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Nov. 19 2014 4:25 PM

Kuwait’s Novel Solution for Undocumented Residents: Buy Them Citizenship in Some Other Country

Later this week, President Obama will announce an executive action meant to provide legal protections for up to 5 million undocumented migrants now living in the United States. Of course, the United States isn’t the only country with a large population of undocumented immigrants. Kuwait also announced a major new initiative this week, one that deals with the problem very differently.

More than 100,000 people in Kuwait belong to a group known as the “Bidun.” The Bidun are mainly descended from nomadic Bedouin tribes who, for various reasons, failed to complete the application procedures for citizenship after Kuwait became an independent nation in 1961. Today, they are formally stateless.

Though many have lived in the country their entire lives, they are considered illegal migrants by the Kuwaiti government and have been repeatedly rebuffed in their subsequent requests for citizenship. As noncitizens, they are barred from holding most jobs in Kuwait and are denied access to health care and education, as well as many legal protections.

This month, however, the Kuwaiti interior ministry announced that the Bidun would soon be eligible for citizenship … but not in Kuwait. Rather, the government plans to bulk purchase “economic citizenship” for the Bidun from the East African island nation of Comoros, hundreds of miles away. Comoros, a member of the Arab League, has already provided passports to some stateless residents of the United Arab Emirates under a similar scheme. Before the program gets up and running, Comoros has to establish an embassy in Kuwait.

The Bidun wouldn’t actually live on the tiny islands, which have a population of just 800,000. Comoros is one of a growing number of countries that sell citizenship to foreigners in legally precarious situations, though this would be on an unprecedented scale. Kuwait argues that Comoran citizenship would formalize the status of the Bidun, allowing them access to jobs and social services.

This is probably legal under international law, but, as Al Jazeera reports, human rights groups are not impressed. The scheme stops short of the full Kuwaiti citizenship that the Bidun have been demanding and, they argue, would effectively formalize their status as second-class citizens.

In reality, citizenship could indeed make the Bidun less secure. Countries are prohibited by U.N. convention from expelling stateless people, of whom there are an estimated 10 million around the world. But the treaty doesn’t cover citizens of other countries.

Legal niceties inside, the Bidun aren’t thrilled with the notion that their country is trying to make them citizens of someplace else. As one Bidun activist put it on Twitter, “I went to bed West Asian, & woke up east african. These are the miracles of arab regimes.”

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Nov. 19 2014 12:37 PM

Saudi Arabia Is Fighting an Oil War. But Who’s the Enemy? 

As my colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote Tuesday, there are a number of factors behind the continuing global slide in oil prices, including North American production, increased energy efficiency, Europe’s economic stagnation, and China’s slowing growth. But a big one is Saudi Arabia, which, to the dismay of fellow oil-producing nations, has resisted pressure to cut production in order to stabilize prices.

Ahead of an OPEC meeting in Vienna next week, there are some contradictory theories about why Saudi Arabia is content to keep oil cheap for the time being. One is that the Saudis want to nip the U.S. oil boom in the bud. American shale oil is more expensive to produce and needs high prices to remain competitive. As one analyst put it when the kingdom cut prices for U.S. customers earlier this month, “the Saudis have basically declared war on the U.S. oil producers.”

But there’s a competing narrative, or “conspiracy theory” if you prefer, that the Saudis are waging war in cooperation with the United States, against their mutual enemies Russia and Iran. “Saudi Arabia, which intends to manage OPEC, serves the interests of the G20 group,” a former Iranian oil minister told Reuters. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose government is collateral damage in this war, also aired this view recently, saying, “What is the reason for the United States and some U.S. allies wanting to drive down the price of oil? To harm Russia.”

The U.S.-Saudi oil alliance is basically taken as a given in the Iranian and Russian media, and the idea got a recent endorsement from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as well. Saudi Arabia may indeed want to punish Russia for its support of Bashar al-Assad’s government, and will take any leverage it can get over regional archrival Iran. The U.S., meanwhile, wants to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine and to pressure Iran into agreeing to a nuclear deal.

To be clear, there’s no proof of any deal, and Saudi Arabia denies its policies are motivated by geopolitical interests. Moreover, U.S.-Saudi relations aren’t at their best at the moment, and the kingdom is extremely skeptical of America’s latest opening to Iran. But even if there isn’t explicit collusion going on, Saudi Arabia’s move certainly benefits some key U.S. foreign policy interests, if not the bank accounts of North Dakota oil drillers.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the conspiracy theory is real, and that there is an agreement in place between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices down. Is it working?

