The Wrap-Up: 19 October 2021

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

  • Why Beirut was in chaos last week (and what it means for Lebanon).

  • How the world is responding to Afghanistan’s aid crisis.

  • Kenya and Somalia’s ocean spat in the world’s highest court.

  • Controversy over the US’s “kindergarten level” cyber security.

Are you enjoying Global Questions? Got an idea for an upcoming episode? If so, we'd love to hear from you! Head to our suggestions page.


Follow us on Instagram @global.questions for breaking news updates, quizzes, and bonus content. 


For more info about us, check out our website.

Episode 2 - 19th October 2021


Topic #1 - Chaos in Beirut 

Josh: Hugh, our first story takes place in Beirut, Lebanon, which has been plunged into the worst violence seen in the city in decades.


A few days ago, clashes between Christian and Muslim militias turned the city into a war zone. There were gun battles, rocket-propelled grenades were fired and tanks rolled through the streets.


At least seven people were killed.  And although the army was able to restore calm, the city is still on a knife’s edge.


Hugh: What triggered the violence?


Josh: It all links back to the Beirut port explosion which I’m sure many of us remember well.


And as we’ve talked about on The Wrap Up before, Lebanon has been in chaos since that explosion.  The government collapsed, the value of Lebanon’s currency dropped by 90% and there have been chronic food and medicine shortages.


More than a year later, those problems remain unsolved. That’s largely due to the fact that Lebanon is made up of 18 religious factions, which makes it extremely hard to form a stable government.


However, in the midst of the chaos, there’s been one glimmer of hope. A judge investigating the blast has called powerful politicians to give evidence and uncovered evidence of negligence and corruption.


The families of people who died in the blast have praised the judge for holding these politicians accountable. But, of course, the politicians themselves have accused the judge of bias -- and they’ve called on the religious factions that support them to protest.


And that’s what led to the violence last week.


Supporters of the politicians, mostly from Hezbollah and Muslim factions, took to the streets to call for the judge to be fired.


But while they were protesting, snipers from rival Christian factions started firing on them. From there it quickly escalated into armed conflict.


It took four hours for the army to bring the situation under control.


Hugh: Sounds like a terrifying experience for everyone involved… 


Josh: Yes, especially in light of Lebanon’s history.  This is a country that endured a 15-year civil war during the 1970’s and 80’s as these same religious factions fought each other.


More than 100,000 people were killed in that war. People who live in Beirut say last week’s violence was like watching the civil war unfold all over again.


Hugh: I imagine the question on many people’s minds, including my own, is whether this could spiral into yet another civil war?


It’s a very real fear.  There is so much pent-up anger among the Lebanese people.


They’ve watched their country literally collapse over the last few years.  Three-quarters of the population now live in poverty.


What’s more, tensions over the judicial inquiry aren’t likely to go away any time soon. The politicians being investigated are still demanding the judge be fired -- and they’ve threatened to bring down Lebanon’s government if they don’t get their way.


Meanwhile, opposing factions say they’ll retaliate if the judge is removed. All of this infighting and paralysis is a perfect example of why Lebanon is in the state that it’s in.  The divisions that tore the country apart decades ago still remain -- and unless they are somehow resolved, the future of the Lebanese people looks quite bleak.


Topic #2 - Afghanistan 


Hugh: As you would have just heard, leaders representing the world’s largest economies recently gathered online for an extraordinary G20 meeting to discuss the ongoing situation in Afghanistan.


You see, world leaders are dealing with some pretty big problems at the moment when it comes to the country and those issues were discussed quite extensively over the online meeting.


Josh: Yeah, I can imagine they had a lot to discuss -- the situation in Afghanistan since America’s withdrawal has been incredibly messy.  What were the major items on the agenda?


Hugh: For one, they have to grapple with the fact that the Taliban is effectively functioning as a government now and that raises some important questions regarding whether the international community should treat the new Taliban authorities as a legitimate government or not.


And secondly, without the financial and material assistance which was previously provided to Afghanistan by the US and its allies, the country is now facing a major humanitarian crisis. In fact, more than 10 million Afghans are currently facing serious food shortages as a result of the situation. So there’s a lot on the world’s plate right now when it comes to this issue.


Josh: Did they reach a decision on how to address the food shortages?


