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CWA # 455, 14 April 2021
Conflict Weekly #66, 14 April 2021, Vol.2, No.2
An initiative by NIAS-IPRI & KAS-India Office
Conflict Weekly #66, 14 April 2021, Vol.2, No.2
Sourina Bej, Lokendra Sharma and Apoorva Sudhakar
Northern Ireland: Riot breaks out in Belfast as post-Brexit trade arrangement sets in
In the news
On 7 April, rioters hijacked and torched a bus and hurled petrol bombs at police in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. This marks the seventh night of continuous rioting on the streets of the Northern Irish capital that has currently left 90 police officers injured, according to a news report in the BBC. In the sporadic rioting that began in March, violence has spread from the loyalist areas of West Belfast, as hundreds gathered on each side of the 'peace wall' separating the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Springfield Road. Clashes between the two communities and police occurred near the wall, built to prevent further violence between the two groups after three decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
Issues at large
First, the post-Brexit tensions. Since the start of 2021, tension was brewing when post-Brexit trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK came into effect. Preserving peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the UK a back door into the EU's markets through the 500km UK-Irish land border was one of the BREXIT talks' challenges. The arrangement eventually designed to retain Northern Ireland and Ireland as an open land border, saving the peace process built on the 1998 Good Friday accord. However, the BREXIT divorce deal did lead to a few customs and border checks on some goods, a remainder on the consequence of a violation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This created a sense among both the unionists and loyalists of an unequal arrangement as against the rest of the UK.
Second, the hardening of the Irish sea border as larger discontent. As land border remained open, control and check were imposed on the Irish sea that led the unionist group to distrust the UK government. Posters and graffiti have marred the walls in Belfast, calling for "No Irish Sea Border. Ian Paisley, Jr, a senior MP of Democratic Unionist Party, which supports BREXIT but opposes the Irish sea border, said in late January that discontent over the new arrangements was so great that some sections of the unionist community were "starting to sense they are sitting on a powder keg." While the causes for the violence are multifaceted, "there has been this brewing fear on the Unionist side that they are not as British as people in Birmingham," writes Feargal Cochrane, author of Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace.
Third, intra-sectarian political differences. The riot comes against the immediate backdrop of worsening relations between the leading parties representing the unionist, loyalists and the nationalist groups. The seven nights of violence were sparked by a decision from Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service not to prosecute 24 high-ranking members of Sinn Fein, the party, who had breached COVID-19 regulations by attending a funeral for Bobby Storey, a prominent member of the Irish Republican Army. However, it is noteworthy that the violence has unfolded around working-class Unionist areas of Belfast close to the coast, indicating this riot is still not a uniform sentiment across Northern Ireland.
Fourth, distrust against the UK and return of old rivalries. The introduction of the Internal Market Bill during the Brexit transition period and its subsequent dropping has resulted in a deep trust deficit between the British government and groups in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's population is divided between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists. More than two decades after the Good Friday Agreement peace deal brought the sectarian "Troubles" to an end, old rivalries and the question of political equality amongst the groups are ensuing in post Brexit scenario.
A change in the Northern Ireland protocol could probably be the next challenge for the Johnson government. At the beginning of March, Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups informed the British Prime Minister that they would not back the Belfast Agreement again until the Northern Ireland Protocol was amended to ensure uninterrupted trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. If the riot continues, it remains to be seen whether historical precedents repeat themselves to spiral the violence throughout the North.
Iran: Another act of "sabotage" at Natanz uranium enrichment facility
In the news
On 11 April, the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran suffered a power blackout, causing damage to the centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. Iranian media blamed it on Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad.
On 12 April, Iran's Foreign Minister Javed Zarif wrote a letter to the UN Secretary-General in which he called the act of targeting a "highly sensitive safeguarded nuclear facility" with "high risk" of radioactive material release as "reckless criminal nuclear terrorism" and a "grave war crime". Israeli news outlets claimed that Israel was behind the attack, though Israel officially neither confirmed nor denied its role in the attack.
