This Week in the World | 01.22.18
At the beginning of last week, it looked like Germany was only days away from creating a coalition that would allow its government to continue running. The coalition was to consist of the center-left Social Democrats, the conservative Christian Social Union, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The Christian Social Union, which is the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, was unquestionably on board with the coalition, but the story was a bit different for the Social Democrats. The leader of the Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, announced his support for the coalition last week, but in order to solidify the support of the party, Schulz called for a vote amongst all elected party members. This worried many in Germany, since a significant number of Social Democratic Party members have expressed discontent with the Christian Democratic Union.
However, despite notable dissent within the party, the coalition was narrowly approved by the Social Democrats on Sunday (362 voted “yes” and 269 voted “no”). Though this is a pivotal moment towards the forming of a functional coalition, it only marks the beginning of long series of negotiations about how the government will be run under the auspices of the new coalition. Martin Schulz called the approval of the coalition a “key moment in the history” of the Social Democrats, but warned that there would be “tough negotiations” ahead.
One key issue that will be sure to complicate the negotiating process is immigration. Germany has become known around the world for its liberal immigration policy, and has granted entry to over 1 million refugees. However, the policy has been met with much backlash in Germany. The immigration debate became especially heated following the stabbing of a German girl by her boyfriend, an Afghani asylum-seeker, in the German town of Kandel last December. The Social Democrats have vowed to oppose Angela Merkel’s proposal to cap the amount of migrants allowed into Germany at 200,000, instead favoring a limitless, points-based system that would reward skilled migrants. This is sure to be met with much resistance in the Bundestag.
As part of the coalition, the Social Democrats’ 443,000 members will be able to vote on the deal with the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union. (Alex Voisine)
18 civilians were pronounced dead and 22 injured following a brutal attack on the International Hotel in the capital city of Kabul. The attack, for which the Taliban has claimed responsibility, began on Saturday evening and continued for 16 hours. On Sunday, all 16 gunmen who had taken the hotel hostage were killed by Afghani special forces. The International Hotel, which is a popular lodging place for foreigners, was attacked in 2011, in a high profile siege that killed 18, including the 7 gunmen. On January 18, two days before the attack, the U.S. State Department issued a statement of warning, in light of “reports that extremist groups may be planning an attack against hotels in Kabul.”
On Sunday, in a village in the northern province of Balkh, another attack by the Taliban took place, this time targeting Afghani police officers. Police officers were reportedly pulled from their homes and shot, and according to deputy chief police Abdul Raziq Qaderi, 18 officers were killed. In the Herat province, 8 civilians were killed after hitting a Taliban-planted roadside bomb.
The violence in Afghanistan this past weekend is only the most recent installment in a long series of conflicts between the Taliban and local forces that dates back to the mid-1990s. The Taliban is a hardline Islamic group that was birthed out of the Pashtun movement following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Over the years, it has imposed harsh and public punishments for crimes, banned television, music, and cinema, and earned a fearsome reputation after the 2012 shooting of 14-year-old women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai. Malala’s book, I Am Malala, speaks in grave detail about Taliban repression in Pakistan, another country where it has gained significant influence. The United States and a number of other European nations have supported Afghanistan in its efforts to rid the country of the Taliban.
Many in Afghanistan are wondering exactly how the 16 gunmen were able to infiltrate the International Hotel’s heavy security, and an investigation is under way to try and figure out what happened. “The government is looking at a lot of failures,” said one Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in an interview with Reuters.
United States White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the attacks on Sunday by urging Pakistan to discontinue its alleged harboring of Taliban operatives: “We call on Pakistan to immediately arrest or expel the Taliban’s leaders and prevent the group from using Pakistani territory to support its operations.” Sanders is referring to a long-held belief in certain foreign relations circles that Pakistan is knowingly protecting members of the Taliban. (Alex Voisine)
Mike Pence, the United States Vice President, spent the latter half of last week visiting Egypt and Jordan as part of his tour in the Middle East. In both countries, Pence was admonished for the United States’ decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Jordanian King Abdullah II warned that the decision would result in “frustrations” in the region, and reminded Pence that “Jerusalem is as key to Muslims as it is to Christians and Jews.” President Pence reported after the meeting that he and King Abdullah had “agreed to disagree” and that “friends occasionally have disagreements.” However, for King Abdullah and the country of Jordan, the issue of Palestine is especially pertinent, since Jordan hosts over 2 million Palestinian refugees. “Jordan is a small country surrounded by conflict, and there’s tremendous pressure right now from the population to stand against U.S. and Israeli policies in the region,” said Oraib al-Rantawi, the director of the Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, in an interview in the New York Times.
To make matters more complicated, Jordan relies heavily on aid from the United States to assist the Palestinian refugees it hosts, through a fund called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Last week, the Trump administration decided to freeze funding to the UNRWA, an amount of approximately $65 million, that would have gone directly to feeding, housing, and educating Palestinian refugees. This will further burden Jordan, as it will be forced to move funds around to provide for the refugees it is hosting. The decision came as a surprise even to Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary-General of the United Nations. In a statement last Tuesday, Guterres reiterated the importance of the UNRWA: “In my opinion, and in the opinion that is shared by most international observers, including some Israeli ones, [the UNRWA] is an important factor of stability.”
On Sunday, Mike Pence arrived in Israel, where he will continue his tour of the Middle East and meet with Israeli leaders, including Benyamin Netanyahu. (Alex Voisine)
Australia has unveiled a new plan to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Using both state and federal funding, the plan divides 60 million Australian dollars into four different studies and restoration projects. This is only the beginning, as Australia has pledged to spend $2 billion on restoring the reef over the next decade.
