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WRAP-UP: 16 March 2021

Joshua and Hugh's fortnightly highlight of news from around the world. Join us as we discuss: 
- War and peace in Yemen. 
- A bizarre tale involving Kiribati, Fiji, China and the Anglican Church.
- The Pope’s visit to Iraq.
- Brazillian ex-President Lula’s prison release.

Topic #1 - The conflict in Yemen 

*Audio from U.S. Secretary of State Blinken*

Hugh: Well those were the remarks of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has recently begun initiating President Biden’s new foreign policy agenda in the Middle East. Now a particular area that Secretary Blinken has been paying attention to has been the United States’ involvement in the longstanding war in Yemen.

Just last month, the Biden administration ended all US support for the Saudi-led coalition, which is currently propping up the internationally recognised government in Yemen.

That coalition has been fighting against an organisation known as the Houthis since 2015, when Houthi militias seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, alongside many other parts of the country. That means the conflict is technically a civil war that is being fought between different Yemeni groups, although with the Houthis being Shia Muslims, they have enjoyed close support from Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran.

That support, in turn, led Saudi Arabia to assemble a coalition of anti-Iranian states, including many Sunni Arab nations and several Western powers, to drive the Iranian-backed Houthis out of Sana’a and restore the internationally-recognised government to power.

Now, fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi coalition began in 2015 and is still ongoing six years later in 2021, so it’s clear that Riyadh has failed to secure victory over the rebels. But as the humanitarian situation continues to spiral, disappointingly, it looks like fighting has only grown more intense in the last few weeks.

*Audio from:*

Josh: This is something we covered a bit in the Christmas special, so it’s sad to hear that fighting has only got worse since then. What’s changed?

Hugh: Well ironically, the fighting has intensified due to the US now taking steps towards peace actually. As I mentioned earlier, Washington has suspended all support for the Saudi-led coalition, which previously included military training, intelligence and logistics support, as well as arms sales and assistance in enforcing a full maritime blockade on the Houthis.

Washington's primary motivation in cutting back this support has been the awful humanitarian situation in Yemen which has come as a result of the Saudi-led blockade targeting Houthi-controlled areas. Tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians have died due to the conflict, with millions displaced and millions more facing severe food shortages.

US Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, has already made two trips to the region as he seeks to bring about consensus for a ceasefire in the country. This means that the US is now meaningfully supporting the United Nation’s long-standing plan to end the war in Yemen, after having directly fuelled the violence for the past five years.

The trick however has been that with a ceasefire now on the cards, both sides in Yemen are pushing as hard as they can to gain the upper hand before negotiations really kick in. The more gains each side makes, the better their negotiation position will be.

Josh: So what does that mean in practical terms?

Hugh: Well it means that the Houthis have launched a fresh offensive on a major city called Marib. Marib sits at a vital juncture and is one of the few cities still under full government control.

But attacking Marib obviously has a dangerous impact on the local civilian population, as well as internally displaced people that were taking refuge in the area. So unfortunately the Houthi assault is more bad news for the humanitarian situation in the country.

That said, the Saudi coalition has also launched an offensive in the southern al-Kadha area, creating a second, major front, which has only made matters worse.

The escalating situation has even come to affect Saudi Arabia itself, with the Houthis launching missile and drone strikes on critical oil infrastructure, several southern cities and even the Saudi capital of Riyadh itself. This has shaken oil prices and is also naturally a cause for concern among Saudi civilians.

Josh: The situation is really escalating then… but what does this mean at a humanitarian level?

Hugh: The year started with the UN World Food Programme or the WFP warning of just how dire the situation has become in Yemen. According to the WFP, 70% of the Yemeni population requires food assistance. That’s 21 million people…

50,000 people are already facing famine-like conditions, 2.3 million children under five years are projected to face acute malnutrition and tragically, 400,000 young people are projected to die this year if they do not receive urgent treatment.

Without an end to the war or a massive increase in international support for the WFP’s mission to feed the Yemeni population, this dire situation looks set to continue. As WFP Executive Director David Beasely said, “we have a vaccine for this. It is called food. All we need to save lives is funding.”

Thankfully, as part of its peace initiative, the Biden administration is now allowing US aid to go into Houthi-controlled territories, where most Yemenis live and which are at the gravest risk. But it seems clear that until the ceasefire is put in place, a permanent solution to this unmitigated humanitarian disaster will remain out of reach.

Josh: How horrific. Obviously, the most important steps towards peace need to be taken at an international level, but is there anything that the average person can be doing to help?

Hugh: Yes, there is. I would recommend the World Food Programme’s ‘ShareTheMeal’ app, which allows you to make small donations at any time to feed malnourished people, particularly children, in Yemen. It only costs $1.20 Australian to provide a meal, so it’s an easy and affordable way to support starving civilians in the country. You might like to make a donation every time you eat out, or perhaps once a week. At any rate, it’s something I would highly recommend.

Topic #2 - Kiribati, Fiji and China 

Josh: Hugh, a question for you and our listeners: what does the Pacific nation of Kiribas, China, a vegetable farm, climate change and the Anglican Church have in common?

