World update: December 14-15 2019

Stories from Iran, Malaysia, Spain, and more

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December 13, 1577: Francis Drake begins the expedition that would eventually take him around the world, returning to England in 1580. Although Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the earth first, roughly 60 years earlier, he managed to get himself killed along the way. Drake has the distinction of being the first person to both start and finish his own trip around the world.

December 13, 1937: The Imperial Japanese army defeats the Chinese National Revolutionary Army and captures the city of Nanjing. What followed became known as the Nanjing Massacre, as Japanese soldiers spent the next six weeks slaughtering prisoners and civilians in the city. Estimates of the death toll vary widely, but most scholars believe it was somewhere between 40,000 and the official Chinese count of 300,000.

December 14, 1911: Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team become the first human beings (that we know of, I suppose) to set foot on the South Pole. The expedition had set out from its base camp on October 19 and arrived back on January 25, 1912.

December 14, 1995: The Dayton Agreement is signed in, you know, Dayton, ending the Bosnian War. Under the terms of the agreement the various warring parties—Bosniak, Bosnian Croat, and Bosnian Serb—agreed not to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina but instead to establish an internal partition between the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Croatian-Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that has served more or less the same function as if they’d just divided the place up. Worse in some respects, because instead of two functioning states what’s emerged is one state whose two component halves rarely agree on anything and so nothing gets done. Dayton’s terms were intended to end the war and provide a short-term governing solution while the parties negotiated a more durable permanent solution, but instead it’s been the law of the land for 24 years with no real end in sight. It did end the war, though, which to be fair was no minor achievement.

Signatories included—in the center—Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović, and Croatian President Franjo Tuđman (US Air Force via Wikimedia Commons)

December 15, 1256: Having already received the surrender of the last Assassin imam, Rukn al-Din Khurshah, Mongolian warlord Hulagu and his army enter and destroy the main Assassin fortress at Alamut.

December 15, 1925: Reza Pahlavi is crowned Shah of Iran.



A Turkish naval vessel on Saturday reportedly chased an Israeli research vessel out of Cypriot waters. According to Israeli media, the ship belongs to the Israeli Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institution and was conducting research in the area under an agreement with the Cypriot government, which means it had more right to be in Cypriot waters than does the Turkish navy, which has none. Turkey is rapidly gobbling up—at least as far as Turkish officials are concerned—huge swathes of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, via among other things its recent maritime boundary agreement with Libya. Its claims breach the claims of other countries in the region, like Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece, and are likely in violation of international maritime law assuming anybody is prepared to enforce it.


Lebanese police and protesters clashed violently in Beirut on Saturday, leaving over 70 people wounded—most civilians injured by police tear gas and rubber bullets. Protesters attempted to break through a police barricade protecting government offices and other official buildings. They may have just been looking to claim a front row seat for Monday’s big meeting to decide on a new Lebanese prime minister. Current PM Saad al-Hariri is expected to get the job, having undermined the candidacies of the two men put forward as potential replacements. But Hariri may find himself running a cabinet of one, as both the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement and the Shiʿa Hezbollah have refused to go along with a cabinet that consists of Hariri and a bunch of “technocrats,” which is the only way Hariri is willing to accept the job.

The protesters returned on Sunday in spite of the heavy police presence, and their chants of “Saad, Saad, Saad, don't dream of it anymore” suggest that they’re not quite as enthusiastic about Hariri remaining in office as perhaps he is himself. At least 46 people were wounded in additional clashes with security forces.


Amnesty International is continuing to investigate the Iranian government’s handling of protests and protesters, and its findings keep getting worse:

Iran’s authorities are carrying out a vicious crackdown following the outbreak of nationwide protests on 15 November, arresting thousands of protesters as well as journalists, human rights defenders and students to stop them from speaking out about Iran’s ruthless repression, said Amnesty International today.

The organization has carried out interviews with dozens of people inside Iran who described how, in the days and weeks during and following the protests, the Iranian authorities have held detainees incommunicado and subjected them to enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment.

At least 304 people were killed and thousands were injured between 15 and 18 November as authorities crushed protests using lethal force, according to credible reports compiled by the organization. The Iranian authorities have refused to announce a figure for those killed.

