Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Al-Qaeda In The Islamic Maghreb Rises To Fame

Last Wednesday, in perhaps the first significant and violent reaction to French military strikes on Islamic militants in Mali, the world was shocked to learn of a hostage crisis that ended in bloodshed. Dozens of hostages and militants were killed at a BP complex in eastern Algeria in one of the clearest examples of festering terrorist activity in the northwest African region. Violence perpetuated by the al-Qaeda offshoot in Mali and its Algerian counterpart in recent weeks has brought new urgency to addressing the growing extremism in the region and has illuminated the extent to which these groups are supported from abroad.

The British Petroleum complex in eastern Algeria. Photo by the Associated Foreign Press.

Friday, January 18, 2013

You Can Expect International Outcry for Bolivia's Apparent Amorality

In one of the most disturbing pieces of news I have read in recent months (yes, months), a video surfaced this week of an apparent rape on the Bolivian Parliament floor. Lawmaker Domingo Alcibia Rivera is seen in the video - which is from a security camera in the room - engaging in intercourse with a fellow female lawmaker who was drunk, having passed out after a holiday party. This took place on December 20th, almost four weeks ago, which brings up the even more disturbing aspect of the story: the Bolivian government attempted to cover it up.

As Jezebel reports, the security guards who were on shift that night have been dismissed; Mr. Rivera has disappeared from the political world, and the victim has been transferred to another Parliamentary position. Who was in charge of making these decisions is unclear, but the fact that such an atrocity would be covered up by those elected by the people to govern, is frightening. Bolivian President Evo Morales' statement yesterday condemning the coverup was at best half-hearted - he recommended that all the officials involved be placed on "indefinite suspension", which hardly seems sufficient given the circumstances.

This case highlights a fact that is often overlooked when examining global issues: studies show that nearly half of all Latin American women face some sort of domestic violence or sexual assault. On a continent where there are widespread drug problems, some of the most violent gangs on earth, and frequent government disagreements, such a serious problem may sometimes be ignored. It shouldn't be, however; with such intense focus on sexual assault here in America, we should take the time to focus on the problem in other places as well.

Setting all of this aside however, one thing is for certain: in the coming weeks we will likely be seeing forthcoming scrutiny from all over the world directed towards the abhorrent malfeasance of Bolivian politicians. In this case, it is perfectly warranted.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

France Launches Attacks in Mali, US Watches from the Sidelines

On January 11, French forces began airstrikes throughout Northern Mali in preparation for the beginning of the arrival of a regional force of about 3,300 troops as early as next week. I’ve previously written about the ongoing conflict in the country, where in December a Malian tourism official had reported that nearly all of the remaining mausoleums in Timbuktu had been razed. While the loss of culture is devastating, even worse is the growing human cost to the citizens of Mali and the region: the UN Refugee Agency reports that 144,500 Malian refugees have been registered in neighboring countries and 228,918 people have been internally displaced. The actual numbers are likely much higher due to the difficulty of recording these situations amidst such chaos.

Pro-government forces train in southern Mali

The UN approved international mission came sooner than expected by Security Council resolution 2085 due to the Islamist rebel forces’ advance on southern Mali, which the government in Bamako still maintains a shaky hold over. The town of Konna, only 600 km from the capital, was captured by Islamists on January 10 and was the action that prompted the French Operation Serval. If the Islamists had been allowed to reach the Sévaré military airport, international and regional efforts to retake Mali would have been severely hindered if not impossible according to international sources.

While the US has expressed support for the French and African efforts, CIA Director Leon Panetta has reaffirmed that America will commit not ground troops to the conflict. However, the US will almost certainly provide logistical support up to supplying planes for the French and African forces. Although it is not a country often on the top tier of foreign policy concerns (many charge the US with ignoring the extremist elements coming to the Malian fore), an Ansar Dine controlled Mali would still be severely detrimental to efforts to curb radical Islamism in the region and could have dire implications for other North African countries fighting their own internal battles with extremists. Morocco, Algeria, and a still fragile Libya stand to lose the most if Ansar Dine is able to infringe further south or even just maintain its foothold in the north and should provide their own support to the West African mission.

