Lebanon struggles to escape Middle East turmoil

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Lebanon has been without a President since May 2014, and is increasingly under strain from the conflict in neighbouring Syria. (Image Source: Wikipedia, craigfinlay)

Amidst the chaos of its surrounding region, Lebanon has been an anchor of relative stability in the Middle East over the past few years. However, recent developments suggest the upheaval is finally beginning to take its toll on a state which is showing increasing signs of fragility under the strain of overwhelming internal and external pressures. The devastating civil war in neighbouring Syria has worsened the existing political deadlock in Lebanon, which has left the country of 4.5 million people without a President for more than two years. More worrying than the lack of an elected government figurehead, is that the political vacuum is leading to economic stagnation, and contributing to a rise in sectarian tensions 26 years after the end of Lebanon’s own civil war.

The current political situation has been steadily worsening since President Suleiman’s term in office came to an end in May 2014. Since then, political paralysis has gripped the country as Lebanon’s power-brokers have failed to reach consensus or find a way forward. In a nation of more than 18 predominant religious groups, it may come as little surprise that a collective agreement has been difficult to reach. The political system put in place in Lebanon after the end of the civil war is based on the principle of power-sharing, and dictates that the President must be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, whilst the Parliament Speaker must be Shia.

Sectarian divisions have played a prominent role in the political stagnation, with the parliament being unable to elect a president – despite attempting to do so on more than 40 occasions – primarily due to resistance from Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanese politics. To fill the void, Prime Minister Tammam Salam has operated as the country’s de-facto leader for the last two years, taking up the role of ‘Acting President’ whilst the current situation remains unresolved. Over that period, Lebanon’s infrastructure and public services have rapidly deteriorated, with the government unable to provide basic services such as refuge collection for 6 months up until March this year. Economic activity has also suffered greatly: exports have decreased, whilst national debt and the government deficit have risen sharply, with the situation unlikely to improve as long as there remains no new national election on the horizon.

The current crisis is not just a result of divisions within the current legislature, but also a product of Lebanon’s complex historical domestic politics and the wider regional context. For decades, Lebanon has been viewed as the site of a ‘proxy war’ between two regional powerhouses: Saudi Arabia (which along with the other Gulf States, has been a supporter of Lebanon’s Sunni political movement); and Iran (a supporter of Hezbollah and the wider Shia population). Whilst this divide has long been a feature of Lebanon’s domestic politics, tensions were heightened significantly after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a bomb attack in the capital, Beirut, which has repeatedly been blamed on Hezbollah.

Hariri’s death led to mass street demonstrations across Lebanon which became known as the ‘Cedar Revolution’. The protests resulted in the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory, and the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. In the immediate aftermath, Lebanon’s political parties effectively split into two competing camps: the 8th March Coalition, which is largely Shia and pro-Iranian; and the 14th March Coalition, which is predominantly Sunni and has the support of Saudi Arabia. The upheaval after Hariri’s death retains a lasting legacy today, visible in the partial polarization of Lebanese society and the division which still characterizes its domestic politics.

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Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut on 14th February 2005 – his death had a lasting impact on the country’s politics. (Image Source: Wikipedia, st1ke)

The ongoing five-year-old civil war in neighbouring Syria has further complicated the situation. Hezbollah – which can be labelled as both a political party and militant organization, and is also designated as a terrorist group by the United States – has become deeply involved in the conflict, supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More than 1,200 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict, including their commander Mustafa Badreddine who was killed in an explosion in Damascus earlier this year. Hezbollah’s involvement, along with Russian air support for the Assad regime, may have helped push the threat from ISIS further away from Lebanon’s border; however there have also been negative consequences in the form of retaliatory terrorist attacks on Lebanon’s soil. The deadliest atrocity came on 12th November 2015, when ISIS launched a double suicide bomb attack in Beirut, killing 43 civilians and injuring more than 200 people.

Lebanon is also struggling to cope with the unprecedented number of refugees crossing its borders. In addition to 500,000 Palestinian refugees, an additional 1.6 million refugees from Syria have streamed across the border over the last five years, fleeing the violence of ISIS and numerous other militant groups. The overwhelming number of new arrivals – which now make-up more than 1/3 of Lebanon’s total population – has put significant strain on Lebanon’s crippling infrastructure, whilst adding to the existing problems of high unemployment, poverty and limited service provision. Amidst division in Europe over how to handle the refugee crisis, Lebanon, along with Jordan, is struggling under the burden of accommodating the highest per-capita concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.

In light of the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years – particularly in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Egypt – Lebanon has served as an example of stability and relative peace. Despite the recent strain from unprecedented internal and external pressures, Lebanon is still remarkably managing to hold itself together as a functioning sovereign state, amidst nations which appear to be splintering into pieces. However, facing the pressures of an expanded population and sectarian divisions whilst still experiencing continuing political deadlock, the country may not be able to cope for much longer. The United Nations Security Council recently expressed concerns over the ‘’security, economic, social and humanitarian challenges’’ facing Lebanon, and called on all Lebanese political leaders to put ‘’stability and national interests ahead of partisan politics.’’ If the political impasse can soon be ended and a new President put in place to unite the country, there remains a chance for Lebanon to avoid the large-scale violence which has engulfed its neighbours, and continue to serve as an example of stability and pluralism at the heart of the Middle East.

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DRC: political instability threatens to re-ignite Africa’s deadliest war

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More than 6 million people have been killed in the DRC’s long-running conflict, with the most intense period of fighting taking place from 1998-2003. (Image Source: MONUSCO)

Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has experienced decades of almost continuous conflict. Africa’s largest country, with a burgeoning population of more than 79 million people, has arguably been the site of the deadliest war in the post-WW2 era: a brutal conflict which has taken place beyond the view of the western news media; remaining far from the eyes of western publics and politicians. Despite more than 6 million civilians killed and millions more displaced, the neglect of the DRC’s devastation has been striking: there have been few front-page headlines, and even fewer calls for intervention in a country deemed strategically unimportant to western powers.

Since the most deadly period of the conflict ended with a peace agreement in 2003, low-intensity violence has continued in the East of the country largely un-noticed by the outside world, barring a few brief moments of heightened publicity such as the ‘Kony 2012’ social media campaign, and after the 2013 military defeat of the notorious M23 rebel group. At present, the risk of escalation and a return to full-scale conflict is higher than at any time in recent memory, as the country is fast becoming engulfed in political instability.

The renewed fears of violence come amid concerns that President Joseph Kabila, who has won two previous elections and been in office since 2001, is attempting to cling to power despite a two-term constitutional limit on the length of time a president can serve. In May, opposition leader Moise Katumbi was charged with plotting a coup against the incumbent regime, just hours after he declared his intention to run as a candidate in November’s presidential election.

