The true cost of Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion high-tech city

In the early hours of April 13th, Saudi citizen Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti was killed in his own home a day after his video criticising the forced eviction of his tribe, the Huwaitat, went viral on social media. Saudi activists claim that al-Huwaiti was executed by Saudi special forces due his public refusal to give up his home. The story of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti is just one of the many cases which highlight the ongoing scandal of the forced eviction of the Huwaitat tribe to make way for the $500 billion project, known as NEOM (NEOM is a name coined by combining the Western prefix neo with the initial letter of the Arabic word mustakbal meaning future, ergo New Future). We at the Next Century Foundation are deeply saddened by this development that is taking place in the Huwaitat’s ancestral lands and we appeal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to re-evaluate measures regarding to this matter.

NEOM, the high-tech city, NEOM, is an ongoing project aimed to be completed by 2025. As an attempt to diversify from income sources from oil, the new high-tech city plans to implement futuristic technology in its infrastructure while simultaneously functioning as a tourist and investment hub. Located in the north-western area near the Saudi Jordanian border, the project is built on land indigenous to the ancient nomadic Bedouin tribe, the Huwaitat. The tribe has resided in this very land for hundreds of years, in over 13 villages near the Red Sea. However Huwaitat settlements in the Middle East as a whole span four countries: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt. As one of the oldest Transjordanian tribes, the Huwaitat are culturally significant. They are also historically important because of their support for the Hashemites during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Their actions were documented in T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom due to their pivotal role in the creation of the Jordanian state.

The project is being advertised as being built on ‘virgin land’, however this is certainly not the case as the Huwaitat have resided in this very land for hundreds of years. They have become collateral damage in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s recent reforms as they face harassment to drive them to relocate and in many instances forced evictions. And those who dare defy progress, like Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, may find themselves imprisoned or killed. The true cost of Saudi Arabia’s new project NEOM far exceeds the $500 billion bill.

Just recently in September, an appeal was sent to the UN in regard to the repeated harassment and forced displacement allegations made against Saudi forces in regard to their treatment of the Huwaitat to make way for NEOM. Actions have included electricity in the area being shut and the closure of schools to disincentivise locals from staying. Despite the scandal, members of NEOM advisory board have released statements saying that nobody has been removed violently from their land and compensation schemes are available for those relocating.

The Next Century Foundation has pressing and urgent concerns regarding the safety and the rights of indigenous people in Saudi Arabia. Such rights are enshrined under the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We appeal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be considerate to the Huwaitat and ensure that Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti has not died in vain. We urge Saudi Arabia to take the compassionate route in regard to this matter.

This article was written by the NCF Research Officer Fara Maruf and does not necessarily represent the views of the Next Century Foundation.

Understanding Iraq’s Militia

Iraq’s militia groups have been around for many years. However, their presence and indeed, their power, has recently become more evident, which in turn has been a severe setback for Iraq’s democracy. The most powerful militia groups have successfully been able to infiltrate parliament, preventing a good governance of the country. They have been able to silence any of their critics through the formation of pressure groups, as well as posing as a threat to the ongoing anti-government protests. Their network of influence in Iraq must be curbed if a true state of democracy is to be seen in the country.

After the fall of Daesh in Iraq, the militia groups were able to capitalise on the absence of stability in Iraq, filling the vacuum that Daesh left behind. They have now become a threat from within, a roadblock to Iraq’s democratic future.

Militia organisations are by no means unique to Iraq. They exist on a global scale and often arise in times of crises; they often fight on behalf of or as part of a state’s government. In Iraq, the origins of some of these militia groups can be traced back to 1933, during the rule of King Faisal I. During the time of Saddam Hussein, Arab and Kurdish militia groups were created to combat local forces outside of his control. By contrast, State-backed militia included the Ja’ish al-Shabi, or People’s Army, a paramilitary organisation composed of civilian volunteers to protect the Ba’ath government against internal opposition. The 2003 fall of Saddam spawned an insurgency conducted by militia groups, which lasted until 2011, when the American forces were officially ‘withdrawn’ from Iraq.

Once Daesh took over Mosul in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a ‘fatwa’ calling for Iraqis to volunteer and join forces in the fight against Daesh. Collectively the groups involved were known as The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, comprising of roughly forty of Iraq’s militia groups (given official recognition as a force by the Iraq government on 15 June 2014). The PMF comprise “a spectrum of actors”; predominantly Shiite, but also Sunni, Christian and Turkmen. Because of the PMF’s role in defeating Daesh in Iraq, they were officially incorporated as an independent unit into Iraq’s security services in 2016.

Within the heterogenous umbrella of the PMF, the Badr Organisation (Brigade), Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Peace Companies (also known as the Peace Brigades, and formerly known as the Mahdi Army) have fought as counterinsurgents. Three of the leaders of these militia in 2014 also made up those within the overall chain of command of the PMF; Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah (later assassinated by America); Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq; and Hadi al-Amiri, the chief of the Badr Organisation. These four militia groups are currently the largest players on the militia field in Iraq, and understanding their background and motives is important when looking at the way forward for democracy in Iraq.

Although the PMF was formally accountable to the Prime Minister in Iraq, the real commander was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and his assassination in January 2020 brought uncertainty to the future of the PMF. Many have called for the dismantling of the unit, due to the fractious relationships within the group itself since the assassination, and due to the division it has caused in Iraq. As aforementioned, there are a range of militia groups within the PMF, and many have remained loyal to each of their factions rather than the State. Indeed, many of the calls for the abolition of the PMF have come from the US, whose forces have endured many attacks over the past few months at the hands of the PMF and other allegedly pro-Iran militia. However, the dismantling of the PMF is much easier said than done, with groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah remaining armed and well-funded, and the PMF having a great impact on politics in Iraq.

