Climate Catastrophe Comes for Europe

Europe: The Water Crisis Comes Home

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 5, 2019

 

  • On Aug. 18, several dozen people gathered around a patch of snow in Iceland to commemorate the demise of the Okjokull glacier, a victim of climate change. Further to the west, Greenland shed 217 billion tons of ice in the month of July alone.
  • Paris reached 108.7 degrees on July 25, and normally cold, blustery Normandy registered 102 degrees. Worldwide, July 2019 was the hottest month on record.
  • Melting Russian permafrost—which makes up two-thirds of the country—is buckling roads, collapsing buildings, and releasing massive amounts of methane, a gas with the ten times the climate-warming potential of carbon dioxide,
  • Some 1.500 residents of Whaley Bridge were recently evacuated when a dam—overwhelmed by intense rainfall that pummeled northern England—threatened to break. The rains washed out roads and rail lines and swamped homes and business.

 

Ever since coal was partnered with water to generate steam and launch the industrial revolution, Europeans have been pouring billions of tons of atmospheric warming compounds into the planet’s atmosphere. While scientists were aware of the climate-altering potential of burning hydrocarbons as early as 1896, the wealth generated by spinning jennies, power looms and drop forges was seductive, as was the power it gave countries to build colonial empires and subjugate populations across the globe.

 

But the bill is finally coming due.

 

When most people think of climate change, what come to mind are the poles, Asia’s fast vanishing glaciers, or Australia, where punishing droughts are drying up the sub-continent’s longest river, the Murray. But climate change is an equal opportunity disrupter, and Europe is facing a one-two punch of too much water in the north and center and not enough in the south.

 

According to recent projections, drought regions in Europe will expand from 13 percent of the continent to 26 percent and last four times as long, affecting upwards of 400 million people. Southern France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece will be particularly hard hit, though how hard will depend on whether the planet’s temperature hike is kept to 1.5 degrees centigrade or rises to 3 degrees centigrade.

 

Northern and Central Europe, on the other hand, will experience more precipitation and consequent flooding. Upward of a million people would be effected and damage would run into the hundreds of billions of Euros. While weather is battering away at Europe, sea rises of from four to six feet over the next century would inundate Copenhagen, the Netherlands, many French and German ports and London. If the Greenland ice sheet actually melted, the oceans would come up 24 feet.

 

Food production will be another casualty. According to David Wallace-Wells in “The Uninhabitable Earth,” cereal crops will decline 10 percent for every degree the temperature goes up. When crops fail, people will move and the logical place to go is north. It is not just war and unrest that is driving refugees toward Europe, but widespread crop failures brought about by too little or too much water.

 

The warming climate also allows insects, like the bark beetle, to attack Europe’s forests. The beetles are increasingly active in the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Norway and, particularly, Russia, which host the largest temperate forests in the world.

 

Each tree that dies is one less carbon sink to transmute CO2 to oxygen. And dead trees are also more susceptible to forest fires, which can pump yet more of the climate warming gas into the atmosphere. Fires are not only increasing in countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal, but also in Sweden and Finland.

 

For many years climate change deniers—funded by hydrocarbon industry think tanks and sophisticated media campaigns—managed to inject a certain amount of doubt concerning global warming, but a rash of devastating hurricanes and last year’s wildfires in California have begun to shift public opinion. Last spring’s European elections saw Green parties all over the continent do well, and polls indicate growing alarm among the public.

 

A number of different European parties, including the British Labour Party, are pushing a “Green New Deal For Europe” based on a call by the United Nations to reduce green house gas emissions to zero by 2050.

 

The European Green Deal proposes using public investment banks to fund much of the plan, which is aimed at keeping rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees centigrade. While the price for rolling back emissions will certainly be high, the costs for not doing so are far greater, including the possibility that worldwide temperatures could go by as much as 5 degrees centigrade, a level that might make much of the world unlivable for human beings.

 

A jump of that magnitude would be similar to the kind of temperature rise the world experienced at the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago. Called the “Great Extinction,” it killed 96 percent of life in the sea and 70 percent on land.

 

A major reason for the Permian die off was the expansion of cynobacteria, which produce a toxic cocktail that can kill almost anything they comes in contact with. Such cynobacteria blooms are already underway in more than 400 places throughout the world, including a large dead zone in the Baltic Sea. Some New York lakes have become so toxic that the water is fatal to pets that drink from them.

 

The major fuel for cynobacteria is warm water coupled with higher rainfall—one of the consequences of climate change—that washes nutrients into lakes and rivers.

 

Of the 195 countries that signed the Paris Climate Accords, only seven are close to fulfilling their carbon emission pledges. And one of the world’s biggest sources of global warming gasses, the US, has withdrawn. If all 195 countries met their goals, however, the climate is still on target to reach 3 degrees Celsius. Even if the rise can be kept to 2 degrees, it will likely melt the Greenland ice cap and possibly the Antarctic ice sheets. Greenland’s melt would raise ocean levels by 24 feet, the Antarctic by hundreds of feet.

 

As overwhelming as the problem seems, it can be tackled, but only if the world mobilizes the kind of force it did to fight World War II. It will, however, take a profound re-thinking of national policy and the economy.

 

The US organization most focused on climate change these days is the Pentagon, which is gearing up to fight the consequences. But our enormous defense apparatus is a major part of the problem, because military spending is carbon heavy. According to Brown University’s “Cost Of War” project, the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of hydrocarbons on the planet. Yet a number of European countries—under pressure from the Trump administration—are increasing their military spending, exactly the wrong strategy to combat the climate threat.

 

The world will need to agree that keeping hydrocarbons in the ground is essential. Fracking, tar sands and opening yet new sources for oil and gas in the arctic will have to halt. Solar, hydro and wind power will need to be expanded, and some very basic parts of the economy re-examined.

 

This will hardly be pain free.

