Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari addresses Chatham House, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.

The World This Week: January 28, 2019

Middle East and North Africa

U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard is in Istanbul this week leading an investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The human rights investigator is in Turkey with both a legal and a forensic team.  Special Rapporteur Callamard met with Turkey’s foreign minister on Monday and plans to meet with Istanbul’s chief prosecutor on Tuesday.

On Monday, an anonymous U.S. official stated that “significant progress” has been made after six days of peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.  The official continued to go on and state that the U.S. does not seek a permanent military presence in Afghanistan. American envoy Zalmay Kahlilzad said that American and Taliban officials have a draft of a framework for a peace deal. The U.S. team is in Kabul this week meeting with President Ashraf Ghani, but talks are set to continue on February 25 in Qatar.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan announced that his country plans on building safe zones in Northern Syria so that Syrian refugees staying in Turkey can return to their home country.  Turkey currently hosts around 4 million Syrian refugees.  After President Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw troops from Syria in December, the two presidents discussed the possibility of a safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border.  Another stated goal of the safe zone, according to President Erdogan, is protection from “terrorists”, referring to the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey says has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

Latin America and The Caribbean

A mining dam in Brumadinho, Brazil collapsed Friday, and the breach released mine waste burying Brumadinho and flooding much of the state of Minas Gerais. Officials identified 58 dead, but several hundred more are still missing. This is the second incident in the past 4 years involving the mining company, a Vale subsidiary. The 2015 Mariana Dam disaster was the worst environmental incident in Brazilian history when it decimated towns, leaving 19 dead. Vale SA has seen at least a 13.5% drop in the NYSE since the incident.

The Trump Administration began evacuating non-essential embassy employees from Caracas due to safety considerations after denying President Maduro’s order to remove American diplomatic personnel within 72 hours. Maduro slightly backed down against U.S. pressure and opened a 30-day window to establish a “U.S. interests office”. The U.S. also sought support for a Venezuela resolution in the UNSC late last week and announced the appointment of Elliott Abrams as a special envoy. Abrams is infamous in the region for his conviction in the Iran-Contra affair and support for a 2002 coup attempt against then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Ambassador John Bolton denounced threats towards Guaidó or the National Assembly and suggested that a strong response would occur – identifying Cuba as a likely offender. Concerns of U.S. military intervention or coup are increasing, despite evidence against their feasibility. However the situation continues to escalate with violent protests and Total internet blackouts lasting over 28 hours in addition to targeted service restrictions for popular networking and social media applications. Specialists identified specific disruptions concurrent with Interim-President Juan Guaidó’s live-streamed speech.

Asia and the Pacific

In Thailand, the ruling junta’s push for an arms deal with China has sparked controversy. The Royal Thai Army is in the process of procuring new tanks to replace decades old American equipment. Relations between the United States and Thailand have been strained after a 2014 military coup ousted the democratic government, and sanctions imposed since then have largely cut off Thai access to Western original equipment managers (OEMs). Thailand has previously had failed deals with Ukraine and Russia and has instead struck a deal with Chinese manufacturers, including for a Chinese S-26T submarine and a VN1 armoured vehicle. Thai commentators and opposition figures have decried the move as a blow against transparency as the government moves towards scheduled elections this March.

Singapore and Malaysia have agreed to meet and extend prior concessions made over an air and sea border dispute. The two have agreed to extend a restricted air zone over disputed territories and to meet at some point after the lunar new year. Singapore and Malaysia have reached a high point in tensions over these territories after an incident in which a Malaysian regional minister boarded a boat in disputed waters. The diplomatic rift is unlikely to be resolved soon and is yet another crisis in the two countries’ relations, which have been acrimonious since their split in 1965.

North America

Justin Trudeau fired Canada’s ambassador to China after he twice publicly stated that Canada should not extradite Huawei’s chief executive officer to the United States. This statement directly contradicts the position of Trudeau’s administration that the arrest was a carrying-out of justice and confirms Chinese suspicions that it was a political arrest. John McCallum, the former ambassador, was a political appointee known in China to have Trudeau’s ear. He was also known to never shy away from making controversial public statements. There is now debate over whether the next appointed ambassador to China should be another political appointee with close relations to Trudeau, or rather a career member of the foreign service with the diplomatic training and skills to carefully negotiate this ongoing crisis.

In the United States, a state of emergency has been declared for the state of Washington as 35 people are confirmed to have contracted measles. The Washington State Department of Health is managing the “public health aspects of the outbreak through investigations and lab testing.” So far most of the confirmed cases are children between the ages of 1 and 10, and almost all have been confirmed to have not received a vaccination for the disease. Governor Jay Inslee said about the outbreak that measles is “an extreme public health risk that may quickly spread to other countries.” In other news, the partial shutdown that has dragged on for weeks is now on temporary hold, and employees who have gone without pay for so long will now almost all receive back pay by the end of this week. If a deal is not reached at the end of the three-week hold, however, the government could shut down again.

Former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has been accused by Alex Cifuentes, a witness in the El Chapo trial in the U.S., of taking a $100 million bribe from El Chapo while in office. Nieto was president until November 2018, though according to Cifuentes the bribe was reported by him to U.S. authorities back in 2016. More recently, an ex-bodyguard of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán testified that he witnessed his boss bury someone alive. This, along with two other murders the ex-bodyguard reports, are the first killings to be directly associated to Guzmán rather than one of his subordinates. While testimonies of violence have taken place in this trial, real violence in Tijuana has skyrocketed. Homicide rates in the city have reached the “levels of hyper-violence it last saw a decade ago.” Victor Clark Alfaro, an expert on the war on drugs in Tijuana, says the increase in violence is because “the cartel leaders – not the kind of people you’d meet at the country club – have lost control of the low-level dealers.” He says the killings are not related to smuggling drugs into the U.S., but local turf wars between cells of the same cartels.


Polish police have asked prosecutors to examine evidence against ultra-nationalists who demonstrated at Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day. The group, estimated between 70-100, marched with Polish flags at the Nazi death camp. They were led by Piotr Ryback, who, in 2015, was convicted for publicly burning an effigy representing a Jew. 

Central Asia

Georgia and Russia are coming closer to a potential breakthrough on opening disputed borders to international trade. Both countries disagree on where the norther borders of Georgia lie, but they may shelve these difference for the sake of unblocking the Caucauses most persistent traffic jam. Georgia has set up an ad hoc commission to implement a long-stalled 2011 treaty on opening trade corridors. Under the treaty, Georgia and Russia agreed to outsource to a Swiss company the task of monitoring trade across Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has said there are efforts to destabilize his country through an attempt to replicate the Arab Spring uprising of 2011. He was speaking in Egypt’s capital Cairo after meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It is his second foreign trip since protests began in December, which began over cuts to bread and fuel subsidies. Protests have since shifted into anger at Bashir’s 30-year rule.

Nigerian Judge Walter Onnoghen was suspended by President Muhammadu Buhari for allegedly failing to declare his personal assets before taking office in 2017. This raises particular concern for the upcoming general election. Buhari’s decision has been called “an act of dictatorship” by his main challenger in next month’s election, Atiku Abubakar.

Ethiopian state broadcaster and the Office of the Prime Minister on Sunday confirmed the release of a Saudi-Ethiopian businessman Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi from detention. Until his release, Al-Amoudi had been held for 14 months along with others – Saudi businessmen, royal and political elite – accused of corruption at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel located in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. He has once been tagged by Forbes as the richest man in Ethiopia and the second-richest Saudi.

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