The stream that leads into the San Sebastian River in the poor and tiny Central American country of El Salvador runs bright yellow, not for the gold in the mine nearby but for the chemical byproducts which leach into the water. That stream is emblematic in a fight between an Australian mining company and the El Salvador government, over whether there should be gold mining in the country.
If El Salvador wins this fight, it will preserve a bipartisan policy on mining, a country’s right to make policy generally, and to protect its main water supply in particular.
If it loses, then a foreign mining company will be able to ride roughshod over the country’s democratic process and prosecute a financial claim that could send its government broke.
Set among dense green foliage and steep hills, the San Sebastian River, La Union department in eastern El Salvador runs a light orange color, depending on the extent of rainfall. It has variously also flowed anything from a pale yellow to a deep orange. The San Sebastian is a ‘dead’ river, in that no life exists within it, and its water is poisonous to drink. The unnatural color of the San Sebastian River is a consequence of ‘acid mine drainage’, which conventionally includes sulfuric acid, arsenic and iron oxide (often referred to as ‘yellow boy’), along with other possible poisonous trace elements. The acid mine drainage to the San Sebastian River derives from a stream the starts among the steep slopes above the village of San Sebastian, adjacent to a formally abandoned gold mine. A visit to the mine site clearly showed where the surface run-off from the mine site occurred, although acid mine drainage also occurs underground and leaches out of the soil along the hillside into the stream.
According to El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the river carries nine times the maximum permissible level of cyanide, approximately 1,300 times the permissible amount of iron (MARN 2012) and an unknown but certainly toxic level of arsenic.
The stream itself was a bright, almost luminous orange color, feeding directly into the San Sebastian River, which itself flows into the Gorascoran River. This river marks the eastern border between El Salvador and Honduras and then flows into the Gulf of Fonseca, also shared by Nicaragua, where it poisons the local fish stocks. Not only is the water from the San Sebastian poisonous, the community of San Sebastian says that it suffers a very high level of quite specific illnesses usually associated with arsenic and metals poisoning (see Zarraga 2014:41 for detailed account of the numerous chronic illnesses associated with arsenic poisoning, also Ventura 2011), and is required to truck in drinking water. For an impoverished community, this represents a great, almost unbearable, expense.
Not only does acid mine drainage seep from the mine above the village but, sitting abandoned in unsecured and deteriorating shipping containers, are approximately 23 barrels containing both sodium cyanide and iron sulfate, also used in gold mining. There is believed to be enough cyanide in the containers to kill approximately a half a million people.
In a country in which there has been little gold mining, the San Sebastian mine and its consequences stand as a stark illustration of what can happen when there is a confluence of a highly toxic industry, a vulnerable topography, high population density and generalized water shortage. It is, in short, a human and ecological disaster, which retains the potential to become very much worse.
A case in point of a possible new and much larger project is the El Dorado gold mining project in Cabañas district, which was initiated by Pacific Rim and upon takeover was assumed by the Australian-headquartered company OceanaGold. As a consequence, there has developed a popular movement against further gold mining – indeed all mining – in El Salvador, now supported by the government, which has by refusing to grant new permits declared a moratorium on the granting of mining permits. The government of El Salvador has to the time of writing refused to issue a permit for the mine to commence exploitation, based on strongly held environmental concerns and the fact that the predecessor company, Pacific Rim, failed to complete the necessary environmental and feasibility studies required by law. These concerns focus in particular on the pollution of both regional water supplies and, via its watershed, the main (64 per cent) water supply for El Salvador of the Lempa River. This moratorium is now confronted by an international mining industry that wishes to pursue mining in the country, regardless of local opposition, and which has taken the country to international legal arbitration in an attempt to force the issue. This paper examines some of the issues that have led to this dispute.
The latest reports of a massacre of dozens, perhaps 300, ethnic Yazidis by fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State has again raised fundamental questions about what can – or should – be done to protect this ethnic minority. The question is all the more pressing as while the Yazidis have been threatened with genocide, the IS has similarly targeted for extermination Iraq’s small Christian community, Shias and any other group that does not immediately submit to its medieval beliefs.
The United States has made some inroads into the IS advances by attacking i from the air. This has, in turn, allowed the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to slow the IS advance. But, having been bloodied for so little reward following the 2003 intervention, the US, like the UK and other allies involved in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ are deeply reluctant to again deploy ‘boots on the ground’.
