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sovereignty

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Congo: Drifting into Dangerous Waters

You have to admire Joseph Kabila’s cheek, if nothing else. On Saturday, at his first press conference in seven years, the long-serving president of the Democratic Republic of Congo said: “We have to have elections as scheduled.” But they were scheduled for December of 2016.

Kabila had been in office for fourteen years by then, but somehow he had forgotten that you need an up-to-date voters’ list before you can hold an election. So he generously offered to stay in office as president for another year while this was done, even though he was not allowed to run for a third term as president.

The various opposition parties and the Catholic Church, which has immense influence in the DRC, were not greatly pleased by that. However, they reluctantly agreed to go along with it and the election was rescheduled for December 2017 – last month.

As it became clear that the deadline would not be met the demonstrations and protests multiplied, and the ‘security forces’ grew more repressive: a recent UN report found that state agents had carried out 1,176 killings in 2017. And late last year Kabila declared that the elections would have to be postponed again, to December 2018.

“Kabila does not have any intention to leave power,” said Felix Tshisekedi, a prominent opposition leader, after the latest postponement. “His strategy is to spread chaos across the country and then delay elections because he’ll claim there is too much violence.” The violence is certainly increasing, and there is a serious risk that Congo is sliding back towards civil war, but it’s too simple to blame it all on Kabila.

Joseph Kabila came to power when his father Laurent-Desire Kabila, a warlord who had emerged victorious in the first civil war in 1997, was assassinated in 2001. He was only 29 at the time (although his father had already made him army chief of staff), and he had no political following of his own.

He has subsequently become very rich, but he is still not a powerful figure in his own right. He was put in office by the security forces, now dominated by the men who led his father’s rebel army, and he remains largely a figurehead while they make the real decisions. The problem is that they can’t decide who should replace him.

Kabila didn’t actually forget to change the law that restricted him to two terms of office. Doing that would have been simple enough if the men who really run things had all wanted him to stay in office. (Three other African leaders have changed the rules on term limits so they could stay in office in just the past year.)

Nor is there much doubt that Kabila would have won if there had been an election last year or the year before. It’s the regime’s own people who are slowly compiling the voters’ lists, and the choices they make will doubtless guarantee a victory for the regime. The situation is drifting towards chaos because the various factions within the security forces cannot agree whether to keep Kabila in power or switch to another figurehead.

It’s all about who has access to resources (for which read money) within the regime, but meanwhile 81 million Congolese are being dragged towards another civil war. The last one, in 1998-2003, killed at least 5 million Congolese, mostly from hunger and disease. They do not need another.

There is already heavy fighting between militia groups and the army in the east and south-east, with the majority of the casualties, as usual, being civilians. It would be comforting to believe that an election could stop all this, but it can’t. What is required is a strong and reasonably honest government that can reassert control over this huge country, the poorest in the world.

It is sheer fantasy to imagine that a country bigger than all of western Europe, but with less in the way of all-weather roads than tiny Luxembourg and a per capita income of about a dollar a day, can be saved by a free election. Communications are so poor that there is no genuine ‘public opinion’, and beyond Kinshasa, the capital, almost all political loyalties are tribal.

Democracy is important, and for most African countries – for most countries anywhere – it is the best solution. But the Congo is too big, too poor and too ethnically fragmented for that to work yet. Elections are symbolically important because they embody the principles of popular sovereignty and the rule of law, but everybody who might actually get elected belongs to a small privileged elite.

A relatively small part of that group, the ‘security elite’, have actually been running everything since the turn of the century, and the first order of business must be for them to make a deal on who their candidate will be at the next election. Whoever that is will certainly win, and it hardly matters whether it is Kabila or somebody else. Those behind the scenes will still pull the strings.

But until they reach an agreement about the regime’s candidate, the country will continue to drift, and it is drifting into dangerous waters.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Kabila…figurehead”)

Senkaku/Diaoyu: Another Falklands

27 January 2013

Senkaku/Diaoyu: Another Falklands?

By Gwynne Dyer

Chinese survey vessels go into the waters around the disputed islands and Japanese patrol ships tail them much too closely. Twice last month Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft flew into the airspace around the Japanese-controlled islands and Tokyo scrambled F-15 fighters to meet them. On the second occasion, China then sent fighters too. Can these people be serious?

