73 Years of Israel: The Arab-Israeli conflict continues

Today, amid an escalating Arab-Israeli conflict, is the 73rd anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. While Israelis positively associate this day with the declaration of their own independence, Palestinians have a rather pessimistic and grieving view on it, as it is remembered as the gateway for the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians from their home. It is to no surprise that the latter refers to this historical event as Nakba, which is the Arabic term for “catastrophe”. 

The Israeli Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion in May 1948, may have triggered the first international war between Israel and its neighbouring Arab countries, but that was by no means the starting point of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, it was the rising immigration of Jewish people to the Palestinian land, which, in the face of increasing antisemitism in Europe and Russia, started taking off in the early 1880s. This development, combined with the emergence of the modern Zionists, who advocated the formation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, led to a land-, resource- and religious-based conflict between the Jewish immigrants and the Arab residents. 

The consequence was a total of six international wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours, accompanied by two Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation known as the First and the Second Intifada, as well as three wars in Gaza. The Arab-Israeli conflict has, since its emergence in the late 19th century, caused many fatalities on both sides, and despite several attempts to find a solution, today we are still far away from one, as the recent escalation between Israelis and Hamas has shown once more. In order to understand this deadlock situation, it is vital to take a look at the major conflict issues that impede this solution. 

The two-state solution

Palestinians have long sought to break free from life under Israeli occupation and build up their own independent nation. The two-state solution – which would allow this vision to become a reality – is supported by the vast majority of the international community. In fact, according to the United Nations, it is the only path for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace. However, the realization of a two-state solution is undergoing a backlash. On the one hand, the Israeli government disapproves of the creation of an independent Palestinian state because of security concerns. In that scenario, Israel would have to give up control over the Palestinian territory, which would also impede any military activities in Palestine – an unacceptable scenario for Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. In the election campaign of 2015, he claimed that there will be no Palestinian state on his watch.

On the other hand, the territorial integrity of a potential Palestinian state poses a problem. Although there is a general consensus that it would consist of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), it is unclear how these two Palestinian territories would be connected, given the fact that they are separated by Israeli land. This issue is reinforced by political cleavages between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The latter is being governed by the controversial Hamas – designated by the U.S. Department of State as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” – since 2007 and is based on different authorities and legislation than the West Bank. If a Palestinian state were to be established, the question remains how these two differently governed and territorially split areas could come together and form a unitary state.

Another important factor that impedes the two-state solution is the different stance that Israelis and Palestinians hold in regard to the question of Jerusalem. The “holy” city, which has deep historical and religious roots for both Jews and Muslims (and also Christians), was divided in the wake of the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948 when Jordan occupied its Eastern part. It was not until the Six-Day War in 1967 that the Israeli military gained control of the Eastern part and was, therefore, able to “reunite” the city. While for Palestinians it is absolutely essential that East Jerusalem constitutes the capital of their future independent state, Israelis have claimed the city of Jerusalem to be indivisible ever since the occupation and annexation of the Eastern part in 1967 and 1980 respectively.

Jewish Settlements

Israeli governments started building Jewish settlements on Palestinian land right after its occupation in 1967 and have continued to do so until this day, despite it being a violation of international law, as stated in Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. According to B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), more than 620,000 settlers were living in the West Bank as of the end of 2017. The Israeli settlement policy has led to a fragmentation of Palestinian land and therefore further decreases the feasibility of the establishment of a unitary Palestinian state. Another issue arising with the settlements is the rising radicalization of the settlers. In recent years, Jewish settlers, who are allowed to carry weapons for their own protection, have increasingly assaulted Palestinian civilians and vandalized mosques, sometimes also attacking Israeli peace activists and even soldiers. It is expected that, if the Israeli government were to decide to remove the settlements, this would lead to a violent resistance by these radical settlers. However, amidst the growing influence and lobbying activities of settlement leaders in Israeli politics, such a settlement drawback is highly unlikely anyway. 

Refugees and the question of return

As a consequence of the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948 around 700’000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes in what is known today as the state of Israel. Many of these people fled to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, but also to neighbouring Arab countries. According to the UNRWA , today there are around 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees, including the descendants of the originally displaced. In Jordan for example, these refugees make up around 30% of the country’s total population.

The UN Resolution 194 of 1948 recognizes the right for Palestinians to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbours. Most of the Palestinian refugees continue to claim this right and wish to return. This perspective is also supported by most of the host countries of these refugees, who largely deny them citizenship. The Israelis, however, refuse to grant these refugees a return. They fear that this would lead to the loss of the Jewish majority of the population. Today, Arabs make up only around one fifth of the Israeli population, but with the return of millions of Arabs, this share could suddenly increase significantly. If this were to occur, Israelis would be stripped from their self-declared entitlement of calling themselves a Jewish state. 