“Harrowing testimony from eyewitnesses suggests that, almost immediately after the Iranian authorities massacred hundreds of those participating in nationwide protests, they went on to orchestrate a wide-scale clampdown designed to instil fear and prevent anyone from speaking out about what happened,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Research Director at Amnesty International.

The Iranian government declared on Sunday that it’s thwarted another cyber attack, its second such announcement in under a week. This one allegedly targeted Iran’s intelligence apparatus. As with all these sorts of claims, no matter who makes them, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. Cyber attacks can be difficult to verify, particularly claims that they’ve been defeated.



An Afghan militia fighter reportedly turned on his unit on Saturday morning in Ghazni province, killing at least 23 people before stealing weapons and ammunition to take to the Taliban. The Taliban claimed that the death toll was higher, 32, but there only appear to have been 24 soldiers in the unit in the first place.


Thousands protested in New Delhi for the fifth straight day on Sunday, expressing their anger with a new Indian law that makes it much easier for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to become citizens. Police retaliated with tear gas and batons, chasing the mostly student protesters on to university campuses. The Indian government says it only wants to make it easier for religious minorities in the aforementioned countries to find sanctuary in India, but given the current Indian government’s well-established feelings about Muslims it’s hard not to see the citizenship law as something else entirely. There are also protests happening in the eastern Indian states of Assam and West Bengal, where at least six people have been killed (four of them shot by police) and curfews are in place in some areas. An internet blackout and other government suppression efforts have made it more difficult to track what’s happening there.


An estimated 10,000 people protested in Bangkok on Saturday after the Thai government, which is still largely controlled by the military even though the country transitioned to “democracy” earlier this year after five years under direct military rule, moved to break up the opposition Future Forward Party. That party, one of the more active of Thailand’s opposition parties, allegedly violated campaign finance laws by accepting loans from its founder, billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.


Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the Doha Forum on Saturday that he might not step aside next year as planned. The 94 year old Mahathir broke with Malaysia’s former ruling Barisan Nasional party last year and came out of retirement to head up an opposition coalition with former rival Anwar Ibrahim, who was at the time in prison on a sodomy conviction his supporters said was false and politically motivated. The arrangement was that Mahathir would serve a couple of years as PM, obtain a pardon for Anwar, and then Anwar would succeed him as PM and finish out the term. Then they won, and, well, here we are. Nobody could have seen this coming.

Anwar is now facing new allegations that he attempted to sexually assault a male subordinate, and whether there’s any fire amid all the smoke or these charges are also politically motivated is unclear. It should be noted that the first time Anwar was investigated for sodomy happened back in the 1990s, when he was serving in Mahathir’s cabinet and was viewed as a potential successor. He’s sort of in that position again, and while history isn’t totally repeating it is rhyming pretty closely. Mahathir, to reiterate, is 94 years old, so whether or not he voluntarily hands power off to somebody next year his tenure in office is unlikely to last much longer. But his obvious successor no longer seems so obvious.


New violence broke out in Hong Kong on Sunday as small groups of protesters carried out “flash mob” demonstrations at several regional shopping malls. Those demonstrations apparently included the occasional act of vandalism while police countered with pepper spray (whose use indoors is problematic to say the least) and made several arrests.

According to Reuters, a few months ago the US government “covertly expelled” two Chinese diplomats who drove onto a military base in Virginia and then claimed they were lost. It was all very simple and believable. The incident apparently led the State Department to impose new rules restricting the movements of Chinese diplomats amid concerns about potential spying.


North Korean state media reported Saturday on another apparently successful test of some sort at the Sohae satellite launch facility. Details are sparse, but the test was conducted Friday and produced “priceless data, experience and new technologies” that “will be fully applied to the development of another strategic weapon of the DPRK for definitely and reliably restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the US.” So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. The verbiage strongly implies that the test, probably another engine test, was related to Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile program.



Australia’s climate change-enhanced wildfires have gotten bad enough that they’re driving workers in Sydney to go on strike. They’re only scratching the surface of what climate change is likely to mean for labor over the decades to come:

Although Sydney’s air has begun to clear and her port workers have returned to work, their action may set an important precedent. Normally, when hazardous conditions are exposed, employers may choose to give staff time off or to invest in better safety equipment. But hazardous air is both unpredictable and largely uncontrollable — and just one of many possible consequences of increasingly frequent extreme weather patterns.

