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CWA # 385, 13 December 2020

The World this Week
Morocco recognizes Israel, Maduro consolidates in Venezuela and No-deal Brexit gets reals

  GP Team

The World This Week # 97, 13 December 2020, Vol 2, No 49

Apoorva Sudhakar, Aparupa Bhattacherjee and Harini Madhusudan 


  
Morocco: Fourth country to normalize relations with Israel in 2020
What happened?
On 10 December, the US President announced that Morocco and Israel had agreed to establish diplomatic relations. As a part of the deal, the US will now recognize Morocco's sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara which is disputed between Morocco and Algeria-backed Polisario Front. Trump termed the agreement a "historic breakthrough." He added: "Morocco recognized the United States in 1777. It is thus fitting we recognize their sovereignty over Western Sahara."

On the same day, the Polisario Front condemned the move, calling it a blatant violation of the UN resolutions. The European representative of the Polisario Front said, "This will not change an inch of the reality of the conflict and the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination."

Further, the UN, also critical of the move, clarified that their position on Western Sahara remains unchanged. According to the UN Secretary-General's spokesperson, he believed "the solution to the question can still be found based on Security Council resolutions." Similarly, various Palestinian groups also disapproved the developments. However, the King of Morocco said that he stands by the two-state solution and sees the negotiations with Israel the only way to achieve a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflict.

What is the background? 
First, Morocco becomes the fourth Arab country to recognize Israel in 2020. The UAE became the first Arab country in 2020 to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords. Following this, Bahrain established ties with Israel in September, and Sudan followed suit in October. The recognition of Israel by the four countries marked a new era in the Arab-Israel peace deal. Previously, Egypt was the first country to sign a deal with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994. 

Second, the US pressure on Arab countries. The series of normalization indicates that there is pressure from the US. For example, the US approved an arms sale to the UAE after the country signed the Abraham Accords. Similarly, in October, the US announced that it had removed Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Immediately, it announced that Sudan had agreed to establish ties with Israel. 

Third, the regional fallout of the Polisario conflict. The conflict began after Spain pulled out of the region in 1975, leaving Mauritania, Morocco and the Polisario Front to decide their respective regional sovereignty. The Polisario Front represented the Sahrawi ethnic group under the banner of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from exile in Algeria. In 1979, it established ties with Mauritania but continued fighting with Morocco until 1991. In the same year, an agreement to hold a referendum, monitored by the UN, was signed. However, Morocco has stalled the process to date. 

What does it mean?
First, the decision to recognize Western Sahara as a part of Morocco could have regional repercussions. In November 2020, the Polisario Front and Morocco engaged in violence for two weeks. A ceasefire was signed to end the clashes. However, Trump's announcement could reignite the tensions, leading to the involvement of Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front. Therefore, while the deal helps Israel build relations with the Arab countries, Morocco is likely to face a conflict within its neighbourhood. 

Second, Trump has adopted a transactional method of brokering deals between Israel and Arab countries. Though President-elect Biden is likely to continue diplomatic efforts to help Israel, he may not offer diplomatic favours to pressurize countries into recognizing Israel. If so, countries which are expecting a benefit through the Abraham Accords may put their decision on hold for a while. This would slow down the pace of the current Arab-Israel normalization. However, Abraham Accords will remain a part of Trump's legacy in the Middle East. 
 


Venezuela: Maduro consolidates his hold with a new election
What happened?
On 7 December, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's political alliance claimed victory in the Congressional elections. The election, held on 6 December, was boycotted by the opposition leaders. It has been widely criticized internationally for being fraudulent.

According to the National Electoral Council, Maduro's party - the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and allied parties captured 67.6 per cent of the total 277 seats in the National Assembly. 18 per cent of the total votes were secured by the right and the left opposition parties. The voters' turnout was low as only 31 per cent of the 20 million registered voters participated in the election.

What is the background?
First, the election result and Maduro's position. It strengthens Maduro's political hold. He came to power in 2013; his authoritarian governance and his inability to revive a once-thriving Venezuelan economy marked his rule. Under his predecessor Hugo Chávez, the country became a growing oil-dependent economy. Since 2013, prolonged economic depression, lack of basic necessity and repression resulted in public anger against Maduro. However, he was able to retain his power with the support of the military and the judiciary. Until now, the only institution which checked his power was the National Assembly (AN) which has been the opposition's stronghold since 2015. The latest election-win by his coalition brings the AN under Maduro's political control.