 

For instance, it takes 1,857 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, compared to 469 gallons for a pound of chicken. Yogurt uses 138 gallons. While beef production uses 60 percent of agricultural land, it only provides 2 percent of human caloric intake.

 

It is unlikely that people will give up meat—although growing economic inequality has already removed meat from the diet of many—but what we eat and how we produce it will have to be part of any solution. For instance, a major source of green house gases is industrial agriculture with its heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers.

 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, close to 30 percent of food production goes to waste, most of it in wealthy countries. A fair distribution of food supplies would not only feed more people, it would use less land, thus cutting green house gasses up to 10 percent. Add to that curbing beef production, and hundreds of millions of square miles of grange land would be freed up to plant carbon absorbing trees.

 

Can this be done incrementally? It may have to be, but not for long. Climate change is upon us. What that future will be is up to the current generation to figure out, and while there is no question that concerted action can make a difference, the clock is ticking. When next the bell tolls, it tolls for us all.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rivers of Dust: Water and the Middle East

Rivers of Dust: Water & the Middle East

Dispatches From The Edge

July 28, 2019

 

 

It is written that “Enannatum, ruler of Lagash,” slew “60 soldiers” from Umma. The battle between the two ancient city states took place 4,500 years ago near where the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together in what is today Iraq. The matter in dispute? Water.

 

More than four millennia have passed since the two armies clashed over one city state’s attempt to steal water from another, but while the instruments of war have changed, the issue is much the same: whoever controls the rivers controls the land.

 

And those rivers are drying up, partly because of overuse and wastage, and partly because climate change has pounded the region with punishing multi-year droughts.

 

Syria and Iraq are at odds with Turkey over the Tigris-Euphrates. Egypt’s relations with Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile are tense. Jordan and the Palestinians accuse Israel of plundering river water to irrigate the Negev Desert and hogging most of the three aquifers that underlie the occupied West Bank.

 

According to satellites that monitor climate, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, embracing Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is losing water faster than any other area in the world, with the exception of Northern India.

 

The Middle East’s water problems are hardly unique. South Asia—in particular the Indian sub-continent—is also water stressed, and Australia and much of Southern Africa are experiencing severe droughts. Even Europe is struggling with some rivers dropping so low as to hinder shipping.

 

But the Middle East has been particularly hard hit. According to the Water Stress Index, out of 37 countries in the world facing “extremely high” water distress, 15 are in the Middle East, with Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia heading the list.

 

For Syria and Iraq, the problem is Turkey and Ankara’s mania for dam building. Since 1975, Turkish dams have reduced the flow of water to Syria by 40 percent and to Iraq by 80 percent. According to the Iraqi Union of Farming Associations, up to 50 percent of the country’s agricultural land could be deprived of water, removing 124 million acres from production.

 

Iran and Syria have also built dams that reduce the flow of rivers that feed the Tigris and Euphrates, allowing salt water from the Persian Gulf to infiltrate the Shatt al-Arab waterway where the twin rivers converge. The salt has destroyed rich agricultural land in the south and wiped out much of the huge date farms for which Iraq was famous.

 

Half a century ago, Israel built the National Water Carrier canal diverting water from the Sea of Galilee, which is fed by the Jordan River. That turned the Jordan downstream of the Galilee into a muddy stream, which Israel prevents the Palestinians from using.

 

Jordanian and Syrian dams on the river’s tributaries have added to the problem, reducing the flow of the Jordan by 90 percent.

 

And according to the World Bank, Israel also takes 87 percent of the West Bank aquifers, leaving the Palestinians only 13 percent. The result is that Israelis on the West Bank have access to 240 liters a day per person. Israeli settlers get an extra 60 liters a day, leaving the Palestinians only 75 liters a day. The World Health Organization’s standard is 100 liters a day for each individual.

 

At 4,184 miles in length, the Nile River is the world’s longest—Brazil disputes the claim—and traverses 10 African countries. It is Egypt’s lifeblood providing both water and rich soil for the country’s agriculture. But a combination of drought and dams has reduced its flow over the past several decades.

 

Ethiopia is currently building an enormous dam for power and irrigation on the Blue Nile. The source of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands. The Egyptian Nile is formed where the Blue Nile and the White Nile—its source is Lake Victoria in Uganda—converge in the Sudan at Khartoum. Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia were initially tense over water but have eased somewhat with the two sides agreeing to talk about how to share it.

 

But with climate change accelerating, the issue of water—or the lack thereof—is going to get worse, not better, and resolving the problems will take more than bilateral treaties about sharing. And there is hardly agreement about how to proceed.

 

One strategy has been privatization.

 

Through its International Finance Corporation, the World Bank has been pushing privatizing, arguing that private capital will upgrade systems and guarantee delivery. In practice, however, privatization has generally resulted in poorer quality water at higher prices. Huge transnational companies like SUEZ and Veolia have snapped up resources in the Middle East and global south.

 

Increasingly, water has become a commodity, either by control of natural sources and distribution, or by cornering the market on bottled water.

 

Lebanon is a case in point. Historically the country has had sufficient water resources, but it is has been added to the list of 33 countries that will face severe water shortages by 2040.

 

Part of the current crisis is homegrown. Some 60,000 illegal wells siphon off water from the aquifer that underlies the country, and dams have not solved the problem of chronic water shortages, particularly for the 1.6 million people living in the greater Beirut area. Increasingly people have turned to private water sources, especially bottled water.

 

Multi-national corporations, like Nestle, drain water from California and Michigan and sell it in Lebanon. Nestle, though its ownership of Shoat, controls 35 percent of Lebanon’s bottled water. Not only is bottled water expensive, and many times inferior in quality to local water sources, the plastic it necessities adds to a growing pollution problem.

 

There are solutions out there, but they require a level of cooperation and investment that very few countries currently practice. Many countries simply don’t have the funds to fix or upgrade their water infrastructure. Pipes lose enormous amounts through leakage, and dams reduce river flow, creating salt pollution problems downstream in places like Iraq and Egypt. In any event, dams eventually silt in.

