January 07, 2011

Building a new nation: The birth of Southern Sudan

Sudan has been in the headlines in the past years for all the wrong reasons. The international community has condemned the handling of the government of the Civil war (labeled genocide by the US) that killed and affected thousands of inhabitants of the western Darfur region. Its president, Omar al-Bashir is the only sitting head of state accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. The country is one of the most underdeveloped places on Earth.

The country has been ethnically and religiously divided for centuries. The British controlled the country for more than fifty years, in which the North and South were governed separately. The North is inhabited by Arab speaking Muslims while the South has different African ethnic groups including a large population of Christians. The North has always been in control, even after independence in 1956. That led to a war that both sides fought which killed 2 million people in 22 years.
Although both regions belong to the same country, the South has much more severe levels of hunger, lack of basic infrastructure and education. Thousands, probably millions, have fled to neighbor countries and asked for asylum in the West. Through the years, the South was granted some degree of autonomy until in 2005 it was decided that in 2011 people of the South would decide in a referendum if the region should split from the North and form a new country. That referendum will take place in the following days, and thousands have returned from exile in order to vote. The vast majority of the Southerners are expected to vote in favor of independence, but that's just the start. There are worries that the North won't recognize the referendum, although the government has publicly announced that they will respect the will of the voters.

One of the key worries is how would an independent Southern Sudan survive economically and what implications will the separation have for the North. Sudan is an oil producing country. The South produces more than 80% of the oil, but only receives 50% of the revenue. Both sides agreed to divide the revenue by half, in part because the pipelines go through the North and it would be very expensive for the South to build new ones. That 50-50 share is not expected to change after independence.

The referendum and the eventual separation of Africa's biggest country will undoubtedly have important regional economic and political implications. The mostly unstable continent will closely watch the development of the vote. The independence of Southern Sudan would be a precedent for other African regions with separatist groups that for sure will have one or two governments a bit nervous.

To learn more go to the following links:

BBC News special coverage of the referendum

CNN's coverage of the Sudan vote

January 05, 2011

Welcome back!

For one or two reasons, there were no posts at all in 2010. In 2011 that will change. I'll try to post at least once a week about things I find interesting (you might not, of course) in world politics.

This new year will bring new developments like the North Korean transition which will define the future of the Hermit Kingdom and the political stability of the region, a serious challenge to Obama's administration with a Congress dominated by the Republicans, we will know the degree in which the Eurozone and it's common currency were affected by the financial crisis, we will closely follow the developments of the Drugwar in Mexico, and we'll probably even witness the birth of new countries like Southern Sudan, among many more unexpected events.

So welcome again and enjoy reading!

August 24, 2009

Ban Ki-moon: a non charismatic (non proactive?) Secretary General

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Benedict XVI have some things in common. Both belong to the very select group of leaders of the international community. Their predecessors were very charismatic and highly regarded as proactive and progressive. But both of them are seen as the opposite of their predecessors: non charismatic at all, not proactive and even problematic. Ratzinger’s term has been widely commented, but only recently people have started to talk about Ban’s problematic term. In fact, it has been more dark than problematic. A secretary general is supposed to be a world leader with the power to mediate between different actors of the world arena and make sure the international agreements are respected. In his few attempts to do so he has achieved very little (some would say nothing).

Some months ago he insisted to meet Burma’s (Myanmar’s or however you want to call it) military Junta in order to make them free the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has been under detention for the past 14 years. Ban returned empty handed from his meeting with the generals who not so long ago reacted violently against the monk’s peaceful protests against the regime. His recent visit to Sri Lanka did not have a very positive outcome either, considering that still thousands of Tamils are displaced in refugee camps.

But everyone has started talking about Ban after the appearance in the media of Mona Juul’s intercepted memo in which she fiercely criticized his term. Mona Juul is the chief of the Norwegian delegation to the United Nations. In the memo, which was not aimed to be public, and is labelled by Foreign Policy Magazine as “brutally frank” she calls the Secretary General: “spineless, charmless, and incapable of setting the agenda”. She also says “Ban's voice on behalf of the G-172 and the poor is barely being registered” and that “he has been "absent on the issue of disarmament and non-proliferation."