The Badr Organisation (also known as the Badr Brigade) is one of Iraq’s most powerful “pro-Iran” Shiite militia groups, headed by Chief Commander, Hadi al-Amiri. The group was originally formed in 1982 by Iraqi exiles to fight against Saddam Hussein, and at that time, was supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Badr Organisation is now an official political party in Iraq and leads the second largest political bloc in the Iraq parliament. The group is incredibly powerful, with control of the Interior Ministry and an influence across all of Iraq’s politics. The Badr Organisation still benefits from the support of Tehran, and has an estimated 50,000 fighters in its ranks.

Perhaps the most prominent militia currently, Kata’ib Hezbollah, was formed in 2006, by military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This militia group is closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and is another one of the most prominent Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. As aforementioned, their former founder and military commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was assassinated in a US airstrike in January 2020, alongside Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani. Currently, the group is being led by Ahmad al-Hamidawi.

Kata’ib Hezbollah have been involved in many recent attacks against US forces. They have become the Iranian proxy fighting the US within Iraq, as their group ideological belief includes an aspiration to defend Iran’s interests against their ‘enemies’. The organisation has also been accused of several grave crimes, such as the killing of 24 protestors in December 2019 and the capture and torture of many more, in demonstrations against Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s politics. More recently, Kata’ib Hezbollah were behind the July 6th assassination of Hisham al Hishimi, who was critical of the militia group. Hisham al Hishimi had also pledged his support for the current Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who had sent Iraq’s forces to raid Kata’ib Hezbollah bases in June 2020; his killing may have been to send a message to al-Kadhimi. 

The Peace Brigades are a revival of the former Mahdi Army, which was formed and led by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, in 2003 and disbanded in 2008. In 2014, the group reformed to create the Peace Brigades. The Mahdi Army were part of the Shiite uprising against US forces in Iraq, until Muqtada al-Sadr called for a ceasefire and the disbandment of the group. Muqtada al-Sadr is an incredibly influential figure in Iraq; for many, he is seen as a symbol of resistance to foreign occupation. Most recently, al-Sadr criticised attacks on foreign missions in Iraq, and called on the perpetrators to cease these attacks. Despite his ties with Iran, he was against Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s politics. This position seemed to change after the assassination of Soleimani in January. His position has also shifted in response to the anti-government protests; what he once supported and provided aid to, he condemned. His erratic U-turns are not unknown, however, after his recent changes in position, he may be losing his influence in Iraq.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is another prominent “pro-Iran” Shiite militia group, who have claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on US and Coalition forces in Iraq. They were formed by Qais al-Khazali in 2006. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has been described as another violent Iran proxy in Iraq and estimates in 2014 stated the militia group was receiving up to $2 million USD per month from Tehran. The militia group has been accused of many heinous crimes in Iraq, including abductions, forced disappearances and the torture of Sunni Iraqis. In December 2019, the group was thought to have murdered nine protestors during the anti-government protests. Alongside Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is an incredibly strong and well-armed group, and one that still has a tight grip on Iraq.

The pressure on Mustafa al-Kadhimi to tackle these militia forces is mounting. Not only does the continued presence of strong, armed militia pose a serious threat to next year’s early elections, currently still planned for June 2021 (but likely to be postponed), attacks by militia groups also may lead to the closure of the US Embassy in Baghdad. There are a plethora of issues that these actions could exacerbate, such as the current economic and political crises facing Iraq. Furthermore, the continued prevalence of “pro-Iran” militia groups in Iraq also means the continuation of the profound influence that Iran has over Iraq’s security and politics. Kata’ib Hezbollah, along with other militia groups, stated last week that the attacks against US forces would stop, but only if the Iraq government will present a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.

The Iraq government has now pledged to the US forces that they will take further measures against the militia organisations, however, it is still unclear what these acts will entail; direct confrontation with the militia groups may well result in further death and instability in Iraq. In such a volatile environment, the road to peace and free democracy in Iraq is not a simple one. It requires good governance, action, and a true balance of interests.

Is there still hope for Lebanon?

To say that Lebanon has been through a lot would be an understatement. After a multifaceted civil war which ended in 1990, the country had to face a series of disasters including a major financial collapse, the emergence of mass protests and the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic. However, all the issues that Lebanon had to face seem to have their roots in a single predominant problem: Lebanon’s corrupt sectarian system. 

When looking at the current situation in Lebanon, one question prevails: can it only get worse? The whole world wonders whether the Lebanese, and especially the youth, can remain hopeful for the future when everyday life keeps getting harder. 

What went wrong?

As one crisis opens doors to others, Lebanon’s political leaders have thus far proved incapable of addressing the multiple health, economic, social and political issues that the country is facing. The devastating 4th August blast in Beirut port was the culminating evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese state. This tragic event destroyed the heart of the city of Beirut and killed more than 200 people. It was caused by 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been stored in the port for more than six years. Looking at the explosion two months on, it is clear that ongoing corruption and negligence on the part of the Lebanese political elite not only caused the disaster but also prevented any effective reform to enable the rebuilding of the country afterwards.

The current Lebanese political system was codified by the 1989 Taif Agreement which ended the country’s civil war. It is entrenched along sectarian lines as it was designed to provide political representation to all Lebanon’s eighteen officially recognized religious communities. In Lebanon, the president (currently Michel Aoun, pictured above) has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim. The seats in parliament are split between Christians and Muslims and the seats are then proportionally divided between the different branches within each of the religions. Similarly, government positions are also divided among the different groups. Over time, this system proved flawed and created tensions between the different religious sects. The Lebanese people quickly realized that each sect’s leader or representative would prefer to use their powers to serve the interests of their community rather than those of the country. The Lebanese political system has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the population because of the level of corruption and nepotism it encourages. 