The problem with the IS, though, is that while hardened Peshmerga fighters may be able to hold the IS from further northward advances, the IS continues to persecute other minorities and even those of its own Sunni faith in both Iraq and Syria that do not subscribe to its fanatical beliefs. Should the IS manage to consolidate, it has further designs on Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the north of Saudi Arabia.
As UK Prime Minister David Cameron has, among others, noted, the IS represents a threat not just to those fleeing from its immediate terror, but much more widely. The IS could be understood as a more radicalized version of Afghanistan’s Taliban, which supported Al Qaeda.
US air strikes against the IS are, with the blessing of the floundering Iraqi government, necessary. However, the United States is again either casting itself or being cast as the world’s policeman.
The role of the world’s policeman is not one the US is necessarily comfortable with. The country has, since the late 1800s, vacillated between asserting its international authority and retreating to an introspective cocoon.
Having taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan and manufacturing the 2003 Iraq war, the US under President Obama has been reluctant to again become directly engaged in external conflicts. The US chose not to act in Syria in 2013, which created the opening the IS was looking for there, and it has stayed similarly aloft from Russia’s unsubtle interventions in Ukraine.
It is at such a time, then, that the world appears to require an alternative, legitimate strategy for confronting the IS, and the possible rise of other threats like it.
In 2005, the United Nations voted to endorse the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Following the genocides of Rwanda and in former Yugoslavia, the destruction of East Timor, the mass deaths of Darfur and many others, the United Nations endorsed the shared deployment of mechanisms, if necessary including military force, to prevent the possibility of further genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The conditions of invoking the Responsibility to Protect were onerous, so much that since it was agreed to it has not yet been invoked, despite numerous examples of humanitarian crises it was intended to prevent. The two critical features that have stymied its use have been a fear by some distasteful UN member states that it could be used against them, and that it requires the endorsement of the UN Security Council.
The UNSC’s five permanent members have veto power on any Security Council decision which ensures that there can be no agreement on any issue that one or more permanent members have a strategic interest in. In 2009, China and Russia ensured there was no action on Sri Lanka, leading to the deaths of some 40,000 ethnic Tamils. Last year Russia vetoed any intervention in Syria, allowing that bloodbath to continue unabated.
However, none of the permanent five member of the UNSC has an interest in the progress of the IS. Indeed, Russia would be keen to see the IS disappear, given its own problems with Islamist rebellions on its southern flanks. China, if somewhat disingenuously, is also concerned with the Islamist character of Uighur separatism in its north-west Xinjiang province.
The invocation of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle would allow genuine coalition of world powers to address the Islamist mutation that is the Islamic State. It would require boots on the ground, but they would be so universal and so overwhelming that IS would effectively disappear.
The end result in Iraq would, no doubt, be at least some reorganization of the state, which appears critically necessary in any case. It may also end up with the recognition of an independent Kurdistan, not least since neighboring Turkey, with its own militant Kurdish minority, now appears to be coming to terms with that idea.
Ultimately, the application of such a principle would also have to address the difficult issue of the IS in Syria, in which Russia has a vested interest. A resolution, though difficult, may also still be possible there.
Perhaps the US will prefer to continue to act not just as the world’s policeman, but as its ‘Lone Ranger’. But for the US to extricate itself from a deepening enmeshment in another protracted war, and addressing a problem that much of the world finds increasingly alarming, invoking the Responsibility to Protect could well ensure it does not get involved in another wear alone, and would bring a sense of global responsibility to international problems.
Australia is facing a new regional challenge as its northern neighbours increasingly join a global trend towards a more fundamentalist form of Islam. While this shift in religious orientation does not present a direct threat to Australia – at least for the time being - it is already complicating Australia’s regional relationships. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute monarch and one of the world’s wealthiest men, recently announced his country would adopt strict sharia punishments. These will include whipping, amputation of hands for theft, and stoning to death for illicit sex (such as adultery and homosexuality) and apostasy (abandoning Islam).
When Indonesia's 180 million voters go to the polls tomorrow, they will be deciding whether Indonesia continues, more or less, with further developing its democratic experiment, or whether it turns away from a relatively open society that is necessary to allow democracy to flourish.
While the choice might appear to be obvious to anyone committed to democracy, to many Indonesians, the option of returning to a more authoritarian style of government still appeals.
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After balking at its first diplomatic test over revelations of spying on Indonesia last year, there was still a reasonable expectation that the new government would quickly find its foreign policy feet. Julie Bishop as foreign minister was intended to present a firm but friendly policy face to the world, while Tony Abbott got on with domestic policy.
