After a Stunning Abstention by the US, the UN Security Council Condemns Israeli Settlements

At a meeting of the UN Security Council in late December 2016, the US abstained from voting a resolution that condemned Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank. Since the US did not veto the vote, the UN adopted the resolution.

Egypt initially sponsored the resolution, but withdrew it after pressure from Donald Trump and Israel. However, one day later, several other members of the Security Council brought it to a vote, and 14 members supported it.

Trump was quick to tweet that things at the UN “will be different after Jan. 20th.” The President-Elect argued that the resolution hurts the negotiating position of Israel and is “extremely unfair to all Israelis.”

The settlements in the West Bank have long been contentious. Many experts argue that they hurt Israel’s security in the long run.

In fact, US Ambassador Samantha Power quoted Ronald Reagan who said “Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel.” He went on to say that these settlements only diminish the confidence of the Palestinians that a final outcome could be “fairly negotiated.”

Power also said that the US has been saying that the settlements must stop, publicly and privately, for nearly 50 years. She also pointed out that the resolution condemns terrorism and calls on both sides to take part in peace talks.

The Ambassador did comment on how the UN has treated Israel unfairly over the years. A pivotal point was the 1975 resolution by the General Assembly that Zionism is a form of racism.

She also pointed out that the number of resolutions that the UN human rights council adopted against Israel this year was more than those focused on such notorious human rights violators as Iran, North Korea, Syria, and South Sudan combined.

ISIS Murders Hundreds of Civilians and Destroys Priceless History in Mosul

The UN’s human rights office recently reported that ISIS militants in Mosul executed more than 230 people. The people recently executed included 190 former Iraqi security force members and 42 civilians who refused to Join ISIS.

In addition, the militants forced thousands of others to become human shields and moved whole families to ISIS strongholds. This swelled the population of Hamman al-Alil, a town south of Mosul, from 23,000 to 60,000.

While the militants initially received some sympathy upon entering Mosul in June 2014, their increasingly brutal occupation has destroyed much of this. TIME interviewed civilians who recently fled areas of northern Iraq controlled by ISIS.

These accounts suggest that ISIS is tightening its social control in anticipation of efforts to liberate Mosul. They have also increased the number of executions of former Iraqi security forces and suspected smugglers. Even cigarette smokers fear execution if they are observed smoking.

ISIS is doing its best to cut off civilians from the outside world by confiscating satellite dishes and SIM cards. People who managed to hide their SIM cards are afraid to sue them for fear of retribution.

Multiple reports indicate that some residents of Mosul are actively resisting the organization—killing ISIS fighters anonymously and then disappearing.

In addition to its brutal attacks on residents, ISIS has done its best to destroy priceless archeological sites that it considers heretical. Such sites include ones that suggest past cooperation between Islam and other religions.

The organization also destroyed much of Mosul’s literary and scientific history. They burned down the library at the University of Mosul and blew up and razed the city library.

While ISIS has brazenly released videos of its destruction, it does not advertise that it raises significant amounts of money by looting archeological sites and selling priceless treasures on the black market.

Voters Reject the Columbian FARQ Peace Accord

People throughout the world celebrated the signing of an unprecedented peace accord between the Columbian government and the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARQ). However, the agreement would not be final until ratified by the Colombian people at the polls on October 2, 2016.

To the shock of casual observers, the citizens and expatriates of Colombia narrowly voted against the peace accord by a 0.5% margin. As described by Omar G. Encarnacion in the publication Foreign Affairs, Colombian citizens had numerous reasons to reject the accord.

Enarnacion described the “deep loathing of the FARC” among the people of Columbia. The FARQ’s terrorist campaign wrecked havoc on the country. Almost one quarter of a million people died during the conflict, while an additional 6 million were driven from the countryside to the cities. Millions more fled Colombia.

The FARQ’s activities in recent years seemed to be motivated more by greed and avarice than by revolutionary efforts to bring justice to Colombia. With the boom of coca production in the country, the FARC introduced a “revolutionary tax” on the cartels to finance its terrorist activities. Some estimates suggest that about 60% of the cocaine entering the US can be traced to the FARQ. This provided impetus for the US involvement to help negotiate the peace accord.