Furthermore, West African and French troops alone could create more unrest due to France’s colonial legacy in Africa and the West and North African differences in language and religion. Including Moroccan and Algerian forces would at least dilute charges that the conflict is one of Christian vs. Muslim. As noted by Vicki Huddleston in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Algeria has already served as a mediator in previous negotiations between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels. Since the Tuareg nationalists have been largely sidelined by the Islamist group Ansar Dine, they could prove a vital ally to fight against the group in the north while international forces push against its encroachment in the south.

With observers already worried that this could become “France’s Afghanistan,” regional partners as well as the United States cannot act quickly enough to provide support. Though the southern government is far from perfect, Ansar Dine has shown such Taliban-esque qualities in the past few months ranging from destruction of priceless tombs to gross violations of human rights that its continued control over the north would be a humanitarian disaster.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Venezuela's Spectral Inauguration

Today, in Caracas, tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens will gather to celebrate the swearing in and, consequently, the beginning of a new six-year presidential term for their country. What is different about today, however, is that the president, Hugo Chavez, will not be there; instead, he is fighting for his life in a Cuban hospital in Havana. In one of the most interesting constitutional debates in decades for this populist Latin American nation, the decision to allow Mr. Chavez to rule in absentia will be widely contested for weeks to come, with the repercussions potentially being quite catastrophic.

Mr. Chavez, who first won the presidency in 1999 and has held the position since, has been battling cancer for several years now. After four serious operations, the first occurring sometime in 2011, Mr. Chavez continues to struggle to return to a level of health necessary to rule a country with somewhat burgeoning strategic relevance in an important developing region of the world. There are myriad issues to address: minuscule oil production in recent years, a growing food shortage, and the need for stronger diplomatic ties with much of the Western world, most notably the United States. Mr. Chavez, who has long been a populist (ruling on the slogan "I am the people") has alienated himself and his country in the eyes of the United States, constantly drawing ire by supporting Iran, China, and many other nations the U.S. has questionable ties to.

With much to focus on in the coming months, the decision to allow Mr. Chavez to continue ruling from a hospital bed over a thousand miles away from Venezuela's capital is at best a parlous one. The Supreme Court, which is largely controlled by Chavez supporters (known as "Chavistas") ruled late last night that not only can the swearing in of the president be postponed to a later date, but that there is no time limit on when that date is. Until then, Mr. Chavez will govern through his Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, who has already begun talking to U.S. officials and others in an effort to exude authority.

Venezuela may not be out of the dark yet, however. Last September, the Council on Foreign Relations released a contingency plan highlighting some of the possible outcomes of either Mr. Chavez not being re-elected, or becoming to ill to rule or even dying. In the event of Chavez dying or withdrawing from the presidency for health reasons, the contingency plan predicts that with the onset of a new election with new candidates, splinters in the Chavista movement could incite mass violence and a state of emergency throughout the entire country. Bordering Colombia as well as Brazil, violence in Venezuela could become contagious, spreading quickly and causing a serious predicament in Latin America as the rest of the world struggles to quell not only rebel groups taking advantage of the situation, such as Colombia's FARC, but also overzealous military cleansing,  like what happened in Argentina during the "Dirty War" of the 1970s.

