Research & Analysis

The World This Week: The Joshua Wang trial in Hong Kong, and a worsening conflict in Ethiopia

Ethiopia: After a 72-hour ultimatum, and a military operation, the PM announces full control of Tigray’s capital
What happened?
On 28 November, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister announced completing and ceasing the military operations in Tigray, as the army took full control of Mekelle, the regional capital. He has also stated that the focus would be to rebuild Tigray, provide humanitarian assistance and apprehend “the TPLF clique.”

On 27 November, in his meeting with African Union envoys, Abiy rejected calls for dialogue with the leaders of Tigray. He said he would engage with representatives “operating legally” in the region; the statement reiterates Ethiopia’s stance of not recognizing the elected regional government in Tigray. 

On 26 November, Abiy ordered the Ethiopian military to move into Tigray’s capital city, Mekelle, and urged civilians to stay indoors. The statement was a result of Tigray’s defiance of the 72-hour ultimatum that Ahmed had proposed to the region to surrender. On 22 November, he warned that Tigray is “at the point of no return” and called for the region’s surrender. 

What is the background?
First, Tigray’s resistance to the two ultimatums by Addis Ababa. Leaders of Tigray defied two deadlines issued after the current round of conflict began on 4 November. The first three-day deadline to surrender ended on 16 November. A week later, the Ethiopian government issued another three-day deadline which expired on 25 November. Chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) emphasized that surrendering was not an option and that Tigrayans would continue to fight. This is a reflection of the battle-hardened history of Tigray and its people; first, Tigray led the movement to overthrow the communist government in 1991 and second, they led the 1998 Ethiopia-Eritrea war and combated subsequent conflict which lasted till 2018. Currently, it is estimated that the Tigray military, along with local militia groups, has nearly 200,000 personnel, well equipped with arms.

Second, the TPLF’s animosity towards the Ethiopian government. In March 2020, Ahmed postponed the national and regional elections scheduled for August 2020 to 2021 citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The current conflict began when Tigray defied this order and held its election in September 2020. The region refused to recognize the Ethiopian government as a legal entity; they cited that the government’s tenure was over in August. The TPLFs approach to defy orders of the government can be traced to Ahmed’s attempt to revamp the ethnic-based federal structure of governance, which was promulgated by the TPLF in 1991. In 2018, Ahmed came to power following protests by other ethnic groups against the then ruling TPLF-led coalition — Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Ahmed restructured the coalition and formed the Prosperity Party. Members of the EPRDF, except TPLF, joined the new coalition. Ahmed adopted a broad nationalist approach of governance, leading to concerns that this would lead to diminishing powers of ethnic groups and regional autonomy.

Third, the uncertainty of developments in Tigray. Since Ethiopia has imposed a communications and road blockade on Tigray, information about the developments in the region is being communicated by the Ethiopian media or government. However, the TPLF has managed to contact media houses. He has refuted the Ethiopian government’s claims of capturing territory or advancing into Mekelle. It is, therefore, impossible to verify the reality on the ground as both sides are issuing contradictory statements.

Fourth, violence and the humanitarian cost of the conflict. As mentioned above, information from the ground is not available. However, there are speculations that thousands have perished. As of 27 November, the number of Ethiopians who fled to Sudan crossed 43,000. The United Nations expects the number will reach 200,000 in the next six months. The UN has also warned of dwindling humanitarian aid and supply in Tigray and Sudan. Further, the conflict has paved the way for parallel conflicts between ethnic groups within Tigray. On 24 November, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission stated that a local Tigray group had massacred nearly 600 people belonging to the Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups. 

What does it mean?
The UN has earlier warned that if Ahmed launches the final offensive, it will lead to war crimes. Ahmed has been rejecting requests from regional organizations, neighbouring countries and the rest of the world to de-escalate the violence. Further, he declined offers of mediation, terming them an ‘interference.’ 