Low oil prices are having an impact on both the Russian and Iranian economies. In Russia’s case, that impact is probably greater than that of the recently imposed Western sanctions. But as Dan Drezner points out, if economic performance were a reliable guide to the future prospects of authoritarian governments, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and North Korea’s Kim family would have been deposed by angry mobs decades ago. For now, the dire state of the Russian economy doesn’t appear to be having much of an effect on Vladimir Putin’s popularity, and actions that anger the West only seem to make his position stronger at home.

In Iran, the situation is a little murkier. Some experts estimate the country needs $140-a-barrel oil to balance its budget. The price is currently about $80 per barrel. The Islamic Republic’s economic distress is likely one reason why President Hassan Rouhani’s government has been more cooperative on the nuclear issue. The government can’t do much about oil prices, but better relations with the West could bring sanctions relief and investment. But ultimately, the success of the talks will hinge on the views of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who as the Times notes, “has been less focused on Iran’s economic future than on its status as a regional and world player.”

The oil war may be making life difficult for these countries, then, but there’s no guarantee it will change the behavior of their regimes.

On the other hand, there is one regime whose behavior is likely being affected by the world of cheap oil. Senate Democrats narrowly defeated the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday, in part because President Obama was expected to veto it even if it did pass. He likely feels more comfortable about that stance than he would if oil were priced at more than $100 a barrel right now.

Nov. 18 2014 2:32 PM

Does the World Have a Terrorism Problem or a Civil War Problem?

The Institute for Economics and Peace has released its annual Global Terrorism Index, and the main headline, as reported by the BBC and several other outlets,  is that the number of deaths from terrorism increased 61 percent between 2012 and 2013. The number of attacks increased 44 percent to nearly 10,000.The news is all the more dispiriting since, just two years ago, the index reported that global terrorist violence had flatlined between 2007 and 2011. The big reason why it’s picking up again is pretty simple: Syria.

Iraq has led the world in nine of the last 10 years, but things took a turn for the worse last year, with the number of deaths rising 162 percent, thanks largely to the destabilizing effect of the war in neighboring Syria and the emergence of ISIS. Iraq accounted for more than a third of all terrorism deaths last year. Syria itself recorded zero deaths from terrorism for the two years before the war began in 2011 but now has the fifth-most in the world with more than 1,000 last year. Obviously, many more people than that died as a result of violence in Syria, but the index classifies most of these deaths as the result of conventional warfare rather than terrorism.

That distinction gets into a tricky question about this data. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, terrorism is a global problem but also a relatively localized one. Last year, 82 percent of terrorist attacks counted by the GTI occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. In all of these countries, there are large regions where the government is fighting with militant groups for political control. These attacks were primarily carried out by four groups: the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS, and various affiliates of al-Qaida. All of these could be described as “part-time” terrorist groups, organizations that employ terrorist tactics but often act more like insurgent or guerilla groups. In other words, when ISIS is fighting with the Iraqi army or the Kurdish Peshmerga for control of towns, it’s not engaging in what’s traditionally considered terrorism. But when it executes its American hostages or sets off bombs at the Baghdad airport, it is. 

While these five countries dominate global terrorism, the report also notes that there were nine additional countries last year that had more than 50 terrorism deaths, bringing the total number to 24—the highest in 14 years. These were: Algeria, Central African Republic, China, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan.

Algeria is on that list largely because of one horrific incident. Lebanon’s terrorism is closely tied to Syria’s. CAR, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan are all experiencing various states of intrastate warfare.

So the issue here may be less a global increase in terrorism than a set of worsening civil wars (one war in particular) in which the traditional tactics of terrorism—kidnappings, suicide bombings, etc.—are employed by the combatants.

This is more than just a semantic issue. Developed countries are often drawn into costly military interventions in the name of preventing terrorism against themselves, though they experience only a tiny percentage of terrorist violence. Not counting Turkey and Mexico, only 16 people were killed by terrorism in OECD countries in 2013, the year of the Boston Marathon bombing. (The 2014 numbers are sadly going to be higher because of recent events in Israel.)