The answer is: they all link back to a piece of land in Fiji that’s causing a lot of fuss at the moment.

And this piece of land isn’t that big -- it’s about 22 square kilometres, which for all of our Australian listeners, is about the size of Melbourne Airport or inner Sydney.

Hugh: Alright. What makes that piece of land so controversial?

Josh: It all boils down to two issues: who is going to use the land, and what are they going to use it for. And in order to understand those issues, we need to go back in time by about 7 years.

So in 2014, the President of Kiribas, Ano-tay Tong, warns the world that his nation may soon be underwater because of climate change.

Kiribas is made up of around 30 little coral islands, all of which are barely above sea level and extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels.  At the time, high tides were washing away houses, contaminating drinking water level and threatening to make the island unliveable.

So President Tong took an extraordinary step.  For $8.7 million dollars, he purchased from the Anglican Church a former cattle farm in Fiji.

The property was big enough to house 60 to 70,000 people -- and so President Tong declared that once Kiribas was underwater, its people would relocate to the Fijian property.

And it’s fair to say, the decision really got the world’s attention.

But, 7 years later, and President Tong is no longer in power. And his successor Taneti Maamau has decided to change the country’s approach to rising sea levels. He, like much of Kiribas’s population, is deeply religious and has said that he doesn’t believe the islands will sink.

Scientists have also pointed towards hopeful signs that the islands are rising with the ocean, as waves deposit new sand onto the shore. So, that’s led the government of Kiribas to ask: what should it do with this piece of land in Fiji?

Hugh: That’s quite a strange problem to have -- so what did they decide?

Josh: The conclusion was recently reached that the former cattle farm would be used to grow vegetables for Kiribas. Currently, Kiribas has to import all of its vegetables and obesity levels are very high.

So it’s hoped that this vegetable farm will help overcome food shortages and improve the nation’s health. The only problem is, the land is really overgrown with forests and will be quite difficult to convert into a farm.

So who has Kiribas sought help from?  China.

Just last month, President Maamau said in an interview that China had offered technical assistance to help the land reach its - quote unquote “potential”. And the vagueness of that statement prompted a bit of concern.

Hugh: Why, what people are upset about?

Josh: Well, you’ve got to remember that this land is ultimately part of Fiji, and the Fijiian government isn’t too pleased at the thought of Kiribas inviting China into their country.

There’s also concerns that China’s offer of assistance might come with strings attached. Kiribas is located in a really strategic spot - close to Hawaii and Pearl Harbour - so it’s an ideal spot for China to construct a military base in. There’s worry that the increasingly close relationship between Kiribas and China might result in Kiribas giving Beijing the blessing to engage in military activity.

Adding fuel to those concerns is the fact that President Maamau was elected on an anti-China policy platform. But, he changed his tune and has become pro-China after the Chinese government pledged to give Kiribas $15 million dollars in aid.

So this spat over the block of land in Fiji not only raises really interesting questions about national sovereignty and climate change, but also about China’s intentions in the region. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

Topic #3 - The Pope’s visit to Iraq

Hugh:  Well Josh you might have seen some articles in the press lately talking about the visit by Pope Francis to Iraq. But beyond the basic glamour shots which made it to the front pages, a lot has been going on as a result of the Pope’s visit to the cradle of civilisation, which I’d love to share with you.

Josh: I have definitely heard about this, but what makes the visit so significant?

Hugh: There are actually several factors at play that have made the Pope’s visit to Iraq so monumental.

The first is simply the extent to which the visit is without precedent. Christians have lived in Iraq since the first century AD, but at no point in history has the country been visited by a Pope, the highest-ranking figure in the Catholic Church.

And yet speaking of high ranking religious figures, Pope Francis also met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the spiritual leader of the Shia faith and the closest person Shia Islam has to a Pope.

It’s believed that the meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is the first example of the two leaders of the Catholic and Shia faiths meeting in history. That’s an astonishing thing to bear in mind when you remember that there are around 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and another 200 million Shias. So in other words, almost 20% of the human population was represented by two men sitting across from each other in Iraq.

Josh: That’s certainly unprecedented - but what is the Pope doing meeting the leaders of other religions?

Hugh: From day one in his position, the Pope has sought to promote inter-religious, or ecumenical, cooperation with other faith groups. The Pope has at times spoken favourably of Protestantism, supporting a push to name a square in Rome after Protestant forefather Martin Luther and suggesting that Protestants should be able to receive communion in a Catholic Church.

But arguably, out of all the faith groups, the Pope has spent the most time and effort reaching out to Islam. He has previously suggested that Islamic Prayers be held in the Vatican, and in recent years he has met with senior Sunni Islamic leaders in nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Turkey and Bangladesh.

Reaching out to the Islamic world has been a major focus for the Catholic leader, with Islam set to replace Christianity as the largest religion across the globe sometime during the 21st century. So while the Pope’s visit to Iraq was primarily meant to encourage the nation’s Christian population, it also deliberately served to strengthen ties with the Islamic world, as demonstrated by the decision to hold an inter-religious prayer event in the ancient city of Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, a key prophet in both Christianity and Islam.