It is difficult to ascertain the future course and the humanitarian losses the conflict would entail as neither the Ethiopian government nor the TPLF has an exit strategy in case of a protracted conflict. For example, even if Ethiopia succeeds in capturing Mekelle, it is unlikely that the TPLF will cease resistance.  On 28 November, after Ahmed announced ceasing of operations in Tigray, the TPLF Chairman told the media that Tigray would continue fighting. Therefore, unless there is a dialogue between the two sides, the current political and military confrontation could transition into guerilla warfare; this would also mean that despite Ahmed’s attempt to reintegrate Tigrayans with Ethiopia, he would not succeed doing so


Hong Kong: The Joshua Wong trio pleads guilty, as the UK calls it as “the most concerning period in Hong Kong’s post-handover history”
What happened?
On 23 November, the six-day trial of Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam, and Agnes Chow Ting began. The three pleaded guilty to charges of inciting and organizing an unauthorized assembly, to lay a siege at Hong Kong police force headquarters in June 2019. The trio will be sentenced next week.
Wong said that they are prepared to face immediate jail terms and seek global attention to the criminal justice system, which is “manipulated by Beijing”‘.

On 24 November, Dominic Raab, UK’s Foreign Secretary unveiled the 47th six-monthly report on recent trends and developments in Hong Kong. He said, “This has been, and continues to be, the most concerning period in Hong Kong’s post-handover history.” The foreign secretary has also begun discussions with the President of the UK’s Supreme Court over the British judge’s position in Hong Kong’s top court. The report was highly condemned by Hong Kong and China. The Hong Kong administration described the report as “sweeping attacks and groundless accusations”. China accused the UK of meddling in China’s internal affairs and undermining “one country, two systems” by offering a path to citizenship.

On 25 November, Carrie Lam in her annual policy address said that the government has planned to introduce a bill to augment “oath-taking” by civil servants and widespread public education “to enhance the understanding of the rule of law”. She also said, “The situation in Hong Kong has evolved to such a state that the Central Government had no alternative but to step in and take action”. 

What is the background?
First, the emergence of three protestors – Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam, as a symbol of protest. They are facing charges over a demonstration at the police headquarters during the Hong Kong protests in June 2019. The three protestors were former members of the pro-democracy party Demosisto, which was disbanded soon after the imposition of China’s national security law.  Wong has previously served three separate stints behind bars. Anges Chow and Joshua Wong had been involved in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong for years and were key figures in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. 

Second, Beijing’s steady clamp-down on the protestors. There have been two “substantive” breaches of international commitments by China. First, imposing the new National Security Law, which aims to punish any action Beijing considers as subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Second, new rules for the disqualification of elected Hong Kong legislators, which led to the immediate removal of four pro-democracy representatives. In response, fifteen members of opposition stepped out in solidarity chanting “Hong Kong add oil, together we stand”. 

Third, the international response. The repeated arrests have drawn criticism from Western governments who say China is not fulfilling its obligation to allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy which was agreed with Britain.  The US has been resolute over its decision to remove Hong Kong special economic status and impose sanctions on Carrie Lam and some other government officials.

What does it mean?
China’s consistent heavy-handed approach towards Hong Kong has cast a chill over pro-democracy activism. Beijing’s breaches of the Sino-Britain Joint Declaration in the past five months has raised concern over its commitment. 

Even though the resistance of young protestors has weakened in the last few months, this section of the Hong Kong population is actively committed to preserve the “one country, two systems model”.  


Also in the news…
by Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma

East Asia and Southeast Asia This Week
China: Xi calls for building a ‘digital Silk Road’
On 27 November, the Chinese President Xi Jinping in his address to the 17th China-ASEAN Expo focussed on strengthening and deepening ties with the ASEAN countries and promoting a ‘digital Silk Road’. “China regards ASEAN as a priority in its neighbourhood diplomacy and a key area for high-quality joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Xi said. He added that China supports “Asean’s central position in East Asian cooperation, and supports Asean to play a greater role in building an open and inclusive regional architecture”. 

China: Foreign Minister Wang visits Japan and South Korea
On 24 November, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi reached Japan for a two-day visit, in a first high-level visit from China since Suga Yoshihide became the Prime Minister of Japan. The pandemic and the dispute over the islands in the East China Sea were discussed. On 26 November, Wang Yi visited South Korea; he met his counterpart Kang Kyung-wha and President Moon Jae-in in Seoul. Trade, pandemic, and peace in the Korean Peninsula were among the issues that were discussed. 