 

Wells—legal and illegal—are rapidly draining aquifers, forcing farmers and cities to dig deeper and deeper each year. And, many times, those deep wells draw in pollution from the water table that makes the water impossible to drink or use on crops.

 

Again, there are solutions. California has made headway refilling the vast aquifer that underlies its rich Central Valley by establishing ponds and recharge basins during the rainy season, and letting water percolate back into the ground. Drip agriculture is also an effective way to reduce water usage, but it requires investment beyond the capacity of many countries, let alone small farmers.

 

Desalinization is also a strategy, but an expensive one that requires burning hydrocarbons, thus pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change.

 

As the Middle East grows dryer and populations in the region continue to increase, the situation will get considerably worse in the coming decades.

 

The Middle East may be drying up, but so is California, much of the American Southwest, southern Africa, parts of Latin America, and virtually all of southern Europe. Since the crisis is global “beggar thy neighbor” strategies will eventually impoverish all of humanity. The solution lies with the only international organization on the planet, the United Nations.

 

In 1997, the UN adopted a convention on International Watercourses that spells out procedures for sharing water and resolving disputes. However, several big countries like China and Turkey opposed it, and several others, like India and Pakistan, have abstained. The convention is also entirely voluntary with no enforcement mechanisms like binding arbitration.

 

It is, however, a start, but whether nations will come together to confront the planet wide crisis is an open question without it, the Middle East will run out of water, but it will hardly be alone. By 2030, according to the UN, four out of 10 people will not have access to water

 

There is precedent for a solution, one that is at least 4,500 years old. A cuneiform tablet in the Louvre chronicles a water treaty that ended the war between Umma and Lagash. If our distant ancestors could figure it out, it stands to reason we can.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Weaponizing Water in South Asia

Weaponizing Water in South Asia

Dispatches From The Edge

July 10, 2019

 

 

During the faceoff earlier this year between India and Pakistan over a terrorist attack that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitaries in Kashmir, New Delhi made an existential threat to Islamabad. The weapon was not India’s considerable nuclear arsenal, but one still capable of inflicting ruinous destruction: water.

 

“Our government has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan,” India’s Transport Minister, Nitin Gadkin said Feb. 21. “We will divert water from eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. India controls three major rivers that flow into Pakistan.

 

 

If India had followed through, it would have abrogated the 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between the two counties, a move that could be considered an act of war.

 

In the end nothing much came of it. India bombed some forests, and Pakistan bombed some fields. But the threat underlined a growing crisis in the South Asian sub-continent, where water stressed mega cities and intensive agriculture are quite literally drying up. By 2030, according to a recent report, half the population of India—700 million people—will lack adequate drinking water. Currently, 25 percent of India’s population is suffering from drought,

 

“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water,” warns Ismail Serageldin, a former executive for the World Bank.

 

While relations between India and Pakistan have long been tense—they have fought three wars since 1947, one of which came distressingly close to going nuclear—in terms of water sharing, they are somewhat of a model.

 

After almost a decade of negotiations, both countries signed the IWT in 1960 to share the output of six major rivers. The World Bank played a key role by providing $1 billion for the Indus Basin Development Fund.

 

But the on-going tensions over Kashmir have transformed water into a national security issue for both countries. This, in turn, has limited the exchange of water and weather data, making long-term planning extremely difficult.

 

The growing water crisis is heightened by climate change. Both countries have experienced record-breaking heat waves, and the mountains that supply the vast majority of water for Pakistan and India, are losing their glaciers. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report estimates that by 2100 some two-thirds of the area’s more than 14,000 glaciers will be gone.

 

India’s response to declining water supplies—like that of many other countries in the region, is to build dams. But dams not only restrict down stream water supplies, they block the natural flow of silt. That silt renews valuable agricultural land and also replenishes the great deltas, like the Ganges-Brahmaputra, the Indus and the Mekong. The deltas not only support fishing industries, they also act as natural barriers to storms.

 

The Sunderbans—a vast, 4,000 square mile mangrove forest on the coasts of India and Bangladesh—is under siege. As climate change raises sea levels, up stream dams reduce the flow of fresh water that keeps the salty sea at bay. The salt encroachment eventually kills the mangrove trees and destroys farmland. Add to this increased logging to keep pace with population growth, and Bangladesh alone will lose some 800 square miles of Sunderban over the next few years.

 

As the mangroves are cut down or die off, they expose cities like Kolkata and Dhaka to the unvarnished power of typhoons, storms which climate change is making more powerful and frequent.

 

The central actor in the South Asia water crisis is China, which sits on the sources of 10 major rivers that flow through 11 countries, and which supply 1.6 billion people with water. In essence, China controls the “Third Pole,” that huge reservoir of fresh water locked up in the snow and ice of the Himalayas.

 

And Beijing is building lots of dams to collect water and generate power.

Over 600 large dams either exist or are planned in the Himalayas. In the past decade, China has built three dams on the huge Brahmaputra that has its origin in China but drains into India and Bangladesh.

 

While India and China together represent a third of the world’s population, both countries have access to only 10 percent of the globe’s water resources and no agreements on how to share that water. While tensions between Indian and Pakistan mean the Indus Water Treaty doesn’t function as well as it could, nevertheless, the agreement does set some commonly accepted ground rules, including binding arbitration. No such treaty exists between New Delhi and Beijing.

 

While relations between China and India are far better than those between India and Pakistan, under the Modi government New Delhi has grown closer to Washington and has partly bought into a US containment strategy aimed at China. Indian naval ships carry out joint war games with China’s two major regional rivals, Japan and the US, and there are still disputes between China and India over their mutual border. A sharpening atmosphere of nationalism in both countries is not conducive to cooperation over anything, let alone something as critical as water.