In the popular imagination, we tend to think of “terrorism” in terms of decentralized radical groups targeting the citizens of wealthy and powerful countries. But around the world, the vast majority of it occurs in the context of battles over territory in some of the most unstable places on Earth. And the strategies being employed to stop it obviously aren’t working.  

Nov. 18 2014 11:54 AM

What’s Really Behind Jerusalem’s Explosion of Violence?

Tuesday morning’s attack on an Orthodox synagogue complex in Jerusalem, which left four rabbis—three U.S. citizens and one Briton—dead during morning prayers is the worst act of violence suffered by Israeli civilians in years. (Update, Nov. 18, 2014: A fifth victim, a Druze police officer injured in the attack, died on Tuesday night.) In the New York Times, the leader of a religious emergency response team compared the carnage at the site to “scenes from the Holocaust.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to respond with a “heavy hand,” and the incident will add to the growing perception that the recent unrest in the city resembles something close to a new intifada, albeit one characterized more by sporadic uncoordinated attacks than a mass organized uprising.

The Times reports that the attackers were “described as being motivated by what they saw as threats to the revered plateau that contains Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.” Hamas has also stated that the attack was in retaliation for an incident involving the death of a Palestinian bus driver whose body was found in Jerusalem yesterday.

At the moment, Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray, at the complex, the third-holiest site in the world for Muslims. Netanyahu has promised to keep it that way, most recently in a conversation earlier this month with King Abdullah II of Jordan, the complex’s official custodian.

However, hard-line Jewish religious activists have been pushing for the right to pray at the site, which Jews refer to as the Temple Mount, and a number of lawmakers, including members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, support the movement. One of the leaders of the campaign, U.S.-born settler and activist Yehuda Glick, was shot last month, prompting Israel to take the rare step of closing off access to al-Aqsa entirely. Israel has frequently placed restrictions on entry to the site or barred specific groups, such as young men, from praying, but the full closure was described by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an “act of war.”

Both Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry said that Tuesday’s attack was the direct result of “incitement” by Palestinian leaders. This was referring not only to the “act of war” remark but also a speech last week in which Abbas accused Israel of waging a “religious war” by allowing “settlers and extremists” to pray at the site. “We will not allow our holy places to be contaminated,” he said at a ceremony in Ramallah to honor the 10th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. Abbas condemned Tuesday’s attack, though there were reportedly celebrations in parts of Gaza and the West Bank.

Amid all of this, the violence has been growing. Over the past month, Reuters reports, “five Israelis and a foreign visitor have been deliberately run over and killed or stabbed to death by Palestinians. About a dozen Palestinians have been killed, including those accused of carrying out the attacks.” These also included a Palestinian man fatally shot by Israeli security forces during a demonstration in the West Bank last week. 

The most recent incident involves 32-year-old bus driver Yussuf al-Ramuni, whose body was found hanged in his vehicle on Monday morning. Police say it appears to be a suicide but his family has rejected this explanation and reports have circulated in the Palestinian media that he was murdered by settlers.

Going forward, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will change the policy at al-Aqsa. But the voices in favor of doing so, including within his own coalition, are strong enough that it at least seems plausible to Palestinians that this could happen.

Likewise, while Abbas’ comments certainly haven’t calmed the situation, neither his Fatah movement nor Hamas actually appears to be orchestrating the violence. Abbas almost certainly doesn’t want another devastating intifada, which, if it comes, could potentially be driven as much by frustration with the Palestinian Authority as with Israel.

While important for understanding the recent outbreak of violence, the al-Aqsa question may ultimately be secondary to the lasting anger from last summer’s Gaza war and overall frustration with the lack of political progress. If al-Aqsa weren’t the flashpoint right now, it seems likely that something else would be. 

Nov. 17 2014 4:24 PM

The Mystery of ISIS’ Foreign Fighters

The video released over the weekend showing the execution of American aid worker Peter Kassig is going to focus new attention on the role played the Westerners fighting for ISIS. In addition to the British fighter referred to in the U.K. media as “Jihadi John,” the video also features men suspected to be a British medical student from Cardiff and a French national and recent convert to Islam who traveled to Syria last year.

ISIS’s potential threat to Western countries is an important, if a little misguided, reason why the public supports military intervention in Syria and Iraq to counter the group. And concern that fighters could return from the Middle East to their countries of origin to carry out attacks has prompted governments throughout the world, including the United States, to raise the alarm about ISIS recruitment.  As President Obama has said, “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

But is the foreign fighter threat overstated?