China: Tariffs imposed on imports of Australian wine 
On 27 November, the Chinese regulators imposed tariffs on the import of wine from Australia after finding evidence of dumping. The Ministry of Commerce said that the tariffs would range between 107.1 and 212.1 per cent. The tariffs come amidst the worsening China-Australia relations and will hurt Australian winemakers who were eyeing for China’s market for Christmas and New Year celebrations. 

Thailand: A new dam by Laos on Mekong river causes concern
On 24 November, Thailand raised concerns over a new dam constructed by Laos on the Mekong River. As the river forms that boundary between both countries in many sections, Thailand fears that the Sanakham dam might alter the border. “We won’t agree to the project unless we have clear evidence that the border is not affected,” said the Secretary-General to the Office of National Water Resources. Thailand has also raised concerns about the threat to livelihood and ecosystem and warned that it would reconsider its decision of buying electricity from this dam.

Thailand: Protest leaders charged with ‘lese majeste’ laws
On 25 November, protests took place at the SCB park, the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank. The venue was shifted from the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) to avoid confrontation with the royalist supporters. A day before, on 24 November, 12 protest leaders were summoned by the police for ‘lese majeste’ charges. Criticism of monarchy is punishable under section 112 (lese majeste) of the Thai Criminal Code and carries a sentence up to 15 years. 

Malaysia: With the budget getting passed, PM Yassin saves the government
On 26 November, the Parliament of Malaysia passed the 2021 budget with a voice vote. Ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition led by PM Yassin enjoys a thin majority in Parliament, and Yassin’s continuation in power depended on the passing of this budget. The USD 79 billion budget, Malaysia’s largest ever, comes in the wake of the economic downturn due to the pandemic. The King thanked lawmakers for supporting the budget in times of national crisis. 

Indonesia: Foreign Ministry condemns migrant labour abuse in Malaysia
On 26 November, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry condemned the persistent abuses migrant labour from the country undergo in Malaysia. The statement came after an Indonesian national, who worked as domestic help in Kuala Lumpur, was abused and tortured. The help “was beaten with blunt objects, cut with sharp objects, scalded with hot water and not given food”. Malaysian authorities have rescued and admitted the help while the employers have been detained. Indonesia urged Malaysia to protect workers’ rights and to strictly enforce the laws. 

The Philippines: US National Security Advisor’s visit
On 23 November, the US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien announced in a ceremony at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila that the US has delivered missiles and bombs to the Philippines to help it fight the Islamic State aligned militants. In April 2020, US President Trump had promised to provide the Philippines with USD 18 million worth of missiles. Robert O’Brien also reiterated the US pledge to defend the Philippines, in reference to the developments in the South China Sea.  

Australia: Ministry of Defence issues notices to soldiers over Afghanistan war crimes
On 23 November, the Australian Ministry of Defence issued show-cause notices to 13 serving soldiers, initiating the proceedings of their dismissal. This comes a week after the Australian Defence Force Chief Gen Angus Campbell released the finding of a four-year-long inquiry report on the war crimes committed by the Australian forces in Afghanistan during the period 2009-2013. The report had found evidence that Australian forces had killed 39 unarmed Afghan prisoners, farmers, and civilians.  

South Asia This Week
Bangladesh: Migrant worker arrested in Singapore under terrorism charges
On 24 November, Singapore security agencies arrested a 26-year-old Bangladeshi man under the Internal Security Act (ISA) on terrorism-related charges. He is alleged to have plotted an attack against the Hindus in Bangladesh, was attracted to the ISIS, and was planning to fight in Kashmir. The Ministry of Home Affairs of Singapore also carried investigations on 37 people for their suspicious activities, most of whom are from Bangladesh. The law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh are seeking information on the issue of the arrested man.

Bhutan: Formal diplomatic ties with Germany established
On 25 November, Bhutan and Germany established formal diplomatic relations. The ‘Exchange of verbal notes ceremony’ was held between the Ambassador of Bhutan Maj Gen Vestop Namgyel and Ambassador of Germany Walter Lindner, at the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi. The two countries expressed the desire to strengthen cooperation in areas of mutual benefit. Bhutan now has diplomatic relations with 53 states and the European Union.