Today, however, is a day of celebration and honor for many of Venezuela's 30 million citizens. As a sign of respect to Mr. Chavez, supporters are flocking to Caracas with sashes, typically worn by the President as he is sworn in. The people will continue to pray for Mr. Chavez as he fights a lung infection, his latest malaise, and the United States is likely joining in with optimism and hope that he makes a full recovery soon and heads back to rule his country for the next six years.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Chaotic Environments Shaping the Next Generations

Children in Gaza during the 2008/2009 Operation Cast Lead. (Photo by Al Jazeera)

In South Sudan, United Nations personnel persuade hundreds of children and teenagers to relinquish their guns in exchange for their reintegration into society. In Mali, children along with their families flee their homes in the northern region for safety from militias. In Gaza, prolonged instability and armed exchanges between militants and Israeli forces has resulted in PTSD in a majority of the strip's one million children. And just north in war-stricken Syria, thousands of Syrians flee their homes in the midst of bloodshed that has killed more than 60,000 people. International aid organizations like Save the Children--perpetually understaffed and underfunded--scramble to provide adequate resources to thousands of refugees living in camps in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. 

These are only a few examples of children engulfed in crisis situations that can have a drastic impact on a child's formation of intelligence, personality and social behavior. While children anywhere could be victim to any number of threats to their development and security, there are critical differences between a massacre of 20 children in a Connecticut elementary school and a flood in Pakistan or life in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in how crises affect children. In the former situation, resources and personnel are readily accessible and available. There are local, state and federal governments that have the capacity to provide this aid, as well as the capacity to pass legislation that could diminish the chances of something like this happening again. Children can receive counseling and support from a grieving community that will foster their healthy, post-trauma development. At the other end of the spectrum, children and adolescents in poor, unstable and war torn countries face a different set of challenges and opportunities. The governments may be corrupt, illegitimate or nonexistent, unable or unwilling to provide adequate emergency supplies to those displaced and affected by crises. The child's community becomes defined by the shared experiences of squalor, homelessness, malnutrition and witness to violence, instead of by its capacity to nurture the afflicted and itself back to health. Political instability invites outside pressures that recruit children to battle. Even their own government might consider recruiting child soldiers. Without the conditions to foster healthy physical and mental development, children are left exposed to harsh realities that invite extremism. 

Refugee camp in Congo. 13 November 2008. (Photo by Julien Harneis)

In chaotic environments, threats to a child's development and security include minimal or uneven access to food and water, violence and its physical and psychological ramifications, displacement caused by violence or natural disaster and limited upward mobility and economic opportunity. Combined, these factors desensitize and normalize the chaotic status quo, making an eventual transition to normalcy far more difficult. Over 180 million children under the age of 5 suffer physical and mental impairments caused by malnutrition and stunted growth. For children also threatened by violence and instability, joining the armed forces or a militia brings with it the promise of meals, drugs and protection that satisfy the nutritional and security aspects of their survival. Many youth embrace the violence, often finding that the option to join the violence or avoid reintegration is far more practical than putting down their guns. With distorted incentives, no safety net and survival at stake, children in these crisis situations end up vulnerable to the centripetal pull of conflict and instability and the consequences of prolonged crisis.

Although international agencies like UNICEF make it their goal to alleviate suffering and shield children from malnutrition, violence and instability, youth in crisis situations are still at considerable risk. Higher education and job opportunities remain distant fantasies for many kids and adolescents in crises as their environments continue to deteriorate. The children in these chaotic circumstances are far more likely to become the next generations of the poor and disenfranchised, making them a prime audience for recruitment to arms and extremism. The vast majority of them, however, might never experience a secure and nurturing environment. Instead they will depend on international aid agencies and donors for survival and will be lucky if their emotional and physical development isn't impaired. As the current crises in South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, DRC and Mali persist, more and more youths are put at risk and perish at the twin altars of political expediency and insufficient donor contributions. Revamped political will and continued multilateral efforts might be our best shot at remembering that investing in a child's security and development is not just an investment for the present but for future generations as well.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Global Atlas 2012 Wrap-Up

As 2012 draws to a close and 2013 begins, The Global Atlas reflects on world events over the past year that will shape the year to come. Some we have written on, others we have not, but the picture that emerges is that 2012 was a year of gradual transformation as a result of the cataclysmic events of 2011. It remains to be seen if the changes wrought in the world will be for better or for worse.