The Mona Juul memo has raised speculations about problems inside Ban’s team. Some comments have been made about the possibility that he will hold office only for one term. It will be interesting to see what happens in his visit to Norway by the end of this month.

Now Ban’s actions will be observed with much more attention by the media.

August 06, 2009

“Oops Kim did it again”

Two weeks ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that North Korea behaved as a naughty child looking to attract the world's attention (she didn't say that the naughty child is in the headlines anytime he wants). Kim Jong IL has “come to life” again after reports that he had suffered a stroke last year. But his political intelligence was not affected at all by his health condition. Since the two American journalists were detained by North Korean officers for allegedly trying to cross its border illegally, it was obvious that he would use them to attract (once more) the attention of the international community, particularly the United States. The Obama administration had a difficult dilemma. They could have done nothing and let their two citizens face a 12 year hard labour sentence in the reclusive state with all the political implications it could have had.

The other option was very risky considering the tuff attitude North Korea has taken towards the Obama administration. After Obama’s inauguration North Korea withdrew from the Six Party Talks, restarted its nuclear tests and launched a rocket capable of transporting a nuclear weapon (although the regime officially said its purpose was to carry a satellite), increasing the tension in the region. So that other option was to make a secret diplomatic arrangement in order to free the American hostages, some would say in other words “negotiate with terrorists”. I think that in the end negotiating with North Korea the release of the journalists was the smartest decision they could have taken, but of course it has its negative implications. In one hand, Kim Jong Il has demonstrated the whole world that he can kidnap people, then release them and in return have a picture next to a respected American ex president, and be in the headlines (again) for a while. In the other, the heroical rescue made by Bill Clinton will let the Obama administration have a better understanding of what really is happening in North Korea after reports of the preparations for the succession of its leader.

The “official pictures” released by the North Korean government show what everything was about. Bill Clinton, who is normally cheerful was very serious, while Kim Jong IL, always appears to be in a bad mood, was trying to smile all the time.

By now, we can say that once more Kim Jong Il got what he wanted. We must wait to see if the Obama administration can get from this operation more than the rescue of the journalists, and use it to get closer to the North Koreans and probably restart the Six Party Talks. But as many of us know, with North Korea it’s always the same, once step forward and wo backwards. At least we have something new to laugh about, that incredible official picture with the waterfall in the background, and the funny faces of Bill Clinton, who has made a wondrous return to the main stage, and the always mysterious Kim Jong IL.

May 25, 2009

The political power of North Korea’s threats

North Korea has once again defied the globe by making a nuclear test that has raised concerns of the intentions of the communist state to press the red button and launch a nuclear weapon. Scientists have confirmed that the test provoked an earthquake in the North of the country, so this time we are not talking about propaganda.

The North Korean regime uses its nuclear programme as its only mean of negotiation with the rest of the world and Kim Jong-il knows it. If North Korea had no nuclear programme, its negotiation power would be reduced to nothing and the regime would probably have collapsed long time ago. But the imminent threat of effectively developing and using a nuclear weapon makes its neighbors, the United States and the rest of the world take a different approach towards the problem.

Kim Jong-il knows that anything he does (in other words, anything he does and wants the world to be informed of) will be instantly in the headlines of the media of the whole world. The rumours of his health condition and the launch of a rocket which was supposed to carry a satellite but that can be used to transport a nuclear weapon are some examples of the huge media coverage that strengthens the regime. The UN Security Council condemned the launch of the rocket, and in response, North Korea pulled out of the Six Party Talks (involving North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan), which were aimed to make the regime stop its nuclear programme. While some objectives were apparently achieved in the Six Party Talks, it appears that in reality Kim Jong-il has no intention of ending its nuclear programme through diplomatic means.

Meanwhile, South Koreans are still in shock after the suicide of their former president, who was formally accused of bribery, and the fear of their neighbor’s intentions to press the red button has worsened the situation. Hopefully the nuclear test was just one more successful attempt of the regime to be in the headlines and strengthen its negotiation power, as it is very unlikely that they will ever launch a nuclear attack. Probably this show will be over the day Kim Jong-il dies and the North Korean people will finally get out of the dark, although his death won’t mean that unification will be easy.

