Adieu to Afghanistan: US veterans react to Biden’s decision to withdraw troops

Image by Pixabay via Pexels

Written by MacKenZie Rumage

On 13 April, President Biden announced that he would pull the remaining 2,500 American troops out of Afghanistan by a date none other than the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, carried out by al-Qaeda and spearheaded by the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Originally, he meant to stick to the 1 May deadline former President Trump set but it became clear that the peace talks between the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani, the United States and the Taliban that have been going on since December 2019 would not conclude by then.

Originally, the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to drive the Taliban out of power in order to deprive al-Qaeda of a foothold in the country. ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, as the initial invasion was called, was meant to not only avenge the 9/11 attacks but to take part in a larger ‘war on terror’, as former President George W Bush coined it. Initially, the American public greatly supported the invasion because they thought the masterminds behind 9/11 would be swiftly brought to justice. However, it would be ten more years before bin Laden was killed by Seal Team Six in Pakistan.

In his announcement, Biden said, ‘We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for withdrawal, and expecting a different result.’ This may sound like Biden admitting defeat. But it also sounds like what has been clear to many for years: the war stopped being winnable a long time ago. He continued, ‘I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. […] I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.’ Over one hundred thousand people have died in the war, including nearly fifty thousand civilians.

There has been much discussion among American politicians about the merits of withdrawing and the grave risks. Those opposed to the withdrawal argue that since the Taliban currently control more area than they have over the past twenty years, Afghanistan could once again become a ‘terrorist haven’, making the United States only more at risk of another 9/11-style attack. They also argue that the headway the United States gained, such as increased freedoms for women and girls and tenuous peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, could be reversed. In other words, despite twenty years of American presence, Afghanistan may not be strong enough for a full withdrawal of American troops. Those who support the withdrawal argue that the sheer length of the war is reason enough to leave. Twenty years is enough, if not far too long. Kids who were born in 2003 — long after the initial invasion — can now fight in the country their home has been at war with their entire lives.

For American veterans, however, reactions to the withdrawal decision have been less clear-cut. According to the Washington Post, nearly eight hundred thousand people served in Afghanistan in the United States military, thirty thousand of which were deployed at least five times. Loren Crowe, who was deployed to Afghanistan twice in the army, told the Post that he wasn’t sure how the military could stay, but was concerned about what withdrawal meant for the Afghans themselves. ‘There are forty million people in that country. They’re going to bear all costs of this decision.’

As combat veterans, people like Crowe understand the costs of war — and the costs of withdrawing — more acutely than anyone else, including the politicians and top brass of the military. They make the most important decisions about the war, but do not have to live with those decisions the same way servicemembers do. Felix Figueroa, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marine four times, told the Military Times part of him was saddened, because he knew how American military backup helped the Afghan commandos he became friends with. But at the same time, ‘no amount of [American] money or years spent training and advising is going to change the systematic problems of tribalism, religious radicalism and corruption crippling the country. I feel it’s time that Afghanistan and the Afghans figure it out on their own.’ In other words, America has outlived their usefulness in Afghanistan. If they couldn’t help to fix the country in twenty years, how much good could any more time in the country do?

Amber Chase, who served three deployments as a mortuary affairs soldier who prepared bodies to be returned home, felt that the withdrawal ‘makes every life we lost over there pointless.’ This sentiment makes sense too: if the United States left Afghanistan in arguably worse shape than when they arrived, did those killed in Afghanistan die in vain?

This all goes back to the question of whether the war itself was worth it. That’s not an easy question to answer, and everyone will have their own opinions. And it may be years before anyone can answer with any certainty. There are too many uncertainties, too many unknowns. What will happen to the women and girls who have made such progress and gained more freedoms than would have been imaginable twenty years ago? Will President Ashraf Ghani be able to keep his precarious hold on power? Are the Afghan security forces strong enough to hold their own against the Taliban, who believe they have already won the war?But one thing is for certain, as it has been for a long time: this war was not going to have a happy ending. No matter how long it went on, no matter whether Afghanistan became a strong democracy or a failed state, the end of the war was never going to be a celebration. Too much money was spent, too many lives were lost, and too many years were spent on fighting an amorphous enemy known as ‘terrorism’ to ever give a satisfactory sense of justification or closure. And nobody in America knows that better than the veterans themselves. As Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan told The New York Times, ‘The people who served on the ground are the last people you need to tell that the war is going to end in tears.’

Tigray: A Violation of International Humanitarian Law?

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

By Sarah Rennie

An update: This article says that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea denied allegations of Eritrean forces’ involvement in the conflict in Tigray (a region in northern Ethiopia). However, Ahmed acknowledged in March 2021 that Eritrean forces were involved. And on 16 April 2021, Eritrea admitted to the UN Security Council (and posted a letter online) that Eritrean forces were involved in the conflict and would start withdrawing their troops, simultaneous with the withdrawing of Ethiopian troops from the Tigray region.

Since November 2020, the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray has been suffering through a brutal and inhumane conflict. With an estimated 70,000 dead, 2.2 million internally displaced, and 4.5 million in urgent need of food, it is becoming a concern that the atrocities committed in Tigray are violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and that the victims of this conflict require immediate assistance.

