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Our 33rd year of publishing The International Observer

The Latest Issue

March 2014: Crimea is forcibly annexed and Russia sanctioned

Italy's youngest prime minister takes over to push reforms

Lebanon forms unity government after 10 months of talks


Current Concerns

Russian illegal annexation of Crimea

Egypt’s military authoritarianism and backlash

Syrian civil war and deadly intra-opposition rivalry

Autocratic behavior of Turkey’s prime minister

Chinese power plays in the South China Sea



Noticed and Noted

Crimea is forcibly annexed and Russia sanctioned
   Opposed by Ukraine and all major Western states, the Crimea was annexed by the Russian Federation and became part of it on 18 March as Republic of Crimea. After 60 years of belonging to Ukraine, including the last 23 years of the independent country, the Russian government forced the annexation of the peninsula between 28 February and 16 March. Employing intimidating troop movements, infiltrated pro-Russian elements, and helped by Russian-speaking local officials, a referendum on independence and joining Russia was held on 16 March. It was neither recognized internationally nor observed by any non-Russian monitors but officials reported that nearly 96 percent of votes cast approved the plebiscite. The Ukrainian parliament, the Supreme Council, declared the referendum unconstitutional and on 27 March, the UN General Assembly declared it illegal.
  Within days of Russia’s clear intention to seize the Crimea, France, United Kingdom, and the United States of America warned that the violations of international law would have economic and political consequences. First, on 2 March, they suspended participation in the scheduled G8 Summit on 4-5 June in Sochi. On 24 March, the members of the Group of Seven (G7) announced that a Summit meeting would be held June in Brussels without Russia. Since then, the European Union (EU) and major Western governments have imposed various economic and travel sanctions against selected Crimean and Russian officials and businessmen.
  On 27 March, the United Nations General Assembly approved a nonbinding resolution by a vote of 100 against 11, with 58 abstentions, declaring the peninsula’s annexation by Russia illegal and without validity. The Assembly called on all states, international organizations and specialized agencies not to recognize any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol on the basis of the referendum “and to refrain from any action or dealing that might be interpreted as recognizing any such altered status.”
   There are at least two aspects to Russia’s action. Its President Vladimir Putin had targeted Ukraine. As long as it toed the line and did not act independently under its previous president, the Crimea was not an issue. When a large number of Ukrainians took to the streets in support of closer relation with the European Union (EU), the Kremlin used an offer of a large loan as well as its denial to obtain compliance. When that did not work the Crimea with its large Russian-speaking population became another tool.
   There are also goals and outlook of President Putin. On 25 April 2005, he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Feeling this way, there is no doubt that he wants to rebuild a great Russian state and pull in as many former Soviet republics as possible. To give weight to his effort, he appears to be forming an anti-western league. His effort may be aided by the Kremlin-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), and in the future by a Eurasian Union which he announced in 2011.

[March 2014]