It appears now, however, that it’s actually Abbott who enjoys the world stage, while Bishop seems constrained in her ability to act. In a deeply enmeshed world, this arrangement is manifesting as a poor feel for (or a lack of understanding of) the nuances of foreign policy.
Australia is now explicitly viewed as a problem by an increasingly nationalist Indonesia, eyed with suspicion by an assertive China and with anger or tepid acceptance by formerly close regional friends.
Comments by Indonesia’s two presidential candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, made ahead of this year's election, cast Australia as the problem in formerly close bilateral relations. Bishop’s failure to offer a quick apology over Australian spying on Indonesia was an "own goal". The apology eventually came, but it was too little and much too late.
This was exacerbated by Australia’s policy of unilaterally pushing asylum seekers back into Indonesia waters, transgressing Indonesian territorial sovereignty and, more recently, returning asylum seekers in Australian-supplied life boats. Bilateral cooperation put on ice last year will probably stay in the deep freeze until at least 2015.
Even further to the north, Australia’s downgrading of ties with long-standing friend, Thailand, was justified in response to the May military coup. But this led to an angry rebuke by junta leader, general Prayuth Chan-ocha, who will remain as Thailand's head of government for at least 18 months. Australia has, for the time-being, lost not just Indonesia but Thailand’s support in regional forums such as the strategic Asean regional forum, the east Asia summit and others.
More locally, Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea is under renewed pressure, following corruption investigator Sam Koin’s call for Australia to "take a greater interest" in allegations that embattled PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill. Last year O’Neill criticised then-opposition leader Tony Abbott’s "completely untrue" claims over Australian aid to PNG being linked to an asylum seeker processing agreement.
''We are not going to put up with this kind of nonsense,'' he said. ''We are helping resolving an Australian issue.
There is little doubt that PNG is riddled with problems. As PNG’s largest aid provider, Australia has a right to be concerned over good governance. But this interest is increasingly unwelcome.
Earlier this year, Australia moved to normalise relations with Fiji, following the 2006 coup. Unfortunately for us, Fiji has long since dumped Australia as its dominant regional partner. We've been replaced by China’s, which offers "soft power" diplomacy, in the form of loans and investment. Fiji also recently welcomed Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a sign of strengthening relations with Indonesia, as it increases its own influence as a growing regional power.
China is playing a similarly more influential role with Australia’s other Pacific neighbors. The status of the Pacific as Australia's backyard has long since dissipated – Australia’s aid program has been contorted to fit changing domestic politics, our economy can't match growing regional powers and our strategic orientation remains transfixed by the distant spectre of militant Islamism.
Australia’s largest trading partner, China, has tolerated Australia’s diplomatic clumsiness. After Abbott identified Japan as Australia’s "best friend", he responded to China's partially concealed irritation by assiduously courting the growing regional power during his recent Asian trip. These negotiations were, in turn, conducted while Abbott walks the tightrope of a US alliance competing with Chinese trade.
Globally, the Australian government’s enthusiasm for supporting a return to Iraq before the US has defined its own policy position, its questionable approach to climate change and now its failed attempt to overturn the Tasmanian forest world heritage listing, has left Australia further diplomatically isolated.
Foreign policy primarily reflects domestic political concerns and there is little doubt that the Australian government would like to see a seamless link between the two. How likely is that dream? While the government struggles under the critical appraisal of a disenchanted electorate, the international stage looks more like a minefield – in part of its own making – that it seems only marginally equipped to avoid.
There will no doubt be many who see the US sending 300 military advisers to Iraq, along with 275 soldiers to protect its embassy in Baghdad, as the beginning of a US re-intervention in that beleaguered country. Added to the placement of a US aircraft carrier offshore, they would be half correct.
The US is deeply concerned about unfolding events in Iraq and has a bottom line position of not seeing the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant/Syria (ISIL/S) seize control in Iraq. But, having extricated itself from the unholy mess that was the US’ Iraq war, US President Barack Obama and a majority of US people have no desire to go back there. In this, the US is caught in a bind.
The bind that the US now finds itself in is made vastly worse by the incompetent, sectarian government of Nuri al-Malaki, which has openly favoured Iraq’s Shi’ite majority to the exclusion of the country’s Sunni minority. The US has made it a condition for any direct support that the al-Malaki government re-engages with the Sunni minority so as not to create further fertile ground in Iraq for ISIS/L.
