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HUGH’S FINAL WRAP-UP: 14 December 2021

Join us for Hugh’s final episode on The Wrap Up (more details in the episode!).  Today on the show:

  • Why Rohingya refugees are suing Facebook for US$150 billion.

  • Can the Iran deal be saved, or is war on the horizon?

  • Protests in Serbia over Europe’s biggest lithium mine.

  • Why Algeria and Morocco are fighting over the African Men’s Handball Championships.

Josh and Hugh also chat about their favourite stories from the year and give a preview of what The Wrap Up will sound like in 2022.

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Topic #1 - Facebook Rohingya lawsuit

Josh: Hugh, it’s not every day that companies are accused of causing genocide.  But that’s exactly what happened last week.

As you just heard there, Rohingyan refugees from Myanmar are suing Facebook in both the US and the UK.

They say the company is partly responsible for the murder of 10,000 Rohingya people.

As a result, they’re claiming 150 billion US dollars in compensation from Facebook.

That’s 15% of Facebook’s total value -- and if the refugees are successful, it would be one of the biggest payouts in history.

HUGH: So tell us more about the lawsuit -- what events is it referring to?

Josh: So the lawsuit concerns events that took place in Myanmar in 2017. You may remember that during that time, Myanmar launched a brutal crackdown on the Rohingya, which is a small Muslim ethnic group that has been persecuted by the country’s military for decades.

The 2017 crackdown took this persecution to a whole new level.  Without warning, the military invaded Rohingya villages, burnt them down and executed thousands of people.

All up, 750,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee Myanmar and 10,000 were killed.

The UN has since called it one of the worst examples of ethnic cleansing.

HUGH: Yeah, the stories were truly horrific.  But how is Facebook allegedly responsible for the atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military?

Josh: Well, evidence has emerged that Facebook allowed the military to use the platform to whip up hatred against Rohingyas. Myanmar’s military allegedly created thousands of fake accounts and employed more than 700 officers to spread racist misinformation calling for the extermination of the Rohingyas.

Unfortunately, this campaign was very effective in turning the public against the Rohingyas.

That meant that when the military began executing Rohingyas in 2017, many people in Myanmar supported their actions.

Let that sink in for a moment: the military used Facebook to conduct a disinformation campaign against its own population in order to create public support for genocide.

And this is where the lawsuit comes in.  It alleges Facebook knew what the military was doing on its platform and yet refused to do anything about it.

HUGH: And what has Facebook had to say about the allegations?

Josh: Well, a day after the lawsuit was filed, Facebook made some big announcements. And while it hasn’t yet commented on the lawsuit directly, it’s going to be hard for it to deny responsibility.

Not only has a UN report found that Facebook was partly responsible for what happened in Myanmar, but the company has previously acknowledged it made mistakes.

HUGH: Wow, so do you think that means the Rohingya refugees are likely to succeed in court?

Josh: Not necessarily.  Even though Facebook has admitted some responsibility, there are laws in place that usually prevent social media companies from being held responsible for the posts of their users.  So the refugees face an uphill battle.

But, regardless of the outcome, I think the real power of the lawsuit may be in its ability to highlight the growing power of Facebook in developing nations like Myanmar.

This came as a surprise to me -- but Facebook offers free internet to over 65 developing countries. However, to use that free internet, people need to sign up to Facebook.

That means that, for millions of people, Facebook is the only way they can access information online. That gives the company extraordinary sway over public debate in these nations.  And that’s part of what led Francis Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, to come forward:

She’s warned that what happened in Myanmar may play out elsewhere.  In fact, Facebook has already been accused of fuelling ethnic violence in India, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Mexico.

All of this is adding momentum to a global push to regulate social media -- we saw the topic discussed at the G20 last month and at Biden’s Democracy Summit over the weekend.

Leaders are recognising that what plays out on social media platforms has real-world consequences -- so I think we can expect to hear a lot more about this issue in 2022.

Topic #2 - US, Israel and Iran

Hugh: Well Joshua, over the last few weeks, diplomats representing several of the world’s biggest powers have been meeting in Vienna in the hopes of reviving the Iran nuclear deal. And I must say, the situation has been fairly tense.

You see, the international community is keen to restore the nuclear deal after the agreement fell apart in 2018. That was when former US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the pact.

Now since that US withdrawal happened, Iran has been pressing ahead with its nuclear program while Washington has placed additional sanctions on Tehran.

