This week: Nigeria, Sudan, Guatemala, United States, Bangladesh, South China Sea, United Kingdom, Egypt, Iraq and the Arctic.
Boko Haram killed at least 18 people and injured 10 others at a funeral in northeast Nigeria on 16 June. The violent Islamist group has also claimed responsibility for the deaths of seven police officers in a village in Niger close to the Nigerian border on 17 June. The attacks come despite the fact that the Nigerian military has recaptured most of the areas that were under the control of Boko Haram and the government claims that the group was defeated in late 2015. Neighbouring countries, including Niger, have argued that Boko Haram has rebuilt its military operations, and that the Multinational Joint Task Force – which was responsible for the successful counter-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram in early 2015 – needs to fight back. In response, the Nigerian Air Force have launched Operation Gama-Aiki in attempt to quickly combat the insurgency.
The Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has declared a four-month ceasefire starting on 17 June in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan areas close to the South Sudan border. Government forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) have been in conflict since 2011, with neither side able to take control of the region. An earlier ceasefire, which also included the West Darfur region, broke down in early 2016. The Sudanese government has heralded the ceasefire as a gesture of goodwill and a chance for rebels to join the peace process; however, some maintain that the decision was the result of the current rainy season. Sudanese rebels have called on the government to resume peace negotiations with African Union mediators and to release political prisoners and students detained in the recent campus unrest.
Guatemala’s former defence minister, Manuel Lopez Ambrosio, and former interior minister, Mauricio López Bonilla, were arrested on charges of corruption and money laundering on 12 June. Both served under the administration of former president Otto Perez Molina, and are accused of misusing millions of dollars’ worth of state funds to purchase luxury goods and gifts. Arrest warrants were also issued for another former defence minister, a former energy minister, and a former communications, infrastructure and housing minister. These arrests, coincide with anti-corruption protests that have been taking place in various locations in the capital, Guatemala City. These new revelations will likely prompt additional, nationwide anti-corruption protests in the short term, and possibly decreased confidence in the country’s government.
On 12 June, a man claiming affiliation with Islamic State (IS) opened fire in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, popular with the LGBT community. There was a three-hour standoff between the shooter and police, and 49 people were killed and 53 injured before he was shot and killed by police. The shooter, Omar Mateen, was a US citizen of Afghan descent. The situation highlights the increasing incidence of homegrown terrorist threats in Western countries. The incident also highlights the increasing complexity of preventing such attacks, given that Mateen had been on a terrorism watch list due to possible extremist ties in 2013 and 2014, but was ultimately removed from the list due to a lack of evidence. The incident will likely lead to increased security measures in the area and at gay pride events in the short to medium term. The US president, Barack Obama, has called for stricter gun control measures, including a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. However, on 20 June, the US Senate voted down four separate measures to strengthen background checks and prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms.
On 10 June, police in Bangladesh arrested approximately 900 people as part of a crackdown on militants. Around 40 people have been killed in the country over the past few years, including secular bloggers, academics, gay rights activists and, most recently, a Hindu monetary worker who was hacked to death by several people on 10 June. Those arrested include criminals and terrorism suspects, as many of the attacks have been claimed by Islamic State- or al-Qaeda-linked groups. However, there is concern that the government is trying to place blame for the attacks on political opposition groups and is targeting their members in the crackdown. It is unlikely that the arrests will serve to deter extremists from future acts of violence.
South China Sea
On 14 June, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) released a joint statement expressing concern over rising tensions in the disputed territory of the South China Sea. The statement highlights increasing frustration among ASEAN countries over China’s activities in the area, which includes the construction of what appear to be military facilities on some of the disputed islands. The statement also comes ahead of an expected ruling in a case that the Philippines brought to the United Nations’ arbitration court disputing China’s activity in the region. The court is expected to side with the Philippines. While such a ruling may serve to support the Philippines’ and other ASEAN countries’ position in the South China Sea dispute, it is unlikely that China will recognise the ruling.
On 23 June, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union or leave the EU. A leave vote would have profound ramifications for Britain, Europe and the world. The Bank of England is asking its staff to work overnight on the 23rd in case the markets collapse within hours of a leave result. A leave vote is expected to significantly devalue the pound, causing ripples in international trade and financial flows around the world as well as undermining the British economy. However, the official Vote Leave campaign has been able to tap in to a deep vein of genuine working-class concern over globalisation and immigration, and has played on people’s fears with a series of untruths about the amount of money Britain contributes to the EU and the number of countries waiting to join the EU. In contrast, the ‘Remain’ campaign has been lacklustre and ineffective, despite (or perhaps because of) having the weight of evidence and expert opinion on its side. The polls are neck and neck at present, and the vote could go either way.
Jo Cox, a pro-EU Labour Party MP, was killed on 16 June in her Batley and Spen constituency. The suspect, Thomas Mair, attacked Cox as she left a constituency surgery. Mair reportedly shouted ‘Britain first’ as he shot and stabbed her several times. The suspect is thought to have links with far-right extremism, including neo-Nazi groups in Britain and the United States. During a court hearing on 17 June, Mair gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. The murder happened against the backdrop of campaigning in the lead-up to Britain’s closely-fought EU referendum on 23 June. British police are investigating whether the murder was an assassination by a far-right extremist. Although it is very probable that this will be a one-off event, it has highlighted the inadequacy of MP’s security when away from Westminster and Whitehall.
On 18 June, an Egyptian court upheld its ruling in the trial of 11 individuals, including the former president, Mohamed Morsi, accused of leaking state documents relating to national security to Qatar. Six of the 11, including two al-Jazeera employees, have been sentenced to death, with Morsi and two of his aides sentenced to 25-year prison terms. Human rights activists have condemned the verdict against the journalists, arguing that the case has been heavily politicised and that the Egyptian government is targeting freedom of expression. The Vienna-based International Press Institute has called for Interpol and foreign governments to ignore arrest warrants relating to the case on the basis that it was politically motivated and that there was a significant lack of evidence. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have frequently commented on the difficulty in reporting in Egypt, with the former claiming that Egypt was the second-worst country worldwide for jailing journalists in 2015.
The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has hailed the ‘liberation’ of Fallujah from Islamic State after an Iraqi military offensive – Operation Breaking Terrorism – which launched on 23 May backed by airstrikes by the US-led coalition. While fighting is ongoing, government forces have retaken central, southern and eastern areas. The United Nations estimates around 90,000 civilians remain in the city, and aid workers are warning of a humanitarian disaster. The recapture of Fallujah represents both a significant victory and a challenge to the Iraqi government, as it must unite the predominantly Sunni population with the Shia militia forces that heavily contribute to the Iraqi Army. There have been widespread reports of ill-treatment and abuse by Shia militia from civilians escaping the city since the military offensive began. The government has highlighted Mosul as its next major target, building on its military offensive that started in late March.
Russia has announced it plans to maintain its military presence in the Artic region. Russia states it intends to act solely within international law, which, it claims, rules out any potential for conflicts over access to mineral and biological resources. Simultaneously, Russia invoked the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, part of which covers Exclusive Economic Zones – a 200-nautical-mile zone off the coast of a country, within which that country has sole exploitive rights. All Arctic Council Countries except the United States are party to the law. Russia is attempting to assert control over the continental shelf and the significant hydrogen carbon resources found there. It is improbable that there will be armed conflict in the region or any direct political fallout from the action in the short term. In the longer term, there a possibility that tensions in the region will rise, and competition for hydrocarbons – through legal or other means – will remain fierce.
Prepared by Kirsten Winterman, Erin Decker, Matthew Clarke and Chris Abbott.
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