part in promoting and advancing key policy reforms such as public financial management reforms, social protection system reforms, poverty targeting mechanisms, pension, health, and education policies. Recently, she published an article with Carnegie titled “Marginalization Cost: Regional Disparities Fueling Lebanon’s Fragility.” Diwan interviewed Dara in late September to discuss her article.
Michael Young: What is the main argument of your recent Carnegie article?
Kawthar Dara: I argue that growing regional disparities have contributed to Lebanon’s overall fragility. Recent developments—including the exacerbation of the economic and social crisis in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic—have further deepened existing inequalities as underprivileged regions have been hit harder by the implications of these crises than other regions.
MY: Why did you focus on regional disparities, and how have these affected Lebanon in the past?
KD: Regional disparities have existed in Lebanon for as long as the country has existed and have endured during the country’s history, even in the periods of greatest prosperity. Peripheral areas such as northern Lebanon, the Beqa‘ Valley, and southern Lebanon have always suffered from multidimensional vulnerabilities, including poverty and low income, the poor quality of health and education, high unemployment, low economic activity, weak investment, and poor infrastructure. When left unaddressed, these regional fragilities led to social unrest threatening the country’s security and stability.
On another front, these peripheral regions enjoy untapped economic potential. If they were explored and properly integrated into the national economic cycle, this could help Lebanon attain inclusive and sustainable economic growth. For instance, the Beqa‘ is home to vast agricultural land which is currently underutilized and is being continuously threatened by chaotic urban expansion, and this at a time when Lebanon is facing a serious food security threat.
The Beqa‘ is also home to one of the most prominent international heritage sites and numerous touristic attractions—Baalbek, ‘Anjar, and other places. This would place the area in an advanced position for local, regional, and international tourism. The same can be said of northern Lebanon, which has great agricultural potential, for example in the ‘Akkar plain, natural tourist attractions, and prominent trade gateways, including the Tripoli port and the Syrian border.
All this untapped potential in peripheral zones is much needed now to put Lebanon back on a sustainable growth track. This is particularly true given that the revival of the country’s traditional economic pillars, the heavy reliance on banking and financial services, may take a long time to occur. Economic alternatives should be seriously pursued in those regions that were neglected in the past. This would hit two birds with one stone by reducing inequalities among regions on the one hand, and boosting the economic contribution of these regions to national output on the other.
MY: One of the issues you address is education. What is going on in this sector as Lebanon struggles with a severe economic crisis?
KD: Education has been one of the most critical sectors affected by the crisis and more importantly by the spread of Covid-19. Prior to the crisis, Lebanon relied on the private schooling system to educate around 70 percent of students. However, private education is costly and adds a heavy burden on households. The crisis and Covid-19 led to a severe decline in income levels for a significant proportion of households. These households can no longer afford private schools and have shifted to public schools as the only available alternative.
Therefore, additional pressure has been exerted on the public educational sector as a result of a sudden increase in demand. We must note that it has also hosted around 250,000 refugee students since 2011, so that the number of non-Lebanese refugee students is almost equivalent to the number of Lebanese students. The high demand versus the uncertainty of educational resources may threaten equal access to quality education across Lebanon’s regions.
Another relevant aspect that may threaten such access is associated with Covid-19 and the alternative learning techniques pursued to ensure social distancing and pandemic containment. Online learning is suggested as one of these alternatives to ensure that the school year will not be lost. However, this requires reliable and continuous access to the internet and to a power supply. Yet this is far from guaranteed across Lebanon, with some regions having extremely low access to both, not to mention the relatively high cost associated with securing internet connectivity, if it is available. This will result in high dropout rates, particularly in that parents may resort to negative coping mechanisms to compensate for the loss of household income, such as making their children work instead of pursuing their learning.
MY: More generally, how bad is the situation today for Lebanese on both the social and economic level?
KD: This period is judged to be the worst that Lebanon has faced since its independence or at least since the civil war. Lebanon went through a similar crisis during the 1980s—in other words during the peak time of the Lebanese conflict. However, today’s crisis is much deeper and more severe, denoting an economic freefall that will eventually lead to a complete economic collapse.
Several events occurred concurrently and have contributed to this situation. These include a severe economic contraction estimated at 18–20 percent in 2020 caused by a loss in confidence and a slowdown in aggregate demand; an unsustainable debt crisis that led to an effective default on foreign currency bonds in March 2020; a deterioration in the value of the local currency, which has lost more than 80 percent of its value; an unprecedented deficit in the balance of payments; a chronic fiscal deficit; a loss of revenue sources; the depletion of foreign currency reserves; an uncontrollable price increase of over 110 percent on a year to year basis; rising unemployment, which has reached 30–35 percent; an increasing brain drain that is causing irreversible losses in the country’s human capital; a failing banking sector; not to mention an extended political stalemate and the absence of proactive decisionmaking mechanisms at a time when the contrary is most needed.
Over and above this, Covid-19 has compounded the crisis and increased its complexity. It has had direct implications for the public health system as well as further slowing, or even halting, certain economic activities as part of pandemic containment measures.
Lastly, the blast in Beirut port on August 4 was the straw (even if it was hardly a straw) that broke the camel’s back. It resulted in a high number of casualties, the massive destruction of a significant part of the capital’s housing stock, the closing of thousands of firms permanently or temporarily, more than 100,000 employees out of work, again either temporarily or permanently, and thousands of households left without shelter.
The accumulation of these events in less than a year has meant increased vulnerabilities that have pushed people further into poverty and deprivation. Prior to the blast it was estimated that around 50 percent of the Lebanese population would be living under the poverty line in 2020. Now the estimates are even higher, given that the socioeconomic implications of the port blast have affected the whole of Lebanon, not just the areas around the port.
MY: What can be done today to reduce regional inequalities?
KD: The situation is difficult, but has also placed Lebanon in a quandary. Given the fiscal and debt crises, Lebanon should follow strict measures to contain its fiscal deficit and reduce indebtedness. The economic contraction means that revenues are going down, negatively impacting the government’s budget. On the other hand, the growing need for public services, mainly in disadvantaged regions where poverty levels are deepening, calls for further spending in those areas to provide essentials such as health, education, and social protection. The complex policy tradeoffs mean that controlling the fiscal deficit is implausible.
To break the vicious circle Lebanon has to seek external support to address its emerging needs. Critical reforms should be in place, however, to ensure that foreign funds are channeled to the neediest regions and tackle priority sectors and services. This would require strengthening the planning process at the local level to inform policies at the center and better prioritize spending.
Syria: Report reveals ‘no clean hands’ as horrific rights violations continue
GENEVA - Despite a reduction in largescale hostilities since a ceasefire in March, the UN Syrian Commission of Inquiry reported on Monday that armed actors continue to subject civilians to horrific and increasingly targeted abuse.
The Commission’s 25-page report documented continuing violations by nearly every fighting force controlling territory across the country.
It also highlighted an increase in patterns of targeted abuse, such as assassinations, sexual and gender-based violence, and looting or appropriation of private property.
And civilian suffering has remained a constant feature of the crisis.
“For nearly a decade all calls to protect women, men, boys and girls have been ignored”, said Commission of Inquiry Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “There are no clean hands in this conflict but the status quo cannot endure”.
No ‘scintilla of evidence’
With a focus on violations taking place away from large-scale hostilities, the report found that enforced disappearances and deprivation of civil liberties continued throughout the first half of the year, to instill fear and suppress dissent among civilians or for financial extortion.
It documented a multitude of detention-related violations by Government forces, the Syrian National Army (SNA), Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and other parties to the conflict.
“All parties in Syria detain civilians without a scintilla of evidence or due process”, Commissioner Hanny Megally declared.
The report concluded that not only do recent cases of enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and deaths in the custody of Government forces, amount to crimes against humanity, but they also serve to exacerbate tensions with southern governorates – leading to further clashes.
“All those arbitrarily deprived of their liberty must be released”, he continued, adding, “the international community can and must do more, particularly regarding the camps in the northeast where they can have immediate impact if they have the political will to act”.
The SNA may have committed war crimes in Afrin and surrounding areas in the north – including hostage-taking, torture and rape – along with killing and maiming scores of civilians through the use of improvised explosive devices, as well as during shelling and rocket attacks, according to the report.
Additionally, army pillaging and appropriation of private land was rife, particularly in Kurdish areas, and satellite imagery revealed the looting and destruction of priceless UNESCO heritage sites.
Nearly a decade into the conflict, the deepening economic crisis, impact of sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, have further diminished prospects of Syrians attainting an adequate standard of living, the report notes.
Moreover, living conditions across the country remain deplorable and barriers are omnipresent in large swathes of Government-controlled areas.
“The dramatic increase in those suffering from food insecurity in Syria in the first half of 2020 is deeply concerning”, said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “All barriers to the provision of humanitarian aid must be removed”.
While recognizing the complexities of the situation, the Commission found that the SDF’s long-term internment of allegedly ISIL-associates in the northeast, amounts to unlawful deprivation of liberty in inhumane conditions, that cannot continue in perpetuity.
The Commission called upon Member States to take back from Syria their nationals who are allegedly associated with ISIL, particularly children and their mothers.
The report concluded with several recommendations, chiefly a call for all parties to pursue a long-lasting, nationwide ceasefire – in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).
To save lives, the Commission called for immediate and large-scale prisoner releases, given that overcrowded prisons across the world, have proved to be breeding grounds for COVID-19.
The Commission also urged the Government to take urgent, comprehensive steps to reveal the fates of those detained or disappeared.
“I urge all parties to the conflict to heed these recommendations, in particularly regarding achieving a sustainable peace”, upheld Commission of Inquiry Chair.
The UN Human Rights Council has mandated the Independent International Commission of Inquiry – Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Karen Koning AbuZayd and Hanny Megally – to investigate and record violations of international law in Syria since March 2011.
By Thomas Hamamdjian, first published by The Africa Report on 20 October 2020
PARIS - Things have been going badly between President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Chief of Staff Saïd Chengriha, in recent weeks despite a friendly presidential visit at the Ministry of the National Defense headquarters on 10 October.
Several issues have contributed to the build-up of tensions between the two men, including: foreign policy, constitutional reform, interference in the management of security and defence matters and appointments and changes made by Tebboune in different institutions.
The dismissal of retired General Major Abdelaziz Medjahed from his position as defence and security adviser to the President surprised many. He is very close with Chengriha as he was not only his direct superior for many years but also a trench mate during the war on terrorism in the early 1990s.
His new assignment at the National Institute of Global Strategy is seen as putting the man who was supposed to ensure coordination between the army and the presidency in the closet.
Medjahed would would also have been involved in international security issues involving Algeria, notably the Libyan and Sahelian crises. A role that annoyed Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum and the head of foreign intelligence Youcef Bouzit.
Another bump in the road between Tebboune and Chengriha are the recent visits – separated by just a few days – of head of AFRICOM, Stephen Townsend and the American Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper.
“The American visit to Algeria felt like an attempt to force the National People’s Army (NPA) into intervening more directly with Libya and Sahel at a time when the United States is withdrawing from Africa” said a retired a senior Algerian officer.
Too friendly with Washington?
“Having received both sends a bad signal to the Americans,” added the military, suggesting that President Tebboune has been too complacent with Washington.
Not to mention the anti-Russian and anti-Chinese statements that Esper made in Tunisia on the evening of his visit to Algiers, exasperating the Chief of Staff, who two days earlier had hosted the boss of the Russian military cooperation, Dmitri Shugaev.