The situation is creating an increasingly hostile political environment within the country, with critics accusing President Kabila of seeking to delay the vote in an attempt to remain in power whilst the constitution is amended. National Assembly member Olivier Kamitatu Etsu has accessed Kabila of ‘’deliberately sabotaging the electoral process’’. However the President has consistently denied this, with the DRC’s Ambassador to the United States, Francois Balumuene, stating that Kabila remains committed to holding free and fair elections. In May, the country’s highest court ruled that Kabila should stay in power until elections are held, and the government has claimed that the poll is simply being delayed whilst logistical issues are resolved and the electoral register is updated. The division amongst the political elite is already causing tensions amongst the general population, leading to fears of renewed violence based on political affiliation. There were reports of clashes between police and Katumbi supporters at several of his rallies earlier this year, with tear gas being fired on at least one occasion.

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President Joseph Kabila has been accused of seeking to change the country’s constitution, which would prevent him from seeking a third term in power. (Image Source: MONUSCO)

The current political environment is especially concerning when considering the DRC’s continuing violence and perpetual climate of instability. An estimated 70 armed groups are believed to be currently active in the East of the country, despite the presence of 19,000 UN peacekeepers. In particular, the stronger armed groups such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) continue to terrorize civilians and retain control of rural areas characterized by weak state presence. Millions of civilians have been forced to flee the violence: the UN estimates that there are currently 2.7 million people internally displaced, along with another 450,000 refugees who now reside in neighbouring countries.

The violence in the East of the country is worsening, as armed groups increase in number 13 years on from the end of the ‘Second Congo War’ which lasted from 1998-2003. During the main stage of the conflict, Congolese government forces backed by troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fought rebels supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Five million people were killed during this period alone, until a peace deal was signed in 2003 and a transitional government ushered in. Despite these developments, the war-ravaged country has been plagued by frail governance, weak institutional presence, pervasive corruption and widespread absence of the rule of law. The government did achieve a notable success in 2013, when the largest rebel group M23 was defeated and removed from a key provincial capital, Goma. However, the many remaining rebel groups have splintered further, leading to a more complex situation and a climate of lawlessness in which ordinary civilians have been subjected to rape, sexual violence, extreme poverty and horrific human rights violations.

In hindsight, 2003 offered only a brief flicker of hope for a country reeling from decades of war. The Democratic Republic of Congo has since descended into further chaos: it has resisted all internal and external efforts to set it on a path towards peace, and has become an increasingly complex web of inter-related and over-lapping local conflicts. Remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) persist in some parts of the country, whilst Bakata separatists operate in Katanga province; numerous other rebel groups are active in Maniema and Nyunzu. The extensive number of armed groups adds to an increasingly complex and volatile picture of a country which even after billions of dollars in development aid and the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history, remains incapable of providing even the most basic requirement for citizens of a functioning sovereign state: security. A combination of impunity and continuing economic stagnation, have led to the emergence of yet more armed groups, making the DRC an increasingly fragmented and ungovernable space.

Whilst western attention has remained almost exclusively focused on the civil war in Syria – where over 250,000 civilians have been killed during five years of devastation – the victims of the DRC’s long-running conflict have been comparably neglected when considering the scope of the violence: decades of upheaval with more than 6 million people killed, and hundreds-of-thousands more raped, tortured and maimed. In addition, the DRC remains one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked at 176 on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). Since the war officially ended in 2003, starvation and disease have claimed millions more lives, whilst living standards and health provision have plummeted in many communities still trapped in cycles of violence.

Some analysts contend that the conflict in the DRC is ‘too complicated’ to be taken-up by mainstream news organizations and presented to western audiences, with a distinct lack of the simple ‘good vs evil’ narrative which is often prevalent in western news reporting. For example, in the DRC there is no single ‘aggressor’ to whom blame can be predominantly assigned, such as was the case with Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. However, given the sheer scale of violence in the DRC, there must also be alternative underlying factors which account for the distinct lack of media coverage: for example, sub-Saharan Africa is viewed as being of little strategic importance to the west, whilst stereotypical assumptions of Africa as a space of uncivilized barbarism remain prevalent in many dominant discourses, leading to the complex roots of diverse conflicts across an entire continent being downplayed and under-examined.

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The UN estimates that there are 2.7 million people currently displaced in the DRC, in addition to 450,000 refugees who now reside beyond its borders (Image Source: Julien Harneis)

This continued media invisibility is especially concerning given the most recent developments in the DRC. Firstly, presidential candidate Moise Katumbi was sentenced in June to 3 years in prison on charges which the opposition contends were fabricated and politically-motivated. Secondly, despite renewed calls for dialogue between political parties to ensure a peaceful electoral process, President Kabila has refused to say if he will step-down (as is constitutionally required), and is yet to confirm that the general election will go ahead as scheduled in November.

The main concern amongst observers is that if the current political instability worsens, the complex web of local conflicts in the DRC could be set to rapidly intensify, leading to violence on a nationwide scale in the event of an election-related crisis. This worst-case scenario has not yet materialized and may still be avoided; however if a wave of political violence does spread across the country, Africa’s deadliest civil war could re-emerge to inflict mass suffering on civilians, whose predicament will again remain largely invisible to an outside world focused on developments elsewhere.

Sinai Peninsula: tracing the roots of Egypt’s Islamist Insurgency

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Sinai militants claimed responsibility for the October 2015 bombing of Metrojet flight 9268, killing 224 people (Image Source: Flickr, Irish Typepad)

When Metrojet flight 9268 was blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in October last year, the world was alerted to the creeping Islamist insurgency in Egypt’s remote north-eastern corner.  In the seven months since the deadly bombing in which 224 people lost their lives, the IS-affiliated militant group which claimed responsibility for the attack – Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) – has further enhanced their ambitions and capabilities, prompting greater attention from concerned international observers. The rapid growth of the group, which now has an estimated 1,500 fighters and access to more sophisticated weaponry, signals the latest development in an increasingly worrying regional picture, in which conflicts are spiralling out of control and jihadist ideology is spreading to unstable areas. Whilst Islamic State (IS) have recently lost ground in their strongholds of Syria and Iraq, their affiliate branches in Libya and Egypt continue to grow in strength, with Sinai in particular being targeted as a new base in recent IS propaganda videos – signalling a potential shift in focus towards North Africa.

However, despite recent developments, the presence of militants in the Sinai Peninsula is nothing new. The region has a long and troubled history of instability and jihadist violence, which can be traced back through time to uncover how Wilayat Sinai has been able to establish itself as an emerging IS stronghold, at the crossroads of North Africa and the Middle East.

The current developments must be placed firstly within the Sinai’s geographical context: as a remote desert area, it is far from the control of the central government in Cairo, and has long been characterized by weak state presence and a climate of lawlessness. Secondly, it must be placed within a firm historical context: as a slice of territory located at the heart of one of the world’s most volatile and unstable regions, which has been fought over for decades.

In 1967, the Sinai Peninsula was captured by Israel during the six-day war, and was held until the Camp David Accords in 1978 led to a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, facilitating the eventual withdrawal of Israeli forces by 1982. In their place, a peacekeeping force made up of troops from 12 countries became permanently positioned in the area. Known as the ‘Multinational Force and Observers’, the role of the mission was to monitor the terms of the treaty and ensure that peace prevailed. A period of relative stability followed, during which Egypt’s former strongman president Hosni Mubarak oversaw the region’s transformation throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, with coastal towns such as Sharm el-Sheikh becoming popular holiday destinations for western travellers, as the tourist industry boomed and revitalized the flagging local economy.

