International scene 2014
The year 2014 came to an end yesterday. As we bid adieu to 2014 let us look back and see some of the major events of the year. During the past year we witnessed turmoil in different parts of the world. Terrorism, insurgency, political conflicts and wars have taken many lives. Changes in leadership in some countries and reappearance of cold war phenomenon will no doubt influence world events in 2015. Natural disasters and diseases have wreaked havoc in some regions of the world.
What terrified people around the world was the outbreak of Ebola. Ebola virus disease (EVD) was first discovered after its outbreak in South Sudan and Zaire (now Congo) in 1976. The name Ebola is derived from the Ebola River in Congo. The disease reappeared in February 2014 in West Africa, and so far has resulted in 6,388 deaths (WHO). The countries worst affected are Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal. Cases of infection have also been reported from, Mali, Nigeria, Spain and USA. WHO issued a Global Alert that if not controlled the disease may spread beyond West Africa and cause havoc to humanity.
A new crisis was developing in Eastern Europe between the West and Russia over Ukraine since late 2013. By early 2014 it had blown into a major crisis. Pro-Russian President Viktor Yanokovych fled to Moscow after the West instigated civil unrest that left more than 100 people dead in Kiev.
Tensions arose when economically battered Ukraine wanted to become a member of European Union against the wishes of Moscow. Moscow wanted to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence and use it as a buffer between its borders and US-led Nato countries. The West, mainly the Americans, has long conspired to pull Ukraine into EU and Nato and encircle Russia.
This geopolitical confrontation provoked President Putin to annex Crimea and launch an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian speaking population. In April, Washington imposed sanctions on Moscow, followed by EU. In June, Petro Poroshenko was elected the new president but his woes are not yet over, despite several peace deals with the insurgents. So far the insurgency has caused the death of over 4,000 people on both sides. Over 800,000 fled to Russia and 200,000 displaced within Ukraine.President Obama has signed fresh sanctions against Russia in December and US Congress has decided to arm the fledgling Ukrainian army. Sanctions and falling oil price have eroded the value of Ruble and put strains on the economy. The West and Russia distrust each other openly and President Putin is treated as a pariah. It appears Washington wants regime change in Moscow. The current conflict is a classical episode of cold war.
Two tragic incidents hit Malaysian Airlines during 2014. The Airline's Boeing 777 disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8. Flight MH 370 is presumed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean with 239 passengers on board. The plane has not yet been traced. The disappearance of the plane is a mind boggling mystery.
Again, on July 17, another Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was shot down over eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board. Washington accused Russia for shooting down flight MH 17 enroute from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Moscow blamed Ukrainian army fighting insurgents in Eastern Ukraine for the incident. Investigations into the incident have not yet identified the culprits. Both the accidents have left the world in a state of shock and disbelief.
After two five-year terms President Hamid Karzai's tenure came to an end in early 2014 in war-torn Afghanistan. To elect a new president 20 million Afghans went to polls in April. Out of 11 candidates only two -- Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai --were front runners. Results of first round of voting on May 15 put Abdullah with 45 percent as against 32 percent of Ashraf Ghani. After the second round on June 14 the Independent Election Commission reversed the results on July 7 and put Abdullah at 43 percent and Ghani at 56 percent. Abdullah immediately accused the Commission of widespread fraud and demanded recounting of votes. US Secretary of State John Kerry then mediated and announced that ballots would be recounted under UN supervision. The Election Commission announced on September 19 that Ashraf Ghani was the winner. To avoid bloody tribal confrontations, Abdullah and Ghani signed a power-sharing deal in which Abdullah will hold an important position in the new government. Though the election process was long and complicated it was the first time that Afghanistan witnessed a peaceful transfer of state power on September 29.
However, the situation in the country remains dicey as the US troops leave winding down their combat role and Taliban threat looms large.
Islamic terrorist group “Boko Haram” abducted 276 school girls from a secondary school in the province of Borno in Nigeria in April. Most of these girls were not Muslims. Boko Haram had declared that they will convert the girls to Islam and marry them. Unconfirmed reports suggest some of these girls were taken to Chad and Cameroon. While world opinion was outraged, the Nigerian government seemed unable to trace or free the pupils. However, several Western governments offered to help rescue the students from the terrorists.
Nigeria has been under ruthless military dictatorships from 1966 to 1999, when democracy was restored. It was during this period that ethnic militancy grew in Kano in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram ('Western education is forbidden”) appeared in northern Nigeria in 2002, where the Muslim population is in majority. It is a “Salafi” (extreme radical Islamists) terrorist group opposed to Christians and responsible for many violent bomb attacks. Corruption in security services and human rights abuses by the government have made it difficult to contain Boko Haram. In December, the terrorists again abducted 185 people during an attack in Borno state.
BJP-led NDA dethroned the Congress-led UPA in the 16th Lok Sabha elections in India and formed the new government under Narendra Modi, former chief minister of Gujarat.