 

And yet never has their been such a necessity for cooperation. Both countries need the “Third Pole’s” water for agriculture, hydropower and to feed the growth of mega cities like Dhaka, Mumbai and Beijing.

 

Stressed water supplies translate into a lack of clean water, which fuels a health crisis, especially in the huge sprawling cities that increasingly draw rural people driven out by climate change. Polluted water kills more people than wars, including 1.5 million children under the age of five. Reduced water supplies also go hand in hand with water borne diseases, like cholera. There is even a study that demonstrates thirsty mosquitoes bite more, thus increasing the number of vector borne diseases like Zita, Malaria, and Dengue.

 

South Asia is hardly alone in facing a crisis over fresh water. Virtually every continent on the globe is looking at shortages. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2030 water sources will only cover 60 percent of the world’s daily requirement.

 

The water crisis is no longer a problem that can be solved through bilateral agreements like the IWT, but one that requires regional, indeed, global solutions. If the recent push by the Trump administration to lower mileage standards for automobiles is successful, it will add hundreds of thousands of extra tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which, in turn, will accelerate climate change.

 

In short, what comes out of US auto tailpipes will ultimately be felt by the huge Angsi Glacier in Tibet, the well spring of the Brahmaputra, a river that flows through China, India and Bangladesh, emptying eventually into the Bay of Bengal.

 

There is no such thing as a local or regional solution to the water crisis, since the problem is global. The only really global organization that exists is the United Nations, which will need to take the initiative to create a worldwide water agreement.

 

Such an agreement is partly in place. The UN International Watercourses Convention came into effect in August 2014 following Vietnam’s endorsement of the treaty. However, China voted against it, and India and Pakistan abstained. Only parties that signed it are bound by its conventions.

 

But the Convention is a good place to start. “It offers legitimate and effective practices for data sharing, negotiation and dispute resolution that could be followed in a bilateral or multilateral water sharing arrangement,” according to Srinivas Chokkakula, a water issues researcher at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.

 

By 2025, according to the UN, some 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water shortages, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be under “water stress” conditions. There is enough fresh water for seven billion people, according to the UN, but it is unevenly distributed, polluted, wasted or poorly managed.

 

If countries don’t come together around the Conventions—which need to be greatly strengthened—and it becomes a free for all with a few countries holding most the cards, sooner or later the “water crisis” will turn into an old-fashion war.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Wounded Erdogan Could Be Dangerous

Turkey Takes a Turn

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

June 24, 2019

 

For the second time in a row, Turkish voters have rebuked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s handpicked candidate for the mayoralty of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest and wealthiest city. The secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, swamped Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate Binali Yildirim in an election that many see as a report card on the President’s 17 years of power.

 

So what does the outcome of the election mean for the future of Turkey, and in particular, its powerful president? For starters, an internal political realignment, but also maybe a dangerous foreign policy adventure.

 

Erdogan and his Party have been weakened politically and financially by the loss of Istanbul, even though the President did his best to steer clear of the campaign over the past several weeks. Since it was Erdogan that pressured the Supreme Election Council into annulling the results of the March 31 vote, whether he likes it or not, he owns the outcome.

 

His opponents in the AKP are already smelling blood. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who Erdogan sidelined in 2016, has begun criticizing the President’s inner circle, including Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law and current Finance Minister. There are rumors that Dovutoglu and former deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan are considering forming a new party on the right.

 

Up until the March election that saw the AKP and its extreme nationalist alliance partner, the National Movement Party (MHP), lose control of most the major cities in the country, Erdogan had shown an almost instinctive grasp of what the majority of Turks wanted. But this time out the AKP seemed tone deaf. While Erdogan campaigned on the issue of terrorism, polls showed most Turks were more concerned with the disastrous state of the economy, rising inflation and growing joblessness.

 

The “terrorist threat” strategy—short hand for Turkey’s Kurdish minority—not only alienated conservative Kurds who reliably voted for the AKP, but forced the opposition into a united front. Parties ranging from the leftist Kurdish People’s Democratic Party and the Communist Party, to more conservative parties like the Good Party, withdrew their candidates from the Istanbul’s mayor’s race and lined up behind the CHP’s Imamoglu.

 

The AKP—long an electoral steamroller—ran a clumsy and ill-coordinated campaign. While Yildirim tried to move to the center, Erdogan’s inner circle opted for a hard right program, even accusing Imamoglu of being a Greek (and closet Christian) because he hails from the Black Sea area of Trabzon that was a Greek center centuries ago. The charge backfired badly, and an area that in the past was overwhelming supportive of the AKP shifted to backing a native son. Some 2.5 million former residents of the Black Sea live in Istanbul, and it was clear which way they voted.

 

So what does the election outcome mean for Turkish politics? Well, for one, when the center and left unite they can beat Erdogan. But it also looks like there is going to be re-alignment on the right. In the March election, the extreme right MHP picked up some disgruntled AKP voters, and many AKP voters apparently stayed home, upset at the corruption and the anti-terrorist strategy of their party. It feels a lot like 2002, when the AKP came out of the political margins and vaulted over the rightwing Motherland and True Path parties to begin its 17 years of domination. How far all this goes and what the final outcome will be is not clear, but Erdogan has been weakened, and his opponents in the AKP are already sharpening their knives.

 

An Erdogan at bay, however, can be dangerous. When the AKP lost its majority in the 2015 general election, Erdogan reversed his attempt to peacefully resolve tensions with the Kurds and, instead, launched a war on Kurdish cities in the country’s southeast. While the war helped him to win back his majority in an election six months later, it alienated the Kurds and laid the groundwork for the AKP’s losses in the March 2019 election and the Istambul’s mayor’s race.

 

The fear is that Erdogan will look for a crisis that will resonate with Turkish nationalism, a strategy he has used in the past.

 

He tried to rally Turks behind overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but the war was never popular. Most Turks are not happy with the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently camped in their country, nor with what increasingly appears to be a quagmire for the Turkish Army in Northern and Eastern Syria.