Estimates vary, but both U.S. intelligence services and the U.N. say that about 15,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State from 80 countries—a large portion of the group’s total manpower.

About 2,000 of those are from Western countries, including, according to one adviser to the U.S. director of national intelligence, “at least 500 from the U.K, 700 from France, 400 from Germany, and more than 100 Americans [who] have traveled, or tried to travel into Syria.” Australia could actually have the highest number of fighters per capita.

Recruitment methods for these volunteers vary. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that European ISIS fighters are more likely to be recruited in person while Americans are more likely to self-radicalize after encountering online material.

There’s good reason to wonder just how useful these angry young Western men—and occasionally women—are on the battlefield. The anonymous social networking site has emerged as a popular venue for potential Western recruits to ask questions to English-speaking ISIS fighters. Some of their questions, as reported by Radio Free Europe, include “how easy is it to get contact lenses there? are they expensive?”; “Do you think in the future they will improve wi-fi and stuff?”; “Do u have to cook for yourself and clean everyday?”; and “Could you take captured woman as slaves?"

Despite the reassuring answers they received from their allegedly Syria-based interlocutors, none of these exactly sounds like the queries of battle-ready fighters.

As journalist Graeme Wood writes, based on an interview with former CIA case officer Patrick Skinner, “As men without significant military training—like most jihadis from Western or upper-class backgrounds—their main purpose is to create grotesque propaganda and, perhaps, to perform the low-skill role of blowing themselves up.”

The fighters who appeared in the Kassig video exemplified the first function. Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the Florida man who blew himself up at a mountaintop restaurant in Syria in May, exemplified both, recording a video in which he burned his U.S. passport before carrying out the attack.

Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution have argued that the foreign-fighter threat is real but exaggerated, writing:

[T]he vast majority of Western Muslims who set out to fight in the Middle East today will not come back as terrorists. Many of them will never go home at all, instead dying in combat or joining new military campaigns elsewhere, or they will return disillusioned and not interested in bringing the violence with them. Even among the rare individuals who do harbor such intentions, most will be less dangerous than they are feared to be because they will attract the attention of authorities before they can strike. 

And as Byman has pointed out elsewhere, “the foreign volunteers’ propensity to use social media to broadcast every detail of their jihadist lives makes them even more likely to be caught.”

So far, while a number of terrorist plots in North America, Australia, and Europe have been linked to ISIS sympathizers, only one—the shooting at a Jewish Museum in Brussels in May—has been carried out by someone with actual experience in Syria.

Still, it seems unlikely that ISIS has recruited all of these Westerners just to make propaganda—they actually seem to be making less of it lately—or blow themselves up. And it’s also hard to imagine that a group of 20,000 to 30,000 fighters is spending its time baby-sitting a group of 2,000 incompetents.

ISIS’ Western volunteers are clearly playing a role on the ground for the Islamic State, but whether they can really take the fight home is still a mystery.

Nov. 17 2014 4:06 PM

Boris Johnson’s Churchill

Boris Johnson doesn’t compare himself to Winston Churchill. When the London mayor describes his political hero, though, it sounds just a little bit like he’s talking about himself—or at least, the best possible version of himself. “In his politics, he was much more consistent that we often think. He was an imperialist, socially progressive free trader with elements of bohemianism, and he never really deviated from that,” says the staunch conservative Johnson, who is also known for his support for bike lanes, medical marijuana, and gay marriage.

Asked what surprised him about the prime minister when researching his new book, The Churchill Factor, Johnson—famous for his iconic disheveled haircut—notes how Churchill transcended his physical appearance. “He was a runty guy: 5-foot-6 1/2, 31-inch chest. But he manages to present himself to the world as this bisonlike figure. How he became that is fascinating.”

He was also stunned by Churchill’s “sheer intellectual energy,” as exemplified by his ability to “write after drinking an awful lot at dinner, a skill not known even to the most hard-bitten British journalist. Nowadays, we’re a much softer bunch. We think we can do it, but we can’t. We can do it after lunch but not after dinner.”

Johnson, who spoke with Slate during a D.C. stop on his U.S. book tour, doesn’t lack for energy either. The former journalist, who was first elected mayor in 2008, has made himself into an internationally known figure and, according to one recent poll, the most popular politician in Britain, through his ubiquitous media presence, memorable one-liners, and penchant for not taking himself seriously. (It is a little hard to imagine Churchill finding himself stuck on a zip-line, as Johnson did during the 2012 Olympics.)

