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The Wrap-Up: 2 November 2021

Josh and Hugh’s fortnightly recap of international news is here!  Join us as we discuss:

  • COP26

  • Sudan's coup d'état

  • tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran

  • the former Italian Deputy Prime Minister's trial

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Topic #1 - COP26

Hugh: Well Joshua, there’s no way you haven’t heard about the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, because it’s been all over the news.

And for good reason, world leaders have been gathering in the UK for what observers are calling the most important international meeting on climate change since the 2015 Paris Agreement.

You see, world leaders, government ministers and other international representatives are expected to hash out a lot of major issues over the coming fortnight.

And frankly, that’s important because we’ve seen recent UN research come out demonstrating that the world is very far behind on its climate change obligations - so the timing couldn’t be better.

Josh: Wow yeah that all sounds important - what has the UN been saying about climate change lately?

Hugh: Yeah look, it’s pretty grim unfortunately.

The UN Environmental Program has released a report saying that if the world continues at its current slow pace of emissions reductions, we’re set to hit a 2.7-degree celsius increase in global temperatures by the end of the century.

And I know that sounds relatively low but even a tiny change in global temperatures has a profound effect on ecosystems across the world.

Josh: Right! What might we expect to see happen if we see a global temperature rise as the UN has forecasted?

Hugh: The UN is warning that we’re set to reach 2.7 degrees, but if we hit just a 2 degree  rise, there are a few grim things that would happen. Sea levels would be expected to rise by half a metre, 16% of plants would lose half their habitable area and 37% of the global population would be exposed to severe heat every 1 to 5 years.

Those are only some of the negative impacts and it’s alr eady a lot to take in but really, the main point is, life on earth would become very difficult in a world where average global temperatures increase by 2.7 degrees.

Josh: Shocking stuff. So what is the COP26 and how does it fit into all of this?

Hugh:  Well we’ve not seen many people explain what COP26 actually is so to give a summary, the Glasgow meeting is the 26th gathering of the Conference of Parties, or COP.

Hugh: Now, every UN member is part of the COP and essentially, they’re responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of something known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Now that Convention was first agreed upon in New York and Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and that was really the first time the world had come together to agree to fight climate change.

They later agreed to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which I’m sure many of our listeners have heard of and then in 2015, they agreed to the Paris Agreement.

So now, at COP26, the job is to pick up where we left off in Paris and agree to further international cooperation on climate change.

Josh: And what specifically is COP26 looking to finalise?

Hugh: A few things really. As of Tuesday, world leaders are wrapping up their summit. And the point of their summit has basically been to agree on high-level cooperation between countries on ways to speed up emissions reductions.

But at the same time, as we’ve seen in Australia, having world leaders sit across from each other has also forced certain countries to be a bit more ambitious with their reduction timelines, so that’s been another achievement of the summit.

Otherwise, negotiators are also going to be looking for ways to mobilise finance, and what that essentially means is finding a way to unlock taxpayer funding and private investment across the world - the hope there is to help economies transfer towards greener technologies.

Also, because we are so far behind on our reductions timeline, another job is going to be coming up with ways to protect vulnerable communities and natural habits from the environmental damage that is already locked by our current emissions.

And lastly, even though Paris was six years ago, we’re still yet to finalise a framework to help countries to trade their emissions, so hopefully negotiators will be able to figure that out as well.

So clearly there’s a lot on the table and with the clock loudly ticking, as one UN official said, the race is really on to get some meaningful work done before the situation gets any worse.

Topic #2 - Sudan coup d’etat and long term politics 

Josh: If you’ve listened to the news throughout the past fortnight, chances are you heard about the coup in Sudan.

On Monday last week, the Sudanese military placed the PM under arrest and dissolved the government.

The head of the military, General al-Burhan, has been declared Sudan’s new leader.

This is a really significant development.  Not only will it affect Sudan’s 44 million people, but it could also have flow-on effects for global trade and the power struggle between Russia and the US.

So I thought we’d take a closer look at why the coup took place and what it could mean.

HUGH: Okay, so let’s tackle the first of those issues. What led to the coup?

Josh: Well to put it in context, we need to rewind to 2019, when Sudan’s brutal dictator, Omar al-Bashir was toppled by his own military after protests that lasted for over a year.

