Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Global Politics of Landmines

landmines_credit_Mary_WarehamIn a surprising move, the White House issued a statement declaring that it would no longer produce or purchase anti-personnel landmines and it would not update its existing stockpile. The announcement came at a meeting in Mozambique on the Ottawa Convention, also known as the Mine Ban Treaty. The Convention, technically a United Nations treaty, has been signed by 161 states, but not by the United States, China, or Russia, the world’s three largest producers of landmines. The United State stopped short of saying it would join the treaty, but a statement issued by National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said that the United States was “diligently pursuing solutions that [might] ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention.”

The United States has long maintained that it supports the humanitarian concerns expressed under the treaty, and the US government has provided more than $2 billion to aid in mine clearance efforts around the world. But it also maintained a stockpile of more than 10 million mines, and had continued efforts to develop “next generation” mines that could be remotely activated and deactivated. It had also asserted that mines were a central part of plans to protect US forces, most notably in the Korean peninsula, where a minefield with more than 1.2 million mines have been deployed.

At the same time, there is considerable pressure on the United States to join the treaty, and with more than 160 signatories, a strong case could be made that the anti-landmine effort represents a growing international consensus. But given the anarchic nature of the international system, some question whether it is in the national interest for the United States to limit its options in future conflicts.

What do you think? Should the United States join the Ottawa Convention? Why?

Reviewing Iraqi Leadership

As calls for Iraq’s embattled President Nouri al-Maliki to resign intensify, the competition for who will replace him have heated up. Maliki’s government has been widely criticized for failing to reach out to the country’s minority Shia and Kurdish population, and the government of the autonomous Kurdish region has even toyed with declaring independence from Iraq in recent weeks. The stinging defeats of Iraqi military forces by militants associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has left Maliki in a vulnerable position.

As Iraq’s parliament meets, there appear to be several leading contenders to replace Maliki as president. This video from the New York Times provides a brief biography for each of the four leading candidates for the position.

What do you think? Who would be the most effective replacement for Maliki as head of the Iraqi government? Will the new president be more effective in addressing the growing challenge posed by ISIS? Why?

Gender and Religious Freedom

It’s long been noted by development experts that the single fastest and most powerful development tool is protecting gender equality, particularly by empowering women and girls through education and health care. But such goals often run afoul of cultural and religious preferences and beliefs, as the experience of women in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sudan attest.

The most recent example is that of Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman who had faced the death penalty for marrying Daniel Wani, a US citizen and non-Muslim. The case had drawn worldwide attention, particularity from conservative American politicians, who viewed Ibrahim’s case as an example of Islamic attacks on Christians. Ibrahim’s death sentence was overturned on Monday and she was freed from jail. But yesterday she was again detained by Sudanese officials who contend that she attempted to leave the country using illegal documents—emergency travel documents issued by the South Sudanese government.

Spain’s New King

King Felipe VI called for a “new Spain that we will build together” at a ceremony marking his proclamation as head of state. Under Spain’s constitutional monarchy, Filipe serves as the ceremonial head of state, while the Prime Minister, currently Mario Rajoy Brey, is selected by the Spanish parliament to be head of government.

Spain’s previous King, Juan Carlos I, held the office from 1975 until he abdicated the position on June 2. While the position is largely ceremonial in nature, Juan Carlos’ reign suffered from several scandals in recent years, most notably in 2012, when he was criticized for taking a lavish elephant hunting trip in Botswana while Spain’s economic crisis mounted. A Spanish newspaper estimated the cost of the trip at more than $44,000, about twice the average annual salary in the country. At that time, Spain’s unemployment rate was about 25 percent—about 50 percent for young workers. Several Spanish political parties called for his abdication.

What do you think? Will Spain’s new king be more successful in his role of head of state? What are the advantages of having the positions of head of state and head of government separated, like in Spain? What are the advantages of having the positions unified, as they are in countries like the United States?

Argentina’s Debt Crisis and the Politics of Sovereign Debt

ArgentinaThe US Supreme Court handed Argentina a stinging defeat on Monday when it declined to hear an appeal from the Argentina government in its dispute with several hedge funds. The issue arose after several hedge funds which had purchased Argentinian sovereign debt refused to enter into an agreement after the country’s 2001 debt crisis. About 93 percent of Argentina’s creditors entered an agreement to accept a lower rate of repayment. However, several leading hedge funds—dubbed Vulture Funds, because they purchase cheap government debt bonds and then hold out for higher rates of repayment—refused to enter the agreement and held out for repayment in full.

The Argentina government had hoped to repay creditors who accepted the deal and refuse to deal while withholding payment from the others. But a US court ruled that this violated the principle of pari passu, which requires equal treatment for all investors. Under this principle, Argentina would be prohibited from paying creditors who accepted the deal if it did not also pay withholding creditors as well.  And if it does not repay its creditors, the country would be in default, possibly causing considerable economic turmoil in global debt markets.