The flaws in the structure of the Lebanese political system and the incapacity of the Lebanese political elite were also highlighted by the multiple successive crises in government formation. A week after the Beirut blast, the prime minister Hassan Diab resigned while his government collapsed around him. His predecessor, Saad Hariri, had himself resigned less than a year before, on the 29th October 2019. Many thought that the 4th August tragedy would mark a paradigm shift and open opportunities for reform. It is true that such an event could have brought the whole country together and convinced all Lebanese that they needed to work together to build a bright future for their nation. However, this was not the case. The newly designated prime minister Mustapha Adib stepped down on the 26th of September 2020 having been unable to form a new government. More precisely, he stated that he could not find any compromise to resolve the disputes among factions regarding appointments to ministries. This failure shows that Lebanon’s political leaders are still not ready to give up on their corrupt practices and privileges. It seems likely that government formation will remain a cursed process in Lebanon. Indeed that incapacity to agree on a new government is preventing Lebanon getting an international bailout as some countries such as France clearly state that their help is conditional on a credible government being formed.

Nevertheless, no matter the amount of international pressure, Lebanon still seems far from successfully forming a new government. Moreover, many Lebanese believe that the mere formation of a new government would not be enough to save the country as it would not solve any of the corruption and inefficiency issues. Fundamental changes are needed in Lebanon. 

Can Lebanon still be fixed?

The question that everyone is trying to answer is whether there is still a way to fix Lebanon. 

When asked such a question, most teenagers and young adults seem pessimistic about the future of their country.  Several young Lebanese who went on the streets on the 17th October 2019 told us they would not be willing to do it again. They explained that those mass protests did not bring any change and that they killed all hope of reform. Some also added that it is now difficult for them to believe that Lebanon will ever be free from corruption and nepotism. Such a feeling is understandable considering that, more than a year after the start of the protests, the Lebanese authorities have failed to address the people’s demands.

Although they are unsure whether it could still happen, the Lebanese youth agrees that a new start is necessary for the country. However, it is difficult to assess what exactly would be required as part of this new start. This is why the Next Century Foundation believes in the importance of creating forums and platforms for discussions that include Lebanese from all political, social and economic backgrounds as well as representatives of all religious communities. Such an idea might sound naïve to some, but we truly think it is crucial to listen to all parties’ views in order to create dialogue, find compromises and agree on potential solutions to build a better future for Lebanon. 

When discussing attempts to bring serious reform to Lebanon, several key solutions and scenarios need to be mentioned and developed. Some of them were examined during the regular Lebanon working group meetings organized by the Next Century Foundation. The need for legislative reform has to be part of any discussion regarding Lebanon’s future. The creation of an upper house of parliament was suggested in the Taif Agreement but never properly considered nor implemented by Lebanon’s political leaders. A bicameral system could help Lebanon to move away from sectarianism. Indeed, the upper house could be established along sectarian lines while the lower house could welcome political parties and individuals regardless of their confessional affiliation. However, as the Taif Agreement lacks details beyond a basic description of such a legislative reform, trying to implement it would raise many questions regarding the respective roles and powers of the two chambers but also regarding the way in which representatives are elected or appointed. Another crucial point which should be examined when discussing reforms is changing the Lebanese electoral system. The current election laws allow established politicians to consolidate their power and disadvantage independent candidates or new smaller parties which cannot be adequately represented. Changing this electoral system is crucial if Lebanon is to move away from sectarianism and corruption. 

One cannot predict what the future holds for Lebanon. The clock is ticking and the current situation could hardly be worse. However, it is not too late for Lebanese to realize that only a government willing to implement serious reform will be able to save the country. The issue here is that those who need to understand this and implement change are also the ones benefiting from the current corrupt system. 

This article was written by the NCF Meetings Convenor Marie Colangelo and does not necessarily represent the views of the Next Century Foundation.

On the politicisation of hunger – Yemen’s famine is largely artificial

Since war broke in Yemen – late March 2015, the country has walked a treacherous and arduous path, one paved by hunger and disease. More dangerous and cruel than any of the military brutalities Yemen’s warring parties have rained on each other; famine, and its companion, pestilence have mercilessly demanded their fill. 

In 2018 Save the Children reported that over 85,000 children had died since the beginning of the conflict as a direct result of the famine. Since, entire communities have been decimated by hunger, bringing the death toll to dizzying heights. 

In May 2020, UNICEF described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”, and estimated that 80% of the population, over 26 million people, were in need of humanitarian assistance.

By contrast, war has been kinder, somewhat less brutal in its haste to lay waste an entire people.

In late 2019 a UN-commissioned report by the University of Denver, Assessing the Impact of War on Development in Yemen,  confirmed that more Yemenis had died of hunger, disease and the lack of health clinics  than from fighting – an estimated 131,000 people.

War in comparison, if ever there should be such comparison, proved responsible for only 100,000 deaths total – a figure published by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED) which tracks confirmed fatalities of war. 

Today 80% of the country’s 30 million stands before a precipice, a precipice one must add which was not only engineered but exploited for political gains. For all the criticism Saudi Arabia’s war coalition may have faced in the past, little has been said of factions’ efforts  to accentuate, perpetuate, and enforce hunger to better dress themselves in Victimhood and from such lofty platforms, demand political vindication.

Yes war crimes have been committed but the blame is shared across the board, so has been factions desire to thwart the distribution of humanitarian aid and other vital necessities (fuel, medicine etc …) to better play up people’s hardship to their political demographic and present themselves as the grand defenders of Yemen and its people.

A report published by Human Rights Watch back in 2017 lifted the veil on such a reality. It read: “The Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on imports to Yemen have worsened the dire humanitarian situation of Yemeni civilians. The restrictions, in violation of international humanitarian law, have delayed and diverted fuel tankers, closed a critical port, and stopped life-saving goods for the population from entering seaports controlled by opposing Houthi-Saleh forces.”


Houthi-Saleh forces, who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country, have also violated international legal obligations to facilitate humanitarian aid to civilians and significantly harmed the civilian population. They have blocked and confiscated aid, denied access to populations in need, and restricted the movement of ill civilians and aid workers.”

To put it more plainly Yemen’s many political warlords have exploited the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis to advance their agendas, and while feigning concern before the media, acted as profiteers  behind closed doors. 

