Open Democracy – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 23 Jan 2021 05:14:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why 2021 is make-or-break on our climate crisis, and Biden-Xi Cooperation is Crucial Mon, 11 Jan 2021 05:02:54 +0000

COVID-19 and climate change are two sides of the same coin. To overcome both we must confront their root cause: an economic system that is killing the planet.

By Laurie Macfarlane | –

( ) – Last year will be remembered for many things, and let’s be honest: most of them will be bad. But amidst the hardship and suffering, there is a positive story to be told.

2020 was perhaps the first time in living memory when governments around the world took radical action to put the interests of public health and wellbeing above that of private profit. For a world that is so dominated by the logic of capitalism, that’s no small triumph.

It’s tempting to say that this was a one-off response to a one-off pandemic. But this is to misunderstand both the nature of COVID-19 and global capitalism. If you hoped we could leave life or death political decisions behind us in 2020, then I’m here to disappoint. Because in 2021, the stakes are even higher.

First, some context. Before COVID-19 gripped the world’s attention, humanity’s primary challenge was clear: our fossil fuel-based economic system had pushed our natural environment beyond safe operating zones, threatening the foundations upon which civilisation depends. Without “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” we were on track to experience devastating and irreversible damage to our climate and ecological systems, and the end of life as we know it.

In recognition of this stark reality, in 2015 world leaders signed the Paris Agreement which aimed to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Achieving this would require a global mobilisation of resources on an unprecedented scale to rapidly cut emissions.

Although impressive on paper, for the most part this was not matched by action. Emissions continued to rise every year after the agreement was signed, leaving our “carbon budget” for staying within the 1.5C target shrinking ever smaller. On current trajectories, the world is expected to breach the 1.5C ceiling in less than a decade – and hit 3C of warming by the end of the century. Each passing year of inaction produces a compounding effect, necessitating ever steeper carbon reductions in future years.

Emission reduction trajectories associated with a 66% chance of limiting warming below 1.5C [2.7 degrees F.], without a reliance on net-negative emissions, by starting year. Solid black line shows historical emissions, while coloured lines show different pathways to limiting warming to 1.5C [2.7 degrees F.]. | Carbon Brief .

In short: time is rapidly running out. For this reason alone, 2021 was always going to be a critical year in the fight against climate breakdown. But then COVID-19 came along.

‘The Great Pause’

Twelve months ago it looked like 2020 was going to be another record breaking year for carbon emissions. But as COVID-19 rapidly spread around the world, businesses were forced to close, international travel ground to a halt, events were cancelled, and people were told to isolate at home.

Unsurprisingly, this ‘Great Pause’ caused carbon emissions to fall – according to the Global Carbon Project global emissions fell by 7% in 2020. Despite being the largest relative fall since the Second World War, this still pales in comparison to what is needed to meet the Paris targets. If warming is to be limited to 1.5C then emissions need to fall by 14% every year until 2040.

Some have cited these falling emissions as evidence that COVID-19 has helped to “save the planet”. As well being wildly exaggerated, these claims are also offensive: the idea that a pandemic that has caused immense suffering and killed more than a million people should be celebrated is obviously perverse. Pandemic-induced lockdowns do not provide a model for climate action.

More importantly however, those who say the pandemic will help the environment have got things precisely backwards. Like many other infectious diseases, COVID-19 has its origins in the encroachment of human activity into natural ecosystems. As more and more countries have sought to maximise economic growth, activities such as logging, mining, road building, intensive agriculture and urbanisation have led to widespread habitat destruction, bringing people into ever closer contact with animal species. As the United Nations’ environment chief, Inger Andersen, put it: “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people.”

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals. In the case of COVID-19, it is believed that the virus originated in China’s bat population and was then transmitted into humans via another mammal host. On our current trajectory, while COVID-19 might be the first pandemic many of us have experienced, it will almost certainly not be the last.

COVID-19 is therefore not a random act of God. Like climate change, it is a symptom of accelerating environmental breakdown, which in turn is a product of an economic model that is reliant on growth and accumulation. Seen in this light, the idea that COVID-19 can somehow aid the environmental crisis is absurd: they are two sides of the same coin. To address both, we need to tackle the root cause.

Building back better?

As vaccines start to be rolled out across the world, attention is now turning to how the global economy can be rebooted. With unemployment soaring and economic hardship mounting, leaders will face growing pressure to reinstate ‘business as usual’ as quickly as possible. But doing this would not be a neutral act – it would be an active decision to deepen our environmental crisis. Restoring the status quo after defeating COVID-19 would be like celebrating beating lung cancer by smoking a hundred cigarettes. The cure for the disease can never be its cause.

The upshot is that the pandemic has shown that it is possible to radically restructure economies on short timescales, provided there is the political will to do so. Many countries have already promised to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic. In 2021, this rhetoric must be matched by reality. If the pandemic itself cannot cure the environmental crisis, the way we structure the recovery from it most certainly can.

Restoring the status quo after defeating COVID-19 would be like celebrating beating lung cancer by smoking a hundred cigarettes.

Instead of spending billions to return national economies to their destructive path, governments must instead forge a different path by unleashing a vast programme of investment to decarbonise the global economy as fast as is feasibly possible, and bring our environmental footprint within fair and sustainable limits. Countries in the Global North that have played a disproportionate role contributing to environmental breakdown have a moral obligation to lead by example, while supporting a global just transition. As well as placing the global economy on a more sustainable path, this would create a new wave of high-skilled, low carbon jobs. Crucially, it would make future outbreaks of animal-borne diseases such as COVID-19 far less likely.

Some will question if we can afford such an undertaking. But the pandemic has shown that affordability is always a political constraint – not a technical one. Central banks have created trillions of dollars to prop up economies throughout the crisis – redirecting even a fraction of this towards green investments could put the world on track to meet the 1.5C temperature goal. With interest rates at record lows, there has never been a better time to turbocharge the green transition. The question is not whether we can afford to do this – it is whether we can afford not to.

In 2008 we bailed out the banks. This time, we must bail out the planet.

Crunch time for the carbon superpowers

Learning the right lessons from COVID-19 will be critical, but it’s far from the only important event this year. When it comes to meeting our climate goals, nowhere are the stakes higher than in the world’s largest two economies: the US and China. Together these two countries account for nearly half of all global emissions, and it will be virtually impossible to avert climate catastrophe without both making radical changes. Whether we like it or not, much of the power to materially reduce humanity’s carbon footprint lies in Washington and Beijing. Fortunately, 2021 is shaping up to be a decisive year in both countries.

Later this month, Joe Biden will replace Donald Trump as the 46th president of the United States. In the face of mounting pressure from climate campaigners, Biden announced that he will ensure the US reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050. However, some fear that in power Biden will be heavy on rhetoric but light on concrete action. And with a political system awash with fossil fuel dollars and climate denial, there are questions about whether he can deliver, even if he tried to.

Much of the power to materially reduce humanity’s carbon footprint lies in Washington and Beijing.

In China, President Xi Jinping has already pledged to make the country “carbon neutral” by 2060. Crucially however, the details of how this will be delivered will be unveiled in Communist Party’s long-awaited 14th five-year plan, covering 2021-25, which will be published in March. Of particular importance will be the binding targets that are set on the proportion of non-fossil fuels in the primary energy mix and the trajectory of coal power capacity. Both will have a huge impact on China’s emissions-reduction efforts over the coming five years.

Taken together, it’s not much of a stretch to say that President Biden’s climate package and China’s next five-year plan could be the most consequential policy packages in human history.

Beyond Paris

At its core climate change is a collective action problem: the short-term interests of each individual country are in direct conflict with longer-term interests of the planet as a whole. It’s therefore essential that national action is led by international cooperation. Once again, 2021 provides us with a critical juncture.