Of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be reduced to these three conflict issues. This analysis focused especially on the land- and ideology-based aspects of the conflict. In reality, however, it is much more complex, and also includes for example resource-related issues such as the dispute over the water supply system. But today, we look back at 73 years of Israel shaped by violent conflict and constant bloodshed. The recent escalation has shown once again that the Arab-Israeli conflict is still acute, far from over and in desperate need of a solution. Some are still hopeful that it will be solved, others have already given up faith. 


How the past continues to haunt the present: The troubled trajectory of Myanmar

The chain of events following a general election in November 2020 has dealt a bitter blow to Myanmar: The country in Southeast Asia has been jolted by unrest ever since the army’s seizure of power on the 1st of February 2021. After the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won the election by a landslide, the military claimed that the election was marred by fraud, detained the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, arrested her ally President Win Myint and deposed her government. Myanmar is now under the purview of commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, meaning that he is the country’s de facto leader. 

As the gelid wind of authoritarianism continues to shake the foundations of Myanmar’s society, anti-coup protests are gaining steam: A nationwide civil disobedience movement has erupted, frustration over recent encounters with the military has swelled into a national debate over the role of the military that carries echoes of the protest movement in 2007 (dubbed the Saffron-Revolution), when public ire also turned against the military government. In an attempt to quell the current protests, military rulers have repeatedly clamped down on civilians: According to a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), the coup has claimed the lives of more than 710 people so far (around 100 people were gunned down by Myanmar security forces on the 27th of March alone) and now sees more than 3,050 people in custody: The military coup has roiled the nation and thrust Myanmar into the limelight. But the country’s current developments can only be understood in tandem with its long history of military state building: As civilians continue to fight tooth and nail against military rule today, the legacy of Myanmar’s military rumbles on.

A glance at the past: Myanmar’s military history

Over the course of its years of independence (Myanmar gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948), the country has repeatedly struggled with military rule and violent crackdowns. Myanmar’s rocky path towards the implementation of a democratic system has been shaped by almost 50 years of military rule: Established in 1948, the Union of Burma started off as a parliamentary democracy – but in 1962, General Ne Win led a military coup and formed a military-controlled one-party state (with the Burma Socialist Programme Party/BSPP as the only political party).

Around 20 years later, Ne Win transferred his presidency to San Yu (a former army officer) but remained chairman of the BSPP. The years of Ne Win’s rule were shaped by economic isolation and the strengthening of the military, which caused Myanmar to plunge into an economic abyss. A currency devaluation in 1987 led to many people losing their savings and spawned sprawling anti-government riots, which spiralled out of control in August 1988: The State Peace and Development Council (SLORC) was formed and declared martial law. Staggering levels of violence rattled the nation to its very core: Protestors were imprisoned and killed – and Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a national icon and beacon for human rights at the time, was put under house arrest. 

The Rohingya Crisis and Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to the political arena

Following elections in 2010, the newly elected President Thein Sein (a former military officer) became the spearhead of a series of reforms, which included reprieving political prisoners, lifting media censorship and steering the country out of international isolation. And in the 2015 election, Aung San Sun Kyi (who had been released from house arrest in 2010) and the NLD claimed a resounding victory and set forth big plans to democratise Myanmar.

Running counter to the spirit of optimism was the Rohingya Crisis: The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s minorities and, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world”. They constitute the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar and the majority of them lives in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In 2017, Myanmar’s army launched a violent crackdown on Rohingya villages, triggering the largest refugee influx into Bangladesh.

The UN spoke of a “genocide threat for Myanmar’s Rohingya greater than ever”, but Aung San Sun Kyi denied the allegations of genocide and other amply documented atrocities, claiming that there had been no systematic campaign of persecution. Once the driving force behind a nationwide, pro-democracy movement, thought to be full of fervour for freedom and justice (her efforts to steer a democratic course even won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991), Aung San Sun Kyi ended up at a genocide trial in 2019, rebutting any claims of what the international community called ethnic cleansing. But while her international reputation has been tarnished by her adamant refusal to sharply criticise the military’s actions, her unwavering popularity among the Buddhist majority in Myanmar has not subsided.

Repercussions and reactions

In the wake of the coup in February this year, the military expanded an internet shutdown in an attempt to stamp out dissent by cutting off mobile data service and thus stifling public discourse surrounding the coup: Free speech, which constitutes a fundamental prerequisite of democracy, is now severely curtailed. 

The coup and the military’s iron-fisted rule have unleashed a torrent of criticism alongside a clarion call for consequences. As Myanmar’s military tightens its grip on power, Western countries are trying to ramp up economic pressure by imposing sanctions on the military. Thus far, however, international outrage has been to no avail. The international community should prioritise the support of anti-coup resistance instead of only honing in on sanctions, because sanctions alone won’t propel Myanmar’s military rulers towards democracy – civilians will be the ones who pay the price and fall prey to their economic impact. 