The Tigray conflict stems from an already tense relationship between the Tigrayan ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF), who are under direction from Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. Abiy came to power in 2018, and reshuffled the government coalition into a single party – the Prosperity Party. The TPFL refused to join and continued to govern their own region, leading to each side seeing the other as illegitimate. In August 2020, national elections were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision that several opposition parties condemned, including the TPLF. Consequently, the TPLF decided to hold its own regional elections in September.

The Tigray War started against this backdrop on November 4th, 2020 when armed TPLF forces attacked the ENDF Northern Command Headquarters in Mekelle. The TPLF called their attack “pre-emptive”, as they believed an attack by federal troops was imminent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Abiy ordered a military offensive against the TPLF in retaliation. The conflict has since developed and troops from neighbouring Eritrea have become involved, fighting on the side of the Ethiopian government. Yet, both Ethiopia and Eritrea itself deny allegations of Eritrea’s involvement.

What cannot be denied, however, is the severe amount of suffering in Tigray. At the outbreak of the conflict, there were restrictions on communication and almost all journalists were banned from the region. Subsequently, it has been difficult to obtain accurate accounts of what was unfolding. Now, as information and reports are finally being shared, the reality of the conflict is coming into focus.

Though available interviews and articles are limited, it is clear that most of the occurrences in Tigray are far from legal by International Humanitarian Law standards. IHL seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict by protecting those who do not partake in conflict. It protects civilians, medical and military personnel, and those who no longer participate in conflict (such as wounded combatants and prisoners of war). It is forbidden to “kill or wound” anyone unable to fight. Furthermore, medical personnel, supplies, ambulances and hospitals must also be protected. Civilians protected under IHL must also be allowed “food, shelter and medical care”.  So what does this mean for Tigray?

On November 28th 2020, the historical town of Axum was host to a 24-hour killing spree by Eritrean forces, sparked by a prior attack by the Tigrayan militia. Between December 2020 and February 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 Axum victims and their relatives. These interviews were conducted over the phone, due to government restrictions on Tigray. Interviewees “consistently identified Eritrean troops” by their vehicles, uniforms and the dialect of Tigrinya, disproving aforementioned claims of Eritrean involvement. Human Rights Watch estimates that 200 civilians were killed that night alone. Clearly, both sides of the Tigrayan Conflict are at fault for the atrocities that they commit, but the focus must be turned to the victims of such atrocities. The international community are greatly concerned that the Tigray Conflict is in violation of IHL, and the Axum attacks prove these concerns to be true. The death toll estimated by Human Rights Watch references killings of civilians, showing that these are extrajudicial killings of non-combatants carried out by Eritrean forces, and therefore illegal according to IHL. Further violence against innocent residents of Tigray has been disclosed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with more than 136 cases of sexual assault reported in hospitals in December and January alone, and fears that the real figures are much higher.

It has also been widely documented that starvation has been used as a tactic against citizens in Tigray. Omna Tigray (a global nonprofit that advocates for an end to the Tigrayan conflict) reported that the Abiy administration blocked access to electricity, aid and food for those desperately in need. This is another blatant violation of IHL, resulting in the suffering of millions of Tigrayan civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross stated on 18th November 2020 that “…three ambulances run by the Ethiopia Red Cross were attacked”. This is a worrying account demonstrating that the government is not protecting medical personnel, as IHL asserts they should be. Additionally, hospitals have either been looted by government and Eritrean troops, or overrun – a situation made more serious by the threat of COVID-19.  

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Filippo Grandi, has expressed concern over the humanitarian conditions in Tigray, and has called for unrestricted access to refugee camps in order to provide acutely needed assistance. The G7 has also stated concerns about human rights abuses and war crimes. Yet, on 6th March, the United Nations Security Council cancelled plans to issue a statement calling for an end to violence in Tigray due to China and Russia’s opposition. Additionally, the international community has urged the African Union to apply more pressure on the Ethiopian government to pacify the situation. On 11th March, the Chairperson of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, met with Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, Ato Demeke Mekonnen, to discuss the engagement of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in the investigation of war crimes in Tigray. Faki stated that the Ethiopian government was ready to cooperate and engage with the African Union. However, reports of some of the most severe fighting since November in southern Tigray came out the next week. To date, there has been no update on the status of talks between the African Union and the Ethiopian government. 

The international community is often criticised, quite justifiably, for inappropriately intervening in the affairs of African countries. Yet, there have been numerous instances in which international inaction has exacerbated unnecessary suffering, like in Tigray. More must be done to ensure the survival of the millions of innocent civilians in need of food, medical attention and shelter. It is imperative that the Ethiopian government cooperates with international organisations and allows access to Tigray and its citizens. It is also important that more people worldwide continue to raise awareness of this brutal conflict. Only then can the victims receive the help and attention that they desperately need.

“Buen Vivir”: Rethinking Development and Prosperity

Photo by ia huh on Unsplash

Written by Depali Rai

How one school of thought is reconceptualising development beyond the western-centric confines of neo-liberal capitalism and individualism.

International development has been a key tenet of global politics and foreign relations since the earlier half of the 20th century. Following the Second World War, the American-backed Marshall Plan pumped capital into war-torn European nations. The journey towards post-war recovery prompted the conception of a Marshall Plan for the so called “Third World” to tackle their troubling conditions of poverty and “backwardness”. A model of development and modernisation emerged where achieving “First World” status of wealth and prosperity was seen as a science to be applied onto the global south. Neo-liberal reforms soon crept onto the agenda of every “Third World” nation.

