Monthly Risk Spotlight: December 2021


Chile to Choose Between Polarizing Candidates in Upcoming Presidential Elections
Chile is electing a new President this month. After initial elections on 21 November did not result in a single candidate receiving a majority, Jose Antonio Kast (~28%) and Gabriel Boric (~26%) will compete in a final runoff election on Sunday, 19 December. Both leading candidates represent opposite ends of the political spectrum after the traditional center left and center right Chilean party candidates fell far behind in the 21 November election.

On one side, the leftist Boric is a former student organizer running on a platform of increased government spending to address inequality in Chilean society. Though he has gradually moderated his position, during early campaign stages Boric promoted a number of divisive policies, including a proposed blanket immunity for illegal immigrants, which were used to great effect by his adversaries. On the opposing end is right wing candidate Jose Antonio Kast. Kast is a former congressman and was a member of the Independent Democratic Union (far-right) for over a decade until 2016 when he resigned prior to creating the Chilean Republican Party. Kast is considered a far-right candidate, promoting a reembracing of economic liberalism, condemning the 2019 protests and the violence they brought, and focusing significant energy on illegal immigration. He has also garnered significant criticism for his apparent approval and nostalgia for the Pinochet military dictatorship.

Boric had led polls through much of the campaign leading up to November 2021 but fell just a couple points short of Kast in the election. The prospect of a potential right-wing presidency in Chile is significant given the context of the past two years. In October 2019 mass protests took place for three straight weeks with more than a million people marching in the streets of Santiago to demonstrate against economic inequality. The protests were initially sparked by a government decision to increase the Santiago bus and metro peak hour fares by 4% (10 pesos and 30 pesos respectively). The price increase led to a student campaign of fare dodging but escalated quickly into vandalism of metro stations and clashes with the Carabineros, the Chilean national police force which is notably more militarized than many police forces encountered around the world. The protests grew, and in the following weeks mass marches were held; barricades were built in downtown areas and on main transit routes; and rioting took place leading to further violence between protesters and security forces. An estimated 36 people were killed during the protests and close to a thousand wounded. Human rights groups have alleged and been supported by social media footage that contained excessive force being used by the Carabineros in clashes with protesters (primarily through use of rubber bullets).

The legacy of the protests is still to be determined. In response to the protests the public transit price increase was reversed, President Sebastián Piñera requested his cabinet resign, and ultimately a national referendum was held in October 2020 in which Chileans overwhelmingly elected to draft a new constitution. This is significant as currently the Pinochet era constitution (heavily revised) remains in effect, enshrining a system of privatized public services and minimal social safety nets upon which many blame Chile’s high inequality. While the rewriting of the constitution (in progress) was viewed by many supporters of the protest movement as a positive step, it has not been sufficient for all. This was evident on Monday, 18 October when thousands participated in demonstrations across Chile to mark the two-year anniversary of the movement and some violence and looting was reported in Santiago. Now Chile will choose between two polarizing candidates in the first Presidential elections since October 2019 and decide whether that legacy will be reform or backlash. It is almost certain that a Kast victory could lead to unrest and some disruptions and given the polarizing nature of Boric’s candidacy such disruptions cannot be ruled out should he win as well.


President al-Sisi’s Deteriorating Human Rights Record
An Egyptian court has convicted human rights activist, Hossam Bahgat, of insulting the country’s election commission after he posted a tweet last year in which he accused the election commission’s chairman of mishandling the parliamentary vote. Earlier this year, Bahgat was ordered to stand trial on charges that he insulted the election commission, used social media to commit crimes, and spread false news by alleging electoral fraud. Originally, Bahgat faced up to three years in jail and a fine of 329,973,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately 21,000 USD). He will now be fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately 640 USD), but will not face any jail time. Authorities made an unusual exception for Bahgat who was not in custody during the trial. It is common practice in Egypt to hold those on trial for lengthy pretrial detentions. Bahgat has been banned from traveling abroad since 2016 and has had his personal assets frozen in connection with a separate criminal investigation. He and other activists have been accused of receiving foreign funding.

Two weeks prior, an Egyptian state security emergency court sentenced another human rights activist to five years in jail. Zyad el-Elaimy has been convicted of conspiring to commit crimes with an outlawed group, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood which has been declared a terrorist organization in Egypt. This same emergency court also sentenced two journalists, Hossam Monis and Hisham Fouad, to four years in jail on the same charges.