Johnson, who’s been called a “a walking Bartlett’s of political incorrectness” for statements like joking that voters’ wives would grow bigger breasts if they voted Tory, or suggesting that economic inequality can be largely explained by variations in IQ, says he also wanted to defend Churchill from the slings and arrows of the modern press. “He’s getting a bit further from us in time and like a great constellation, some of his stars are losing their luminescence,” Johnson says. “I wanted to defend him from a lot of the carping and the sniping we hear today, that he was a racist and a sexist and so on.”

The New York-born Johnson also reflected on America’s own longstanding love of Churchill, which can be more fulsome than Britain’s affection for its own wartime leader. “I think Americans see him, in some ways, more clearly,” he says. “They appreciate aspects of his personality and his achievement that Brits don’t. He is about freedom. He is about standing up for what you believe in. The political correctness stuff has been much more corrosive of Churchill’s legacy in Britain than it has been in America.”

But despite Churchill’s iconic status for American hawks, Johnson notes, “He wasn’t a neocon in any means. I don’t think he would have wanted to put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria.” Churchill, who played a key role in the creation of the modern state of Iraq after World War I, also famously described it as an “ungrateful volcano.”

Johnson, who is often mentioned as a possible future candidate for prime minister but has been coy about his plans, says Churchill would feel right at home in today’s politics. “I think a lot of the debates we’re having today would be very familiar to him,” he says.

Among the biggest of those debates is the one over Britain’s role in Europe, which could dominate British politics for the next few years if the country goes ahead with a proposed yes-or-no referendum on EU membership in 2017. This will almost definitely take place if the Tories win next year’s general election.

Churchill was a strong supporter of a united Europe following the second war. His most recent biographer, by contrast, has been a skeptic, saying Britain shouldn’t be afraid to pull out of the union if it can’t get the reforms and concessions it wants and calling for quotas on EU migrants.

The destiny of Britain, as Churchill saw, was to be allied with America when we possibly can be, allied with our friends in the former empire and the commonwealth, but also being a key European player,” Johnson says. “We may want to change our relationship a bit, but fundamentally we will remain within the European common market.”

Johnson says he will be heavily involved the campaign to push for Britain to have more “control over borders and to restrain costly regulations from Brussels,” but he contrasts his approach with some of the public anger provoked by issues of immigration and sovereignty, saying, “We need to approach this whole thing with a spirit of openness and cheerfulness.” 

Nov. 14 2014 2:38 PM

Mexico’s Breaking Point

On Sept. 26, in the rural town of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero in southwest Mexico, a bus carrying student teachers was stopped by police and gunmen believed to belong to a local cartel. The students, who attend the Normal University in Ayotzinapa, were traveling to Iguala to protest education reforms and raise funds. They also stole four buses to return home. Six people were killed at the scene, and 43 went missing.

Authorities believe the police delivered the students to the local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. The mayor of the town, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, were later arrested and charged with ordering the police to capture the students out of fear that they would cause a disturbance.

Three of the gang members confessed this week to murdering the students, burning them, and throwing the remains in plastic bags in a nearby river and garbage dump. The remains are so badly charred that local forensics investigators haven’t been able to confirm their identities. An outside commission from Argentina had to be called to perform further tests.

This is not the first, biggest, or most gruesome mass disappearance during Mexico’s past eight years of brutal drug violence. More than 106,000 have died in what government data term “executions,” “confrontations,” and “homicide-aggressions” since former President Felipe Calderon informally declared his war on drugs in 2006. But the tragedy of Ayotzinapa is different. Rarely has the collusion between local authorities and the cartels been so obvious and the consequences so dire. Unsurprisingly, the events surrounding the case have captivated Mexico and the international community for weeks.

Since coming to power in 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto has sought to keep his focus on economic growth rather than the violence that the country has become known for internationally. In the aftermath of this incident, Peña Nieto’s approval ratings have sunk to the lowest point of his presidency amid criticism of the government’s sluggish response. He has decried the incident as “outrageous, painful, and unacceptable” but human rights groups say his short statements about the case have been vague and lacking in specific plans for action. He has also been criticized for taking more than a month to meet with the families of victims and for traveling to the APEC summit in China this week as the crisis simmered. Calls for his resignation are getting louder and more widespread.