If you want to find out more about the Rohingya Crisis, its root causes and current developments, here are a few links you might find interesting:

“Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis”, BBC, 23rd January 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561

“The Rohingya Crisis”, Council on Foreign Relations (cfr), 23rd January 2020.
https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis

“UN agencies ramp up response for Rohingya refugees in wake of ‘unprecedented’ fire”, UN News, 31st March 2021. https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1088732

 “Approaching The Rohingya Crisis: CALLING FOR A SECURITY GOVERNANCE FRAMEWORK”, in: World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues, 22 (1), 98-121, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48520051

“Rohingya emergency”, UNHCR, 31st July 2019. https://www.unhcr.org/rohingya-emergency.html


Case study Nagorno-Karabakh: What happens when international cooperation fails?

A few weeks ago, we discussed the limitations of the international community when it comes to intra-state conflicts. Today, we focus on how international organizations can cooperate to prevent inter-state conflicts, what happens when cooperation fails and how future failures can be prevented: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict serves as an ideal case study to examine these three elements. 

In 1988 amidst the crumbling Soviet Union, a war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Six years and approximately 30’000 deaths later, a Russia-brokered ceasefire ended the immediate belligerence. Yet, due to the obvious fragility of the truce, further international cooperation would be necessary to attain peace and prevent future wars. The second Nagorno-Karabakh war is proof that this international cooperation failed. 

Failed attempts at international cooperation

While the 1994 ceasefire ended the immediate fighting, the conflict was frozen but far from over. The problem with frozen conflicts is, that time alone does not solve them, cooperation does. With diplomatic relations and friendly advances, the two countries could have ended the conflict once and for all– but they didn’t. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan took the first step towards burying the hatchet. 

The international community made some efforts towards resolving the conflict. The most prominent example is the Minsk Group, an OSCE institution founded in 1992 with the purpose of resolving tensions between the two countries. Despite several rounds of negotiation and the creation of the Madrid Principles, the group faced heavy criticism for its apparent failure of mediation. 

Conflict resolution attempts were also made by the United Nations. The security council passed a total of four resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) that condemned the violations of the 1994 ceasefire, called for a return to the negotiating table, and prompted Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territory. All attempts failed. The ceasefire was a missed opportunity to resolve the conflict diplomatically. 

So, what must change to bring about fruitful international cooperation when the next opportunity arises?

Why the chances of successful international cooperation are slim

According to political scientists Axelrod and Keohane, there are three main aspects that facilitate/hinder international cooperation – the mutuality of interest, the so-called shadow of the future and the number of actors. In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh, we find obstacles in all three categories.

The object of interest was the territory between the two countries including the self-proclaimed independent Nagorno-Karabakh region. Under international law, this territory is part of Azerbaijan, yet Armenian forces have occupied the area since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Since both belligerents want all of the disputed land, the interests are completely diverging. There is very little room for compromise due to the cultural and historic significance of the territory and neither party is willing to divide the land because that would legitimize the opponents claim to the area.

When it comes to war, the shadow of the future does often not seem so dark. Why cooperate and compromise if you can just achieve your goals with war? The mistrust that dominates the international field is especially present in this context. In war, the first mover advantage benefits the aggressor and thus increases the risk of escalation. It is only after homes have been destroyed and lives have been lost that the actual cost of war is felt. 

Even though the conflict started as a local dispute, there are now many actors involved. Turkey has a strong allegiance to Azerbaijan, Russia has a military base in Armenia, both countries are part of the UN and the OSCE. This complicated net of relations increases the stakes and turns the conflict into a regional powder keg. If even one actor breaches an agreement, decisive retaliation may result in complete escalation. Joint efforts by international organizations such as the UN or the OSCE were made difficult because both belligerent countries are member states and would thus oppose decisive action that went against their interests.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

It would be wrong to abandon hope for international cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, failed attempts from the last two decades have shown that it is no easy task. While the international community can try to facilitate cooperation between the two belligerents, the most basic requirement for success is the will for diplomacy in both countries. As long as either party is unwilling to compromise, it is only a question of time until the third Nagorno-Karabakh war breaks out.


The 2020 EastMed Crisis – A Failure of European Solidarity?

“We almost went to war with Turkey three times last year.” This close did the Eastern Mediterranean come to erupting into conflict during the Summer of 2020. What’s more, this grim assessment did not originate in one of the conflict-stricken states bordering Turkey’s eastern and southern borders. It came from Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos.The question must therefore be addressed, how a dispute initially concerned with resource exploitation could almost escalate into an outright military confrontation. 

Realising conflict was only narrowly averted on Europe’ southern frontier may have caught some observers off-guard. Still adhering to the post-Cold War belief in Liberalist determinism, many Western policymakers have taken the ability of multilateral organisations to guarantee peace for granted. While institutions like the European Union (EU) may be suited to facilitate market integration, the bloc has with its unregulated engagement fallen woefully short in contributing to the security of its members. The close call witnessed in the EastMed should therefore serve as an urgently needed wake-up call! 