Three other prominent activists are also detained in Egyptian custody on different charges. The United Nations has called for the release of the three opposition activists. Alaa Abdelfattah is an anti-regime blogger, Mohammed El-Baqer is a human rights defender, and Mohammed Ibrahim Radwan is a journalist. The three men were charged with spreading false news likely to pose a threat to national security. The court’s final decision is expected on 20 December.

Egypt’s human rights’ record has continued deteriorating throughout President al-Sisi’s rule. The government has jailed thousands of people, mainly Islamists with supposed connections to the Muslim Brotherhood but also secular activists. Last week, Amnesty International urged Egypt to halt their “relentless persecution” of Bahgat. The group released a statement saying, “These endless legal proceedings look like a clear reprisal against Bahgat’s storied legacy of defending human rights.” The Egyptian government continues to misuse counter-terrorism measures against those who oppose the current government including human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt has consistently ranked among the world’s top jailers of journalists since al-Sisi became president.

The US has said that human rights will be a priority in its relationship with Egypt, yet the US continues to supply Egypt with military aid. The US released nearly $200 million in military aid to Egypt in September 2021. The US did however withhold an additional $130 million due to concerns over human rights violations. Maintaining a relationship with Egypt is key to regional security but the US has also expressed its commitment to human rights. Moving forward, the US may withhold additional aid to Egypt, but it’s not expected to alter President al-Sisi’s quest to squash dissent any time soon.


Beijing’s Influence Over the Solomon Islands Fuels Civil Unrest
Civil unrest erupted this November in the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara, as large portions of the city were burnt and over 100 protesters were arrested. At one point, protesters gathered outside the residence of Solomon Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, demanding that he resign and even attempting to force their way into his home before being driven back by police. Eventually, the security situation would devolve to the point where the government would request the intervention of neighboring governments’ security forces with Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea all deploying troops and/or police in order to calm the situation. In the end, at least three people would be killed and an estimated 25 Million USD in damages would be recorded.

The growing discontent in the Solomon Islands that sparked this bout of civil unrest had been brewing for the past several years and is primarily attributed to two factors: first, the decision by the Solomon Islands’ government to switch its allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019; second, the perception within the Solomon Islands that the government is funneling economic support toward the island of Guadalcanal, the home island of Honiara, at the expense of the island of Malaita, the country’s most populous island. Upon deeper review, however, one can see how the current factors driving unrest in the Solomon Islands have developed due in part to the increasing influence of Beijing over the Solomon Islands’ politics and economy.

Allegations of Chinese interference in Solomon politics are rife in the Solomon Islands with many speculating that the 2019 decision by the government to switch allegiance from Taiwan to China was fueled by alleged Chinese bribes to Solomon politicians. There have also been notable instances over the past several years where the Chinese government was perceived to have unfairly exerted its influence over the Solomon Islands, at the expense of local Solomon Islanders. Notably, in 2019 a Chinese company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party signed an agreement to lease the island of Tulagi from the Solomon government. This agreement was highly unpopular amongst the Solomon population and, under the mounting popular opposition against the agreement, the Solomon Attorney General eventually declared the deal to be illegal. The perception of Chinese intrusion on Solomon sovereignty has also been further exemplified by the Solomon government’s funneling of Chinese foreign aid into Guadalcanal, an island that has in recent years shown more support for the Chinese, versus the island of Malaita which has alternatively been receiving extensive foreign aid from Taiwan and the United States.

As of now, the root cause behind the unrest in the Solomon Islands, Chinese influence over the government, has yet to be resolved. As was the case during the most recent unrest, a majority of the violence was targeted at Honiara’s Chinatown and organizations/individuals affiliated, in one way or another, with the Chinese government. In the future, the same locations and organizations/individuals are likely to be targeted again. As it is unlikely that the Chinese will adjust their strategy in the Solomon Islands, the status quo of periodically violent unrest is expected to persist.


The Cobalt Race
The race for cobalt reached a peak in November as the United States made a public statement promising to be a strong opponent in the race for cobalt as China flaunted the purchase of cobalt heavy land in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC is expected to be the frontline of a new clean energy race conducted by the US and China while the rest of the world continually tries to catch up. A major concern is that this race to secure cobalt supplies and to be the forerunner in clean energy might just continue a cycle of exploitation and gamesmanship.

Cobalt is a gray metal that is extracted from copper deposits. The main use for cobalt is in electric-car batteries, this metal allows a battery to last longer without a charge. For reference, a Tesla vehicle requires 10 pounds of cobalt, which is 400x more than a cellphone. As more countries commit to shifting towards clean energy, electric cars and other products using cobalt should be in high demand. In trend with other historical and political races, the country to secure the most and get there first  is expected to set norms for power and control.