As philanthropic as international development may at first seem, the effort to alleviate global poverty and “emancipate” the “Third World” or Global South is far from a neutral endeavour. Escobar, an anthropologist of development, argues that while development projects aimed at lifting the “Third World” out of poverty are presented as intrinsically positive and altruistic, the developmental agenda continues to fail and even damage third world environments through its colonial ideologies.

The debate surrounding western motivations behind development aid is ongoing and deeply layered. Where some cite ego-centric neo-colonialism as the underlying force, others emphasise the role of cold-war geopolitics and diplomacy. Whilst the debate over motivations and intentionality is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, what is explicitly clear now is the strong backlash against this long-standing, traditional model of development.

Buen Vivir: Reimagining Development

Buen Vivir or Vivir Bien, are the Spanish words used in Latin American countries to describe alternatives to the development model that has so far been propagated by western-dominated institutions. Meaning “good life”, the term has been actively used as a part of a wider social movement which advocates achieving a “good life” through societal harmony and collectivist principles. This culturally sensitive philosophy follows closely from indigenous traditions and world views of Latin American countries including the “harmonious living” principles of the Guarani people of Bolivia and the “sumak kawsay” (good life) of the Quechua indigenous people of Ecuador. While there are no strict definitions of what Buen Vivir is, the importance of seeing human beings as part of the natural world is fundamental to the Buen Vivir principles of community and reciprocity. Community for one is reimagined beyond just humans to include plants and animals in this horizontal dynamic. Key issues that Buen Vivir holistically tackle are food security, ecological balance, and environmental justice. Certainly, one clear commonality between the diverse adoption of Buen Vivir across Latin America is the emphasis on the failures of the traditional economic metrics of development and wellbeing such as GDP per capita.

Buen Vivir reflects a wider critique from the “Third World” in which developing nations are rejecting the ethnocentric, restrictive, and even damaging nature of western developmental projects as well as general capitalist degradation to natural environments and indigenous livelihoods.

Its popularity has been clear since its initial conception in the mid-2000s and has reached government level through its inclusion into the Constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009). The preamble to the Ecuadorian constitution reading: “We decided to construct a new form of citizen co-existence, in diversity and harmony with nature, to reach ‘el buen vivir, el sumak kawsay’”. As such, Buen Vivir offers a culturally appropriate, ecologically responsible, and decolonial approach to development and wellbeing.

Associación ANDES (Association for Nature and Sustainable Development) in Cusco, Peru is one example of how communities are coming together with the Buen Vivir principles of sustainable rural living, biodiversity conservation and maintaining indigenous knowledge and practices. The Potato Park is one such innovation that isnot just a conservation initiative for various varieties of potatoes. It is, above all, a bio-cultural territory dedicated to the conservation of the heritage of six indigenous communities that live here (…), the landscape and its elements that also include knowledge, traditions, innovations and the worldview of the more than 6000 inhabitants”

Prospects: what can we really make of Buen Vivir?

Indigenous worldviews such as Buen Vivir have proved to be vital to reimagining and reconstructing ideas of wellbeing and prosperity beyond economic criteria. Long established indicators such as the Human Development Index clearly fail to account for ecological concerns.

Critics of Buen Vivir question if it could have any impact beyond indigenous places of origin – if it only works within the cultural contexts of Latin America. Is Buen Vivir just another small-scale example of bottom-up development that has no impact beyond its locality? Such concerns reflect the arrogance of institutionalised ways of thinking. Casting doubt on decolonial approaches to sustainability demonstrates the narrowness of contemporary development discourse.

The Potato Park in Peru has clearly had an impact beyond Peru. Agronomists working on the farm have been consulting the ancestral knowledge of the local farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods, and frosts. Such research in the face of growing concerns over food security due to land degradation and crop resilience may indeed “play an important role in feeding the rest of the world.

Even so, probing to see if Buen Vivir constitutes a new universalising model misses the point entirely. We need to look past international development’s historical tendency to search for a silver bullet. No countries have identical histories. Much is lost when we aim for uniformity.

In the long run, Buen Vivir demonstrates the failures of historical and existing approaches to development by “First World” institutions and practitioners. Buen Vivir initiatives constitute a challenge to the traditionally western-dominated narratives in global politics and thus, add socio-political value beyond the farms, homes, and communities of South America.  

Child brides: the global victims of gender-based violence

Photo credit: ‘Girls Not Brides Global Member Meeting’ by Hassan Ouazzani via Flickr

By Louisa Campbell

The reality of child marriage pervades young girls’ lives across the globe. Child brides are more likely to be victims of domestic, sexual and physical violence as well as less likely to finish their education. This harsh reality is a manifestation of global trends of gender violence and is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights. Typically, high rates in child marriage emerge in humanitarian contexts as was documented in a 2017 Human Rights Council resolution.

Examples of humanitarian contexts can vary dramatically; notably, states experiencing armed conflict, suffering natural disasters and areas controlled by violent non state actors are all particularly prone to high child marriage rates. Take Yemen for example, where the number of girls married before the age of 18 sat at 50% before the outbreak of civil war, before subsequently rising to 65%. Additionally, the ‘Northern Triangle’ states of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras experience high numbers of girls who are recruited to become wives of gang members. Despite these distressing realities, it has been reported that in the last 15 years the numbers of child marriages globally has declined by 15%. Why has this concern only recently resurfaced amongst human rights discussions?