Recent Developments in the EastMed: Old Rivalries and New Alliances

The (southern) periphery of Europe is in a state of unrest not seen since the Second World War! Ideally, EU executive institutions and member states would realise that a divided foreign policy will leave them frustrated in every endeavour. Worse still, disunity offers ready-made avenues for authoritarian leaders to selectively challenge member states. In the absence of European solidarity, individual member states will be forced to rely on outside powers to guard against external threats. The risks of such a trend are manifold, not least because conflicting entanglements with third states may further fracture EU cohesion. 

Returning to the introductory quote, the case of Greece illustrates succinctly where a lack of EU cohesion leaves the bloc’s peripheral members. Not being able to rely on the bloc to protect itself from rising dangers in the region, Greece was left scrabbling for alternative ties outside its Western alliances. This development was further compounded by the US’ disengagement from the region, which precipitated the emergence of rivalling alliance systems.

Perceiving Turkey as an existential threat, Greece naturally joined a coalition that opposed Ankara’s revisionist ambitions. In pursuit of active deterrence, the Hellenic Republic has gradually built up bilateral and trilateral ties as a foundation for a fully-fledged regional alliance. The emerging coalition stretches from the Hellenic Republics of Cyprus and Greece to Israel and Egypt over the Arabian Peninsula (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain) all the way to India. 

Of all these ties, the Greek relationship with the UAE has seen the most progress. Under the de facto leadership of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), the Emirates have taken a firm stance against Turkish support of Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. United in their opposition of Ankara’s destabilising role in the region, MBZ agreed to establish a formal defensive with Athens this past November. For Greece, this marks a major step towards renewed engagement with its eastern neighbourhood, seeing as it constitutes the first agreement of this type outside the Western alliance framework (EU-NATO).

Future prospects: Stronger European Cohesion or Further Fragmentation?

The latest effort by Greece to cement itself within a new regional stability framework was the “Philia Forum” held on the 13th and 14th of February 2021. It brought together in Athens the Foreign Ministers (FM) of Cyprus, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, with the French FM attending virtually as an observer. The conferences laid out a broad range of economic and social domains on which the attendees pledge to cooperate. However, the broader implications the summit carried were unmistakable, seeing as from cooperation on peripheral domains would invariably follow closer coordination on matters of defence. The primary target attending countries intended to deter did not fail to take note of this development. The response from Ankara was the usual polemic rhetoric: Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy accusing participating countries of harbouring “hostility against Turkey”.

On a broader scale, it must be asked where these developments on its very doorstep leave the EU. Although Greek efforts to solidify its deterrence have so far proven successful, there is no telling when tensions will once again spiral out of control. The only way to sustainably reduce tensions is for EU members to start conducting a more cohesive foreign policy. Members states should – for a start – terminate exports of military material in support of expansionist third states, especially if they threatened fellow member states. Coordinating such a transition falls to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. It is high time for her to fulfil her promise of a “geopolitical Commission” and realise a united European approach to external threats.


From a local dispute to a regional powder keg: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict explained

Almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is grappling anew with the implications of a centuries-old dispute. Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the South Caucasus, to which both Armenia and Azerbaijan lay claim, is part of Azerbaijan – even though the majority of its population is Armenian.

The ethnic-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is multi-layered and complex. It contains political, socioeconomic and changing geopolitical dimensions – ranging from territorial disputes to ethnic hostilities. In order to understand other stakeholders, root causes, conflict dynamics and peace capacities, we need to take a look at the past.

Skirmishes along the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh are nothing new

The power tussle between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the region dates back to the 20th century. Even though in 1923, most of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh was Armenian, the region was attached to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) under Stalin. 

When the Soviet Union began to crumble, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh requested the transfer from the Azerbaijani to the Armenian Union Republic in 1988, which laid the groundwork for the ensuing political turmoil. The request was rejected by both the leaders of the Azerbaijani Republic in Baku and Moscow. Nagorno-Karabakh’s declaration of independence in 1991 also went unheeded. This sparked a bloody war that claimed many lives and caused a stream of people to flee their homes. 

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: More than just a Cold-War-era relic

After the demise of the USSR in 1991 and the independence of both Azerbaijan and Armenia, the framework changed. The local quarrel over Nagorno-Karabakh morphed into an all-out war between the two independent states, drew in other powers and turned into a regional powder keg. Although the war officially ended with a ceasefire in 1994, frictions did not simply vanish. 

Peace talks chaired by Russia, France and the U.S. were slowly plodding along and eventually fizzled out completely – which led to new fights erupting in April 2016, lasting just four days and yet claiming the lives of approximately 350 people.

When analysing this conflict, one also needs to take into account that both sides are propped up by powerful backers: Turkey for example has close ties with Azerbaijan and is thus a staunch supporter, while Russia has provided weapons to both sides and wishes to preserve neutrality. But Armenia and Russia are both part of a security treaty of six former Soviet nations, which states that they must support each other in case of armed conflicts. This has led Azerbaijan to argue that Russia favours Armenia in this conflict. 