Another major reason for rejecting the accord had to do with the policy of sparing prison sentences for even the worst human rights transgressors. After 50 years of murders, bombings, extortions, illegal land seizures, and kidnappings, many Colombians felt that the terrorists deserved more than a slap on the wrist.

Third is a “dearth of consensus” on the merits of the peace accord among the country’s leading political forces. Peace is paramount among some members of the political class, while justice is a higher priority for others.   This discord at the highest levels of government made it difficult for the citizens of Colombia to reconcile their own doubts and concerns. These differences must be reconciled before negotiations can end Latin America’s “endless war.”

The Relatives of 9/11 Victims Can Now Sue Saudi Arabia

Congress recently passed a bill making it legal for families that lost members as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government.

Despite President Barack Obama’s veto of the bill, both houses of Congress voted in strong support of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Jasta) on September 28, thereby writing it into law. This controversial move is expected to continue threatening the already diminishing relationship between the two allied countries.

Just one day later, the New York Times published an article outlining Saudi Arabia’s dismay over the bill’s passage. According to the article:

  • Saudi Arabia denounced Osama Bin Laden, previously a Saudi citizen, back in 1994
  • Like the United States, Saudi Arabia has suffered human casualties at the hands of terrorist groups Al Qaeda and Islamic State jihadists
  • After the 9/11 attacks, a congressional investigation into Saudi Arabia’s possible involvement produced no substantial evidence indicating culpability
  • Saudi Arabia has a long track-record of cooperation with the United States government on issues concerning oil, economic policy, counterterrorism, shared intelligence, and military strategy

Critics of Jasta also fear retaliation efforts could soon spread to other countries.

Although the majority (15 out of 19) of the 9/11 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, the others emerged from Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. Will similar laws be passed allowing American families to sue these governments as well?

In addition, Saudi Arabia not only supplies oil to the United States, but has also invested billions of dollars in military technology there. Will Saudi Arabia halt oil exportation and foreign investment in response to Jasta’s accusatory implications?

While it’s still too soon to decisively anticipate the consequences of Jasta, the law has certainly rocked the global community and is expected to cause a long-term riff in international relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Venezuela Relaxes Border Closures, Eases Tensions with Columbia

It has been a particularly rough time for Venezuelans in recent years. Facing an economic crisis stemming from astronomical inflation rates, limited access to basic goods, and dwindling agricultural and industrial markets, most citizens could not imagine worse conditions.

But then it happened.

August 9, 2015 Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro made the extreme decision to shutdown border access to neighboring Columbia, a border that reaches down most of the country’s western border.

According to an article published by Time in September 2015, Maduro claimed his decision was a desperate attempt to stop Columbian paramilitaries, drug traffickers, and smugglers from invading Venezuela and causing economic disaster. Declaring a state of emergency, Maduro then ordered the deportation of Columbians, creating a foreign relations nightmare.

Generally speaking, the international community viewed Maduro’s decision as a reckless technique intended to steer attention away from his ruinous socialist economic program. It short, Columbia became his scapegoat.

In the year that followed, the quality of life in Venezuela continued to plummet since the country largely depended on Columbia supply of raw materials and food staples to supplement its scarce resources. However, circumstances are now slowly improving.

President Maduro met with Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos in early August, reaching an agreement to slowly start reopening border checkpoints. For now, only five checkpoints are accessible, and are only available to pedestrian crossings. However, vehicles will soon be permitted to cross and more checkpoints are scheduled to reopen throughout the coming year.

Both leaders expressed interest in providing greater security and smuggling prevention tactics as the border becomes more exposed. Along with recouping economic and commercial losses, Venezuela is also expected to benefit from better international relations, which may prove crucial as it continues struggling for more stable conditions.