In November world leaders will gather in Glasgow for COP26, the successor to the landmark Paris meeting of 2015. Under the terms of the Paris deal, countries pledged to reconvene every five years to improve their carbon-cutting ambitions. COP26 will provide perhaps the last opportunity for world leaders to agree on targets that are compatible with limiting warming to 1.5C. By the time the next major COP meeting comes around in 2026, it may well be too late.

The amount at stake this year is therefore difficult to overstate. If there was ever to be a crunch point in the climate crisis, then 2021 is it. We face a fork in the road, and the decisions taken over the next 12 months will determine which path we choose. If promises to ‘build back better’ from COVID-19 are fulfilled; the Biden administration lives up to its pledges on climate change; China’s five-year plan delivers on its decarbonisation commitments; and COP26 is a success – then we might have a chance of averting climate catastrophe.

The flipside of this is that if none of this happens, our prospects look drastically different. If ‘build back better’ turns out to be an empty slogan; President Biden’s climate plan fails to pass the gridlock of the US political system; China’s five-year plan includes a vast expansion of coal power plants; and COP26 is a diplomatic failure ­­­­– then we will find ourselves locked into a very dangerous trajectory indeed.

A constellation of events like this doesn’t come along every year. Time is short – so let’s make it count.

Laurie Macfarlane is economics editor at openDemocracy, and a research associate at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He is the co-author of the critically acclaimed book ‘Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing’.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

Republican Food: French President Macron nails his colours to the Mast of Islamophobia Tue, 13 Oct 2020 04:01:30 +0000 By Chris Myant

The targeting of Muslim food as a danger to public order was actually the first of the measures outlined in the president’s speech on 2 October.

( – In the small Provençal town of Aups, where the local Catholic church declares République française: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité [The French Republic: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity], above its main entrance, there is a plain and nondescript monument put up in 1881. Its plaque announces that it is there: A la memoire des citoyens morts en 1851 pour la défense des loi et de la République – In memory of those citizens who died in the 1851 defence of law and the Republic.

Why think of that when watching Emmanuel Macron nail his colours to the mast of Islamophobia and announce that, if he gets his way, Muslim pupils in French schools will have days when they will eat the pork served up on their lunch plates or go hungry?

Aups was the scene of the final battle between a ragged force of locals who had taken up arms to oppose the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte and the troops of the local Prefect. The latter were party to Napoleon’s plot to remove the democracy installed after the 1848 Revolution toppled the monarchy established on the back of his uncle’s final defeat at Waterloo.

Louis-Napoleon’s supporters struck quickly at this one real attempt to block his coup of 2 December 1851. After their defeat at Aups on 10 December, a number of those thought to be the ringleaders were disposed of by firing squad. Many of the rest were sent off to forced labour in the new French colony of Algeria.

The Catholic church at Aups in the Var. | Some rights reserved.

There is just one mistake in the explanatory panel that the local council added a few years back to the monument. It talks of how “men from all over the Haut Var” converged on Aups. In fact, there were many women among the insurgents. Their names are there listed on the rolls of those hustled off to Toulon before the ships took them to Algeria. They are there in the columns of the regional press. The Toulonnais on 15 December reported that, two days after the battle, “Two women, armed with pistols and dressed in red, acting as cooks for the insurgents, have been arrested.” If you intend only to cook, you do not carry pistols.

These women were not just “seditious” and red, they were the purveyors of “the most odious passions” according to Hippolyte Maquan, a local royalist lawyer, who was the editor of a newspaper that effectively became the official journal for the Prefect during the weeks of resistance to the coup.

“One thought one was in the Kabyle (a region of Algeria, CM),” he wrote in a memoire a year later. “It was the smala of some Abd-el-Kader of the peasants’ cottages (the smala was the retinue of an Algerian leader, one of the last of whom to surrender to the French had been Abd-el-Kader, CM) . . . Why doubt that the Chapel of Mary, the Tower of David, the Boulevard of Christianity in the Middle Ages, dominating this countryside and delivered in the past from savage Saracen incursions, are today appealing to be purged, consoled and saved from the socialist invasion, this heresy with a bloody sensuality that would take us back to Muslim barbarity?”
The Haussmanian revolution

Oof! The author of these words did not hang about long in the area. The provincial lawyer and editor got promotion to Paris along with a Prefect he had been helping turn an elected President into an authoritarian Emperor. And who was this Prefect he had been assisting, this representative of the central government power, executing the orders decided on in Paris? None other than Le Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the Haussmann credited with creating the centre of Paris as we know it today.

One of the latest histories of those two hectic decades in which much of old Paris was knocked down and replaced with grand “Haussmannian” blocks of flats along spacious boulevards explains that the purpose was “the reconquest of the city centre by the well-off . . . the Haussmannian renovation undoubtedly significantly reinforced segregation” across the city.

The Prefect himself said he wanted to “open great strategic arteries going from the centre of Paris to the circumference, which will bit by bit drive the workers out to the exterior where they can be distributed and which will also help to keep an eye on them and contain them there as required.” He wrote that just after a visit to Paris by the Prussian general von Moltke who himself said of all this: “The workers are seeing themselves pushed out to the suburbs. But one can easily see why. This has a positive influence on the maintenance of order and public security.”

This is the way that Paris still is. Only what Haussman, Maquan and von Moltke would find different is that the workers pushed to the exterior are Black and Muslim as much as they are white. They inhabit the dense housing of departments like Seine-Saint-Denis to the north of the capital. Those who live in the Haussmannian centre of the city cross their tracks when they take certain Métro lines running north, pass the checkout in their supermarket, dodge the guys steering the giant rubbish bins to the dustcarts, tut-tut over the noise of the pneumatic drills recasting the pavement or slum it by taking a cheap Uber taxi to the Opèra.


Seine-Saint-Denis was a department that got an early mention in Macron’s speech.

There would be a “Republican awakening”, he explained, with a new law to be tabled in December. “The first axis of this awakening, of this republican patriotism, is a group of measures on public order and the neutrality of public services which form an immediate, firm response to circumstances reported and known, that are contrary to our principles. Local councillors, sometimes under pressure from groups or communities, have considered and can consider today imposing religious menus (the term he used in French was menus confessionnels) in the canteen. We have cases of this in Departments such as Seine-Saint-Denis but also in Normandy.”

This would be banned in future by law in the interest of “protecting the neutrality of public services and also the maintenance of public order. And this will in certain situations protect our local representatives in the face of such pressure.” If councillors did go so far as to vote in such menus, the Prefect would step in and reverse the decision.

All this is very slippery language. Notice that he did not say such menus had been introduced, only that they had been considered. And a menu confessionnel: is it the same thing as a menu de substitution, making available an alternative when pork is on the school meal menu, for instance?

So it is a complete non-question, a problem that does not exist? To think that would be a great mistake. Like so much else in Macron’s oratory, do not look at the immediate meaning of the words but at the public sentiments he is trying to play upon. The exercise is one of astonishing cynicism.

Like so much else in Macron’s oratory, do not look at the immediate meaning of the words but at the public sentiments he is trying to play upon.

In what possible way is it a danger for the stability of the world’s fourth nuclear power to let a child of nine ask the staff in their school canteen: “Could I have an omelette? I don’t eat pork.”

And why the child? When an Emir or a Sheikh from an oil-rich Middle Eastern state, let alone a Saudi prince, comes visiting the Elysée, does Macron command that the welcoming feast be based entirely on food a Muslim is expected not to eat? Of course we know it would not be like that. A menu confessionnel would be prepared with the greatest of care. But MBS has a bit more power than a kid called Mohammed in Seine Saint Denis.

At the same time

Hard to believe, yet this targeting of Muslim food as a danger to public order was actually the first of the measures outlined in his speech on 2 October, long heralded as the moment when he would reveal his action plan to deal with “separatisms” which became instead a drive against “Islamist separatism” dressed in language that opened a door to wider prejudices.