In addition to the aforementioned factors, the outbreak of global disease exacerbates rates of child marriage. During the Ebola outbreak schools in Western areas of Africa closed, facilitating a rise in child neglect, sexual abuse and adolescent pregnancies. In Sierra Leone, the numbers of underage pregnancies doubled after the outbreak. Therefore, it is unfortunately not particularly shocking that the Covid-19 pandemic has had disastrous effects on gender-based violence and in particular the number of child brides.

The pandemic has intensified some of the pre-existing main drivers of early marriage such as limited access to education, early pregnancies and poverty. Worldwide, it is estimated that school closures have interrupted the education of 1.6 billion children, causing often irreversible damage to the future prospects of young girls. The impact has been particularly concerning for girls who are living without sexual and reproductive education. Moreover, families facing food and employment insecurity feel they have no choice but to marry their daughters to older men in order to guarantee the most basic forms of stability. In a 2020 Global Girlhood Report, the non-profit Save the Children described the effects of Covid-19 as ‘irreversible setbacks and lost progress’. They estimated that the effects of the pandemic alone threatened to reverse decades of progress combatting global child marriage.

A UNFPA report summarised that the effects of Covid-19 will affect wider gender-based violence in two ways. Firstly, by reducing efforts aimed at preventing and protecting women from violence, and secondly by restricting their access to social services and care that provide life-saving sexual and reproductive health services .They estimated that the effects of the pandemic alone will cause a one-third reduction in progress towards ending gender based violence by 2030. For child marriage in particular, the conditions of the past year are expected to result in an additional 13 million child marriages between 2020 and 2030 that otherwise would not have occurred.

India is a particularly worrisome example.  The UNFPA report showed that, despite the state accounting for a third of child marriages globally, ardent efforts were given to raising education and awareness before the pandemic. In the past five years efforts like such have reduced these shocking statistics. However, a harsh lockdown has plummeted many Indian families into poverty, the impact of which is parents believing that child marriage is the only way their daughters will receive food. The restrictions instigated also made travel for health care or community support and protection near impossible, putting the work of local initiatives on hold indefinitely. 

Of course, whether large or small, no rates of child marriage are acceptable. Despite catalysing current statistics, hopefully Covid- 19 shining the spotlight on this global human rights violation may encourage serious change. The issue is not only global in scale but multifaceted in cause and thus solution. So far, some countries have implemented notable attempts to combat the intensification of this issue in the past year. Namely, in Cambodia the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has conducted child marriage prevention awareness campaigns. The Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission has distributed advisory letters supporting similar endeavours. In Africa, Kenya has witnessed the increased investigations into the violence against women and the Ethiopian government recently intervened to rescued 500 girls who were set to be married off.

Evidently, efforts are occurring to raise awareness of this issue and directly combat this human rights violation. However, in the long term, efforts need to be directed towards dismantling gender inequality and empowering women. For example, improving girls’ education opportunities, access to health and autonomy over reproductive rights are proven to have positive impacts on societal conditions as a whole.

Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage has produced a series of recommendations for combatting this issue moving forward. They urge governments to pay attention to the causes and consequences of child marriage and offer ample support during times of crisis. The UN have been pushed to use Resolution 1352 on Women, Peace and Security to make girls a focal point of conflict prevention and resolution. If changes are implemented from governing bodies, the impact of regional programs may be more effective. Girls Not Brides has a partnership of more than 1500 organisations across 100 countries; they are a powerful force, but to truly eradicate this global issue, systemic change needs to occur first.

Together, a consolidated effort from various actors could still mitigate these unprecedented rates of child marriage. The effects of Covid-19 serve to demonstrate how fragile conditions of gender based violence are across the world as the pandemic has exacerbated harmful cultural norms. Undoubtedly, crisis will hit again, perhaps not in the form of a disease, but conflict, crime-ridden states and natural disasters can have similarly devastating effects. Therefore, to protect young girls around the world global organisations need to place more emphasis on this issue as a human rights violation, granting regional organisations greater powers to work on dismantling harmful gender norms from the ground up. Thus, when faced with times of uncertainty, girls will have increased education, freedom and rights to protection allowing them to better shelter themselves from a future characterised by violation.

Myanmar: The Fervour, The Courage, and The Seriousness

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

By Jack McGrath

On the 1st of February 2021, the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – seized control of their government. They were led by Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmese armed forces: the man, almost undoubtedly, most responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya people

Of course, military rule is not something particularly alien to the Myanmese. Since their independence from Britain in 1948, they have endured over half a century of it. And for almost three decades they were under the rule, more or less, of one man, General Ne Win. It was he who instituted the so-called Burmese Way to Socialism and he who, arguably, normalised the modern regime of terror and violence in Myanmar. 

There was a brief hope that the 1988 uprising might bring about change. But those hopes were not fulfilled. Perhaps around 10,000 people died during the uprising and thousands of protestors, many of them students, faced years of imprisonment. Most of those imprisoned were subjected to horrific torture, forced isolation, and starvation. All in all, what the Myanmese people had to show for their uprising was depressingly little. The military resumed their absolute rule in 1990, after refusing to cede power in a landslide general election, and retained their rule for another 21 years.