This will have an impact on labor productivity; many employers are already nervous. As Shane Reside, a MUA organizer, suggests: “There are parts of capital freaking out about climate change for exactly these material concerns — issues like this could cause mass disruption to their business model. The port’s a great example; port workers not unloading ships due to massive bushfires is going to have a severe impact on productivity.”

In many industries, it’s already accepted that extreme weather is a workplace health and safety hazard. Many enterprise bargaining agreements covering CFMMEU members contain 35°C or 75 percent humidity stop-work clauses. More is needed, however. As Freya Newman and Elizabeth Humphrys write in a recent research paper, “implementing these conditions effectively is still fraught for union delegates and members.”



Former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was sentenced on Saturday to a two-year prison term for corruption. Because of his age (75), under Sudanese law he will be allowed to serve that sentence under house arrest. Sudan’s interim government may have opted to prosecute Bashir on corruption in an effort to forestall calls to try him for his multiple, heinous (and, uh, alleged, I guess) human rights violations, related especially to the war in Darfur. Opening up that can of worms could implicate most, if not all, of the military officers who were involved in the coup that overthrew Bashir and are now involved in the interim government.


Bolstered by Russian mercenary reinforcements, the “Libyan National Army’s” renewed offensive on Tripoli has kicked into high gear, with heavy fighting reported on Friday and Saturday around the Libyan capital. LNA forces may have captured the town of Tawghaar to the south of Tripoli but the Libyan government has denied that report. The LNA has also been carrying out airstrikes on the city of Misrata, specifically on facilities storing Turkish drones that are used by the Libyan government. Turkey has been supporting Tripoli, and over the weekend the Turkish parliament began deliberating a new defense agreement between Tripoli and Ankara. Once parliament approves the deal, and there’s little question of it doing otherwise, the Libyan government could request more significant military assistance from Ankara, up to and including the deployment of Turkish forces to Libya.


France 24 reports on residents outside of Dakar protesting the massive landfill whose growing pile of trash is beginning to seriously impact public health:


The leaders of the G5 Sahel nations (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) met in Niamey on Sunday for emergency talks in the wake of Tuesday’s Islamist militant attack in western Niger (claimed by the Islamic State) that killed over 70 Nigerien soldiers. The summit seems pretty much to have been a show of support for Niger, though the leaders did the nebulous “pledge greater cooperation” thing that is the usual outcome of such sessions. The leaders, along with French President Emmanuel Macron, agreed to postpone a meeting scheduled for next week in France wherein they were essentially expected to pay homage to Macron to thank him for French military support. That atrocity will happen sometime next year instead.


Militants, probably affiliated with the Allied Democratic Forces, carried out several attacks against civilians in the northeastern DRC over the weekend. ADF fighters killed at least six people in an attack on the city of Beni that began Friday evening, while authorities discovered the bodies of at least 22 people in the nearby villages of Baoba and Ntombi on Sunday. Congolese authorities keep talking about how they’ve degraded the ADF’s capabilities, but it doesn’t seem to be translating into a reduction in casualties.



Italian authorities had to evacuate some 54,000 people in the city of Brindisi on Sunday while they disarmed an unexploded World War II bomb left there in 1941 courtesy of the British military. That’s the second World War II bomb Italian police have had to disarm this month—they cleared out a bomb in Turin on December 1 after evacuating some 10,000 people from the vicinity. Unexploded WWII ordinance remains a significant problem throughout Europe and especially in Italy.


The COP25 climate conference in Madrid ended amid a lot of outrage and public protest over the weekend, and by just about every account it was a disaster:

After more than two weeks of negotiations, punctuated by raucous protests and constant reminders of a need to move faster, negotiators barely mustered enthusiasm for the compromise they had patched together, while raising grievances about the many issues that remain unresolved.

The negotiators failed to achieve their primary goals. Central among them: persuading the world’s largest carbon-emitting countries to pledge to tackle climate change more aggressively beginning in 2020.