The rocky, uninhabited group of islets in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China, are worthless in themselves, and even the ocean and seabed resources around them could not justify a war. Yet both sides sound quite serious, and the media rhetoric about it in China has got downright bellicose.

Historical analogies are never exact, but they can sometimes be quite useful. What would be a good analogy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute? The dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the islands that the British call the Falklands and the Argentines call las Malvinas fits the case pretty well.

Worthless islands? Check, unless you think land for grazing sheep is worth a war. Rich fishing grounds? Check. Potential oil and gas resources under the seabed? Tick. Rival historical claims going back to the 19th century or “ancient times”? Check. A truly foolish war that killed lots of people? Yes, in the case of the Falklands/Malvinas, but not in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Not yet.

One other difference: the Falkland Islands have been inhabited by some thousands of English-speaking people of British descent for almost two centuries. Argentina’s claim relates to a short-lived colony in 1830-33 (which was preceded by somewhat longer-lived French and British colonies in the 1700s). Whereas nobody has ever lived on the Senkakus/Diaoyus.

Curiously, this does not simplify the quarrel. Neither China nor Japan has a particularly persuasive historical claim to the islands, and with no resident population they are wide open to a sudden, non-violent occupation by either country. That could trigger a real military confrontation between China and Japan, and drag in Japan’s ally, the United States.

It was to avert exactly that sort of stunt that the Japanese government bought three of the islands last September. The ultra-nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, announced that he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner, and the Foreign Ministry suspected that he would then land people there to assert Japanese sovereignty more vigorously.

The Chinese would probably respond in kind, and then the fat would be in the fire. But the Japanese government’s thwarting of Ishihara’s plans did not mollify the Chinese. The commercial change of ownership did not strengthen or weaken either country’s claim of sovereignty, but Beijing saw it as a nefarious Japanese plot, and so the confrontation began to grow.

It has got to the point where Japanese business interests in China have been seriously damaged by boycotts and violent protests, and Japan’s defence budget, after ten years of decline, is to go up a bit this year. (China’s defence budget rises every year.) It’s foolish, but it’s getting beyond a joke.

Meanwhile, down in the South China Sea, a very similar confrontation has been simmering for years between China, which claims almost the entire sea for itself, and the five other countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan) that maintain overlapping claims over various parts of the sea.

Military manoeuvres are taking place, non-negotiable declarations of sovereignty are being made, and navies are being beefed up. Once again there are fishing rights at stake in the waters under dispute, and oil and gas reserves are believed to exist underneath them. The United States, because of its military alliance with the Philippines, is also potentially involved in any conflict in this region.

All this nonsense over fish and petrochemical resources that would probably not yield one-tenth of the wealth that would be expended in even a small local war. Moreover, the oil and gas resources, however big they may be, will remain unexploited so long as the seabed boundaries are in doubt. So the obvious thing to do is to divide the disputed territory evenly between the interested parties, and exploit the resources jointly.

This is what the Russians and the Norwegians did three years ago, after a decades-long dispute over the seabed between them in the Barents Sea that led to speculations about a war in the Arctic.

The Japanese and the Chinese could obviously do the same thing: no face lost, and everybody makes a profit. A similar deal between the countries around the South China Sea would be more complicated to negotiate, but would yield even bigger returns. So why don’t they just do it?

Maybe because there are islands involved. Nobody has ever gone to war over a slice of seabed, but actual islands, sticking up out of the water, fall into the category of “sacred national territory, handed down from our forefathers,” over which large quantities of blood can and must be shed.

China will not just invade the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, because it is not run by a drunken and murderous military dictator (as Argentina was when it invaded the Falklands in 1982). But could everybody stumble into a war over this stupid confrontation? Yes, they could.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11 (“Meanwhile…region”) and the second sentence of paragraph 14 (“A similar…returns”).

 

 

A Jewish and Democratic State

11 October 2010

A Jewish and Democratic State

By Gwynne Dyer

“With this law Israel buys an exit ticket from the family of nations,” wrote Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea last week in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “The proposed loyalty law…is really racist. It obliges non-Jews to declare that they would be loyal to the Jewish state but exempts Jews from this obligation.” But Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s proposed new law is not racist, just short-sighted and nasty.

