Marking World Toilet Day: Campaigning for the Right to Pee

November 19 marked World Toilet Day, a day designated by the United Nations to draw attention to the need to improve sanitation conditions around the world. According to the United Nations, a $1 investment in providing safe water and sanitation generates a $4.3 return in the form of reduced health care costs. The United Nations has set as a goal to halve the proportion of people without access to sanitation. Currently around 1 billion people (or 15% of the world’s population) lacks access to toilets, increasing the risk of people, particularly children, dying from diarrheal disease.

In India, campaigners have been carrying out the Right to Pee campaign, drawing attention to the unequal practice of charging women to use toilets in large cities while men can use urinals for free. Campaigners claim that this practice forces poor women to relieve themselves in fields and alleyways, increasing risk of rape and sexual assault. They have demanded the government provide free access to urinals for women in major cities.

What do you think? What could governments in both the global North and South do to improve access to sanitation around the world? Is there a right to sanitation? Should there be? Why?

Are Russia and NATO on a Path to War?

Following the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, the international media quickly speculated that Russia and Turkey were on a warpath. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), called for an emergency meeting of the group, a move which Russia described as an escalation. The downing of the Russian jet marks the first direct engagement between NATO and Russian forces since the end of the Cold War.

The issue at the heart of the current crisis was the subject of intense dispute. The Russian government maintains that the Russian aircraft were striking Islamic State targets in northern Syria, when Turkish fighter jets engaged and shot down a Russian plane. Turkey maintains that Russia was striking Turkmen rebel forces, repeatedly crossing into Turkish airspace and ignoring multiple warnings to leave Turkish airspace before being fired on. Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan condemned the event, which he said was provoked by a Russian violation of Turkish airspace and an infringement of Turkish sovereignty. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov implied the act was premeditated, stating that the downing “looks very much like a planned provocation.” He ordered the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft batteries to Syria.

In addressing the situation, US President Barak Obama called on both Russia and Turkey to “take measures to avoid escalation.” But Russian intervention in Syria has complicated American and NATO allies efforts to fight the Islamic State in Syria. American strategy has been to oppose both ISIS and the Syrian government, supporting rebel forces in the region and striking ISIS targets from the air. Russian intervention has centered on supporting the Syrian government. While the Russian government maintains that its intervention is focused on defeating ISIS, Russian airstrikes have been condemned by the West for primarily targeting anti-government forces.

What do you think? Are NATO and Russia on a path to war? How might the situation in Turkey (and relatedly in Syria) be resolved to prevent further escalation?

Espionage Among Friends

Jonathan Pollard was paroled yesterday, after serving more than 30 years of a life sentence in a federal prison. While serving as a US Navy analyst, Pollard apparently gave suitcases of classified information to Israel. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, Pollard’s actions “put at risk important US intelligence and foreign policy interests”

Pollard’s conviction had long been a sticking point in US-Israeli relations, with Israel regularly pushing for his release. But his release had been steadfastly opposed by intelligence and defense officials, citing the volume of information sold to Israel and concerns that releasing him would send the wrong message to others who may be inclined to engage in similar actions. Interestingly, less than a week after a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Pollard was paroled. As a condition of his parole, Pollard is prohibited from leaving the United States for at least five years, preventing him from leaving the country for Israel, which granted him citizenship in 1995.

What do you think? Does Pollard’s release signal an improving relationship between the United States and Israel? Do you think Pollard should have been paroled? Why?

The Fallout from Paris

The international response to last Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris continues to intensify. Investigations by French authorities have led to multiple arrests in Belgium and France, and an international warrant has been issued for the Belgian citizen believed to be the mastermind for the attack. French President François Hollande descried the attacks as “an act of war” and has intensified French airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.

Within the United States, the response to the attack in France has been shaded by the ongoing Presidential primary process. Republican presidential candidates from Donald Trump to Bobby Jindall have called for a range of military actions, from increased airstrikes to deploying American ground forces. Democratic candidates have generally supported President Obama’s existing strategy of airstrikes to support anti-ISIS forces—most notably rebels in Syria and Kurds in Iraq—rather than deploying US soldiers directly on the ground.