Nepal: India’s Foreign Secretary visits Nepal
On 27 November, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla concluded his two-day visit to Nepal. He met with his counterpart Bharat Raj Paudyal, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali and prominent leaders of the Nepali Congress. Both sides discussed the bilateral relations and prospects for enhanced cooperation. “They also discussed boundary matters and exchanged views on boundary work in the remaining segments”, Nepal’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

India: 43 more Chinese apps banned
On 24 November, India imposed a ban on 43 more Chinese apps under the Section 69-A of the Information Technology Act. The Indian government said that these apps were found “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity, defence of India, security of state and public order”. On 25 November, China criticized India for citing national security as an excuse to ban Chinese apps. Popular Alibaba-linked apps such as the AliExpress, Alipay Cashier, Alibaba Workbench, and AliSuppliers Mobile App were among the apps that got blocked.

India: PM Modi addresses 15th G20 Summit
On 22 November, PM Narendra Modi addressed the G20 nations. He called for the need to develop a new global index with four elements, including the creation of talent, transparency in governance, improved technology, and trusteeship towards the planet. The 15th G20 Summit was chaired by the king of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz. The theme of the summit was ‘Realizing Opportunities of the 21st Century for All’. G-20 nations also pledged to ensure equitable and affordable access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

India: Economy contracts by 7.5 per cent in the last quarter
On 27 November, the National Statistical Office announced the Quarter-2 GDP figures. The Indian economy has contracted by 7.5 per cent in the July-September quarter.  It is significantly lesser than the 23.9 per cent decline that happened during the first quarter 1 (April-June). With the gradual lifting of lockdown from June, the economy had started picking up. However, with two consecutive quarters of GDP decline, India has officially entered into ‘recession’.

India: The NSA attends the Trilateral Maritime Dialogue
On 28 November, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval took part in the fourth Trilateral Maritime security dialogue. The meeting, held after six years, was hosted by Sri Lanka. Ajit Doval, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Major Gen (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne and Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi signed the minutes of the meeting. The meeting was also attended by observers from Bangladesh, Mauritius and Seychelles. The discussion focussed on deepening security and strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean Region.

Pakistan: Controversy over Kashmir issue in agenda of OIC meeting 
On 26 November, the Foreign Office of Pakistan dismissed the reports that said the Kashmir issue was not on the agenda of the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. However, the OIC meeting agenda statement, which was released in English and Arabic did not mention the Kashmir issue specifically. 

Pakistan: Dossier against India submitted in the UN
On 24 November, Pakistan’s envoy to UN Munir Akram handed over a dossier to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Akram accused India of violating international law, the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions, by sponsoring “terrorism”. He also called on the international community “to take note of Indian terrorism and subversion against Pakistan and to prevail on India to desist from these illegal and aggressive activities.”

Afghanistan: Donors pledge fund and call for durable peace 
On 23 November, Afghanistan Conference 2020 took place which was co-hosted by the Governments of Afghanistan and Finland and the United Nations. Afghanistan and International partners called for an end to the war and ensure durable peace, stability and prosperity. Participants emphasized the need to address challenges such as poverty reduction, institution building, good governance, anti-corruption and private sector development. Donors have pledged USD 300 million, and further USD 300 million will be provided after reviewing the peace process.

Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Niger: The OIC holds the 47th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers
During 27-28 November, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held the foreign ministers’ summit on “United against Terrorism for Peace and Development”. According to the OIC portal, the agenda included the following: “In addition to the Palestinian cause, the fight against violence, extremism and terrorism, Islamophobia and defamation of religious, the Council will discuss the situation of Muslim minorities and communities in non-member states, fundraising for the Rohingya case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as well as the promotion of dialogue among civilizations, cultures and religions, and other emerging matters.”

Iraq: Six killed in the anti-government protests
On 28 November, six people were killed in a violent clash between the anti-government protestors and the supporters of the populist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in the city of Nasiriyah. The anti-government protestors have asked the Sadrist movement and Sayyed Moqtada (al-Sadr) to stop the strife and their assaults against peaceful protesters.