Macron did say – because there is with him always the careful “at the same time” so he can claim to be balanced and unprejudiced – that France had allowed the creation of ghettos but now had “to act so that the Republic can enter back into the reality of people’s lives” and “ensure a republican presence before every tower block”.

Equality of opportunity was a must, but his solution was a combination of tinkering with the crisis of schooling in the deprived suburbs like Seine-Saint-Denis – and the ineffective programme of “actor testing” to reveal discrimination in jobs and housing.

Back in 2003 a commission appointed by President Chirac reported on the same issues picked up by Macron. It plumped in favour of banning the hijab in schools but it said that measures such as that would not be understood or accepted by those against whom they were targeted unless something else was done as well.

“Secularism is not a familiar notion for many of our citizens. If it is necessary to promote secularism, that will only be seen as legitimate if the public authorities and the whole of society campaign against discriminatory practices and in favour of equality of opportunity.”

France got the ban on the hijab but not the campaign. Seventeen years on, the situation is worse, as Macron implicitly recognised. But the problem for official France is that dealing effectively with discrimination would show that the real issue is not Mohammed from Seine-Saint-Denis asking for an omelette let alone a chicken tagine with apricots and almonds, it is the structures of disadvantage and discrimination that the French state continues to protect.
Structures of disadvantage and discrimination

Like for instance that Catholic church in Aups with its secular, republican declaration over its entrance. When the law making France a secular state was voted in 1905, all such buildings became public property, their maintenance a public charge. Religious buildings built after that date, such as mosques, remain private property, their maintenance at the charge of the believers and no one else. Far from the biggest issue, but an illustration of the complex web that Macron exploits to his political advantage while refusing to mount that “campaign against discriminatory practices”.

Instead, France continues to drift into deeper social separation and ever more dangerous political waters. The day after the knife attack at the old offices of Charlie Hebdo, a morning presenter on FranceInfo, one of the main public news stations in French radio, had a little slip of the tongue. They spoke of terrorisme islamique [Islamic terrorism] rather than terrorisme islamiste [fundamentalist terrorism]. Neither they, nor anyone else on the programme, corrected the “mistake”. Why would they? The Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, himself did the same, alternating between the two formulas when speaking about the event later that very day.

They spoke of terrorisme islamique rather than terrorisme islamiste.

Back sometime around the turn of the millennium, the Met ran a series of advertising hoardings around London showing a Black guy in ordinary clothes running through a street. The idea was to see if the stereotype prompted in your mind was of a “mugger” rather than what the text then explained was supposedly the case, a detective chasing a suspect.

Not sure how many Black staff there actually were then in the Met’s CID units, but, in the minutes immediately after the Paris attack, a certain Youssef got a quick lesson about the stereotypes that plague the minds of police in Paris.

He tried to catch the assailant who slashed and hacked at two random journalists thinking he was attacking the Satan of Charlie Hebdo. He was there on CCTV running after him and was promptly given ten hours interrogation in a commissariat as the reward for his bravery, doing his time even as politicians and commentators were queuing up on the airwaves to intone against “l’amalgame”, the stereotype that all who are islamique [Muslim] are actually islamiste [devotees of political Islam]. The police had found their video evidence on his attempted citizen’s arrest “troubling”. The only trouble was in their own perverted minds.

La Haine, 1995. | Screenshot:YouTube.

Maquan in his descriptions of the lower orders who gave their lives in defence of democracy was obsessed with the way the women behaved and dressed. They had to be constrained and controlled those women in red, pistols at their belts, supposedly hard at work in the field canteen at Aups in December 1851.

And that Maquan of today, Gérald Darmanin? One had barely finished contemplating Macron’s speech before he was there in the National Assembly denouncing a left Deputy who had dared to suggest that the President was tilting at a non-existent windmill in order to avoid the real economic, social and viral crisis facing France:

“The situation is extremely grave and I cannot explain how a party like yours, which has for so long denounced the opium of the people, is linked to an Islamo-Leftism which is destroying the Republic.”

Chris Myant started as a journalist in 1968 working for the Morning Star and then 7Days. He later worked for the Commission for Racial Equality and Equality and Human Rights Commission. For the last decade he has lived in Paris where he is active in the National Union of Journalists.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

Lebanon’s deadly blast: when corruption turned into carnage Sun, 09 Aug 2020 04:02:17 +0000

Since the massive explosion, the state has been absent, leaving people to fend for themselves – while leaders seem more concerned with dodging blame.

By Walid el Houri | –

( OpenDemocracy) – On 4 August 2020, at 6pm the explosion at the Beirut port sent a destructive shockwave across a radius of more than 7 kilometres. The explosion was heard as far away as Cyprus, but it was felt across the whole world.

It is hard to measure the size of the human loss at this point. Official numbers put the number of dead at over 157 with over 5000 wounded at the time of writing. But many more are missing, and while people are still looking for their loved ones, burying the dead, caring for the wounded and making sense of the immeasurable trauma, the state in all its forms is absent, albeit begging for money and donations from the international community. That money will most probably not reach the afflicted but end up in the abyss of Lebanon’s corruption networks.

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As of yet, we do not know exactly what happened. Many narratives are circulating and there is very little trust in any official statement. But even the official story is one of neglect of a criminal kind.

The story goes back to 2013, when the MV Rhosus sailed from Batumi, Georgia, heading to Biera in Mozambique carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The ship was owned and operated by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian citizen who is now resident of Cyprus, where he was last recorded as the manager of Teto Shipping. It was flying the Moldovian flag,

After facing technical problems, on 21 November 2013 the vessel docked at Beirut, and after inspection it was prevented from departing. Later, owing to the risks of retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo into the port’s warehouses.

Thugs supporting the former prime minister Saad Hariri even went as far as to attack and destroy the first-aid and relief tents made by volunteers

Officials in the port authorities, the government, the judiciary and the military were all aware that the ammonium nitrate was stored unsafely at the port. They were also aware of its massive danger to national and human safety.

That enormous threat was left in the port for six years until it exploded on Tuesday, exposing with its massive shockwave the deadly levels of neglect, corruption and incompetence that sums up the Lebanese state.

An absent state

Since the explosion, the state has been absent. The army and security forces, who were so quick at intercepting any sign of protest against corruption in the last year, have been nowhere to be seen in the relief and rescue operations. They were there, however, on the scene of the crime. They were there to unleash violence on the angry protesters last night. They were there protecting politicians who dared visit the vicinity of the port. Politicians who were met with anger from people looking for their loved ones or volunteering to help survivors. They were also there to prevent TV crews from filming.

Thugs supporting the former prime minister Saad Hariri even went as far as to attack and destroy the first-aid and relief tents made by volunteers to treat the wounded close to the crime scene, in Martyrs’ Square, because angry people nearby had hurled insults at Hariri, who was trying to use the spilled blood of the victims to score political points.

To add insult to injury, an official investigation committee has been formed, composed of the very people who are responsible for the neglect that caused the explosion

Figures of the Lebanese political establishment were absent from the ground as they probably knew that the people’s anger at them was too great. They were, however, very present on local TV stations, racing to justify themselves or make empty promises on political talk shows.

While people were clearing the rubble, assessing structural damage of buildings, protecting property, and scrambling to find and save survivors, the army and the internal security forces were busy attacking angry demonstrators.

The accused as investigators

To add insult to injury, an official investigation committee has been formed, composed of the very people who are responsible for the neglect that caused the explosion. The interior minister has refused calls for an international investigation because, he said – with no irony intended: “We are qualified to hold our own investigation.”

These were the words of a minister in a government that has not been anywhere to be seen, nor has it spoken to its people to explain a recovery plan or even to account for the damage and loss of life or count the missing people.

Meanwhile, the Beirut governor, a day after the explosion, had already calculated the cost of the explosion at between US$3 and 5 billion. A day later, it became US$10 to 15 billion. No one knows how the governor reached these figures, considering that no official body has been seen on the ground surveying the damage.

Corruption kills

Corruption in Lebanon has always been one of the biggest causes of death. Tuesday’s explosion however, took this to the level of carnage.