The peace deal in November 2020

In July 2020, the conflict started to flare up again and in late September, the Six Week War war broke out: 45 days of intense artillery fire, shell bombardments and more than 5000 soldiers dead. In an attempt to damp down tensions, Russia brokered a peace deal – inked on Nov. 9 – which temporarily put an end to the Six-Week War. The ceasefire deal, under the aegis of Russia, also required the exchange of war prisoners, left the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh region under Armenian control, but allowed Azerbaijan to keep broad parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and required Armenia to withdraw from other territory as well. The reaction? Jubilation in Azerbaijan, protests in Armenia.

The ceasefire did not last long: In December 2020, clashes were recorded and both sides started to blame each other over violations of the peace treaty. 

Whether there will ever be a deal that really manages to yield a permanent and full-scale settlement of the crisis over Nagorno-Karabakh remains to be seen. If so, it will end one of the world’s oldest ongoing conflicts. But if not, and if the countries involved are not willing to bury the hatchet, the fighting will go on and we could very quickly witness a seventh week of the Six Week War. 


Genocide: The power of history and collective memory

As our thoughts today go out to the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust and we remember the atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime, we are reminded of the importance of remembrance, so that a similar tragedy may never happen again. The Holocaust, whose scale and organization were unprecedented, is without doubt one of the darkest chapters of human history. However, when we view the world from a global perspective, it is sadly one of many tragedies. Not only wasn’t it the first genocide in history, but it was also far from being the last one. 

The word genocide came into general usage after World War II when the full extent of the brutalities committed by the Nazi’s was revealed. In 1948 the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was approved by the UN and genocide was declared an international crime. The Convention defined genocide as any number of acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” and has since been ratified by more than 130 countries. 

Many genocides, however, have not yet been recognized internationally, or worse, have not seen the perpetrators take responsibility for their actions. We may not be able to bring back the thousands of people who lost their lives, but we do have the power to remember and honour the victims, to raise awareness on what happened and prevent the same crime from repeating itself. The Armenian, Cambodian and Bosnian genocides all happened in different historical and geographical contexts. Together with the Holocaust, they represent some of the darkest chapters in world history. It is precisely because of the important role history plays in shaping collective memory that these chapters must not be forgotten.

Armenian Genocide (1915-1917)

The Armenian genocide was the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians at the hands of the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. The Young Turks, who had seized power in 1908, were reigning over a crumbling empire after having entered WWI on Germany’s side. Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to side with Russia, the Turks massacred thousands of Armenians, deporting them en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert where they were killed or died from starvation and disease. Before the beginning of the war, 1.5 million Armenians were living in the Empire. It is estimated that up to 1.2 million died during the genocide.

Despite early condemnation from the international community and a strong public outcry against the mistreatment of the Armenians, no strong actions were taken to punish the perpetrators. Moreover, no step was taken to require postwar Turkish governments make restitution to the Armenians to make up for the immense material and human losses.

Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979)

Another dark chapter in human history, the Cambodian genocide saw the annihilation of a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Marxist dictator Pol Pot. 

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 with the goal of turning the country into an agrarian utopia: a rural, classless society comprised of collectivized farms. Money, schools, private property and religious practices were abolished, and rural collectives were set up in the countryside. In reality, however, cities were emptied, and millions of people were evacuated to labour camps where they were starved and abused. The regime singled out doctors, teachers, affluent people, anyone with an education as well as ethnic and religious minorities and whoever was unwilling or unable to undertake harsh manual labour was eliminated. Unlike other genocides, no one was immune from being branded an enemy of the state. Anyone perceived to be in the opposition was tortured and killed and it is estimated that 1.7 to 2.2 million people lost their lives. 

The international community was largely silent during the genocide, despite scholars and activists trying to bring attention to the atrocities that were being committed. Only after the regime was overthrown in 1979 did the brutality receive international media attention but it wasn’t until 2003 that an international tribunal was etsablished to try the perpetrators.

Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995)

The Bosnian genocide happened during the Bosnian War, a religious and ethnic conflict between Bosniaks (Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox Christian) and Croats (Catholic) that erupted after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. The creation of an independent nation with a Bosniak majority was opposed by Bosnian Serbs, who launched a campaign to secure territory and rid Bosnia of its Muslim population. With the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, Bosnian Serb forces targeted Bosniak and Croatian civilians in areas under their control, which resulted in the death of 100’000 people by 1995, 80% of whom were Bosniaks. 

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces murdered 7’000 to 8’000 Muslim men and boys in what will forever be remembered as the Srebrenica Massacre. The city had been declared a safe area for people fleeing the fighting by the UN and was protected by around 500 international peacekeepers. Serb forces, however, overwhelmed the troops, sent all the women to Bosnian-held territory, then rounded up men and boys and trucked them to killing sites where they were shot and buried in mass graves. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, the UN and international actors did not intervene, fearing strong action would complicate peace negotiations and jeopardize humanitarian aid. Even when it became clear that attacks on Srebrenica were planned, the international community did not offer the UN peacekeepers stationed there additional support. However, in 1993 the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia which eventually proved to be instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court.

