The World This Week

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The World This Week
India-Pakistan Ceasefire, US-Saudi Arabia reset, Afghan dialogue in Doha, and the Australian new media law on Facebook/Google

  GP Team

The World This Week #108, Vol. 3, No. 9

D Suba Chandran, Jeshil Samuel, Abigail Fernandez, Avishka Ashok

India and Pakistan: Both countries agree to revive the 2003 ceasefire 
What happened?
On 25 February 2021, a joint statement published by respective ministries/departments in India and Pakistan mentioned the discussions between the Director Generals of Military Operations of the two countries. Through the hotline, after reviewing the situation “along the Line of Control and all other sectors in a free, frank and cordial atmosphere” both sides agreed to revive the ceasefire.

According to the statement, “In the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders, the two DGsMO agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence. Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 Feb 2021.” The statement also reiterated to make use of existing mechanisms of hotline contact and border flag meetings “to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding.”

What is the background?
First, the comprehensive ceasefire agreement signed between India and Pakistan in November 2003. Signed after the 2001-02 military standoff between the two countries, the agreement was comprehensive in its focus and also in its adherence. It included three areas: the International Border (IB), the Line of Control (LoC) and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in Jammu and Kashmir. Thus it covers the region from Siachen in the north to the creeks of Gujarat-Sindh between India and Pakistan. Signed between President Musharraf and PM Vajpayee, the agreement held for the next ten years. The ceasefire period saw the easing of LoC, as both started bus and truck services between two parts of J&K. The easing brought normalcy to regular life along the LoC, and also reduced violence inside J&K. 

Second, the violation of ceasefire during the recent years, undermining the decade long achievements across the LoC. During recent years, there have been a series of ceasefire violations as the LoC became violent, with cross-firing from both sides. India and Pakistan have provided a long list of ceasefire violations holding the other side responsible. The ceasefire violations affected the normal life along the LoC, slowed down the bus and truck services, and also witnessed increased violence within J&K. One could see a direct correlation between the instability in LoC and the achievements during the first decade of the ceasefire agreement.

Third, the cause and effect relationship between the increasing political divide between India and Pakistan, and the ceasefire violations along the LoC. Whether the ceasefire violations resulted in the political divide between the two countries, or the lack of political dialogue that made the LoC violent would depend on whom one is talking to. There is a linkage between the two.

What does it mean?
First, a word of caution. Between India and Pakistan, following a season of instability, there has always been a ceasefire, as a starting point. One does not have to look into whether the India-China border understanding or the Biden administration has affected the change. On J&K, no external factors can make India and Pakistan to toe a particular line; the internal politics and institutional interests are too strong to listen to outside actors. The return to the ceasefire is bound to happen; two nuclear neighbours cannot be in a perineal military standoff. The militaries cannot afford to stand against the other on a long standoff without a political endgame. 

Second, since both countries have agreed to return to the 2003 ceasefire, they should ensure it is observed in letter and spirit. Whatever may be the actual reasons for the two militaries to agree to make use of the hotline and return to the ceasefire, they should ensure that the institutions of the DGMOs are made better use of at the local level.
Third, both countries should now build on – across the LoC and across Wagah. They may, or they may not. But, they should.

The US and Saudi Arabia: President Biden's new approach towards Saudia Arabia
What happened?
On 25 February, US President Joe Biden made an important phone call to the King of Saudi Arabia - Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, discussing the bilateral relationship between their countries. 

On 26 February, the CIA released its intelligence report on the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, an American citizen and a Washington Post journalist. The report was released after the US Congress passed a law in 2020 that mandated intelligence agencies to disclose their findings to the public. The report establishes the role of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and his close aides in the assassination. 

What is the background?
First, the shift in the Biden administration to the US-Saudi relationship. Unlike his predecessor, President Biden is looking forward to a more transparent and accountable relationship with Saudi Arabia. The US had blocked its sale of weapons and logistics to the Saudi-led coalition on 4 February in an attempt to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen. Thus, the call between President Biden and Saudi’s King was a recalibration for the bilateral ties between the two countries.

Second, the official American response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the White House-MBS relationship. The killing has been perceived as a terrible blow to US-Saudi relations since 2018. However, the Trump administration did not give due importance to the investigation of the assassination as it wanted a better relationship with Saudi Arabia. More importantly, it did not want to upset its relationship with the MBS. The new President seems to be pursuing a different path - towards Saudi Arabia and MBS. With the CIA’s report released now, the Biden administration has blocked the visas of more than seventy Saudi nationals involved in controlling public dissent against the Saudi crown. This should be seen as a beginning.