It was thought that the past decade was slowly spelling an end to the protracted suffering and subjugation of the Myanmese people. Between 2011 and 2015, a steady march toward democracy, conceded by the government, seemed to begin. It was not, unfortunately, without its own serious controversy. In the wake of the NLD – a military opposition party – securing a tremendous supermajority in the 2015 general election, the military was quite evidently not in the mood to render unto the people what they were due. The military retained the right to appoint a quarter of all parliament members, refused to give up their control of the security ministries, and ensured that Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the victorious NLD, could not take up the presidential role. In fact, it was not until a year after the election that Aung San Suu Kyi was able to become de facto head of the government through the establishment of the ‘state counsellor’ role. In addition to all that, there was the horrific and unforgivable ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, which began in 2016 and has continued to this date. Nonetheless, it seemed at least a semblance of democracy was being born. Even if that birth was itself some sort of a monstrosity.

The recent military coup looks to unmake even that and has set Myanmar on a collision course with absolute military rule. Since its start, at least 50 people have been murdered by security forces and at least 1,700 people have been imprisoned. There are curfews, media has been restricted, and around 400 democratically elected members of parliament have been detained. Military suppression has been merciless; even health workers have been targeted and severely beaten by members of the police forces and military

So yes, Myanmar is once again on a collision course with absolute military rule. But that is no cause for a sinister fatalism: collision is not a given. There are thousands of Myanmese protestors fighting and putting their lives on the line, for democracy and a swift end to the disturbing resumption of military rule.

Indeed, Myanmar is on the cusp of history. If its people continue to refuse to accept anything less than what they are due, then they may resume the slow march toward democracy. If, however, they break before the terror and cruelty, then they will return to lives lived in the spiritual, moral, and political dark ages. Lives which will be more brutal, more unforgiving, and more empty (for revolutions do not begin at the minute past midnight).

To the Myanmese people, the battle ahead should seem staggering, even overwhelming, but that is no reason not to fight. The measure of a people is, after all, not to be found in their suffering or their years under the yoke but in the fervour, the courage, and the seriousness with which they fight when they realise that the yoke must be surmounted.

As it so happens, I am writing this on the 150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s birthday, the internationalist revolutionary who was murdered in 1919 for being absolutely uncompromising in her ideals. On this day, I hope that the Myanmese people recognise that this is, for them, an either/or moment. And I hope that they confidently demonstrate to their overlords the fervour, the courage, and the seriousness which I believe is imbued within them, as within us all.

Myanmar: Pro-democracy demonstrators’ winning the social media battle to keep hopes alive

Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

By Louise Palmer

The rise of social media as a platform for organised resistance has changed the context in which all authority operates. Apps such as Facebook and Tik Tok have the potential to mobilize greater numbers of people in less time than ever before. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the crucial role social media played in driving the Arab Spring, as it gave protesters a way to contact each other and plan mass protests. Today, pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar are using similar tactics as they engage in what appears to be a David vs Goliath struggle against the military coup d’état.

On the 1st February 2021, the Myanmar military staged a swift and effective take over of power. Claiming electoral fraud, the military ousted the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) on the premise that elections would be held again in a year’s time. Unfortunately, this development did not come as a shock as the military previously executed a successful coup d’etat in 1962. Myanmar was ruled by a military junta from 1962 until 2010, when some authority was transferred to a civilian government controlled by the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This transition was well-received by the international community, especially after the 2015 general election returned an overwhelming victory for the NLD. Although positive in many respects, the military retained a level of autonomy which allowed it to operate at will. Ethnic minorities within Myanmar, particularly Rohingya Muslims, were faced with what the UN characterised as military efforts at ethnic cleansing

The current coup d’etat has once again demonstrated the determination of the military to retain power and protect its own interests. The 2021 seizure of power was triggered by NLD’s decisive victory in the 2020 general election over the military’s USDP. To many observers the election results signalled that the people of Myanmar were firmly backing increased democracy. From the military’s point of view, increased democracy was a threat and the solution was a coup. The military is currently in power in Naypyidaw, a purpose-built capital, and has detained opposition members including the most prominent NLD leader, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The challenge that platforms such as Facebook posed to military authority was recognised by command who ordered widespread internet disruption across the country as news of the coup broke. However, in the age of social media pacifying a population who are unwilling to quietly accept military rule has proven challenging. 

Much has changed in Myanmar since the military last held what appeared to be absolute power. Most notably access to the internet and use of social media has grown exponentially. In Myanmar, Facebook has become one of the most commonly used forms of communication. The BBC claimed that it is synonymous with the internet for about half the population. Since the coup started, military control of state media, internet blackouts and restrictions on social media have been a part of daily life. The strongest restrictions so far have coincided with the larger protests as the military clearly attempts to stop protestors from coordinating. Despite these measures, it currently seems like the military have underestimated the will of the protestors whilst simultaneously overestimating their ability to control social media.  

Demonstrators have been able to get around many restrictions with the use of VPNs apps allowing social media to act as a crucial platform in increasing support for and coordinating protests. In early February a civil disobedience movement saw doctors, teachers and students go on strike in protest. The civil disobedience group behind the initial strike was set up on Facebook. By late February, this had inspired a nationwide general strike that brought the country to halt as hundreds of thousands protested despite military threats of violence. Moreover, as one of the key platforms for communication Facebook has become a site of protest within itself. At the end of February, Facebook banned the Myanmar military from its official account.