“From the start, Chengriha was hostile to the army’s involvement in politics and wanted to distance himself from his predecessor. He has two concerns: improving the image of the army in the eyes of public opinion, following the scandal of generals on the run or in prison for corruption offences. The second is to rebalance power by reducing that of the Ministry of Defence’s [led by Tebboune himself], which has become a stronghold of power.
While Ahmed Gaïd Salah received the posts of Chief of Staff and Minister of Defence while overseeing the intelligence services, such presence does not interest Chengriha, who considers the ministry to be a political and administrative institution rather than a military one.
On the other hand, Chengriha has not been in favour of the opening of services which, since the death of Gaïd Salah, are increasingly under the control of the president and his security adviser, General Haj Redouane. General Major Bouzit, head boss of the external services, has become particularly active in the president’s entourage.
Additionally, the army also has its own idea on the reform of non-intervention and wants to put it forward.
Although it recognises that the country’s security is not limited to border control, it fears that the constitutional review led by the president could lead it to engage in external operations that could be synonymous with meddling or occupation.
The mention of “peace restoration” missions, which the Army finds too vague, was present in the first draft of the constitutional revision. It has since been withdrawn.
By Farid Alilat, First published by The Africa Report on 28 August 2020
Appointed in 2017 as the head of the army’s signals, information systems and electronic warfare department Major General Abdelkader Lachkhem was dismissed and replaced by Maj. Gen. Farid Bedjghit, who had until then headed the École Supérieure des Transmissions in Kolea. Director of the organisation and logistics department of the Army General Staff Gen. Ali Akroum was removed and replaced by Maj. Gen. Houes Ziari.
The leadership of the directorate of military production was not spared. Its chief, Maj. Gen. Rachid Chouaki, was removed, as was Maj. Gen. Mohammed Teboudelette, who was in charge of military equipment.
Lachkhem’s ouster is another step in the vast operation of dismantling the networks set up by Ahmed Gaïd Salah, former Chief of Staff of the Army and deputy defence minister who died last December of a heart attack. Chief of staff since 2004, Gaïd Salah had gradually made himself the unquestioned and undisputed boss of the military.
Those he had placed in the army and intelligence hierarchies were for the most part loyal to him and made him Algeria’s strongman after the forced resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019. Salah’s death and his replacement by Maj. Gen. Said Chengriha thus sealed the fate of these supporters, who were seen as too close to the former chief of staff.
A key Gaïd Salah ally, Lachkhem had been under investigation since last April, notably for his alleged involvement in the exfiltration of Chief Warrant Officer Guermit Bounouira, who was recently extradited from Turkey. A former private secretary to Gaïd Salah, Bounouira fled Algeria in March to seek asylum in exchange for highly sensitive information and documents.
He was unsuccessful. “It was a question of principle for Turkey,” explains a source close to Turkish military intelligence. “[Bounouira’s] return will make it possible to further strengthen ties between Algeria and Turkey.” Placed in detention in the military prison of Blida, in the company of some 20 high-ranking officers, Bounouira is being prosecuted for high treason.
The former head of the national gendarmerie, Gen. Ghali Belksir, who is on the run abroad, is also being prosecuted on the same charge. A judge at the Blida military court has issued an international arrest warrant for him. According to our information, Belksir was, until recently, on holiday in southern Spain with his brother.
Another key man in the Gaïd Salah system, Gen. Belksir had overseen investigations into corruption that sent more than 20 former ministers, two former prime ministers, several oligarchs and other leaders of the Bouteflika clan to prison.
The fall of Gen. Lachkhem, who also does not have immunity from prosecution, harkens back to the downfall of Gen. Wassini Bouazza, another key figure in the Gaïd Salah universe. A former boss of the dreaded internal security directorate, Bouazza was sentenced in June to eight years in prison for “forgery and the use of forged documents, assault, possession of firearms and type IV ammunition”.
Protected by Gaïd Salah, to whom he owed his meteoric rise, Bouazza was a specialist in dirty tricks, of which Tebboune was a victim when he was a candidate for the presidential election in December 2019. For Bouazza, this conviction is a prelude to further legal problems, as he is being re-investigated for much more serious crimes.
Bouazza, Belksir, Lachkhem, Bounouira: all four are part of Gaïd Salah’s legacy, which is in danger of disappearing.
They are not the only ones who are part of this legacy, but they symbolise the dark side of the governance of the Bouteflika-Gaïd Salah years. Blackmail, corruption, abuse of power, hiding abroad, intelligence deals with foreign powers: the actions of the “Gaïd boys” have played a clear role in the degradation of the military’s image. Hence Tebboune’s quest to make radical changes in practically all the institutions of the armed forces and intelligence services.
The method chosen by the Algerian President, one without fanfare, contrasts with the Bouteflika era, where the dismantling of the intelligence and intelligence services between 2013 and 2015 had turned into a media circus, causing significant damage in an environment where secrecy and confidentiality are traditionally of great importance.
Chief of Staff Chengriha, who replaced Gaïd Salah, had experienced major differences with his predecessor, whom he had reproached for his brutal management of the Hirak protesters after Bouteflika’s forced resignation.
STOCKHOLM - SIPRI has published a new Policy Paper that explores the impact of protest movements on state–society relations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Nearly a decade after the Arab Spring, the substantial political change that many across MENA have hoped for has yet to be seen. In fact, as the 2019 wave of protests shows, street protests continue to endure in the region, often over the same recurring issues.
This paper takes a regional approach to understanding the state of the social contract in MENA countries. It describes, country-by-country, the impact of protest movements, or their absence, on relations between society and the state, and the likely effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on those relations. It then examines the roles and impact of external actors, and the attitudes that they have adopted towards protests.
Based on this analysis, the authors recommend that the European Union (EU) adopts a new approach to regional security and stability that takes the needs of the populations as the starting point. This would involve a broader EU agreement on priorities in MENA that emphasize aspects that answer those needs.
For the full text, visit: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/sipripp56.pdf
STOCKHOLM - SIPRI has published a new Policy Paper that explores the impact of protest movements on state–society relations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Nearly a decade after the Arab Spring, the substantial political change that many across MENA have hoped for has yet to be seen. In fact, as the 2019 wave of protests shows, street protests continue to endure in the region, often over the same recurring issues.
This paper takes a regional approach to understanding the state of the social contract in MENA countries. It describes, country-by-country, the impact of protest movements, or their absence, on relations between society and the state, and the likely effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on those relations. It then examines the roles and impact of external actors, and the attitudes that they have adopted towards protests.
Based on this analysis, the authors recommend that the European Union (EU) adopts a new approach to regional security and stability that takes the needs of the populations as the starting point. This would involve a broader EU agreement on priorities in MENA that emphasize aspects that answer those needs.
For the full text, visit: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/sipripp56.pdf
Research Papers & Reports
GENEVA/WASHINGTON - A stillborn baby is delivered every 16 seconds, which translates into nearly two million infants over the course of a year that never took their first breath, according to a new UN report published on Thursday.
A Neglected Tragedy: The Global Burden of Stillbirths, released by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), reveals that 84 per cent of these grievous episodes occur in low and lower-middle income countries.
The first-ever joint global estimates also point out that stillbirths remain a challenge for high income countries, where a mother’s level of education is one of the greatest drivers of inequity, and ethnic minorities may lack access to sufficient quality health care.
“Losing a child at birth or during pregnancy is a devastating tragedy for a family, one that is often endured quietly, yet all too frequently, around the world”, lamented UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
And the report attests that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely lead a further rise.
A pandemic-induced 50 per cent reduction in health services, could cause nearly 200,000 additional stillbirths over a 12-month period in 117 low and middle income countries, according to modeling done for the report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Muhammad Ali Pate, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank, and Director of the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children and Adolescents, spelled out: “COVID-19 has triggered a devastating secondary health crisis for women, children and adolescents due to disruptions in life-saving health services”.
Poor quality of pregnancy and delivery care; a lack of antenatal and intrapartum services and weak nursing and midwifery workforces are responsible for most of these occurrences, says A Neglected Tragedy.
“Beyond the loss of life, the psychological and financial costs for women, families and societies are severe and long lasting”, Ms. Fore affirmed, adding that “a majority of stillbirths could have been prevented with high quality monitoring, proper antenatal care and a skilled birth attendant”.
But even before the pandemic, few women in low and middle income countries received timely, high-quality care to prevent stillbirths, the report shows – with coverage ranging from less than two per cent to a high of only 50 per cent in eight important maternal health interventions, including C-sections, malaria prevention and pregnancy hypertension management.
"Welcoming a baby into the world should be a time of great joy, but everyday thousands of parents experience unbearable sadness because their babies are still born”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Sound investment needed
Despite advances in health services from 2000 to 2019, the annual stillbirth reduction rate was just 2.3 per cent, compared to a 2.9 per cent reduction in neonatal mortality, and 4.3 per cent in mortality among children aged one to 59 months, according to the report.
However, the study maintains that with sound policy, programmes and investment, progress is possible.
“The tragedy of stillbirth shows how vital it is to reinforce and maintain essential health services, and how critical it is to increase investment in nurses and midwives”, the WHO chief upheld.
Because pregnant women need continued access to quality care, throughout their pregnancy and during childbirth, Dr. Pate stressed, “we are supporting countries in strengthening their health systems to prevent stillbirths and ensure that every pregnant woman can access quality health care services”.
New research: nitrous oxide emissions 300 times more powerful than CO₂ are jeopardising Earth’s future
This article was first published by The Conversation on 07 October 2020
Nitrous oxide from agriculture and other sources is accumulating in the atmosphere so quickly it puts Earth on track for a dangerous 3℃ warming this century, our new research has found.
Each year, more than 100 million tonnes of nitrogen are spread on crops in the form of synthetic fertiliser. The same amount again is put onto pastures and crops in manure from livestock.
This colossal amount of nitrogen makes crops and pastures grow more abundantly. But it also releases nitrous oxide (N₂O), a greenhouse gas.
Agriculture is the main cause of the increasing concentrations, and is likely to remain so this century. N₂O emissions from agriculture and industry can be reduced, and we must take urgent action if we hope to stabilise Earth’s climate.
Where does nitrous oxide come from?
We found that N₂O emissions from natural sources, such as soils and oceans, have not changed much in recent decades. But emissions from human sources have increased rapidly.
Atmospheric concentrations of N₂O reached 331 parts per billion in 2018, 22% above levels around the year 1750, before the industrial era began.
Agriculture caused almost 70% of global N₂O emissions in the decade to 2016. The emissions are created through microbial processes in soils. The use of nitrogen in synthetic fertilisers and manure is a key driver of this process.
Other human sources of N₂O include the chemical industry, waste water and the burning of fossil fuels.
N₂O is destroyed in the upper atmosphere, primarily by solar radiation. But humans are emitting N₂O faster than it’s being destroyed, so it’s accumulating in the atmosphere.
N₂O both depletes the ozone layer and contributes to global warming.
As a greenhouse gas, N₂O has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and stays in the atmosphere for an average 116 years. It’s the third most important greenhouse gas after CO₂ (which lasts up to thousands of years in the atmosphere) and methane.