The importance of history and collective memory

The above-mentioned genocides are but three of the many that took place over the course of the 20th century. Not only do they share the fact that they were initially neglected by the international community but, despite landmark international convictions and much documentation of the atrocious crimes committed, they still happen to be denied by certain actors. In Serbia, some nationalists claim that the number of dead is exaggerated and that Srebrenica was but one of the many atrocities committed during the conflict. Turkey has met the Armenian genocide with over one hundred years of silence and denial.  Similarly, there is a consistent and worrying number of people in the US and Europe that denies the Holocaust. Furthermore, after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, many Western intellectuals of the left denied or minimized the human rights abuses that had taken place in an attempt to protect communist ideology.

The unwillingness to see and recognise what happened is not only dangerous but greatly undermines the role collective recognition and memory play in ensuring such crimes are not repeated. Healing the deep wounds inflicted by genocide is a difficult and perhaps impossible task. One way is surely for the perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions through international justice mechanisms. However, this is not enough. The international community has the responsibility to call out the perpetrators of such crimes and should adopt strategies to punish them, in accordance with the Genocide Convention. Seeking justice in the aftermath of such atrocities does not change the fact that if one had acted sooner, the brutality could have been avoided or at least stopped much earlier. Belated recognition also indirectly supports the proliferation of alternative narratives of what happened which undermine or deny the atrocious crimes that were comitted.

Many greatly underestimate the power of collective remembrance and recognition. Collective memory can ensure that the victims and the crimes are not forgotten, thereby preventing them from repeating themselves. Collective recognition and condemnation, on the other hand, have the potential to stop things from happening or worsening in the first place. Now the international community has the chance to redeem itself for past mistakes: by stopping China from perpetrating mass atrocities against the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority which is systematically being targeted by Beijing through a mass detention and forced labour program, restrictions on cultural and religious practices and coercive birth prevention. Despite transparent evidence of the crimes being committed, the international community has until now failed to address the situation in a meaningful way. The recent condemnation of what is happening by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is a step in the right direction but more immediate action is needed.

Extensive recognition of the present and remembrance of the past can spread awareness and are perhaps the strongest tools we have. The perpetrators as well as the survivors of past horrors will eventually leave us and then all we will be left with is history. We must never underestimate its power in helping us work towards a better future. To quote American-Armenian novelist Chris Bohjalian: “History does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Bosnians and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?”.

US meddling in Africa and the Middle East: Does foreign intervention make sense?

It has gone down in history as the most rapid mass slaughter ever recorded: The genocide in the African state of Rwanda in 1994, where up to a million people were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists while the outside world watched what was going on – and did almost nothing to stop it. And yet out of that catastrophe, impetus arose for a new concept called „R2P“ – the “responsibility to protect”. The principle states that, when a state is failing to protect its own people from crimes against humanity, other states have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable and use military force if necessary.

The United States have a striking record when it comes to foreign interventions – especially in Africa and the Middle East. But is it sensible to intervene in foreign political affairs? Or does it only add fuel to the fire?

A long history of US interventions in foreign political affairs

Somalia 1992, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003, Libya 2011: Just to name a few events in Africa and the Middle East that show how the US has fiddled with foreign political affairs for years. Even though the reasons for these interventions were not always the same – the conclusion one can draw from all of these interventions, definitely is: Wiping away pre-existing governing structures has always set off civil conflict and the detrimental impact of these interventions is still visible in every single one of these countries today. 

Why? Because the attempt to forcibly democratise a society with military means almost always created a power vacuum which was then filled by violent groups. The result: state decay and militia rule. 

US intervention in Libya: More Harm Than Good?

Let’s take America’s intervention in Libya as an example for the R2P concept: In 2011, Libyan rebels (propped up by a multi-state NATO coalition including the US) toppled their head of state Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for more than 40 years. In the US, he was considered a very controversial leader under whom freedom of speech was said to have been “severely curtailed” and cases of abuse, torture, and killings by the state were also reported.

But just because Gaddafi was out of the picture, things didn’t get better. Now, almost 10 years after the intervention, Libya is still mired in a violent, domestic conflict: The country finds itself faced with a catch-22 as it is left with warring militias, an economy in tatters, and an infrastructure torn asunder. The icing on the cake: In the wake of the chaos that ensued after 2011, two rivalling administrations emerged in Libya. Khalifa Haftar, warlord and commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) backs one of them: The House of Representatives. The other administration is known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and is internationally recognised.

The US had been silent about the subsequent chaos for years. But then, at the end of his term, former President Barack Obama finally admitted that the US intervention in Libya had not really been as successful as he thought it would be and that he simply underestimated the sweeping scope of unintended consequences that had flowed from the intervention. When asked about his worst mistake, Obama replied with „probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, intervening in Libya.”