Josh: The military agreed to share power with the protest leaders in a so-called ‘transitional government’.  The aim was to hold elections down the track and establish democracy.

And for a while, things seemed to be going well. Sudan started to democratise and the government passed significant reforms..

However, cooperation between the military and protest leaders started to break down in 2020.  And that led to warnings that the military might try to seize full control -- which turned out to be spot on.

HUGH: The military toppled one dictatorship, so how has it justified creating another?

Josh: Well, they say the takeover was necessary to prevent a civil war, and have claimed they’ll hold elections in 2023.  But it seems few people in Sudan believe them.

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people protested on Sudan’s streets.

Government workers have also gone on strike.  So markets, banks, fuel stations, airports and hospitals are closed.

The military has also been condemned internationally, with the US and World Bank saying they’ll withhold nearly $3 billion in aid that was earmarked for Sudan.

HUGH: That’s a huge decision, because Sudan is really dependent on international aid.

Josh: Exactly.  So the fact that the US and World Bank have taken this step indicates they’re really concerned about the potential flow-on effects of this coup.

HUGH: Okay, so can you unpack those potential consequences for us?

Josh: Sure, so there are 4 major concerns here: First, there are security implications:

Sudan borders 7 other countries in Africa.  As a result, it’s become a destination for people fleeing wars in neighbouring Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Sudan.

So if Sudan also descends into chaos, it’ll affect millions of refugees sheltering in the country -- and could further destabilize the region.

Second, there are fears the failure of democracy in Sudan could encourage militaries in other African democracies to stage similar takeovers, at a time when coup attempts in Africa are on the rise.  There have been 6 in the past year alone.

Third, there are the global trade implications.

Up to 30% of the world’s shipping containers travel through Sudan’s waters.  Instability in Sudan could choke one of the biggest shipping routes.

Finally, whoever controls the country is in a prime position to help influence the international balance of power.

Russia, China, the UAE and the US are all trying to exert influence in the region. Russia, in particular, has been trying to build nuclear power plants and naval bases in Sudan.

In fact, the Russian government has supported the coup, in the hope that it may receive approval for its projects. So what happens over the coming months in Sudan is really important.

Topic #3 - Azerbaijan-Iran tensions

Hugh: Well, as is so often the case, international relations experts tend to focus predominantly on issues which affect the West in one way or another, but sometimes it’s helpful to remember that many important foreign policy developments often have little to do with the Western powers at all.

And to give you a great example of that Joshua, in recent months, tensions have been high between Iran and Azerbaijan.

As you would have just heard, Azerbaijan has actually just taken the step of banning all pro-Iranian websites in the country, so things are fairly serious.

Josh: Very true - what’s been going on?

Hugh: You might recall back in late 2020 when Azerbaijan and Armenia went to war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Now prior to that conflict, Armenia had largely controlled the territory, but following a series of devastating skirmishes with Azeri forces, the region effectively came under the control of Azerbaijan, which is a close ally of Turkey.

And you see, Iran actually shares a long border with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan and it lost a lot of influence as a result of the war.

So Iran now finds itself in a much weaker position to its north, with regional rival Turkey now enjoying significant influence in its backyard

Josh: So what’s been going on then?

Hugh: Well, just a few weeks ago, Iran held a major military exercise along Azerbaijan’s border and there was some rhetoric going around the Iranian press about a possible attack on Azerbaijan although this was mostly posturing.

But Azerbaijan's leadership also sent defiant messages to Iran, with President Aliyev promising that quote “baseless allegations against the Azerbaijan nation would not go unanswered”.

Josh: And all of this stems back to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

Yes and no. Going back as far as the 1990s, Azerbaijan and Iran have had a tense relationship. You see, a large part of Iran’s northern territory is actually inhabited by ethnic Azeris. In fact, nearly one in six Iranian citizens identifies as being Azeri.

And so tensions exist between the two nations because there are fears that Iran’s Azeri population might one day attempt to secede and join a greater Azerbaijan.

So during last year’s fighting with Armenia, Iran’s northern cities saw protests as ethnic Azeris rallied in support of Azerbaijan and attempted to block any efforts by the Iranian Government to assist Armenia.

Josh: Wow. Why would Iran want to help Armenia anyway?

Hugh: Well, Armenia’s relatively small border with Iran is used as a major thoroughfare between Iran, the Caucasus, Russia and Europe.  c

If Iran wants to ship goods to places like Europe and it wants to avoid travelling through the territory of its regional competitor Turkey or Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, then it has three options.

