World update: August 9 2018



If you talk about “settlements” in a contemporary geopolitical context the assumption people usually have is that you’re talking about Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. Joshua Kucera writes about a lesser-known settlements situation in the parts of Azerbaijan surrounding the Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh:

Unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, the population of which had been about three-quarters ethnic Armenian when war broke out, the seven surrounding territories had had a negligible Armenian population, instead inhabited mainly by Azerbaijanis and Kurds. As a result of the war they were emptied of their population and about 618,000 Azerbaijanis remain displaced from the conflict, according to United Nations figures, the large majority of those from the seven districts.

Armenians initially conceived of control of these seven territories as a temporary measure, as a buffer zone to prevent Azerbaijani attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh; they were eventually to be given back to Azerbaijan as part of a comprehensive peace deal to resolve the conflict.

But as time has passed, that notion has faded, replaced by the conviction that these are integral parts of the Armenian homeland, never to be surrendered.


The New York Times reports that the disappearance of the Aral Sea, one of the greatest ecological disasters of the modern age, is perversely spurring tourism in Uzbekistan’s former port city of Mo‘ynoq:

“A lot of people want to see an ecological crisis,” said Vadim Sokolov, the head of the Uzbek branch of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea.

Where waves once lapped at the harbor’s lighthouse, rusting trawlers now sit abandoned on the sandy seabed far below, like dinosaur bones bleaching in the sunshine.

A selfie from the ship cemetery has become a must-have for the Instagram crowd.


The Saudis are apparently offering incoming Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan a $4 billion loan right out of the gate. Pakistan could certainly use the money, that’s for sure, but the Saudis aren’t so worried about that as they are about comments Khan has made to the effect that he would like to rebalance Pakistan’s relationship between the Saudis and Iran. Pakistan has historically been closer to the Saudis.


The North Korean government criticized the United States on Thursday for sticking to an “outdated acting script” by continuing to push for international sanctions against Pyongyang even though it has taken some conciliatory steps like ending nuclear testing. North Korea is pushing for concessions from the US even though the US has consistently held that it will not ease sanctions until North Korea has completed its denuclearization process, whatever that might look like. North Korean officials have been critical of the US since Donald Trump’s June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un, but they’ve been careful to try to separate Trump administration officials from Trump himself, arguing that the officials are actually working to undermine Trump’s aims.

Also on Thursday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho visited Tehran, where Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned him not to trust the United States.


The two Koreas have scheduled another round of “high level talks” for August 13 in Panmunjom. High on their agenda will be making plans for another summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, this time in Pyongyang.



Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé suffered a major blow to his chances of winning Sunday’s presidential runoff on Thursday when the candidates who finished third and fourth in the July 29 first round, Aliou Boubacar Diallo and Cheick Modibo Diarra, refused to endorse him. Both said they won’t issue an endorsement for the second round.

Cissé’s legal challenge to the results of the first round was tossed out by Mali’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday. Alex Thurston has compiled some media coverage of the fraud claim.


At least 16 people, 15 of them Nigerian soldiers, were killed on Thursday in a suspected Boko Haram ambush near the town of Damasak in Borno state. Given the location it’s likely that this incident involved Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s ISIS-aligned Boko Haram branch, which for simplicity’s sake I try to think of as ISIS in West Africa even though both Boko Haram branches still claim that label.

Elsewhere, the city of Lagos is negotiating with private companies to come in and fix its dreadful water infrastructure, rather than attempt to fix the problem itself since that would cost money and be a lot of work and stuff. One of the firms it’s considering is Veolia. Perhaps you haven’t heard of Veolia, but the nice people in Flint, Michigan sure have. Yes, that’s right, the same company that’s been poisoning people in Flint and in Pittsburgh might soon get a crack at poisoning people in Africa’s largest city. A major protest campaign has cropped up to oppose privatizing the city’s water, but at this point it’s unclear what’s going to happen. The government was supposed to award the contract last month but hasn’t done so yet.


South Sudanese President Salva Kiir issued a general amnesty to South Sudanese rebels late on Wednesday. That immunity covers rebel leader and sometimes South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar and is part of their latest collective effort to end the country’s civil war.


Africa Is a Country takes a critical look at the human rights abuses Cameroon has committed in its Western-backed war against Boko Haram–a conflict that has trained the Cameroonian military to commit similar abuses against anglophone separatists elsewhere in the country:

The video from northern Cameroon provides shocking visual evidence of Cameroonian security forces’ abuse and torture of civilian populations in the Lake Chad basin region where Boko Haram operates. It forces viewers to bear witness to the everyday crimes committed with impunity by state forces in the name of fighting terrorism. Several days after authenticating the viral video, Amnesty International released a report revealing that the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) of Cameroon, with the assistance of the US military, routinely commits war crimes, including torture, has converted a primary school in Fotokol into a military base, making schoolchildren a military target, and has established unofficial detention sites for those alleged—with little or no evidence—to follow Boko Haram.