Despite these economic successes along the coast, many of the indigenous Bedouin people of the Sinai felt isolated from the rest of the country: marginalized from the political process, denied access to the region’s natural resources, and excluded from the economic benefits of the thriving tourism industry. Whilst the coastal tourist resorts were made to feel safe for western visitors through the maintenance of a high security presence, the areas of Sinai to the north became increasingly unstable and lawless: smuggling routes flourished as state presence remained weak, with weapons being transported in tunnels under the border from the neighbouring Gaza Strip.

In the 1990’s, the area became a breeding ground for terrorists: individuals would travel to the Sinai to receive combat and arms training, before carrying-out attacks in other parts of Egypt. A group which shared the violent ideology of Al-Qaeda – Tawhid wal-Jihad – soon emerged after several factions united under a larger movement, and came to prominence in the early 2000’s. By 2004, the Sinai was no-longer just a training ground, but the site of deadly incidents: the group conducted a suicide attack on the resort town of Taba, killing more than 30 people. The following year, larger-scale attacks followed, when 88 people were killed in a series of car bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh during July 2005. The attacks were unprecedented in scale: they spread fear through the coastal towns and decimated the tourist industry, shattering the livelihoods of many locals and drawing international condemnation.

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Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been a site of militant activity for decades. The IS-affiliated Sinai Province group has recently gained a foothold in the region (Image Source: CIA)

After the spate of attacks, the government of Hosni Mubarak cracked-down hard. Many of the militant group’s leaders were killed in gun battles with the security forces, whilst many more suspected terrorists were sentenced to jail. For the time being, the insurgency was supressed and the tourism industry recovered. However, the radical ideology of Tawhid wal-Jihad and Al-Qaeda did not disappear, and the groups served as an inspiration for future jihadism: many former members joined forces to form Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis – a group which would later transform into Sinai Province. The springboard which launched this new wave of terrorism was initiated in 2011: as the Arab Spring revolutions swept across the Middle East at lightening pace, the Sinai Peninsula experienced some of the most severe uprisings. It’s location in the far north-west of Egypt, led to an increasingly lawless scenario as the state did not possess the necessary resources to exercise full control; this fed into an atmosphere of instability and once-again made the Sinai a hotspot for terrorist recruitment.

Over the next five years, Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis became the most active and dangerous insurgent group in Egypt, carrying out regular attacks in northern Sinai, and even some in the capital, Cairo. In November 2014, the militant organization changed its name to Sinai Province and pledged allegiance to IS, stating a desire to be governed as part of a proposed caliphate extending across the Middle East and North Africa. From this point onwards, attacks increased in scale and complexity, signalling closer co-operation with IS leadership and the possession of more advanced weaponry. The Egyptian army has been the primary target of attacks, particularly since the removal of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. In January 2014 the group shot down an Egyptian military helicopter in an audacious attack with a ground-launched missile, likely to have been smuggled from Libya; this came just one month after a large-scale attack on a security compound in the northern town of Dakahliya, in which 15 people were killed and more than 100 injured.

The military-led government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi placed the region under a ‘State of Emergency’ in October 2014, after 33 security personnel were killed in an attack claimed by the group. At the border with the Gaza Strip, the authorities effectively created a ‘buffer zone’ in an attempt to prevent the smuggling of weapons, through demolishing houses and digging a trench to make access to the border more difficult. In September last year, the government announced a large-scale campaign to crack-down on the insurgency, targeting buildings in the towns of Rafah, Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. However, attacks have continued, with suicide bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations becoming a regular occurrence. There have been unverified reports that the group has targeted Egyptian naval vessels in the Mediterranean, with missiles fired from the shore. If Sinai Province does indeed possess this capability, it would be an especially worrying development given the central importance of the region to commercial shipping. The October 2015 downing of the Metrojet flight was the largest signal yet of the group’s intent; an attack for which it claimed responsibility, and indicated was in retaliation for Russian airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria. The same month, smaller-scale attacks were carried out at sensitive tourist sites, near the Pyramids at Giza and the Karnak Temple in Luxor, indicating the intention of Sinai Province to spread fear, damage the tourist industry, and inflict the maximum level of harm upon President Sisi’s government.

The pervasiveness and tactical adaptability of Sinai Province in the face the recent military crackdown, is an especially worrying development for Egypt’s security officials and outside observers. The presence of IS in the Sinai Peninsula is becoming an increasing concern, especially after IS recently launched an extensive media and propaganda campaign, aimed at increasing recruitment in Egypt. In the wider context, the main concern from the international community is that IS attempting a deliberate reorientation towards North Africa, as its territory in Syria and Iraq comes under increasing pressure. There is significant evidence to support this claim: Sinai Province appears to be increasing its recruitment and growing in strength; Libya has long been courted as a ‘second base’ for the jihadists, following the upheaval and chaos which followed the removal of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011; whilst Tunisia is the leading source of foreign fighters to IS, and has itself been the site of devastating terrorist attacks in the capital Tunis and the beach resort of Sousse.

Overall, the emergence of Sinai Province serves as a painful reminder that ISIS is no-longer confined within the borders of Syria and Iraq. Its ideology and violent tactics have the potential to take root in numerous areas across the Middle East, with similar characteristics to the Sinai Peninsula: areas with a troubled history of instability, marginalization and weak state presence; providing the ideal conditions for terrorism to flourish.

A version of this article was also published on International Policy Digest

Challenges to sustainable democracy in Myanmar: internal conflicts and human rights abuses

When Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide election victory in November 2015, the international community celebrated with a sense of optimism. The election of Myanmar’s first civilian-led government in decades signalled the end of authoritarian rule, and ushered in a hopeful new era of democracy. However, with the new parliament still in its infancy, there is a growing realisation of the huge challenges which face Myanmar’s leaders. They must now turn their attention to tackling a legacy of complex ethnic conflicts and human rights abuses, which have harmed the country’s population, economy and international reputation for decades.

Myanmar’s multiple, complex and on-going internal conflicts remain a significant barrier to achieving national unity, and pose a serious threat to the stability of the democratization process. Parts of the country have endured war-like conditions for over 50 years as several regions have experienced fierce fighting between an array of ethnic armed groups and the military. These conflicts have centred on issues such as the control of territory, the desire for extended political rights and greater autonomy, along with gaining access to natural resources.

Prior to last year’s elections, the military-backed government announced a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as a means to end the fighting. However, this was viewed as a largely symbolic and superficial agreement which achieved only limited success. After almost two years of negotiations, only 8 out of more than 25 active armed groups signed the accord. Whilst one of Myanmar’s oldest rebel groups, the Karen National Union (KNU) did sign, many other powerful and influential groups refused. These include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). In the last four years, the UN estimates that over 100,000 people have been internally displaced within the conflict-troubled regions as fighting has intensified, adding to thousands more refugees who have crossed the borders into neighbouring Laos, Thailand and China.