From the time the war on drugs started, and its massive, hemorrhaging failure became apparent, there have been protests, marches, and calls for action. This time around, the protests’ significance has moved beyond a dull weariness and discontent to raw expressions of pain. This has happened in part because of who the victims are, students from a poor rural town and a university with a strong tradition of activism for social justice (and a strong tradition of having this activism criminalized by the government). This reputation appears to be why the mayor sent police forces to detain them in the first place. According to Mexican media, citing documents from the investigation, José Luis Abarca ordered the police to “teach them a lesson.”

Federal law enforcement officials describe Abarca and his wife as themselves the embodiment of a corrupt political class, allegedly running illegal activities from city hall. The New York Times reports:

Federal officials said Guerreros Unidos regularly paid off the mayor for his cooperation and that of the police force, which acted as muscle for the gang. The mayor received up to $220,000 every few weeks, the officials have said, while his wife was described as a top operative of the gang. It is an offshoot of the larger, better-known Beltrán Leyva crime group in which Ms. Pineda Villa’s brothers—two of whom were killed in 2009—have acted as leaders.

And then there are the national politicians. Peña Nieto isn’t the only one under fire. After meeting with the students’ families, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam fended off questions from reporters at a press conference on Nov. 7, saying, “Enough, I’m tired.” This moment, ironically, provided the perfect hashtag and rallying cry #YaMeCanse (#EnoughI’mTired) to channel Mexico’s frustration.

Murillo Karam explained himself on Monday, saying that he “was also tired of this brutal violence,” had been sleeping four hours a day for the past month, and at the time of the conference had been awake for 40 hours. But it was too late. The protesters on the street have adopted the poor turn of phrase as a rallying cry.

Protests against narcoviolence and against the government’s ineptitude and dishonesty have never been so heated or widespread. They’ve also never had such a strong presence internationally, including in New York and Paris, aided by social media. In Mexico, the anger is spreading quickly. Last Thursday protesters blocked access to the attorney general’s office. On Saturday, they set fire to the doors of the National Palace in Mexico City. On Monday they blocked access to the Acapulco airport. On Wednesday they set fire to the state congress building in Guerrero.

With the protests focused on the victims—the names and faces of “the 43”—the families of the disappeared students have become a political force with unprecedented agency. The students’ families met with Peña Nieto on Oct. 30—what was supposed to be a short, symbolic gesture but turned into a six-hour ordeal. They took control of the meeting and made explicit political demands of the president, who agreed to better support for the families of the missing, renewed search efforts, and to create a panel of officials and parents to keep the investigations into the case honest and on track.

Some precedent for these events was established in March 2011, when gang members murdered Juan Francisco Sicilia, son of renowned Mexican writer Javier Sicilia. Sicilia led demonstrations in more than 40 Mexican cities where hundreds of thousands protested the rampant violence and corruption, providing a venue for victims and victims’ families to voice their pain publically, with intention and direction. Now, Ayotzinapa has taken what Sicilia built and put it at the service of the parents of the 43 students—members of the poor masses who suffer the brunt of Mexico’s violence rather than the cultural elite.

The violence in Mexico—a disturbingly bland phrase—is reaching the limits of normal human experience and of the language we use to describe it. The violence in Mexico cannot tell you that in Mexico every day is the day of the dead, and the day of the disappeared, and the day of the mutilated, and the day of the bereaved. Ayotzinapa and its unique convergence of events, actors, timing, and place speak to this. Mexico is tired—exhausted, even. Now is precisely when its people will fight back the hardest.

Special thanks to Humberto BeckLorena Marrón, and Rafael Lemus for assistance on this post.

Nov. 14 2014 1:37 PM

Will Australia’s Anti-Green Prime Minister Push the Country Into International Isolation?

Environmentalist protesters may be mocking him by sticking their heads in the sand of Bondi Beach, but it’s going to be tough for Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott—leader of perhaps the world’s least green government—to ignore the topic of climate change as he welcomes his fellow world leaders to the G20 summit in Brisbane this weekend.

China and the United States surprised the other attendees earlier this week by announcing a major new climate accord on the eve of the summit. The White House has now followed up by announcing that President Obama will pledge between $2.5 billion and $3 billion over the next four years to the Green Climate Fund, an international effort to help poor countries address climate change. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also expected to pledge an additional $1.5 billion to the fund, an outlay that will likely be crucial in getting developed countries to sign on to an international climate treaty next year.

