Push to build Canal to restore Nile water level after Ethiopian Dam

The following has been submitted by the Next Century Foundation as a statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council:

The Next Century Foundation is concerned about the ramifications of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Nile River water levels will be significantly reduced during the years over which the dam is being filled by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. This affects the Arab Republic of Egypt, as well as of course the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan.

We note recent discussions between the Governments of Egypt and the Republic of South Sudan on the viability of the Jonglei Canal’s construction in the Sudd wetland. This draining of the wetlands could compensate for downstream Nile River water loss caused by dam construction in the short term, and restore the Nile to historic water levels in the longer term.

The Sudd is one of the world’s largest wetlands, but it loses more than 50% of its water to evaporation annually, lessening downstream states’ water availability. The proposed canal (or more probably two canals) could divert approximately 4.8 cubic gigameters that would otherwise evaporate over the wetland. As well as restoring short term water level loss from dam construction, in the longer term it could ameliorate losses as a consequence of drought.

Such a project would be beneficial to the agricultural development of South Sudan. We urge Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to cooperate with South Sudan and investigate the viability of the Jonglei Canal. But we advise countries concerned to remember of the project’s potential ecological and environmental ramifications:

  • The displacement of riparian populations along the Sudd wetlands.
  • Disruptions to seasonal movement of livestock and wildlife.
  • Reduction of rainfall in the Sudd region, spurred by the diversion of water.
  • Any potential increase in the release of global warming associated gasses as the wetlands are drained.

With those caveats we regard this project as urgent.

On the detention of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman

On the 12th of March, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, a media mogul, businessman, and journalist from Pakistan was detained and arrested ostensibly on the basis of having broken property law back in 1986. 

Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption watchdog, alleges that Mr. Rehmen illegally leased government land 34 years ago and then managed to have the ownership rights transferred to him permanently in 2016 when ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in power. 

These charges being levied against a less prominent member of Pakistan’s society would be cause for less concern, but in view of two notable trends, the apprehension of Mir Shakhil-ur-Rehman takes on a more sinister light.

The first is that since 2018, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the public face and owner of the country’s largest media group, has found himself in the bad books of Prime Minister Imran Khan. In that year, Mr. Khan defeated incumbent Nawaz Sharif in a general election, but accused Mr. Rehman’s Jang Media Group of having backed Sharif. In the years since, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman’s Geo TV channel has also drawn Khan’s ire for refusing censorship, giving a platform to members of the opposition, and criticizing the government’s policies, especially the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

So while certainly the most audacious, the arrest of Mr. Shakil-ur-Rehman is not the first time PM Imran Khan has attempted to frighten or otherwise silence the voice of the Jang Group. The Government has pulled advertisements in order to cut off a valuable source of revenue and sent Geo TV reporters, producers, and editors threats of shutdown in response to efforts of investigative journalism. It has both shut off Jang Group Media channels completely, or forced cable operators to alter and demote their channel listings so as to make ‘tuning in’ a more difficult task. 

And while this first trend is troubling, it is in light of the second trend — the extension of such hostile treatment to other occupants of the media space — that it becomes more necessary to call into into question the political integrity of Prime Minister Imran. 

Crucially, the Government demonstrates antagonism and aggression towards forms of media that host figures or politicians from the political and ideological opposition. In 2019, three other Pakistan TV news channels, AbbTakk TV, 24 News, and Capital TV, were taken off  the air for days following live interviews with Maryam Sharif, the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. After a May 2018 interview (also) with Nawaz Sharif in the run up to elections, the distribution of the leading daily newspaper, Dawn, was stifled both legally, through an injunction from the Press Council of Pakistan, and on the ground, physically, as vans and hawkers distributing its copies were denied entry to a number of cities and towns by Government and military officials. The same technique of cutting advertising in order to stop up a financial life-flow was also extended to Dawn, especially in July of 2019, after the paper published remarks made by Prime Minister Imran Khan in which he admitted the usage of Pakistan’s soil by terrorists to launch attacks into Iran, a claim that Pakistan’s military had vehemently denied.