What the Libyan tragedy has explicitly shown is that acting within the framework of the “responsibility to protect” concept is not always the right way to go. Critics have come up with the principle of the “responsibility to rebuild” – which should definitely be taken into consideration if the US should decide to conduct a regime change in a foreign country again.

Because yes, wanting to protect citizens from atrocities is commendable and yes, humanitarian intervention has the potential to help meet global problems. But the US government’s expectations should be realistic, and ambitions should be bounded – because history has clearly shown that foreign-imposed regime change rarely leads to democratisation. The US should abandon its persistent fantasy of reordering the world – America should not be the world’s police.


Israel’s illegal settlement-expansion

In 1967, the Israeli army defeated its Arab neighbors in a bloodshed combat that is widely known as the Six-Day War. Suddenly, Israel’s territory had significantly expanded, capturing territories such as the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights as well as the territories that today make up the Palestinian land, namely the Gaza strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the latter having been (illegally) annexed. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been under Israeli occupation ever since, despite being governed by the Palestinian authorities. 

One would imagine that the Israeli government would be satisfied with this development and that it would settle on these new-drawn boundaries. However, history has shown this interpretation to be an illusion. Israel continues to enforce its expansion policy by setting up one Israeli settlement after the other. As of 2019, around 650’000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some of these settlers are known to be extremely radical, which results in a widespread phenomenon called “settler violence” towards Palestinian residents nearby. Especially in recent months, settler attacks against Palestinians have been increasing rapidly.

Undermining international law

In order to build these settlements, Israel continuously relies on methods such as the demolition and confiscation of Palestinian homes, and therefore also on the forced transfer or eviction of Palestinian residents. These actions clearly violate international law, as the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly states that “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory” are illegal.

However, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not seem to respect these international norms. In fact, he went one step further in breaking international law by proposing his own annexation plans for the Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory that make up around 30% of the West Bank. The implementation of the project was supposed to begin in July 2020, but Netanyahu’s coalition partner Benny Gantz demanded to postpone the annexation due to the government’s responsibility to set its focus on combatting Covid-19. Though fading into the background, it is plausible that Netanyahu will resume his annexation plans once the pandemic is under control. 

Netanyahu has benefited from a Trump Administration that does not criticize Israel’s illegal settlement-expansion. On the contrary, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in November 2019 that the United States do not consider Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory to be violations of international law. The administration’s Middle East Peace Plan also pushed for the illegal annexation of these settlements as well as that of the Jordan Valley, an important economic area for Palestinians. The plan also stated that the remaining 70% of the Palestinian territory would be subject for discussion to form a future Palestinian state. This is an unrealistic promise that would, if indeed implemented, be tied to strict constraints. Handing over the Jordan Valley to Israel or giving up the dream of having East Jerusalem as their capital city are only a few of the sacrifices Palestinians would have to make if they were to accept the US plan. It is to no surprise that this peace proposal, which clearly aims to justify the illegal annexation of Israeli settlements, does not include a plan for the return of the three million Palestinian refugees that were forced to leave the Palestinian territory in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. 

US elections as a driver of change?

Israel’s Prime Minister cannot expect the same amount of support for his illegal activities from the next US Administration – Joe Biden has stated that he does not approve of Netanyahu’s annexation plans. Not surprisingly, Israel accelerated the construction of settlements after it was clear that Trump would be leaving office in the beginning of 2021. It remains to be seen whether the Biden Administration will oppose the Israeli settlement expansion, but at least it can be expected that the annexation of the existing settlements will be met with resistance by the Oval Office. 

A Palestinian-Israeli two-state solution is far from reachable. A first step in the right direction, however, is to put an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, which does not conform with international law and leads to a severe fragmentation of the Palestinian territory. Without this necessary condition the hopes for a peaceful settlement of the conflict will remain an illusion. 

The European Union has taken a leading role in opposing Israel’s settlement politics, but its influence on Israeli politics remains limited. The United States, however, have had close political and economic ties to Israel for decades and are most likely Israel’s closest ally. It is, therefore, of great importance that the Biden Administration “exploits” this privilege and pushes Netanyahu to finally abandon the illegal settlements. This is the only way to create the foundation for a peaceful two-state solution.

False information: a dangerous threat to liberal democracy

A lie travels ten times faster than the truth: How often have we heard this sentence in the last few years and been warned of the dangers of fake news? 
In a world of constant, immediate, and effortless access to information it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from falsehood. Not only does this have a direct impact on our personal lives, but it is covertly threatening the very principles of liberal democracy. False information in fact becomes particularly dangerous when purposely spread by authoritarian governments to weaken rival countries or institutions. 

Iran and Russia have in recent years become masters in the subtle art of wreaking havoc through targeted information manipulation strategies. The interference of Russian trolls in the 2016 US election shocked the world and became one of the first examples of this deceitful and dangerous strategy. Now a new global power has been testing this tactic on the world stage: The People’s Republic of China.