1.     Latin America

Protests in Mexico over the presidential election results
Though Latin America may have appeared in the headlines less than any other region this year, The US’s southern neighbors have been very active in the political and economic realms. 2012 saw the rise of Arab Awakening-esque moments in Mexico that continue to threaten the government’s already tenuous grasp on stability. Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, has been signaling that his longtime isolationist Caribbean nation is open to talks with perpetual enemy America. Meanwhile, two bastions of anti-U.S. power in the region, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, are currently enduring battles with their health that could render them politically unviable in 2013.

Colombian FARC rebels declared a unilateral truce, but the Colombian government has yet to do the same and continues to launch attacks against the rebels, on January 1 claiming at least 13 lives in a single bombing. Talks are ongoing in Cuba, but the country remains at a deadlock about how to proceed against FARC. Usual economic darling Brazil saw a disappointing 1 percent rise in GDP, compared to 7.5 percent just two years ago in 2010, largely due to the devaluation of the real that will help exports in the long run but is currently wreaking havoc with investment.

Things may be looking bleak in some countries, but in Chile the economy remained robust through the financial crisis, growing at an estimated rate of 5.7 percent. While the nation is still struggling with the aftermath of dictator Augusto Pinochet, it has the one of the world’s fastest growing economies and has largely managed to dodge some of the effects of the global recession. Growing middle classes in almost every country offer new markets for modern goods and services. Such new markets are essential if the other regions of the world want to overcome the fiscal and economic mess many find themselves in now. Latin America may not have solicited the attention it deserved in 2012, but if no news is good news, then the U.S. should be looking to the south as trading partners rather than fragile, aid-receiving countries to ignore.

2.     Europe

The London Olympics

In Europe, the Eurozone crisis continued to dominate the headlines, with Greece requiring another bailout and France and Germany unable to come to a consensus on how to best remedy the situation. As Colin wrote earlier this year, a lack of political coordination in concert with economic integration has led to a breakdown in the entire EU system. Leaders are left with harsh choices: perpetuate debt and division by continuing on the current path, or anger domestic populations with strict austerity measures, which may not even be enough to avoid economic insolvency throughout the region. As the world’s largest economic entity, a failure in the EU to solve the current economic and political problems would be even more disastrous than the US financial crisis of 2009. The longer European countries wait to take action, the more intractable their problems become, and the more painful a solution will be.

In Eastern Europe, Russia had a false start for political reform with protests that began in 2011 but that fizzled out in time for Vladimir Putin’s reelection to the presidency in March. Putin himself has noticeably distanced himself further from the West, most recently signing off on a law that renders all US-Russia adoptions illegal, seemingly in response to the US Magnitsky Act that bans human rights violators from visiting the US. In the coming year the challenge for both parties will be to find enough common ground to come to an agreement on nuclear weapons, international travel for citizens of both countries, and the adoption bill. In other Eastern European countries, corruption, debt, and transparency remained central obstacles to development.

A bright spot of news from Europe came in the form of the London Summer Olympics this year. For a few weeks, the world put confrontations on hold as countries came together symbolically, a task they seem to find impossible in reality.

3.     Sub-Saharan Africa

Labor protests in South Africa

From the Sahel to the Cape of Good Hope, Southern Africa experienced many developments and setbacks this year. Fighting grew worse in war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, exacerbated by forces allegedly sent by Rwanda and Uganda, a charge that both countries’ leadership firmly deny. South Africa experienced violent and tragic labor protests that resulted in at least 34 deaths when police opened fire on protestors. In a country that has been touted as an investment opportunity to outsiders, such violent strikes reveal a need for labor reform unless South Africa’s government wishes to continue to scare away investors.

Further north, Sudan and South Sudan came to a few agreements in the process of their protracted separation. The resumption of oil production and exports was the biggest step forward for the two nations, although the agreement may be short-lived and violence is always a possibility. Extreme Islamism also touched the region when militants took over Northern Mali in March.