It bears mentioning that the concern expressed on this forum at the plight of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman is by no means unique or singular. In fact it is at the root of the statements of more than seventy-four media and human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the World Editors Forum, who have all written to PM Imran Khan to ask for the journalist’s release. 

When members of the media are unfairly forced to bear the burden of partisanship and are made suffer for doing no more than their job, it is worth speaking out against. The voices of journalists oftentimes convey no more than the feelings, anxieties, and emotions of their readers, of a given country’s citizens. It may be easy for the Government of Imran Khan to try to silence those who most vocally give voice to his nation’s simmering discontent, but it is not right. For that reason we earnestly call on Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to release Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, so that his life may not suffer for the sake of the nation’s politics.

 

The George Floyds of the World

“It’s going to touch anyone who has had previous experiences of abuse and oppression, be it because of one’s race or religious background, or sexual identity.” – Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Human Rights Watch’s Africa advocacy director, speaking on the murder of George Floyd.

George Floyd was killed on May 25 when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee to Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Suffering from the pressure, Floyd, a black man, cried out “I can’t breathe,” before ultimately losing consciousness and dying not long thereafter.

Though Floyd’s killing took place in one of America’s less populous states, the reaction in recent weeks has been uniquely global. Since May 25th, protests against racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have taken place in more than 60 countries, and #georgefloyd has been used 2.4 million times on Instagram alone.

While in some places the distressing video of Floyd’s suffocation prompted a wave of sympathy for, and solidarity with, black America, elsewhere underwent national bouts of self-examination. In many places around the world, citizens analyzed their respective countries, weighed on the scales of justice their respective racial structures, and, in many cases, found them wanting. 

In light of such introspection, it seems that George Floyd is not just George Floyd. To the Indian minority of Malaysia, he is Sugumar Chelladury. To Aboriginals in Australia, he is David Dungay Jr.. To the black citizens of France, he is Adama Traore. 

Different parts of the world, differing national customs and cultures, but the same shared experience of minority ethnic and racial groups suffering at the hands of the nation’s police. 

AdamaTraore.jpg

Adama Traore… was a 24-year-old Frenchman who, in 2016, who died of asphyxiation after telling a gendarme, echoing Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” This was only discovered, however, after an inquiry yielded a second autopsy. After the first, authorities told Traore’s family that he had been drinking and smoking cannabis, and died of a heart attack. Though that was four years ago, the wounds are still raw, especially among French blacks and Maghrebis (North Africans) who live in the suburbs of Paris and claim to be commonly targeted by the police. 

This population sees themselves as the forgotten people of France, the people who are unable to integrate fully into a national culture which stresses equality and secularism at the expense of recognizing ethnic difference or diversity, so much so that it is illegal for the government to keep racial, ethnic, or religious statistics. Why do so, the line of reasoning goes, if it would violate the foundation of universalism, upon which all citizens are undifferentiated and, in the eyes of the laws, no different to each other. 

If for some this unique understanding of equality is a sine qua non of the French national spirit, for others it has come to represent an anachronistic barrier that blocks the path for much-needed reform. Christiane Taubira, the first black woman to serve as Justice Minister, said that non-white French are held back by “structural discrimination,” and it is well-documented that minority communities are subject to disproportionate levels of police attention and violence. But still, the political establishment of both the left and the right are loath to pursue policy solutions legislated along racial or ethnic lines. 

DavidDungayJr

In 2015David Dungay Jr, a Dunghutti Aboriginal man died in custody of Sydney, Australia’s Long Bay Correctional Complex. According to the New South Wales Coroner’s Dungay was diabetic and insulin-dependent. On the day he died, he had walked over to an area in which his belongings were stored and collected some rice crackers and biscuits. After returning to his cell to eat them, he was asked by nursing and correctional staff to give them back as earlier that day his blood sugar levels had been quite high. Dungay refused, causing officers to forcibly move him to a new cell where he could be monitored by camera. 