What does this mean?
Biden has been a stern advocate of human rights in the Middle East and has pressed its allies to ensure the freedoms and rights of their citizens. The release of the CIA’s report shows that the US is taking a more definite step in curbing the censorship and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. The sanctions slammed on all twenty-one members responsible for Khashoggi’s assassination in the report, excluding the crown prince, shows America’s need to maintain its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Any criminal charges or sanctions against the Prince by the US would bring a stain on the relationship between both countries. 

The need for the US to keep its ties in the Middle East, especially with Saudi Arabia is crucial. The Biden administration’s reset in foreign policy towards the Middle East comes at a time when the US has to act cautiously. With Iran and the JCPOA on one side and the conflict in Yemen on another, the role of the US could prove pivotal in bringing stability to the region.

Afghanistan: Talks in Doha resume after weeks of delay
What happened?
On 22 February, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem via Twitter stated “This evening, a meeting was held in a cordial atmosphere between the leaders and some members of the two delegations for the inter-Afghan talks. The meeting emphasized the need to continue negotiations. And assigned groups to set the agenda, to continue their meetings on the subject.” The resumption of talks comes after weeks of delays, escalating violence and a change in US diplomatic leadership as the Biden administration took office. On 25 February, the Afghan Republic and the Taliban negotiators held their third meeting with the main focus of the talks being on the agenda of the negotiations.

On 21 February, Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation stated that the Taliban violence remains high and that the Afghan people are bearing the sacrifice, calling on the Taliban to return to the negotiating table.

What is the background?
First, the stalled negotiations. The first round of the intra-Afghan negotiations ended on 14 December 2020 after three months of talks. During that round, the teams barely managed to agree on the rules of procedure for the talks themselves and exchange preliminary lists of issues they wanted on the agenda. The second round of intra-Afghan negotiations was scheduled to begin on 5 January 2021, in Doha. However, the negotiations in Doha were stalled as both sides did not meet to discuss the agenda mainly because of the Taliban’s missing presence in Doha. Since the resumption of talks, the Taliban has been on a diplomatic spree with multiple visits to Iran and Russia, Turkmenistan and Turkey seeking support for the US-Taliban Agreement. As a result, the Afghan government’s negotiating team warned that if the Taliban failed to resume the talks, the government would recall its team from Doha.

Second, the shift in the US administration and one year of the US-Taliban deal. The reason for a lack of urgency in the continuing talks has been attributed to the change in the US administration led by President Joe Biden and their policy on Afghanistan. As the Biden administration is reviewing the US-Taliban agreement signed in February 2020, the Taliban sent an open letter calling on the US to adhere to its part of the agreement by fully withdrawing its troops.

Third, the continuing surge in violence amid the stalled talks. According to reports released by the UNAMA in 2020, violence has surged across Afghanistan, with ground fighting causing the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops. The reports cited that nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on, despite efforts to find peace.

What does it mean?
Although both the Taliban and government leaders have said that these talks are a “unique, historic opportunity” for Afghans to solve their differences. The sense of urgency from either side to find common ground, reduce violence and move forward seems to be missing in the current round of negotiations. Rather, the resumption of talks seems to be personally motivated from each side. With intra-Afghan negotiations having barely scraped the surface of substantial talks, any significant breakthrough remains highly unlikely.

As the United States reviews its Afghanistan policy which has so far yielded few concrete results, the agreement still has its leverage to help stop attacks and encourage a ceasefire. However, what the reviewed agreement will look like and if the Taliban accepts it, remains in question.

Australia: New Media law on Social Media and its global implications
What happened?
On 26 February, Facebook resumed its services in Australia, after an eight-day black-out that disabled its users from sharing and viewing content created by Australian media companies. Australian users can now return to using the platform as they did previously. 

On 25 February, after rounds of negotiations with Facebook, the Australian government agreed to amend parts of the proposed law and passed the ‘News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.’ The law will force tech firms like Google and Facebook to pay for the news content created indigenously. The treasurer and communications minister made a joint statement referring to the law and said, “The code will ensure news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate, helping to sustain public interest journalism.”

What is the background?
First, the global call for regulation of search engines and social media platforms. Australia may be the first country to legally bind Google and Facebook to a deal that compensates digital media but the fight against these firms had begun a few years ago. In 2018, the European Union reformed its copyright laws, enabling them to request a fee whenever its content was displayed on their websites. Countries like the UK, Canada, United States, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Thailand and New Zealand, to name a few, have all proposed similar bills in their parliament. The issue remains to be a grey area with governments unable to decide what parts need to be regulated. 

