The Year in Review Part 2: International Politics

From rebellions to new countries to pirates, 2011 has been a tumultuous year for world politics.  Join me as I continue looking back at this year’s key events:

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring is the name given to the popular uprisings that spread across the Middle East over the last year.  They all started in Tunisia.  Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit seller, was slapped by a police officer in December 2010.  Humiliated, he demanding an appointment with the governor’s office, but was rebuked.  Angry, he retaliated and set himself on fire, thereby becoming a martyr for millions of angry Tunisians and starting the Jasmine Revolution.   Millions took to the streets to protest the authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, his corrupt government, unemployment and the inflation that had gripped the nation.  On January 13th, Ben Ali tried to placate the protesters by offering to give up power in 2014, but soon after, he fled the country. The moderate Islamist party Ennahda emerged as the winner of the elections that soon followed. An estimated 78 protesters died and 94 were injured.

Next came Egypt.  On January 25th, at the urging of a Facebook page created by Wael Ghonim, groups of protesters took to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.  Despite an attempted clampdown that came on February 2nd, where armed pro-Mubarak forces confronted protesters with rocks, machetes, camels and Molotov cocktails, Mubarak stepped down after only 18 days of protest.  He had lost the support of his army.  Mubarak, months later, was indicted for murdering protesters.  The rebellion seemed to have been a success.  However, 9 months later, violence erupted again.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party had emerged the clear winner of the first round of parliamentary voting in November 2011, but in December, General Mokhtar al-Molla, of the ruling military council, said it would intercede to stop the party from putting its stamp on the future constitution.  Egyptians began to wonder if the rebellion was less a popular revolution and more a military coup.  Tens of thousands of protesters returned to Tahrir Square, angered by the military.  The protests left at least 40 people dead.  The Generals responded to these protests by hardening their standpoint against the Muslim Brotherhood and lessening the power of parliament until the drafting of the constitution.  By the second election, more violence broke out in Cairo. Military police were caught on TV beating up protesters. Especially angering was the footage of soldiers stripping clothes off women as they beat and stomped on them. Egypt’s fight is still far from over.

Following in the footsteps of the Tunisian revolution, demonstrations broke out in Yemen in January. Protesters called for the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh.  The demonstrations quickly turned violent as Saleh tried to crack down on the protesters, but his support eroded. Even the Obama administration urged him to step down.  He refused, and on June 13th, his compound was hit by an explosion, badly injuring Saleh.  For months he refused to step down, despite his injuries, but finally, on November 23rd, he signed an agreement that transferred power to his vice-president.  However, the agreement allowed him to retain his title and certain privileges until the new elections in 2012.  The agreement also granted him immunity from prosecution.  Regardless, militias and protesters continued to fight. The political crisis in Yemen is likely to remain tense with its diverse tribal factions, poverty, high illiteracy and deeply entrenched government corruption.

In February and March, protests broke out in Bahrain.  These protesters were not calling for revolution or the removal of the ruler, but instead for political reforms to make the country a constitutional monarchy.  In addition, Bahrain’s Shi’ites complained of marginalization from the Sunni dynasty in power.  In mid-March, the King decreed a state of emergency and got aid in the form of 1000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 police officers from the United Arab Emirates to help crush the protests, resulting in 35 dead.  A military court also sentenced four Shi’ite men to death for allegedly killing two police officers.  Since the protests, Bahrain became more like a police state with mass arrests, mass job firings and reports of torture.  The protesters dispersed and gathered in small groups in places like Costa Coffee, despite constant threats of tear gas attacks from the police.

Some of the most deadly protests started in mid-March in Syria. People took to the streets to protest the torture of students who were responsible for anti-government graffiti.  In April, President Bashar al-Assad responded with tanks and security forces, which opened fire on the protesters.  The death toll was atrocious, with the UN Estimating as many as 5000 killed as of late November and 15,000-40,000 detained or arrested.  Syria’s crackdown was condemned internationally, as well as by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In November, the Arab League expelled Syria and imposed economic sanctions, as well as a ban on transactions with the bank.  The violence continued, even despite the presence of UN Security Council monitors in late December.