During this transfer between cells, Dungay was restrained by police and given a sedative that, it was hoped, would knock out the struggling prisoner. After being sedated, however, the Correctional Service officers maintained pressure on a face-down Dungay, who, like Floyd and Traore, called out “I can’t breathe,” before finally going unresponsive, dead. 

For many, the death of David Dungay Jr. was seen by many as a grim encapsulation of the oftentimes substandard treatment of Aboriginal Australians in custody that has persisted even since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody concluded there to be “glaring deficiencies in the standard of care afforded to many [prisoners],” and recommended  339 actions to be taken over a wide range of policy areas. 

Unfortunately however, according to a 2018 Deloitte review, over one-third of the recommendations are yet to be enacted fully. This arises as an area of particular frustration for Aboriginal activists, as the rate at which indigenous people are incarcerated has doubled in the 27 years since the commission’s report. In recent weeks, protesters, as well as calling for the prosecution of officers involved in Dungay Jr’s killing, have petitioned for the rest of the commission’s recommendations to be implemented. 

These calls, though, appear to have fallen onto deaf ears at the government’s highest level. In a recent radio interview, Prime Minister Scott Morrison beat away the idea that Australia’s structures of inequality compared with those of America, declaring there to be “no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia,” PM Morrison said. “Australia is not the United States,” he continued, “I’m very thankful for the wonderful country we live in.” So long as the Aboriginals believe themselves to be dealt the short end of the stick, however, not everyone will agree with him. 

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Since… American George Floyd was killed in police custody, many in Malaysia have been taking to social media to remind their followers of their own society’s injustices. This especially the case among the Indian ethnic minority of Malaysia, who remember well the case of Sugumar Chelladury. 

Sugumar Chelladury was a 39-year-old man who died in 2013 after being apprehended violently by police in Selangor, one of the Southeast Asian country’s states. The day of his death, Chelladury ran over two kilometres to try to evade capture, but once caught, was forced to the ground, and handcuffed twice. One arresting officer sat on his back, another stepped on Chelladury’s throat “until he stopped struggling.” Once unconscious, no efforts were made to resuscitate him, and the body of Chelladury was left by the side of the road for over four hours, later to be found with curry powder streaked across his face.

Though certainly grisly, Sugumar Chelladury’s death was hardly an outlier. Custodial deaths have long been an issue in Malaysia, and the Indian minority population is disproportionately represented. Ethnic Indians are less than 7% of the country’s population, but made up 23% of the deaths in police custody officially reported since 2000.

Worse still, this figure is suspected by Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), a human rights organization, to, in actuality, be nearer to 55%. The disconnect exists as SUARAM, along with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, believe only 1 in 4 custodial deaths to be made public. 

If there is a lesson to draw from these stories it is this: that for all those who live in a democratic society, it is always necessary to pay attention to the voices of minority populations. Sometimes it takes a crisis on the far side of the planet to prompt a bit of self-examination, but it shouldn’t. George Floyd’s death was unique in that it took the world by storm, while most killings in the United tend not to resonate far beyond American borders. If we wait until there is another case like George Floyd’s in the United States to raise a media hailstorm around police violence, for the George Floyd’s of the rest of the world, it might be too late. 

 

The Foreign Policy of Joseph Biden Jr.

For many, the attraction of Joseph Biden Jr. as a presidential candidate has less to do with what he is, but more to do with what he isn’t. He is not a fire breathing, fire wielding, populist, he is not fond of lambasting enemies on Twitter, nor is he going to be the one to upset the establishment applecart of Washington D.C.

He is a restorationist, someone who wants to ensure that Donald Trump’s tale is told as an aberration in the grander story of the United States. His presidency would likely not be characterized by great leaps forward, but rather by careful steps back and by attempts to reverse his predecessor’s path.