The nature of the pro-democracy movement has been highly influenced by the strong youth presence. The intelligent use of slogans and symbols has meant that demonstrations can translate powerfully on social media. A good example is the appropriation of the three finger salute from the Hunger Games by pro-democracy protesters. Another example can be found at protests where young demonstrators have been pictured with slogans such as “I don’t want a military dictatorship. I just want a boyfriend” which has invariably caught international attention. The humorous tone which accompanies the serious message is a key feature of younger demonstrators and has proven the perfect recipe for social media. This approach is also illustrated in anti-military memes which have bypassed restrictions to become popular in Myanmar and around the world.  

Younger demonstrators have made the Myanmar pro-democracy protests a trending topic on many social media platforms. By appealing to a global audience protesters have found support in unexpected places such as the Milk Tea Alliance. Although seemingly apolitical, the trending #MilkTeaAlliance is used to unite pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar. For others outside of Myanmar, Tik Tok has become one of the most influential platforms. On this app the algorithms have helped to spread the #Savemymyanmar messages created by many young diaspora in an attempt to attract international attention to the protests.It would seem then that the pro-democracy protesters have mobilised social media to their advantage, effectively winning the battle for hearts and minds against military controlled state media. In doing so they have given democracy a glimmer of hope against an overwhelming military force. The use of symbols, humour and slogans has given the pro-democracy movement a unique character that can translate easily from protests to social media. At this time protests have become a daily occurrence within many major cities of Myanmar and at least 54 people have been killed with the military showing no signs of relenting. Pro-democracy protesters have succeeded in grabbing the world’s attention and they don’t seem ready to give up on freedom and democracy yet.

The Tenuous Relationship between Laïcité and Islam in France

Image By Ji-Elle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 

Written by Ella Watharow

France is home to over 5 million Muslims, which is the largest Islamic minority in Europe. It also has a uniquely strict policy of secularism, referred to as “laïcité”. Drenched in centuries of conflict, the policy has highlighted the friction between public neutrality and religious freedom. First put into law in 1905, the term refers to the uncompromising separation of religion and state, ensuring that religious expression remains purely private. In practice, this means that government employees  may not overtly express affiliation with any faith. Although the law applies equally to all religions, its impact on the Islamic community has been the main point of contention in recent years. 

The policy has led to the prohibition of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, including large crosses, kippahs and headscarves. Furthermore, in 2010 the Senate passed a law banning the wearing of face coverings in all public spaces, which has been subject to particular criticism. Many, including the government, argue that the law is essential in order to enforce gender equality as well as to alleviate the disconnect that frequently exists between muslim women and the rest of society. However, to impose  neutrality upon individual citizens in such a way may ultimately remove womens’ freedom of choice, further alienating them from society and infringing upon the very religious pluralism that laïcité exists to protect.

Concerns surrounding the intentions of the ban have been substantiated by the current pandemic. France, a country that Nicolas Sarkozy once insisted “lives with its face uncovered”, has swiftly adapted to the ubiquity of face masks, undermining the assertion that face coverings infringe upon the “minimum requirements of life in society”. What was once deemed “incompatible with the rule of law” is now being legally enforced, an irony that Fatima Khemilat from the Political Science Institute of Aix-en Provence, describes to the Washington Post as “arbitrary at best, discriminatory at worst”. 

The disillusionment felt by many French Muslims towards their government has, amongst a small minority, manifested as violence. Extremism is a prominent issue in France, and in the last 10 years there have been dozens of terrorist attacks in the country. Perhaps the most notable attack was the Charlie Hebdo shooting of 2015, where 12 journalists were killed after the satirical magazine published a cartoon depiction of Mohammed. The peril of the situation was exacerbated by an incident days later, when over 80% of students at a school in Saint-Denis refused to take part in a commematory minute’s silence, with several children insisting the victims “deserved what they got” for disrespecting the Muslim faith. The incident indicates a possible prevalence of extremism amongst the next generation, that is compounded by a growing number of children being homeschooled, potentially creating echo chambers where harmful political ideals are reinforced.

The issue has been addressed in the recently released charter of republican values, which was agreed to by the French Council of Muslims (CFCM) in January. As well as affirmations of equality and freedom of conscience, the charter puts an end to homeschooling and places tighter controls on foreign funds given to religious groups, in order to prevent influences from abroad creating pockets of extremism. The overarching aim of the agreement is to regulate Islamic organisations through a unifying set of ideals aligned with those of the republic, improving social cohesion and reducing Islamic separatism. 

The real question however, is whether a country can claim to have true religious freedom if a religion must be modified by the government before it can be practiced freely. Despite receiving backlash from certain Muslim groups over its “accusatory and marginalising tone”, the measures laid out in the charter are fairly uncontroversial, with the vast majority of muslims already adhering to its key principles. However, other restrictions on the religion, namely the ban on veils, impact muslims in a far more profound way, hindering their ability to fully practice their faith. Compared to the real and severe threat of extremism, criminalising such benign aspects of the religion detracts from the gravity of the situation whilst also generating unnecessary anger, perpetuating the cycle of violence that the government is simultaneously part of and trying to end

Oil Extraction in the Niger Delta: Shell’s Present-Day Negligence Rooted in Colonial Past

Image by George Osodi/Getty Images

By Jessica Harris

In 2010 the Gulf of Mexico was devasted by the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. In the largest spill in US history, the broken well pumped 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. After a six-year legal battle, BP paid $20.8 billion in damages — the largest environmental settlement in US history. Spills like this captivate our attention. They are followed by media coverage, massive cleanup projects, stricter policies and regulations, legal action, and monetary compensation.