Second, the need for the law. In the 21st century, where the information is available at record speed and bare minimum costs, media companies have to depend extensively on ad-revenues and subscriptions which fluctuate according to behavioural algorithms. Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code dictates big tech firms compensate Australian news agencies for using their content on popular social media platforms. The code seeks to address the imbalance of revenue suffered by media companies due to the upsurge in usage of digital platforms in recent decades. The new law will ensure appropriate compensation to media firms that will help them sustain in a world where news and information are freely and easily available. 

Third, the privacy issue. National governments, while ensuring copyrights and neighbouring rights of media firms, will also be able to keep control of the content that reaches the internet. This would essentially change the existence of the free press, which Google and Facebook have been opposing. Both companies threatened to stop all services in the country. However, on 15 February, Seven West Media Ltd announced the signing of a $ 30 million deal with Google. On 18 February, Facebook unfriended the country over the government’s insistence on the bargaining code; it emphasized the difference in functioning from Google which is innately entangled with media agencies for sharing content. Facebook, however, is used by the same agencies to share their content voluntarily, to increase their subscription and ad revenue.

What does it mean?
First, a precedent for the rest of the world. Countries that have been looking forward to introducing similar laws in their country will now have an example to learn from. Other tech firms, along with Facebook and Google, have already started securing their interests in other countries. The new code will change the nature of all internet service providers. 

Second, along with a regulated income for media firms, the content on the internet will also be regulated as only the paid articles can be made available on these websites. The issue will now extend to how much freedom media firms will be given to publishing news in its purest and unadulterated form. 

Also in the news...
By Avishka Ashok   

East and Southeast Asia This Week

China: India and China talk about rebuilding bilateral relations
On 25 February, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor spoke with India’s Foreign Minister, six days after the 10th round of corps commander talks, where the two countries agreed to follow the decisions made by the state leaders. The phone call is an extension of the diplomatic meeting held in September 2020 and will aim to fulfil the agreements which were reached during the 10th corps commander talks. Both countries hope to maintain peace along the borders and achieve complete disengagement. 

South Korea: Seoul addresses issues of Comfort Women at UN Human Rights Council
On 23 February, the Second Vice Foreign Minister addressed the issue of forced sexual labour of Korean women by the Japanese Military during World War two at the virtual high segment of the UN Human Rights Council. He urged for the issue to be perceived as a “Universal human rights issue” in order to restore the dignity of thousands of women who suffered during the world war. He said, “Current and future generations should learn valuable lessons from the painful experience of the Comfort Women.”

South Korea: Foreign Ministry denies release of Iran’s funds
On 23 February, the Foreign Ministry reaffirmed that unfreezing of Iranian funds from South Korean banks will be possible only after approval from the US. On 22 February, the Iranian government announced that South Korea would release $ 1 billion out of the currently frozen $ 7 billion as a result of the US imposed sanctions on Iran. The US State department also announced that the possible release of funds will be discussed with South Korea but clarified that no funds have been released as of yet. 

Myanmar: Protests continues, takes a violent turn 
On 21 February, the people of Myanmar participated in a general strike, calling it the ‘22222’ protests against the military’s take-over of political power in the country. Over 200 people have been detained and at least five have been killed by the police who opened fire on the protestors. On the same day, General Hlaing accused the health workers of unethical behaviour and threatened to take action against those who refused to return to work. Internationally, Myanmarese are making their presence known by protesting outside embassies in Japan and Indonesia. Japan has chosen to maintain communications with the military but has stopped all official development projects in the country while Australia presses for the release of the academician Sean Turnell. 

Malaysia: Government gives approval to Huawei for launch of 5G CyberSecurity Lab
On 23 February, the government of Malaysia announced that the country would launch its first 5G cyber security testing laboratory with CyberSecurity Malaysia, Huawei and Celcom. The decision has been taken despite Huawei’s reputation on safeguarding privacy of its customers. Malaysia will be this first Southeast Asian country to initiate a 5G laboratory which will include radio access networks, Edge networks and a cloud application. The Communication and Multimedia Minister made the announcement with an aim to accomplish the goal of achieving 5G connectivity by the end of 2021.