The only public official to dare walk the streets was French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the site of the crime amid the sound of the crowds chanting insults against his much-hated and conspicuously absent Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun. Aoun’s reign has been arguably the most catastrophic in the modern history of the country.

Not only the Lebanese themselves but also those who have long been subjected to Lebanese society’s racism, from migrant workers, to Palestinian and Syrian refugees – are busy reviving a city in ruins

Since 17 October 2019, the country has witnessed an historic popular movement of protest. People demonstrated across the country to end the extreme corruption that bankrupted the state for the benefit of the cronies in power. People’s savings are held hostage in the country’s corrupt banking sector, the local currency collapsed and infrastructure is in ruins as the country is unable to import much-needed goods, be it food, fuel or medicine. The demonstrations were met with violence and repression by the army, the internal security forces, and the various sectarian party thugs.

President Aoun, who has proven to be extremely sensitive when it comes to insults, and who has been far more busy at silencing and prosecuting social media posts critical of his failing rule than at addressing any of the urgent problems facing the country, is the main supporter of Badri Daher, director-general of Beirut Customs.

For years, investigative journalist Riad Kobeissi has revealed a series of scandals about Daher. Yet this official, whose responsibility for the safe storage of goods at the port is obvious, is a member of the investigation committee set up to shed light on the causes of the explosion.

People in the country – not only the Lebanese themselves but also those who have long been subjected to Lebanese society’s racism, from migrant workers, to Palestinian and Syrian refugees – are busy reviving a city in ruins. Meanwhile, the corrupt establishment, both those in power today as well as those playing at being the opposition, are busy trying to bank on the tragedy they are all responsible for.

Walid el Houri is a researcher, journalist, and filmmaker living between Berlin and Beirut. He is lead editor of the North Africa West Asia (NAWA) section at openDemocracy, and an affiliated fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin. He completed his PhD in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. His research deals with protest movements and the question of failure in politics.

Via OpenDemocracy


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Beirut port explosion: Officials detained as probe promised”

Only one way out: a unitary state with equal rights in Palestine-Israel Sun, 19 Jul 2020 04:04:02 +0000 By Ghada Karmi | –

( ) – Everyone who values democracy, justice and human decency should assist the Palestinians in achieving this goal.

The Zionist project that established Israel in 1948 always had at its centre the aim of acquiring Palestine’s land without its native population. In the 72 years of Israel’s existence to date, that aim never wavered. It led to the mass Palestinian expulsions of 1947-9, the second mass expulsion in 1967, and an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing since then to denude the Palestinian presence in the country still further.

We may now be reaching the terminal stages of that process if Israel’s proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank goes ahead. In that event the consequent loss of West Bank land will destroy any chance of a state the Palestinians had hoped for in the remnants of their original homeland. Instead, Trump’s Middle East peace plan will offer them a series of disconnected islands amid an Israeli sea of Jewish settlements to be their state.

It is an existential moment in Palestinian history that confronts Palestinians with hard choices and little time. Annexation is supposed to commence this month, but may be delayed, as opinion is divided inside Israel on when and whether it should happen. The US, Israel’s backer and architect of the ‘deal of the century’ that encouraged this annexation, has argued it should happen only in the context of peace negotiations towards a Palestinian state.

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Either way, Palestinians are faced with a dilemma: do they persist with the quest for a two-state solution, blessed by the international community, affirmed in several UN resolutions, and in 2012 the UN General Assembly recognition of the State of Palestine by a majority of UN member states? Or should they abandon that futile quest and seek a different strategy?

All about Palestinian statehood

The Palestinian Authority (PA) seemed to be veering towards the second alternative when the Palestinian de facto president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced in May that in the event of annexation, past agreements between the PA and Israel would be abrogated, and security coordination, so valuable to Israel’s security strategy, would cease. The West Bank would then revert to its pre-1993 status, when it was under direct Israeli military occupation without the PA’s essential buffering effect. The PA, Abbas predicted, would likely collapse as a result of these moves and be disbanded, and the two-state solution would be at an end.

The loss of West Bank land will destroy any chance of a state the Palestinians had hoped for in the remnants of their original homeland

But these bold steps might yet be another ploy to gain international support for a negotiated settlement towards creating a Palestinian state. That would not be surprising. Ever since the 1988 Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Algiers Declaration of statehood on the post-1967 territories, Abbas has been part of a Palestinian movement whose raison d’être was the attainment of that aim. Supported by a substantial body of Palestinian opinion, the two-state solution articulated this aspiration for decades.

To see it now under terminal threat by Israel’s annexation is alarming for its supporters. In Gaza and the West Bank they have reacted with calls for a resumption of the armed struggle; there is a fresh attempt at unity between the main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, to confront Israel. The political discourse is all about Palestinian statehood.

Getting real

Yet, decades of experience should have shown that none of these past strategies has been effective against Israel’s steady advance on Palestinian land and rights. Only a new plan, one that takes account of the reality of the Palestinian position today, can work.

Not since the Nakba of 1948, have Palestinians been so weak. The Arab world, that was traditionally their support base, has changed. A hitherto unthinkable rapprochement between several Arab Gulf states and Israel has been growing in recent years, despite Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinians. Egypt’s cruel blockade of Gaza, augmenting Israel’s, is unremitting.

In addition, there are suggestions of a weariness with Palestine’s cause amongst ordinary Arabs, perhaps not surprising for what seems an endless and insoluble conflict. By contrast, international popular support for the Palestinians has been growing, especially in Europe and America. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign is a major part of that and may lead somewhere eventually. But it will take too long to rescue what remains of Palestine.

Israel, in comparison, is at the zenith of its power, wealthy, well-armed, and strongly backed by western states. It enjoys an exceptional international status that absolves it of accountability for whatever violations of law it commits, including the proposed annexation. The power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians could hardly be starker, and makes a mockery of any peace plan not on Israel’s terms ever succeeding.

If all Palestinians become citizens, Israel’s demography would irrevocably alter towards pluralism

That is the real context in which a Palestinian strategy for the post-annexation future has to be devised. Its thrust must be to reverse Israel’s attempt to annihilate the Palestinians as a people, and to restore their rights. That will mean keeping them on their land and enabling them to lead normal lives.

Equal rights

It is a tall order, and only one route can lead to its attainment: a new regime of equal civil and political rights for all who live under Israel’s rule – Israeli citizens and stateless Palestinians – replacing Israel’s current apartheid state structures. This is no far-fetched fantasy when one examines the facts.

Israel today is de facto one state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It has a population of 6.6 million Israeli Jews with citizenship and full rights, 1.8 million Israeli Palestinians with citizenship and partial rights, and 4.7 million Palestinians with no citizenship and no rights.

For 53 years Israel has managed to maintain this inequitable arrangement, evading international conventions and violating human rights norms. The world has looked on impotently as Israel’s illegal occupation continued and its apartheid system was blatantly applied to non-Jews under its rule, without anyone apparently able to stop it.

That is, except the Palestinians. They are uniquely placed to disrupt this situation for good. Their call for equal rights will get to the heart of Zionism, an ideology predicated on Jewish majority rule and Jewish exclusivity. If all Palestinians become citizens, Israel’s demography would irrevocably alter towards pluralism, and so bring Zionism to an end. Israel and its supporters know that better than anyone, and will fight ferociously to destroy such a possibility. But it does not alter the validity of the equal rights principle.

Frontline for democracy

It will take a long, hard campaign and many supporters to make it happen, and everyone who values democracy, justice and human decency should assist the Palestinians in that struggle. In the end, for Palestinians, and Jews who live and feel with them, there is no other way.

Ghada Karmi is a Palestinian doctor of medicine, academic and writer. She has spoken and published widely on the Israeli-Palestinain conflict.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.