The DRC holds two-thirds of the world’s supply of cobalt. Surrounded by villages, bulldozers are constantly mining for cobalt and the residents of the DRC are worried. Citizens of the DRC and specifically those who live in the villages near the mines are increasingly worried that the mining activities will pollute their surrounding rivers. There is also an increased fear of relocation in the pursuit of more cobalt and mining, people in the DRC fear the colonial-era patterns as the price of cobalt may be worth their lives.

Though this race may seem environmentally driven it is increasingly political as the US and China start to make public statements alluding to competition. In the beginning, a vast piece of untouched land in the DRC was controlled by an American company. This land was recently bought by a Chinese mining company and turned out to be the site of millions of tons of cobalt. This was a known setback for the US. In early November President Biden made a public statement alluding to pending progress in the race against China. While visiting a General Motors factory in Detroit to promote electric vehicles President Biden acknowledged that China is ahead in cobalt mining. Biden said, “We risk losing our edge as a nation, and China and the rest of the world are catching up,” and then he alluded to a plan as he said, “Well, we’re about to turn that around in a big, big way.” Since this statement, the public has become aware, especially China, that the US is aiding the DRC in reviewing mining contracts, with a specific eye on the Chinese contracts.

Environmental improvements are turning political as the American and Chinese governments use cobalt as ammunition. The greed that is already being shown in this clean energy race may ruin any progress as the International Energy Agency expects a cobalt shortage by 2030. It can be expected that both the US and China will continue to act on this matter as the race for cobalt metal starts increasing its price.


Universal Jurisdiction Brings Justice to Yazidi’s in Germany
On 30 November a German court in Frankfurt sentenced Taha al-Jumailly, an Islamic State fighter, to life in prison for the death of a five-year-old girl he had bought as a slave and chained up in the sun to die. His charges included genocide against the Iraqi Yazidi minority group, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.  In addition to life in prison, Jumailly was ordered to pay 50,000 euros to the girl’s mother, who was also enslaved by the accused and who served as a witness in the case. While neither the victim nor the defendant is German, and the crime occurred in Iraq, the trial was held in Germany on the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Universal jurisdiction is a legal principle that allows certain crimes such as genocide or other war crimes to be prosecuted outside normal territorial restraints. While Germany is one of several countries with laws that include universal jurisdiction, the country is home to a large Yazidi community and has recently become a hub for universal jurisdiction cases out of Iraq and Syria.

Taha al-Jumailly was arrested in Greece two years ago and later extradited to Germany to face prosecution. During the trial, which started last year, the mother testified that she and her child were captured and sold as slaves several times until al-Jumailly and his wife purchased them at an ISIL base in Syria in 2015.  For several months they were forced to do manual labor and live according to strict Islamic rules. The mother stated that they were consistently underfed and beaten. Toward the end of 2015, al-Jumailly chained the five-year-old girl to the bars of a window in the open sun on a hot day that reached a high of over 120 degrees Fahrenheit where she died from heat exposure.

This trial marked the first genocide conviction of an Islamic State fighter, an organization that systematically persecuted the Yazidi ethnic group in Iraq. While in control of Iraq, the Islamic State murdered thousands of Yazidi men, burying them in mass graves. All boys were forced to fight for the Islamic State and thousands of Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped and forced into slavery. Now seven years later they are beginning to see a small form of justice as the actions of the Islamic State have been declared genocide.

One month prior to the trial, al-Jumailly’s wife Jennifer Wenisch, a German national, was sentenced to ten years in prison for “crimes against humanity in the form of enslavement”, and for failing to stop the murder of the girl. The girl’s mother currently lives in Germany under a witness-protection program and reportedly testified multiple times through a translator at the trial in Frankfurt.

Aside from Jumailly and Wenisch, three other former Islamic State members have been convicted by German courts for crimes against humanity against Yazidis. In the summer of 2021, the German federal prosecutor indicted a Syrian doctor for torturing and killing prisoners for the Assad regime. Over the past year, two Syrian military officers who worked in a secret prison in Syria have been on trial for crimes against humanity.

The German Code of Crimes Against International Law was implemented in 2002, which allows German courts to prosecute criminal cases even if the crimes were not committed in Germany. At first, there were very few prosecutions based on universal jurisdiction, but as thousands of Syrian refugees began to arrive in 2015, Germany began allocating resources to war crime investigation units. Since then, several cases have made their way into German courts. While these trials may seem like a small step, German human rights scholars believe there will be many more cases brought to justice under universal jurisdiction.


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