Political Freedom
   Freedom House of Washington in its 2014 survey characterizes 2013 as a year of “The Democratic Leadership Gap.” For eight years running, global declines in freedom outweighed earlier gains and the number of countries designated shown as Free in 2013 stands at 88 (90 in 2012), representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 countries and 40 percent of the world population. Particularly notable were developments in Egypt, which endured across-the-board reversals in its democratic institutions following a military coup. There were also serious setbacks to democratic rights in other large, politically influential countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Venezuela, and Indonesia.
   David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House, said that “Authoritarian states, including China and Russia, show no hesitation in bullying their neighbors and increasing repression at home, and the report’s findings bear this out.” These setbacks came at a time of growing self-doubt among the leaders of the democratic world, especially the United States, he noted.
   A total of 54 (28 in 2012) countries showed significant declines in 2013, while 40 (16 in 2012) countries exhibited noteworthy gains, continuing an eight-year trend of declines outnumbering gains.
[February 2014]
Press Freedom—Sacrifice
Work of the press varies greatly from country to country and from situations of peace to chaos and conflict. It continues to suffer from death, imprisonment, torture, and abuse of individual journalists, as well as censorship, legal chicanery, and repression of media. In 2013, 70 journalists--local and foreign professionals--lost their lives in the course of their profession—4 less than during the same period in 2012, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York NY. The press suffered its highest death toll in Syria (29, 28 in 2012), Iraq (10), Egypt (6),  Pakistan (5, down from 7), and Somalia (4, down from 12). In addition to deaths, at least 211 (232 in 2012) members of the press were imprisoned at year’s end, according to CPJ.
[January 2014]
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
(18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013)
  After prolonged hospitalization from June until September and lingering near death, South Africa’s first elected black president ended his life at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, on 5 December at age 95. Supporters and critics alike credit him with steadfastly pursuing truth and reconciliation after the white, racist regime which had imprisoned him for 27 years, was replaced. There was no civil war, no bloody and violent revenge taken, and no arbitrary expropriation of farms and land.
[December 2013]
US shutdown averted but not anti-Obama maneuvers
  The President signed a two-year federal budget bill on 26 December. It does not extend long-term unemployment benefits but undoes the January 2013 automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. While the feared shutdown of the government in January as been averted, political gridlock has not been removed nor have disagreements about the pending consideration of the debt ceiling.
   By no means is passage of the budget an indication that the Democratic-led government will be able to govern and administer without continued delays and obstruction from those members of the Republican Party who follow the line of the so-called Tea Party. Regardless of dire consequences for the country, it would reject a proposed measure out of hand rather than debate the issue and work toward a democratically arrived compromise—and solution.
[December 2013]
UN human rights body gains more notorious offender members—The General Assembly elected three new and reelected 11 members of the 47-seat Human Rights Council (HRC) on 12 November. African and Asian states each nominated four members and Latin America and Caribbean,  Eastern Europe, and Western Europe two countries each. Beginning in January, the following members will serve for three years:  Algeria*, China*, Cuba*, France*, Macedonia, Maldives*, Mexico*, Morocco*, Namibia, Russia*, Saudi Arabia*, South Africa*, United Kingdom*, and Vietnam. (*Reelected, limited to two consecutive terms.) They replace the following states elected in 2011: Angola, Ecuador, Guatemala, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Moldova, Poland, Qatar, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, and Uganda. The Maldives were reelected for an additional term.
Even before the election serious criticism was raised by human rights organizations and in the press about the qualifications of some of the candidate states in view of their horrendous human rights records (see below). A day later, the Council President reported on the body’s work, praising the number of resolutions it had adopted, its inquiry of violations in Syria, and “action on important human rights issues by overcoming different political positions.” Following is a brief description of violations of human rights by the most flagrant offenders as reported by Human Rights Watch*:
China: “Chinese people had no say in the selection of their new leaders, highlighting that the government remains an authoritarian one-party system that places arbitrary curbs on freedom of expression, association, religion, prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations, and maintains party control over all judicial institutions. The government also censors the press, internet, and publishing industry, and enforces highly repressive policies in ethnic minority areas in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia.
The government announced in its 2012-2015 “National Human Rights Action Plan” that it would interpret its international legal obligations on human rights with a new vaguely defined “principle of practicality”—departing from the its previous rhetorical commitment to the principle of universality of human rights. The new principle appears to be another iteration of the government’s oft repeated justification that China’s “national conditions” do not allow for participatory politics.”
Cuba: “It remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. In 2012, the government continued to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, travel restrictions, and forced exile. The government continues to sentence dissidents to one to four-year prison terms in closed, summary trials, and holds others for extended periods without charge. It has also relied increasingly upon arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions to restrict the basic rights of its critics, including the right to assemble and move freely.”
Russia: “After his return to the presidency, Vladimir Putin oversaw the swift reversal of the former president’s few, timid advances on political freedoms and unleashed an unprecedented crackdown against civic activism. New laws in 2012 restrict nongovernmental organizations and freedoms of assembly and expression. New local laws discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Abuses continue in the counterinsurgency campaign in the North Caucasus.”
Saudi Arabia: “In 2012, it stepped up arrests and trials of peaceful dissidents, and responded with force to demonstrations by citizens. Authorities continue to suppress or fail to protect the rights of 9 million Saudi women and girls and 9 million foreign workers. As in past years, thousands of people have received unfair trials or been subject to arbitrary detention. The year has seen trials against half-a-dozen human rights defenders and several others for their peaceful expression or assembly demanding political and human rights reforms. Under the discriminatory Saudi guardianship system, girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians.”
Vietnam: “The government systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecutes those who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule. Police harass and intimidate activists and their family members. Authorities arbitrarily arrest activists, hold them incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits, subject them to torture, and prosecute them in politically pliant courts that mete out long prison sentences
for violating vaguely worded national security laws.”
*Human Rights Watch World Report 2013, released on 1 February 2013.
[November 2013]

 Extremist party preparing for South African elections — Appearance of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), registered as a political party by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) on 5 September, is posting two warning signals. For voters who will elect a new 400-seat National Assembly in 2014 and who will be flooded with blatant racial appeals targeting the country’s white minority. For the governing African National Congress (ANC), the new movement is a militant rival power which is appealing loudly to marginalized, poor, and unemployed young blacks. The message is economic emancipation which to white citizens means expropriation and incitement to hate crimes. Reconciliation is ruled out.

EEF, founded on 27 July, describes itself as radical and militant “which brings together revolutionary, fearless, radical, and militant activists, workers’ movements.” Its structure differs from conventional parties as it is being led by a Central Command Team (CCT) headed by a Commander in Chief who demands absolute obedience from its members. Founder and president is Julius Sello Malema (born 3 March 1981), a firebrand and former leader of the ANC Youth League. He was expelled in April 2012 after the party no longer tolerated his divisive speeches and his challenge to the country’s president and the ANC leadership. Despite his radicalism and populism, Malema is seen by some senior ANC politicians as a future leader of South Africa.