It is really about foreign policy: Netanyahu has also just demanded that the Palestinian Authority recognise Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Back in 1977, prime minister Menachem Begin said exactly the opposite: “We do not (demand that) our right to exist in the land of our fathers be recognized.”

“It is a different recognition which is required between us and our neighbours,” Begin continued: “Recognition of sovereignty and of the mutual need for a life of peace and understanding.” In other words, take the concrete steps that Israel needs for a peaceful and secure future, and don’t demand that everybody else subscribes to your own philosophical self-description.

Begin observed that principle in the peace treaty he signed with Egypt in 1979, and Yitzhak Rabin used the same language in the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. In both treaties the parties recognise each other’s sovereignty, integrity, and political independence, but there is not a word about Israel’s Jewishness. That’s an internal issue for Israelis (who are, in any case, divided about the definition of who is really a Jew).

Defining a country in ethnic and/or religious terms sounds racist to people who live in multicultural societies like the United States, India or South Africa, but it is actually quite common. Few people object to the “blood and soil” definitions of nationality that prevail in Germany and Japan, or to states that proclaim themselves to be Islamic Republics. On one condition: that they do not treat their ethnic or religious minorities as second-class citizens.

Israel’s constitution declared it to be a “Jewish state” way back in 1948, but in theory its laws apply equally to all its citizens including the 20 percent Arab minority. (In practice, Israeli citizens of Arab descent have a hard time, but Israeli governments use the shield of sovereignty and say that that is a purely domestic issue. )

Netanyahu’s predecessors avoided any mention of Israel’s “right to exist” or its Jewish character when they made peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, because real sovereign states do not negotiate these matters with other governments. A different approach was needed for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, because they didn’t have a state yet.

When Israel finally began talking to the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the early 90s, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin demanded that the PLO publicly recognise Israel’s right to exist. (It complied in 1993.) However, Rabin never asked the Palestinians to acknowledge the “Jewishness” of the Israeli state, because that would be a deal-breaker.

You can’t ask Palestinians whose parents or grandparents were driven from their homes during the 1948 war, and were not allowed to go home again after the fighting ended because that would undermine the “Jewishness” of the new state, to accept that definition as legitimate. All you can ask, if you really want peace with them, is that they accept the reality of the Israeli state and recognise its borders.

So when Binyamin Netanyahu raised the ante last week by demanding that the Palestinians recognise Israel specifically as a Jewish state ( and not just a sovereign state), Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas replied: “Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic — it is none of my business.”

Israel can call itself whatever it wants and define itself however it likes, but it cannot demand that other states accept those definitions. So why would Netanyahu make such a demand if he wants the peace talks to succeed?

He doesn’t. He is unwilling to face the huge political crisis that would erupt if he agreed to withdraw all or even many of the half-million Jewish settlers who have colonised large parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (the land that the Palestinians still controlled after 1948). Since that would necessarily be part of any peace deal, he doesn’t actually want one. But he can’t say that, because it would infuriate Washington.

The United States is Israel’s vital ally, and President Barack Obama really does want a peace deal, so Netanyahu must wreck it without making it look like Israel’s fault. Step one, late last month, was to refuse to extend the partial moratorium on new construction in the Jewish settlements that he agreed to late last year.

The Palestinians had already said publicly that they would end the talks if he did that, and most people abroad don’t blame them for that. How can they be expected to negotiate while the Israelis were still expanding the Jewish settlements on their territory? But something else was needed to shift the blame for the collapse of the talks decisively onto the shoulders of the Palestinians.

That something was Netanyahu’s declaration that he will renew the settlement freeze only if the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a JEWISH democratic state. He knew they couldn’t accept that offer, which is why he made it.

The proposed law requiring new citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” is just window-dressing to divert the attention of foreigners, especially Americans, from his real strategy. It will badly hurt Israel’s image overseas, but it is not racist. It is just ugly and self-serving.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3 and 4. (“It is really…a Jew”)

Oil and the Arctic

25 May 2008

Oil and the Arctic

By Gwynne Dyer

What connects oil at $135 a barrel with last month’s discovery of huge cracks in the Ward Hunt ice shelf off Ellesmere Island at the top of Canada’s Arctic archipelago? And what might connect those two things with a new, even Colder War?