To make matters worse, the Argentine government has already stated that it does not have the funds to pay all creditors in full by the June 30 deadline. If it fails to make that payment deadline, the country would officially be in default by July 30. Interest rates for Argentinean sovereign debt have already jumped from just under 12 percent before the Supreme Court decision, to almost 18 percent today. Several NGOs, including the Jubilee Debt Campaign, are calling for debt forgiveness to avoid an economic meltdown in Argentina. They describe the debt as illegitimate, and argue that “vulture funds” should not be able to profit off of debt they knew to be bad when they purchased it.

What do you think? Should Argentina be forced to repay the “vulture fund” debt criticized by groups like Jubilee? What effect will this standoff have on the Argentine economy?

The Politics of Oil in Ukraine

The Russian government yesterday announced that a special pricing deal signed between the Ukrainian government and the Russian oil and natural gas company Gazprom would not be renewed. According to the Russian government, Ukraine currently owes more than $4 billion for previous shipments. But given deteriorating relations between the two countries and the desire of the Ukrainian government to develop closer ties with the European Union, Russia appears increasingly unwilling to offer favorable pricing deals to Ukraine.

This video, produced by the Russian news station RT, outlines the Russian position on the question.

What do you think? Is the Russian government justified in its decision to rescind the favorable pricing deal previously negotiated with Ukraine? If the goal of the Russian government is to punish Ukraine for looking to develop closer ties with Europe, will this move be successful? Can Russia use its oil and natural gas wealth as a foreign policy tool?

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Al Qaeda militants seized control of the Iraqi city of Mosul yesterday, forcing the country’s prime minister to request parliament declare a state of emergency in the country. According to the BBC, overnight, hundreds of militants sized control of local government offices, police stations, the airport, and regional army headquarters. An estimated 150,000 people have fled the city, sparking Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani of the neighboring province of Kurdistan to issue a statement requesting the UN refugee agency step up assistance for those fleeing Mosul.

The past week has seen a sharp uptick in violence in Iraq, with the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and its allies launching a series of attacks across northern Iraq. While Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki has promised swift measures to enhance security in the country and drive back ISIS forces, it is not clear how effective Iraq’s fledgling military will be. While the United States completed the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq in 2011, the United States continues to provide support for the Iraqi military.

What do you think? Does the rise of ISIS and other militant Islamic groups in Iraq necessitate an increase in US involvement in Iraq? What should the US role in Iraq look like? Should it be limited to financial assistance and military aid? Should the United States provide air support? Military training? More extensive involvement? And what happens if Iraq falls to Islamic militants?

The Unity Government in Palestine

The Palestinian government welcomed a new unity government, overcoming the longstanding divisions between the two major parties in Palestine, Hamas and Fatah. The new government welcomes 17 new ministers into office, selected as technocrats rather than political leaders. A new election (and accompanying government) will take place in about six months.

While the United States welcomed the announcement and said it would work with the new Palestinian government, the Israeli government responded by announcing a new round of settlements in the West Bank.

What do you think? Will the new Palestinian government be more effective in negotiating with the Israelis and the Americans than the previous government was? Or will progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks continue to be elusive?

And Then There Were Seven…

The G7 met yesterday, producing a statement on Russia that threatened additional “restrictive measures” on Russia if it continued its efforts to destabilize Ukraine. The G7 (which had been the G8 until Russia’s membership was suspended at the end of March over its intervention in eastern Ukraine) appears to be at a loss for how to effectively address the situation in Ukraine. The organization appears to be divided on how to proceed, with France and Germany pushing for “dialogue and de-escalation” The current meeting had been scheduled to take place in Sochi, Russia, but was relocated to Brussels following Russia’s suspension from the organization.

What do you think? Will the G7’s effort to isolate Russia be effective in changing Russia’s Ukraine policy? Does European reliance on Russia’s oil and energy production undermine the effectiveness of Western efforts to address the situation in Ukraine diplomatically? And if so, what other tools, if any, does the West have to address Russian intervention?

Commemorating Tiananmen Square

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square. Many people remember the dramatic footage of “tank man,” the lone protestor who stood in front of a column of tanks in an attempt to prevent their movement against other protestors. The crackdown marked a dramatic shift in Chinese politics. In 1989, broad shifts were taking place across the Communist world. Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, was attempting to introduce sweeping reforms in the country. Those reforms quickly spiraled beyond his control, and eventually the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union broke apart, and Eastern Europe moved to democracy.

Similar protests erupted in 1989 in China, culminating in a massive, student-led movement occupying Tiananmen Square and demanding democratization in China. The Chinese government cracked down, condemning the protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot.”

In this video, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviews one of the student leaders in the protest, Wu’er Kaixi, who was forced to flee China after the crackdown and now resides in Tiawan. In this interview, he offers his thoughts on the protest and the future direction of China in a post-Tiananmen Square era.