The annual income of North Koreans is around 17 times lower than the one of their southern neighbors and the regime has one of the worst human rights records in the world.

Because life with humour is much better, here you can watch a video of "North Korea's new ambitions", hehe...

March 19, 2009

Ratzinger: a politically dumb pope

Most of the people I've talked to agree that John Paul II was a very charismatic Pope. He did a very respectable job not only as a spiritual leader but also as a diplomat. He improved relations with other religions and travelled the world, while he understood the importance his figure had and took advantage of it. But Mr. Ratzinger, his successor, has been very different. I haven't heard of many people who feel admiration or devotion towards him. Some of the major controversies he has generated include offending the Muslims in a lecture he gave in 2006 by quoting a text which directly insults Prophet Muhammad. He also said in a visit to Brazil that the proclamation of Christianity in the Americas was not an imposition of a foreign culture and that the natives had been silently longing for the Christian faith. Those comments show his lack of diplomatic intelligence, which doesn't stop there. He also lifted the excommunication to Richard Williamson, a bishop who is a Holocaust denier who said in an interview with the Swedish TV that he believes that no Jews were executed in gas chambers, and that only around 200,000 and not 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. According to the Vatican, Ratzinger was not informed about Williamson's statements. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor regreted the decision to lift Williamson's excommunication and the German media said the "honeymoon" between the Germans and their Pope was over.

But this week he made the most idiotic mistake, one that can have very serious consequences. In a visit to Cameroon, he declared that "HIV/Aids can't be overcome with the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem". One must be extremly stupid to make such a declaration in a continent which has more than 60% of the infected population in the world, with more than 24.5 million people infected just in Sub-Saharan Africa. He can defend his views, but not while threatening the public health in such a way. Now the NGOs and other aid agencies working in Africa must have to do a great job in order to make people understand the importance of the use of condoms in the region with the highest HIV/Aids infection rate.

I'm sure we won't have to wait long before Benedict XVI is again on the headlines. What will he say/do now?

February 11, 2009

Sorry is not enough

Former bank managers have publicly apologized for their wrong decisions which led their banks to lose millions in risky transactions, while at the same time they were receiving huge bonuses and taxpayers' money to pay for their failures.
The anger of the society is understandable as the misbehaviour of those executives was rewarded with public money, and a simple apology won't solve anything. If the correct decisions would have been taken by those executives, who perfectly knew about the volatility of the financial environment, the money that is being used in the bank bailouts could have served to invest in public infrastructure to help the economy boost again. The problem is that private banks have too much power and when they take bad decisions, they perfectly know that the governments will do almost anything to rescue them, in order to prevent an understandable social chaos that would surge if people lose their money. But to which extent can the government intervene in putting limits to bonuses for executives of the financial sector? At least, more restrictions should be imposed to banks that receive public money in order to limit the exorbitant amounts their executives receive in reward for their narrowness.

Cynically, the Royal Bank of Scotland's former CEO, Sir Fred Goodwin, told the UK Treasury Committee he "could not be more sorry", but at the same time said that if bankers felt they aren't paid enough, they will leave. Such a comment demonstrates the sense of untouchability these people have, apologizing and justifying their high pays at the same time.

January 19, 2009

The political timing in the Gaza conflict

Israel decided to start a military offensive in Gaza just in time, exactly in the last days of the Bush administration, which has been a sponsor of any type of interventionism with the excuse of fighting terrorism. Hamas isn't any victim here, but the power of the Israeli Army and the technology it has, makes any type of armed confrontation between the two factions completely unequal and with a result of much more civilian deaths in the Palestinian side, as it has happened. The figures show that since the start of the conflict in the last days of December, around 1200 Palestinians have died, while only 13 Israelis have perished. But it's not just that, as thousands of Palestinians are now homeless, and most of the population has very limited access to the most basic resources for survival. The Israelis have even bombed a UN building in Gaza, mosques and many other non-military targets. As I've said, it's not a coincidence that the operation took place on the last days of Bush's administration, as it would have been much more difficult for Israel to start such an operation with a new American president, whose main concern internationally is to responsibly end two irresponsible wars. I'm not saying that Obama's administration won't be a very close ally to Israel, but the political timing made this the perfect moment for the Israelis to strike against Hamas. The ceasefire won't solve the problem of the thousands who are now displaced, traumatized and who have lost their beloved ones. So let's see if Israel's position remains the same after Obama's inauguration.