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Foundation for Middle East Peace : “”Imagining Together a Shared, One-State Reality” w/ Peter Beinart & Yousef Munayyer”

Iran? N. Korea? If Trump needs a war to win in November, which enemy will he choose to wag the dog? Sun, 12 Jul 2020 04:02:45 +0000

He’s failed on COVID-19 and the economy is tanking. Could a military adventure in Afghanistan, Iran or North Korea be coming soon?

By Paul Rogers | –

( – With the US presidential election less than four months away, Donald Trump trails Joe Biden in the polls by a substantial margin. His strategy as his ratings decline has been to concentrate on his core vote, which amounts to a little more than 30% of the population together, and another 10% that is less assured. The task now is to harden support from that 10% and also to extend it towards a majority, an expanding economy being essential for that.

Hence much of the motivation around ending lockdown has been to counter the multitude of economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. New cases surging to over 65,000 a day has really knocked back this key aim.

So far, Trump’s response has been increasingly strident speeches and tweets that may well appeal to that core 30% but will be much less effective with the flakier supporters he desperately needs. If anything, opposition to his presidency is hardening.

One obvious way forward is to look for international threats that require a strong presidential response, preferably a small war in a far-off place, and this may well be a choice in the run-up to the election. There are three main candidates for the theatre of action: Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. All, though, are problematic in different ways.

In Afghanistan, the clear plan until a few months ago was to conclude a peace deal with the Taliban and ‘bring our boys back’, or at least most of them, before the election. It would fulfil a 2016 promise and would be popular with his supporters, but there are two difficulties.

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One is that the Taliban are already stepping up their attacks on government forces and, even by November, they will have chalked up plenty of wins. Biden will therefore be able to present the removal of troops not as a success but as an ignominious retreat.

The other problem for Trump is the current furore over claims that Russian agents have offered bounties to Afghan paramilitaries to kill US troops. Whatever the truth of the accusations, they are difficult for Trump because of his many links with Russia.

So, as things stand, he is unlikely to focus electioneering on Afghanistan, leaving him with Iran and North Korea.

Just over a week ago, a large new structure at Iran’s nuclear plant at Natanz was somehow badly damaged. Israeli and US sources hinted that this was a new facility for producing advanced gas centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear programme. Iranian sources claimed it was a fire, but satellite data points to an explosion.

Furthermore, it followed a large explosion that lit up the night sky a few days earlier at a missile production plant at Parchin near Tehran.

These may have been unhappy coincidences, although Iranian government sources have now admitted that the Natanz incident will affect its nuclear programme. There is considerable speculation that, if these were not accidents, foreign elements are at work, possibly through cyberattacks, sabotage or even stealthy cruise missiles. The finger points at Israel, with or without US involvement.

Benjamin Netanyahu certainly has an interest in engineering a US-Iran confrontation. There are several reasons for that, but helping Trump’s popularity in the US is certainly one of them. If Trump, his key ally, loses in November, Biden might come in aiming to revitalise the international nuclear deal that Trump ditched two years ago. Iran is therefore certainly a candidate for an engineered pre-election crisis.

As to North Korea, the Kim Jong-un regime appears to be already in considerable difficulties thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The regime had no option but to close the border with China in January, being woefully unprepared to handle a pandemic, but the economic impact has been dire. International sanctions had already made the regime highly dependent on China for trade, tourism and income from North Koreans working there, so it was a desperate measure.

In these circumstance, Kim has few cards to play other than his nuclear missiles. Back in 2016 Trump pledged that he would never let North Korea develop the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles powerful another to threaten the continental US with a nuclear strike. Yet in the past three years the Pyongyang regime has quietly continued its nuclear and missile programmes to the point that a single ICBM test would be enough to threaten just that.

To do that in an attempt to reopen negotiations with Washington would be hugely risky, but Kim might just take that risk. It could backfire, though, and turn out to be a gift for Trump, giving him a huge if deeply unstable diversion right in the middle of an election. US-Iranian relations may be a source of diplomatic concern in western Europe, but North Korea is the one issue that, we can be sure, is already worrying officials in many capital cities.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy’s international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is ‘Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins’ (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows ‘Why We’re Losing the War on Terror’ (Polity, 2007), and ‘Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century’ (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.


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Al Jazeera English: “US killing of Iran’s Qassem Soleimani ‘unlawful’: UN expert”

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Palestinian Farmers Struggle against Annexation and the Pandemic Sun, 28 Jun 2020 04:02:11 +0000

The violent Israeli encroachment and annexation of Palestinian land is putting the future of the West Bank and its residents in an extremely vulnerable position.

By Salena Fay Tramel | –

( ) – It has not been an easy year for Palestinians, if there ever was such a thing. With the turn of a new decade in January, the U.S. administration unveiled the paradoxically branded “deal of the century” plan—calling for Israel to unilaterally annex about a third of the West Bank. Then the coronavirus slipped through the checkpoints into Bethlehem in March, sending millions of Palestinians into lockdown. And in April, Israel formed a unity government with an eye on the immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley in direct violation of international law.

Today, just weeks before that land grab is set to be pushed through in July, many Palestinians worry that it could go largely unnoticed with the world’s attention focused squarely on defeating the virus and curbing its economic fallout.
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Palestine is often presented as an anomaly in global politics. Apologists of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories have been able to effectively present a narrative of exceptionalism by emphasising the relatively small size of this hotly contested corner of the Mediterranean, and insisting that there are irreconcilable religious divisions. The fight against COVID-19 has demonstrated similar dynamics, as the Israeli government has received lavish praise for its response to the pandemic within its own borders, while letting it spill over into the occupied territories essentially unchecked.

Social justice movements in the agricultural sector have elevated their struggles to new levels

In the context of crisis that has recently been compounded by the looming annexation plan and the health threats presented by the pandemic, social justice movements in the agricultural sector have elevated their struggles to new levels. Key among these endeavours are the protection of natural resources such as land, water, and seeds, and the recognition of multiple forms of Palestinian sovereignty.

“Our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been to urge our people to go back to their lands and cultivate,” said Amal Abbas* of the Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC), a small-scale food producers’ movement representing some 20,000 peasant farmers and fishers in the West Bank and Gaza. This Palestinian version of sheltering in place mirrors UAWC’s broader strategy of resisting occupation and annexation, work that it has been doing since 1986.

Settler colonialism, the invasive process that seeks to replace an indigenous population with an external one, has its own Kafkaesque set of rules upholding it in the Israeli legal system. An important example of this is a law that stipulates that if land is not worked for three years, it automatically becomes [Israeli] state land. The Israeli military has gone to great lengths to fold as much “idle” Palestinian land as possible into the architecture of the state. This law is used in part to justify the establishment and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements by the means of violent evictions, home demolitions, the confiscation of cultivated agricultural land, and the separation wall.

“The Israeli military has been taking advantage of our current emergency situation and accelerating their actions”

Palestinian human rights defenders are working to flip this narrative and the overarching political project it sustains on its head. Farmers and rural workers in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip—just like anywhere else—have been longstanding agents of social change, and for this reason are among the most targeted sectors of Palestinian society.

This slow form of violent encroachment, together with the fast-tracked one of annexation that is on the Israeli parliamentary table with strong U.S. support, puts the future of the West Bank and its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. “The Israeli military has been taking advantage of our current emergency situation and accelerating their actions,” offered Amal.

Some of the most egregious actions taken by Israeli authorities in the current context of pandemic have occurred in the Jordan Valley, which is precisely the area they seek to annex. This area already falls under the classification of Area C, meaning that it is part of the more than 60% of the West Bank that is under full Israeli civilian and military control. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Area C is rich in natural resources such as underground water and fertile growing land. Not only is the Jordan Valley the unequivocal agricultural jewel of Area C, but it is also a strategic border with Jordan and a gateway to the Arab countries of the greater Levant.