Finally, the most highly publicized of the violent protests occurred in Libya, an oil-rich nation in North Africa that had spent 40 years under the leadership of Muammar el-Gaddafi.  This rebellion, united under the banner of the National Transitional Council, was more traditional (no Facebook pages!) and very bloody, with death toll estimates from 9000-15000.  This rebellion was also not just an Arab effort.  The UN Security Council authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. The French and British militaries, operating under a NATO mandate, launched within 48 hours.  The US also knocked out Libya’s air defense systems and established a no-fly zone over Libya.  On October 20th, after months of fighting, the Libyan forces vengefully killed GaddafiLibyans rejoiced and three days later, the revolution was declared over.

The Chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court recently stated that the death of Gaddafi might have been a war crime, given that video footage showed him alive when first captured.  In the video, he was mocked, beaten and abused before later images shows him dead two shots to the head.  The close range shots suggest he was extrajudicially executed.

A Deteriorating Anti-Terrorism Alliance

The anti-terrorism alliance between the United States and Pakistan has always been strained, but it has only gotten worse since the death of bin Laden.  The fact that bin Laden was hiding for years within Pakistan’s borders has only intensified the USA’s mistrust of Pakistan.  The US also continues to suspect that Pakistan provides safe havens for extremists from the Taliban and the Haqqani Terrorist network.

Relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse, however, in late November when a NATO air attack killed 26 Pakistani soldiers in strikes against 2 military outposts on the border.  The US patrol, which had planned to raid the village of Maya (about 1 mile inside Afghanistan) came under heavy fire on November 25th from Pakistani soldiers.  NATO have not informed Pakistan about its patrol and Pakistani forces did not know to expect allied forces nearby, which effectively set off the incident.  The US admits that the tragedy occurred largely because US officials did not trust Pakistan enough to give them detailed information about US troop movements.  They feared with this information, Pakistan might jeopardize its operations.

Following the incident, Pakistan cut off the flow of NATO supplies through its territory and halted joint operations and intelligence sharing on the border.  The military demanded an apology and ordered the CIA to vacate its drones from the Shamsi Air Base within 15 days.  The Pentagon released a report in December concluding that mistakes were made by both sides and included an expression of regret that did not go as far as the apology that Pakistan demanded.    The Pentagon did, however, offer to make bereavement payments to the families of the Pakistani soldiers killed, but Pakistan officials said they would not accept any “blood money”.

Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities

On November 11th, a report by the UN weapons inspectors presented new evidence that makes a “credible” case that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” and that the project may still be under way.  The report says that Iran created models of nuclear explosions in 2008 and 2009, focusing on how shock waves from conventional explosives could compress the spherical fuel at the core of a nuclear device (which starts the chain reaction resulting in nuclear explosion).  The report also says Iran has conducted experiments on nuclear triggers, but reiterates that Iran does not have all the necessary technologies to create a nuclear weapon.  The release of the report angered Iran’s leaders, who tried desperately to spin the report as an American fabrication.

In the days following the release of the report, the USA and other Western powers undertook significant steps to impose economic sanctions on Iran by cutting it off from the international financial system.   The Obama administration also imposed sanctions on any company that might be involved in Iran’s nuclear weapons industry as well as any petrochemical and oil industry, in an attempt to isolate the country from the international community.

Iran tried to warn that oil prices could double as a result of these sanctions, but in reality, they had negligible effects on oil prices.  Instead, by December, Iran was beginning to feel the pressure after a decline in domestic petroleum and the collapse of negotiations between Iran and foreign gas developers.  The rial (Iran’s currency) fell in value to its lowest level ever against the dollar on December 20th due to inflation and economic isolation.