Needless to say that covid-19 and the strain the virus has put on Yemen’s ailing medical services has only further served to exacerbate an already dire situation. Yemen is simply dying … warplanes and factions’ canons are not the only factors contributing to Yemen’s ills – far from it in fact.

Rather it is greed and a morbid hunger for control that have tipped Yemen over the edge. War here has been but a convenient rationale.

And though it may be not morally satisfying for many to admit to the fact that Yemenis’ suffering does not lay solely at the feet of those who chose war as a medium for peace and democratic empowerment, one must note here that Saudi Arabia is only but a cog in a much greater geopolitical machine. It would be intellectually fraudulent NOT to hold responsible those who share in the make-up of Yemen’s fall.

This is not to excuse the many grave abuses committed by Yemen’s warring factions. The realities of war are often bleak and unforgiving … it is in the nature of war to demand blood. Yet, as with everything real answers demand that we look beyond the veneer of political correctness to recognise that many of our political bias and prejudices have blinded us to one rather simple reality: Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has become a weapon of war and control, a tool wielded by politicians to anchor a new form of populist demagoguery, which goal is to drape one party with a convenient halo of moral outrage to better leverage power.

As noted by Jan Egeland, secretary general of the council and a former top U.N. humanitarian relief official on Twitter “Yemenis aren’t falling into starvation … They are being pushed into the abyss by men with guns and power.”

This is not to excuse the many grave abuses committed by Yemen’s warring factions. The realities of war are often bleak and unforgiving … it is in the nature of war to demand blood. 

In an interview with the New York Times earlier this September, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, the anti-hunger arm of the United Nations emphasised the gravity of the situation when he noted, “Yemen is absolutely without a doubt our greatest problem area in the world … What’s happening is deplorable, disgraceful.”

Indeed … nearly half of all Yemeni children suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition, something that could be rather simply remedied if only there was a will. But Yemen’s ruling elite, on both sides of the river, has proven unbending. 

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is not a by-product of Yemen’s institutional and political failures, and it is solely the result of a protracted military conflict; it was breathed into existence by the very parties which benefit from the political opportunism it represents.

How easy it has been for many to claim national duty and cry concern when they have stood in the way of deliveries, demanding that taxes be levied and aid rerouted so that it would benefit their respective militias?

A UN Panel of Experts reported in June 2017 that the Houthis had earned up to US$1.14 billion from fuel and oil distribution on the black market, and that fuel was “one of the main sources of revenue for the Houthis.” 

Yemen’s humanitarian problems are, while compounded, mostly artificial!

Foreign nations destabilise Libya

Libya has been torn by conflict since 2011, when a rebel coalition with support from NATO began an uprising against Libya’s then ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Since then many foreign actors have become involved in the conflict, each pursuing their own political strategies. Since 2014, Libya has been largely split between forces loyal to the UN recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Benghazi-based Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

In June of this year, with foreign help, the LNA were finally repelled after a 14-month offensive on Libya’s capital city, Tripoli. The foreign help has come at a price, that of the geopolitical interests of the intervening nations. These interests seriously threaten the chances of securing a quick and peaceful resolution to the conflict in Libya. And meanwhile the central Libyan city of Sirte is now where GNA and LNA forces are squared off against each other. 

Although internationally recognised, the GNA received limited international support until Turkish military intervention helped drive General Haftar’s forces towards Sirte ending their 14-month Tripoli offensive in June 2020. General Haftar and the LNA are themselves principally backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Russia. They have also received support from Saudi Arabia, Greece and France. Although two main sides exist in the conflict, each side is backed by multiple nations who have their own geopolitical ambitions for the region. As these nations, particularly Turkey backing one side and Russia backing the other, become more assertive, the interests of international parties involved in the conflict are becoming more important than building a peaceful and stable state that reflects the aspirations of the Libyan population. However the fragmentation in Libya is not merely a binary contest between two geopolitical camps and although foreign interference is having a greater influence over proxies in the conflict, the sparring sides are not completely obedient to their foreign sponsors. With the growing geopolitical interest in the region and with nations becoming more willing to act on these geopolitical ambitions, reaching a peaceful solution that can satisfy all of these conflicting interests becomes increasingly difficult.

Although Turkey’s strong military intervention in January 2020 could be seen as supporting the internationally recognised GNA against a rogue warlord accused of war crimes, it has also been about increasing Turkey’s strategic influence in the Mediterranean arena. On the 1st October 2020, the UN registered a maritime deal agreed last November between Turkey and the GNA, in which an exclusive economic zone was created in the Mediterranean, providing both nations with rights to ocean bed resources in this zone. This has been a highly contentious deal with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the UAE denouncing the arrangement in a joint declaration on the 11th May 2020, arguing it infringes their sovereignty and rights of access in the Mediterranean. All the nations who denounced the deal have also been supporting the LNA in direct opposition to Turkey and the GNA. Any agreement to settle the conflict in Libya will therefore also have to satisfy the dispute over Mediterranean access. With these parties unlikely to give up on their strategic ambitions in the Mediterranean, it makes a peaceful solution less likely.

Russia has been supporting Haftar’s LNA because it provides them with a strong military presence on the southern flank of NATO. With both Turkey and Russia investing heavily in opposing sides to gain favour with a future Libyan government, geopolitical concerns are at odds with creating peace and unity for Libya. Neither side will surrender their interests lightly, and it is more likely they will only agree to a deal in which the side they have backed assumes power.

When looking at the involvement of Arab nations in the conflict, similar tensions arise. General Haftar and the LNA have been heavily backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and particularly the UAE. Qatar on the other hand is a strong supporter of the Tripoli-based GNA. It is important here to link the Libyan conflict to wider dynamics in the Arab world. In June 2017, a blockade on Qatar was imposed by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt while diplomatic ties were also completely severed (largely in response to Qatar’s perceived backing of the Muslim Brotherhood). The opposing sides in the Libya conflict have therefore also come to represent sides in this broader political dispute. As these states currently have no diplomatic relations, achieving agreement on Libya becomes difficult. Even if discussions are held, the primary focus for these nations will be the opportunity to gain leverage in their own political disputes, rather than creating a Libyan peace.