The Panama Papers: An Object Lesson in Data Journalism and International Tax Evasion

It is every journalist’s dream to publish a large investigative article uncovering the unethical deeds of a public official or a systematic failure. Sometimes, this comes in the form of large data dumps handed to the press by whistleblowers. Previously, the biggest data dump was the Offshore Leaks Database, and it boasted 2.5 million documents at 260 gigabytes in size.

The record was blown out of the water recently with the revelation of the Panama Papers, an act of whistleblowing resulting in 11.5 million documents comprised of text documents, emails, photos, and databases for a grand total of 2.6 terabytes of data. For comparison, a 3-minute song, stored as an MP3 file, would need to be duplicated over 860,000 times to fill 2.6 terabytes of data.

The Panama Papers is the biggest leak in history first delivered to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The leak contains documents exposing world leaders that used Panamanian company Mossack Fonseca to create and house offshore companies that are used to hide their money to avoid taxation. The documents were collected from the private databases of Mossack Fonseca since the 1970s and sent to Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2015.

The purpose of the Panama Papers is to expose global leaders that have used offshore companies to hide their money from their respective governments. It’s important to note that offshore companies are not themselves illegal. Many people make use of offshore companies to keep their financial lives private, including recently implicated actress Emma Stone, who was found to own an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. Her spokesperson asserted that Stone is only seeking privacy, and that publication of such information threatens her safety.

On the other side of the coin, the former Prime Minister of Iceland was one of the first global officials to be implicated in the Panama Papers. The Panama Papers revealed that former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and his wife had claims to millions of pounds in a series of failed Icelandic banks through offshore companies, leading many in Iceland to accuse the Prime Minister of a conflict of interest. At first, he denied involvement and showed that he no longer had a stake in the offshore company. His wife continues to have her name in those companies. Later that week, Gunnlaugsson resigned from his position amid cries from Icelandic citizens to resign.

The Panama Papers are still being revealed slowly. A searchable database is available through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists so that anyone in the world can look through Mossack Fonseca’s offshore offerings.

After Years of Political Maneuvering, US Appoints New Ambassador to Norway

When trying to appoint new ambassadors to foreign countries, the US Senate is where candidates get stuck in a holding pattern. Senators may block an appointment for various reasons, often because they have a personal agenda of their own to push forward. In the longest instance of blocking an appointment, an ambassador to Norway has been appointed after a staggering 869 days.

The issue first arose when the previous nominee for ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis, demonstrated he wasn’t competent enough for the job when he called the Norwegian prime minister a president in 2013. After fumbling many other questions in his confirmation hearing, Tsunis chose to withdraw.

Since then, there has been no confirmed ambassador, simply an acting ambassador. In May 2015, Sam Heins, a Minnesota lawyer, was nominated for the role and immediately backed by Minnesota US Senator Amy Klobuchar. Minnesota boasts a large Norwegian community that strongly opposed Tsunis during his nomination for the Norwegian ambassadorship. Klobuchar has advocated strongly for Heins, but he was not quickly appointed.

The opposition arose from Senator Ted Cruz, who is also running for President as a Republican. His agenda was not personal so much as it was related to another international issue: the naming of a road in front of the Chinese Embassy. Cruz wanted the street to be named after a human-rights activist imprisoned in China, which may seem strange at first. This effort to rename the road was not Cruz’s initial plan; he was blocking all nominations from going forward in an effort to force Obama’s hand in the historic nuclear weapons deal with Iran. Since that did not work, Cruz changed his platform.

Even then, the complexity grew. Cruz, being on the campaign trail, has not been in Washington much, keeping him from objecting to diplomatic appointments in person. Yet, Senator Mitch McConnell did that work for Cruz as a personal favor. The holding pattern only ended when McConnell pushed to approve the ambassador on a day when few Senators were around. Cruz got to have the Chinese embassy street renamed, pending approval from the House of Representatives, and a true Norwegian was made ambassador to one of America’s oldest allies.

Russia and US Announce New Plan for a Cease Fire in Syria, Provision of Humanitarian Aid

As Syria’s civil war rages on and refugees seek help from wherever they can find it, global powers have been discussing solutions to the hostilities in Syria. Part of that effort exists in a new deal between the United States and Russia to deliver humanitarian aid to the war-torn country, as well as begin the process towards a formal cease-fire in the region.