It can use the land route from Iran to Syria via Iraq, but obviously not a particularly safe bet. Otherwise, it can also go via the sea but that’s a long route that’s vulnerable to US Navy ships.

So finally, Iran can travel through Armenia and ship its goods to Europe via the Black Sea.

But with Azerbaijan now controlling Nagorno-Karabakh and the peace deal between the two warring nations giving Azeri forces influence over road infrastructure in southern Armenia, Iran feels somewhat cut off.

And, at the same time as this is all happening, Azerbaijan is getting very close not only to Turkey, but also to Iran’s arch-rival, Israel, which has equipped Azerbaijan’s army.

Josh: What’s the next step?

Hugh: Thankfully there has been some engagement between Azerbaijan and Iran, whose foreign ministers have had some candid but productive conversations.

However, the underlying tensions are still at play, so in a news cycle dominated by Western-centric news stories, I’d encourage our listeners to keep an eye on Azerbaijan and Iran, because I think their tense relationship says a lot about broader changes in the region.

Topic #4 - Salvini trial 

Josh: For our final story, we’re going to go to Hollywood. And Hugh, tell me, are you a fan of 90’s rom-com movies?

HUGH: I can't say that I am!

Josh: Yeah, I must confess -- they’re not really my thing. But, if you’re listening to this and you are a fan, chances are you might recognise this voice: That was Hollywood actor Richard Gere - star of movies like Pretty Woman, Chicago and so on.

HUGH: And I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering why we’re talking about a Hollywood star on a global politics podcast…?

Josh: Well, it turns out that Richard Gere is not just a movie star, he’s also the star witness in a trial accusing Italy’s former deputy prime minister of kidnapping and abduction.

So the Italian politician I’m referring to is Matteo Salvini.  You might remember his name from a few years ago. He was the leader of The League, a far-right party that swept to power in Italy’s 2018 elections.

Salvini was named deputy PM and put in charge of Italy’s immigration portfolio.  And he used his power to launch a massive crackdown on refugees and migrants.

He deported refugees, fined charities who gave aid to migrants and blocked boats that rescued asylum seekers from the Mediterranean Sea from docking in Italy’s ports.

And this is where the kidnapping allegations come in. In 2019, a Spanish ship rescued 147 migrants who nearly drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean sea.

The migrants needed medical care, so the ship’s captain asked for permission to dock in nearby Italy.  Salvini refused. As a result, the ship was left stranded off the coast of Italy for 19 days.  And conditions onboard grew pretty dire.

Eventually the boat was allowed to dock, but only after the courts intervened.

Now, Italian prosecutors allege that by keeping the migrants on the boat for so long, Salvini committed kidnapping, abduction, abuse of power and human rights violations.

HUGH: And how does Richard Gere come into this?

Josh: Well, at the time the ship was stuck off the Italian coast, Gere was holidaying in Italy. He offered to help and ended up visiting the ship in an effort to draw international attention to the case.

Because he’s an eyewitness to the conditions on the boat, he’s been asked to give evidence at trial.

HUGH: So what could the trial mean for Salvini and his party?

Josh: There are two ways to look the trial. On one hand, it shows just how far Salvini has fallen.  His immigration policies were so controversial that he was dumped from the government and support for his party has dropped.

And if he is found guilty, he could face up to 15 years in jail and be barred from politics for life.  That would deprive the Italian far-right of one of its most recognisable leaders.

But, on the other hand, the trial could throw Salvini a political lifeline. As his power has declined, he’s struggled to get attention. But news that a Hollywood star may testify against him has catapulted him back into the spotlight and given him a media platform.

What’s more, it plays into his populist narrative that the elites are out to get him and ordinary Italians. That message proved popular once -- and it could prove popular again. So the outcome of this trial won’t just affect Salvini’s future, it could also help determine the future of the Italian far-right. 

Hugh: And that’s all for this fortnight’s edition of The Wrap-Up!

Next week’s episode will be Part 3 of our In-Depth series on the Decline of Democracy.  Rhiannon will be chatting to some exciting guests about the rise of populism and how it's changing the fabric of democracies around the globe.

Josh: 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.

Hugh: We will see you in a fortnight! Bye.

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