The result of that has been that Iran is now at a point where it is producing large amounts of enriched uranium that is almost weapons-grade while at the same time, its relationship with the US remains at rock bottom.

So all eyes are really on the international community right now as they attempt to avert a crisis and calm the situation down before it’s too late.

Josh: Yes, the stakes seem to be the highest they’ve been in a long time.  So how did we get to this point?

Hugh: Yeah for sure. Well, the deal was originally set up to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in return for international sanctions relief, but since it collapsed, Iran has really stepped up its efforts to produce a credible nuclear weapons program.

So that’s seen Iranian officials press ahead with efforts to enrich uranium to a quality just under that which is required to produce nuclear warheads.

But it’s also seen Iran limit the access which UN monitors previously had to its nuclear facilities.

What’s more, Iran has also created quite a large stockpile of enriched uranium in addition to testing a number of weapons systems required to actually deliver warheads to their targets. So in short Joshua, Iran has used the last three years to make some considerable progress on its nuclear ambitions.

For its part, meanwhile, the US employed a strategy of maximal pressure under President Trump which essentially saw Washington place a number of tough new sanctions on the Iranian economy. Those efforts have continued under President Biden, although the new US administration has also been seeking a return to the deal and a reversal of Trump’s hostile stance.

Josh: Ahhh, the familiar ratcheting up of sanctions followed by diplomatic negotiations.  Though I guess we’ve seen that that strategy doesn’t always work, so does the US have a fallback plan?

Hugh: It might sound like that but actually there’s been a second, more violent side to the recent tensions. Israel has long opposed the Iran deal and so since the US withdrawal, it’s been working with Washington to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel is believed to have been behind a number of acts of sabotage, which have included bombings and cyberattacks targeting Iranian nuclear equipment, facilities and personnel.

And in the eyes of many international experts, these attacks have enjoyed covert support from the US, which is eager to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

The US and Israel have also reportedly discussed a number of joint military operations which could destroy Iran’s nuclear program if necessary. So the intention to put a military threat on the table is clearly there.

And indeed, looking to Israel, polling has found that 51% of Israelis would support a strike on Iran even without US backing, so it would seem Israel in particular is prepared to lash out if required.

Josh: Let’s hope that’s not necessary and that the talks can succeed. How have they been going so far?

Hugh: Well the most recent talks began very poorly. You see, the reason negotiations are being held is to revive the deal after Trump’s withdrawal. But Iran refuses to negotiate with the US directly and so Washington has been forced to engage with Tehran via intermediaries.

But more than that, in the last fortnight the US and its EU-UK counterparts were prepared to walk away from negotiations after Iranian officials put forward demands which were deemed unacceptable.

That led the other participants in the talks, Russia and China, who are far more supportive of Iran, to intervene and talk Tehran down from its tough position.

But that doesn’t mean the talks have succeeded, it merely means that they’ll be able to continue.

In order to actually get a successful result, the EU, UK, China and Russia will have to convince Iran to dismantle its recent nuclear progress in addition to getting the US to return to the deal and remove the harsh sanctions it placed on Iran’s economy.

So clearly there’s a lot to hash out and with the threat of conflict still on the horizon, diplomats from all sides are going to have to work really hard to keep the ship afloat.

Topic #3 - Serbia mining controversy

Josh: Hugh, our next story takes place in Serbia -- where a cosy relationship between the Serbian government and an Australian company has provoked huge protests across the country.

For the last 3 weekends, thousands of Serbs have walked onto major highways at 50 different locations ... blocking cars and trucks. As a result, parts of the country have been brought to a standstill.

Hugh:  Wait, what?? Why are they protesting, and what does it have to do with an Australian company?

Josh: Well, the Australian company in question is Rio Tinto.  And as you’ve probably guessed, the protests all come down to one word: mining.

So it was recently discovered that Serbia is sitting on top of roughly 10% of the world’s lithium reserves.  Why is that important?

Lithium is the key ingredient in batteries -- especially batteries used in electric cars and renewable energy storage. Given the growing importance of renewable energy, demand for lithium is expected to triple in the next 3 years alone.

So it’s fair to say that mining companies are suddenly very interested in Serbia.

Hugh:  Including Rio Tinto obviously!

Josh:  Yeah, including Rio Tinto.  It plans to build Europe's largest lithium mine in Serbia. It’s very likely it’ll get approval to do that, as Rio has a very close relationship with the Serbian government.