Second, the long-standing differences between Maduro and Juan Guaido. In 2015, the opposition gained control over the AN by winning the election; however, it was unable to form the government. The pro-government court had stripped the legislature of power. It allowed for the creation of a parallel and all-powerful legislative body, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) that constitutes of Maduro-loyalists. This set the stage for the power struggle between Guaido and Maduro. The 2019 election, both the process and results, were questionable. Guaido declared himself the acting President of Venezuela in 2019, based on the constitutional powers granted to him as the chief of the AN. But this was not enough to remove Maduro from power who still enjoyed the support of the military.

Third, the international opposition against Maduro. In 2019, the Organization of American States (OAS) during its 49th General Assembly called Maduro's presidency illegitimate. Guaido was immensely supported by the Trump administration and as many as 50 counties, and also the European Union. This support encouraged Guaido to declare himself the acting President; however, Maduro's government declared it as a coup d'état and accused the US of providing support to remove him and take control of the country's oil reserves. Guaido rejected the coup accusation, as he was backed by peaceful volunteers. Not only Maduro, but several Venezuelans were also unhappy by this action and saw the US support as interference in the country's domestic affairs. 

What does it mean?
First, this may lead to intensifying of instability within the country. On 5 January 2021, Maduro will form the new government and Guaido will lose his position in the AN. However, the political conflict would continue, as neither he nor his party accepts PSUV's win. 

Second, the international shunning of Maduro may push him further closer to his allies such as Iran, China, and Russia. The ongoing economic crisis and the pandemic's impact may further act as a catalyst for strengthening his relationship with these countries.


Brexit: The trade deal may not come through 
What happened?
On 11 December, the UK's Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired a meeting with Cabinet Officer Michael Gove and senior officials in Downing Street, to carry out a "stock-take" of plans for a no-deal scenario. On 10 December, the EU revealed its contingency measures to deal with the no-deal scenario, ensuring basic reciprocal air and road connectivity and fishing access for EU and UK vessels to each other's waters for up to a year. 

Both the EU and the UK have warned that a post-Brexit trade deal by the deadline is unlikely. This comes after Boris Johnson flew to Brussels on 9 December and met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for three-hour discussions over dinner, in an attempt to save the deal. 

What is the background?
First, the failure of the last-minute efforts. After almost ten months of negotiations, the deadline of 15 October to reach a deal set by Boris Johnson has passed. The situation remains tricky because the two sides have been unable to reach a common ground. With the end of the transition period fast approaching, the UK and EU set another deadline for 13 December as a final attempt at a compromise toward the trade-deal. However, Ursula von der Leyen said no deal was the most probable end to "difficult" talks, and Boris Johnson argued that the EU needed to make a "big change" over the main sticking points. 

Second, the two sides have serious differences over certain issues, not just the sticking points. The primary reasons for the delay remain the fishing rights, business competition rules, and the future of dispute negotiations. However, the fundamental problem lies with the UK's argument in favour of retaining control over sovereign decisions, and the EU's expectations of the UK to abide by the common standards of the region. Through the process of the negotiations, the parties have ensured not to step away from these demands.

Third, agreement on Northern Ireland despite the impasse. On 9 December, the UK and EU reached an 'agreement in principle,' in relation to Northern Ireland. It includes border control posts and supply of medicines. It is expected to be signed in the following days. The new border arrangements will apply regardless of whether the two sides sign a trade deal. 

What does it mean?
The likeliness of a no-deal Brexit looms large, and statements by the two leaders should be seen as a forewarning of the worst case. At this point, the EU leaders are unlikely to intervene in their personal capacity to try and save the deal. The failure of the negotiations will allow the two parties to start imposing taxes and tariffs on each other. Although, the proposed measures of the contingency agreement would soften the impact of the failure, but would again depend on the reciprocity of the UK on critical terms. Given that the reasons for the deadlock are due to vast differences, the impasse shows a lack of political will from both sides to head toward a compromise. 


Also in the news…
by Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma

Southeast and East Asia This Week
China: Wan Kuok Koi aka 'Broken Tooth' sanctioned by the US
On 9 December, the United States' Treasury Department sanctioned Wan Kuok Koi, the leader of a Chinese organized crime network - 14K Triad, for engaging in "drug trafficking, illegal gambling, racketeering, human trafficking" and "other criminal activities." It also accused Wan, a member of the Communist Party Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, for having links with the BRI projects. 
 