$6 million is going towards researching how to make the coral itself more resilient to things such as bleaching caused by the loss of algae on the reef due to a warmer ocean. Through 2016 and 2017, two-thirds of the reef suffered massive bleaching through the middle and north of the structure.
$36 million is dedicated to hiring farmers to restore vegetation around the reef itself, which will help with erosion.
$10 million will go to an “all-out assault” on crown-of-thorns starfish, a species that feeds on the coral and suffocates it by living there. They also travel in swarms, and scientists say that they have just as negative impact on the reef as the major bleaching events.
$4 million will go towards hiring more field officers to educate others about bleaching.
Critics say that the plan doesn’t do enough to fight global warming, and Greenpeace called it “the kind of tinkering around the edges that has failed in the past.” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, however, urged Australians to take up this issue “positively.” (Alice Hakvaag)
Prison unions in France have called for a national strike, following wage disputes and violence against prison guards. Five officers have been attacked in two different detention centers over the last two weeks, with attacks reaching 4,000 a year. Other complaints include low wages, understaffing, and lack of security against radicalized inmates. French prisons are known for the high amount of inmates convicted of terrorism or under surveillance for radicalization.
Currently, the Justice Ministry has proposed creating 1,100 more jobs among the guards, improving security, and creating a special “total lockdown” regime for dangerous inmates. Yoan Karar, from the Force Ouvriere, one of the prison guard unions, says that this isn’t enough, and “we won’t give an inch.” The unions themselves are looking for higher wages and 2,400 more positions, more than double that which has recently been proposed. Right now, there are 28,000 employed guards for a prison population of 78,000. Karar also suggested that guards should be armed with tasers.
Since the strikes’ start, prison guards have blockaded entrances to several prisons by putting up barricades and burning tires. Last week the unions rejected a government proposal, leading Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet to promise to meet with union leaders on the subject. The Justice Ministry has encouraged union leaders to “resume dialogue immediately.” (Alice Hakvaag)
The Colombian government has announced that 550,000 Venezuelans are now living, mostly illegally, in Colombia. The number of refugees has increased by 62% in the last six months, with 69,000 under a humanitarian visa, which lets them stay in Columbia legally. 30,000 people daily using a migration card that lets them go back and forth across the border for supplies, with 1 million people total in the process of registering.
Venezuela has been facing economic turmoil for the past few years. Oil prices plummeted in 2015, and funds raised from the oil industry had been used to fund food subsidies and social programs. Former President Hugo Chavez attempted to help the situation by cutting costs on essential items, like food. This made the goods affordable for consumers, but put the price under the price of production, so domestic producers stopped making goods.
This means that the country could try to import food, but imports are down 50% in the last year. The government has had difficulty purchasing essential imports, including medicine. The influx of refugees attempting to get essential supplies from Colombia is putting pressure on the border region. The United Nations has responded to the crisis, saying they are willing to send more aid to Colombia to help the migrants. (Alice Hakvaag)
TURKEY, SYRIA, UNITED STATES
On Monday, Turkish forces pushed further into Syria, attacking US-backed Kurdish militias. According to Turkish news agencies, parts of the northern part of the country, or the Afrin region, were captured with help from the Free Syrian Army. However, the Kurdish YPG has denied that Turkey has control of the area. Turkey has said in the past that the YPG is connected with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is the group fighting for Kurdish independence in Turkey. The PKK is recognized as a terrorist group within the country, but the YPG has denied any connections to the organization. The U.N. Security Council discusses but did not condemn Turkey’s ongoing attacks.
The conflict marks more than just an offensive by Turkey. The United States is in a difficult position, having supported Kurdish forces in Syria to fight ISIS, but also being a NATO ally with Turkey. The spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, called for the US to end the alliance with the YPG and claimed the forces were using US-supplied weapons against Turkey. The relationship between Turkey and the United States has been deteriorating since a failed coup in 2016 led by Fetullah Gulen, who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has become close with Russia and Iran in the fight against ISIS as well. Now that the terrorist organization is on the run, the status of the US’s alliance with Turkey and Kurds in Syria presents a thin line to walk. (Rachel Elliott)
CHILE, PERU, VATICAN
The pope’s trip to Chile and Peru concluded on Sunday. The week proved to be a challenge for Pope Francis. Just after his arrival in Chile, three Catholic churches were firebombed and protesters condemned the expense of hosting him in the country. The pope was outspoken about indigenous rights, prison reform, and corruption, but stumbled on sexual abuse within the church. While he met with abuse victims on his first day in Chile, his comments later in the week seemed to undermine the meeting: “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, then I’ll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?” Abuse victims of a reverend in the country assert that the bishop was complicit in the misconduct. Since Pope Francis made these comments, he has since apologized to victims.
His comments followed him into Peru, though his reception in the statistically more Catholic country was warmer. Pope Francis took a hard stance on corruption, which was well received. He also condemned violence against women. The comments underlined his remarks on gender-based violence last year on his trip to Colombia. (Rachel Elliott)
The country’s most active volcano erupted early Tuesday. Over 56,000 people were evacuated from the area after the alert level was raised to a 4 out of 5. The mountain has been releasing ash since January 13, shrouding the area in darkness. Officials are trying to stifle all attempts for evacuees to return to their towns to check on their homes. Disaster response officials recommended turning off electricity and water to discourage entering back into the volcano’s explosion radius. Though the volcano has been active in the last week, scientists fear a dangerous explosion is still to come. (Rachel Elliott)