Even the country’s president has been heavily advocating for the mine and says it’s key to Serbia’s future. But plenty of Serbs disagree.  There has been a huge backlash.

Hugh: A project that size would be a much needed boost for Serbia’s economy, so why are so many people against it?

Josh: It’s for both environmental and political reasons. On the environmental side, Serbia is already the 5th most polluted country in Europe. Air pollution in the country is 3 times the recommended limit.  That causes thousands of deaths every year and has led to one in six children developing asthma.

It’s located near two rivers that provide drinking water to 40% of Serbia’s population and crucial farming areas that produce a fifth of the country’s food.

Studies have shown the mine is likely to irreversibly damage these areas. Then there’s the political angle: In order to help Rio Tinto build the mine, the government has tried to pass laws that make it harder to protest and easier for mining companies to take people’s land.

As a result, thousands of people have hit the streets, demanding the government stop doing Rio Tinto’s bidding. Even tennis player Novak Djokovic has weighed in, saying the mine shouldn’t go-ahead for the health of future generations.

HUGH: And what’s been the government’s response?

Josh: This is the interesting thing: the Government says it’s doing all of this for the environment. It’s predicted the mine will produce enough lithium to make one million electric vehicles every year.  That means it’ll help get a huge number of fuel-powered cars off the road.

What’s more, Serbia hopes to join the European Union in the near future, but in order to do that, it needs to meet the EU’s environmental standards. That’ll cost a lot of money -- and here’s the crazy thing: the government says mining is the best way for it to get the money to clean up the environment.

As for the EU itself -- it’s been rather quiet.  It currently imports lithium from overseas, which is really expensive.

In order to become self-sufficient and reduce its emissions, it wants a local source -- and the most obvious candidate is Serbia.

And I think this perfectly illustrates the hidden dangers in the global push for renewables. As we’ve seen from COP26, switching to renewables is really important.

But experts say it’s vital that we source the materials for batteries, solar panels and wind turbines in a sustainable way. Otherwise, we may end up increasing environmental damage and hurting vulnerable communities not only in places like Serbia, but also in Asia and Africa, where similar issues are playing out.

Topic #4 - Algeria/Morocco handball dispute

Hugh: Well, Joshua, at the moment all eyes in sport are understandably on the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, especially with the US leading an international boycott of the China-hosted games.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that bobsledding and figure skating are the only areas in the world of sports to be affected by politics.

Spare a thought for the 2022 African Men’s Handball Championship, which has unexpectedly become the subject of a boycott of its own following Algeria’s decision not to attend the games.

Josh: Okay, so here’s the thing -- I didn’t even realise handball was a real sport, let alone that there were international competitions.  I just thought that was something you played in the school courtyard.  But in all seriousness, why is Algeria boycotting the Handball Championships?

Hugh: Well you see, the games are set to be hosted in the territory of Morocco, or at least that’s what the Moroccan Government would say. But if you asked Algeria or any member of the Sahrawi ethnic group, they would argue that the games are actually being hosted in occupied territory.

And that’s because the championship is being held in the disputed region of Western Sahara.

Now Western Sahara is mostly held by Morocco but it’s also claimed by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR. And essentially, the SADR is fighting for the independence of the Sahrawi ethnic people from Morocco and the removal of Moroccan forces from their claimed territory.

Morocco, on the other hand, sees Western Sahara as part of its own territory after its former colonial master, Spain, abandoned the region in 1975.

But here’s the trick, Algeria and Morocco are arch-rivals and so Algiers has kept a close alliance with the SADR in order to weaken their shared Moroccan enemy.

So while the Handball Championship sounds relatively lowkey in the grand scheme of international sport, this year’s choice of location actually touches on a major regional dispute.

Josh: Again, I didn’t realise handball could be so complicated! I can see why Morocco and the SADR are obvious rivals, but why are Algeria and Morocco so angry at each other?

Hugh: So prior to colonisation, the various states which occupied modern-day Algeria and Morocco often clashed, but it was France’s colonisation of both regions that created the tensions we know today.

You see, during the colonial period, France actually transferred territory between the two sides and that created long-lasting rivalries and disputes in the process.

Now these tensions actually led Morocco and Algeria to fight military skirmishes in 1963 and 1976, and even now, the two sides maintain huge militaries which are essentially custom-designed to fight each other, despite both countries having extremely low standards of living.