Hong Kong: Jimmy Lai appears in court
On 12 December, Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media mogul was brought to a Hong Kong court in metal chains and handcuffs. A day earlier, he was charged under the new national security law and accused of "collusion with a foreign country or with external elements." His defence lawyer's request for bail was declined by the court. Lai's Twitter account, which he used to air his political views and to call for sanctions against Hong Kong and China authorities, has been cited as main evidence by the prosecutors. 
 
Myanmar: Rohingya widow seeks USD two million compensation
On 10 December, Setara Begum, a Rohingya widow, complained to the Myanmar Human Rights Commission seeking USD 2 million compensation over her husband's killing by the military in 2017. This is the first time a complaint relating to the Rohingyas has been filed through the commission. Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), a Geneva-based non-profit organization, and McDermott Will & Emery, an international law firm, are assisting Begum in the legal process. 
 
Thailand: Protest leaders demand repeal of 'lese majeste' laws
On 10 December, pro-democracy protest leaders called for the repealing of Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, referred to as the 'lese majeste' laws. Under this law, any criticism of the monarchy can be punished with up to 15 years in jail. Protestors also called on the United Nations and the international community to pressurize the government. Eight protest leaders have been charged so far with lese majeste.
 
Singapore: Trade deal with the UK signed
On 10 December, the UK and Singapore signed a trade deal worth USD 23.4 billion. This is the second biggest deal the UK has signed in the Asia-Pacific region; it comes just three weeks before the former is set to exit the European Union. The trade deal is identical to the one Singapore has with the EU to ensure continuity. Singapore, as a business hub, also provides the UK with a gateway to the region. 
 
North Korea: The US sanctions Chinese firms transporting North Korean coal 
On 8 December, the US Treasury Department sanctioned six companies, including those based in China, and blacklisted four ships, for transporting North Korean coal in contravention of the UNSC sanctions. The US also called China to enforce the resolutions. "The North Korean regime often uses forced labor from prison camps in its mining industries, including coal, exploiting its own people to advance its illicit weapons programs",  the US Treasury Secretary said. 
 
New Zealand: Report on Christchurch mosque attack released 
On 8 December, the Royal Commission of Inquiry released a 792-pages report on the March 2019 terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch which killed 51 worshippers.  Even though the report found "an inappropriate concentration of resources" on "other terrorism threats", it concluded that the attack could not have been prevented. Following the release, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden apologized for the "failings" on behalf of the government. The Commission submitted several recommendations including better targeting of hate crimes and a new security and intelligence agency. 
 
Australia: Parliamentary panel asks mining company to restore an indigenous site
On 9 December, an Australian Parliamentary panel released an interim report titled "Never Again". The report denounced Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining company, for destroying 46,000-year-old caves in Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. These caves are considered sacred by that region's indigenous communities and were blown up by Rio Tinto for extracting USD 135 million worth of iron ore. The panel has asked the company to reconstruct the heritage site and return the artefacts. 


South Asia This Week
Bangladesh: UN urges for the safety assessment of the Rohingya island-Bhashan Char 
On 10 December, the UN Human Rights investigator for Myanmar said that he was not allowed to conduct the safety assessment of Bhashan Char Island where Rohingya refugees were shipped a week ago. The UN urged Bangladesh to allow the safety assessment of the island, which is considered flood-prone. The US also asked Bangladesh to accept the UN assessment and allow for independent access to ensure that the relocation has been done voluntarily. However, Dhaka said that the refugees were relocated voluntarily, and the international community should not worry about it.
 
Bangladesh: 41st span of Padma Bridge installed
On 9 December, authorities of the Padma Multi-Purpose Bridge Project have installed the last span of the bridge. After completion, Dhaka will get connected to 21 southern districts through roads and railways. The construction was stopped after the World Bank and other international agencies stopped funding due to allegations of corruption which were later found to be false.
 
Nepal: Mount Everest's height jointly revised
On 8 December, Nepal and China jointly announced the revised height of the world's highest mountain to 8,848.86 meters above sea level. The new height is 86 cm more than what India measured in 1954. According to both, Mount Everest's height has increased 86 cm since it was measured by the Survey of India in 1954. The height of the peak has always been a contentious issue due to its strategic location between Nepal and China.
 