For multiple foreign ambitions to be neglected in favour of peace, any agreement will need to be mediated by a powerful international coalition who can convince nations to abandon their ambitions in the region. However, within much of the international community there has been a lack of decisive action regarding the Libyan conflict. Germany has taken the lead in trying to build on agreements signed in Berlin in January 2020. The aim is to form a new national unity government in Libya before proposed national elections, building on promising talks held recently in Morocco, Egypt and Switzerland. However, with the rest of the EU being indecisive they have given the initiative to Turkey and Russia who have each deployed more weapons and personnel in Libya. The weakness of the EU has allowed foreign geopolitical interests to further militarise the conflict. EU policy regarding Libya since 2015 has been heavily concerned with containing refugee movements. Initiatives that funded local militia to hold refugees in Libya have fuelled violence. The EU has been more worried about preventing refugee movement than about building a strong and peaceful Libyan state.

Although the UK played a pivotal role in initially destabilising Libya, it has also done little to return stability and peace to the nation. In London, the current government views Libya in the same way as their European counterparts, in that British commercial and political interests trump those of achieving peace. As foreign secretary in 2017, Boris Johnson suggested to UK business investors that the now front-line city of Sirte could become the “next Dubai”, before adding “the only thing they have to do is clear the dead bodies away.” These comments, although crass and appalling, serve to outline the way in which international powers have been viewing the conflict in Libya – that the horrific human cost of the conflict is a secondary concern compared to the commercial and geopolitical interests of foreign nations.

No international nation or bloc has managed as of yet to cast aside their own strategic interests in favour of securing a peace agreement in Libya. The civil conflict in Libya has descended into an international battleground in which international parties are pitting their strategic ambitions against each other at the expense of Libyan peace.

The USA could be in a position to pressure intervening powers to behave better, as with the exception of Russia all foreign states meddling in the conflict are allies or partners of Washington. However the USA remains disinterested in view of the upcoming US elections.  With both Turkey and the UAE increasing the shipment of arms to Libya, in violation of the UN embargo, foreign powers are continuing to drag Libya into more proxy war and further away from lasting peace.

UNHRC Submission: Remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list

The Sudan was first placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorist List in August of 1993 when General Omar al-Bashir became president. The sanctions that accompanied this placement included restrictions on assistance from the United States of America, a ban on defense exports and sales, controls over exports of dual use items, and other miscellaneous international financial restrictions including those on funding from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These restrictions were implemented with the purpose of limiting funding to terrorist groups present in the Sudan. Nevertheless, the overthrow of President Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019 has brought a sense of international hope for the future of the Sudan. In view of recent developments within the region, the Next Century Foundation’s U.N. Liaison Officer, Katya Cox-Kruger, calls for the urgent removal of Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in a written submission to the 45th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

The United States of America has now decided that it will indeed remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. But words are one thing. We still await action. We hope that this may be done by Presidential decree in order that things may proceed swiftly. Katya’s oral intervention to the UN is above.

Read the written intervention in full – The urgent need for the removal of the Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list

Why Boris Johnson should have cancelled HS2

Despite consistent opposition to the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway, the £106bn project was recently given the green-light with construction beginning at the start of September. HS2 represents a substantial investment which during the current COVID-19 crisis is irresponsible at best, and unbridled vanity at worst.

Since March, 9.6m UK workers have been furloughed with mounting uncertainty over the futures of jobs and industries. A new job support scheme is being introduced on the 31st October to support those in ‘viable’ jobs, eligible to employees working 1/3rd of their hours. This means the industries that are still unable to open, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, will be the ones receiving no financial support on the turn of November. With the prospect of millions facing the crippling uncertainty of not knowing whether they will have a basic income by Christmas, it is counterintuitive that £106bn of public funds are being diverted into a project not expected to be completed until 2036. Instead this money should be protecting vital industries in dire need of support, which would be of greater benefit to the health of the economy.

As the current working climate has shifted rapidly towards online connectedness and video meetings, the need for physical connection between places for future business becomes increasingly unlikely. The aim of HS2 to connect the UK has therefore already become outdated, due to changes brought about by COVID-19. It is hard to escape from the idea that such a project is not needed now, and will not be needed in the future. As the pandemic threatens huge sectors of the UK economy, supporting affected industries and employees is the priority. Investment that contributes to this undoubtedly represents a shrewder use of the public funds which have instead been funnelled into HS2.

What’s Next for Afghanistan?

“Whatever countries I conquer in the world, I would never forget your beautiful gardens. When I remember the summits of your beautiful mountains, I forget the greatness of the Delhi throne.”

– Ahmad Shah Durrani, Founder of the Afghan Empire (1747-1773)

Afghanistan sits at a crossroads. For decades, it has endured a ceaseless and brutal civil war that has left the country devastated. It now has the possibility to carve out a path for the future. The U.S. and the Taliban have signed a historic deal earlier this year, potentially putting an end to the bloodshed and chaos engulfing the country of 37 million. But as talks proceed, there are a number of questions to consider. Does a peace deal mean a resurgence of the Taliban? Will a power-sharing agreement really materialize? And what does a future with an absence of the U.S. look like for Afghanistan?  

Witnessing the U.S. government and Taliban exchange words across the palatial halls of Doha was a somewhat surreal experience, given the long-held motto of the Bush administration, which has been an unyielding refusal to negotiate with terrorists. But times have changed. No longer is the U.S. engaged in the early and ebullient years of war. Rather, it finds itself mired in the longest conflict in its history, and President Donald Trump is itching for his country to find the exit door. This is not surprising, as Trump ran on a firm message of ending America’s ‘forever wars’ and ridiculing his competitors for their historic eagerness to support interventions in the Middle East. “A complete waste”, he tweeted back in 2012, “Time to come home!”