The low economic performance of both countries is actually partly blamed on the fact that they engage in almost no mutual trade, with their shared border having been closed since 1994, so that just goes to show how serious their rivalry is.

Josh: And so Algeria has backed the SADR against Morocco to weaken its rival?

Hugh: That’s right. Algeria sees a lot of value in fuelling the SADR’s insurgency against Morocco in Western Sahara and it also sympathises with the Sahrawi people after fighting its own independence war against France.

But interestingly, Algeria has recently seen its own tactics used against it. Just this year, clashes and bombings have occurred in costal regions of Algeria as part of an insurgency led by the Kabyle people for independence from Algeria.

Now Algeria accuses Morocco of supporting the Kabyle rebels in much the same way as Algeria has supported the SADR.

So as you can see, in the context of all this chaos, the ostensibly low-key Handball Competition has taken on a very political nature.

Josh: It sure has… What comes next?

Hugh: Well, frankly it looks like the games are just going to go on without Algeria.

And you can say much the same for the disputes in Western Sahara and between Algeria and Morocco. With the Morocco-Algeria border having been closed since 1994 and conflict between the Sahrawi people and Morocco having continued since 1975, I’m sure there will be many more disputes like these to come in this fascinating corner of Africa.

Josh: And that brings us to the end of our fourth and final story.

How do you feel Hugh, knowing that’s your last one?

Hugh: Look it’s obviously really sad to head off but I’ve got a lot to look forward to. The podcast is definitely in safe hands and now I get to have all the enjoyment of listening to it without the stressful late-nights producing it.

Josh: Yes, there’s definitely been a lot of those late nights over the 11 months that we’ve been doing this. Before sitting down to record this with you, I looked back at the first episode we hosted in Feb -- and we’ve definitely come a long way since then!

Hugh: We sure have! It takes me a lot less time to write scripts these days and I’d like to think I’m not so awkward or nervous when I talk now!

Josh: I calculated that we’ve done 68 stories over the last year -- and as a way to recap 2021 and say farewell to you Hugh, I thought it would be fun to look back at our favourite story from this year’s episodes.

What do you think yours is, Hugh?

Hugh: Look, I’ve really enjoyed the stories which have brought our listeners to a part of the world they might not be hearing about much in the news. So I think my favourite story would have to be the one where we covered El Salvador’s decision to make Bitcoin legal tender.

I’m not a Bitcoin bro but there was something kinda hilarious about reading a headline which almost sounded like it was a satire piece and yet at the same time made a lot of sense for this small Central American country. And yeah, since we ran that story I’ve kept a close eye on El Salvador as its shopkeepers struggle to price their goods in such a crazy currency.

What about you, Josh?

Joshua: Look, it was so hard to choose, but I think I have to say our story from May about whether the Olympics would go ahead.

Back then there was a real chance that they would be cancelled and there was a lot of tension within Japanese society.  

But, thankfully, it all came together without triggering a global superspreader event.  And I think I speak for most of us here, the Olympics were such a welcome distraction from Covid and it was quite surreal to see so many people gathering from around the world.

Plus, I edit our episodes and it was kinda fun to play around with the Olympic anthem and weave it into the story.

Hugh: And if I can take this opportunity to thank you for your editing that would be great. To take our listeners behind the curtain, we both write our scripts but Joshua also has to put together the audio which is a huge job which you do amazingly at so well done!

Joshua: Well, do you want to sign-off for us?

Hugh: Sure!  That’s all for The Wrap Up for 2021!

Next week’s episode -- our final for the year -- will be Part 6 of our In-Depth series on the Decline of Democracy.

Rhiannon will be taking a deep dive into the world of conspiracy theories and the role they’ve played in undermining democracy.

Joshua: Yeah, conspiracy theories seem to have exploded throughout the pandemic. I think all of us know someone who’s gone down the rabbit hole.

Hugh: Yep, that’s for sure.

Joshua: Although Hugh won’t be here, I’ll be back in mid-January with the first instalment of the Wrap Up for 2022.

While we search for a new co-host, you’ll get to hear from other members of Global Questions, who’ll be joining me to unpack the fortnight’s news.

Hugh: Until then, follow our Instagram page for news updates, quizzes and bonus content.  You can also get in touch with us and suggest an episode topic via our website.

Links are in the episode description.

Joshua: Have a safe and happy Christmas, and I’ll see you next year.

Hugh: And I’ll be listening in. Bye.

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