 

In general, Turkey’s foreign policy is a shambles.

 

Erdogan is trying to repair fences with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, because he desperately needs the investment that Gulf monarchs can bring to Turkey. But the price for that is a break with Iran and ending his support for the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Turkish President might be willing to dump the Brotherhood, Erdogan feels he needs Iran in his ongoing confrontation with the Kurds in Syria, and, at least at this point, he is unwilling to join Saudi Arabia’s jihad on Tehran.

 

In spite of the Turkish President’s efforts to normalize ties with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia recently issued a formal warning to Saudi real estate investors and tourists that Turkey is “inhospitable.” Saudi tourism is down 30 percent, and Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia are also off.

 

Erdogan is also wrangling with the US and NATO over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, a disagreement that threatens further damage to the Turkish economy through US-imposed sanctions. There is even a demand by some Americans to expel Turkey from NATO, echoed by similar calls from the Turkish extreme right.

 

Talk of leaving NATO, however, is mostly Sturm und Drang. There is no Alliance procedure to expel a member, and current tensions with Moscow means NATO needs Turkey’s southern border with Russia, especially its control of the Black Sea’s outlet to the Mediterranean.

 

But a confrontation over Cyprus—and therefore with Greece—is by no means out of the question. This past May, Turkey announced that it was sending a ship to explore for natural gas in the sea off Cyprus, waters that are clearly within the island’s economic exploitation zone.

 

“History suggests that leaders who are losing their grip on power have incentives to organize a show of strength and unite their base behind an imminent foreign threat,” writes Greek investigative reporter Yiannis Baboulias in Foreign Policy. “Erdogan has every reason to create hostilities with Greece—Turkey’s traditional adversary and Cyprus’s ally—to distract from his problems at home.”

 

Turkey has just finished large-scale naval exercises—code name “Sea Wolf”— in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and, according to Baboulias, Turkish warplanes have been violating Greek airspace.

 

Cyprus, along with Israel and Egypt, has been trying to develop Cypriote offshore gas resources for almost a decade, but Turkey has routinely stymied their efforts. The European Union (EU) supports the right of Cyprus to develop the fields, and the EU’s foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, called on Turkey to “respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus to its exclusive economic zone and refrain from such illegal actions.” While Mogherini pledged “full solidarity” with Cyprus, it is hard to see what the big trade organization could do in the event of a crisis.

 

Any friction with Cyprus is friction with Greece, and there is a distinct possibility that two NATO members could find themselves in a face off. Erdogan likes to create tensions and then negotiate from strength, a penchant he shares with US President Donald Trump. While it seems unlikely that it will come to that, in this case Turkish domestic considerations could play a role.

 

A dustup with Ankara’s traditional enemy, Greece, would put Erdogan’s opponents in the AKP on the defensive and divert Turks attention from the deepening economic crisis at home. It might also allow Erdogan to use the excuse of a foreign policy crisis to strengthen his already considerable executive powers and to divert to the military budget monies from cities the AKP no longer control.

 

Budget cuts could stymie efforts by the CHP and left parties to improve conditions in the cities and to pump badly needed funds into education. The AKP used Istanbul’s budget as a piggy bank for programs that benefited members of Erdogan’s family or generated kickbacks for the Party from construction firms and private contractors. Erdogan has already warned his opponents that they “won’t even be able to pay the salaries of their employees.” The man may be down but he is hardly beaten. There are turbulent times ahead for Turkey.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lessons from Spain for the Left

Spanish Elections

Dispatches From The Edge

May. 10, 2019

 

There were several lessons to take from last month’s Spanish elections, some special to Spain, others that resonate continent wide. Since the 28-member European Union is preparing to vote on the makeup of the European Parliament at the end of May, those lessons are relevant.

 

On the surface the outcome seemed pretty straightforward: Spain’s Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) picked up lots of seats—but not enough to form a government—the country’s traditional center-right Popular Party (PP) took a pounding, the ultra-right edged into parliament and the center did well.

 

But Spain’s politics are as complex as the country’s geography, and certainly not as simple as the New York Time’s analysis that the outcome was a “strong pro-European Union vote” that will allow Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez “to tackle Spain’s neglected economic challenges.”

 

For starters, the majority did not vote for the EU, but, to the contrary, against the devastation the huge trading bloc has inflicted on Spain through a decade of austerity measures. The Spanish Socialists ran on a platform of jobs creation, implementing a US-inspired “Green New Deal,” a 22 percent jump in the minimum wage and greater funding for education and science, all issues that run counter to the tight-fisted policies of the EU.

 

Indeed, if the European Union had been on the ballot it might have gone badly for Brussels, not exactly a Spexit, but hardly a ringing endorsement.

 

Part of the Socialist victory reflected the profound ineptness of the opposition on the right.

 

For more than 40 years, the Popular Party has been an umbrella for the Spanish right, ranging from conservative businessmen and small farmers to unreconstructed supporters of the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. But when the left-wing Podemos Party won 20 percent of the vote in 2015, it unleashed centrifugal forces that smashed up the old two-party system that had dominated the country since the death of Franco in 1975.

 

Besides opening the political landscape to multiple parties, including the center right Ciudadanos , or “Citizens” Party, it put immeasurable strains on the Socialist and Popular parties.

 

In the case of the latter, the PP’s extreme right jumped ship and formed “Vox,” whose policies are little different than Franco’s: opposition to abortion, equal rights for women, gay rights, immigration, and regional autonomy. The Party won almost 11 percent of the vote in a recent election in Andalusia, Spain’s most populous province. It is currently part of the province’s ruling coalition, which includes the PP and Citizens, but underperformed in last month’ vote.

 

The PP’s turn to the right as a strategy to peel off Vox votes was a disaster. Women, in particular, felt threatened by some of the Party’s anti-abortion talk, and the PP’s candidates handpicked by Party leader Pablo Casado were underwhelming.