Despite increasingly desperate appeals for help, al-Malaki has not yet indicated that he is prepared or able to make any meaningful moves towards a re-accommodation with Iraq’s Sunni population. Any moves made by a-Malaki now might also well be seen as window-dressing – just enough to re-engage the US without any longer term or substantive commitment.
At this stage, the US would, however, probably just settle for a public promise. Should ISIL/S be successful in toppling the al-Malaki government, ISIL/S would probably be halted as it encroached into the southern Shia heartland. Not only would it face Shia militias, it would also face the possibility of direct support from or intervention by neighboring Iran, which would be happy to have southern Iraq as a vassal state.
That would, however, leave the centre of Iraq in ISIL/S hands, providing a base for its future operations in the region and more permanently linking with territory it controls in Syria. With Iraqi forces now being concentrated nearer to Baghdad, Iraq’s border with Jordan is now essentially undefended, and Jordan could well be the insurgent group’s next target.
The other area of instability in the region is in Iraq’s north, in the Kurdish area. The Kurds, already autonomous from the Baghdad government, have taken control of the oil producing town of Kirkuk. In contrast to just a few years ago, the Turkish government has reached a détente with the Kurdish regional government.
In exchange for limiting support for Kurdish separatists in eastern Turkey, Turkey now appears prepared to see the establishment of an independent Kurdish state to its east. The establishment of an independent Kurdistan may now, perhaps, be inevitable. But the break-up of Iraq that it would imply is not something that the US wants to see.
So, the US is left with a disintegrating state led by a dysfunctional, sectarian government on one hand and on the other a redrawing of the map of the Middle-East with the possibility of what amounts to an outlaw state in its middle.
It remains very unlikely that the US will commit to a full-scale ‘boots on the ground’ campaign. But at some point in the near future, it will seek to cripple ISIL/S’s capacity. Substantial US air strikes in Iraq are, thus, now all but inevitable.
There has been a growing sense that Indonesia’s presidential elections on 9 July will be much closer than initially thought and that hard man Prabowo Subianto could be a real contender for office. If Prabowo is successful, his presidency would be expected to fundamentally re-shape the orientation of Indonesia’s post-Suharto era.
This shift towards Prabowo follows many months of largely uncritical adulation of the former Jakarta and Surakarta mayor, PDI-P candidate Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, as a certainty for office. But the prevailing wisdom now sees the election as a tight race.
This increased sense of competition for the presidency was enhanced when the chairman of Indonesia’s largest political party, Golkar, billionaire businessman Aburizal Bakrie, recently shifted allegiance from Jokowi to Prabowo.
Some observers have suggested that, as the largest party, Golkar’s official backing for Prabowo will turn out its voters as a block. Prabowo’s coalition of backers, including Golkar, controls just over half of Indonesia’s legislature, compared with Jokowi’s lesser 37 per cent.
Having noted this, since the return of multiparty democracy in 1999, legislative elections have only once been an indicator of presidential outcomes, and that was in 2009 on the back of the pre-existing popular presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Further, Bakrie became Golkar chairman through elite wheeling and dealing, not because he is loved by its membership.
Many in Golkar would prefer to see Jokowi’s running mate, Jusuf Kalla, still at the party’s helm. This means that the Golkar vote is likely to be divided, diminishing the value of Bakrie’s support for Prabowo.
Smaller Islamic parties have also lined up behind Prabowo, strengthening his position at the margins. Yet with many devout Muslims also concerned about corruption and justice, even here Jokowi’s anti-corruption claims could give him an edge over Prabowo, who is the former son-in-law of the vastly corrupt President Suharto.
One factor in Jokowi’s relative decline in popularity has been that Indonesia’s media, owned by a small group of businessmen sympathetic or linked to Bakrie, have also come out strongly in favour of Prabowo. Prabowo has dominated the media airwaves and only slightly less so the print media. By contrast, Jokowi has had more limited recent exposure and even been actively blocked by some media outlets.
Despite these disadvantages, Jokowi remains so far ahead in public opinion polls that a high number of undecided voters would have to break overwhelmingly in favour of Prabowo for Jokowi to lose.
Just over half of respondents to one recent major survey said they would vote for Jokowi and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla. Slightly less than a third said they would vote for Prabowo and his running mate, former Yudhoyono economics minister, Hatta Rajasa. Other polls have shown similar results.
On that basis, despite a shift towards Prabowo, largely exaggerated by the media, Jokowi is still likely to be Indonesia’s next president.