South Asia This Week

Sri Lanka: Imran Khan’s visit to Colombo 
On 23 February, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived at Colombo to meet with Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister. They discussed measures to enhance trade and investment between the two countries. The visit comes at a time when the Islamic world scrutinizes Sri Lanka over the restrictions placed on burials in the country. On 26 February, Sri Lanka allowed its Muslim population to bury its dead. Khan’s visit to Colombo reaffirms the close and friendly relationship with each other. 

Maldives: India signs defence agreements with the island nation
On 21 February, India signed five defence agreements and extended a $50 million line of credit with Maldives. The funds aim to develop and maintain the harbour at Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base in Maldives and will facilitate bilateral relations between the two countries. One of the other 5 agreements provides for a $25 million line of credit for the development of roads. The recently signed agreements will also encourage capacity building in the maritime sector. 

India: New Delhi signs agreements with Mauritius and extends helps to Seychelles
On 22 February, India’s Foreign Minister visited Mauritius and signed trade and defence deals and the first ever Free Trade Agreement with an African country. The two countries entered a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement to provide a boost to the economies of both countries which are dealing with a post-pandemic lull and signed a $100 million line of credit to be used to acquire Indian defence equipment. On 24 February, Seychelles thanked the Indian government for providing the country with Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccines. As of February 2021, India has provided 361 lakh doses of the vaccine to other countries and organisations.

Sri Lanka: Foreign Minister denies allegations made by UNHRC report
On 24 February, the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka rejected the recommendations made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN Human Rights Council. He said, “the contents of the Report are rife with factual inaccuracies that appear to equate atrocities committed by the LTTE, a terrorist organization proscribed internationally, with legitimate action taken by the government to safeguard the territorial integrity of the country and the right to life of our people.” 

Pakistan: President comments against France’s anti-radicalism bill
On 21 February, President Arif Alvi warned France against discriminatory attitudes towards Muslims in the country. He cautioned that such steps by the government could lead to grave consequences in the form of hatred and conflict. He opined, “You need to bring people together and not to stamp a religion in a certain manner to create disharmony and bias” and expressed concern regarding the law, which he believes, goes against the UN Charter. 

Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week

Armenia: Opposition and citizens demand the resignation of PM
On 23 February, thousands of protestors rallied against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s handling of the war with Azerbaijan which cost them to lose parts of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Pashinyan has refused to step down and called the peace deal a necessary step to protect the region from further damage and loss in human lives. A member of the Republican Party of Armenia said, “Actions of disobedience need to continue for a long time, the city should be paralysed every once in a while.” The Opposition and military have also called for Pashinyan to step down. 

Iran: Khamenei hints at capacity to boost uranium enrichment to 60 per cent
On 22 February, the supreme leader of Iran announced that Iran could boost uranium enrichment to 60 per cent if need be and has promised to not compromise on the nuclear issue. He said, “The Islamic republic will not back down on the nuclear issue and will strongly continue down the path of what the country requires for today and tomorrow." Although 90 per cent enrichment is required for the creation of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s current level is much higher than the 3.67 per cent deal which was agreed upon in 2015.

Syria: The US attacks Iran backed militant areas
On 25 February, The US military attacked parts of Eastern Syria that were being controlled by Iranian-backed armed groups. This is the first violent attack issued by the US after the change of political leadership in America. US State Department spokesperson said, “These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to that personnel." The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 17 deaths after the strike. 

Israel: Government faces backlash for exporting vaccines to friendly allies
On 23 February, Israel announced that it will send a few thousand doses of surplus vaccines to countries like Czech Republic, Hungary, Guatemala and Honduras. The country has been criticised widely for being insensitive towards the Palestinians as it has left over five million people to fend for themselves during the pandemic. Israel’s efforts to supply vaccines across the world but not 100 meters from the border has been called “shameful and short-sighted.” 

Saudi Arabia: CIA releases report on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi
On 26 February, the intelligence agency of the US released a declassified report on the murder of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, who mysteriously disappeared from the Saudi embassy in Turkey. The report directly points fingers at the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and his aides who ordered the capture and killing of the journalist. The US has placed restrictions on the visas of 76 individuals who were directly involved in the harassment of activists and journalists in the country. The Crown Prince is free of all sanctions as of yet. 

Libya: Migrants drown at sea
On 24 February, the UN agencies IOM and UNHCR issued a joint statement and expressed grief over the death of at least 41 migrants as the boat capsized in the Central Mediterranean Sea. Over 120 migrants were aboard the ship, seeking escape to Europe, when it capsized. Over 118 people have lost their lives this year in similar journey while more than 20,000 have drowned since 2014.