Hugh: Well they had to walk a fine line because countries know that if they want to help relieve the ongoing humanitarian crisis, they’ll have to work alongside the Taliban authorities to fund aid projects.


And at that point, we start running into the issue of international recognition of the Taliban government, and I think there’s no better example of leaders facing this problem than in the EU.


You see, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has argued that the “Afghan people should not pay the price of the Taliban's actions”.


And she’s been joined by other major European figures such as outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has said that “the international community cannot stand by and watch as QUOTE "40 million people fall into chaos”.


And the Europeans have actually pledged over a billion euros to support Afghanistan’s recovery. But that level of support is always going to require close cooperation with the Taliban and indeed, EU representatives have already met with Taliban officials in what Brussels insisted was a purely technical meeting that didn’t constitute European recognition of the Taliban Government.


But obviously, the EU is now in a very difficult position when it comes to dealing with the Taliban.


Josh: Well exactly, they’re effectively funding an organisation they’ve been fighting for the last 20 years.  But let’s talk about the situation on the ground: We heard a lot of promises from the Taliban about human rights. Have they been keeping these promises?


Hugh: The Taliban’s human rights record is going to be hugely important as they seek out foreign aid from the international community and that’s why the group has been keen to promise that it won’t behave the same way as it did the last time it controlled the country.


But to answer your question, no, they haven’t been keeping their promises.


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres slammed the Taliban for breaking its promises on human rights and he focused particularly on the treatment of ethnic minorities and women.


In Central Afghanistan, hundreds of ethnic Hazara, who are a Shi’ite ethnic minority, have been forced from their homes by the Taliban.


And unfortunately, the Hazara have long been oppressed by the Taliban, so the fact that that oppression is only getting worse doesn’t exactly suggest that the Taliban are improving their human rights record.


But on women’s rights as well, the Taliban has made a very poor effort, with huge numbers of women and girls being forced out of school and the workforce by the fundamentalist group.


But at any rate, while diplomats negotiate, millions of Afghans continue to face hunger and persecution, so unfortunately this story is far from over.


Topic #3 - Somalia/Kenya ocean dispute 


Josh: That was the President of the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court. She was announcing a major decision -- that the Court had decided to redraw the maritime border between Somalia and Kenya.


In doing so, the Court gave Somalia control over part of the ocean that Kenya had claimed. The decision caused a huge ruckus last week, with both governments threatening each other and Kenya saying that it will ignore the Court’s judgment.


Hugh:  That’s a pretty huge decision -- it’s not every day that borders are suddenly shifted.  Why did the Court do that?


Josh: So to understand why, we’ve got to take a quick look at Africa’s geography.


Somalia and Kenya are both located on the continent’s east coast, right next to the ocean. For decades, they’ve argued over who should control a 100,000 square kilometre section of the ocean next to each country.


To put that in context, that’s an area the size of Portugal, so it’s pretty big. The reason why both countries want this area is because it reportedly contains huge amounts of oil and gas.


It’s also a crucial fishing area, and local communities say they rely on it to survive.


So whoever owns this area controls millions of dollars of natural resources. For some time, the countries tried to reach a diplomatic agreement on how they’d share the area, but it fell through.


So, in 2014, Somalia decided to take the matter to the ICJ. And nearly everything that could go wrong in the case, went wrong.


It was delayed by 6 years, Kenya didn’t send any lawyers to the hearing and a map of the ocean, which was a key piece of evidence, mysteriously went missing. Then, just before the Court announced its decision, Kenya withdrew from the case altogether, claiming the Court was biased.


The Court persisted anyway, and gave Somalia control over most of the area.


Hugh:  And how did both governments respond to the outcome?


Josh: Well, unsurprisingly, Somalia was very happy.


Its president declared Somalians had successfully recaptured the ocean and demanded Kenya respect the decision. The Kenyan President, meanwhile, lashed out at the Court: It plans to ignore the ruling.


Hugh:  And can it do that?


Josh: Yeah, technically.  Although all members of the UN are supposed to follow the ICJ’s decisions, there’s no way to force a country to do so.


Hugh:  So presuming Kenya does ignore the decision, what happens next?


Honestly, it’s anyone’s guess.  Kenya’s President has hinted he might take military action.


However, experts say it’s unlikely there’ll be a war as Somalia lacks a functioning military and both countries depend on each other for trade and security.