But this desire extends beyond Trump. The U.S. has indicated a need to divert focus from the Middle East to Asia since the Obama administration. Why sink trillions of dollars into Afghanistan when a towering China looms larger than ever as a strategic threat? Likewise, it has become increasingly difficult to continue to sell the Afghan War to the American people. The government’s profligate spending and the loss of lives that the military have incurred on what is perceived as a remote conflict in South-Central Asia has rightfully angered a large swathe of the American populace. For years now, even among the architects of the war itself, reasons for remaining in the country have grown harder to define. The U.S. achieved its initial goal, after all, expelling al-Qaeda and killing Bin Laden. Since then, ambitions have become murkier and pressure to vacate the country has escalated. But is U.S. withdrawal really so simple, if desirable at all? The reality is there are numerous repercussions to consider – both for Afghanistan and the realm of geopolitics. 

One of the largest concerns is that current peace-deal negotiations lean far too favorably on the side of the Taliban. The group has already seen the release of thousands of their troops from prison (only having to provide a meagre written guarantee not to return to the battlefield) and they are soon to observe a complete surrender of their primary military threat once the U.S. withdraws its troops. All things considered, if one were to step into the shoes of a Taliban right now, the future would be looking fairly auspicious. But why do the Taliban appear to possess the greater advantage?

This can largely be blamed on the actions of the U.S., who in their years of obstinance and refusal to engage in dialogue, gave up far better opportunities to forge a deal, particularly when America was at the height of its power after driving the Taliban out of power in 2001. Indeed, the U.S. today is coming to the table at a moment of weakness. The Taliban have control over or contest large chunks of the country. The U.S. has even permitted the Taliban to employ the term ‘the Emirate of Afghanistan’ throughout documents that the U.S. has co-signed – even while claiming that it doesn’t recognize the state (The Emirate of Afghanistan being the Taliban’s name for the country when they ruled previously in 2001).

Only 8,600 American troops remain in Afghanistan, a number that is intended to decline over the next 14 months. The Kabul government is frail – largely kept afloat by U.S. support and aid. Perhaps the biggest fear is a complete takeover of the country by the Taliban, with two decades of work in stabilizing the country vanishing instantly. Many have indeed argued that the Taliban are merely using peace talks as a bargaining chip to further their own plans, stalling negotiations to build up their own forces as the U.S. abscond.

Some evidence bears this out. Since talks began, violence perpetrated by the Taliban has only increased. Certain Taliban figures have proven increasingly recalcitrant, vowing to wage jihad until an Islamic state is established. Many point to these actions as a lack of seriousness in attempting to foster peace. What if they’re right? A real fear is a repeat of America’s experience in Vietnam – where the U.S. signed a deal with the North Vietnamese and departed, only to have the North pour in and take charge of the entire country soon after. On the other hand, the Afghan Armed Forces remain standing and well-armed, and will possibly put up a vigorous effort in refusing Taliban encroachment into major cities if push came to shove. Perhaps, then, what is more likely is a situation akin to the Soviet withdrawal of 1989 – an event that precipitated a civil war of cataclysmic proportions.

In order to avoid such an outcome, it is crucial that peace negotiations spend a great deal of time focusing on the Afghan government and state. At the moment, there are floating tensions concerning the prospects of power-sharing, transitional justice, disarmament, and the reintegration of the Taliban into the Afghan security forces. The Taliban have been clear in their desire to re-establish an Islamic Emirate, a clerical system analogous to that which existed the last time they ruled in 2001. Completely against this notion is the Afghan government, who wish for the country to remain a democratic Islamic Republic. But for negotiations to succeed, there must be compromise.

Lingering questions must also be addressed. What, for instance, is to occur regarding rule of law in the country? Or women’s rights? The Taliban claim they have evolved when it comes to permitting girls to attend school, but this comes from the same organization whose previous minister of education claimed that a woman is “like a flower, or a rose. You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell it. It is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled.” And what about the threat of organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, who have a presence both in Afghanistan and near its borders? Without the shadow of U.S. forces as a deterrence, it is entirely possible to see a resurgence of these terrorist groups. The Taliban, for their part, have appeared to ‘clean up their act’ and insist they have reformed. They have composed op-eds in the New York Times, opened up channels of dialogue, and have made efforts to place non-Pashtun ethnic minorities into leadership positions of their organization. An optimist might look at these as positive developments. A cynic, as mere tactics.

A peace deal with the Taliban has ignited questions on the fate of women in Afghanistan

Reforms aside, one can nevertheless glance back at the Taliban’s rule in 2001 to discern what the group could do if they achieve power once again. The overwhelming rationale behind their former rule was a strict interpretation of Sharia law that forbade consumer technology like music, television, photography and the internet. Participating in sports, flying kites, and attending films at the cinema were banned. Citizens could not own pets, nor could they celebrate Persian New Year. Women could not work or attend school and were only authorized to leave their homes with a male relative. Beards and turbans were deemed mandatory, so too were prayers. The environment also took a hammering – with massive deforestation efforts and no attempts to restore land. The Taliban enjoy pointing to their successful eradication of opium production in the country – but a systemic disregard of human rights accompanied this accomplishment. This is not to mention the near total collapse of the economy and destruction of the country’s infrastructure. 

When it came to the government itself, things seldom looked better. The Taliban were quick to replace all senior Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara bureaucrats with Pashtuns. Elections were ignored. After all, Sharia dictates that political parties and politics itself is forbidden. Thus, officials and soldiers did not even receive salaries – only food, clothes, shoes and weapons. Rule of law was also distorted to fit the Taliban’s agenda. Medieval punishments were instituted, and politicians and diplomats were murdered. The cherished Buddha statue in Bamiyan, a prodigious monument of history, was blown into pieces on a whim. “Taliban’s should be proud of smashing idols,” claimed Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, “It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them”. 