The conflicts in both the Sudan and South Africa point to another issue facing Africa: the temporary economic upswing caused by the exploitation of natural resources will be temporary unless more investment is made in human security. The current benefits seen by countries with resources to mine and export will quickly be exhausted unless governments are willing to fund long-term projects in human and infrastructure development. Advanced economies cannot take hold in Africa without such investments, and Africa’s peoples will no longer see the benefits of economic growth but rather the harsh and sometimes violent repercussions of retraction.

4.     The Middle East and North Africa

Hamas military head Ahmed Jabari, who was assassinated by Israel

The most tumultuous region in the world was in no danger of losing its title as the Syrian civil war drew on, Israel and Palestine engaged in another war, US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was assassinated in Libya, and Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi reignited protests. Syria, which we will dedicate a few special articles to in the future, remains the largest concern worldwide. Although the Syrian opposition was able to gain international recognition from important power players including the United States, the world was unwilling to step in militarily, with efforts at a Security Council resolution stymied by China and Russia. Even if President Bashar al-Asad is overthrown, serious questions remain over what a post-Asad Syria will look like, especially considering the extremists within the Syrian opposition. The rebellion’s continuation has only led to a humanitarian disaster and raised chances for regional war.

Israel received the most attention from us here at the Global Atlas, whether it was in regards to the demographic shifts threatening Israel’s domestic stability or the conflict with Gaza that shook an already tenuous period of relative peace. While the facts on the ground did not change much due to the weeklong conflict, many viewed it as a staging ground for a larger war yet to come. In the West Bank, PLO President Abbas succeeded in his bid for UN Non-Member Observer status, a diplomatic step forward for Palestinian statehood. In 2013 it will remain to be seen if the PLO and Hamas will be able to come together with Israel to work towards a two-state solution and further the peace process, or if said process is already too damaged to be resuscitated.

5.     Asia

The US was not alone in 2012 in its “Pivot To Asia.” Central, south, and east Asian countries saw rising prominence and the region’s two largest economies, India and China, marched on in their stratospheric economic growth. In East Asia, North Korea did not shift from its international pariah status as the successor to Kim Jong Il, his son Kim Jong Un, perpetuated his father’s policies of isolationism, nuclear provocation, and a failure to revive a stagnant economy. Meanwhile, Japan, China, and South Korea (as well as Taiwan) engaged each other in territorial disputes over several groups of islands, the most famous of which is the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. The arguments over ownership of seemingly inconsequential rocks reflect the growing tide of nationalism in East Asian nations that culminated with the election of far-right Japanese PM Abe in December.

Chinese relations with the US were also strained as both presidential candidates attempted to look “tough on China” in their campaigns. Pres. Obama filed complaints with the WTO about China’s trade policies and Mitt Romney threatened to label China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office. He was unsuccessful in his bid for the presidency, but the current rhetoric paints China as an aggressor rather than the partner it could be.

In south Asia, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan experienced troubles of their own. While India and Pakistan’s tumultuous relationship appeared relatively peaceful, India has recently been rocked by protests over the gang rape and murder of a college students with citizens calling for greater protection of women. Pakistan experienced its own protests on behalf of one of its female citizens Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban. Malala survived the attack to become a symbol of Pakistani resistance to extremism. Earlier in the year, a blasphemy case revealed the opposite side of the issue with extremists rallying around the arrest of a young girl accused of desecrating the Qur’an. With US withdrawal from Afghanistan set for 2014, the coming year will center on preparations by the country’s different factions as well as its neighbors for the instability most are sure will follow.


In the coming year, the world faces many problems both large and small. While each country must manage the microcosm of its domestic politics and economy, sweeping issues like the global economy, development, climate change, and political extremism must be dealt with as well. Here's to a 2013 of less violence and turmoil; the world could surely use a year filled with good news after 2012.