Public services are in short supply for the Jordan Valley’s majority Bedouin population. That is why movements of farmers and workers like UAWC are filling that gap, providing basic services like water, sanitation, education, seeds, food, and nutrition. Even these services face relentless and aggressive opposition. For instance in late March, the Israeli military destroyed an emergency coronavirus field clinic that Palestinians were in the process of erecting in the northern Jordan Valley.

Despite these threats, UAWC and other Palestinian grassroots organisations visit elderly people and pregnant women in mobile clinics, distribute educational and protective supplies, and construct rooftop and urban gardens across diverse communities. This coronavirus crisis response work has largely been successful because it is a reflection of the kind of work Palestinian social movements continually engage in throughout the ongoing crises that occur under military occupation.

“Some of the best work that we are doing to fight off the virus and resist the annexation is through our seed bank,” said Amal. UAWC has maintained a seed bank since 2003; in it they safeguard rare heirloom Palestinian seeds that have been carefully passed down from one generation to the next. These seeds and the food sources they produce have a multiplicity of purposes. “Not only do our indigenous seeds make it easier to return to our land and protect it through cultivation,” Amal explained, “they hardly use any water and shield us from climate change.” She added: “And with so many still locked down because of COVID-19, continuous access to seeds allows people to feed their families and neighbours when it is unsafe to access food via the marketplace.”

In late March, the Israeli military destroyed an emergency coronavirus field clinic that Palestinians were in the process of erecting in the northern Jordan Valley

UAWC insists on the importance of internationalism and solidarity in normalising the plight of the Palestinian small-scale food producers it represents. It is a member of the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina, which has taken a strong stand against colonialism and corporate control of agriculture and is active in 81 countries. Maintaining that important political relationship has allowed Palestinian activists the opportunity to host learning exchanges in their territories and also participate in those that take place abroad.

“Together with La Vía Campesina, we are using this opportunity to prove to the whole world that the global health care and food systems are not working and put forth our solution of agroecology as an alternative to the neoliberal model,” Amal explained. “Our contributions to the food sovereignty movement as Palestinians can help people understand that the occupation is about control over natural resources just like most other land grabs,” she summarised.

Certainly, the militarised Israeli conquest of Palestinian territory has its own history, but it is also indicative of settler colonial processes that have taken place elsewhere, such as in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. As this next phase of annexation plays out in the West Bank, against the distracting backdrop of the pandemic, these connections are critical. Far from an anomaly of the global politics of natural resources, Palestine has encapsulated them in a microcosm.

* Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality

Salena Fay Tramel is the Interim Solidarity Program Officer for Honduras and Puerto Rico at Grassroots International, where she previously served as the Program Coordinator for the Middle East and Haiti. Salena has accompanied transnational food sovereignty and climate justice movements in a variety of roles. Most recently, she led a research process for the feminist consortium Count Me In that tracked the role of investors behind the scenes of extractive industry in Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Honduras. Salena is a PhD candidate in the Political Ecology research group of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.


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Combatants for Peace: “Annexation: the impact on communities in the Jordan Valley”

Locked up with no escape: refugees and migrants in Libya face bombs,virus and everything in between Wed, 20 May 2020 04:01:56 +0000 By Marwa Mohamed | –

While the situation in Libya is bleak overall, it remains exceptionally desperate for the refugees and migrants who are stuck there.

( – Libya today is facing its greatest challenge to date. In spite of years of internal conflict, the country must gear up to fight a virus with a depleted healthcare system and a fractured state. While the situation is overall bleak, it remains exceptionally desperate for refugees and migrants stuck in Libya.

Libya is host to 635,000 migrants and 48,627 refugees. The current situation exposes an already vulnerable population and demonstrates the immediate need to include protective measures for refugees and migrants who are otherwise left behind by conflict and pandemic.

In recent weeks, since the world became preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an unprecedented increase in the intensity of the conflict in Libya, particularly in the west. Recognising the limitations of its health services and the catastrophic outcome should the virus gain footing in the country, Libyan authorities on both sides of the ideological and political divide took pre-emptive measures by imposing lockdowns and curfews to help ride the wave of the virus. An outbreak during an ongoing armed conflict has detrimental humanitarian repercussions; it not only has the potential to intensify the suffering of the population but will most definitely do so disproportionately. In Libya, the most vulnerable, including those marginalised populations of refugees and migrants, will be made to suffer the most.

Detention must end

With intensified fighting and lockdowns, more individuals are seeking refuge by sea as the situation in Libya has become even more dangerous. This year the Libyan Coast Guard has returned 3,078 individuals from sea, as of the end of April. The vast majority of those who are intercepted and returned are then transferred to state run detention centres. There is no shortage of reports about the appalling conditions of detention; with the threat of the pandemic, these concerns are amplified.

Locked up with no escape, refugees and migrants are left helpless and exposed to the virus

Overcrowded and unsanitary, the detention facilities themselves are essentially makeshift buildings, often abandoned warehouses or factories exasperating the humanitarian conditions. Lack of access to running water, nutrition and sanitation is prevalent within these centres. All these conditions provide a breeding ground for the spread of diseases. Locked up with no escape, refugees and migrants are left helpless and exposed to the virus. This coupled with the looming fear of an indiscriminate attack as the conflict rages on in the shadows of the pandemic makes Libya a country that is not safe for return under any circumstances and particularly not today. With nowhere to go during this global crisis, the Libyan authorities must immediately release all those held in detention centres, removing them from the imminent threat of bombs and virus.

Faced with xenophobia and no legal status

Libya lacks a legal framework that can organise the migration and refugee situation, despite historically being a host country. With no legislation recognising refugee status and a law that criminalizes the illegal entry, exit and departure, refugees and migrants lack basic legal safeguards and are forced into the fringes of society.

Undocumented and often afraid, migrants and refugees are exposed to serious human rights violations including arbitrary detention, slavery, extortion, kidnapping and torture. Although Law 19 remains widely unimplemented today, it continues to feed a culture of systematic abuse including the arbitrary and unlawful detention of migrants and refugees in the country.

Refugees and migrants in Libya have for years bore the brunt of the lawlessness that prevails in the country since the uprising in 2011. For years they have endured violence and suffered at the hands of smugglers, armed groups, and militias. Commonly perceived to carry diseases, the longstanding xenophobia is likely to inflate as the pandemic threatens to exacerbate an already existing human rights crisis in the country.

Consequently, the conflict, a pandemic and xenophobia are a deadly combination that has most definitely exasperated the vulnerability of migrants and refugees in the recent weeks. The current situation has not only intensified fears, but is also responsible for bringing an end to their livelihood, restricting movement, limiting access to food and assistance, and placing great strains on their survival.

Access to health services

Traditionally, refugees and migrants are excluded from state funded essential services including health care. Instead, they receive support from international organisations such UNHCR, IOM and others which fill the gap and address the humanitarian needs of refugees and migrants in the country.

In the wake of the pandemic, and as many of these organisations scaled back on their operations, there is limited access to health care for migrants and refugees on the ground, ultimately placing the population at greater risk. IOM reports that 71% of refugees and migrants interviewed recently claimed limited or no access to any health services in Libya. This is confirmed by similar reports that found migrants and refugees in Libya less likely to access health services, due to discrimination, lack of documentation, and overall fear due to the prevailing insecurity in the country.

Many refugees and migrants are thus denied access to state funded health facilities

While Libya’s health care system is in near collapse, after years of conflict, corruption and shifting priorities, this is further exacerbated by the deliberate attacks on doctors and hospitals. With limited resources, many refugees and migrants are thus denied access to state funded health facilities. With amounting levels of xenophobia and fear it is likely that refugees and migrants will continue to be denied access to the necessary health services with tragic results.

Irrespective of how or who arrived in their territory, and in spite of the global emergency, Libyan authorities continue to have a fundamental obligation to protect the right to life, and must provide medical services equally to all those in their territory without discrimination.