India: Foreign envoys visit vaccine facility
On 9 December, foreign envoys visited the manufacturing facilities of  Bharat Biotech and Biological E in Hyderabad's Genome Valley. The visit was organized by the Ministry of External Affairs to familiarise them with the work done for vaccine development. Ambassadors, High Commissioners, and government representatives of 70 countries visited and held discussions over Covaxin.
 
India: Foreign office consultation with Israel
On 7 December, India and Israel held a virtual foreign office consultation. Both reviewed cooperation in the areas of counter-terrorism, science and technology, water, agriculture, cybersecurity, energy, and defence. They also discussed regional and international issues.
  
Pakistan: Joint Air exercise with China conducted
On 9 December, Pakistan and China conducted the ninth Shaheen-IX joint air exercise at an airbase of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)  Assistant Chief of Staff Major General said that the exercise would improve combat training and enhance the bilateral relationship. Combat pilots, air defence controllers, and technical ground crew was participating in the exercise.
 
Pakistan: PDM's mass resignation
On 7 December, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) met in Islamabad and announced that its members would resign from the national and provincial assemblies to remove the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insatf (PTI). Prime Minister Imran Khan said that if the opposition resigns, the government will conduct by-elections to the vacant seats. After this PDM's President, Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced that all the national and provincial lawmakers would hand over their resignations individually to the heads of their parties by 31 December. 


Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Kyrgyzstan: Referendum to choose the system of governance
On 10 December, Parliamentary members in Kyrgyzstan voted for a planned referendum that offers the voters a choice between the parliamentary or presidential system of rule. On 9 December, the first reading for the Constitutional Amendment was completed; the second and the third reading was completed on 10 December with just ninety minutes of discussion. Political activists in Kyrgyzstan fear it would lead the country to backslide into super-Presidentialism under firebrand nationalist Sadyr Japarov, ever since a new Constitution came into existence in 2010. The referendum is set to take place on 10 January 2021.
 
Yemen: The US and Iran sanction each other's envoy
On 8 December, the US sanctioned Iran's envoy to the Houthis in Yemen. Iran had become the only country to recognize the Houthi regime by appointing an envoy officially. The US decision was keeping up with its policy of maximum pressure campaign of sanctions on Iran. On 9 December, in a tit-for-tat move, Iran blacklisted the US ambassador to Yemen, blaming him for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
 
Lebanon: Caretaker PM and ex-ministers charged for Beirut blast
On 10 December, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three ex-ministers were charged with criminal neglect by a Lebanese prosecutor for the Beirut port blast that took place on 4 August killing more than 200 people. In response, the PM stated his conscience is clear, and his hands are clean. Diab's cabinet had to step down after blasts, and he currently occupies the role of a caretaker Prime Minister. Such high-profile indictments have been rare in the case of Lebanon.
 
Democratic Republic of Congo: Violence in the Parliament
On 8 December, the police were deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Parliament after clashes between President Felix Tshisekedi and supporters of his predecessor Joseph Kabila. At least three people were injured during the violence. On 10 December, the lower house of Parliament voted to impeach the speaker of the house Jeanine Mabunda, who is a close ally of Kabila. She was accused of being "conflictual and partisan," which she denied.  
 
Ghana: Opposition accuses Electoral Commission of fraudulent elections
 On 7 December, former president and candidate John Mahama of National Democratic Congress (NDC) rejected the results of both presidential and parliamentary elections. He accused the National Electoral Commission of manipulation of the results in favour of the New Patriotic Party's (NPP) Nana Akufo-Addo. He said that he would take legitimate steps towards securing justice. On 9 December, Electoral Commission had announced Akufo-Addo as the winner, but the next day it declared that there was a tie between the two parties.
 
Iran: Turkey's envoy summoned over Erdogan's poem
On 10 December, Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned Turkey's ambassador over Erdogan's remarks during his visit to Azerbaijan. He recited a poem on Azerbaijan's division between Russia and Iran in the 19th century.  Iran is concerned that this remark could promote separatism among the Azeri minority in the nation. Following this, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that "NO ONE can talk about OUR beloved Azerbaijan."
 
Iraq: KRG blames Baghdad for protests
On 8 December, Iraqi President Barham Salih expressed concern over the use of violence to suppress the protests ongoing in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq's Sulaymaniyah province. The protests have been on the issues of non-payment of Government salaries, corruption by politicians, high unemployment rate and lack of public services. Kurdish Prime Minister heading the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has blamed the federal government in Baghdad for the economic crisis and its failure to devolve funds to KRG. The anti-government protests that started in early December have been violent and leaderless, often targeting public and political offices.