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Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide majority in November’s parliamentary elections (Image Source: Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Whilst the violence has largely centred on ethnic tensions, there are also significant economic factors. Lack of access to Myanmar’s natural resources in poverty-stricken regions has fuelled inequalities and increased resentment against the ruling elite. For example, in Kachin state, large companies and government officials have reaped the benefits of huge profits from the multi-billion dollar jade trade, whilst the local population remains impoverished. In the last few years fighting has worsened in Kachin and Shan states, with reports of widespread killings, disappearances, rape and forced labour; whilst the government has continued to deny access to humanitarian groups and international observers.

Over the decades, regional tensions have routinely escalated into armed clashes between rebel groups and the military, culminating in a long-standing lack of trust between local populations and the government. This will make any future negotiation attempts more difficult. However, in light of the recent power shift, the NLD government has an opportunity to push-forward a renewed dialogue with disenfranchised groups. In particular, it is important for the NLD to engage with ethnic political parties which lost-out in November’s election, in order to show that minority groups will play an essential part in a more inclusive democratic process going forward.

Another long-standing issue is the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has suffered systematic persecution and discrimination for decades. In November’s elections, the Rohingya were denied voting rights after former military ruler Thein Sein revoked their ID cards, whilst most Muslim candidates were barred from standing for election to parliament. These strict measures highlight a concern that ethnic and religious minorities are deliberately being denied a voice in shaping Myanmar’s future, never mind representation in high office. These exclusionary measures followed years of violence after military operations began in 2012 in Rakhine state – home to an estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims. More than 150,000 Rohingyas have fled the country over the last four years, whilst approximately 143,000 others are confined to refugee camps along the border with Thailand.

The latest wave of violence has occurred alongside a worrying rise in religious intolerance, Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments which have appeared to be on the increase in recent years. This marks a further deterioration in the situation of the Rohingya, who have been formally deprived of citizenship since 1982, and continue to face severe restrictions on freedom of movement and access to healthcare, whilst experiencing limited education and employment opportunities. Whilst total figures are impossible to verify, there have been numerous reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and killings at the hands of the security forces.

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An estimated 150,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since 2012, where they have faced decades of discrimination and denial of full citizenship rights (Image Source: FCO)

A recent report by UK-based human rights group Amnesty International highlights numerous other areas of concern. Firstly, Myanmar still has thousands of political prisoners, after the military authorities have routinely arrested and imprisoned activists for peacefully exercising their rights. In March 2015, police violently dispersed a large student protest in the town of Letpadan, in the Bago region, resulting in more than 100 students being charged with criminal offences. In addition to the threat of imprisonment, activists also claim to have experienced continual harassment and intimidation from the security forces.

Secondly, freedom of expression has been under attack, with the previous government enacting a range of laws aimed at stifling dissent and preventing criticism. Many of the laws are vaguely-worded and open to interpretation, and have often been used to apprehend those intending to protest, through criminalizing activities such as ‘unlawful assembly’ and ‘incitement’. Human rights groups and journalists have also been subject to continual surveillance, intimidation and harassment by the authorities.

Thirdly, the report concludes that members of the security forces continue to violate human rights, with almost total impunity for their actions. Official investigations into abuses or corruption are extremely rare and have lacked basic levels of transparency; whilst victims continue to be denied the right to justice, truth and reparations. As a result of the continuing instability there are now around 230,000 internally displaced people in Myanmar, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). In addition, hundreds of thousands of refugees now reside outside of the country, reluctant to return in light of continuing militarization, persistent impunity, and the lack of economic prospects.

Despite the on-going conflicts and human rights abuses, it is clear that Myanmar has made huge strides in recent years – largely due to the efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, in addition to a gradual willingness from the military to introduce reforms. Yet it must be recognized that the country’s problems are decades-old and will not be resolved quickly or easily, despite growing international pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to take a tougher stance against human rights abuses. However, the new era of democracy does offer a renewed chance for engagement and dialogue between all parties, which could increase the chances of peace and reconciliation in a fractured society. The social and economic benefits of a lasting-peace would be huge, allowing the country to make significant progress in terms of development and economic growth. However, from a political perspective the rewards may be even greater: resolving Myanmar’s complex internal conflicts and ending decades of human rights abuses, could be the key to ensuring that a lasting, sustainable and inclusive democracy takes hold.

Nagorno-Karabakh: diplomacy stalls as decades-old conflict threatens to re-emerge

The fragile 22-year ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh was shattered at the beginning of April, as four days of intense fighting resulted in dozens of deaths on both sides. The recent clashes have led to a renewed fear that a conflict which has lay dormant at the crossroads of Europe and Asia for two decades, could be about to re-emerge.

The outbreak of violence has heightened existing tensions, which had been steadily worsening over the last few years. Attempts at negotiation have repeatedly failed, leaving peace talks virtually non-existent and the region in a state of uncertainty and fear.

In the most recent wave of violence, Azerbaijan said 16 servicemen were killed, whilst the Karabakh authorities said 20 of their troops had died, along with several civilian casualties. A new ceasefire was announced on 5th April, which has so-far held firm. However, the situation on the ground remains fragile; and given the region’s complex history, a lasting solution appears to be a distant prospect.

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The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been under the control of Armenian forces since the war ended with a truce in 1994 – (Image Source: Wikipedia)

The mountainous, land-locked region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of an unresolved territorial dispute between Azerbaijan (in which it is located) and its ethnic Armenian majority, supported by neighbouring Armenia. The conflict has its roots in the 19th Century when the area was part of the Russian Empire, and during which time there was fierce competition between Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkic influences in the region. The two groups lived alongside each other in relative peace until the end of World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, when the Soviets established Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region of Azerbaijan, but with an ethnic Armenian majority population.

Tensions increased gradually over the decades, eventually spilling over into large-scale violence following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, which resulted in Armenia and Azerbaijan becoming independent states. An all-out war ensued from 1992-1994, with fierce fighting over the territory leaving 30,000 people dead, and resulting in ethnic Armenians gaining control of the region. They also pushed into surrounding areas, occupying swathes of Azeri territory and effectively creating a ‘buffer zone’ linking the breakaway province to Armenia. During the war, more than 600,000 ethnic Azeris fled from Karabakh, whilst more than 300,000 ethnic Armenians who previously resided in Azerbaijan were displaced, and many have been unable to return home.

After a Russian-brokered truce was signed in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh was left as an enclave under Armenian control, but within the internationally-recognized sovereign state of Azerbaijan. Although Armenia has never officially recognized the region’s independence, it has naturally become its main financial and military backer. In the 22 years since the conflict ended, both sides have had soldiers killed in sporadic violations of the ceasefire. However until this year’s clashes – the most deadly since 1994 – a stalemate has largely prevailed, with both sides unwilling to compromise. The Azeri’s resent the loss of land viewed as ‘rightfully theirs’, whilst the ethnic Armenians continue to state their right to self-determination.