Imagine a place where oil spills like this are frequent. A place where within fifteen years alone, one company is responsible for approximately 2,976 spills, which is equivalent to 2.1 million barrels of oil. Imagine a place where mangroves are coated in oil and fish populations no longer inhabit their native waters. Imagine shorter life expectancies riddled with higher rates of cancer and respiratory illness, fertile lands destroyed, and natural gas is burned rather than processed to save money.

No need to imagine it. This place exists, and chances are you’ve never heard of it.

 The Niger Delta, a wetland which lines the Gulf of Guinea in Nigeria, has been home to numerous multinational oil extractors for more than half a century. In 2011, the United Nations Environment Program evaluated the effects of oil specifically in Ogoniland, an ethnic region in the delta. They found the delta’s ecosystem and its inhabitants have suffered catastrophically from oil spills. Decimated fish populations and oil slicked farmland have cut off means of agriculture and subsistence for native people. In 2013, approximately 14,000 times the standard of petroleum hydrocarbons and more than 900 times the standard of a known carcinogen, Benzene, were found in local drinking water.

Sustained exposure to oil and carcinogens in the drinking water and particulate matter in the air have been tied to reduced lifespans as short as 45 years. One study estimates oil spills that occur less than ten kilometers from pregnant mothers increase neonatal mortality by about 38.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2012 alone the study estimated 16,000 babies died within one month of birth as a direct result of oil pollution exposure, out of over 5 million live births.

Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company responsible for a majority of the environmental damage, began extractive operations in 1958, pumping $600 billion worth of resources from Ogoniland until 1993. They later withdrew from the territory to continue operations elsewhere under their Nigerian subsidiary. In his 2011 book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon chronicles the human and environmental impacts of Shell’s presence in the region.

Nixon describes the horrific effects of Shell’s extractive operations and use of natural gas flaring, writing that rather than processing the byproduct of oil extraction, the gas is burned off to lower production costs. At the height of flaring, it is estimated the fires were expelling 12 million tons of methane and 35 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. This flaring event is considered  the largest known contributor to accelerated greenhouse gas emissions and subsequently, climate change.

In 1970 following a major spill of crude oil onto farmland near Ebubu, Shell burned the oil rather than properly cleaning it up, leaving a hardened crust 15 feet deep. Not only has the company been negligent in cleaning up spills, but 40% of all of Shell’s global spills have occurred in Nigeria alone. Unlike lucrative rents in the global North (where the cost of production is much higher than the actual cost of the crude oil to meet strict regulations and health and safety standards) there is no such compensation in Nigeria. Production costs are cut to yield higher profits, intentionally benefitting Shell at the expense of Nigerians.  

Today, Shell still manages 50 oil fields, five gas plants and more than 3,000 miles of pipelines in the Niger Delta. In 2008, more than three-quarters of these pipelines were found to be 10 to 15 years overdue for replacements. Despite decades of negligence, the company claims “Sabotage, crude-oil theft and illegal refining” are to blame. Yet in 1994 their head of environmental studies resigned claiming he could not defend the company’s behavior “without losing his personal integrity”.  

Given their blatant negligence, why does Shell continue to spill and extract? Why doesn’t their human and environmental abuse grab the news cycle like Deepwater horizon or Exxon Valdez? 

Environmental racism and the extractive economic model colonialism left behind still greatly influence how modern corporations approach business in the global South. Little attention is given to the disproportionately high number of spills in poorer countries. This global apathy towards the devastation of the Niger Delta implies these consequences are expected, worth the price of feeding our global addiction to oil, and not important enough to hold the same headlines Deepwater horizon occupied.  

The colonization of Nigeria in 1901 stifled any opportunities for growth outside of resource extraction. It embedded a reliance on an extractive economic model (that which is dependent on a non-reciprocal extracting of resources and labor without compensation or care for the environmental destruction that follows). This model is enforced by predatory capitalists and a hierarchical relationship with resource-rich countries. After independence in 1960, Europeans left a power vacuum filled by leaders with nowhere to turn but a lucrative oil industry which accounts for 95% of the country’s total export earnings. Dependent on this model, low rent seeking behaviors are encouraged, incentivizing corruption. Take for example the “penalty” for gas flaring equivalent to N10.00 (£0.0215) for every cubic foot of gas flared. This small amount indicates perhaps there are no real intentions to end gas flaring, especially since it accounts for nearly 85% of Nigeria’s gas industry.   

Shell claims to be committed to cleaning up spill damage. However, in 2020, ten years after the corporation was urged to clean up all their oil slicken sites, work has only begun on 11% of them with no site entirely cleaned up. Shell operates in Nigeria to maximize profits, benefiting from an extractive economic model implemented in the early days of colonialism and propped up by a corrupt government and exploitive corporations. The company could increase production costs to maintain safer operations, but they choose not to. Their record of neglect and disregard for the health of the Niger delta is a clear indication that they believe “poor brown lives of the global south” simply are not worth the cost.  