N₂O depletes the ozone layer when it interacts with ozone gas in the stratosphere. Other ozone-depleting substances, such as chemicals containing chlorine and bromine, have been banned under the United Nations Montreal Protocol. N₂O is not banned under the protocol, although the Paris Agreement seeks to reduce its concentrations.
What we found
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has developed scenarios for the future, outlining the different pathways the world could take on emission reduction by 2100. Our research found N₂O concentrations have begun to exceed the levels predicted across all scenarios.
The current concentrations are in line with a global average temperature increase of well above 3℃ this century.
We found that global human-caused N₂O emissions have grown by 30% over the past three decades. Emissions from agriculture mostly came from synthetic nitrogen fertiliser used in East Asia, Europe, South Asia and North America. Emissions from Africa and South America are dominated by emissions from livestock manure.
In terms of emissions growth, the highest contributions come from emerging economies – particularly Brazil, China, and India – where crop production and livestock numbers have increased rapidly in recent decades.
N₂O emissions from Australia have been stable over the past decade. Increase in emissions from agriculture and waste have been offset by a decline in emissions from industry and fossil fuels.
What to do?
N₂O must be part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there is already work being done. Since the late 1990s, for example, efforts to reduce emissions from the chemicals industry have been successful, particularly in the production of nylon, in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Reducing emissions from agriculture is more difficult – food production must be maintained and there is no simple alternative to nitrogen fertilisers. But some options do exist.
In Europe over the past two decades, N₂O emissions have fallen as agricultural productivity increased. This was largely achieved through government policies to reduce pollution in waterways and drinking water, which encouraged more efficient fertiliser use.
Other ways to reduce N₂O emissions from agriculture include:
- better management of animal manure
- applying fertiliser in a way that better matches the needs of growing plants
- alternating crops to include those that produce their own nitrogen, such as legumes, to reduce the need for fertiliser
- enhanced efficiency fertilisers that lower N₂O production.
Getting to net-zero emissions
Stopping the overuse of nitrogen fertilisers is not just good for the climate. It can also reduce water pollution and increase farm profitability.
Even with the right agricultural policies and actions, synthetic and manure fertilisers will be needed. To bring the sector to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, as needed to stabilise the climate, new technologies will be required.
PARIS - Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, global food systems were faced with a formidable “triple challenge” of simultaneously providing food security and nutrition to a growing global population, ensuring the livelihoods of millions of people working along the food chain from farm to fork, and ensuring the environmental sustainability of the sector. Yet policy efforts have not been moving in this direction, and global trade in agriculture and food remains highly distorted.
COVID-19 is compelling policy makers to make urgent decisions to ensure food supply chains continue to function, but the fundamental task is to address these immediate disruptions while also investing in the long-term goal of a resilient, sustainable and productive global food system. Ending inefficient and environmentally harmful support would free up resources for a more forward-looking policy package. The unanticipated shock of COVID-19 underscores the urgency of moving away from “business as usual”.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global humanitarian crisis with tragic loss of life and enormous economic repercussions. At the beginning of April 2020, more than half of the global population was ordered to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. Unemployment rates have soared as businesses have been forced to stay closed; some may never re-open.
Global food systems are also under stress, since measures to limit the spread of the disease have spill-over impacts on the movement of people and products. As described in COVID-19 and the Food and Agriculture Sector: Issues and Policy Responses the COVID-19 crisis is affecting supply and demand for food in complex ways.
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, global food systems were faced with a formidable “triple challenge” of simultaneously providing food security and nutrition to a growing global population, ensuring the livelihoods of millions of people working along the food chain from farm to fork, and ensuring the environmental sustainability of the sector. The world’s population is expected to reach almost 10 billion in 2050, requiring a significant increase in the production of affordable, healthy and nutritious food. Global food systems are also essential to the livelihoods of people working on the more than 570 million farms worldwide.
Along the agro-food chain, food systems are an especially important source of livelihoods in developing countries. Moreover, global food systems are not only dependent upon sustainable natural resources, but are responsible for the vast majority of global land and water use, and are an important source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The manner in which food systems absorb, recover, adapt and transform in response to the shock of COVID-19 will shape their level of resilience and their ability to deliver on the longer-term triple challenge. Policies and approaches to address both the dramatic short-term shocks and to enhance long-term resilience are essential, and those that encourage global food systems rather than domestic self-sufficiency will be more effective at meeting the triple challenge.
LONDON - Experts from the NHS, academia and the private sector are today (20 October) joining forces with the government to explore and establish human challenge trials in the UK to speed up the development of a Covid-19 vaccine.
In human challenge studies, a vaccine candidate that has proven to be safe in initial trials is given to a small number of carefully selected healthy adult volunteers who are then exposed to the virus in a safe and controlled environment. Medics and scientists then closely monitor the effect on volunteers 24 hours per day to see exactly how the vaccine works and to identify any side effects.
As with all clinical studies in the UK, the proposed research will be carefully considered by regulators including the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the NHS Health Research Authority through research ethics committees before any research starts.
Using controlled doses of virus, the aim of the research team will initially be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause Covid-19 infection in small groups of healthy young people, aged between 18 and 30, who are at the lowest risk of harm. Up to 90 volunteers, who are compensated for the time they spend in the study, could be involved at this stage.
Human challenge studies offer the chance to accelerate development of promising vaccines against Covid-19, bringing them to people more quickly – potentially saving thousands of lives.
The studies are conducted under strict conditions – these include a controlled entrance to the facility, careful decontamination of waste and a dedicated laboratory for carrying out tests, all of which help to ensure the study is delivered safely and securely. All the air leaving the unit is also cleaned so there is no risk to anyone outside the unit.
Over many decades, human challenge studies have been performed safely and have played important roles in accelerating the development of treatments for diseases including malaria, typhoid, cholera, norovirus and flu. The trials have also helped researchers establish which possible vaccine is most likely to succeed in phase 3 clinical trials that would follow, usually involving thousands of volunteers.
If approved by regulators and the ethics committee, the studies would start in January with results expected by May 2021.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma said:
“We are doing everything we can to fight coronavirus, including backing our best and brightest scientists and researchers in their hunt for a safe and effective vaccine.
“The funding announced today for these ground-breaking but carefully controlled studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines which will ultimately help in beginning our return to normal life.”
Chair of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce Kate Bingham said:
“This research will improve understanding of the virus, the biology of the disease, the signs that a person is protected from infection or developing the disease, the vaccine candidates, and will help in making decisions about research, that it is carried out safely and based on up-to-date evidence. There is much we can learn in terms of immunity, the length of vaccine protection, and reinfection.”
Dr Chris Chiu, from the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London and lead researcher on the human challenge study, said:
“Human challenge studies can increase our understanding of COVID-19 in unique ways and accelerate development of the many potential new COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
“Our number one priority is the safety of the volunteers. My team has been safely running human challenge studies with other respiratory viruses for over 10 years. No study is completely risk free, but the Human Challenge Programme partners will be working hard to ensure we make the risks as low as we possibly can.
“The UK’s experience and expertise in human challenge trials as well as in wider COVID-19 science will help us tackle the pandemic, benefiting people in the UK and worldwide."
Executive Chairman of Open Orphan, hVIVO’s parent company, Cathal Friel said:
“At Open Orphan we are pleased to be working on behalf of the UK Government and in partnership with two great institutions, Imperial College London and The Royal Free Hospital.
“Our subsidiary hVIVO is the world leader in the testing of vaccines and antivirals using human challenge studies and our contract with the UK Government to develop a COVID-19 human challenge study model will safely accelerate the discovery of effective vaccines and antivirals against COVID-19. We hope our work will not just be valuable for the Company but will also help to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the population.
“Our thoughts go out to all those that have been affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic.”
Chief Executive of the Royal Free London group Caroline Clarke said:
“We are proud to be part of this hugely important partnership which we hope will advance the world’s understanding of COVID-19 as we look to rapidly develop life-saving treatments. The Royal Free Hospital has a great history and tradition of treating and researching infectious diseases and our centre is renowned across the world for its work in this specialist area. We are looking forward to working alongside Imperial College London, BEIS, and hVIVO on such a vital piece of work over the coming months.”
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said:
“A safe, fully approved, and meticulously controlled human challenge model for Covid-19 that is conducted by experienced experts may help in the search for safe and effective vaccines.
“First, for the many vaccines still in the mid-stages of development, human challenge studies may help pick out the most promising ones to take forward into larger Phase III trials.
“Second, for vaccines which are in the late stages of development and already proven to be safe and effective through Phase III studies, human challenge studies could help us further understand if the vaccines prevent transmission as well as preventing illness.”
Implementing Human Challenge studies
When strict conditions are met, there is global agreement through the WHO that human challenge studies can bring important wider societal benefits which should be considered by research ethics committees.
The first stage of this project will be delivered by a partnership between Imperial College London, the Royal Free Hospital’s specialist and secure research unit in London and industry-leading clinical company hVIVO, which has pioneered viral human challenge models.
The aim will be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a person to develop Covid-19 infection. This is known as a virus characterisation study and will be backed by £33.6m of government investment.
The study will take place in world-class clinical facilities at the Royal Free specifically designed to contain the virus. Highly trained medics and scientists will be on hand to carefully examine how the virus behaves in the body and to ensure volunteer safety. Volunteers will be monitored for up to a year after participating in the study to ensure their long-term well-being.
Once this first phase is completed, researchers will deploy this human challenge model which will provide an unrivalled opportunity to study closely how vaccines work in the body to stop Covid-19.
Although other countries are considering human challenge studies for Covid-19, the UK is a leading country in the science behind and the delivery of these studies and will be the first to seek to establish them, with the necessary infrastructure and skilled workforce already in place.
It comes as the government is also investing £19.7 million in Public Health England (PHE) to scale up its capabilities in testing blood samples from clinical trials. The investment will fund vital equipment and a new, state-of-the-art laboratory facility at PHE Porton Down – this will accelerate essential testing to measure the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines currently in development.
These tests are an essential component in supporting the development and regulatory approval of vaccine candidates. PHE’s partner, Nexelis, will be providing scientific expertise and also conducting additional testing for the evaluation of Covid-19 vaccines.
The new investment will enable PHE Porton Down scientists to increase testing capacity, including evaluating individuals’ immune responses as part of the Human Challenge project.
Innovation Minister Lord Bethell said:
“This investment into new facilities at PHE Porton Down will enable its dedicated and expert scientists to accelerate the pace and scale of specialised testing to support the critical work of the Vaccine Taskforce.”
Head of Vaccine Research Projects at PHE Porton Down, Bassam Hallis said:
“This investment will accelerate the development of potentially life-saving vaccines to help get them to the public more quickly.”
LONDON - In the year since the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights gave fresh impetus to the global campaign for the abolition of the death penalty by declaring the mandatory death penalty “unfair” and a “failure in due process”, at least four countries – Botswana, Egypt, Somalia and South Sudan – have carried out executions, Amnesty International said today.
On 28 November 2019, the African Human Rights Court ruled in a landmark judgement that mandatory imposition of the death penalty was patently unfair, because it denied the convicted person the right to be heard and present mitigating circumstances. In considering the case, brought by Tanzanian death row convict Ally Rajabu against the Government of Tanzania, the court further ruled that the mandatory death sentence fails to follow due process and breaches fair trial standards, by hindering courts from determining proportionate punishment for the facts of the alleged crimes.