The truce left an inherently unstable and unsustainable situation on the ground: a ceasefire line which stretched across Azeri territory, with no international peacekeepers deployed to monitor the situation. These problems are further exacerbated by the memories of a traumatic war, which left the population mentally-scarred and fostered a legacy of hatred and animosity. In this toxic atmosphere, tensions have steadily increased beneath the surface, whilst the international community has lost interest – pre-occupied with conflicts elsewhere which are viewed as more strategically-important.

In recent years, Azerbaijan has used its Caspian Sea oil wealth to spend billions of dollars on advanced weaponry. At the same time, Armenia has strengthened its defence alliance with Moscow and bolstered its own military capacity. As a result of these developments, the ‘line of contact’ between the two sides has become one of outer Europe’s most heavily militarized zones, further increasing tensions and acting as a visible reminder that conflict could break-out at any moment.

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The war in Nagorno-Karabakh lasted from 1992-1994, leaving an estimated 30,000 killed and 900,000 displaced across Azerbaijan and Armenia (Image Source: Nicholas Babaian)

After the April skirmishes, Azerbaijan’s defence minister Zakir Hasanov said his troops were prepared to target the breakaway region’s capital, Stepanakert, if separatist forces continued to shell settlements. In response, the Karabakh authorities promised a ‘crushing response’ in the face of aggression. There is now a considerable prospect that more frequent low-intensity fighting could derail the already fragile peace process. The danger of escalation has been further heightened by militaristic propaganda, which has maintained the level of threat perception and hugely influenced public opinion over the last two decades.

In particular, the recent surge in violence has distracted the populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan from domestic issues and economic woes, contributing to a resurgence of nationalism in both countries. This has led to fears that emotions are again running high as past memories are being evoked, creating a mood for revenge in an already tense environment.

The wider geopolitical context also provides cause for concern. Some analysts believe there is potential for this largely regional dispute to escalate into a ‘proxy war’ between Russia and Turkey, whose relations have severely deteriorated since Turkey shot-down a Russian warplane over northern Syria in November 2015, after an accusation of violating Turkish airspace. Given the current animosity between these two large powers, their potentially opposing positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute are of significant concern. Russia has defence treaty obligations to Armenia, and would be required to defend it if attacked. Turkey has traditionally supported Azerbaijan and has recently issued a number of strong statements, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stating that Turkey will ‘’stand shoulder to shoulder with Azerbaijan’’, and will continue its support until ‘’all its lands are liberated’’.

Given the rapidly deteriorating scenario, there has been increased international pressure for renewed peace talks. However, previous attempts have proven remarkably difficult; which is unsurprising considering that Armenia and Azerbaijan have severely strained bi-lateral relations, with no formal diplomatic links. The latest attempt at peace negotiations, mediated by the Minsk Group, and initiated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), have seen little progress. The peace talks are stuck at their foundations, and remain limited to the basic objectives of avoiding all-out war and keeping the process alive. For years, momentum has been non-existent as both sides have remained far apart, unable to agree on either a basic agenda or timescale.

As clashes continue with greater severity and the region becomes more heavily militarized, a return to full-scale conflict edges dangerously closer. The risk of escalation is especially heightened in the absence of meaningful peace negotiations, which to be successful would require the involvement of all parties and significant compromise. The tragic fatalities from the clashes earlier this year serve as a reminder that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is far from dead, and highlight the enormous human consequences that would accompany a return to conflict. Despite the complexity of the situation and difficulties to be overcome, it is surely in the interests of all sides to begin a process of meaningful negotiations and seek an end to further bloodshed.

Yemen facing humanitarian crisis as war takes devastating toll on civilians

One year on from the start of a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels, launched by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, the air strikes continue as the increasingly complex war in Yemen shows little sign of ending. The impact on civilians has been huge: almost 6,000 have been killed, 2.5 million displaced from their homes, and almost 20 million people left without access to a regular food supply, safe drinking water or medical supplies. Whilst the world’s attention has been focussed on Syria, the destructive war in Yemen has left the country on the edge of ruin, and the population on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

The conflict has its origins in September 2014, when Houthi rebels based in the north of the country, launched an offensive against the government and seized control of the capital, Sanaa. The country’s President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was initially placed under house arrest, before fleeing across the border to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In the following months, the rebels quickly took control over almost all of western Yemen, whilst government forces retreated to the east. In the midst of the chaos, jihadist militant groups such as Al-Qaeda were also able to exploit the power vacuum and gain a foothold.

The Houthis, who constitute a minority of Yemen’s population, allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from power during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Saleh remained a powerful force in Yemeni politics, retaining the loyalty of a large portion of the security forces.

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Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, has been under the control of Houthi rebel forces since September 2014 (Image Source: Ferdinand Reus)

The major Gulf power, Saudi Arabia, looked on with increasing concern and interest as the conflict unfolded across its southern border. In March 2015, the Saudi defence minister Prince Salman quickly assembled a coalition of Arab air forces, including the UAE and Bahrain, and began a campaign of air strikes against the rebels on 26th March. Initially, the alliance hoped that their overwhelming firepower would turn the tide of the conflict within a few months; yet 12 months later, little progress has been made and civilian casualties are mounting.

Over the past 12 months Saudi Arabia has been increasingly involved, training and equipping forces loyal to President Hadi in an attempt to confront the rebels on the ground. Law and order has collapsed, leaving the country in a state of chronic disintegration with no central authority. In the East, the conflict has gained a new layer of complexity as armed militias and violent jihadist groups have emerged to play a more prominent role.

There is now growing international opposition to the bombing campaign, with the EU Parliament recently voting to call for the imposition of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. However, not all world powers share this view, as the US and the UK have continued to supply aircraft and weapons to their long-standing regional ally Saudi Arabia, including precision-guided missiles which have been used in the air campaign.

Whilst numerous human rights groups have argued that civilians represent the majority of casualties from air-strikes, the Arab coalition has said that its targets are chosen carefully, and continue to insist that they abide strictly to international rules on the conduct of war. Several previous attempts at peace talks in Switzerland have failed, but a new round of talks is due to be held in Kuwait in the coming weeks, initiating a renewed attempt to find a solution. However, as the war has become increasingly complex and more international actors have become involved, a peace deal any time soon is looking unlikely.

To understand the complexity of the conflict, it is important to look at the wider strategic context. The division between Sunni and Shia Muslims has long been a source of tension in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia (the most powerful Sunni state) sharing an intense and long-standing rivalry with Iran (the most powerful Shia state). The Houthi rebels in Yemen are also Shia, and are backed by Iran. In this context, the conflict in Yemen can be viewed as a sectarian, proxy war between the two regional rivals, with Saudi Arabia reluctant to allow one of its neighbours to be controlled by a Shia-led government, and determined to maintain its dominant influence in the Arabian Peninsula.

These tensions have flared up more visibly in recent years as the Middle East has entered a period of upheaval, and Iran has re-entered the international community after signing a nuclear deal with the West. As a result of these two factors, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increased dramatically, with both states looking to increase their control and influence over the region, driven by a sense of paranoia and opportunity. In particular, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become more assertive and outward-looking since King Salman replaced King Abdullah in January 2015, revoking the country’s traditional diplomatic stance in favour of a more confrontational and active approach.