While policy matters — or it should — there is little of substance between Jokowi and Prabowo. But Indonesian presidential elections have always been more about (perceived) personality than policy substance. Jokowi is seen to be a ‘man of the people’; Prabowo is a self-styled strong-man. Both styles have their supporters, but Jokowi’s has fewer negative associations with the past.
Prabowo has been busy denying allegations of past human rights abuses, notably those of the kidnap, torture and disappearance of protesters just prior to Suharto’s political demise. Prabowo was ousted from the army because of the claims. Luckily for him, his much darker past, in both East Timor and West Papua, raises little interest in the rest of Indonesia.
No doubt the next few weeks before the 9 July election will see a heightening of Indonesia’s political competition between candidates who have consolidated Indonesian politics around two poles. It might even be possible to discern, between them, a more progressive and a more conservative orientation, giving the race a more conventional democratic hue.
Seeing Indonesian politics in such conventional progressive-conservative terms reflects a Westernised political mindset. And it may be that if Prabowo is successful, Indonesia will move in a less clearly democratic direction.
But Prabowo’s victory still seems unlikely. Indonesia will perhaps not get a great president with Jokowi, who will have to confront a fractious and oppositional legislature. But the likely outcome of Indonesia’s presidential elections will have taken Indonesia a significant step along the path to ‘democratic consolidation’ — in peculiarly Indonesian terms.
As events unfold in Iraq, the US finds itself in the curious position of moving towards effective support for Syria’s President Bashar al Assad. Having first intervened in Iraq and then folding on a threat to take action in Syria, the US faces the alternative of the break-up of the nearly century-long construction of the region as a series of sovereign states.
In this, much depends on the strategic capacity and the next tacticalmoves of the organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or, more correctly, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIS is used by most media because it conflates and hence simplifies two neighboring wars, and perhaps because it has echoes of the ancient Egyptian fertility goddess.
However, the name ISIL better reflects a local and historical understanding of the region, which pre-dates regional states as they currently exist. It also indicates the organisation’s ambitions, which extend well beyond occupation of northern Syria and central Iraq.
Comprised of a number of multi-national groups that coalesced in the latter part of the war against the US-led occupation of Iraq, ISIL split with al Qaeda over a power struggle in late 2013. Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, order for ISIL to disband was rebuffed by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This followed an earlier rebuff by al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a US air-strike in 2006. A number of jihadi organisations formally claiming allegiance to al Qaeda have since effectively split with the organisation, in part due to al-Zawahiri’s increasing impotence as a leader in hiding and in part due to the differing circumstances in each of the jihadi fields of operation.
Having crossed from Iraq to Syria, ISIL rose by early 2013 to become the most powerful of the country’s anti-Assad factions. It now controls Syria’s north and north-east. With its origins in Iraq, it was unsurprising that ISIL crossed back to challenge the enfeebled government of Iraqi President Nuri al Malaki.
A large part of ISIL’s advantage in Iraq is that it claims to represent Iraq’s minority Sunni Mulsims, who predominate in the centre of the country. Politically dominated by Sunnis, including ousted and executed dictator Saddam Hussein, since its founding, Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims are now in political control and operating to large extent to the exclusion of Sunnis.
ISIL’s intervention has only deepened the Sunni-Shia divide, and in so doing has inadvertently strengthened the strategic position of Iraq’s Kurds. The Kurds run a semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq and have just taken the main northern, oil-rich town of Kirkuk.
ISIL is now facing a more concerted defence by Iraq’s embattled defence force but, as with Syria, may be expected to hold much of the territory it has gained. Having transitioned from being a guerrilla organisation to a state within two states, ISIL’s longer term ambition is to combine the Arab lands divided by English and French colonial planners in the dying days of the Great War.
As ISIL’s name suggests, its origins are in Iraq, but it rejects the division of the Middle-east based on colonial and subsequent administrative convenience. ISIL’s goal, therefore, is to eventually subsume Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, southern Turkey and Cyprus into a greater Islamist caliphate.
As ISIL’s strengthens its regional grip, the US is increasingly motivated to act, if not with ‘boots on the ground’ then with equipment and, more importantly, air strikes. If this action is successful – and it is a big ‘if’ – the US will have broken the back of the main anti-Assad organisation in Syria, tipping that war in favor of a dictator that, only last year, it was considering ousting.
In so doing the US will be reconfirming that, states loosely based on arbitrary conglomerates of old Ottoman administrative districts, the region can only exist as disaggregated squabbling fiefdoms or, as states, under the control of dictatorial leaders. Whatever dream the US had of exporting ‘democracy’ to this part of the world is now, in a functional sense, quite dead.