“The African Human Rights Court broke new ground in highlighting the inherent unfairness of sentencing people to death without granting them the most basic requirement of a fair trial,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Director for Research and Policy.
“But nearly a year later, Tanzania has yet to implement the judgment. And even more concerning, Botswana, Egypt, Somalia and South Sudan have since carried out executions. As the abolitionist movement commemorate the World Day Against the Death Penalty, we urge all member states of the African Union that still retain the death penalty in their laws to abolish the punishment; and pending abolition to immediately establish an official moratorium on executions, and commute, without delay, all death sentences to prison terms.”
The African Human Rights Court also found that hanging as a method of execution amounts to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment because of the inherent suffering involved.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
Significant progress towards abolition of the death penalty has been recorded in Africa in the last four decades. While no African country had abolished the death penalty for all crimes 40 years ago, 20 of them have done it to date. Of the remaining countries that retain the death penalty in their laws, 17 are abolitionist in practice; they have not executed anyone in the past 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions.
“All countries that still retain the death penalty in their laws must respect the right to effective legal representation pending the full abolition of the death penalty. Effective legal representation is an essential safeguard against the death penalty; it is a means of protecting the human rights of people facing the death penalty, particularly their right to fair trial and right to life,” said Netsanet Belay.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2015 adopted a Draft Protocol on the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Africa, but its consideration by AU member states has since stalled.
By Kevin Mash and Moses Alobo, this article was first published by The Conversation on 09 October 2020
Two experts explain how the continent defied expectations during the pandemic
Kevin Marsh, professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford, and Moses Alobo, programme manager for Grand Challenges Africa at the African Academy of Sciences, explain the continent’s Covid-19 response.
As the threat of a Covid-19 pandemic emerged earlier this year, many felt a sense of apprehension about what would happen when it reached Africa.
Concerns over the combination of overstretched and underfunded health systems and the existing load of infectious and non-infectious diseases often led to it being talked about in apocalyptic terms.
However, it has not turned out quite that way. On September 29th, the world passed the one million reported deaths mark (the true figure will of course be higher). On the same day, the count for Africa was a cumulative total of 35,954.
Africa accounts for 17% of the global population but only 3.5% of the reported global Covid-19 deaths. All deaths are important, we should not discount apparently low numbers, and of course data collected over such a wide range of countries will be of variable quality, but the gap between predictions and what has actually happened is staggering.
There has been much discussion on what accounts for this.
As leads of the Covid-19 team in the African Academy of Sciences, we have followed the unfolding events and various explanations put forward. The emerging picture is that in many African countries, transmission has been higher but severity and mortality much lower than originally predicted based on experience in China and Europe.
We argue that Africa’s much younger population explains a very large part of the apparent difference. Some of the remaining gap is probably due to under reporting of events but there are a number of other plausible explanations. These range from climatic differences, pre-existing immunity, genetic factors and behavioural differences.
Given the enormous variability in conditions across a continent – with 55 member states – the exact contribution of any one factor in a particular environment is likely to vary. But the bottom line is that what appeared at first to be a mystery looks less puzzling as more and more research evidence emerges.
The importance of age
The most obvious factor for the low death rates is the population age structure. Across multiple countries the risk of dying of Covid-19 for those aged 80 years or more is around a hundred times that of people in their twenties.
This can best be appreciated with a specific example. As of September 30th, the UK had reported 41,980 Covid-19 specific deaths while Kenya, by contrast, had reported 691. The population of the UK is around 66 million with a median age of 40 compared with Kenya’s population of 51 million with a median age of 20 years.
Corrected for population size the death toll in Kenya would have been expected to be around 32,000. However if one also corrects for population structure (assumes that the age specific death rates in the UK apply to the population structure of Kenya), we would expect around 5,000 deaths.
There is still a big difference between 700 and 5,000; what might account for the remaining gap?
Other possible contributors
One possibility is the failure to identify and record deaths.
Kenya, as with most countries, initially had little testing capacity and specific death registration is challenging. However, Kenya quickly built up its testing capacity and the extra attention to finding deaths makes it unlikely that a gap of this size can be fully accounted for by missing information.
There has been no shortage of ideas for other factors that may be contributing.
A recent large multi-country study in Europe reported significant declines in mortality related to higher temperature and humidity. The authors hypothesised that this may be because the mechanisms by which our respiratory tracts clear virus work better in warmer more humid conditions. This means that people may be getting less virus particles into their system.
It should be noted however that a systematic review of global data – while confirming that warm and wet climates seemed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 – indicated that these variables alone could not explain most of the variability in disease transmission.
It’s important to remember that there’s considerable weather variability throughout Africa. Not all climates are warm or wet and, if they are, they may not stay that way throughout the year.
Other suggestions include the possibility of pre-existing protective immune responses due either to previous exposure to other pathogens or to BCG vaccination, a vaccine against tuberculosis provided at birth in most African countries.
A large analysis – which involved 55 countries, representing 63% of the world’s population – showed significant correlations between increasing BCG coverage at a young age and better outcomes of Covid-19.
Genetic factors may also be important. A recently described haplotype (group of genes) associated with increased risk of severity and present in 30% of south Asian genomes and 8% of Europeans is almost absent in Africa.
The role of these and other factors – such as potential differences in social structures or mobility – are subject to ongoing investigation.
More effective response
An important possibility is that public health response of African countries, prepared by previous experiences (such as outbreaks or epidemics) was simply more effective in limiting transmission than in other parts of the world.
However, in Kenya it’s estimated that the epidemic actually peaked in July with around 40% of the population in urban areas having been infected. A similar picture is emerging in other countries.
This implies that measures put in place had little effect on viral transmission per se, though it does raise the possibility that herd immunity is now playing a role in limiting further transmission.
At the same time there is another important possibility: the idea that viral load (the number of virus particles transmitted to a person) is a key determinant of severity. It has been suggested that masks reduce viral load and that their widespread wearing may limit the chances of developing severe disease.
While WHO recommends mask wearing, uptake has been variable and has been lower in many European countries, compared with many parts of Africa.
So is Africa in the clear? Well, obviously not. There is still plenty of virus around and we do not know what may happen as the interaction between the virus and humans evolves.
However, one thing that does seem clear is that the secondary effects of the pandemic will be Africa’s real Covid-19 challenge. These stem from the severe interruptions of social and economic activities as well as the potentially devastating effects of reduced delivery of services which protect millions of people, including routine vaccination as well as malaria, TB and HIV control programmes.
Major implications of the emerging picture include the need to re-evaluate African Covid-19 research agendas.
While many of the priorities originally identified may still hold, their relative importance is likely to have changed. The key point is to deal with the problems as they are now rather than as they were imagined to be six months ago.
The same thing applies for public health policy. Of course, basic measures such as hand washing remain essential (regardless of Covid-19) and wearing masks should be continued while there is any level of Covid-19 transmission. However, other measures with broader effects on society, especially restrictions on educational and economic activity, should be under continuous review.
A key point now is to increase surveillance and ensure that flexible responses are driven by high quality real time data.
Kevin Marsh, professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford, and Moses Alobo, programme manager for Grand Challenges Africa at the African Academy of Sciences.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Opinion is divided over whether discovery proves Europe was birthplace of mankind, not Africa
LONDON - Scientists may have to rethink the theory that Africa was the geographical origin of our species after unearthing two fossils with ape-like teeth in Greece and Bulgaria.
Researchers uncovered an ancient species of ape called Graecopithecus freybergi or "El Graeco" which they believe to be the oldest known traces of hominins (or pre-humans).
Sarah Knapton, science editor at the Daily Telegraph, says the discovery "rewrites" the history of human evolution.
While experts believe our human lineage split from apes around seven million years ago in Africa, the new fossil discovery suggests Europe was in fact where mankind originated, she writes.
The two specimens are a fossilised lower jaw – previously found in Athens in 1944 – along with a tooth found in Bulgaria in 2009.
"No other fossil and living non-human primate is known with such [molar] roots," the researchers said in a statement, adding that they believed 'El Graeco' was "the oldest known potential pre-human".
"He is several hundred thousand years older than the oldest potential pre-human from Africa: 6–7-million-year-old Sahelanthropus from Chad."
David Begun, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and a co-author on the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, said: "This dating allows us to move the human-chimpanzee split into the Mediterranean area. People need to stop just thinking about Africa as the only possible location for this divergence. It could well have happened in Europe."
The new interpretation is important not simply because of "geographical bragging rights" explains the Globe and Mail, but because it could help "researchers arrive at a clearer picture of how and why hominins developed a unique set of adaptations, including smaller canine teeth and the ability to walk upright, that would later prove to be key evolutionary steps on the road to humanity."
Despite the findings, "there is no question that our species, Homo sapiens, originated in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago and subsequently spread around the globe," adds the paper.
Others are also sceptical about the claim that the research rewrites evolutionary history.
Kieran McNulty, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, says the work on the Greek fossil is "impressive" but it cannot definitively be shown to have originated from a hominin because "so little is known about the deep past of ape species that were not part of the human line".
"It's really difficult to interpret what those earliest common ancestors would have looked like, because all we can see is the end product of millions of years of evolutions in chimps and gorillas," he says.
McNulty added that the "weight of evidence" still favours a hominin origin in Africa.
Retired anthropologist and author Dr Peter Andrews agrees. He told the Daily Telegraph: "It is possible that the human lineage originated in Europe, but very substantial fossil evidence places the origin in Africa, including several partial skeletons and skulls."
"I would be hesitant about using a single character from an isolated fossil to set against the evidence from Africa."
Starvation is being deliberately used as a “method of war” in South Sudan, a UN-backed human rights panel said this week. The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has documented how government forces have intentionally pillaged communities living under opposition control in Western Bahr el Ghazal and “systematically denied” humanitarian access to areas of eastern Jonglei state.
Commissioner Andrew Clapham said the attacks on civilians could “amount to crimes against humanity” – echoing a similar charge by the commission earlier in the year, when government forces and armed groups were accused of war strategies “responsible for the starvation of the population in [northern] Wau and Unity states”.
The commission released a separate report this week also condemning the power-sharing government’s lack of progress in implementing the transitional justice and accountability mechanisms agreed in the 2018 peace agreement. They were supposed to end impunity for killings, rapes, and abductions during the conflict.
Instead, “political violence is spiralling out of control [again] at the inter-communal level but driven by national actors who arm ethnic militias and paramilitary groups,” the commission said.
Eviter l’effondrement de l’Etat libanais
International Crisis Group, 01 October 2020
La crise socioéconomique et financière que connaît le Liban s’est fortement accélérée au cours de la première moitié de 2020. Après l’explosion du port de Beyrouth, le gouvernement a démissionné. Le désordre s’est donc doublé d’un risque de violence. Dans cet extrait de notre Watch List 2020 — Autumn Update, Crisis Group encourage l’UE et ses Etats membres à coordonner l’aide d’urgence continue et la redynamisation des infrastructures clés, créer une feuille de route de réformes, renforcer la société civile et mutualiser et coordonner des fonds d’urgence.