Augmenting these worries is the fear that the U.S. is intent on rushing the peace process to provide a win for Donald Trump. Illustrative of this is a report revealing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening to cut $1 billion in Afghan aid if the government refused to unite and speak with the Taliban. Beyond this, Pompeo threatened to abruptly withdraw all its troops if the government did not get their act together with respect to the Ghani-Abdullah feud (a situation where both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah claimed to hold the title of President after the 2019 election).

Although hurtling threats has never proved propitious for hastening peace, Pompeo’s words hold a modicum of truth. The Afghan government cannot succeed in negotiations if they are unable to put up a united front. Despite the Ghani-Abdullah discord being resolved, the government remains divided between the two factions. Curiously, a similar issue plagues the Taliban, who suffer from their own internal divisions. Some Taliban have already spurned the idea of striking an agreement with the U.S., for instance. As talks proceed, deep divisions could prove damaging when it comes to crafting a peace agreement. 

But what if peace talks were to fall apart entirely, and the U.S. were to remain in Afghanistan? The likely result would be an elongation of an already endless war between the Taliban and U.S. Any conception of the latter ‘winning’ the war by wiping out the Taliban is quixotic thinking. America has operated in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, why should the next two decades look any different? The country has not earned the moniker ‘graveyard of Empires’ in vain. First off, the country boasts a geography that is hostile to occupation. Its vast, mountainous landscape proves exceptionally difficult to penetrate by the U.S. – who are more adroit at air and sea warfare. Some hailed the introduction of airstrikes as a revolutionary new step in waging the war, but it has done little in furthering overall strategy – only dealing enormous harm in its killing of civilians. Obama’s attempted ‘surge’ of 10,000 troops also peaked a great deal of interest, only to prove futile in accomplishing anything long-lasting. Indeed, kindred to America’s experience in Vietnam, the question of waging war against guerrilla fighters like the Taliban amid tangled geography can never be boiled down to manpower and weaponry.

Teeming with mountains and deserts, Afghanistan’s landscape has never been friendly to invaders

Secondly, the U.S. remains ideologically and culturally distant from the Afghan people, a gulf that has only widened since its initial invasion (recently, it was revealed that Afghan security forces and their American-led international allies have killed more civilians in the first half of 2019 than the Taliban). Any hopes of changing hearts and minds is folly; the Taliban will continue to wield the advantage when it comes to convincing locals to turn against their occupiers. They, in fact, remain quite popular in rural areas of the South and East of the country. Lastly, military solutions cannot dismantle the entrenched ethnic and domestic tensions that permeate Afghanistan. As arduously as America may try, they will never procure the trust of the entire population, thanks largely to deep and historic rifts between the nation’s ethnic group.  

The U.S. has also achieved surprisingly little with respect to security, human development and building democracy in Afghanistan – especially when we look outside major cities. Tragically, since the genesis of the war, over 150,000 Afghans have died. This number does not even include members of the Afghan security forces, as the data is kept hidden by Kabul to avoid lowering morale. The recently released Afghan Papers have also revealed that America’s occupation has been plagued with lies, failure and corruption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it divulged that high-ranking officials admitted the war was ‘unwinnable’, but failed to inform the public.

Endeavours to help construct an Afghan government have also run into problems. The winner-take-all, centralized system has proven divisive in a country that yearns for unity. It also has led to the heavy disenchantment of citizens with politics. For reference: more money was spent on the latest 2019 election than any other in the country’s past – but turnout was historically low. Not even one million of nine million eligible voters showed up to the polls. In order to avoid such high levels of atomization and discontent, power must be dispersed more widely across the country and formal mechanisms must be introduced to better and more fairly share power.  

Stepping outside Afghanistan, there is also the role of neighbouring countries to consider. No matter which direction the country heads in – its future poses broad ramifications for the world at large. If the U.S. were to suddenly depart, an inevitable power vacuum would open up (indeed, America’s gradual departure from the Middle East as a whole has left the region up for grabs – see the actions of Turkey and Russia in Syria). Thinking geo-strategically, it’s little wonder that America has been an occupying force for so long. Possessing over $1 trillion worth of natural resources, many countries have long dreamt of dipping their fingers into the lucrative Afghan market. China, for instance, has a keen interest in Central Asia and the Middle East, viewing Afghanistan as a potential corridor for the Belt and Road Initiative – their massive global infrastructure and development strategy. The signing of the Beijing-Tehran strategic agreement, allowing for joint intelligence sharing with Iran, is one example of China’s growing interest in the region. They have also established a military base in nearby Tajikistan, on the Wakhan border – a strip of land linking China to Afghanistan.

In general, most countries aspire to see stability in Afghanistan. True, nations like Russia and Iran may have some interest in supporting the Taliban – but this has only been to kick the U.S. out of what they perceive as their backyard. It is certainly not in the interest of countries in the region to see a return of the Taliban to power. This would mean chaos at their borders. China has long feared the threat of Afghan-based terrorist groups spilling into their territory, along with the prospect of Uyghur secessionist groups setting up bases in the country. Instability would also mean an unsuitable environment to invest in and build infrastructure. Likewise, China, Russia and India recall when the Taliban were in power before – and their support for Islamic militants in Xinjiang, Chechnya and Kashmir. 

A retreat of American troops entails an Afghanistan up for grabs in the eyes of regional powers

Pakistan might be an exception. The Taliban have regularly used their neighbour to the East as a base to hide and maintain cover, straining relations between Kabul and Islamabad. It is largely in Pakistan’s interest to keep the U.S. engaged in a quagmire, as it receives huge funds from America in exchange for providing their troops with access to Afghanistan. The U.S. and Pakistan are already an unlikely and frankly unstable pair of allies, brought together in part merely because of the latter’s border with Afghanistan. If a peace deal were to succeed, and America were to withdraw its troops, it would likely no longer require Pakistan as their ally. Instead, the U.S. would probably shift their focus towards the more relevant India, whom they can work with to contain a rising China. India itself has increasingly felt surrounded on all sides – from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China – making its forging of closer ties with America almost inevitable. 