Desperate, Tehran issued a warning on the 27th of December, claiming it would block the Strait of Hormuz – the world’s most important oil transit point – if the West tried to impose an embargo on Iran’s oil exports.  The US Navy and Defense Department responded by suggesting that American warships would take any means necessary to stop them from doing this.  Congress, before it took its year-end break, passed a measure discouraging any buyer – even American allies – from doing business with Iran’s Central Bank, which is responsible for most of the country’s oil transactions.


In September 2011, two American hikers, Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal, were released from the Evin Prison in Iran.  Both had been held 781 days on charges of espionage after they wandered over the border from Iraq, by mistake, with Sarah E. Shourd, in July 2009.  They were each fined $500,000 before they were freed from their 8-year sentence.  Sarah was released last year, after also having to pay $500,000 bail.   The US government and both hikers have denied the charges against them.

Iran’s detention of the Americans had aggravated relations with the United States since 2009, which was already at odds over issues like its nuclear program and hostility towards Israel.  Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd got engaged while imprisoned together in Iran and have set their wedding for next May.

Also released this year was the modern artist Ai Weiwei, son of the revolutionary poet Ai Qing.  He had been incarcerated 81 days in a Chinese prison.   Ai Weiwei has emerged as one of the most prominent critics of China’s ruling Communist party with a global following of 78,000 followers on Twitter.  In particular, he had drawn public focus to some of China’s most tragic events, including the government cover-up of the true causes of death in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that killed 6,000 children.

Ai Weiwei was arrested April 3rd when he tried to board a flight to Hong Kong.  During his incarceration, he was held in a 12ft by 24ft room, watched by 2 military police officers that stayed within 30 inches of him at all times. He was interrogated repeatedly.  Following his release, he was ordered to pay $2.4 million to the government for back taxes and penalties.

Tibet on Fire

While this year marked the 60th anniversary of what the Chinese Communist Party called the “peaceful liberation of Tibet,” 12 monks, nuns and former monks set themselves on fire in protest.  While they burned, they shouted for freedom in Tibet and screamed their love for the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.  At least 6 have died.

Ever since widespread protests erupted in March 2008, Chinese security forces have cracked down on the Tibetan regions, making them, as the Dalai Lama said in 2009, “hell on Earth”.  Thousands of Tibetans have been jailed, clerics have been forced to publicly denounce the Dalai Lama and local officials have been sent to propaganda classes.  Over the past few years, the region has also seen a massive influx of Han (China’s majority ethnic group), which Tibetans claim take the best jobs.  Tibetans believe the Chinese are threatening to extinguish the Tibetan culture.

Chinese officials have denounced the self-immolations as a form of terrorism and the Chinese People’s Daily have compared the Dalai Lama and his flock to the sect leader Koresh and his followers that died at Waco in 1993.  However, the Karmapa (Tibet’s 3rd ranking Buddhist leader) argued, “these desperate acts, carried out by people with pure motivation, are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live.”  The Dalai Lama, on October 29th, held the Chinese government accountable for the self-immolations and stated, “The local leader must look at what’s the real causes of death.  It’s their own sort of wrong policy, ruthless policy, illogical policy”.

India – China Militarization

China made headlines this year when it tested its new generation J-20 stealth fighter, in January, during a visit from the US Defense Secretary and when its new Gorbachev-era Soviet model aircraft carrier began sea trials.  While one aircraft carrier is not a threat, the West took the carrier’s maiden voyage as an indication of where China’s military ambitions were heading.  Why did China need this kind of military equipment?  China is not transparent about its military acquisitions or military budget.  Many fear that China’s goal is to assert its dominance over East Asia.  Michael Schiffer, the deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, argues that the scope and pace of China’s buildup could be ‘destabilizing’ to the balance of power in the region.

China has some 1.25 million ground troops, making it the largest army in the world.  China is on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally focused force by 2020.  The military has deployed as many as 1,200 short-ranged missiles in the direction of Taiwan and it is developing anti-ship ballistic missiles capable of attacking American aircraft carriers.  Reports estimate that China’s total military spending last year was more than $160 billion.  Analysts believe that this is a sign that China’s ambition is to achieve regional supremacy.