Josh: You mentioned that the Pope also wanted to encourage Iraqi Christians. What do you mean by that?

Hugh: Well as I mentioned earlier, Iraq has had Christians living inside its borders for a significantly longer time than even much of Europe, but as a result of the immense political upheaval that has taken place in the last few years, the Christian population in Iraq has shrunk significantly. Only twenty years ago there were over a million Christians living in Iraq, but now that figure sits closer to 250,000.

Pope Francis made sure to visit several symbolic sites that form an important part of the story behind the destruction of Iraq’s Christian community. Touring the north of the country, he held religious ceremonies in and around churches that had been demolished by ISIS - a group which was known for its brutal treatment of Christians among other minority religions.

Reaching back to his ecumenical rhetoric, the Pope referred to recent violence in Iraq as fratricide, suggesting that Christian-Muslim tensions were pitting brother against brother. His visit was therefore very clearly an attempt at reconciliation in one of the world’s most war-torn regions.

And of course, the Iraqi Government itself has benefited greatly from the visit, demonstrating to the world that it is not only committed to upholding religious minorities within its borders after years of extreme insurgent oppression but that it also has the security credentials to protect the highest-ranking member of the Catholic church for four days in a nation which still has a lingering ISIS insurgency. So all in all, a very big story with significant ramifications for Iraq, Islam and Catholic Christianity.

Topic #4 - President Lula’s return 

Josh: A couple of weeks back, in our very first Wrap-Up, you and I chatted about President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.

If you haven’t listened to it, definitely check it out.  The story concerned an effort by local indigenous people to prosecute Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity and ecocide.

Well, in this last week, it looks like another political threat to Bolsonaro has emerged, and that’s this guy.

*Audio of President Lula speaking*

The person you just heard talking is former President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Siilva -- known as Lula for short.

And just last week, the Supreme Court of Brazil tossed out several criminal cases against Lula, including two convictions for corruption. And that’s significant, because it allows him to run against Bolsonaro in 2022.

Hugh:  For those of us who don’t know much about President Lula, can you give us a quick rundown?

Josh: Yeah sure. Lula was President of Brazil from 2003 to 2011 and led a left-leaning government that was very, very popular among many poorer Brazilians.

They saw Lula, who was a former metal and steel worker, as one of their own. By all accounts, Lula was pretty successful in raising a lot of people out of poverty.

But, the constitution of Brazil prevents any President from serving for more than two terms in a row, so he had to step down in 2011. When he stepped down, he had an approval rating of 90%.

His successor was Dilma Roussef.  As some of our listeners might remember, she was later impeached for budget violations. Her impeachment and removal from office helped clear the way for Bolsonaro to run for president in 2018.

Now, interestingly, Lula ran against Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election and was expected to win. But, then he was convicted for corruption, and barred from running -- just 5 weeks before the 2018 election. As a result, Bolsonaro became the front runner and won.

Hugh: So why was Lula convicted for corruption in the first place?

Josh: He was alleged to have been involved in the largest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history. It’s all quite complicated, but essentially, executives at a state-owned oil company allegedly accepted bribes from other companies.

It was also alleged that these companies also gave bribes to politicians -- including President Lula -- who reportedly received a seaside apartment as a bribe. As a result, he was convicted and jailed for 12 years.

Hugh: So why did the Supreme Court throw out the convictions this week?

Josh: They did it mostly on technical grounds - namely that the case was filed in the wrong jurisdiction and therefore the entire criminal trial was invalid.

It’s important to note here that this Supreme Court didn’t declare him innocent. So it’s certainly not the end of the matter.

The government plans to appeal the decision, and if the appeal is accepted, Lula will be barred from office again. And, if the appeal is rejected, prosecutors could bring charges against Lula again -- this time in the right jurisdiction.

But there’s long been speculation that the charges are politically motivated:

  • The anti-corruption task force that investigated Lula was abolished because of  ethical and procedural irregularities.

  • The federal judge who convicted Lula was later chosen by Bolsonaro to be justice minister.

  • It’s also been revealed that the judge was coaching the prosecution and giving them tips throughout the trial -- which understandably raises serious concerns

Hugh: So what does all of this mean?

Josh: Well, as I said, the fact that the convictions were thrown out means that Lula can run for President again. He’s 75 years old and hasn’t confirmed that he’ll compete against Bolsonaro, but that’s what most people think he’ll do. And it comes at a critical time for opposition parties in Brazil.  So far, they’ve failed to find unite around a central candidate, but Lula might solve that problem for them.


Hugh: And that’s all for this Wrap-Up! Make sure you check out next week’s In-Depth episode, where Emma will be interviewing Harry Rosen about the fight against antisemitism.

Josh: And follow us, The Young Diplomats Society, on Facebook or Instagram for more great analysis and content. We’re constantly updating the stories there.

Hugh: We’ll see you next week. Bye!

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