December 08, 2008

Anyone interested in "saving" Zimbabwe?

With an inflation of 11,200,000 %, a severe cholera outbreak, a life expectancy of 44 years for men and 43 for women, the situation in Zimbabwe could hardly be worse. Robert Mugabe was a political prisoner in the 60's who later became the first black leader of Zimbabwe. But now, he is no longer seen as the liberator who fought for his people. He has remained in power since 1980, heading a totalitarian regime in which the opposition has been oppressed, most of the media has been under control of the government, and with a severe health crisis. Some figures show that more than 1.6 million people live with AIDS in the country.

In March 2008, Mugabe lost the first round of the presidential election, but managed to win the second round, as his main challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, retired from the race alleging an unfair competition. Tsvangirai's supporters were heavily pressured by governmental forces, and the election was qualified as unfair by different observers. Something must be done immediately to stop Mugabe to continue ruining the people of Zimbabwe.

After the cholera outbreak international leaders have increased their pressure on Mugabe's regime, but the question is, who will take the lead in directing an international force to quit Mugabe (if that would eventually happen) and let the Zimbabwean people freely elect their political leadership. The issue is very delicate, as interventionism is a very dangerous resource that very few actors will be willing to take, specially after the disastrous American invasion of Iraq. South Africa's political situation is delicate now, as few weeks ago president Mbeki resigned over allegations of corruption, so that country is not in a condition to lead a force to solve Zimbabwe's crisis. UK's Gordon Brown has said that "enough is enough" on the issue of Zimbabwe, but its not clear to which extent his government could intervene. In the case of the US, the transition and the focus that the Obama administration will have to solve the mess on Iraq and Afghanistan will also make it dificult to direct such an international force, although Hillary Clinton could adopt the issue as her first duty as the top US diplomat.
So while someone decides to do something, the Zimbabwean people continue suffering, and dying.

November 25, 2008

Modern Pirates

Twenty first century, top technology everywhere, the orbit full of satellites, surveillance systems in every corner, and even with that, pirates, with nothing more than some old AK-47 rifles and small vessels, keep on hijacking ships (no matter the size) in a chaotic country, with no effective government.

That country is Somalia, one of the poorest countries on Earth, where the GDP per capita is around $600 USD a year. It has been in a Civil War since 1988 and the "authorities" of the country have no resources to control piracy, which threatens not only the commercial ships that navigate through the Indian Sea but also the ships transporting aid to many African countries. The activity has become an extraordinary business, as the ransoms the pirates get payed to liberate the ships are between $300,000 and $1.5m USD. So the pirates have now started to use luxurious goods, build residences and have jet set life styles in a country where most of the people is starving.

From the beginning of 2008 until late November, around 100 ships have been hijacked by Somali pirates. But the pirates have high standards, and don't mind to call the world's attention and still have control over their "business". That was demonstrated when they hijacked the Sirus Star, a Saudi Arabian oil tanker with 2 million barrels of oil, which is one quarter of the daily production of Saudi Arabia. The ship has 25 crew members, who are said to be safe, and the pirates have been negotiating a ransom with the ship owners. If the ransom is payed, other pirates will have the incentive to continue hijacking ships, but with no effective government in the country, and with the Americans being reluctant to interfere, the solution to the piracy in the region, and to Somalia's crisis, seem very far.
At least, for the case of the Sirus Star, the Islamic extremists are considering to act against the pirates, as the ship contains Saudi Arabian property. That shows how chaotic the situation is.

Finally, a memorable quote of General William Ward, the head of the US Africa command:
"Piracy is a very complex issue. The oceans are large oceans. I don't know if you would ever have enough vessels to have coverage of the entire ocean,". Amazing justification, or not?

For more about Somalia's conflict, check the BBC special site , and the BBC World Service special reports on the crisis.