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A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been conducting air strikes against Houthi rebels since March 2015 (Image Source: Ibrahem Qasim)

As this geopolitical game has extended its influence to Yemen over the last 18 months, it is civilians who suffer the worst consequences. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world before the conflict began, plagued by years of instability, poor governance and widespread poverty. Even prior to the conflict, 50% of Yemen’s population lived below the poverty line, whilst the youth unemployment rate was over 60%. Now, after 18 months of fighting, the humanitarian situation has ‘severely deteriorated’, according to the UN’s Human Rights Co-ordinator Johannes van der Klaauw. Since the conflict escalated in March last year, the UN estimates that 5,878 civilians have been killed and up to 30,000 wounded. The country’s infrastructure has been almost completely destroyed, and basic services have ground to a halt.

Both sides in the war have been accused of committing serious abuses, many of which amount to war crimes. Human rights groups have accused the Saudi-led coalition of using cluster bombs, and targeting homes, hospitals and factories. The Houthi rebels have also been accused of shelling residential areas and laying mines; whilst the UNHCR said in November last year, that it has verified more than 8000 reports of human rights violations since the conflict began.

Further exacerbating the effect on civilians, the Saudi-led coalition has imposed crippling import restrictions and a naval embargo on the country, resulting in severe food and fuel shortages. According to a UN report, 21 million out of Yemen’s 26 million population now require humanitarian aid, whilst 19.3 million are without access to safe drinking water, and 2 million people are ‘acutely malnourished’.  In addition, 14 million people lack basic healthcare due to the destruction of hospitals and a lack of supplies, whilst 1.8 million children have been unable to go to school. An estimated 120,000 people have fled the country, whilst those that do remain in Yemen, live under the fear of constant bombardment from aerial attacks and ground fighting. Humanitarian organizations attempting to work in the country have been severely hampered by funding difficulties and access constraints.

As each month passes, the situation for civilians in Yemen is becoming increasingly desperate. A solution looks to be a distant prospect, as the conflict continues largely un-noticed by an outside world focused on recent developments in Syria and Europe. Obscured from view, the war in Yemen shows little sign of ending, leaving its cities in ruin and its citizens on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Political crisis pushes Burundi to the brink of a second Civil War

Burundi is a state in turmoil: a political crisis accompanied by escalating levels of violence, is threatening to plunge the country into conflict – little more than ten years after the end of a devastating 12-year civil war which left 300,000 dead.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein, recently said that ‘’all the alarm signals – including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis – are flashing red’’ indicating that a ‘’complete breakdown of law and order, is just around the corner’’. President Obama has also expressed concerns, stating in November: ‘’from Burundi’s painful past, we know where this type of violence can lead. Leaders in Burundi have spewed hateful rhetoric, and terrible acts of violence have taken the lives of innocent men, women and children.’’

Since the turn of 2016 the situation has become far worse, as violence has continued almost un-noticed by the outside world. If the situation is not stabilized soon, Burundi’s unfolding crisis could quickly descend into a return to full-scale civil war.

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Burundi’s Civil War lasted for 12 years from 1993-2005, resulting in the deaths of more than 300,000 people (Image Source: AFRICOM)

The current crisis began in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third-term in office, in violation of the country’s constitution. In response, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest. Police responded by opening fire on the crowds, killing two people and wounding many others.

The violence has continued to spread and an attempted military coup was thwarted in May 2015, by which time more than 217,000 people had fled to the neighbouring states of Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Little has been done to bring the violence under control, with peace talks put on hold and the African Union (AU) opting not to send a peacekeeping force.

Over the past 10 months since the crisis began, the violence has escalated. Government forces have responded brutally in the face of opposition, launching a campaign of murder and intimidation in the neighbourhoods where the protests originated. An atmosphere of fear and impunity now prevails, as the independent media has effectively been shut-down, and human rights organizations have been forced out of the country.

According to the UN, at least 439 people have been killed in the conflict so far, whilst disappearances have become routine. The most widely-publicized act of violence to date occurred on 11th December, when security forces responded to an attack on military installations in the capital city Bujumbura, by executing at least 87 civilians within the space of just a few hours. The UN estimated that at least 130 people were killed in December, making it the deadliest month in the conflict so far.

There have been allegations of large-scale arrests and extra-judicial detentions in ‘secret prisons’, whilst there have also been accusations of torture and documented cases of sexual violence against women. Witnesses and satellite images have indicated the existence of at least nine mass graves, which have appeared in and around the capital in recent months.

When considering the historical context of violence in Burundi, the outlook for the current conflict looks increasingly dangerous. The previous civil war began in 1993, after the democratic election of President Melchior Ndadaye. President Ndadaya was ethnically Hutu; whereas previously the country’s political elite had been dominated by the minority Tutsi population. Just three months into his term, Ndadaya was assassinated, leading to a cycle of revenge attacks, after which the country became locked in a bitter, ethnic-based civil war.

The conflict ended in 2005 after 12 long years, which had resulted in 5% of the total population being killed, and thousands more displaced. A new era of democracy was ushered in with the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. Crucial to Burundi’s future stability and integration of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, the agreement recognized that the conflict was caused by ‘’a struggle by the political class to accede and/or remain in power’’, as opposed to being a result of ethnic hatreds.

The new constitution outlined a power-sharing structure and set a strict two-term limit for presidents. It was president Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third-term, in opposition to the constitutional limit, which initiated the current political crisis and ensuing wave of violence.

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President Pierre Nkurunziza’s run for a third-term in office, sparked Burundi’s political crisis which began in April 2015 (Image Source: World Economic Forum)

So far, the opposition movement has remained largely united across ethnic lines. However, this situation is dangerously at risk of fracture – a development which would almost certainly result in a rapid descent towards civil war. The government has been accused of playing the ‘ethnic card’, demonising communities and attempting to divide the population for their own political advantage.

The UN Special Advisor on Genocide, Amada Dieng, has spoken of this worrying trend, suggesting: ‘’we can observe today in Burundi, a clear manipulation of ethnicity by both the government and opposition. We know that ethnicity can be used to divide populations and spread hatred among them, which can have tragic consequences.’’

This worrying development, evidenced by the direct targeting of Tutsis by the security forces and more divisive government rhetoric, is a sign that the conflict is beginning to take on a distinctly ethnic dimension.

Some analysts have highlighted parallels between Burundi today, and neighbouring Rwanda in the build-up to its 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed. Others have argued that the current crisis has so far remained predominantly political in nature, and has not yet divided the population along ethnic lines.

However, in a country plagued by past conflict, and with its political leaders seemingly willing to incite hatred and stir-up existing divisions, there are growing signs that Burundi – a country which has enjoyed relative peace, stability and progress over the last 10 years – has been set on a rapidly deteriorating trajectory by its political elite, leaving ordinary citizens fearful of a return to civil war.