Hiding behind US governance problems — The 16-day long crisis in October ended on the 17th when Congress enacted legislation to fund the government until 15 January 2014 and raise the debt limit until 7 February. Commentators and politicians are aware of the temporary nature of this resolution. They describe the government as dysfunctional, meaning that compromising and cooperating to keep the system of checks and balances working has been aborted for gaining ideological points, whatever the issue. Maybe this disregard for the constitutional system is rooted in the spreading disdain for Congress and politicians. A continuing problem that begs solution and requires courageous political will is failure to decide that to run a major power more money is needed from those who pay little.

Brazil’s rising president--A short while ago, in the wake of unrest in Brazil’s streets, there was talk about returning former President Luíz Inacio Lula da Silva at the next election. But Ms. Dilma Rousseff whose connection with voters is not quite as close, is now being talked about as the voice of South America, at least in international circles. Her speech at the United Nations reprimanding the United States for its limitless spying on friends and foes alike obviously raised her to greater prominence and visibility, a move that is not being overlooked at home.

US domestic troubles--The United States is again faced with the shutdown of its government and denial of raising its debt limit thanks to the political deadlock in Congress created by Tea Party extremists in the Republican Party. Stripped from political and self-serving explanations, color and party of the reelected president are feeding enmity and hate by a segment of mainly white voters and their conservative business and Christian fundamentalist supporters. One issue that is barely touching the electorate and is being followed with concern in other countries are continuing revelations about monitoring, surveillance, and tracking of global telecommunications by the government, arguably often without constitutional authority.

In Fiji climate threat is real--Fiji’s government, on 15 August, identified over 640 communities which are vulnerable to climate change, reports the Fiji Sun.
[September 2013]

Latin America fears for right to asylum--The diplomatic debacle after interfering with the flight home of the Bolivian president–connected to the search for the American metadata whistleblower–has angered the few friends the US government has in the hemisphere. Critics and opponents, such as Cuba, Ecuador, and Venezuela, have found new reason to dislike US bullying and have closed ranks. Argentina and Brazil likewise have publicly distanced themselves from the way the US government is trying to undermine the universal human right to asylum from persecution (Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Ankara not moving toward accommodation--The Turkish government’s stability is called in question on three fronts. First its democratic credentials are being severely tarnished by its handling of a local protest against converting a park in Istanbul. Demonstrations have spread to other cities and the use of disproportional force by police resulted in numerous violations of human rights. Next, slandering young idealistic unarmed demonstrators as terrorists has set back the government’s effort to hasten admission as a member of the European Union (EU). Never a sure thing, membership talks have now been postponed until October. It did not help matters when the Prime Minister berated the Union as being undemocratic. Neo-Osmanic dreams and pride in its newfound role as a major diplomatic actor in the Middle East received a strong damper when the government’s “protégé,” the elected Islamist president of Egypt was removed by the military, not without some popular support. It remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister’s effort to work out accommodation and reconciliation with the Kurdish minority will continue unhampered by these other diversions.
[July 2013]

Unease spreads about global surveillance—There is a new awareness by American citizens about the wide reach of US surveillance, especially of communications by internet and telephone. This was brought home by recent publication of authoritative government documents in the press. Days later, new information also pointed to the United Kingdom as an active participant in cyber spying. In the US, possible violation of the Constitution and of the right to privacy may prompt political inquiries. In countries of the European Union (EU), governments are trying to find out how long and how much their communications and those of citizens have been compromised. This new situation is leading to an appreciation of whistleblowers as well as to condemnation by those in government who were found out and demands for prosecution.

Turkish EU membership talks deferred until October--It started out as a local dispute in a park in Istanbul. Soon protests spread to other cities in Turkey and invigorated popular opposition to actions and manner of the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan, his government and Justice and Development Party (AKP).  Television pictures of large numbers of police chasing, manhandling several demonstrators and using water cannons against them immediately raised revulsion in the European Union which Turkey is trying to join. The Prime Minister, the “hothead of the Bosporus” as he is called in German newspapers, quickly lost any support or sympathy. Demonizing the protesters as terrorists and lashing out at mysterious foreign accomplices only strengthened impressions of the total lack of regard for democratic behavior. At home, “occupygezi” has alerted many to the dictatorial manner of the would-be president (a goal that may become less realistic). In European Union states, the welcoming mat may be temporarily rolled up or pulled away.
[June 2013]

Crimes of white supremacists get little attention from US Congress—Concern by politicians and public is diverted from the dangers posed by home-grown US hate groups. “Congress obsessed with American Muslims, neglects real threat of White Supremacists,” wrote University of Michigan History Professor Juan Cole on 4 April in Informed Comment  on www.juancole.com. He cites the recent killings of Texas district attorneys and a Colorado prison official, allegedly committed by extremist white terrorists. He also notes that “Congress not only has held few or no hearings on the danger of white terrorism, it has actually pressured the Department of Homeland Security not to produce studies on the phenomenon.”

In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of Mobile, Alabama, counted 1,007 active hate groups in the US. It describes them as having beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics. Without implying that a group is criminally active, SPLC finds that a group’s activity can include criminal acts and violence.
[April 2013]


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