While nothing will ever compensate for half a century of environmental and human suffering, there is hope that recent challenges to Shell’s negligence will set a legal precedent for future operations. In January of this year, Shell was tried in a Dutch court and ordered to pay damages to farmers in Oruma and Goi for spills in 2004 and 2005. It is small but introduces some accountability for multinational companies and their foreign operations.  

The flags and soldiers of colonialism may have left Nigeria, but a toxic legacy of exploitive extraction remains. Modern foreign corporations have followed in their footsteps, taking advantage of the economic model colonialism left for them- that which is dependent upon resources, whatever the social and environmental cost.   

‘Welcome To Chechnya’ is as harrowing as it needs to be

By Peder Heiberg Sverdrup

David France’s documentary about the murder and persecution of LGBTQ+ people in the Russian republic of Chechenya is a tense and harrowing story about hatred in modern day Russia. The brilliant film follows a group of young Russian activists working to “extract” LGBTQ+ people from the republic and bring them to Moscow or abroad in an effort to save their lives. 

The film is necessarily hard to watch, but it tells a story of how ingenuity, courage, and kindness can be found in the most unlikely of places. The film introduces people like “Anya”, the daughter of a senior official based in Grozny, who is forced to flee the city in the fear of being sexually abused and beaten to death by her family for being a lesbian woman.  Another man named Grisha, tells the story of how he was abused and had his life threatened in a Grozny prison before he made it to Moscow.

In their Moscow safe house, the Russian LGBTQ+ network houses several young people who have fled their home in Chechnya with the help of a friendly network of young activists. Director David France uses digital face manipulation and pseudonyms to protect the identities of the residents and other people shown in the film. It is artfully executed and it does not distract the viewer. 

The film provokes seething anger towards Russian leaders, Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin. The film shows a clip of Kadyrov laughing when asked about the anti-gay purges in his republic and shows him denying the very existence of gay people in Chechnya. The Kremlin has consistently denied the purges as well. 

The viewer, on the other hand, cannot deny them. The film displays the harrowing reality in a grim light, from humiliations and beatings, to torture and murder. It shows the truth of the purges and the Kremlin’s complicity in them. What the film also shows is the bravery of the activists and the people they help. It shows the tremendous amount of self-sacrifice involved in allowing people to be themselves.

The film can be streamed on HBO.

Validating the Revolution

Image by Textgrounds/Pexels

By Jack McGrath

The past decade saw revolution and protest unfold across the globe. It does not seem that this decade will be any different. If anything, matters look to escalate: one might bring to mind the recent widespread protests in Belarus, Peru, and the U.S. Being on the constant cusp of global change, as it seems we will be in the 2020s, the terms revolution and reform will likely become even more common use in media and discussion than they already are (Thailand protests, U.S Cultural Revolution, Beirut revolution). But what is the relationship between the two? What happens, in particular, when revolution becomes reform?

One might call this process validation. The birth of the partnership between official and revolutionary. 

There are a few things this partnership entails. It means support – government support. It means advice – government advice. It means limitation – government limitation. And it means all that in that order. 

Perhaps the point has been put more aptly by Malcolm X:

“The next scene was the “big six” civil rights Negro “leaders” meeting in New York City with the white head of a big philanthropic agency. They were told that their money–wrangling in public was damaging their image. And a reported $800,000 was donated to a United Civil Rights Leadership council that was quickly organized by the “big six.”

Now, what had instantly achieved black unity? The white man’s money. What string was attached to the money? Advice. Not only was there this donation, but another comparable sum was promised, for sometime later on, after the March. . . obviously if all went well.” (Haley, 2001, p. 386)

For the record, I do not share Malcom X’s attitude to The March on Washington. But nonetheless, regardless of where one stands on that issue, one can see exactly what he meant: The Black Revolution, as he envisaged it, had been undermined. Why? Because those who should have been fellow revolutionaries, to his eyes, had welcomed White support. And with White support, came White advice. Advice which would seek to curb the more radical elements of the revolution: to, eventually, ensure that revolution was supplanted by reform.

One might, alternatively, consider the Russian Revolution of 1905. Specifically, I am thinking of the Duma and the October Manifesto. For both could, in their nature, be seen as manifesting the sort of partnership we are here concerned with and were both to have the consequence of watering-down the revolution (at least, for the short-term).

Trotsky, I think, saw this when he said, with exasperation, “You are repeating what your predecessors did in the same situation half a century ago…You are afraid of breaking with the Duma, because to you this constitutional mirage seems real in the dry and barren desert through which Russian liberalism has been wading” (Deutscher, 2003, p.100) – and as he then conjured the image of the revolution ebbing away.

This takes us back to where we started, then, revolution and reform. When revolution becomes reform through validation, it is unavoidably watered-down. Parts are supported. The rest is left by the side. Of course, this is not to say that the end-product of validation is always a disappointment. Not at all. It can be quite the contrary. But it is, nonetheless, to say that revolution can never wholly survive the process of validation.

In light of this, one might even imagine validation as a tool for undermining truly unwieldy unrest. “To undermine the revolution” one official might say to another, “validate it. Not all of it. But enough of it. The relevant and agreeable parts. And then, in partnership with those proper elements, mold that behemoth, that hulking monstrosity, that revolution, into an inconvenient force for reform.”

So, when you see revolution validated in the decade to come, as it surely will be on occasion, look to see what is validated. Look to see that the tools for true, positive, genuine, change are not dismantled in the process. And if they are, in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Americas, raise your voice and fight to reclaim the revolution.