The Guardian reports that the pledges could “embarrass the G20 host country, Australia, which has been fiercely resisting climate change discussions” and “arguing against behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts for G20 leaders to promise to make contributions to the fund.” Abbott, who has in the past questioned the science of climate change, has insisted that Australia will make no contributions to the fund, though Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says no final decision has been made.

Going forward from this weekend’s meeting, it will be interesting to watch the degree to which the Australian government’s environmental policies, which are at odds with most of the rest of the developed world, will isolate the country.

International climate diplomacy moves at a glacial pace—and unfortunately not as quickly as glacial melt—but the overall trend is toward a consensus that global warming is a major problem and steps should be taken to reduce emissions. In other words, Australia is drifting away from the pack.

Abbott’s government was criticized by fellow major economies after scrapping its pioneering carbon tax last July. Analysts say the country’s emissions rose significantly in the two months after the repeal, after a six-year trend of decline. The head of the U.K. Committee on Climate Change was particularly harsh, accusing Abbott of “recklessly endangering our future.”

While Abbott claimed at the time that emissions-trading schemes were being discarded left and right around the world, they are actually now in place in the EU, New Zealand, and large parts of the U.S., Canada, Japan, and China. South Korea plans to introduce one next year. The idea went mainstream just as Australia abandoned it.

Of course, Abbott probably isn’t sweating the criticism of European environmental ministers. And even if an international agreement is reached next year, it definitely won’t be tough enough to punish countries that don’t reduce their emissions.

But Abbott’s environmental policies have also committed Australia to an economic path that may not play out the way he anticipates. Moves like approving the world’s largest coal mine are predicated on the assumption that Asia’s booming economies will continue to have a voracious appetite for coal. That seemed like a reasonable assumption until recently, but China’s coal consumption may already be dropping and the country’s government seems increasingly serious about curtailing it. India, which could soon overtake China as the world’s largest coal importer, seemed like another reliable customer. But the country’s power and coal minister said this week that between ramped-up local coal mining and investments in alternative energy, India may phase out coal imports in two to three years.

That seems absurdly ambitious, and as my colleague Jordan Weissmann pointed out, coal markets didn’t seem too rattled by this week’s U.S.-China treaty. But being the world’s second-largest coal exporter doesn’t seem like the sure bet it used to be.

Abbott’s environmental policies, then, could lead Australia to greater isolation as other governments start taking climate change more seriously. Then again, depending on who is elected president of the United States in two years, he could quickly find himself back in the mainstream.

Nov. 14 2014 11:13 AM

Is the U.S. Leaving Itself Wiggle Room on Torture?

A few weeks ago, the New York Times’ Charlie Savage reported that the Obama administration was considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s interpretation of the U.N. treaty banning “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of prisoners. The previous White House had held that the treaty applied within the United States but not to military or CIA prisons overseas.

A U.S. delegation was due to appear this week before the U.N. Committee Against Torture in Geneva and, Savage reported, military and intelligence lawyers had been pushing back against the State Department, which wanted to revise the U.S. stance on the treaty to apply to overseas facilities as well.

The story prompted an immediate backlash from human rights groups, and the State Department side seems to have won out—for the most part. Administration officials told the committee on Wednesday that the ban on torture applied to “wherever the United States exercises governmental authority,” including the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and U.S. military ships in international waters.

However, there are still some ambiguities. The administration’s new definition seems to exclude places like the “black site” prisons run by the CIA during the Bush administration, which were technically on the sovereign territory of other countries. (For me, one of the most surreal stories of this period, as recounted in Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side, came when 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed learned what country he was being held in by seeing the Polish writing on a water bottle.)

U.S. officials argue that this does not mean that torture is allowed at these places. That would be banned, in any case, by a 2005 law passed by Congress. But they’re hesitant to accept that the treaty applies to these places because, as Savage puts it, “changing the jurisdictional scope could have unintended consequences, like increasing the risk of lawsuits by overseas detainees or making it harder to say that unrelated treaties with similar jurisdictional language did not apply in the same places.”