However, China is not the only power with an interest in regional supremacy.  As Foreign Policy magazine pointed out, India has also begun building up its military.  India is now the world’s largest weapons importer, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).  The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that India will spend $80 billion on military modernization by 2015.  Analysts say the country is planning on spending $45 billion over the next 20 years on 103 new warships.  China is only estimated to spend $25 billion during that time, according to AMI International.

There are some signs that the region may not be big enough for the two rising superpowers, as exemplified in August when an unidentified Chinese warship confronted an Indian assault ship near the coast of Vietnam.

Death of Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il, the North Korean dictator, died on December 17th, after being ill since 2008, when US intelligence agencies believe he had some form of a stroke.  A tearful television announcer delivered the statement that the leader died of a ‘heart attack’ two days later, and said they “took every emergency measure” they could but still “the great leader passed away”.  His death was met with a flood of televised emotion.  A few hours after the announcement, Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un was named the “eminent leader of the people”, and the funeral was set for the 28th of December.

South Korea put its armed forces on high alert following the announcement, fearing that Kim Jong-un’s youth and relative inexperience could make him vulnerable to power struggles.  Any such power struggle could result in the North lashing out as they did in 2010 when they attacked a South Korean island and sunk a warship, killing 50 people.  Many in the West question the depth of the military’s support for the new leader and others, like M.I.T professor Jim Walsh, fear that the young leader may seek to prove himself in the face of military distrust, which could lead to miscalculation and inadvertent war.  North Korea, as demonstrated by its crude nuclear device explosions in 2006 and 2009, is a new nuclear power, making the possibility of political instability very dangerous.

Fall of a Leader in the Ivory Coast

Since the 2002 civil war in the Ivory Coast, the country had been largely divided between north and south and wracked with violence. Crisis broke out late last year when President Laurent Gbagbo, who had been postponing the elections since 2005, refused to accept his defeat in the presidential election of November 2010.   A violent stalemate followed as he used security forces in Abidjan to maintain his power, killing more than 3000 people.  Countless others were raped and abused, and the opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, was forced to seek refuge in a UN protected hotel.

The rebellion lasted 5 months.  Militias that had fought for the north in the Civil War joined the conflict in the spring and together with French forces fighting under a UN mandate, the stalemate came to an end.  Trapped in the presidential mansion, Gbagbo and his wife surrendered to rebel forces on April 11th and on November 29th, Gbagbo was taken into international custody and flown to the Netherlands where he would be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Prosecutors hold Gbagbo responsible for the violence that followed his refusal to leave office, including the frequent attacks on civilians carried out by his security forces.  Gbagbo is the second deposed African head of state to appear before an international court.

Following Gbagbo’s arrest, Ouattara was sworn in as president and he promised a new beginning, with reconciliation and forgiveness.  “Today a white page opens in front of us, white like the white of our flag, symbol of hope and peace”, he said. The Ivory Coast’s economy, devastated by the severe economic sanctions imposed by the UN, USA and the EU, is “recovering quickly” according to the International Monetary Fund.  A South Africa-style truth commission has also been established to explore the past violence.

Of course, the Ivory Coast is not out of the woods yet, and signs of danger remain. Three opposition journalists were arrested for publishing a report that criticized Ouattara. Human Rights Watch has criticized the government’s failure to prosecute pro-Ouattara supporters who also committed atrocities during the post-election violence.

A New Country

Sudan, a country that attracted a lot of international attention since 2004 for the government-backed Janjaweed massacre in Darfur, has been at war with itself since 1956, when it gained independence from Britain.  However, in January 2011, after half a century of fighting and 2 million dead, nearly 99% of the region’s voters approved a split from northern Sudan in an internationally backed referendum.  On the 9th of July, south Sudan seceded and became the 54th African country: the Republic of South Sudan.  The south has long been culturally and religiously different than the north, with the North largely Arab and Muslim and the south animist and Christian.  The region had been semi-autonomous since 2005 when a peace treaty was signed between the two regions.