The cracks in the ice, further evidence that the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean is melting fast, were discovered by scientists tagging along with a Canadian army snowmobile expedition that was officially called a “sovereignty patrol.” The army was showing the flag because Canada, like the other Arctic countries, suspects that valuable resources will become accessible there once the ice melts. And the most valuable of those resources are oil and gas.

The strongest evidence for accelerated melting is the fact that more and more of the Arctic sea ice is thin “first-year” ice. Only about a metre (three feet) thick, it spreads across the ocean each winter, but tends to melt the following summer.

Melting has taken big bites out of the edge of the much thicker “permanent” ice in most recent summers, and unless some of the “first-year” ice that replaces it lasts through the following winter, then the melting really is speeding up. So everybody is watching to see what happens this summer, explained Dr Jim Maslanik of the University of Colorado — Boulder.

“If we see all the first-year ice melt out again, then probably we will have another record reduction in ice cover,” said Maslanik. “If we see this a couple of years running, that tells us…that we are about twenty or thirty years ahead of where we are supposed to be based on the climate models.”

If we are heading for an Arctic Ocean that is mostly ice-free in the summer, then drilling for gas and oil beneath that ocean can soon begin. Hardly a week goes by without somebody pointing to the US Geological Survey’s report that the Arctic basin contains a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. But the event that did most to trigger this new concern about sovereignty was Artur Chilingarov’s publicity stunt last summer.

Chilingarov is a polar explorer of the old school (he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union in the old days for saving an ice-bound ship in Antarctica), but he is now deputy speaker of the Russian Duma (parliament) and Vladimir Putin’s personal “envoy” to the Arctic. Last summer, he took a three-man submarine down to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean precisely at the North Pole, and planted a Russian flag in the seabed.

“The Arctic is Russian. We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass,” he said afterwards, and affected surprise at the fact that other countries with an Arctic coastline saw this as a challenge to their sovereignty. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, flew to the Arctic the following week, and subsequently announced that Canada would built six to eight new “ice-strengthened” warships for Arctic patrols.

The other three countries with Arctic coastlines, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland) and Norway, are equally suspicious of Russian intentions. The real issue is about who owns the rights to the seabed, and the Russian claim is pretty ambitious.

Moscow claims that the Lomonosov Ridge, the subsea mountain range that goes straight across the middle of the Arctic Ocean, is an extension of the Russian territorial shelf, and therefore belongs to Russia all the way to the North Pole. Alternatively, if the Law of the Sea tribunal does not ultimately accept that claim, Moscow may have an even broader claim in reserve.

In the early 20th century seven countries laid claim to parts of Antarctica on the basis of “sectors”: pie-shaped slices running along lines of longitude (which converge at the poles). The width of those slices depended on where the various claimants owned territories near Antarctica, mostly islands in the Southern Ocean. Those claims are dormant because of a subsequent treaty banning economic development in Antarctica, but the precedent has not been forgotten.

By that precedent, Russia could lay claim to about half the Arctic Ocean on the basis of lines of longitude running from the far eastern and western ends of the country up to the North Pole — and in 1924 the old Soviet Union did precisely that. Nobody else accepted that claim then, and they wouldn’t now if Russia raised it again. But Russia has the big Arctic ports and the nuclear-powered ice-breakers to make its claim stick, and nobody else does.

That is where the current panic comes from. It probably won’t end up in a new Cold War, but it has certainly got the hens in the chicken coop all stirred up.

As is often the case with hens, they are over-reacting. Russia is in a more assertive mood than it was a decade ago, but there are no signs that it intends to pursue its claims by force. Moreover, there is no serious basis for the claim that a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic Ocean.

It always seemed implausible, given that the Arctic Ocean only accounts for slightly less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, but in fact the US Geological Survey never said anything of the sort. Neither has any other authoritative source, yet this factoid has gained such currency that it even influences government policy. Isn’t it interesting how readily people will believe something when they really want to?

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This article is 925 words. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4, 5 and 9. (“The strongest…models”; and “The other..ambitious”)