China has long been using disinformation as a strategy domestically and in surrounding regions such as Taiwan. In the 2018 and 2019 elections, for example, fake news stories, bots, and falsified social media accounts were used to manipulate and deceive the Taiwanese people into voting for a pro-China candidate. This tactic has been repeatedly used to advance pro-mainland positions and promote the benefits of reunification, as China does not recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan. 

In both cases disinformation was used as a weapon to cause confusion, posing a serious threat to the integrity and stability of the Taiwanese political landscape. 

Disinformation about Covid-19 

Now, this strategy is being adopted on a global scale. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, China pursued extensive disinformation campaigns in Europe and North America, to criticize countries’ poor handling of the pandemic and to change the narrative of being the country of origin of the coronavirus crisis. To do this the Chinese government not only used fake accounts and trolls but also relied on Chinese diplomats and state media outlets. 

In mid-April, for example, the Chinese embassy to France falsely claimed that French care workers had abandoned their jobs leaving residents to die, sparking outrage all across the country. Whilst the Chinese government has denied this, claiming it was a misunderstanding, the fact that an official state outlet would publicly share false information raises the alarm to the dangers of this insidious problem. 

False information affects governments, politicians but most of all people. With social media now a main source of information, many are becoming more and more susceptible to disinformation. Not only are people more likely to accept and believe false information, but it is becoming increasingly harder for governments to fight this kind of threat.
How are democratic countries supposed to compete with authoritarian governments who seek to enhance their international influence through information manipulation? 

So, what can be done?

There is no one solution to this problem, but one of the best forms of defence is surely user education. People of all political orientations need to become more aware that what they read online may not be accurate and view information more critically. A critical perspective on all information is essential to efficiently counter this threat. However, more effective solutions are also needed by governments and global tech companies. 

Governments need to develop better capabilities to resist malicious cyber campaigns and perhaps establish specific taskforces devoted to fighting disinformation campaigns, as has been recently done by Australia. Global tech companies on the other hand need to improve their efforts in fighting disinformation online. One way to do this is by setting cross-platform standards, as has been recently done by Full Fact, a British fact-checking charity which is collaborating with Facebook, Twitter and Google to fight Covid-19 disinformation. These companies also need to be held more accountable if there is evidence that their platform was used to spread false information.[2]

If we don’t act now, we will eventually be living in a world where it will become very difficult to single out accurate information. The political, social, and economic consequences are unimaginable, as foreign countries could attack their competitors without having to ever cross a border. It is therefore essential not only to raise as much awareness as possible on this issue but to also enact concrete policies against it. 


The forgotten war: A breakdown of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen

A fast-mounting death toll, hospitals teetering on the brink of collapse, relatives unable to bid farewell to their loved ones. For most of us, such images are reserved for TV coverage of war or other kinds of catastrophic disasters. For Yemenis in Sanaa and Aden, however, this has become the tragic and sobering reality. The country is in the midst of a humanitarian disaster, yet after five years of perennial fighting, it has been dubbed “the forgotten war.” But how did Yemen even get to this point?

The civil war in Yemen erupted in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, when Yemenis rose up against the incumbent President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country since 1990. Saudi-Arabia intervened along with several other Arab states, forced Saleh out and put Vice President Hadi in charge of the new government. But, due to a debilitated economy, Yemenis continued to suffer – and protests reignited in 2014. The Houthis (a Zaidi Shi’ite Muslim minority group) took control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and in March 2015, a coalition of states (led by Saudi Arabia) intervened with the aim of restoring Hadi to power.

The beginning of inexorable air strikes

Over the course of five years, the conflict began to engulf the entire country. What started off as „Saudi-led coalition vs. Houthi forces“, very quickly evolved into a proxy war, with several Western powers providing weapons, as well as logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition – and other countries, whose interests push in the opposite direction, supporting the Houthis for geopolitical and power political reasons.

On top of the 112,000 people who are said to have died as a direct result of the war, more than 160.000 Yemeni people have borne the brunt of heavy rain and floodings (which occurred in July and August this year) and are now in desperate need of immediate assistance. Torrential rains have flushed away homes and inflicted significant damage on hospitals. Sanitation infrastructure is also affected: Water contamination has led to cholera, malaria and dengue fever cases spiralling upwards.

COVID-19 starts to wreak havoc across the war-torn country

The spread of Covid-19 is now putting an even bigger strain on Yemen’s already fractured health system: Clean water and sanitation are in short supply and only fifty percent of health facilities are functioning. Hospitals lack basic equipment like masks and gloves, let alone oxygen and other essential supplies to treat the coronavirus and its consequences. Many health workers don’t even receive salaries and 10.2 million children don’t have access to healthcare.

Outcry from international humanitarian organisations has become deafening as the fate of millions of Yemenis is undoubtedly bleak: The UN has warned that the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic could “exceed the combined toll of war, disease, and hunger over the last five years.”

It is safe to say that, regardless of how the situation unfolds in the months ahead, Yemeni civilians will once again shoulder an overwhelming part of the burden.