On 12 April, Israel's PM Netanyahu, while not directly confirming a role, said: "I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel." On the same day, the US denied any involvement. The White House Press Secretary said: "The US was not involved in any manner".
On 13 April, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister said that the country would raise uranium enrichment levels to 60 per cent and has conveyed this to the International Atomic Energy Organisation.
Issues at large
First, the nature of the attack and the extent of the damage. Multiple accounts have been reported, ranging from a kinetic cyber-attack to a large explosion at the power supply system of the plant. The official Iranian version claims that there was a small explosion at the electricity distribution centre affecting the older generation centrifuges and that it did not stop the enrichment process. The New York Times however, based on Israeli and the US intelligence sources, claimed that "it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz's production."
Second, the attacks on Natanz in the past. The Natanz plant is the primary uranium enrichment facility of the country and has been central to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal. It has been the recipient of attacks in the past that have been attributed to Israel. This includes the cyber-attack using Stuxnet in 2007 and the fire incident in 2020.
Third, Israel's position on the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel has been a staunch opponent of the Iranian nuclear programme, and considers Iran's development of nuclear weapons as an existential threat to the country. Israel has not just been believed to target Iranian nuclear facilities, but also assassinating top Iranian nuclear scientists, including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020.
Fourth, the timing of the sabotage. The attack happened just a day after Iran celebrated its National Nuclear Technology Day, and President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated advanced centrifuges (capable of enriching uranium faster) at the Natanz site. The attack also coincided with the US Secretary of State Gen Llyod Austin's visit to Israel, and closely follows the conclusion of the first week of nuclear talks at Vienna between the US, Iran and the European partners of the JCPOA.
Even as Israel did not confirm its role, multiple reports, including some by Israeli Hebrew media, attribute the attack to the country. If Israel was behind the attack, then it could have had two potential motivations for the attack: first, delaying the Iranian uranium enrichment, especially after Iran unveiled new-generation centrifuges; second, to torpedo the nuclear talks happening at Vienna.
However, it is questionable whether any of these objectives will be fulfilled. Iran has shown high resilience in the last two decades despite a series of attacks. The attack has rather prompted Iran to up the ante by announcing an enrichment target of 60 per cent, inching closer to the 90 per cent weapons-grade level. Further, the attack, rather than torpedoing, may strengthen the Iranian position, which may play the victim card and use the new enrichment announcement as a bargaining chip.
Lastly, even though Iran has vowed revenge, it is unlikely to do anything significant, given its record of making calls for revenge and not following it through. The call for revenge then, like before, is to address domestic public opinion.
Ethiopia: Massacre in Afar-Somali border reflects larger instability in the country
In the news
On 8 April, the Ministry of Peace announced that the presidents of the Afar and Somali regional states had reached an agreement to resolve issues between the two regions. The decision called for a withdrawal of "security forces of their regions and allow [the] federal government to investigate and hold to account parties responsible for the conflict."
On 7 April, Reuters quoted Afar's deputy police commissioner who confirmed that at least 100 civilians were killed in clashes with the Somali forces. Blaming the Somali Regional State Special Forces, he said the violence began on 2 April and lasted till 6 April. Similarly, the head of Afar regional state communication bureau said the Somali forces, using heavy weaponry, had killed children and women while they were sleeping. However, the Somali region's spokesperson blamed the Afar forces, saying 25 people had been killed on 2 April and an "unknown number of civilians" were killed on 6 April.
Issues at large
First, the Afar-Somali problem. The recent differences between the two regions stem from claims over three towns which were transferred to Afar from the Somali region in 2014. The 2014 agreement was finalised under the then ruling coalition. However, in 2019, despite Afar considering the three towns as integral to the region, the Somali administration withdrew from the 2014 agreement.
Second, the possible immediate trigger for the clashes. Addis Standard quotes a humanitarian worker who explained the recent unrest. They said the clashes were triggered after people, belonging to three disputed towns, protested the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia's decision to call off polling in eight kebeles (the smallest administrative units), mostly inhabited by Somali groups. Following this, Afar security personnel retaliated with force.