 

The Socialists also had their divisions. In 2016 the PSOE’s rightwing engineered the ouster of Sanchez after he considered forming a government with Podemos and several small regional parties. The rightwing of the Socialists then allowed the PP to form a minority government, a move that did not sit well with the Party’s rank and file.

 

Sanchez barnstormed the country, rallying the Socialist’s left wing and taking back the Party’s leadership seven months later. In this last election the PSOE stayed united, a major reason why Sanchez is in a position to form a government.

 

Was the election a victory for the center? There is not a lot of evidence for that. While Citizens did well—it bypassed Unidos-Podemos to become the third largest party in the parliament with 57 seats—most of its votes came from former PP members alienated by the Popular Party’s sharp turn to the right and the profound corruption that has enmeshed many of its leaders.

 

The PP, Citizens and Vox all pounded away at the Catalan independence movement and immigration, two issues that did not resonate very strongly with the electorate. A poll by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Research showed that voters were most concerned with unemployment (61.8 percent), corruption (33.3 percent) and the state of the political parties (29.1 percent). Only 8.9 percent felt immigration was a major issue, and Catalan independence was a concern for only 11 percent.

 

In short, when the right was railing away at the Catalans and immigrants, most of the voters tuned out.

 

The leftist UP also took a beating, dropping from 71 to 42 seats, but that was partly due to a falling out between the two major Podemos leaders, Pablo Iglesias and Inigo Errejon, and disagreements on how closely the leftist alliance should align itself with the Socialists. In contrast, the leftwing Catalan parties did well.

 

The Socialists now face two major problems.

 

First, there is the PSOE’s program that, if instituted, would certainly ease the austerity policies of the EU and the PP that have inflicted such pain on the bulk of Spaniards. While unemployment has come down from its height during the years following the 2008 financial crash, many of those jobs are low paying, benefit-free, temporary gigs.

 

A Green New Deal would confront climate change and create new jobs. Repairing the social safety net that the PP and the EU have shredded would not only make people’s lives easier, it would stimulate the economy.

 

But the EU is pressing for almost $28 billion in government spending cuts, that, if agreed to, would make much of the Socialists’ program stillborn. Faced with the demands of capital, on one hand, and the misery of yet more austerity, many socialist parties—with the exception of Britain’s and Portugal’s—have gone along with the strictures of the EU.

 

When they do, they pay the price: center-left parties all over Europe have been decimated for buying into the debt reduction strategy of the EU. Socialist parties tend to run from the left and govern from the center, but if Sanchez does that, the Party’s support will evaporate.

 

Secondly, there is the Catalan problem. While Sanchez has pledged to open a dialogue with the Catalans, he has steadfastly refused to consider their demand for a referendum on independence. The Socialist leader argues that he is constrained by the Spanish constitution that explicitly forbids provinces from seceding. But the constitution was drawn up only a few years after Franco’s death and is deeply flawed on a number of different levels, including giving rural regions greater representation than urban areas.

 

The refusal of Sanchez to consider a referendum makes “dialogue” an empty phrase. It is not even clear if the majority of Catalans would vote for independence, although the policies of Madrid—in particular the brutal crushing of a referendum effort this past October, and the arrest and imprisonment of Catalan leaders—certainly seems to have increased separatist sentiment. In the recent election Catalan independence parties won a majority in the Provence.

 

Sanchez may try to construct a coalition without the Catalan parties, which would be a major mistake. Many of the Catalan parties are more simpatico to the PSOE on economic and social matters than some of the other regional parties the Socialists will try to recruit to form a government. And, as the recent election showed, people want some answers to their economic problems.

 

The Socialists will certainly be attacked by the right if they allow a referendum, but the PP labeled them “terrorists” in this last election and the majority of voters didn’t buy it. The referendum could require a super majority—maybe 60 percent—to pass, because it would be folly to take the province out of Spain on the basis of a narrow win.

 

But the Catalan question cannot be dispersed with tear gas, billy clubs or prisons, and constitutions are not immutable documents.

 

For European parties on the center-left, Spain’s elections had a message: the old days of campaigning on left social democracy when you’re running for office and ruling with careful centrism once you get into power are over. People want answers.

 

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Turkey: Revenge of the Kurds

Turkey: Rocks & Hard Places

Dispatches From The Edge

March 25, 2019

 

After 18 years of unchallenged power and success, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suddenly finds himself in the middle of several domestic and foreign crises with no obvious way out. It is unfamiliar ground for a master politician who has moved nimbly from the margins of power to the undisputed leader of the largest economy in the Middle East.

 

His problems are largely of his own making: an economy built on a deeply corrupt construction industry, a disastrous intervention in Syria and a declaration of war on Turkey’s Kurdish population. All of these initiatives have backfired badly. In the Mar. 31 local elections, Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control of all of Turkey’s major cities, including the country’s political center, Ankara, and the nation’s economic engine, Istanbul. The latter contributes more than 30 percent of Turkey’s GNP.

 

That is not to say that the man is down and out. The AKP is demanding a re-run of the Istanbul election and is preventing the progressive mayors of several Kurdish cities in Turkey’s southeast from assuming office. Erdogan is not a man who shies from using brute force and intimidation to get his way. Close to 10,000 of his political opponents are in prison, hundreds of thousands of others have been dismissed from their jobs, and opposition media is largely crushed. The final outcome of the election is by no means settled.

 

But force will only exacerbate Erdogan’s problems.

 

The Kurds are a case in point. When the leftist Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) made a major electoral breakthrough in 2015—winning 81 seats in the Parliament and denying the AKP a majority—Erdogan responded by ending peace talks with the Kurds and occupying Kurdish towns and cities.

 

Rather than cowing the Kurds, however, it sowed the wind, and the AKP reaped the hurricane in the March election. An analysis of the Istanbul mayor’s race shows that the AKP and its rightwing National Movement Party alliance won about the same percentage of votes it had in last year’s presidential election. The same was true for the AKP’s opposition—the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its ally, the right-wing Good Party.