La crise socioéconomique et financière que connaît le Liban s’est fortement accélérée au cours de la première moitié de 2020. Elle a été renforcée par la pandémie de Covid-19, amplifiée par l’explosion catastrophique du 4 août dans le port de Beyrouth et marquée, depuis son émergence, par des pertes d’emplois et de revenus massives. Le gouvernement a démissionné six jours après l’explosion du port, ajoutant ainsi au désordre, bien qu’avant cela il ait été peu à même de faire face aux difficultés du pays. A la fin du mois d’août, bénéficiant d’un large soutien parlementaire, le président Michel Aoun a nommé Mustapha Adib au poste de Premier ministre. Cependant, les désaccords quant à l’attribution des postes ministériels ont entravé les efforts visant à former un nouveau gouvernement. Le 26 septembre, Mustapha Adib a démissionné sur fond de différends apparemment irréconciliables entre les blocs politiques, ce qui rend très improbable la formation rapide d’un nouveau gouvernement.
Cette situation aura vraisemblablement trois conséquences : tout d’abord, l’absence persistante de direction politique retardera l’adoption de réformes et d’une aide extérieure, pourtant urgentes, ainsi que la conclusion d’un accord avec le Fonds monétaire international (FMI). Ensuite, sans fonds de sauvetage du FMI, nombre de Libanais ainsi qu’une part importante des réfugiés syriens (qui représentent plus d’un million de personnes) basculeront dans l’insécurité alimentaire et la pauvreté. Enfin, les capacités de l’Etat s’éroderont, en particulier en matière de sécurité. Avec le recul du contrôle étatique et l’expansion des zones non gouvernées, des querelles de territoires pourraient survenir entre les groupes politiques de certaines régions et entre les réseaux criminels d’autres, et la migration illégale va augmenter.
Pour répondre aux besoins humanitaires urgents et parer l’effondrement d’un autre Etat du bassin de la Méditerranée orientale, l’UE et ses Etats membres devraient :
Continuer d’apporter une aide d’urgence directement aux personnes dans le besoin par le biais du mécanisme de protection civile et du pont aérien humanitaire de l’UE. Les programmes pourraient inclure un secours en cas de catastrophe aux victimes de l’explosion portuaire (p. ex. : activités de travail contre rémunération, ou « cash for work », pour réparer les logements avant l’hiver) ;
Se préparer à élargir et étendre le soutien afin d’éviter une grave crise humanitaire, en particulier si la sortie de l’impasse politique reste incertaine ; planifier une aide à long terme destinée aux populations pauvres (Libanais et réfugiés) visant à créer des emplois et améliorer l’infrastructure ; fournir des équipements afin de moderniser les hôpitaux publics et soutenir les entrepreneurs libanais pour stimuler les exportations et remplacer les importations ;
Proposer une aide substantielle pour revitaliser les infrastructures nationales essentielles (en particulier de production d’électricité), à condition que le gouvernement libanais, une fois formé, établisse les cadres légaux et réglementaires adéquats pour les secteurs concernés ainsi que des procédures de passation de marchés, de recrutement et de planification transparentes;
- Établir une feuille de route de réformes concrètes qu’un nouveau gouvernement libanais devrait entreprendre pour obtenir l’aide de l’UE, notamment dégager un accord préliminaire avec le FMI, adopter des lois pour préserver l’indépendance du système judiciaire et des lois anti-corruption et relatives à la passation de marchés publics ainsi que les décrets d’application y afférents ;
- Renforcer les capacités des organisations de la société civile libanaise afin qu’elles participent à l’élaboration de politiques publiques et à l’amélioration de la transparence gouvernementale ;
- Prendre de la distance vis-à-vis de toute tentative des Etats-Unis d’influencer les processus politiques libanais dans l’intérêt de la politique régionale (p. ex. : leur politique de « pression maximale » menée contre l’Iran) et préférer une approche inclusive qui engage tous les grands acteurs politiques du Liban, y compris le Hezbollah, dans le processus de réforme.
A la suite de l’explosion du port de Beyrouth, le président français Emmanuel Macron est intervenu pour exhorter le Liban à accélérer les grandes réformes nécessaires pour débloquer l’aide extérieure, surtout un programme d’aide du FMI et certains financements promis par des bailleurs de fonds lors de la conférence CEDRE de 2018. Après la démission du gouvernement, le 10 août, il a par ailleurs insisté sur la formation rapide d’un nouveau gouvernement, soutenu par l’ensemble des forces politiques. Le 31 août, à la veille de la deuxième visite du président Macron à Beyrouth, une vaste majorité du parlement libanais a nommé l’ambassadeur du Liban en Allemagne, Mustapha Adib, au poste de Premier ministre. Les tentatives de Macron ont été paralysées en raison de la concurrence interne et de la pression externe. La tendance étant à la défiance, les acteurs libanais, et plus particulièrement le Hezbollah et l’ancien Premier ministre Saad Hariri, se sont déchirés autour de la nomination des ministres afin de préserver leur influence au sein du nouveau cabinet, ce qui a empêché Mustapha Adib de respecter le délai de deux semaines proposé par le président français. Dix jours plus tard, il démissionnait. En réaction, Emmanuel Macron a blâmé toutes les parties, ajoutant qu’il avait « honte pour les dirigeants libanais ». Il a indiqué qu’il leur donnerait quelques semaines supplémentaires pour se ressaisir, mais a également critiqué en particulier le Hezbollah, déclarant que ce dernier ne pouvait pas être, « en même temps, une armée en guerre avec Israël, une milice déchaînée contre les civils en Syrie et un parti respectable au Liban ».
L’incertitude entourant l’attitude des Etats-Unis quant à l’initiative d’Emmanuel Macron, combinée à la pression exercée par les Saoudiens sur Hariri pour qu’il adopte une position plus ferme à l’égard du Hezbollah, a certainement pesé sur les négociations. Washington avait exprimé un soutien mitigé à cette initiative dans son ensemble, mais avait refusé de reconnaître explicitement, contrairement au président français, le Hezbollah comme un acteur central et légitime du système politique libanais. Les Etats-Unis considèrent le Hezbollah comme une organisation terroriste et cherchent à lui couper les ailes dans le cadre de sa politique de « pression maximale » menée contre l’Iran et ses alliés. Le 8 septembre, le Trésor américain a imposé de nouvelles sanctions sur les figures politiques libanaises associées au parti islamiste chiite. Sept jours plus tard, le secrétaire d’Etat américain, Michael Pompeo, a averti la France lors d’une visite à Paris que « les efforts pour résoudre la crise au Liban seraient vains si elle ne s’attaquait pas immédiatement à la question de l’armement du Hezbollah, soutenu par l’Iran ». Néanmoins, des responsables américains ont indiqué que leur position par rapport au nouveau gouvernement pourrait changer selon que le Hezbollah y était « présent » ou « dominant ».
La proximité des élections américaines renforce encore l’incertitude liée aux signaux émis par Washington. Les dirigeants politiques libanais pourraient préférer attendre de voir si le président Donald Trump emporte les élections ou si Washington, sous la présidence de Joe Biden, adopte une position plus proche de celle de la France.
Il apparait clairement, comme le prouvent les quinze dernières années, que la polarisation accrue et les risques de confrontation répétés provoquent une défaillance du processus politique et engendrent la violence. Les conditions requises pour obtenir une aide extérieure grandement nécessaire – formation du gouvernement, négociations avec le FMI et réformes urgentes – deviendraient, dans un tel contexte, impossibles à atteindre. La crise sociale s’aggraverait alors davantage et les capacités de l’Etat diminueraient plus rapidement.
L’effondrement de la devise et de l’économie libanaises s’est accéléré au cours de la première moitié de l’année 2020. La perte des revenus issus du tourisme estival, due au confinement pendant la pandémie de Covid-19, a porté un coup supplémentaire au pays, et l’explosion du port le 4 août a, selon la Banque mondiale, causé des dommages estimés entre 3 et 5 milliards de dollars. Les citoyens libanais avaient déjà perdu l’accès à leur épargne à la suite de contrôles informels mis en place depuis fin 2019 par les banques locales en réponse à la fuite de capitaux et à leur grave manque de liquidités. Aujourd’hui, les citoyens ont également perdu une part importante de leurs revenus à cause de l’inflation galopante (qui atteignait 110 pour cent par an, en juillet). Depuis début 2019, quelque 350 000 employés du secteur privé (sur une main-d’œuvre composée de 1,8 million de personnes) ont été licenciés alors que bien d’autres ont été provisoirement congédiés ou ont vu leur salaire diminuer, car les entreprises ont dû réduire ou suspendre leurs opérations en raison du pouvoir d’achat déclinant et de l’assèchement du crédit.
La situation ne peut que se détériorer : la Banque centrale libanaise épuise les réserves de change qu’il lui reste et son gouverneur a averti que d’ici la fin de l’année, il serait obligé de mettre un terme à la politique de subventions des importations d’essence, de nourriture et de médicaments qui consistait à fournir des devises étrangères à un taux très préférentiel. La suppression des subventions provoquerait une nouvelle flambée de l’inflation. Quelque 55 pour cent des Libanais vivent déjà sous le seuil de pauvreté et 23 pour cent dans l’extrême pauvreté. Selon Save The Children, plus de 500 000 enfants « peinent à survivre », rien qu’à Beyrouth. Parmi les réfugiés syriens, environ 90 pour cent des ménages vivent dans l’insécurité alimentaire, et les mécanismes d’adaptation négatifs, comme le mariage précoce ou le travail des enfants, sont monnaie courante. Sans une aide extérieure conséquente, le pays risque de plonger dans une insécurité alimentaire généralisée. La misère accentue la pression migratoire. Des milliers de personnes ayant une résidence légale dans un autre pays ou titulaires de passeports étrangers ont commencé à quitter le pays. Un diplomate occidental à Beyrouth a déclaré à Crisis Group : « Toutes les personnes que je connais s’en vont ». L’immigration illégale vers Chypre par voie maritime s’intensifie.
Détérioration des capacités et du contrôle de l’Etat
Avec des recettes publiques en chute libre et la perte d’accès aux marchés financiers, l’Etat libanais sera bientôt dans l’incapacité de financer les budgets ministériels ou d’augmenter les salaires pour compenser les pertes de revenus des fonctionnaires dues à l’inflation galopante. Des services cruciaux de l’Etat pourraient dès lors se dégrader, en particulier dans le secteur de la santé. A mesure que les ressources publiques se tarissent, la capacité de certains acteurs politiques à fidéliser leurs électeurs en leur offrant un accès à ces ressources (en leur garantissant par exemple un emploi dans le secteur public) et, par conséquent, leur capacité à faire respecter le contrôle social, diminuera. Les réseaux prédateurs et criminels pourraient alors s’infiltrer dans les brèches.
Les forces de sécurité, débordées et sous-payées, pourraient parvenir à éviter cette situation, mais probablement pas pour longtemps, et certains membres de leurs rangs pourraient être obligés de chercher d’autres sources de revenus. Leur professionnalisme s’en verrait affecté, tout comme le fonctionnement des institutions de sécurité. Les querelles de territoire entre les groupes armés locaux pourraient devenir quotidiennes et s’étendre une fois que les groupes portés par des motivations sectaires et politiques s’y impliqueront. Certaines régions du pays pourraient de facto devenir des zones non gouvernées, voire des refuges pour les jihadistes ou le crime organisé. Les forces de sécurité pourraient par ailleurs ne plus être aptes à patrouiller le littoral et à limiter l’immigration vers Chypre, qui se trouve à moins de 200 kilomètres.