But perhaps the sharpest difference has been on the response to Syrian refugees. Noting that one of the terrorists killed in the Paris attack carried a Syrian passport, Republican presidential candidates have called for responses to address immigration. Some have called for an outright ban on refugees from Syria, while others have called for a religious test, limiting immigration to “true Christians” only. Governors of more than fifteen states have said that they would not accept Syrian refugees—proclamations that may be more symbolic than effective. But according to German sources, the Syrian passport was likely a fake intended to paint the attackers as Syrian refugees and provoke precisely this response.

What do you think? Should the United States and other Western countries take steps to limit the ability of Syrian refugees to seek asylum abroad? Why? Does such a move strengthen ISIS’s narrative, as President Obama suggests? Why? And how do you think the United States should respond to the Paris terror attacks?

Fighting the Islamic State after Paris

A series of simultaneous attacks launched in Paris yesterday resulted in at last 140 deaths and more than 80 injuries. French President François Hollande described the attack as an “act of war” perpetrated by Islamic State militants, and world leaders expressed sympathy and support. The attack targeted bars, restaurants, and nightclubs popular with young Parisians and a football match underway. At least eight gunmen and suicide bombers responsible for the attack have been captured or killed. The French government responded by temporarily closing its borders and imposing a curfew in Paris. In claiming responsibility for the attacks, the Islamic State warned the Paris attack was “the first of the storm.”

The Islamic State burst on to the international scene in 2014 after capturing large portions of territory in Iraq and Syria. Originally referred to as ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant), the organization has launched operations in countries as far as Australia, Belgium, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Norway, and elsewhere.

What do you think? What, if anything, can be done to prevent terror attacks like that in Paris yesterday? How might France, the United States, and others work to address the growing reach of the Islamic State both in Europe and the Middle East? And how might the attacks affect EU migration policy as the European Union struggles to address the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS in Syria?

Democratization in Myanmar

Although results have yet to be confirmed, Sunday’s election in Myanmar appears to be headed to transferring power to Nobel Peace Laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy. The elections marked the first democratic ballot after nearly 50 years of military rule. Although final results are still more than a week away, Suu Kyi’s party was already won 256 of the 299 seats declared and the military has already declared it has lost more seats than it has won.

The constitution of Myanmar, developed by the country’s military government in preparation for the transition to democracy, still places considerable limits on the new government. Suu Kyi will be a member of the parliament but is ineligible to serve as the country’s president. Further, the military retains control of key government operations, including the Ministries of Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. It is also guaranteed at least 25 percent of the seats in parliament. Nevertheless, there have been high expectations that the election represents a significant step forward in the democratization of Myanmar.

What do you think? What comes next in Myanmar’s democratization? Will the process continue or will it suffer setbacks as the nation moves forward? Why? And what lessons, if any, does Myanmar hold for other countries transitioning to democracy?

The Shifting Politics of Climate Change

President Obama yesterday dealt a fatal blow to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, ending a seven-year review period with a decision hailed by climate activists as critical in global efforts to address climate change. Stating that “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” President Obama said that “approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.” The proposed project had been strongly backed by pro-industry Republicans and many Democrats in oil producing states like North Dakota. But environmentalists had sought to block the pipeline.

Rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have connected oil sand fields in Western Canada with refineries and ports in Texas and Louisiana. But the project became the focus of anti-climate change activists, who noted that the oil produced in Western Canada was among the most polluting in the world. For his part, President Obama’s rejection of the proposed pipeline was part of a broader effort to address global climate change, a key policy area for his final year in office. President Obama had previously announced new regulations to cut emissions from power plants across the country. And Bill McKibben, a noted American environmentalist, commented  that the decision was a “turning point” in the fight against climate change and observed that “President Obama is the first world leader to reject a project because of its effect on the climate. That gives him new stature as an environmental leader, and it eloquently confirms the five years and millions of hours of work that people of every kind put into this fight.”

What do you think? Was President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project the correct one? What are the environmental implications of this decision? What are the economic implications of the decision? Would you have arrived at the same decision? Why?