Underappreciated Conflicts of 2014
By Robin Wright
By Robin Wright
I have spent my life covering wars, revolutions, and uprisings—more than forty years’ worth of them now. As I looked through annual rundowns of the Big Stories of 2014, I found three types of conflicts that were not on many lists but should be. Each, for different reasons, represents a trend worth paying attention to.
Russia’s advances on Ukraine and the Islamic State’s sweep across Iraq and Syria grabbed headlines, but soft conflicts, which reflect crumbling societies at war with themselves, can be as troubling, and potentially explosive, as the hard-fought wars. An example is South Africa, a country that has been heralded for creating one of the world’s most democratic constitutions. Conditions for many blacks there have not improved much since apartheid ended, a generation ago. Unemployment is now , and has not been below twenty per cent in almost two decades. Unofficially, the number could be much higher.
A telling figure is life expectancy. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, in 1990, the average South African lived sixty-two years. Today, the figure is fifty-one years. The decline is attributable largely to H.I.V./AIDS. It didn’t help that, in 2006, when Jacob Zuma was head of the National Council and on trial for rape, he that he had taken a shower after unprotected sex to avoid transmission of the disease. (He was acquitted.) Zuma is now the President of South Africa, and the country has by far the of H.I.V./ in the world.
December marked the first anniversary of Mandela’s death, but his “rainbow nation” is still tainted by racism. A by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation found that forty-seven per cent of whites surveyed do not believe that apartheid was a crime against humanity, in contrast to eighty per cent of blacks who think it was. Racism is a two-way street. Leaders of the ruling African National Congress have sung songs in public advocating the murder of whites.
South Africa is also the rape and murder capital of the world. This year, the captain of the national soccer team was killed by burglars, and the former spokesman of the ruling party was shot in the chest while at an A.T.M. These are dismal trends in a country that was widely expected, after apartheid’s end, to become the political model and economic engine for the rest of Africa.
Four years ago, the Islamic world offered new democratic models, born of the Arab Spring protests. The troublesome trend this year has been the return—by democratic means—of authoritarian rule. One example is Egypt. (Turkey could be another.)
Egypt has long been the political trendsetter in the Middle East. It accounts for a quarter of the Arab world’s three hundred and fifty million people. Its return to authoritarian rule is as ominous as the Arab Spring was hopeful. The problem is not just the string of detentions (more than ten thousand) or death sentences (more than a thousand) during the past year. The war over human rights plays out more broadly as draconian Presidential decrees—in a country still without a parliament—undo the gains from the 2011 uprising. The new regime’s restrictions on public life foreshadow a turbulent future.
In October, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former field marshal who ousted a democratically elected President last year and then won a democratic election to replace him, decreed that civilians could be tried in military courts—an unprecedented expansion of the military’s authority, according to Human Rights Watch. The decree can be imposed retroactively. More than eight hundred civilians were referred to military courts in the first six weeks after it went into effect.
The regime has also confronted Egypt’s fledgling civil society. Under to the penal code in September, non-government organizations were ordered to register with the government or face new criminal charges. Many of Egypt’s N.G.O.s have survived largely with the help of funding by their foreign counterparts. Now any staff member of an organization that gets foreign funding can face life imprisonment if convicted of vague offenses like compromising “national unity,” harming the “national interest,” or breaching “public peace.” If the person also happens to be a civil servant, he or she could be subject to execution.
The N.G.O.s have no recourse. The regime’s intimidation is effectively silencing them. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies that it could no longer fight the “ongoing threats to human rights organizations and the declaration of war on civil society,” and decried the mounting pressure aimed at shutting out “every independent critical voice from the public sphere, individuals and institutions, Islamist or secular.” It plans to move to Tunisia.
Just six months into el-Sisi’s rule, he is gaining a reputation for being even tougher than former President Hosni Mubarak—and with no checks on his power either at home or abroad. Last month, Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations and Egypt’s allies to condemn the “most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt’s modern history.”
It’s understandable that conflicts between human beings dominate the news, but conflicts between humans and other species deserve more coverage than they’re getting.
In 1960, according to the World Wildlife Fund, there were some two thousand northern white rhinos roaming the vast expanses of Africa. By 1984, there were only fifteen, because of poaching. An ambitious conservation program helped double the population by 1993, but it couldn’t defeat the poachers. A northern white rhino’s horn can net up to thirty thousand dollars a pound. Today, only five of the species survive. The remaining northern white rhinos—three in Kenya, another in San Diego, and one in a Czech zoo—are not believed capable of rebreeding the species.
There are only between twenty-five and a hundred vaquita porpoises, the smallest of the porpoise species. ( means “small cow” in Spanish.) They are shy by nature and swim off the Mexican coast, where they get caught in the nets of fishermen trawling for large blue shrimp, an American favorite. The world also has only two dozen Hainan gibbons, the rarest of the ape species, with their distinctive orangish-beige hair and sweet black faces. They live in the Bawangling National Nature Reserve, on China’s Hainan Island, but they are losing their battle to loggers and poachers.
The list goes on and on. As the New Year approaches, there’s no joy in the fact that the planet’s most intelligent species tolerates and abets the destruction of others that have just as much a claim to the earth as we do.