As a way by which to protect the lives of those trapped in Libya from virus and conflict, all refugees and migrants must be immediately released from arbitrary and illegal detention. Access to health care must not be perceived as optional or a luxury, rather it is a fundamental right, equating to the right to life. The Libyan authorities have a legal obligation to ensure access to all.


This article is part of a series of opinion pieces about Libya’s response to the pandemic within the ongoing conflict, through a human rights lens. The series is published in partnership with Lawyers for Justice in Libya , under the title “Libya: between conflict and pandemic, what hope for human rights?

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.


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Aljazeera English: “COVID-19 lockdown worsens migrants’ suffering in Libya”

Assad and Putin have Waged Total Air War on Idlib’s Civilians, Learning from US Bombing of Iraq Tue, 03 Mar 2020 05:02:24 +0000 Paul Rogers | –

( – The tactics of Syrian and Russian forces are unforgiveable – but scarcely different to what the US and its allies were doing just a few years ago.

Around the world, people are watching the suffering of the people of Idlib with pity; their governments are alarmed at the looming confrontation between Turkey, a member of NATO, and Russia and Iran, the backers of the government of Syria led by Bashar al-Assad. The brutal tactics of Assad and his allies are nothing new, however. It is just that there was much less noise in the West when they were deployed in the region before, by different actors.

The Syrian government and its allies are attempting to take control of Idlib Province with a combination of air power, artillery bombardment and ground forces. Russian and Syrian air forces provide the air power; the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias make up the ground troops. Air and ground bombardment have been critical because the rebels have no anti-aircraft weapons and have very little in the way of artillery, so it has become a matter of ‘remote warfare’ carried out at a distance wherever possible.

An inevitable result has been many civilian casualties, with reports last week of schools being hit, as well as huge movements of refugees desperate to escape the conflict yet unable to cross the border into Turkey.

Many states have roundly and rightly condemned the tactics used by the Syrians, Russians and Iranian-backed militias, with UN officials pointing to an unfolding humanitarian disaster. An uncomfortable matter lurking in the background, however, is that the war is being fought in very much the same way as the US-led coalition fought ISIS. It may well be that the Syrians and Russians have studied closely the coalition’s tactics, especially in its assault on Mosul and Raqqa towards the end of that war.

Air and ground

It had started soon after ISIS had seized the key Iraqi city of Mosul early in 2014 and was laying siege to up to 40,000 Yazidis trapped on the Mount Sinjar ridge 90 kilometres to its west. Their situation was desperate and in August Barack Obama started an air war against ISIS, which was joined by a coalition of states including the UK and France.

That quickly evolved into the intensive use of air power against centres of ISIS control, with the taking of territory mainly left to Iraqi army units aided by Iranian-backed Shi’a militias. As this combination of air and ground forces was effective across Iraq, it was repeated as ISIS paramilitaries retreated across the border into Syria, only this time most of the ground troops were from Syria’s Kurdish minority. The war culminated in the taking of the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa on 17 October 2017, with much of the city reduced to ruins by bombing and artillery barrages.

The primary aim of the US-led coalition was to defeat ISIS but the latter’s paramilitaries were so determined, and had so much experience of urban combat, that US or other troops would take considerable casualties if they sought to take control by house-to-house fighting. Instead, the focus was on intensive bombardment, what might be termed ‘softening up’. All too often it was civilians who bore the brunt, even if this aspect was scarcely mentioned by coalition representatives.

Thus, immediately after the taking of Raqqa, coalition sources said that there had been 180 civilian casualties but over the following year a study of 200 strike locations by Amnesty International and the Airwars monitoring group reported that the real number was more than 1,600.

What happened in Raqqa was devastating enough. But it had been even worse in Mosul three months earlier after an intense eight-month siege. By the time the ISIS forces were defeated some of the few journalists who got there reported that what remained looked like the Soviet city of Stalingrad after the notorious German assault of 1942-3.

Death toll

According to official figures, the coalition carried out over 1,250 attacks hitting thousands of targets with over 29,000 bombs, missiles and artillery shells. In the aftermath of the war it acknowledged just 352 civilian deaths, but the Iraqi prime minister admitted the much larger number of 1,260. Local sources, including many aid workers who have talked to citizens in Mosul, believe that the number of civilians killed by coalition forces is much larger than the coalition admits, and Airwars’ own assessments support this.

It should be noted that far more civilians were killed by ISIS paramilitaries. Still, the pattern of warfare adopted by the coalition has been closely followed by the Syrian government. In Iraq it was multinational air strikes backed up by US, French and Iraqi artillery and followed up by Iraqi Army and Shi’a militia units; in Idlib it is now Russian and Syrian air strikes and Syrian artillery backed up by Syrian army and Shi’a militia units.

What applies to casualty estimates for Mosul and Raqqa applies also to the US-led air war as a whole. As The Atlantic concluded:

Across the entire coalition war against ISIS since 2014, the United States and its allies have so far conceded 841 civilian deaths – while Airwars places the likely minimum tally at 6,200 or more killed.

This does not mean that what the Syrian government is doing is remotely acceptable. It means it is little short of hypercritical for Western states involved in the coalition to criticise the Assad regime while ignoring their own shortcomings. Not only that, but any such criticisms will simply be met by hollow laughter across the Middle East.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.


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AP Archive: “Panic in Idlib after air raid hits school”

Will Saudi Arabia ever End its Catastrophic War on Yemen? Sat, 01 Feb 2020 05:01:58 +0000 By Helen Lackner | –

( ) – While Saudi Arabia seeks an exit from the Yemen war, it is deepening its involvement in the South instead.

Last year saw some significant changes in Saudi strategy in Yemen. Following on the UAE departure, the new Deputy Defence Minister, Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince’s brother, has taken over the Yemeni file. While wanting to disentangle his country from the conflict, he was instead forced to increase Saudi involvement, particularly in the South.

The southern question moves to the frontline

As the coalition was forced by the Stockholm Agreement to give up its offensive on Hodeida and was therefore left without a military strategy to win the war, UAE decision makers, frustrated after four years of stalemate, started withdrawing their forces from the Red Sea coast and in June 2019 announced a complete withdrawal.

Although they still have a small military involvement in strategic positions in Bab al Mandab and along the southern coast of Yemen, Emirati military intervention has largely ended, as indeed, has that of many of its Sudanese mercenaries. This effectively means that Saudi Arabia is the only relevant external coalition member remaining and leaves it, since the summer of 2019, alone in taking decisions concerning the war in Yemen, including the situation in the South.

Since early-2017 when the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) was established by two separatist leaders dismissed from the government by President Hadi, tensions have periodically flared up into armed confrontations between the UAE-supported STC with its militias, the Security Belts and Elite Forces on the one hand, and the military of Hadi’s internationally recognised government (IRG) on the other. Clashes erupted in Aden between IRG supporters and those of the STC starting in early 2018 and throughout the last two years in Soqotra.

The loss of its capital was a major threat to the government’s credibility as it effectively turned it into a government in exile.

In August 2019 the STC expelled Hadi’s forces and ministers from Aden, using as justification a Huthi attack on a military parade in Aden which killed an important Security Belt leader and 40 new military graduates, which the STC accused the Islah party of having perpetrated. The loss of its capital was a major threat to the government’s credibility as it effectively turned it into a government in exile. As had happened on previous occasions, but more urgently this time, Saudi Arabia intervened to try and reconcile the rivals, all officially part of the anti-Huthi coalition.

Saudi mediation, after three months of difficult indirect negotiations between the two groups, led to the Riyadh Agreement, signed on 5 November 2019. The main elements of this agreement are the removal of all armed elements and their equipment to their previous positions in early 2019, the integration of all military and security personnel into the official coalition forces under the authority of the Ministries of Defence and Interior respectively and the formation of a new government of no more than 24 members including 50% southerners [there are more than 50% southerners in the current government]. Most importantly, all state income is to be managed through the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) which is to be accountable to the parliament.