This is perhaps most true upon the international stage, a place that captured little of President Trump’s interest. There, Mr. Biden promises to “once more have America lead the world,” a phrase happily received by many, both in his country and beyond.

Though certainly evocative of a happier pre-Trumpian time, Biden’s pronouncement requires a more detailed look. What would a world molded in the image of the former Vice President look like?

A consultation of his campaign website provides some more clarity. It explains that Biden wishes to “lead by example” and “rally the world to meet [its] common challenges.” In practice, that would see Biden rebuild the American State Department, restoring and increasing American spending on diplomacy and development. Also, he’d like to host a “global Summit for Democracy” within his first year in office, bringing together the world’s democracies and civil society organizations to create a collective focus around “fighting corruption; defending against authoritarianism; and advancing human rights.”

A far cry from ‘America First’, Biden is less likely to go it alone and more likely to use America’s network of friends and allies to address the issues of the day. For example — as Biden is equally unhappy with China’s “abusive trade practices” as its “suppression of Uyghurs” — he would rather the US put pressure and apply sanctions on Beijing alongside a broad coalition, similar to the way American Presidents past tried to target the Soviet Union.

A President Biden would also seek to “restore [American] moral leadership”, a phrase that by turns elicits consent or contempt, depending on where in the world it is received. In any case, ‘moral leadership’ would see Biden end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and, more broadly, a reassessment of the partnership with Riyadh. This courtesy would likely be extended to more of America’s less liberal allies, including Egypt, Hungary, and Turkey, as Biden and a number of his key foreign policy advisors appear less willing to hold hands with autocrats.

Though altering alliances with Turkey and Saudi Arabia would certainly set Biden apart from his predecessors, the longstanding American support for Israel would not end during his tenure. He is, after all, a self-proclaimed “Zionist” and though he backs a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, he would not move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv or ever withhold military aid in order to force the Israelis to play ball.

Mr. Biden would also maintain, rather than reinvent, the American wheel when facing Iran or Russia. With the latter, he would be no great friend but still would maintain cordiality — renewing, for example, the New START arms treaty set to expire in early February 2021. Regarding the former, especially several key advisers, including Tony Blinken and Jack Sullivan, were instrumental in crafting the Iran nuclear deal, he would re-enter it, so long as Tehran returns to compliance.

All in all, Joseph Biden sees the United States as becoming less damned if they do than if they don’t. Donald Trump’s foreign policy was characterized less by global leadership as it was by frenetic attempts at having a ‘win’ to show for, but a President Biden would be happier as Leader of the Free World. He would work with fellow democracies to try to shape or rebuild the international order, from climate change to trade, from cyber-security to nuclear non-proliferation. Tasked with restoring ‘normalcy,’ Biden sees there to be little to lose, but a whole world to win.

The Uncertain Future of Vladimir V. Putin

If Otto von Bismarck was right when he said, “politics is not a science, but an art,” then Vladimir Putin is a virtuoso whose great works deserve to hang in the halls of the Hermitage. 

Since acceding to the presidency in 1999, initially as a temporary replacement for a declining Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has spent the opening 20 years of the 21st century at the head of the Russian Federation, a considerable, if crumbling global power. 

Over the years, the President, then Prime Minister, then President (again and again), has remained at the top. He defeated the Communist Party in a 2000 election, won essentially uncontested in 2004, then — due to a clause in the Russian Constitution not allowing Presidents more than two consecutive terms — spent four years as Prime Minister, theoretically subordinate to Dmitry Medvedev. Never losing his influence or sway over his country’s politics however, Putin completed his ‘castling’ move with Medvedev and again became President in 2012, this time for six years as his predecessor had helpfully extended the office’s term limits during the period of Putin’s interregnum. And so, the game continued, with Putin at the helm until March 2018, at which point another illiberal election renewed his lease on the Kremlin until 2024. 