Europe and the Americas This Week
France: Football teams walkout after racial slur by a match official 
On 8 December, Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir which were playing a Champions League game in Paris walked out of the match over a racism issue. The fourth referee used a racial slur for Basaksehir's assistant coach. On 9 December, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) tweeted that it would be "conducting a thorough investigation". It added: "Racism, and discrimination in all its forms, has no place within football". 
 
France: Draft law targeting extremism gets cabinet backing
On 9 December, the French cabinet approved a bill aimed at tackling "radical Islamism" and strengthening "republican values" like secularism and freedom of expression. Prime Minister Jean Castex dismissed the concerns that the draft law targets any particular religion; he said that it is aimed at "the nefarious ideology of radical Islamism." This comes after three recent terrorist attacks in France, including the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in October. 
 
The European Union: Hungary and Poland lift veto on pandemic relief budget
On 10 December, the European Council President announced that the EU had reached an agreement on the USD 2.1 trillion seven-year budget and pandemic recovery package. The budget was blocked by Hungary and Poland as they objected to linking the budget with 'rule of law' requirement. However, later they lifted their hold after a non-binding declaration made by European leaders which assured both countries that the rule of law requirement would kick in only for future spending. 
 
Mexico: Central bank hits back at the bill passed by the Senate 
On 10 December, the Bank of Mexico (Banxico) criticized the bill passed by Mexico's Senate a day earlier. The bill mandates Banxico to absorb excess cash lying with the country's commercial banks which they can't return back to the financial system. Banxico has criticized the bill for impinging upon the central bank's autonomy and for placing foreign currency reserves at risk. The bill will now be debated by the lower house of the Parliament.

The United States: Pfizer vaccine cleared for distribution
On 11 December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency authorization to the COVID-19 vaccine candidate developed jointly by Pfizer and BioNTech SE. The two shipping giants - UPS and FedEx are getting ready to distribute within the States. The health care workers and old people in care facilities would be among the first to be inoculated. The vaccine has already been approved by the UK and Canada.
 
The United States: Major legal setbacks for Trump's campaign
On 8 December, Trump's re-election campaign suffered major setbacks as three of its lawsuits were rejected by the courts. The Nevada Supreme Court unanimously upheld the lower court order which found no evidence of election fraud in the state. The Arizona Supreme Court also dismissed the Republican plea. The US Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, also rejected the plea of overturning Pennsylvania's elections. Trump's campaign has suffered more than 50 legal defeats. 
 
The United States: Biden picks An African American as defence secretary, a first in US history 
On 8 December, President-elect Joe Biden named Gen Lloyd J Austin III, a retired four-star general, as his choice for defence secretary. However, his nomination has raised concerns among both democrats and republicans. But to secure the post, he would require a waiver from both houses of parliament from the seven-year retirement period requirement; Gen Austin retired only in 2016. If confirmed, he would be the first African American defence secretary. His nomination follows Biden's promise to pick up a diverse cabinet. 
 
The United States: SpaceX's Starship prototype explodes while landing
On 9 December, SpaceX, a US-based aerospace company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, test-launched a prototype Starship rocket from Texas. The rocket, however, exploded during its controlled descent due to a technical glitch. The Starship rocket is being developed to carry humans and 100 tonnes of cargo for missions to the Moon and Mars. Despite the explosion, the test was a partial success and Musk tweeted that they had obtained "all the data we needed". 
 
The United States: Supreme Court rejects Texas lawsuit
On 11 December, the US Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit filed by Texas challenging the presidential elections in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. "Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections", stated the brief unsigned order by the court. The US Electoral College is finally set to vote on 14 December. 
 
The United States: UAE arms sale to go forward as Senate fails to block it 
On 9 December, the US Senate voted against two motions that sought to block the Trump administration's arms deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The deal includes the sale of F-35 fighter jets and Reaper drones and is part of the Israel-UAE normalization bargain. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have criticized the arms deal as they fear these weapons would be used by UAE in the Yemeni and Libyan conflicts.


About the authors
Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Assistant, Aparupa Bhattacherjee, Harini Madhusudan, Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma are PhD Scholars, at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. 

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