Let us conclude where we began: at the encouraging signs of a peace deal. It is difficult to tell whether talks will succeed, and even more difficult to envision an Afghanistan not beset by war. What is certain is that Afghanistan must emerge from its state of combative limbo. It must no longer be made beholden to the agonizing logic of war, nor to the dark and harrowing threat of Taliban rule. The fact that dialogue has begun to unfold between the U.S. and the Taliban is a monumental step in this direction. But it is one of innumerable steps to come. Dialogue must continue and compromises must be made. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban must respectively unify and emphatically reject fragmentation. A power-sharing agreement must be the objective – one that grants concessions to both sides and one that, most importantly, grants a voice to the Afghan people, who have largely been exempt from discussions. Is this a sanguine vision of the future? It likely is. But at least peace talks have begun to re-incorporate the language of ‘a future’ back into the Afghan vocabulary. With dialogue emerges infinite possibilities of what lies ahead.

Perhaps it is misleading to liken Afghanistan to a nation sitting at the crossroads. Perhaps Afghanistan is a nation that has found itself floating amid a tumultuous sea, torn by a wind and assaulted by rain. Only now, for the first time in years, have the stormclouds revealed signs of parting. A trace of light, though trembling and ephemeral, touches the surface of the water. The possibilities of which direction to steer seem endless. But the storm will only rest for so long. 

Is the US Embassy shutting down in Iraq?

Tensions are rising in Iraq this week, due to the Trump administration threat to close the US embassy. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, claimed that this action was being considered due to the threat of attack on both US troops and the embassy from Iran-backed militias. Recent weeks have seen an increase in rocket launches near and at the embassy. Pompeo warned Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi that if the Iraq government did not take more action against these forces and crackdown on the powerful militias then the embassy would close.

Iraq Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, said this week that closing the US Embassy in Iraq would be “disastrous”. He claimed that the departure of the US embassy may prompt other embassy withdrawals from Iraq.

The US has already ordered a partial evacuation of the embassy, and several reports have claimed that diplomats have been told to prepare to withdraw completely. For now, it is a waiting game to see what actions the Iraq government will take, but it is expected that these actions will be announced imminently, due to an apparent ten-day timeframe that the US administration gave to Iraq’s leaders almost one week ago.

At this point in time, it is unclear whether the intention behind the threat to close the US embassy in Iraq is to place pressure on the Iraq government to strengthen their action against the militias, or whether it is part of a grand plan to begin lessening post-war US presence in Iraq. The US had already planned to cut its military footprint by half in Iraq in September.

With just weeks to go until the US Presidential elections, this action opens up the possibility of military action between the US and the Iran-backed militia groups.

UN Oral Intervention: Failures in humanitarian aid to Yemen

The following has been submitted in the format of an Oral Statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Right’s Council, and was prepared by Next Century Foundation Research Officer, Antoni Mikocki.

The world is concerned by the daily tragedy of the Republic of Yemen’s people. The reality of starvation, war, death, disease, and ecological catastrophe, even if ignored, is well known.

While aware of the need for peace-building – we would like to spotlight the issue of humanitarian aid.

The Next Century Foundation voices serious concern about the efficacy of efforts to provide Yemen’s people with humanitarian aid, especially with regard to:

  1. Delays in the delivery of aid, caused by unnecessary restrictions in the process, especially during unloading and distribution of cargo;
  2. The use of humanitarian aid for political ends or for profit, by factions which seize control of the aid, and either monetize it or condition its distribution politically;
  3. Regional disparity of distribution of the humanitarian aid, made evident by the  lack of provision of effectively any aid to North Yemen, and the insufficient supply of aid to large parts of South Yemen.

With regard to the above, the Next Century Foundation urges warring factions to respect international humanitarian law, and ensure that the following conditions are met:

  1. Humanitarian aid must, without delay, be made available to the people of Yemen. To this end, the naval blockade of Yemen by the coalition led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, must be lifted.
  2. The Houthi allied warring factions must provide effective guarantees that aid, if provided, does not again become unevenly distributed.
  3. Humanitarian aid should be provided to North Yemen, and reach the interior of the Southern territories of the country.

The Next Century Foundation appeals to the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and The Houthi movement (Ansar Allah) that they both cooperate with the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen in an effort to enact these (or similar) conditions.

The United Nations Hymn

We thought we’d share this beautiful hymn written and read by W.H. Auden in 1971, with accompanying footage provided, in part, by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). We hope you will find it as moving, as poignant, and as relevant as we did. It was shared with us by Ambassador Mark Hambley:

UN Oral Intervention: Repeal Article 353 of Bahrain’s Penal Code

The following has been submitted in the format of an Oral Statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Right’s Council, and was prepared by Next Century Foundation United Nations Liaison Katya Kox-Kruger:

The Next Century Foundation recognises that the Kingdom of Bahrain has made significant strides in promoting women’s rights. However we ask for the repeal of Article 353 of Bahrain’s penal code. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes the right to life, liberty, and security, including sexual safety. However Article 353 of Bahrain’s penal code allows a perpetrator of sexual assault or rape to escape prosecution if they marry their victim.

Similar laws have been repealed in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Palestine.

Rape and sexual assault are violent crimes committed against innocent women. The immediate repeal of Article 353 would remove the legal protection from prosecution currently given to perpetrators. 

In 2010, Bahrain developed a commendable program called “Together Against Violence and Addiction” which offers courses on listening to victims. 

The Next Century Foundation calls on Bahrain’s Supreme Council of Women to continue programs educating the public regarding the issues of sexual assault and rape and supporting victims of abuse. This is integral to changing the narrative and the social stigma associated with rape. 

The Supreme Council of Women has submitted suggestions to the government in regard to the repeal of Article 353. Now it is time for the government to respond.

Bahrain’s progress on women’s rights has been substantial, however, Article 353 is not only a gross violation of this progress, but is also a deep source of suffering that should not be allowed to continue. We appeal to the Government of the Kingdom of Bahrain to continue their exemplary progress on safeguarding women’s rights by taking urgent action to repeal Article 353.