2020 began with what was perceived at the time to be either an overture to the finale, or merely a prelude to an era of renewed Putinism. In January, the State Duma and Federation Council (the Russian houses of parliament) passed bills that strengthened the legislature and prime minister at the presidency’s expense, while imbuing a previously inconsequential body called the State Council with new powers. The shakeup, so the theories went, would allow Putin in 2024 to either become Prime Minister again, this time with expanded influence, or discreetly exercise control through the new levers available to him as chairman of the State Council. 

In March, however, amidst the background of COVID-19’s beginnings in Russia, Putin changed track. On March 11th, he pushed more amendments through the Duma and Federation Council that would reset his number of presidential limits to zero, thereby allowing him to run for the presidency anew in 2024, as well as ostensibly in 2030, should the then-septuagenarian wish to do so. But before these changes could be finalized as the law of the land, they had to be given popular assent via a national referendum, the date of which Putin set for April 22nd. 

Even without factoring in the effects of COVID-19, Putin’s planned political arithmetic was this time not going to be simply executed. The social contract in place, one requiring sufficient enough economic prosperity to make up for an absence of political rights, was already increasingly tenuous. Putin’s approval took a hit in 2019 after he raised the retirement age, and tough Western sanctions imposed after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 have helped keep Russian disposable incomes below their 2013 levels. 

With the advent of the coronavirus, though, Putin’s position has become more fragile than ever. The first cases arrived on January 31st, when two Chinese tourists were diagnosed with the virus, but initially, it seemed that Russia may have been able to escape the worst. According to government figures, no Russian nationals were infected until February 17th and throughout March, Putin’s air was collected and confident. At the beginning of the month, on the 1st, he declared the situation “entirely under control” and towards the end, on the 25th, he still maintained that Russia had the ability “to restrain both the wide and rapid spread of the disease.” He closed national borders to protect his citizens and their “sovereignty”— one of Putin’s common rallying cries— and declared on March 27th a week-long nationwide ‘holiday’, accompanied by tax deferments for medium and small-sized businesses. 

Putin Graph

If at the beginning of April, the worse had yet to come, over the course of the month the situation in Russia rapidly deteriorated. Cases skyrocketed, and even government officials, including the Prime Minister, were diagnosed with COVID-19. At the same time, Putin’s two-pronged political strategy — that of distancing and deception — became apparent. He began avoiding publicly commenting on the virus and declared that regional governors would have to make difficult decisions themselves. 

This allowed Putin to criticize local leaders from afar for ‘sloppiness’ when the coronavirus became particularly problematic in a certain region, as happened in Komi, Central Russia. Additionally, as legal activist Ernest Mezak pointed out, the fact that local officials lie, because “this is what they have always have done… as a habit” in order to please Putin, helped keep the number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 fatalities at a minimum. 

Still, however, Putin’s efforts to avoid being blamed have not been successful. His public approval was recently measured at 59% by Levada, a pollster thought to be independent of the state. Even putting to one side the well-documented fact that citizens of an authoritarian, or at least highly illiberal, government like that in Russia are likely to overstate their support so as to project loyalty, the May rating was the lowest recorded since Putin took office in 1999. 

Because of the virus and / or his unpopularity, Putin’s all-important national referendum on the constitutional amendments has been delayed. While on March 11th, 64% of voters were recorded to support the changes, by April 17th only 50% of Russians said they would vote their approval. With real incomes expected to fall by at least 5% according to Alfa bank (one of the largest private banks in Russia), and with unemployment forecast to skyrocket, it would seem support for the amendments will likely fall further. 

In a democracy as opaque as Russia, an absence of popular support may not seem overly consequential for Vladimir Putin. But for all his maneuvering, he has largely been popularly supported throughout his 21st-century reign. Still, if the situation in Russia remains dire with oil prices low, regular employment absent, and government aid paltry, then Mr. Putin may face his greatest challenge yet: a truly democratic one.