 

The difference was that the HDP did not field a candidate, and its imprisoned leader, Selahattin Demiratas, urged the Kurds and their supporters to vote against Erdogan’s candidate. They did so in droves and tipped the balance to the CHP’s candidate. That pattern pretty much held for the rest of the country and accounts for the AKP’s loss of other cities, like Izmar, Antalya, Mersin and Adana.

 

When the Turkish state waged a war against the Kurds in the 1980s and ‘90s, many fled rural areas to take up life in the cities. Istanbul is now about 11 percent Kurdish. Indeed, it is the largest grouping of urban Kurds in the world. So if there is a phrase that sums up the election, it might be “revenge of the Kurds.”

 

But the AKP’s loss of the major urban centers is more than a political setback. Cities are the motors for the Turkish economy and for the past 18 years Erdogan has doled out huge construction projects to AKP-friendly firms, which, in turn, kick money back to the Party. The President has delivered growth over the years, but it was growth built on the three “Cs”: credit, corruption and cronyism.

 

Those chickens have finally come home to roost. Foreign currency reserves are low, Turkey’s lira has plummeted in value, debts are out of hand, and unemployment—particularly among the young and well educated—is rising. In a rare case of political tone deafness, Erdogan focused the recent campaign around the issues of terrorism and the Kurds, ignoring polls that showed most Turks were far more worried about high prices and joblessness.

 

Where Erdogan goes from here is not clear.

 

Turkey is holding talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about a possible bailout, but the President knows that means increased taxes and austerity, not exactly the kind of program that delivers votes. There will be no elections until the 2023 presidential contest, so there is time to try to turn things around, but how? Foreign investors are wary of Turkey’s political volatility, and the Europeans and Americans are unhappy with Erdogan’s erratic foreign policy.

 

The latest dustup is fallout from Turkey’s disastrous 2011 decision to support the overthrow of President Bashar Assad of Syria. Assad has survived—largely because of Russian and Iranian support—and now Turkey is hosting millions of refugees and bleeding out billions of dollars occupying parts of northern Syria.

 

Turkey initially tryed to get NATO to challenge Moscow in Syria—even shooting down a Russian warplane—but NATO wanted no part of it. So Erdogan shifted and cut a deal with Moscow, part of which involved buying the Russians new S-400 anti-missile and aircraft system for $2.5 billion.

 

Backing the extremists trying to overthrow Assad was never a good hand, but Erdogan has played it rather badly.

 

The S-400 deal made NATO unhappy, which doesn’t want high-tech Russian military technology potentially eavesdropping on a NATO member country, particularly on American warplanes based in Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.

 

The US Congress is threatening to block Turkey’s purchase of the F-35 fifth generation fighter plane, even though Turkey is an investor in the project. The Trump administration has also warned Ankara that it will apply the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if Turkey buys Russian military equipment, sanctions that could damage Ankara’s already troubled economy. Turkey is officially in a recession.

 

The Americans are so upset about this S-400 business, that the Senate recently proposed lifting an arms embargo on Cyprus and signing energy agreements with Greece and Egypt—two of Turkey’s major regional rivals.

 

Although not being able to purchase the F-35 may end up being a plus for Ankara. The plane is an over-priced lemon. Some of Erdogan’s advisors argue that Ankara could always turn to Russia for a fifth generation warplane (and one that might actually work).

 

There is some talk about throwing Turkey out of NATO, but that is mostly bluff. The simple fact is that NATO needs Turkey more than Turkey needs NATO. Ankara controls access to the Black Sea, where NATO has deployed several missile-firing surface ships. Russia’s largest naval base is on the Crimean Peninsula and relations between Moscow and NATO are tense.

 

A strategic turn toward Moscow seems unlikely. The Russians oppose Turkey’s hostility toward the Kurds in Syria, don’t share Erdogan’s antagonism toward Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and have differences with Ankara over Cyprus and the Caucasus. And for all the talk about increasing trade between the two countries, the Russian economy is not all that much larger than Turkey’s and is currently straining under NATO-applied sanctions.

 

On the one hand, Ankara is angry with Washington for its refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim leader that Erdogan claims was behind the failed 2016 coup. On the other hand, the Turkish President also knows that the US pretty much controls the IMF and he will need American support if he goes for a bailout.

 

How Erdogan will handle his domestic problems and foreign entanglements is anyone’s guess. Erdogan the politician made peace with the Kurds, established a good neighbor policy regionally and lifted tens of millions of Turks out of poverty.

 

But Erdogan the autocrat pulled his country into a senseless war with the Kurds and Syria, distorted the economy to build an election juggernaut, jailed political opponents and turned Turkish democracy into one-man rule.

 

If the local elections were a sobering lesson for Erdogan, they should also be a wakeup call for the mainstream Turkish opposition. The only reason the CHP now runs Turkey’s major cities is because the Kurdish HDP took a deep breath and voted for the Party’s candidates. That must not have been easy. The CHP was largely silent when Erdogan launched his war on the Kurds in 2015 and voted with the AKP to remove parliamentary immunity for HDP members. That allowed the Turkish President to imprison 16 HDP parliamentarians, remove HDP mayors, and smash up Kurdish cities.

 

The Kurds demonstrated enormous political sophistication in the recent Turkish balloting, but they will not be patient forever. Erdogan can be challenged, but—as the election demonstrated—only by a united front of center-left and left parties. That will require the CHP alliance to find a political solution to the demands of the Kurds for rights and autonomy.

 

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Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Dispatches From The Edge

April 8, 2019

 

 

The recent decision by the Hague-based International Court of Justice that the Chagos Islands—with its huge US military base at Diego Garcia—are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom (UK) has the potential to upend the strategic plans of a dozen regional capitals, ranging from Beijing to Riyadh.