Un rôle à jouer pour l’UE, avec la France comme chef de file
Les capitales européennes ont fortement intérêt à éviter que l’Etat libanais ne s’effondre, et ont un rôle à jouer dans ce sens. Après l’explosion du port, la France a coordonné la mobilisation de l’aide pour le Liban en organisant deux conférences réunissant des bailleurs de fonds (l’une s’est tenue le 9 août, la seconde est prévue pour octobre) et en poussant les dirigeants libanais à adopter une feuille de route de réformes.
La France est dans une position unique pour conduire cet effort, puisqu’elle jouit d’une crédibilité auprès des acteurs de tout le spectre politique libanais. L’échec à former un gouvernement est un sérieux revers pour l’initiative française. Aucune autre approche que celle de Macron n’est viable à ce jour et, comme il l’a lui-même reconnu, toutes les solutions devront inclure le Hezbollah ainsi que son allié chiite, le mouvement Amal.
Quoi qu’il advienne de l’initiative française, des pays comme l’Allemagne, l’Italie et la Suède devraient renforcer leur aide humanitaire. Le Liban a besoin de fonds et de capacités techniques pour déployer de grands projets d’infrastructures (notamment dans les domaines de l’énergie, de l’eau et de la gestion des déchets) et de reconstruction dans les zones touchées par l’explosion du port. Dans le cadre de ces projets, les pays donateurs pourraient insister sur l’établissement de nouvelles normes de gouvernance (la transparence au niveau de la planification, des passations de marchés et des versements de fonds).
Les bailleurs pourraient également étendre certains programmes existants visant à créer des emplois, tant pour les Libanais que pour les réfugiés, en améliorant les infrastructures et la production agricole dans les zones périphériques et marginalisées qui seront probablement les premières à connaître l’insécurité alimentaire et la défaillance des services et du contrôle étatiques, déjà affaiblis.
Ils pourraient par ailleurs stimuler les capacités d’une société civile libanaise déjà bien développée, en facilitant son inclusion dans les procédures de planification et son accès aux informations relatives aux projets mis en œuvre avec la participation de l’UE, de manière à mettre en place de nouveaux mécanismes de participation et de responsabilisation publiques.
Le secteur privé pourrait constituer une autre piste à explorer, puisque l’augmentation de la production nationale réduirait le taux de chômage et le déficit de la balance des paiements, en se substituant aux importations qui drainent les réserves de devises étrangères et en créant une source de devises étrangères grâce aux exportations.
Les bailleurs pourraient mieux coordonner l’aide en mutualisant leurs ressources dans le cadre d’un instrument commun, tel qu’un fonds d’affectation spéciale de l’UE. L’Europe devrait en outre adopter une posture unie face aux Etats-Unis et au Conseil de coopération du Golfe et recommander que l’aide internationale (en particulier le programme d’aide du FMI) soit conditionnée aux avancées réalisées en matière de réformes, et non liée aux visées stratégiques des Etats-Unis et des Etats arabes du Golfe, comme désarmer le Hezbollah, diminuer l’influence du groupe au Liban et mettre un terme à ses activités dans la région. L’objectif devrait consister à éviter la faillite d’un autre Etat de la Méditerranée orientale, et non à marquer des points au sein d’une concurrence géostratégique.
Côte d’Ivoire : reporter pour dialoguer
International Crisis Group, Briefing No 161/Africa, 29 Septembre 2020
Le scrutin présidentiel prévu pour le 31 octobre en Côte d’Ivoire suscite de nouvelles violences, dans un pays marqué par de profonds clivages politiques. Pour que ces élections se tiennent dans le calme, les différents acteurs politiques ivoiriens, accompagnés par des institutions régionales et continentales, devraient s’accorder sur un court report du scrutin.
Que se passe-t-il ? Les tensions autour de l’élection présidentielle ivoirienne du 31 octobre prochain ont provoqué au moins quatorze morts depuis la mi-août. Elles laissent craindre un nouvel épisode de violences entre des forces politiques antagonistes qui se disputent le pouvoir depuis 25 ans.
En quoi est-ce significatif ? Cette élection devait être l’occasion de clore une longue crise et de transmettre le pouvoir à une nouvelle génération. Au lieu de cela, ce pays clef de l’Afrique de l’Ouest s’oriente vers une nouvelle impasse, à une période où plusieurs autres Etats de la région traversent aussi des crises potentiellement déstabilisatrices.
Comment agir ? Un court report de l’élection offrirait une chance de sortir de la confrontation actuelle à travers un dialogue et d’apurer le contentieux qui rend improbable l’organisation d’une élection apaisée et transparente le 31 octobre.
En Côte d’Ivoire, les tensions autour du scrutin présidentiel du 31 octobre laissent craindre une confrontation violente entre les trois forces politiques qui se disputent le pouvoir depuis 1995. Ces tensions ont fait au moins quatorze morts depuis la mi-août. Le verrouillage sécuritaire mis en place par les autorités a momentanément ramené le calme dans le pays, mais le contentieux qui oppose pouvoir et opposition rend improbable l’organisation d’un scrutin apaisé, dont les résultats seraient acceptés par tous. Cette élection devait être l’occasion de clore une longue crise et de passer la main à une nouvelle génération.
Elle opposera au contraire deux des hommes au cœur de la crise depuis un quart de siècle : l’actuel président Alassane Ouattara et l’ancien président Henri Konan Bédié. Exclu de ce scrutin, le troisième homme, Laurent Gbagbo, reste bien présent et son exclusion constitue un des éléments du contentieux actuel. Il est encore temps d’éviter que l’histoire ne se répète et de reporter l’élection afin de permettre au pouvoir et à l’opposition de s’accorder sur un minimum de règles électorales communes.
L’annonce, le 6 août, par le président Ouattara, de sa candidature pour un troisième mandat a bouleversé une scène politique encore marquée par les profonds clivages de l’élection de 2010, qu’un bilan économique positif n’a pas permis de réduire. Cette annonce a été d’autant plus mal accueillie par l’opposition que le président Ouattara avait fait part, un semestre plus tôt, de sa volonté de ne pas se représenter et de « transmettre le pouvoir à une nouvelle génération ». Sa candidature est venue s’ajouter aux désaccords déjà existants au sujet de l’indépendance de la Commission électorale indépendante (CEI) et de l’exclusion du jeu électoral, au terme de procédures judiciaires contestées, de l’ancien président Gbagbo et de l’ancien Premier ministre Guillaume Soro.
La décision du Conseil constitutionnel, le 14 septembre, de valider la candidature d’Alassane Ouattara, qui va à l’encontre de la constitution selon l’opposition, ainsi que celle de rejeter la candidature de 40 postulants sur les 44 qui lui étaient proposés, a poussé l’opposition, le 20 septembre, à appeler la population « à la désobéissance civile ».
Il est difficile de concevoir comment, dans un tel climat de confrontation et de défiance, l’élection du 31 octobre pourrait avoir lieu sans heurts et comment ses résultats pourront être acceptés par l’ensemble des parties. Le report de l’élection, même de courte durée, et l’organisation d’un dialogue politique visant à apurer le contentieux actuel sont des objectifs ambitieux, mais qui semblent être aujourd’hui la meilleure solution pour éviter à la Côte d’Ivoire de plonger dans un nouvel épisode violent de la longue crise qu’elle traverse.
II. Retour vers le futur
L’élection présidentielle du 31 octobre aurait pu être l’occasion pour la Côte d’Ivoire de clore la longue série de crises qui a démarré après la mort, fin 1993, du président Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Au lieu de cela, le pays se dirige vers une nouvelle confrontation entre les partisans d’Alassane Ouattara, Henri Konan Bédié et Laurent Gbagbo, les trois acteurs au cœur de cette crise depuis près de trois décennies.
La bataille qui les oppose a déjà donné lieu à un coup d’Etat en 1999, à une décennie de partition du pays (2002-2012) et à un affrontement armé qui a fait 3 000 morts entre décembre 2010 et avril 2011 à la suite d’une élection contestée. Alors que ces antagonismes refont surface, ce scrutin présidentiel risque fort d’ouvrir un nouvel épisode de cette interminable crise ivoirienne.
La décision, le 6 août, d’Alassane Ouattara, 78 ans, de briguer un troisième mandat a bouleversé une scène politique encore profondément divisée après la crise post-électorale de 2010. Le 5 mars, il avait pourtant annoncé son intention de quitter le pouvoir à la fin de son second mandat, afin de permettre « le transfert du pouvoir à une nouvelle génération ». Sa décision avait été saluée à l’unanimité. Mais le décès, après un malaise cardiaque en juillet, de son successeur désigné, le Premier ministre Amadou Gon Coulibaly, l’a conduit à changer d’avis. Estimant se trouver face à un « cas de force majeure », Ouattara a finalement annoncé être candidat à sa propre succession, à l’occasion de la célébration de la fête nationale. Sa candidature a été validée, le 14 septembre, par le Conseil constitutionnel.
L’ancien président Henri Konan Bédié, 86 ans, a choisi lui aussi de se présenter en dépit des pressions exercées par de nombreux membres influents du Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), qui lui avaient conseillé de passer la main à la jeune garde de sa formation.
Quant à l’ancien président Laurent Gbagbo, 75 ans, sa candidature a été rejetée par le Conseil constitutionnel et il ne participera donc pas directement à ce scrutin. Acquitté des charges retenues contre lui par le procureur de la Cour pénale internationale, il reste soumis à une condamnation par contumace en 2018 et à une peine de vingt ans de prison prononcée par un tribunal abidjanais pour le braquage en 2010 de la Banque centrale. Cette condamnation, que ses avocats contestent, tout comme le peu d’empressement de l’administration ivoirienne à lui délivrer un passeport, rendent son retour difficile.
Néanmoins, même en exil, il reste un personnage influent sur la scène politique, particulièrement en raison du soutien que lui accorde encore une large partie des 45 pour cent d’électeurs qui l’avaient choisi au second tour de la présidentielle de 2010. Il est également au cœur du contentieux actuel entre le pouvoir et l’opposition, car les opposants considèrent le retour des exilés comme un des préalables à la tenue d’élections démocratiques.
Le revirement du président Ouattara amplifie des tensions politiques dont Crisis Group s’inquiétait dès le mois de mai 2020 et qui ont fait au moins quatorze morts en un mois et demi. Le 12 août, à Daoukro, au centre du pays, des affrontements entre partisans du PDCI et du Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (RHDP), le parti présidentiel, ont fait trois morts. A Divo, au sud, des heurts entre partisans pro-Gbagbo et pro-Ouattara ont fait au moins sept morts le 21 août. Pour contenir ces violences, les autorités ont opté pour un verrouillage sécuritaire brutal. Au moins deux membres de l’opposition sont morts le 13 août à Bonoua (sud-est) et à Gagnoa (ouest) dans des heurts avec les forces de sécurité. Depuis le 19 août, les manifestations publiques sont interdites dans le pays.
III. Quarante candidatures rejetées
Aucun mort n’a été enregistré depuis le 1er septembre, mais l’atmosphère générale est marquée par le raidissement des positions et des discours. L’utilisation de supplétifs par certains segments de l’appareil de sécurité est particulièrement inquiétante. Ces jeunes hommes armés ont été recrutés parmi la petite délinquance abidjanaise pour effrayer ou attaquer, y compris à l’arme blanche, des manifestants de l’opposition.