Third, the latest violence is not isolated. Reliefweb explains that the tensions between the two regions have resulted in displacement of 29,000 households in July to October 2020 alone. It also quotes Afar authorities who say that nearly 30,000 people have been displaced from areas under the Somali and Afar region, but live with a host community in Afar.
Fourth, the problem of governance across the country. The chief ombudsman said that in March alone, at least 300 people were killed during clashes in the Amhara region in western Ethiopia. The violence erupted between the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups after an Oromo imam was allegedly shot down. Apart from the Amhara-Oromo clashes, the conflict in Tigray which began in November 2020 has also resulted in casualties and human rights abuses.
First, the Afar-Somali problem reflects a larger problem of the federal government's equation with the periphery. Just like Tigray being a peripheral region, Afar is on the north western periphery of Ethiopia bordering Eritrea and Djibouti. Therefore, like the Tigray conflict-affected Eritrea, escalation in Afar is likely to follow the same path.
Second, the internal stability of Ethiopia has worsened over the three years under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's governance. As the elections are scheduled for June, instances of violence of this scale, in a different part of the country, are unlikely to favour him.
Also from around the World
By Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Peace and Conflict from East and Southeast Asia
Japan: Over one million tonnes of treated Fukushima water to be released in two years
On 13 April, the government announced that more than one million tonnes of contaminated water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear station would be released into the sea. The first release is scheduled to take place in two years, giving the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc (Tepco) time to begin filtering the water to remove harmful isotopes, build infrastructure and acquire regulatory approval. This decision has raised concerns among Japanese fishermen and consumers as well as neighbouring countries such as South Korea and China. Additionally, environmentalists have called on the government to think twice and be transparent and cautious in discharging the radioactive water into the ocean.
China: Series of accidents sparks fears regarding the safety of mines
On 11 April, search operations were underway to rescue 21 miners who were trapped in an underground flood in the Fengyuan coal mine in northwest China. Xinhua News Agency reported that flooding began on 10 April. The incident sparked concerns about the safety of mines in China; previously, on 7 April, nine miners were killed in "an operation to destroy expired mining explosives" in a mine in southwest China. Three others were injured in the incident. Similarly, on 9 April, one miner was killed and seven trapped after "accumulated gas ignited in Guizhou province."
China: Solar energy supply chain could have links to forced labour, says WSJ
On 11 April, The Wall Street Journal reported that Xinjiang, from where about half the world's supply of polysilicon, an essential ingredient in most solar panels, could have links to forced labour. Additionally, the lack of unrestricted access to Xinjiang means it is difficult to ensure suppliers if are linked to human-rights abuses. In this regard, many Western solar companies have already begun to cut exposure to the region over fears that their industry will be spotlighted next. The US and other human rights groups claim that China is behind a network of internment camps believed to have more than one million Uyghurs.
Australia: Hundreds protest against custodial deaths of aboriginal people
On 10 April, people in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and so on protested against the "horrific number" of Aboriginal people's custodial deaths every year. The protests also aimed to mark the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody; the Commission had charted 339 recommendations. However, over the 30 years, over 470 deaths in custody have been recorded, including five so far in 2021. Protests will take place in Perth, Adelaide and other cities on 15 April to mark the exact date of the Royal Commission which was released in 1991.
Indonesia: Cyclone related death cross 170
On 11 April, the National Disaster Management Agency announced that the death toll from the floods and landslides triggered by tropical cyclone Seroja has increased to 179. The agency, in a joint conference, said: "We have been able to reach all the affected areas, and there are no more isolated villages." Seroja is the 10th tropical cyclone to hit Indonesia since 2008 but had the worst impact as it made landfall.