This comes at a time where the possibility of military stability in Syria is not entirely realistic in the face of ISIS, which answers to no one. There is no way to truly monitor a cease-fire, even an informal, temporary pause. The terms of such a pause are not clearly defined, leaving Russia with an opportunity to back out of the terms should they not work quickly. That being said, if this cease-fire can be negotiated, it will be the first formal reprieve in the fighting Syria has seen since the beginning of the civil war.

Aside from the temporary pause in fighting, the new agreement focuses on the humanitarian aid needs of Syrians. The relief packages will be distributed fairly, being handed out to rebel groups the United States has been supporting, as well as government supporters. Part of this effort’s success is in using the connections and resources already present on the ground.

Despite the deal, tensions remain high between Russia and the United States. Russia has been bombing rebel groups that the United States has been funding. Support for the Syrian government is high in Moscow, as there has been this expectation of Russia as a deliverer of sorts for the Syrian government. It is expected that because the terms of this new deal are so vague and nebulous, the Russian military may dangle the territory they already have, and whatever new territory they gain in coming months, as a bargaining chip in future negotiations.

U.S., Iran Nuclear Deal Progresses and Creates Foreign Complications

One of the great foreign achievements of the Obama administration lies in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a massive deal between the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, and Iran. The deal allows the wide variety of sanctions on Iran to be lifted should Iran meet a number of requirements related to the restriction of nuclear weapons development within Iranian borders. On the United States’ end of the deal, Secretary of State John Kerry has been spearheading the diplomatic negotiations, speaking frequently with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about the deal and relations between the two nations.

The formation of this nuclear deal has taken over two years, and it is already reaping benefits for the United States even though Iran has yet to hold up their end of the deal. In early January 2016, 10 U.S. Navy sailors were detained by Iran for 16 hours when they were found in Iranian waters. The situation was resolved quickly, largly because of the trust built between Kerry and Zarif.

However, this deal has opened the door to complications in broader Middle East negotiations. The United States has allowed Iran to join them in organizing a cease-fire between the Syrian government and rebels in the country, creating tension with long time U.S. ally, Israel, as well as American Republicans. To further complicate matters, developing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which support opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War, is causing U.S. foreign diplomats to scratch their heads.

Their greatest bet is in the strong Kerry-Zarif relationship. With the success of the JCPOA on the line, as well as a potentially huge step towards peace in Syria, the stakes have never been higher.

U.S. Sends Special Operations Armed Forces to Syria

In an effort to drive ISIS forces out of Syria, the U.S. has announced its decision to send Special Operations forces to Kurdish-controlled territory in the northern regions of the country. The troops will first be sent to this area to help the local forces coordinate efforts to fight ISIS.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that less than 50 troops will be deployed. Some have criticized this decision as being an insufficient amount of force to actually make an impact. Earnest dismissed this criticism and noted that the Special Operations are an “important force multiplier anywhere around the world they are deployed.” The President authorized the cap of 50 troops, but more could be sent if needed. A few dozen troops will be sent first, and they could be on the ground in just a few weeks.

The White House has been careful to note that the forces are not being deployed for a combat mission. They will mostly be stationed at a facility acting as a provisional headquarters for Syrian Arabs, Kurds and other groups tasked with driving ISIS out of the country. According to their current mission, the troops are not authorized to go into combat or on raids. More Special Operations troops will be made available for authorized raids if high-ranking ISIS targets are located.

The enhanced U.S. military involvement comes amid intensifying Russian activity in the area. Russian troops were deployed to Syria to launch an airstrike and artillery campaign that was allegedly meant to target ISIS groups. However, the location of these bombings have caused U.S. military officials to believe Russia is attempting to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against U.S.-backed rebel groups, known collectively as the Free Syrian Army. The U.S. and Russia are actively holding de-escalation talks in order to prevent accidents or misunderstanding between the two country’s respective military efforts.

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