L’appel à la désobéissance civile, lancé le 20 septembre par Henri Konan Bédié et une majorité des partis de l’opposition, participe de cette escalade entre deux camps qui se préparent à la confrontation. Ces deux camps ne dialoguent plus et ne sont pas d’accord sur les règles élémentaires du jeu électoral. A ce jour, aucun accord n’a été trouvé sur le cadre légal de cette élection, pourtant toute proche. L’indépendance et la légitimité de la Commission électorale indépendante, l’institution chargée d’organiser le vote, sont contestées par l’opposition, tout comme le fichier électoral.
Comme en l’an 2000, quand ses adversaires avaient lancé le slogan « Tout sauf Ouattara » pour l’exclure de la course, Alassane Ouattara est au centre des critiques de l’opposition tandis que ses partisans restent déterminés à le soutenir coûte que coûte, afin de préserver le bilan de ses deux mandats qu’ils estiment très positif. Bien que validée par le Conseil constitutionnel, sa candidature est toujours considérée comme « illégale » ou comme « une forfaiture » par les principaux chefs de file de l’opposition, qui exigent son retrait de la course présidentielle, un point non négociable selon le parti au pouvoir.
Les opposants invoquent l’article 55 de la constitution, qui stipule que le président « n’est rééligible qu’une fois ». Le Conseil constitutionnel a estimé au contraire que l’adoption d’une nouvelle loi fondamentale en 2016, un an après sa seconde élection, instituait une « troisième république », remettant les compteurs à zéro et permettant ainsi au président Ouattara de se représenter.
En plus de la candidature de Gbagbo, le Conseil constitutionnel a invalidé 39 autres candidatures sur les 44 qui lui avaient été soumises, dont celles de deux dissidents de la mouvance présidentielle, d’un ancien ministre de Laurent Gbagbo et de l’ancien Premier ministre Guillaume Soro. La formation politique de ce dernier, Générations et peuples solidaires, est en concurrence directe avec le RHDP dans le nord du pays, où elle recrute aussi la majorité de ses électeurs. Cette décision a conforté l’opposition dans l’idée que le gouvernement manipulait les institutions afin d’aider Ouattara à écarter ses rivaux politiques et, plus largement, qu’aucune d’entre elles n’était véritablement indépendante du pouvoir exécutif, pas même le Conseil constitutionnel, dont l’opposition réclame désormais la dissolution.
Pour l’heure, le pouvoir rejette l’ensemble de ces accusations. Il a cependant fait une concession, le 23 septembre, en accordant la liberté conditionnelle à dix personnes de l’entourage de Guillaume Soro, détenues depuis le mois de décembre. Cette mesure a été accueillie froidement par l’opposition, qui a pris acte et déploré le maintien en détention d’au moins dix individus proches de Guillaume Soro, parmi lesquels un député.
Ce climat tendu a fait ressurgir des questions fondamentales jamais résolues qui inscrivent la crise ivoirienne dans la durée et mettent en lumière l’échec des différents processus de réconciliation lancés depuis le Forum pour la réconciliation nationale d’octobre 2001, sous la présidence de Gbgabo. Aucune de ces phases de réconciliation, y compris celle menée durant le premier mandat d’Alassane Ouattara, n’a permis de juger les crimes de guerre commis de part et d’autre en Côte d’Ivoire. Elles n’ont pas non plus conduit à une transformation en profondeur de la culture politique d’un pays qui reste prisonnier d’un cadre institutionnel conférant au chef de l’Etat et à son entourage une part disproportionnée du pouvoir exécutif et condamnant souvent l’opposition à l’exclusion ou à l’exil.
Ce système est aussi soutenu « par une fraction importante de la base électorale de chaque parti politique ». Par conséquent, l’élection présidentielle est perçue comme une question de survie politique, qu’il faut gagner à tout prix, plutôt que comme l’occasion de proposer un programme. Les adversaires ne se considèrent pas comme des rivaux mais comme des ennemis, parfois mortels. Depuis 1995, aucun scrutin présidentiel n’a d’ailleurs donné lieu une alternance pacifique du pouvoir.
IV. Reporter pour dialoguer
Il ne reste que quelques jours à ces forces politiques antagonistes pour s’accorder sur un report de l’élection, que les conditions actuelles ne permettront pas de tenir dans le calme. Plusieurs personnalités politiques et civiles ivoiriennes et africaines ainsi que des membres de la communauté internationale estiment, en public ou en privé, qu’un report est nécessaire pour éviter que la logique de confrontation actuelle ne mène à de graves violences. Ce report devrait permettre l’organisation d’un large dialogue visant à apurer une partie du contentieux, notamment concernant la composition de la CEI, la révision du fichier électoral, les modalités d’un retour des exilés politiques et le sort de certains de leurs partisans, toujours emprisonnés.
Pour que ce dialogue soit fructueux, l’opposition devrait accepter de faire des concessions réalistes à partir de la longue liste d’exigences qu’elle a rendue publique le 20 septembre dernier. La révision et le rééquilibrage de la CEI, notamment de ses commissions locales, dont l’opposition estime qu’elles sont majoritairement composées de membres proches du pouvoir, semblent plus réalistes que la dissolution pure et simple qu’exige l’opposition. De son côté, le pouvoir devrait aller plus loin dans la libération des prisonniers politiques en rendant leur liberté à l’ensemble des partisans de Guillaume Soro et des autres courants politiques qui sont encore en détention, parmi lesquels figurent plusieurs députés.
Le retour en Côte d’Ivoire de Guillaume Soro et de Laurent Gbagbo, en vertu des récentes décisions de la Cour africaine des droits de l’homme et des peuples (CADHP), serait un geste capable d’apaiser le lourd climat actuel. Le retour de Guillaume Soro permettrait notamment d’éviter d’attiser l’animosité au nord du pays entre ses partisans et ceux de Ouattara, et de créer de nouvelles fractures dans le pays. Plus largement, ce dialogue devrait permettre de rééquilibrer les règles du jeu électoral en garantissant à chacun une réelle chance de gagner.
Ce report, dont la durée devra être déterminée par les différents participants au dialogue, ne devrait pas être fixé après le 13 décembre 2020, date à laquelle le président élu doit prêter serment, et ce afin d’éviter une vacance du pouvoir. Le dialogue entre les parties devrait intégrer les courants politiques qui pour le moment ne participent pas directement à la présidentielle, notamment ceux représentés par Laurent Gbagbo et Guillaume Soro.
Enfin, il devrait représenter, pour les trois personnalités ivoiriennes qui s’affrontent depuis 1995, une occasion d’envisager sérieusement un passage de relais à une nouvelle génération de femmes et d’hommes, sans doute mieux placés pour conduire une réconciliation et une réforme profonde des institutions au cours de la décennie qui s’ouvre. Même si cette nouvelle génération a pu être spectatrice, voire actrice des presque trois décennies de crise ivoirienne, elle est moins marquée par les querelles individuelles qui se sont accumulées entre ces trois hommes depuis un quart de siècle.
Dans un contexte où de nombreuses personnalités ivoiriennes comprennent de plus en plus difficilement que les partenaires occidentaux arbitrent leurs désaccords 60 ans après les indépendances, la diplomatie africaine est aujourd’hui la mieux placée pour soutenir ces efforts de dialogue. Le format de la mission conjointe entre la Communauté économique des Etats d’Afrique de l’Ouest, l’Union africaine (UA) et les Nations unies qui devait séjourner à Abidjan du 21 au 25 septembre a été modifié, à la demande des autorités ivoiriennes. Finalement, seules les Nations unies se sont rendues en Côte d’Ivoire.
Il serait bon que les autorités ivoiriennes reconsidèrent leur position et acceptent, au plus vite, un accompagnement régional et continental sous la forme d’une délégation réunissant ces trois institutions. D’autres acteurs africains, dirigeants de pays voisins, chefs d’Etats ayant volontairement quitté le pouvoir ou responsables d’institutions internationales comme l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie pourraient, elles aussi, intervenir. Leur objectif serait de convaincre les protagonistes de la crise ivoirienne de s’entendre sur un report concerté de l’élection et l’organisation d’un dialogue national.
Si rien ne change et que le scrutin se tient malgré tout dans les conditions de défiance actuelles, le vainqueur souffrirait presque inévitablement d’un déficit de légitimité aux yeux de ses opposants et d’une partie de la population. Il serait, dans tous les cas, un président mal élu, issu d’un scrutin qui sera peut-être boycotté par certains ou, pour le moins, dont les règles seront rejetées par la quasi-totalité de ses adversaires. Le vainqueur pourra difficilement se présenter comme le président de tous les Ivoiriens et héritera d’un pays extrêmement difficile à gouverner.
Les effets du tour de vis sécuritaire qu’il pourrait être tenté de mettre en place pour asseoir son pouvoir et l’exclusion de plusieurs courants et figures majeurs de la vie politique risquent, à un moment ou à un autre, de provoquer des violences politiques et intercommunautaires. Dans un contexte régional et économique tendu, il devra, en outre, gérer les conséquences d’une nouvelle crise sur des forces de sécurité dont l’unité reste fragile et réactive aux tensions politiques.
Le report de l’élection, même de courte durée, la construction d’un dialogue et l’éventuel transfert de pouvoir à une nouvelle génération de responsables politiques constituent des objectifs certes ambitieux, mais à la mesure de l’enjeu. La probabilité que cette élection accouche, en l’état, d’une crise grave est élevée. Il incombe à l’ensemble des acteurs politiques ivoiriens, épaulés par des personnalités et des institutions africaines, de faire tout leur possible pour l’éviter.
Algérie : vers le déconfinement du hirak ?
International Crisis Group, Report No 217, 23 July 2020
Les retombées économiques et sociales de la crise de Covid-19 et les mesures de confinement risquent de multiplier les défis auxquels l’Algérie est confrontée. Les autorités devraient desserrer leur étau sur la contestation populaire et établir un dialogue économique avec le hirak.
Que se passe-t-il ? Les retombées économiques et sociales de la crise déclenchée par la Covid-19 et les mesures de confinement que les autorités algériennes ont mises en place multiplient les défis auxquels l’Algérie est confrontée.
En quoi est-ce significatif ? Pour y faire face, le gouvernement algérien pourrait recourir à l’endettement extérieur et renforcer les mesures d’austérité budgétaire. Ces décisions pourraient toutefois attiser les tensions sociales et aggraver le conflit entre le hirak et le pouvoir.
Comment agir ? Les autorités devraient profiter de l’union nationale générée par l’épidémie afin de desserrer leur étau sur la contestation populaire. Pouvoir et hirak devraient participer à un dialogue économique national qui proposerait des actions concrètes destinées à diminuer l’exposition du pays aux fluctuations du marché pétrolier et gazier.
Les retombées économiques et sociales de la crise déclenchée par la Covid-19 et les mesures de confinement que les autorités algériennes ont mises en place risquent de radicaliser le mouvement de contestation (hirak). Afin d’éviter ce scénario, le pouvoir devrait profiter de l’union nationale générée par la pandémie pour desserrer son étau sur le hirak et soutenir certaines de ses initiatives citoyennes. Si un dialogue politique est peu réaliste à court terme, pouvoir et hirak devraient à tout le moins participer à un dialogue économique national visant à lever les obstacles aux changements structurels nécessaires pour éviter une crise économique d’ampleur.