Amazingly, the election campaign saw a sharp division of the Indian polity into two camps -- the secularist and the followers of “Hindutva”. Hindutva has several connotations but is generally understood as Hinduism mixed with ultra nationalism. Even more surprising was the way BJP conducted the campaign. The party skillfully projected Modi more like in presidential candidate. The campaign revolved around Modi not the BJP manifesto.
Modi surprised everyone by inviting all the Saarc leaders to his investiture. Many believed that the era of confrontation between Pakistan and India will soon be over after Modi and Nawaz promised a new beginning. But that prospect fell flat at the 18th Saarc Summit in Kathmandu in November. Modi's policy towards India's neighbours is yet to unfold.
However, the West, which had so long treated Modi as a pariah because of his complicity during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, were overjoyed at his election victory. Washington, which refused him visa repeatedly, was head over heels to welcome him to US. President Obama is scheduled to be the guest of honour during the Republic Day parade in Delhi in January 2015.
Modi's distracters deride him as a divisive, violent, prejudicial person as he is a lifelong member of RSS, a fascist paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation responsible for murdering Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. He is seen as a far right Hindu nationalist and a corporate man.
Nevertheless, Modi has broken the dynastic tradition of rulers in Indian democracy. He is the first non-Delhi politician to become prime minister of India. His greatest challenge will be to revive the sluggish Indian economy and pull teeming millions of Indians from poverty. It would be worth watching whether Modi will create a new Republic.
Politics in Egypt has gone round full circle. From a military dictatorship (first Republic of Gamal Nasser) it went for multiparty democracy (second Republic of Mohammad Morsi) and back to military democracy (third Republic of General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi). The year 2014 was a defining period. After having ousted the elected President Mohammad Morsi in July 2013, Gen Sisi consolidated his power and position and called for presidential election in May 2014. In a one-horse race he was declared elected with 97 percent vote. Sisi came to power amidst political violence that has caused the death of over 2,500 people.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed and hundreds of its activists thrown into jails. Mohammad Morsi is under detention and faces charges. The problem is MB has remained a potent force to challenge the Egyptian army. During the past year there were several serious attacks on the army, killing dozens of soldiers. What is even more worrying is that the MB has relations with ISIL.
General Sisi has his plate full. He has to revive the sagging economy, reunite the divided nation and resurrect Egypt's secular credentials. Above all, he has to maintain peace with Israel. Anyway, though the situation in the Middle East remains extremely fluid, Gen Sisi has effectively snuffed out Arab Spring from Egypt.
For the past couple of years Thailand had been submerged in political crisis. Trouble began when Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra tried to pass a political amnesty bill in early 2013. The bill would have allowed her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister accused of corruption, to return to Thailand from exile. The Constitutional Court rejected the bill and the opposition
leaders called for removal of Yingluck. The year 2013 passed with Yingluck being immobile due to repeated strikes and demonstrations in Bangkok. In December 2013, Yingluck dissolved the Parliament and called for elections in February 2014. The opposition parties disrupted the elections, following which the Constitutional Court declared the vote invalid. The Court also ordered Yingluck out of office over irregularities in the appointment of security adviser.
In May, the army moved in and seized power (for the twelfth time since 1932). In August, Army Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha was made prime minister. Fresh elections are not scheduled until 2016.
The rise of ISIL around June 2014 in northern Iraq has created deep worries and fears, both among the countries of the Middle East and the West. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) is a Sunni extremist jihadi group, which has proclaimed a Caliphate extending through Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Sinai (Egypt) and parts of Turkey. It has vowed to “free Palestine” and destroy Israel.
This jihadi group grew out of the disgruntled Sunni factions in Iraq opposed to the Shia government led President Nouri al Maliki of Iraq and the Syrian fighters opposed to President Basher Al Assad (Alawit Shia). What makes it dangerous is its deep links with al-Qaeda and its extremely brutal and vicious ways in dealing with its enemies. Beheading of Western journalists and aid workers has shocked and outraged the world.
What is deeply disturbing is that ISIL has been able to attract many young Muslims from the West and Middle Eastern countries to join and fight for its cause. As of December, well armed ISIL is in control of large swathes of territory in Iraq. Clearly, Iraqi forces are unable to contain its onslaught.
Since withdrawing from Iraq in December 2011, Washington has been reluctant to send troops to Iraq again to fight ISIL. However, sensing the grave threat to American interest in the region President Obama decided in August to help Iraqi forces by sending US Air Force to bomb ISIL positions.
The civil war in Syria, the unresolved Palestinian problem, impunity of Israel in killing Palestinians, the Shia dominated Iraqi government and absence of representative democracy in the countries of the region do not bode well for Middle East. The balance of power in the region is undergoing dramatic change, in spite of ISIL. It will take decades before peace is reestablished in Middle East.