And that’s the real tragedy of this case.  Even if military action doesn’t occur, the dispute has already damaged cooperation between both countries. As the case grew increasingly bitter, both countries evicted diplomats, imposed trade restrictions and suspended flights.


Not only has this hurt ordinary Somalians and Kenyans, who travel between both countries to find work, but it could wind up helping a common enemy of both countries.


That enemy is Al Shabab, a terrorist group based in Somalia that frequently carries out attacks throughout the region.


Kenya has helped Somalia combat Al-Shabab over the years.  But with both countries at each others’ throats, that partnership is under threat -- and it’s giving Al-Shabab a chance to regroup and grow in power.


That could have flow-on effects for the entire region’s security -- so it really is in everyone’s interest for Somalia and Kenya to find a workable solution.  And we can only hope they manage to do that.


Topic #4 - US cyber security 


Hugh: So Josh in a pretty shocking development one of the US military’s leading cyber security officials has resigned over what he called “kindergarten level” cyber security standards in the Pentagon.


Nicolas Chaillan, the official in question, was actually the Pentagon’s first Chief Software Officer and he’d been charged with boosting cybersecurity across the military.


But with a number of US departments and military service wings having been subject to major hacking attempts in the past few years, Chaillan seems to be using his resignation as a method of drawing attention to the dire situation.


Josh: Umm, okay -- this is the supposed leader of the free world that we’re talking about -- a country that spends trillions on defence, so I’d kinda expect the US to have better cyber security than that!  What else did Chaillan say?


Hugh: Well, Chaillan’s main warning was that he believes the US has already lost the digital race to China.


In his own words, he said that the US has QUOTE” no competing fighting chance against China in [the next] 15 to 20 years.”


He believes that thanks to China’s digital edge over the US, even if there wasn’t a war between the two powers, Beijing still has enough of an advantage to dominate media narratives and geopolitics more broadly.


Understandably, that’s triggered a wave of concern across Washington, such that Chaillan has actually been invited to testify before Congress.

Josh: Did he give any reasons as to why the situation was so bad?


Hugh: Yeah according to Chaillan, US officials within the Pentagon aren’t giving cyber security the attention it deserves.


Despite being charged with fixing the Pentagon’s cyber security, a really big and important job, Chaillan says his team received no permanent funding and didn’t even have a permanent working space.


He also says that US cyber security officials aren’t being given high enough positions or enough funding within the organisation to achieve the kind of results that are being expected of them.


According to Chaillan, “If the US can’t match the booming, hard-working population in China, then [it has] to win by being smarter, more efficient, and forward-leaning through agility and innovation.”


He says that the US “has to be ahead and lead” and that “it can’t afford to be behind.” but with the current level of leadership, the US is setting up critical infrastructure to fail.


Josh: What types of critical infrastructure are we talking about here?


Hugh: Unfortunately, attacks on the Pentagon are more common than they should be and that’s a big part of why Chaillan has resigned.


I think a lot of our listeners would already be familiar with the SolarWinds hack, which saw Russian-backed hackers gain access to numerous critical government departments. Those included the State Department, the Department of Defence, the Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security.


Hugh: Obviously those are some of the most important branches of the US government, especially when it comes to combatting China’s rise, so the fact that some Russian hackers were able to gain access and monitor those organisations from the inside is obviously catastrophic.


Josh: So how does this affect the US as it increases competition with China?


Hugh: Well not everyone will be convinced that Chaillan’s concerns are proportionate but I think as Congress hears his testimony and compares what he’s said with the recent cyber attacks on the US government, it’ll become clear that Washington has a big problem on its hands.


Even outside of the cyber realm, the US appears to be losing ground to Beijing in the information space, with the CIA recently distributing a top secret cable to its staff warning them that their contacts may not be trustworthy.


And that’s been as a result of efforts by leading US rivals such as China and Russia to mop up CIA networks and remove informants - leaving Washington without a clear idea of what’s going on in the world around it.


So it seems that the US needs to invest a serious effort into rebuilding its espionage capabilities and developing proper cyber security as quickly as possible.


Josh: And that’s all for this fortnight’s edition of The Wrap-Up! Next week’s episode will be Part 2 of our In-Depth series on the Decline of Democracy.


I’ll be filling in for Rhiannon and chatting to journalism experts about freedom of the press -- how it’s being undermined in Australia and why it’s so essential for democracy.


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 via our website. Links are in the episode description.


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