Western Sahara: An independence struggle frozen in time and forgotten by the world

The Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara are split off from the rest of civilization by a 2,700km wall stretching across the desert: a stark physical reminder of an independence struggle which remains unresolved after 40 years. In the four decades since Moroccan troops entered and occupied the remote territory in 1975, the resulting conflict and struggle for independence has barely been reported, and has largely been overlooked by the international community.

This ‘media invisibility’ is in stark contrast to coverage of other situations where a population has been divided: such as the Cold War separation of East and West Germany, and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Even on the rare occasions when the territory does make the news, there is often a lack of background context to the dispute, which dates back to the end of the colonial era.

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Western Sahara has been a disputed territory for more than 40 years, with its ambitions for independence still unrealised (Image Source: Jaysen Naidoo)

What is today known as Western Sahara, was a former Spanish Colony up until the 1975 ‘Madrid Agreement’, in which Spain agreed to end colonial rule, and control of the area was passed on to Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritanian troops soon withdrew, and Morocco annexed the territory. These events were followed by a 14-year guerrilla war between Moroccan troops and the Polisario Front – a group fighting against the perceived occupation, operating from neighbouring Algeria.

To counter the rebel movement, Morocco built a 2,700km wall in the 1980’s to separate the troubled territory from the rest of the country. The wall remains in place today, manned by an estimated 120,000 Moroccan soldiers and surrounded by thousands of landmines which have wounded more than 2,500 people over the last four decades. The heavily-militarized wall remains in position despite the fact that the conflict officially ended in 1991, after a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement was signed by both sides.

In the years immediately after the violence ended, the outlook began to look more positive: the UN set up a Peacekeeping Mission in 1992, known as the ‘UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara’. The aim of the mission was to give the Sahrawi people a vote on self-determination; yet 25 years later this has still not materialized, and the political situation remains deadlocked.

The lack of any meaningful progress is a cause of increasing frustration amongst the native people of Western Sahara, with more than 155,000 of them still living in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria after being displaced by the conflict. Morocco has continually rejected independence as an option, and has been accused over the years of abusing human rights and using excessive force against protestors. For example, several people were killed when security forces broke up a pro-independence demonstration, at a protest camp just outside the capital Laayoune in November 2010.

The Moroccan government has a different perspective on the situation, claiming that Morocco has rightful historical claims to the land. In support of this, the Almoravid Dynasty encompassed both of what is now present-day Morocco and Western Sahara, long before the Spanish colonial era began in 1884. In the current context however, continued control of the area gives the ruling Monarchy legitimacy in the view of many Moroccan citizens, whilst many envisage a path towards the eventual legal annexation of the territory.

A factor making independence an even more unlikely prospect is Morocco’s extensive control over economic activity in Western Sahara. The territory is rich in fisheries, phosphate and possibly offshore oil – whilst the Moroccan government has also spent billions of dollars on infrastructure development across the country. As a result of this ‘economic entrenchment’, many now argue that there is too much at stake for Morocco to consider allowing a referendum to take place: independence would mean that valuable economic gains would be wiped out, damaging Morocco’s position as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. Morocco’s economy has been growing at an annual rate of around 4.5% per year, whilst the country has developed strong relationships with Western governments, who also have an interest in Morocco’s continued political stability and economic progress.

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More than 155,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, and are living in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria (Image Source: European Commission)

Since the turn of the 21st Century, there have been several attempts to reach a peace agreement, which have all ended in failure. The key issue is the process of ‘identification’: effectively the problem of deciding who would be eligible to vote in a future referendum. In 2001, UN Special Envoy James Baker mediated peace talks, and submitted a framework agreement known as the ‘Third Way’. This proposed autonomy for the Sahrawi’s under Moroccan sovereignty, with a referendum taking place after a four-year transition period, in which Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara would also be entitled to vote.

Unsurprisingly, this proposal was rejected by Polisario and neighbouring Algeria, as the Sahrawi people remain resolutely committed to achieving full independence. Alternative proposals put forward by the Sahrawi people have been rejected by Morocco, who insist that Moroccan settlers residing in the territory should also be granted the right to vote. A lack of compromise from both sides has resulted in the political stalemate which persists today.

Whilst the situation remains stagnant, the frustrations of the Sahrawi population are increasing, and sentiments are again growing stronger. Several observers have predicted that if a way forward is not found soon, the violent conflict which ended in 1991 could soon re-ignite.

However, even if a referendum is held and Western Sahara does gain independence, the problems will not necessarily be resolved. Any new government of the self-proclaimed ‘Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’ would face huge challenges in ensuring that the state is economically viable. Either autonomous or independent, Western Sahara would still be heavily reliant on Morocco for trade, development and security for many years to come.

Given the decades of stalemate and continuing tensions, a solution which would suit both parties seems unrealistic, out-of-reach and almost impossible to achieve. However, the current situation is unsustainable: the longer it goes on, the greater the risk of Western Sahara returning to a state of conflict. To achieve a realistic settlement which advances the rights of the Sahrawi people whilst maintaining the political and economic stability of the area, compromise and dialogue is necessary on both sides of the wall.

Central African Republic disintegrates into a spiral of religious violence

The devastating conflict in the Central African Republic has been characterized by horrific human rights abuses: over the last three years, tens-of-thousands of civilians have been needlessly massacred – ruthlessly killed by torture, lynching, shooting and burning. What is equally as shocking, is that this violence has taken place beyond the gaze of the Western world: attracting only a minimal level of media coverage, and remaining low on the foreign policy agenda of western governments.

Not only has the international community failed to act, but it has also seemingly failed to even notice. More than half a century on from its independence in 1960, the Central African Republic has been forgotten and left to ruin: few people in the West are aware the conflict is taking place, and fewer still could locate the country on a map.

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Rwandan Soldiers have been part of the AU peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (Image Source: Defense Imagery)

Whilst the country has been plagued by instability throughout its existence, the current conflict began in March 2013, when an armed insurgency led by the Seleka (a coalition of armed Islamic groups) seized the capital Bangui, and staged a coup which forced President Franscois Bozize into exile. Its leader Michel Djotodia declared himself as the country’s leader – becoming the first Muslim president to rule the Christian-majority nation of 4.6 million people.

Since then, the country has disintegrated, descending into a spiral of violence along religious lines. In response to the coup, Christians have taken up arms in vigilante militias known as Anti-Balaka, launching wave after wave of revenge attacks against Muslim civilians. Over the past three years of conflict, society has become deeply divided and plagued by distrust and paranoia between Christians and Muslims, which has set into motion a spiral of unimaginable hatred, aggression and senseless violence. The Central African Republic is now embroiled in a complex civil war, and quickly sliding down the path towards genocide.

The majority of victims have been civilians, with horrific atrocities being committed across the country on a daily basis. Reports by human rights organizations and the UN, have accused both sides of ‘crimes against humanity’, whilst Amnesty International has described human rights violations on an ‘unprecedented scale’.

As this massacre takes place in the heart of Africa, the world continues to look the other way. Thousands of lives are being ended at the hands of militias – with numerous reports of throats being slit, people being bludgeoned to death and tortured, whilst beheadings and public executions have become a daily occurrence. More than 450, 000 people are now internally displaced within the country, whilst human rights groups have said that up to 3 million of the population are in ‘dire need’ of assistance.