During July-August the world witnessed one of the most flagrant violations of human rights by Israel. Following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager in July, Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge” on Gaza on July 8. The brutal invasion lasted 50 days when an open ended ceasefire came into effect on August 26. During the unequal war Gaza lost 2,200 lives, including 519 children, and Israel lost 71 lives.
While the world watched Israeli viciousness in disbelief, none of the Western leaders, who openly support Tel Aviv, moved to stop the killing. Even some of the major Middle Eastern countries took the position that Hamas deserved the punishment.
Palestine is officially recognised by more than 135 countries. Israel was angered when in December lawmakers of European Parliament, Britain, France and Spain called for recognition of Palestine. Jordan has drafted a UNSC Resolution calling for a deal within one year and Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories by the end of 2017.
Though Human Rights Watch has repeatedly accused Israel of violating rights of the Palestinians, Israel goes about killing Palestinians with impunity.
A careful analysis will reveal that the seven decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of Islamist extremism around the world. Creation of the Palestinian state will no doubt see a decline of Islamic jihadi movements in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Iran Nuclear Deal
The P5+1 (UNSC P5 plus Germany) began negotiations with Iran in November 2013 to strike a deal that would thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Negotiations were supposed to be completed in July 2014. Since differences remained the time limit was extended to November 24. But lack of trust has kept the deal elusive and the time had to be extended again two to dates -- arriving at a “political agreement” by March 1, 2015 and “final agreement” by June 30, 2015. The salient points of negotiations are that Iran will have to abandon enriching uranium that can make weapons; and in return the West will lift the sanctions imposed on Iran. The negotiations were extremely complex and at times it seemed that there would be no deal.
What is interesting is that the Washington does not want to break off the negotiations as Iran has become a strategic ally, helping the West in a significant way to defeat the ISIL in Iraq.
Beijing was certainly embarrassed when “Umbrella Movement” activists gathered in central Hong Kong demanding universal suffrage to elect the next chief executive of the city. The backdrop to the protest is the decision by Beijing in August, to approve a list of candidates for the post of the Chief Executive. Hong Kong residents will then elect one from that list in 2017. The Umbrella Movement, which began in late September, wanted to elect the chief executive directly without any interference from Beijing. After two-and-half-month of protests, during which confrontations with the police had injured dozens of people, the movement finally was abandoned on December 11. President Xi Jinping must have heaved a sigh of relief.
There are several important points to note here: (a) Beijing was cool during the entire period of protest, the police did not use brute force to evict the demonstrators and no one got killed. (b) President Xi Jinping left the protestors run out of steam, knowing fully well that Hong Kong being a financial capital of the Asia Pacific region, local residents will not support the cause. (c) Umbrella activists failed to stir sympathisers in mainland China, despite provocations from the Western media. Beijing, of course, clamped censorship over news from Hong Kong. (d) Monolithic Communist Party of China has full control over its territory -- Hong Kong.
What happened in Peshawar on December 16 was indeed most heartbreaking. Pakistani Taliban attacked an army-run school which caused the loss of 141 lives, of which 132 were children. The attack was in retaliation to the on-going Pakistan army's operation in the Waziristan region against the Taliban. Audacious attacks by Taliban on different establishment are not new in Pakistan. Now, as US troops head home from Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban will also raise its ugly head. Pakistan's security will face major challenges as its army will have to deal with two Talibans, which it had originally created.
United Kingdom was on the verge of being disunited, when 4.2 million Scots went to vote on a referendum question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Some Scottish leaders have been trying to dissolve the 307-year old political union. Among several reasons, Scotland always wanted to have more powers for its parliament (commonly called Holyrood). Actually Westminster (UK Parliament) has powers over the major subject like defense, trade, energy, transport, etc. Also, many Scots believe that it could be a viable nation given the huge revenues it gets from the North Sea oil fields. At the polling on September 18, 55.3 percent voted “no” while 44.7 percent said “yes.” Thus the “Kingdom” remained “United.” Had Scotland voted 'yes' it would have triggered other components -- Wales and Northern Ireland to break from England.
Last November, US went for mid-term polls. Democrats lost majority in both Houses of the Congress. Republicans now have 54 seats in the 100-seat Senate, and 247 seats in the 435-seat House of Representatives. The new composition of the Congress will be effective from January 2015. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, will have to face an unfriendly Congress for the remaining period of his presidency.
In another dramatic development on December 17, President Obama decided to end the cold war with Cuba and normalise relations. After treating Fidel Castro's Communist Cuba as a pariah state for more than 50 years, Washington decided to establish full diplomatic ties with Havana. The move came at the behest of Pope Francis when Obama met him in March in Vatican. However, Republican leaders have harshly criticised President Obama for changing the direction of US foreign policy. As 'hard Castro-ism” comes to an end it would be interesting to watch how other anti-US regimes in Latin America respond to this new change in Washington's policy.
The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.