Iran: Top nuclear scientist killed
On 27 November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian nuclear scientist and a Brigadier General in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was assassinated on the outskirts of Tehran. He was a key figure in Iran’s nuclear programme and the defence establishment. An unidentified gunman opened fire at Fakhrizadeh’s car while he was driving through Absard, a small town located some 65 km east of Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has accused Israel for the killing.

Iran: British-Australian academic released after two years
On 25 November, Iran released a British-Australian academic imprisoned on espionage charges. Moore-Gilbert, a Melbourne University lecturer in Middle Eastern studies, was detained at the Tehran airport in 2018, and was in jail for two years. She was charged with spying after attending an academic conference in Iran. However, she denied all the charges against her.

UN and the Middle East: UNCTAD’s report on Gaza, UNOCT’s office in Doha  and the UNRWA’s fund crunch
On 25 November,  the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) issued a report that said that the Israel-led blockade of the Gaza Strip had pushed more than one million people below the poverty line in just eleven years. On the same day, Qatar and UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) signed an agreement to establish a UNOCT office in Doha to facilitate research, knowledge sharing and capacity building. On 26 November, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said that it has been chronically underfunded over the years and asked the international community to show solidarity for the same.

Africa: 13 countries join the largest clinical trials for COVID-19 treatment
On 24 November, The Guardian reported that “13 African countries” have “joined forces with global researchers to launch the largest clinical trial of potential COVID-19 treatments on the continent.” The Anticov study, as it is called, involves Antwerp’s Institute of Tropical Medicine and international research institutions. It aims to identify treatments that can be used to treat mild and moderate cases of COVID-19 early and prevent spikes in hospitalization that could overburden health systems in Africa. The clinical trials will be carried out at 19 sites in 13 countries and led by doctors from African countries.

Europe and the Americas This Week
The UK: Regulator asked to assess AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine
On 27 November, the UK government asked its regulator to assess the vaccine candidate developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca for temporary roll out. This move comes even as questions are being raised about the trial data. “We have formally asked the regulator to assess the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, to understand the data and determine whether it meets rigorous safety standards”, said UK’s Health Secretary.  

The UK: Labour calls for suspending funding Nigerian Forces
On 24 November, the Labour party urged the UK government to reconsider its funding and training support to the Nigerian forces in light of the violent suppression of protests by the latter last month. Kate Osamor, a Labour member of parliament, tweeted that her party is calling for “independent investigations into the allegations against Sars units, as well as military, security and policing forces responsible for attacks on protesters, that could lead to targeted Magnitsky-style sanctions against responsible individuals.”

Poland: Women protest on 102nd anniversary of universal suffrage 
On 28 November, women protested in Poland’s capital Warsaw against the restrictive abortion laws and recent police violence on protestors. The protests coincided with the 102nd anniversary of women gaining voting rights. Women have been protesting for a month now after the 22 October ruling by the constitutional court which outlawed abortion of fetuses with congenital defects, making the existing abortion laws even more restrictive. 

The US: Supreme Court bars New York state from imposing pandemic restrictions
On 25 November, the US Supreme Court voted five-four in a split vote to bar the state of New York from imposing pandemic restrictions at the places of worship. The Trump administration had appointed Justice Amy Barrett to the Supreme Court in the run-up to elections following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her appointment has tipped the balance of the court towards the conservatives.

The US: A low key Thanksgiving this year
On 26 November, the Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, on the fourth Thursday of November, as has been the case since the 1620s. Though this year it was a low-key affair due to COVID and repeated travel restrictions, the Americans continued their celebration. As an editorial pointed out in Chicago Suntimes, “We have lost more than a quarter-million Americans to a virus that we didn’t even know existed a year ago, yet we have plenty to be thankful for: For those who are laboring selflessly on the front lines against the pandemic. For those who have kept businesses running and schools going. For those who are caring for each other at great personal risk. For those who bravely conducted a fair election that drew a record turnout despite the pandemic and fierce political headwinds.”

 

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About the author

Apoorva Sudhakar and Sukanya Bali | NIAS

Apoorva Sudhakar and Sukanya Bali are Research Associates, Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma are PhD Scholars, at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.

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