State actors throughout the Lake Chad basin where Boko Haram recruits—Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger—have nourished the portrayal of the movement as an international jihadist terrorist in nature, akin to al-Qaeda, as a way to benefit from international anti-terrorism assistance—spearheaded by the United States and by France—that shores up their tenuous hold on power. Under the cover of an anti-terror law passed in December 2014, the Biya regime has unleashed the brutal exactions of BIR—assisted by 300 US troops on the ground, as well as technical, material, logistical, and financial support. But Cameroon’s internationally recognized statehood must not prevent us from asking whether BIR represents the greater threat to the region’s civilian populations.


Senior Zimbabwean opposition leader Tendai Biti was arrested by police on Thursday after he was picked up by Zambian authorities while attempting to flee the country’s post-election military crackdown and then returned to Zimbabwe. Zambia may have violated international law if Biti has a legitimate asylum case–which, so far, it seems he may have.



A funny thing happened after the US levied a relatively moderate-seeming new set of sanctions against Russia on Wednesday over its alleged involvement in the Skripal poisoning in the United Kingdom: the ruble, along with the Russian stock market, tanked. It would seem traders were shocked that the US would hit Russia with new penalties because relations seemed so cordial after the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki last month. But the sanctions were activated automatically when the US government determined that Russia was involved in the Skripal affair, since said affair involved the use of a chemical weapon. Russia says it will retaliate, perhaps by banning the export of its RD-180 rocket engines to the US, and some analysts actually think this whole episode may help Vladimir Putin by knocking stories about his plan to raise the Russian retirement age out of the news.


Somewhere between 2000 and 3000 people are being evacuated from the town of Glogow, after Polish authorities discovered an unexploded 550 pound World War II bomb in the nearby Oder River. It’s like the war that keeps on giving.

Polish President Andrzej Duda has promised to veto any changes to Polish election laws that would benefit large parties, like the ruling Law and Justice party, in next year’s European Parliament election. Duda owes his job to Law and Justice but he’s shown himself to be a bit of a pain in their ass since taking it.



Former and would-be Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is either justly serving a prison sentence for corruption or has been railroaded in what amounts to a right-wing judicial coup to prevent him from running for president later this year, was not allowed to participate in the first debate of the presidential campaign Thursday evening. A Brazilian judge rejected his bid to attend the debate in a ruling issued Thursday afternoon.


The Venezuelan refugee crisis threatened to inundate the Colombian-Ecuadorean border on Thursday. Ecuadorean authorities estimate that some 4500 Venezuelan refugees have attempted to cross into the country from Colombia every day this week, a figure far higher than normal and reflective of the large number of refugees already in Colombia. There are apparently rumors running rampant that the Venezuela-Colombia border is about to be closed, and Brazil has been flirting with closing its Venezuelan border, so any Venezuelans who want to get out of the country are rushing to do so ASAP.


It’s not really foreign policy news, but I thought you might want to know that the Puerto Rican government has now acknowledged, in a report to Congress, that the death toll from Hurricane Maria was 1427, not the absurdly low 64 that had been previously reported. If I thought it would matter I’d say somebody should tell President Trump.

Finally, the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis articulates some basic, progressive foreign policy positions that congressional candidates might want to think about adopting as they firm up their foreign policy ideas. It’s a detailed and thoughtful piece that I would urge you to read if you’re interested in building a left-wing foreign policy alternative to what the Republicans and the liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party are offering:

Progressives in Congress have to navigate the tricky task of rejecting American exceptionalism. U.S global military and economic efforts are generally aimed at maintaining domination and control. Without that U.S. domination, the possibility arises of a new kind of internationalism: to prevent and solve crises that arise from current and potential wars, to promote nuclear disarmament, to come up with climate solutions and to protect refugees.

That effort is increasingly important because of the rapid rise of right-wing xenophobic authoritarians seeking and winning power. Trump is now leading and enabling an informal global grouping of such leaders, from Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Victor Orban in Hungary and others. Progressive elected officials in the United States can pose an important challenge to that authoritarian axis by building ties with their like-minded counterparts in parliaments and governments—possibilities include Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, among others. And progressive and leftist members of Congress will need to be able to work together with social movements to build public pressure for diplomatic initiatives not grounded in the interests of U.S. empire.

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