 

For a tiny speck of land measuring only 38 miles in length, Diego Garcia casts a long shadow. Sometimes called Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” planes and warships based on the island played an essential role in the first and second Gulf wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Libya. Its strategic location between Africa and Indonesia and 1,000 miles south of India, gives the US access to the Middle East, Central and South Asia and the vast Indian Ocean. No oil tanker, no warship, no aircraft can move without its knowledge.

 

Most Americans have never heard of Diego Garcia for a good reason: no journalist has been allowed there for more than 30 years and the Pentagon keeps the base wrapped in a cocoon of national security. Indeed, the UK leased the base to the Americans in 1966 without informing either the British Parliament or the US Congress.

 

The Feb. 25 Court decision has put a dent in all that by deciding that Great Britain violated United Nations Resolution 1514 prohibiting the division of colonies before independence. The UK broke the Chagos Islands off from Mauritius, a former colony on the southeast coast of Africa that Britain decolonized in 1968. At the time, Mauritius objected, reluctantly agreeing only after Britain threatened to withdraw its offer of independence.

 

The Court ruled 13-1 that the UK had engaged in a “wrongful act” and must decolonize the Chagos “as rapidly as possible.”

 

While the ruling is only “advisory,” it comes at a time when the US and its allies are confronting or sanctioning countries for supposedly illegal occupations—Russia in the Crimea and China in the South China Sea.

 

The suit was brought by Mauritius and some of the 1500 Chagos islanders, who were forcibly removed from the archipelago in 1973. The Americans, calling it “sanitizing” the islands, moved the Chagossians more than 1,000 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they have languished in poverty ever since.

 

Diego Garcia is the lynchpin for US strategy in the region. With its enormous runways, it can handle B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and huge C-5M, C-17 and C-130 military cargo planes. The lagoon has been transformed into a naval harbor that can handle an aircraft carrier. The US has built a city—replete with fast food outlets, bars, golf courses and bowling alleys—that hosts some 3,000 to 5,000 military personal and civilian contractors.

 

What you can’t find are any native Chagossians.

 

The Indian Ocean has become a major theater of competition between India, the US, and Japan on one side, and the growing presence of China on the other. Tensions have flared between India and China over the Maldives and Sri Lanka, specifically China’s efforts to use ports on those island nations. India recently joined with Japan and the US in a war game—Malabar 18—that modeled shutting down the strategic Malacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia, through which some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass each year.

 

A portion of the exercise involved anti-submarine warfare aimed at detecting Chinese submarines moving from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. To Beijing, those submarines are essential for protecting the ring of Chinese-friendly ports that run from southern China to Port Sudan on the east coast of Africa. Much of China’s oil and gas supplies are vulnerable, because they transit the narrow Mandeb Strait that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz that oversees access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The US 5th Fleet controls both straits.

 

Tensions in the region have increased since the Trump administration shifted the focus of US national security from terrorism to “major power competition”—that is, China and Russia. The US accuses China of muscling its way into the Indian Ocean by taking over ports, like Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan that are capable of hosting Chinese warships.

 

India, which has its own issues with China dating back to their 1962 border war, is ramping up its anti-submarine forces and building up its deep-water navy. New Delhi also recently added a long-range Agni-V missile that is designed to strike deep into China, and the rightwing government of Narendra Modi is increasingly chummy with the American military. The Americans even changed their regional military organization from “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in deference to New Delhi.

 

The term for these Chinese friendly ports—“string of pearls”—was coined by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. China is indeed trying to secure its energy supplies and also sees the ports as part of its worldwide Road and Belt Initiative trade strategy. But assuming the “pearls” have a military role, akin to 19th century colonial coaling stations, is a stretch. Most the ports would be indefensible if a war broke out.

 

Diego Garcia is central to the US’s war in Somalia, its air attacks in Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Persian Gulf, and would be essential in any conflict with Iran. If the current hostility by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US toward Iran actually translates into war, the island will quite literally be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

 

Given the strategic centrality of Diego Garcia, it is hard to imagine the US giving it up, or, rather, the British withdrawing their agreement with Washington and de-colonizing the Chagos Islands. In 2016, London extended the Americans’ lease for 20 years.

 

Mauritius wants the Chagos back, but at this point doesn’t object to the base. It certainly wants a bigger rent check and the right eventually to take the island group back. It also wants more control over what goes on at Diego Garcia. For instance, the British government admitted that the Americans were using the island to transit “extraordinary renditions,” people seized during the Afghan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2003, many of whom were tortured. Torture is a violation of international law.

 

As for the Chagossians, they want to go back.

 

Diego Garcia is immensely important for US military and intelligence operations in the region, but it is just one of some 800 American military bases on every continent except Antarctica. Those bases form a worldwide network that allows the US military to deploy advisors and Special Forces in some 177 countries across the globe. Those forces create tensions that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

 

For instance there are currently US military personal in virtually every country surrounding Russia: Norway, Poland, Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Added to that is the Mediterranean’s 6th Fleet, which regularly sends warships into the Black Sea.

 

Much the same can be said for China. US military forces are deployed in South Korea, Japan and Australia, plus numerous islands in the Pacific. The American 7th fleet, based in Hawaii and Yokohama, is the Navy’s largest.

 

In late March, US Navy and Coast Guard ships transited the Taiwan Straits, which, while international waters, the Chinese consider an unnecessary provocation. British ships have also sailed close to Chinese-occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

 

The fight to de-colonize the Chagos Islands will now move to the UN General Assembly. In the end, Britain may ignore the General Assembly and the Court, but it will be hard pressed to make a credible case for doing so. How Great Britain can argue for international law in the Crimea and South China Sea, while ignoring the International Court of Justice on the Chagos, will require some fancy footwork.

 

In the meantime, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravard Jugnauth calls the Court decision “historic,” and one that will eventually allow the 6,000 native Chagossians and their descendents “to return home”

 

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