“We are not satisfied,” said Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, who chaired the conference. “The agreements reached by the parties are not enough.”

The goal for the COP25 was to establish the rules under which the 2015 Paris climate agreement would be implemented, which was to have included provisions for a global carbon trading network and for wealthier countries—several of them among the states whose unfettered use of fossil fuels has brought humanity to the verge of catastrophe—to fund programs to mitigate the effects of climate change on poorer countries—the countries that will suffer for wealthier countries’ greed. The talks—which were extended through the weekend in the hopes that the extra time might allow for some sort of agreement—collapsed because those wealthy countries made sure they would.

There were several bad guys involved, but the main one was, guess who, the United States. For some reason the US was allowed to participate even though the Trump administration has already begun the process of withdrawing from the Paris accord, and Washington did as much damage as it could on its way out the door:

The US is allegedly trying to blow up one of the top priorities the world’s poorest nations are working to achieve at the meeting: a mechanism for developing nations hurt by climate change to seek compensation from the wealthy nations that emitted the largest share of greenhouse gasses.

“The US is using its last chance to cover its ass,” said Taylor Billings, press secretary for Corporate Accountability, an NGO that organizes against corporations threatening health and the environment. “The US is seeking to protect itself, other polluting countries, and potentially even the corporations based there, from having to pay for the loss and damage they have caused.”


One quick result of Thursday’s UK election looks like it will be a renewed focus on reestablishing home rule in Northern Ireland. The surprise outcome, in which Irish nationalist parties wound up controlling more of NI’s parliamentary seats than unionist parties since, uh, ever, seems to have lit a fire under the Democratic Unionist Party’s collective behind. It and Sinn Féin both say they’re keen to restore the home rule system that was in place until it fell apart in January 2017.



The Argentine government has no intention of muzzling former Bolivian President Evo Morales now that he’s shifted his exile from Mexico to Argentina. That clarification came on Sunday, a couple of days after Argentine Foreign Minister Felipe Solá suggested that Morales would be asked to avoid making political statements while under Argentine asylum. Morales, who says he intends to work with his Movement for Socialism party as it prepares for a new Bolivian presidential election, will have “the same rights as an Argentine citizen in terms of freedom of expression,” according to Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers (Argentina’s version of a prime minister) Santiago Cafiero. He’ll likely only be able to retain that right if he stays in Argentina, though, as interim Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez says she’s going to issue an arrest warrant for him in case he ever decides to go back to Bolivia. As a reminder, Áñez has one job and one job only—organizing a new election—and she seems to be focusing her time and effort on pretty much anything but that.


The Nicaraguan government on Saturday nationalized Distribuidor Nicaraguense de Petroleo, a major gas company that has been sanctioned by the Trump administration for allegedly laundering money on behalf of President Daniel Ortega and his family.


Finally, at TomDispatch William Hartung offers his personal reflections on America’s constantly-rising military budget:

I’ve been writing critiques of the Pentagon, the national security state, and America’s never-ending military overreach since at least 1979 — in other words, virtually my entire working life. In those decades, there were moments when positive changes did occur. They ranged from ending the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994 and halting U.S. military support for the murderous regimes, death squads, and outlaws who ruled Central America in the 1970s and 1980s to sharp reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals as the Cold War wound down. Each of those victories, however complex, seemed like a signal that sustained resistance and global solidarity mattered and could make a difference when it came to peace and security.

Here’s a striking exception, though, one thing that decidedly hasn’t changed for the better in all these years: the staggering number of tax dollars that persistently go into what passes for national security in this country. In our case, of course, the definition of “national security” is subsidizing the U.S. military-industrial complex, year in, year out, at levels that should be (but aren’t) beyond belief. In 2019, Pentagon spending is actually higher than it was at the peak of either the Korean or Vietnam conflicts and may soon be — adjusted for inflation — twice the Cold War average.

Yes, in those four decades, there were dips at key inflection points, including the ends of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, but the underlying trend has been ever onward and upward. Just why that’s been the case is a subject that almost never comes up here. So let me try to explain it in the most personal terms by tracing my own history of working on Pentagon spending and what I’ve learned from it.