Les organisations financières internationales et pays amis de l’Algérie devraient se préparer à la soutenir financièrement, notamment pour qu’elle puisse mener d’éventuelles réformes économiques, sans pour autant imposer des conditionnalités trop strictes. Si l’Algérie les acceptait, en effet, elles risqueraient – comme dans les années 1990 – de déstabiliser d’importants réseaux de clientèle qui participent à la gestion de la rente tirée des hydrocarbures et d’intensifier les violences.
Le hirak, un mouvement citoyen et largement pacifique, est né en février 2019 suite à l’annonce de la candidature du président Abdelaziz Bouteflika à un nouveau mandat. Face au danger sanitaire, le mouvement a fait preuve de sens civique et a respecté les mesures restrictives mises en œuvre par le pouvoir pour endiguer l’épidémie. Le hirak a notamment suspendu ses manifestations de rue et établi des réseaux de solidarité afin de réduire l’impact social du confinement.
Si, sur le plan socioéconomique, le gouvernement algérien a été réactif, mettant en place une série de mesures d’urgence, sur le plan politique, il semble mettre un terme à la période de détente vis-à-vis du hirak qui a suivi l’élection, le 12 décembre 2019, d’Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Ainsi, malgré les promesses de réforme constitutionnelle formulées en réponse aux revendications du hirak, le raidissement sécuritaire devient perceptible. De surcroit, la paralysie économique mondiale et la chute du prix du baril de pétrole ont multiplié les défis économiques et sociaux auxquels l’Algérie est confrontée. Vu la dépendance du pays à l’exportation d’hydrocarbures et l’impact du confinement, la plupart des projections macroéconomiques sont peu optimistes.
A court terme, le gouvernement algérien pourrait devoir recourir à l’endettement extérieur et renforcer considérablement les mesures d’austérité budgétaire, avec pour conséquence possible une recrudescence des tensions sociales. Dès lors, lorsque les mesures de confinement seront levées dans l’ensemble du pays, le hirak pourrait adopter une position plus offensive. Les conditions sont réunies pour que les marches bihebdomadaires reprennent et que s’y ajoutent des grèves générales et la désobéissance civile, ce qui exacerberait le conflit avec le pouvoir.
Le bras de fer auquel le pouvoir et le hirak se livrent depuis février 2019 risquerait de se durcir. A défaut, le hirak pourrait s’épuiser, et en l’absence de mesures répondant aux aspirations que le mouvement exprime, créer un vide laissant la place, dans quelques années, à des groupes minoritaires prônant un discours plus dur et des modes d’actions plus radicaux.
Pour écarter les scénarios les plus risqués et élargir le soutien au président Tebboune, le pouvoir devrait concrétiser les promesses d’ouverture politique faites par le nouveau chef de l’Etat. Ceci passerait, par exemple, par la libération des prisonniers d’opinion, la levée de la censure médiatique et la fin des arrestations arbitraires. De même, il pourrait, sans chercher à les coopter, apporter un soutien accru aux réseaux citoyens que les animateurs du hirak ont mis en place afin de lutter contre l’épidémie et son impact social.
Un dialogue politique qui mettrait fin au conflit est peu probable dans l’immédiat. En revanche, un dialogue économique national suivi et approfondi l’est davantage. Ce dernier pourrait réunir les principales forces politiques, syndicales et associatives, ainsi que des représentants du gouvernement et les entrepreneurs les plus influents du pays, y compris ceux du secteur informel. L’objectif serait d’identifier les obstacles à une réforme économique réelle et de proposer des solutions réalistes et largement acceptées pour les surmonter.
Enfin, si le gouvernement algérien les sollicite, les organisations financières internationales et les pays amis de l’Algérie devraient la soutenir financièrement, notamment son éventuelle stratégie de réformes économiques. Dans ce cas de figure, les éventuels bailleurs de fonds devraient se garder de tenter d’imposer des critères de conditionnalité trop rigides (libéralisation à outrance et austérité budgétaire). Soit les autorités les refuseraient, soit elles se sentiraient contraintes de les accepter, faute d’alternative. Dans ce dernier cas, d’importants réseaux clientélistes qui participent à la gestion de la rente pétrolière et gazière pourraient être déstabilisés, comme ce fut le cas durant les années 1990, contribuant, entre autres facteurs, à l’intensification des violences de la « décennie noire ».
Tunis/Alger/Bruxelles, 27 juillet 2020
Pour l’integralite du rapport, visiter: https://www.crisisgroup.org/fr/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/algeria/217-algerie-vers-le-deconfinement-du-hirak
République démocratique du Congo : en finir avec la violence cyclique en Ituri
International Crisis Group, RAPPORT No 292/AFRIQUE, 15 juillet 2020
En Ituri, depuis fin 2017, une nouvelle période de violence ravive les rivalités entre Hema et Lendu et affecte les autres communautés. Le gouvernement du président Tshisekedi devrait obtenir la reddition des milices lendu et encourager le forum quadripartite à mettre ce conflit d’ampleur régionale à son ordre du jour.
Que se passe-t-il ? Depuis fin 2017, des groupes armés, majoritairement lendu, communauté ethnique d’agriculteurs, commettent des attaques meurtrières dans la province de l’Ituri en République démocratique du Congo (RDC). Les cibles, au départ membres de la communauté hema, leurs voisins éleveurs, et des forces armées, sont de plus en plus indifférenciées.
En quoi est-ce significatif ? L’escalade de la violence a ravivé les rivalités historiques entre les Hema et les Lendu, communautés qui se sont déjà affrontées au cours de la guerre de 1999-2003. Les interférences avec la province voisine du Nord-Kivu, voire avec les pays frontaliers, pourraient aggraver les défis pour le président Félix Tshisekedi.
Comment agir ? Kinshasa devrait privilégier une stratégie visant à négocier la reddition des milices lendu dans le cadre d’un dialogue élargi entre les Hema, les Lendu, et d’autres communautés. Le forum quadripartite réunissant la RDC et ses voisins Angolais, Ougandais et Rwandais devrait se pencher sur les aspects régionaux de la crise.
Depuis décembre 2017, des violences dans la province de l’Ituri, dans le Nord-Est de la République démocratique du Congo (RDC), ont fait près de 1 000 morts et un demi-million de déplacés. Initialement localisées dans le territoire de Djugu, les attaques, de faible portée, ont d’abord opposé les deux principales communautés de l’Ituri, les Hema et les Lendu. Par la suite, les milices lendu ont ciblé les Hema, puis l’armée nationale, avant de s’en prendre aux territoires voisins. Des acteurs externes, y compris de la province du Nord-Kivu et des pays avoisinants, sont également impliqués dans ce conflit. Afin d’enrayer une escalade dangereuse, le gouvernement congolais devrait privilégier une stratégie visant à négocier la reddition des milices lendu tout en soutenant un dialogue plus vaste entre les Hema, les Lendu, et d’autres communautés de l’Ituri. Le président Félix Tshisekedi devrait simultanément travailler avec les pays voisins pour qu’ils cessent tout appui aux assaillants de la région.
La crise actuelle se distingue du conflit de 1999-2003 en Ituri, au cours duquel les communautés hema et lendu avaient participé à des massacres de grande ampleur, par milices interposées. Contrairement au conflit précédent, bien que les assaillants soient recrutés essentiellement dans la communauté lendu et réunis, pour la plupart, au sein d’une association de milices, la Coopérative pour le développement du Congo (Codeco), les notables lendu n’assument pas la paternité de ces milices.
Cependant, la réponse militaire du gouvernement a montré ses limites et le scénario d’une escalade intercommunautaire plus généralisée ne peut être écarté. Les milices lendu continuent de se renforcer. Les Hema n’ont, jusqu’à présent, pas organisé de représailles systématiques, mais n’excluent pas de mobiliser leurs jeunes si les attaques se poursuivent. L’organisation de jeunes hema en groupes d’autodéfense qui érigent des barrages sur les routes de l’Ituri devrait alerter sur le risque d’une plus forte communautarisation du conflit.
Le conflit en Ituri pourrait avoir de multiples répercussions. Les violences qui ont frappé la province ont déjà attiré certains acteurs violents du Nord-Kivu voisin, épicentre de l’insécurité dans l’Est du Congo. Les membres d’anciens mouvements rebelles, y compris quelques cohortes du M23, basés en grande partie en Ouganda, auraient également cherché à profiter des tensions ethniques en Ituri et au Nord-Kivu pour se mêler au conflit.
Cette dynamique exacerbe en outre les tensions entre l’Ouganda et le Rwanda, qui ont tous deux joué un rôle important dans la guerre de l’Ituri de 1999-2003 et s’accusent aujourd’hui mutuellement de soutenir les groupes armés dans l’Est du Congo. La flambée de la pandémie de Covid-19 en mars 2020 dans le territoire d’Irumu, à la limite du Nord-Kivu, risque de s’étendre dans toute la province – ce qui pourrait aggraver la fragilité des autorités qui font désormais face à la double menace de la violence et de la maladie.
Les recommandations suivantes pourraient contribuer à briser le cycle de la violence dans la province de l’Ituri, et à prévenir les ingérences extérieures :
- Le gouvernement devrait renouer le dialogue avec les milices qui ont déjà exprimé leur volonté de se rendre. Il devrait aussi poursuivre le dialogue avec les autres milices impliquées dans les violences en Ituri, dans le but de les désarmer. Afin de parvenir à un consensus large sur les modalités de désarmement (y compris sur la question de l’amnistie), le gouvernement devrait également appuyer les efforts du caucus des députés de l’Ituri à l’Assemblée nationale.
- Kinshasa devrait privilégier la réintégration des miliciens dans la vie civile, notamment à travers la mise en place de structures d’encadrement et de formation visant à leur offrir des alternatives économiques.
- Les autorités provinciales et nationales devraient encourager un dialogue entre les Hema et les Lendu en impliquant les chefs coutumiers et les notables afin de discuter des dynamiques locales – telles que la question foncière – qui engendrent la violence, et des mesures requises pour mieux gérer la sécurité sur le terrain. Par la suite, le gouvernement central devrait organiser un dialogue inclusif interiturien, comprenant aussi les communautés de la province qui ne sont pas directement engagées dans la crise actuelle, pour s’assurer que ces mesures répondent aux attentes générales de la population.
- Afin de contribuer au développement et à la sécurisation des communautés de l’Ituri, Kinshasa devrait mettre en place un fonds spécial pour la région et mobiliser autant que possible ses partenaires bilatéraux traditionnels, ainsi que la Banque mondiale, pour l’alimenter.
- Le président congolais devrait mettre le conflit de l’Ituri à l’ordre du jour du nouveau forum quadripartite réunissant l’Angola, l’Ouganda, la RDC et le Rwanda. L’Ouganda et le Rwanda pourraient se servir de ce forum pour discuter de leurs accusations réciproques de soutien aux groupes armés dans l’Est du Congo, y compris en Ituri, et s’engager à mettre un terme à ce soutien.
Tant que ces étapes ne seront pas réalisées, on risque de déboucher sur une crise plus large dans les années à venir. Une résolution durable de la crise en Ituri contribuerait à la fois à rompre le cycle de la violence dans l’Est de la RDC et à atténuer les tensions dans la région des Grands Lacs.
Nairobi/Bruxelles/Bunia/Kinshasa/Kampala, 15 juillet 2020
Pour l’integralise du rapport, visiter: https://www.crisisgroup.org/fr/africa/central-africa/democratic-republic-congo/292-republique-democratique-du-congo-en-finir-avec-la-violence-cyclique-en-ituri