Myanmar: Suu Kyi issued new charges; death toll crosses 700
On 12 April, Aung San Suu Kyi was accused of a fresh criminal charge after she appeared through a video before a judge in Naypyitaw. She has now been charged again under section 25 of the natural disaster management law of having breached a law intended to control the spread of the coronavirus, the second such charge against her under the same law. Meanwhile, as violence continues, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners stated that 701 civilian deaths have taken place since the coup, compared to the 248 numbers reported by the army.
Peace and Conflict from South Asia
India: Five killed during election violence in West Bengal
On 10 April, five people were killed in election-related violence during the fourth stage of polling West Bengal. While one person was allegedly killed by political rivals, four others were killed when security personnel opened fire at Cooch Behar's Sitalkuchi Assembly constituency. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee alleged that it was a conspiracy by the BJP to scare her supporters, calling on the resignation of the Home Minister Amit Shah, who said the Chief Minister's call to "gherao personnel of the Central security forces" is what led to the flare-up.
Pakistan: Violence erupts over TLP chief's arrest
On 12 April, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) members took to the streets after their chief Maulana Saad Rizvi was arrested in Lahore. The demonstrations causing a major traffic jam in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad and left at least two dead and several others injured after violence erupted. Additionally, more than 100 supporters have been arrested as protest continue. Previously, on 11 April, Rizvi asked the TLP workers to be ready to launch a long march if the government failed to meet its demands within the deadline, thereby prompting the government to arrest him.
Afghanistan: Guiding principles shared with government and Taliban
On 11 April, Tolo News reported that the Turkey conference's guiding principles were shared with the Afghan Republic and the Taliban negotiators by the US, Qatar, Turkey, and the UN. The document is said to contain nine articles, and the relevant parties are expected to reach a unified stance on it ahead of the Turkey conference scheduled in April. Apart from the list of guiding principles, the document says that Islam, people's traditions and preserving Afghanistan form the basis of national unity in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban has stated that is not ready to attend the Turkey conference on 16 April; however, they are reviewing the details of the Turkey conference agenda.
Afghanistan: Biden plans to withdraw troops by 11 September
On 13 April, senior officials from the Biden administration stated that President Joe Biden would withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by 11 September beyond the 1 May deadline as agreed under the previous Trump administration. Previously, Biden said: "It's going to be hard to meet the 1 May deadline," adding "it is not my intention to stay there for a long time." Further, the withdrawal would coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Peace and Conflict from Central Asia, Middle East and Africa
Kyrgyzstan: Voters back referendum allowing greater powers for President
On 11 April, voters backed a referendum that provided for greater powers to President Sadyr Japarov. However, only a little above 30 per cent of voters turned up for the referendum. According to the Central Election Commission's preliminary results based on 75 per cent of the votes, 79 per cent voted in favour of the President. The move has received backlash from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. The two bodies maintained that the referendum lacked "meaningful and inclusive public consultations and debate in parliament."
Iran: Tehran suspends talks with EU after latter sanctions eight Iranian officials
On 12 April, Iranian media quoted the Foreign Ministry spokesperson saying that Iran had suspended "comprehensive talks with the EU, including human rights talks and all cooperation resulting from these talks, especially in the areas of terrorism, drugs and refugees." The decision came after the EU placed eight Iranian officials, including the head of the Revolutionary Guards, under sanctions. The sanctions were imposed citing "use lethal force to suppress the November 2019 protests." Therefore, the EU maintained that the head of the Revolutionary Guard "bears responsibility for serious human rights violations in Iran."
Lebanon: Caretaker PM approves decree to expand the exclusive economic zone
On 12 April, the caretaker prime minister approved a draft decree to expand Lebanon's maritime border, which is in dispute with Israel's claims. The decree provides for expanding Lebanon's exclusive economic zone by 1,400km and is now pending to be approval by the presidency. The move comes after talks between the two countries failed in October 2020. The Israeli Energy Minister's statement read, "Unilateral Lebanese measures will, of course, be answered with parallel measures by Israel." He also said that the Lebanese move would "derail the talks rather than help work toward a common solution."