On July 9th, President Salva Kiir of South Sudan promised amnesty to all militias and urged the South Sudan people to forge a national identity that transcended ethnic groups.  North Sudan’s minister for Presidential AffairsBakri Hassan Salih, announced the country’s acknowledgment of South Sudan as a sovereign state.  Dignitaries from around the world flew in to celebrate.  On the surface, things seemed set for a happy new beginning.

However, tensions arose over the region of Abyei.  The North claimed it only accepted the 1956 boundaries between the two countries, which put the contested region in the North.  The region is home to the Ngok Dinka people, who are closely allied to the South, but the region is also grazing grounds for the northern Misseriya tribes.  A referendum was supposed to be organized to see which region would inherit the land, but disagreement over who was eligible to vote had led to repeated delays.    Even in the weeks surrounding the secession, violence broke out between North and South over the fate of the region.

In addition, because of spreading rebellion inside Sudan, the northern government accused the south of providing military support to the rebels.  In early November, the government lodged a formal complaint with the UN Security Council, arguing that the South was trying to start a border war. At the same time, President Salva Kiir denounced the north for threatening a ‘military invasion’ of South Sudan over the issue, and he accused the Sudanese of bombing the south area of Guffa, which killed at least 7 people. Tensions also flared as the two regions failed to reach an agreement over issues of oil revenues. The South holds roughly 75% of Sudan’s oil reserves, but the North has the refineries and pipelines.

The UN says that violence on the border has killed 3000 this year, and on December 9th, South Sudan’s foreign minister warned that his country might be on the brink of war with Sudan.  The growing violence on the border, which led to the death of Rebel Chief George Athor on December 19th, has spooked humanitarian organizations.  Oxfam, a group that provides clear water, sanitation, public health and resettlement services, pulled its staff from the border region in November after noticing a buildup of troops in the region.

Even without the border tension, South Sudan faces severe hardships.  Severe inflation and internal rebellions are crippling the new country.  Disrupted trade because of border skirmishes has pushed annual inflation to almost 80% in November, and crops have been failing, leading the UN to believe that 2.7 million South Sudanese will need food aid in 2012.  In addition, the army lacks cohesion and ethnic strife between the Murle and the Nuer led to 600 deaths in a cattle raid in August.


Somalia’s infamous pirates attacked with record frequency this year: 199 attacks recorded as of October 2011 and another 12 attempted attacks in November alone.  Usually, these modern-day pirates will hold the crew of a ship ransom for $1 to $2 million.  Some of the bigger pirate bosses have been building mini armies with the millions they receive in ransoms.

The attacks garnered increased attention in February after pirates shot and killed 4 American hostages.  The Americans had been captured while sailing in the Indian Ocean, during their around-the-world sailing trip.  They died while military officials were still trying to work out a negotiated settlement for their release.

Somali piracy has taken an especially heavy toll on Philippine sailors, who represent 1/3rd of the world’s seafarers.  Since 2006, a total of 748 Filipinos in 61 vessels have been hijacked.

Somali pirates are nothing new, but over the last few years, the pirates, who used to stick relatively close to Somalia’s shores, are now using hijacked vessels to serve as floating bases, allowing them to attack more than 1000 miles off the coast.  As a result, the ‘red zone’ now covers more than 1 million square miles of water.  Unfortunately, such a huge area is impossible for naval fleets to effectively police.

Somalia’s piracy problem is largely believed to be the result of state failure.  Somalia’s central government collapsed in 1991 when clan militias turned on each other.  Ever since, the country has been without effective central government.  Day-to-day life in Somalia is plagued by droughts, cholera epidemics like the one that hit August this year, malnutrition, an alarming rate of rape, warlords, and the feared Al Qaeda-allied fighters Al Shabab.  In such a devastated country, piracy becomes an escape for the desperate.  As a result, the US and other Western powers have been investing millions of dollars into supporting Somalia’s transitional government in the hope that they might be able to rebuild the country and create an economy where young men might be able to earn a living by fishing or livestock-rearing, instead of piracy.   However, Somalia is unlikely to stop being a war zone anytime soon.