The agreement is to be implemented according to a strict timetable: almost three months into the period, nothing has been done on time, and the only activity carried out at all, has been the return to Aden of the Prime Minister and other senior officials concerned with finance, who were explicitly mandated to ensure the payment of salaries to security staff, something which remains an outstanding issue. The main problems are, predictably, relating to the withdrawal of forces and handover of heavy weaponry.

What is abundantly clear at this stage is that this agreement is characterised by over optimism in its sequencing and timetable, something it shares with earlier agreements, including the Stockholm agreement and the GCC Agreement of 2011 which led to the transition and the war. Given this situation, it is not unreasonable to ask why such unrealistic timetables are systematically agreed.

Since the agreement was signed there have been confrontations in Abyan and Shabwa with new cease fire lines and fronts gradually established, leaving the STC in control of only a small part of coastal Abyan, while UAE forces and their supporters are still in control both of the gas terminal in Balhaf and a major military camp along the pipeline in Shabwa. The STC is more firmly in control of its strongholds in Lahej and Dhali’ governorates, but here also they are challenged, by other southern forces in Lahej and by the Huthis in Dhali. In Aden itself the Emiratis handed over their military positions to Saudi forces in 2019; and their attempts to oust STC Security Belt elements from different positions in the city have been only partially successful.

What is abundantly clear at this stage is that this agreement is characterised by over optimism

The new timetable agreed on 9 January 2020 gives more details about the Saudi supported redeployment of forces throughout the South. It also states that it should be implemented within 20 days; limited progress was achieved and the murderous attack on the Presidential Guard forces (who were due to be deployed in Aden) in Marib on 19 January threatens all aspects of the Riyadh agreement. A missile killed more than 110 troops and civilians in a military camp mosque shortly after evening prayers. No one has claimed this attack, but the government has accused the Huthis who have themselves denied responsibility: accusing anyone else would openly jeopardise the Riyadh agreement and put its sponsors, the Saudi government, in a very difficult position.

The longer term fate of the Riyadh agreement will depend primarily on the willingness of the UAE decision makers to impose its acceptance on the STC and its militias, and force them to implement decisions taken on the ground by the Saudi forces and the Saudi-dominated implementation committees. Events in the first month of the year do not suggest this is happening. So 2020 is likely to be another year of uncertainty for southerners, particularly those residing in the various frontlines and in Aden. Regardless of claims to the contrary and loud assertions of infrastructure investments from the Saudi Reconstruction Fund, particularly promising constant electricity and water supplies, living conditions are unlikely to improve in the coming year. As the Saudis have taken over all aspects of the situation in Aden and beyond, they are left with an additional set of problems, at a time when they also would like to see a solution to the Yemen crisis.

Huthi-Saudi negotiations

A major development in 2019 has been a fundamental change in the Saudi strategy. This has resulted from a number of factors: abandonment of the Hodeida offensive, a series of Huthi incursions into Saudi Arabia leading to their capture of Saudi military personnel and equipment, Huthi launching of a number of more powerful missiles into Southwest Saudi Arabia. More controversially, successful missile attacks on the east-west pipeline in May and the attack by more than 20 missiles on major ARAMCO oil facilities, the country’s biggest economic asset, were both claimed by the Huthis, contrary to evidence indicating that Iran was directly responsible for these attacks.

The immediate outcome of the strikes on Aramco was to reveal the fundamental weakness of the Saudi-USA alliance under the Trump administration. Claiming deep friendship with the new Saudi regime, and in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Trump was explicit about his real priorities. After publicly blaming his number one enemy, Iran, for the attack he then delayed taking any action in support of Saudi Arabia, making it clear that Saudi Arabia must look after itself: “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.” And then added: “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully… I haven’t promised the Saudis that [US protection]…. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out.”

In plain translation: the US will not protect Saudi Arabia and will only help in exchange for cash, ie act as mercenaries. However, regardless of who was actually responsible for the Aramco attacks, they clearly led to a serious review of policy in Saudi Arabia.

There is little doubt that the Saudi side is seriously interested in bringing its military involvement in Yemen to a close

All these factors, particularly the Aramco attack, combined to persuade Saudi authorities to engage in direct discussions with the Huthis in September. These have been assisted by ‘confidence building measures’ in particular the halt of missile attacks on Saudi Arabia by the Huthis as well as a series of exchanges of prisoners, including the return to Saudi Arabia of 13 Saudis captured during various confrontations (7 on 28 December and a further 6 on 1 January 2020). For their part, the Saudis have reduced their airstrikes quite remarkably since the talks started.

While the negotiations between the two sides are likely to be delayed and suffer from the consequences of the flare up of the US-Iran conflict following on the assassination of senior Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani, there is little doubt that the Saudi side is seriously interested in bringing its military involvement in Yemen to a close. Whether the Huthis will let them do so remains to be seen.

In some ways, the Huthis need the war, whereas the Saudis most certainly do not; and the current renewed fighting on the northern fronts may, in part, be their way of supporting Iran after the assassination of Suleimani. Regardless of the latest flare up in fighting, it is likely that some kind of mechanism will be found during the year to further reduce Saudi air strikes on Huthi territory and ground fighting, particularly now that the Saudis are so much more deeply involved in dealing with the southern problems.

This is certainly not to the taste of Hadi’s government, for whom formal or informal ending of fighting leaving the Huthis in situis clearly not good news. Its frustration has become public in recent days with strong statements against the Stockholm Agreement seen as a step towards acceptance of Huthi participation in a settlement, which it insists on rejecting, pursuing its unrealistic goal of complete victory.

Casualties and survival

This may be an opportune moment to look at war casualties in 2019, as they are an effective indicator of the nature of fighting. With a total of 1181 airstrikes during the year, the numbers dropped dramatically in the last three months: 80 in October, 39 in November and 18 in December. Unsurprisingly, the largest numbers were in Saada (465) and Hajja (311) governorates, ie the home of the Huthis bordering Saudi Arabia and the site of much ground fighting. Other areas where there have been significant numbers of strikes are Sana’a governorate (83) and city (39), where major Huthi military facilities are located and the new front line in Dhala’ (69) on the former border between the two pre-unification states. [1]

Ground fighting between Yemenis continues, and is likely to persist during the year

With respect to overall fatalities [2], although 2019 was the second deadliest year since 2015, closer attention to the details clearly indicate that these are mostly in ground action and that the renewed and worsened fighting in the South is responsible for a large share of deaths. Of course, the first point that needs to be emphasised here is that the figures only include directly war-related deaths. Readers must remember that the vast majority of deaths are unrecorded and are the result of malnutrition related diseases and the dramatically worsened living conditions due to the war.

With respect to war related deaths there are far fewer civilian deaths than in previous years, with 1263 civilians out of a total of 23194 dead. The vast majority of people were killed in battles (13762), through shelling, artillery and missile attacks (3762), while another large number is from air strikes (2650), and remote explosives and landmines (2640). Geographically, despite the major flare up of fighting in the South, the largest number of deaths occurred in the part-southern governorate of Dhala’ (4025) followed by the main northern fronts along the Saudi border, al Jawf (3951), Hajja (3327) and Saada (3164). It is worth remembering that, including the overwhelming majority of those killed in battle, the vast majority of those killed were simply ordinary young men trying to help keep their families alive and joined military forces in the absence of alternative employment.

In conclusion it seems that 2019 has seen a considerable reduction in the direct military involvement of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, involvement which is likely to diminish further in 2020. Ground fighting between Yemenis continues, and is likely to persist during the year, thus facing the continuing difficulties of survival will remain most people’s priority. As long as the economy is unable to recover, the need for humanitarian aid will continue. These are topics which will be discussed in greater detail in the next parts of this series.

[1] Data from Yemen Data project which unfortunately does not systematically provide a month by month total

[2] Data from ACLED. Please note that they do not guarantee 100% accuracy, which is only reasonable, as that would be practically impossible.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

EU Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid: “Yemen: playing without the worry of cholera”