In the wave of religious-fuelled retaliatory violence that has swept the country, many Muslim communities in the north-west have been wiped off the map. For example, in an Anti-Balaka attack on the town of Boyali in January 2014, 34 civilians were killed and 961 homes burned down on one day alone.

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More than 450,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, which began in March 2013 (Image Source: Defense Imagery)

After their initial gains at the start of the conflict, the Seleka have been on the retreat: their leader was forced from the office of the presidency in January 2014, being replaced by a transitional government led by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. In April of that year, the UN took over responsibility for the African Union peacekeeping mission in the country, deploying 12,000 troops with a mandate to protect civilians. Numerous attempts to bring a solution to the conflict have since failed, with both sides routinely violating ceasefire agreements.

Against a backdrop of state disintegration, deep inter-religious tensions and a lack of international support, the violence in the Central African Republic looks set to be for the long-term. The rushed organization of elections risks exacerbating the current situation, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) says that several ‘critical challenges’ must be addressed before any meaningful political process can begin. An ICG report on the conflict suggests that a comprehensive strategy must be put in place to disarm the population; whilst the transitional government must do all it can to promote unity, by stating clearly that both Muslims and Christians will have a role in the nation’s future. The security situation must also be dealt with: the killing can only be ended when the government and external actors have built up the necessary capacity to restrain armed groups and prevent violence against civilians. Only when these issues have been addressed, will a political process be able to take place.

Meanwhile, the ordinary people of the Central African Republic continue to suffer daily, almost invisible to the outside world. As is so often the case with conflicts in Africa, it has been largely ignored by the international community, rendered too far-removed and too insignificant to the geopolitical interests of western states to warrant much attention. If there is any chance for progress to be made, the Central African Republic can’t continue to be a ‘blind spot’ on the world political map.

Somalia’s recent progress remains under threat from Al-Shabaab

After being plagued by decades of conflict and the more-recent insurgency of militant group Al-Shabaab, Somalia has long been labelled as a failed state. However in recent years the situation has stabilized: Al-Shabaab militants have been pushed back, and much of the country is now under the control of a functioning legitimate central government – the first in Somalia for 25 years.

Since the landmark election of President Hassan Sheik Mohamud in September 2012, steady progress has led to an atmosphere of cautious optimism; with UN Envoy Augustine Mahiga describing an ‘’unprecedented opportunity for peace’’. However, Somalia’s new-found stability is fragile: the presence of Al-Shabaab is a continuing worry, whilst long-term challenges remain after 25 years of upheaval.

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The African Union has deployed more than 22,000 troops to Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab militants (Image Source: AMISOM)

Somalia first collapsed into anarchy in 1991, following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre. In the following decade, rival warlords tore the country apart in the absence of a legitimate central authority, leading to the deaths of more than 500,000 people as a result of war and famine.

In the 2000’s the violence took on a new dimension, with a coalition of Islamist Sharia Courts seizing the capital Mogadishu in 2006. This once-powerful group known as the ‘Union of Islamic Courts’, was quickly defeated by Ethiopian and African Union (AU) forces – however, this was not the end of Islamist insurgency in Somalia.

The group’s radical youth wing, Al-Shabaab, rose from the ashes to mount a sustained and bloody challenge to the Somali state. Al-Shabaab advocates the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam, and has imposed a strict version of Sharia Law in areas under its control: this has included the stoning to death of women accused of adultery, and amputating the hands of thieves.

Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and is estimated to have between 6000-7000 fighters. It initially made rapid territorial advances to control almost all of central and southern Somalia by 2010, including the capital Mogadishu.

However, this success was short-lived after the intervention of outside nations. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been working in the country since 2007, and was initially made up of a coalition of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sierra Leone. After making steady progress in pushing-back the militants, Kenyan troops joined in the effort to help force Al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu in August 2011, which was followed by their retreat from the crucial port-city of Kismayo in September 2012.

The US has also played a key role, providing $204 million in humanitarian assistance and launching drone strikes from its base in neighbouring Djibouti – one of which killed Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014.

Al-Shabaab is now severely weakened – it has been pushed out of many of the towns it once-controlled, and has retreated to its heartlands in the rural south. In August 2014 AMISOM made further progress after launching Operation Indian Ocean, which seized almost all of Al-Shabaab’s coastal territory and killed many of its key leaders. Somalia is now an example of how close regional co-operation can result in successful military outcomes: in stark contrast to the current regional divisions in the Middle East over the conflict in Syria.

The mood in Somalia is more optimistic than it has been in decades: it finally has a stable government and a legitimate president. Since the 2012 election of President Mohamud, the country’s economy has been re-energised and its banking sector re-established, the military has been built-up and the UN has ended its 21-year arms embargo. There has also been increased foreign investment, with Turkey helping to fund a new airport and hospital in Mogadishu.

Internal unity has also been strengthened, with the central government now controlling all of Somalia’s regions except for Somaliland: the far north-west region which has been autonomous since 1991. There is no doubt that the country is on an overall upward-trajectory: aside from the successes on land, piracy has declined and Mogadishu is now experiencing a small property boom.

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Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud has led the country since September 2012 (Image Source: AMISOM)

However, the militant threat still lingers beneath the surface. Al-Shabaab remains prominent in some rural areas, denying basic rights to citizens under its control, committing widespread sexual violence against women and carrying out public executions, whilst also restricting humanitarian access. It has also carried out deadly attacks in government-held areas, such as the February 2015 suicide car bomb targeting a UN convoy near Mogadishu Airport, which killed 6 civilians.

Worryingly, Al-Shabaab has extended its reach by launching over 150 terrorist attacks in neighbouring Kenya. The most deadly of these was the April 2015 massacre at Garissa University, in which 147 students were killed by gunmen. This followed the widely-publicized 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, in which at least 68 civilians were killed.

So despite the recent strides forward, Somalia still faces huge security challenges. Civilians continue to be killed and wounded: over 120,000 people have been displaced since the start of 2014, whilst the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project reported that 4,365 civilians were killed during 2015 alone. In Mogadishu, military checkpoints and roadblocks remain, whilst Al-Shabaab continues to carry out frequent gun and bomb attacks.

The humanitarian situation is also desperate: the UN says that over 1 million people face acute food insecurity, whilst living conditions in refugee camps are dire. Children in Somalia regularly die from preventable diseases such as malaria, whilst there is a lack of access to education and healthcare. And this is aside from the severe mental scars which must be present after more than two-decades of devastating conflict and suffering.

Looking to the future, the Somali government and its neighbours have the huge task ahead of re-building a state savaged by war, and facilitating sustainable economic development which could finally put an end to the cycle of violence. The country’s new political system has so-far been successful, yet is still unproven: the next key test of Somalia’s stability will be elections scheduled for later in 2016. The outlook remains positive, but a sense of perspective must be maintained, as future progress in Somalia is likely to be slow, difficult and fraught with setbacks.