Syria: Three Iran-backed fighters die in Israeli airstrike near Damascus
On 8 April, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that three Iran-backed fighters were killed in Israeli strikes targeting the Syrian military posts and weapons depot near Damascus. The state media reported that four soldiers were wounded in the incident; however, Syrian air defences shot down the Israeli missiles.
Israel-Palestine: At least 25 Palestinians arrested weeks prior to legislative elections
On 12 April, the Palestinian Prisoner Society reported that 25 Palestinians, including members of the Hamas, had been arrested by Israeli forces during their raids throughout the occupied West Bank. Members of the Palestinian Legislative Council were also arrested. The developments come weeks before the legislative elections scheduled to be held on 22 May. Aljazeera quoted a member of the Hamas Polit bureau who termed the Israeli raids a reflection of "criminal and terrorist identity in besieging our [their] people and its democratic options."
Sudan: At least 144 killed in the latest bout of violence in West Darfur
On 13 April, at least 144 people were reported dead and 230 injured in the latest round of clashes in El Geneina in the West Darfur state, which began on 3 April. According to the UN spokesman, the violence has forced 1,860 people to flee to Chad. On 12 April, the Chairman of Sudan's Sovereignty Council and Interior Affairs Minister arrived in El Geneina to review the situation.
Mozambique: WFP appeals for USD 82 million to address the hunger crisis
On 13 April, the World Food Programme said that 950,000 people were facing severe hunger in Mozambique. In its briefing at Geneva, the WFP appealed for USD 82 million to address the country's hunger crisis. The appeal comes after the National Institute for Disaster Risk Management and Reduction said it would need USD 126 million "to help those fleeing violence in Cabo Delgado."
Peace and Conflict from Europe and the Americas
Russia-Ukraine: The US warns Russia against acting 'aggressively' in Ukraine
On 11 April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia of "consequences" if it acts "aggressively" towards Ukraine. He said, "I have to tell you I have real concerns about Russia's actions on the borders of Ukraine," adding, "That's why we're in very close contact, in close coordination, with our allies and partners in Europe. All of us share that concern." This statement comes amid growing concerns of Russian troop build-up across the borders. On the same day, a Ukrainian soldier was killed and another seriously wounded in artillery fire from Russia-backed separatist rebels.
The US: Agreement reached with Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala over migration
On 12 April, the Biden administration announced that it had reached agreements with the governments of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to increase enforcement against migration toward the United States. According to the White House press secretary, Mexico is to maintain a deployment of about 10,000 troops. At the same time, Guatemala has sent 1,500 police, and military personnel to its southern border and Honduras deployed 7,000 police and military to its border "to disperse a large contingent of migrants." This agreement comes as the US witnessed a record number of unaccompanied children attempting to cross the border in March 2021 and the surge in the numbers of people trying to cross the southwest US border.
Brazil: Supreme Court orders probe of Bolsonaro's pandemic measures
On 9 April, the Supreme Court ordered the Senate to launch an inquiry into Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's administration over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In response to the order, Bolsonaro said that he was the victim of "judicial activism." As Brazil grapples under a new and deadlier surge of COVID-19, Bolsonaro has been known to downplay the threat of the coronavirus, arguing that the economic and emotional impacts of lockdown would harm more Brazilians than the pandemic.
Mexico: 30 marines detains in connection to forced disappearances
On 12 April, the Navy announced that prosecutors in Mexico had detained 30 Marines in connection with the disappearance of an unspecified number of people in the northern state of Tamaulipas in 2014. Further, the Navy said it decided to hand over the uniformed men "in strict adherence with protocol" so that prosecutors can "carry out the pertinent investigations." This announcement is the most extensive detention of military personnel connected with enforced disappearances in recent years in Mexico.
About the authors
Sourina Bej is a doctoral candidate at the University of Bonn, Germany. Lokendra Sharma is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS; Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Research Associates at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS.
V S Ramamurthy and Dinesh K Srivastava
Abigail Miriam Fernandez