Global piracy is not just a phenomenon confined to Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.  In fact, from January to September, across the world, there were at least 352 attacks, including in countries like Indonesia and Peru.

West Africa has become a new hot zone for pirates.  The oil-rich Gulf of Guinea has seen a huge spike in attacks, with 19 reported off the coast of Benin, 6 off the Nigerian coast and 3 off of Ghana this year.  Some analysts say the number of attacks could be even higher as many attacks go underreported when ships carry illegal oil cargo or fear their insurance rates will go up.

These West African pirates seem to be a little more traditional than their East coast counterparts, going after a ship’s cargo instead of kidnapping for ransom money.  They also tend to be more violent, beating up crews, whipping them with electrical cables and in some cases, shooting or stabbing them all.

While Somalia’s piracy is seen as an extension of the on-land instability, the same cannot be said of these West African pirates, who attack countries like Ghana.  Ghana, rich in gold, timber and cacao, is one of Africa’s most stable and peaceful democracies, with a projected growth rate of 13.5%.  Instead, it is believed that the region’s oil boom may be drawing the pirates through greed, and analysts believe that many of the pirates may be coming from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement officials allow criminality to thrive.

Drug Wars in Mexico and Central America

This year marked the 5th anniversary of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s declaration of war on Mexico’s cartels, and another year of grisly violence and death.   The violence and corruption has had a corrosive effect on Mexico’s economy, perceptions of safety and political system, and it has tarnished the reputation of the military, who is believed to be responsible for 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings.  This year saw some of the worst events, including the July 18th massacre at a birthday party in Torreon, which killed 17 and wounded 18 and the discovery of the bodies of 58 men and 14 women, on August 25th, at a ranch in Tamaulipas State.  In addition, 35 bodies were found abandoned in 2 trucks in Veracruz, a city that until now had been largely untouched by the violence.

Despite another year of bloodshed resulting in approximately 13,000 deaths, the violence may have peaked.  The death toll did not top last year’s 15,000 and 2011 marked the first downturn since the start of the war on the drug cartels.    However, the downturn may not necessarily mean that the tides have turned.  There is considerable evidence to show that drug cartels, like the Sinaloa and Zetas, are searching for new territory south of Mexico in the politically fragile states of Central America.  In fact, just this year, the White House added two new countries – Belize and El Salvador – to its list of major drug-trafficking states.

The Zetas have pushed into Guatemala and brought a significant rise in violent crime.  Guatemala’s murder rate is now twice that of Mexico’s.  Furthermore, Costa Rica, still Central America’s least violent country, has seen a double homicide rate and record amount of drugs being seized.

However, none are quite as bad as Honduras.  Homicide rates in Honduras have doubled in the last 5 years, giving the country the highest homicide rate in the world with 82.1 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to a UN report published this October.  The Honduras beaches and Mosquitia region jungles have become home to 95% of suspected drug flights from South and Central America and semi-submersible “narco submarines” with cocaine were caught by the US Coast Guard off the coast of Honduras.  It is estimated that 1/3rd of the world’s total volume of cocaine arrives in Honduras. Because smugglers have begun paying people with raw product, local drug dealing has increased, along with the violence that goes with it.  Security deteriorated so much that the Peace Corps announced that it was pulling all 158 volunteers out of the country.

In Memoriam

Vaclav Havel, born October 5th 1936, died in his country home at the age of 75 on December 18th.  World-renown as a dissident playwright from the 1970s, his involvement in the human rights manifesto Charter 77 and his role in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Havel was the Czech Republic’s first president.   His plays were famous satires of life under communist rule, and as president, he oversaw not only over Czechoslovakia’s successful transition to democracy, but also its peaceful split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon”, President Obama said of the beloved leader.  Hundreds of candles were lit in Wenceslas Square in Havel’s memory.

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