Jack Goldsmith, who served as assistant attorney general under Bush and was a noted internal critic of the administration’s legal rationale on interrogations, agrees that the administration’s position probably doesn’t mean it’s looking for ways to weasel out of the torture ban. “Many other treaties besides the Torture Convention include the phrase ‘territory under its jurisdiction’ or a similar phrase,” he writes on the Lawfare blog. “If the United States interprets this phrase to have broad extraterritorial reach in the Torture Convention, it might be committing itself to similar constructions in most if not all of those other contexts.”

The Obama administration has found ways to exploit extraterritoriality in its own counterterrorism policies. A number of prominent terrorist suspects captured abroad, including Benghazi attack planner Abu Khattala, Libyan al-Qaida operative Abu Anas al-Libi, and Somali militant Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, were interrogated aboard U.S. Navy ships for intelligence purposes before being read their Miranda rights and turned over to the civilian justice system. Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, captured in Jordan in 2013, was likely interrogated by CIA and FBI personnel while in Turkish custody before being handed over to the FBI. That doesn’t mean these suspects were tortured, but even as the Obama administration has sought to bring terror interrogations in line with U.S. international laws, it has also exploited the loopholes provided by ambiguous national jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, the U.N. commission continues to press the United States on other matters. The panel yesterday pressed U.S. officials to explain a section of the U.S. Army field manual that stipulates detainees be allowed at least four hours of sleep, an amount members of the commission said could be considered sleep deprivation. 

Nov. 13 2014 5:05 PM

What Will Change if ISIS and al-Qaida Patch Things Up?

Syrian opposition officials say ISIS has reached a truce with its erstwhile partners in al-Qaida. The accord apparently took place at a meeting in northern Syria last week that involved members of ISIS, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and members of the Khorasan Group, a group of al-Qaida veterans from Pakistan and Afghanistan who have embedded with Nusra.

According to the AP, these opposition officials say the jihadi groups “agreed to work to destroy the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a prominent rebel faction armed and trained by the United States and led by a fighter named Jamal Maarouf.”

Some details of the meeting had been reported earlier this week by the Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer, who wrote that moderate Syrian rebel groups “accuse the Obama administration of fostering jihadi rapprochement” through the airstrikes it launched against Nusra in the early days of the intervention. Those strikes were billed as a bid to take out the members of Khorasan—a group that few fighters on the ground in Syria seemed to have heard of until recently.

U.S. officials haven’t confirmed the report of a merger and tell the AP they’ve seen no shifts in the two groups’ strategies.

If it’s real, the merger will shift the dynamics of the very complex battlefield in Syria. Up until now, ISIS didn’t really have any friends in the region, even among groups that largely share its ideology. Between this and Egyptian militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’ pledge of support this week, it’s possible that ISIS is starting to get more respect from fellow jihadi groups. It would also be quite a reversal for al-Qaida leaders, who disavowed their renegade Iraqi faction months ago.

The AP’s Deb Riechmann writes that the accord would “present new difficulties for Washington's strategy,” which is true, though in some ways it would make things simpler. The line between the U.S.-backed “moderate” rebels and the anti-ISIS Jihadist groups was always more fluid than anyone wanted to admit. 

In his recent account of his months of captivity in Syria, journalist Theo Padnos recalls a conversation he had after running into a group of Free Syrian Army troops while he was still a captive of al-Nusra.

One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.
“Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.”
“Certainly, very,” he replied.
The fighters stared at me. I stared at them
After a few moments, I asked, “About this business of fighting Jebhat al-Nusra?”
“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”

The White House never bought the “enemy of my enemy” logic when it came to ISIS and Nusra—it’s been bombing both of them, after all. This merger, along with growing signs that Washington is resigning itself to Bashar al-Assad’s long-term presence, could be an indication that the overlapping and intersecting battle lines in Syria are starting to clarify themselves. At the moment, the U.S., the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, and—whether the Obama administration will admit it or not—the Syrian government are on one side, and ISIS and al-Qaida are on the other.

The big loser in all of this is likely to be the U.S.-backed rebels. In addition to ISIS and Nusra finding common cause, there are reports this week that the White House is considering revamping a Syria strategy many senior officials have come to see as unworkable. That strategy, which involved focusing primarily on rolling back ISIS in Iraq and didn’t involve strikes against Assad, never sat well with the rebels. A new one, which could involve a new diplomatic push for a cease-fire deal whose terms would likely be very disadvantageous to the Syrian opposition, would be even worse.

At the moment, as they wait to see how things play out, America’s friends in Syria are finding themselves stuck in a very uncomfortable middle.