Democratic Republic of Congo: UN Convoy attacked by gunmen
On 22 February, Italian Ambassador to DRC, an Italian police officer and their driver was killed in an ambush while they were on their way to visit a World Food Programme school project in Rutshuru. The three men died while others in the convoy have suffered injuries in the attack. Despite the heavy presence of UN bodies in the region, armed attacks are common in the country. 

Ghana: Covax provides six lakh doses of vaccines to Ghana
On 24 February, Ghana became the first country to receive free doses of vaccines against the COVID-19 pandemic. Covax, which enables the fair distribution of vaccines between rich and poor countries, delivered its first consignment of six lakh doses of AstraZeneca to Ghana. Covax will provide a total of 24,12,000 doses of vaccine to Ghana and two billion doses to its members by the end of this year. 

Nigeria: 300 girls abducted; 42 people released 
On 26 February, over 317 girls were abducted from a boarding school in northwest Nigeria. Armed militants stormed into the school, firing aimlessly and packed the school girls into vehicles. Abductions for ransom have become a normal phenomenon in the country. On February 27, 42 people were abducted from a different state in the same region last week, were released. One student lost his life during the attack. 

Mozambique: Over 100 dolphins found dead
On 21 February, dozens on dolphins washed ashore on the coast of Mozambique. On 23 February, approximately 86 more bodies of dolphins were found lying on the shores of Bazaruto Island. The cause of death of the dolphins are not known yet but environmental experts believe that Cyclone Guambe which affected the region in the previous week, could be the cause, creating rapid changes in pressure.

Europe and the Americas This Week

Russia: Alexei Navalny sent to prison 
On 25 February, Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic was moved from a jail in Moscow to a prison, whose location is unknown even to his defence attorney. The Russian court has held Navalny guilty of spying for intelligence agencies of Western countries and insist upon his sentence despite the EU Court of Human Rights’ demand for his release. Russia has also rejected ECHR’s concerns regarding his safety in prison.

France: Pakistan retained on the FATF Grey list
On 25 February, the Financial Action Task Force Plenary decided to retain Pakistan on the Grey List, which Islamabad was attempting to come out from. France and other European countries firmly believe that Pakistan should remain in the Grey list until it fulfils all 27 recommendations suggested by the FATF. As of yet, Pakistan has fulfilled 21 instructions but the acquittal of Omar Sheikh and beheading of Daniel Pearl have weakened its position on the case. The country will now be given time until June 2021 to implement all parameters. 

The United States:  COVID-19 related deaths cross five lakh mark
On 22 February, the deaths caused by the pandemic crossed the five-lakh mark. US President Joe Biden ordered the flag to be flown at half-staff to pay respect to the people who lost their lives to the virus which surfaced in December 2019. He said, “We, as a Nation, must remember them so we can begin to heal, to unite, and find purpose as one Nation to defeat this pandemic.” 

The United States: Canadian Prime Minister virtually meets Biden
On 23 February, the President of the US held virtual talks with the Canadian Prime Minister in order to discuss plans to improve cooperation between the two countries. The two leaders discussed global alliances, the pandemic, employment, climate change and the resumption of Cross-Border Crime Forum. Canada has also discussed the release of two Canadians in Chinese custody; which the US emphasized once the talk was over. 

The United States: The House of Representatives passes Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan
On 27 February, the lower house of the US passed Biden’s pandemic aid plan and approved a minimum wage increase. The approved plan will inject a $1.9 trillion stimulus in the American businesses and families. The plan will also provide individuals with a direct payment of $1,400 earning upto $75,000 a year. Nearly $50 billion will be directed towards vaccine distribution, $200 billion to primary and secondary schools and $350 billion to state, local and tribal governments. The senate may however amend certain clauses of the bill as the minimum wage hike would not be allowed under the strict budgetary rules that administer reconciliation bills.

Venezuela: Government removes EU Ambassador 
On 24 February, the government in Venezuela expelled the EU Ambassador after the organisation decided to impose sanctions on 19 Venezuelan officials who have been accused of human rights violations and undermining democracy. The EU delegation has been asked to leave the country in 72 hours. The President of the country, Maduro said, "We would not have wanted to do this but we cannot accept that anyone comes to offend Venezuela." This is the second time the Ambassador has been asked to leave the country in the last eight months.

About the authors
D Suba Chandra is Dean and Professor, Abigail Fernandez is a Research Associate and Avishka Ashok is a Research Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at NIAS. Jeshil Samuel is currently pursuing a Masters in International Studies at Christ (Deemed to be) University. 

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