Road Trip Views of Italy

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Photos of a week long road trip along the coast of Italy taken in the last week of December 2015.

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The Fate of Democracy in Kurdistan

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   In a region of staggering instability, President Massoud Barzani has maintained steadfast control over his government and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Originally appointed to the presidency by Parliament in 2005, he has a decade long legacy of moderate policies, democratic enhancements, and a strong history of security. However, his golden age of power was meant to sunset on August 19, 2015.

   The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is insisting on a 2 year extension because of security threats in the region. This may sound familiar, because Barzani’s term was already extended in 2013 by 2 years before ISIS was even a significant threat.

   When his term was last extended, Article 1 of Law number 19 of the Kurdish parliament stated, “The term of the president that expires on August 20, 2013, will be extended until August 19, 2015, and cannot be extended for a second time.”

   The KDP has tried arguing that since Barzani was technically appointed to the presidency by Parliament in 2005 and not elected until 2009, he should be legally able to run for another term. They’ve also tried petitioning the Kurdistan Consultative Council to rule on whether or not Barzani can extend his term once more, but the request never came to fruition due to the unrequited required approval by the Speaker of Parliament.

    Realistically, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is in no shape financially or security-wise to host an electoral election. The lack of financial support would make it impossible for the High Electoral Commission to run an election at all, never mind a fair one.

   However, a 12 year term as president is not in the region’s best interest either. History shows that centralized power in the hands of one individual makes them virtually the only decision-maker after a certain period of time. Presidential dominance will drive away the best potential officials who will go abroad or into private business instead because of the lack of opportunity. Countless examples of the negative effects of long terms in office can be seen in many of Africa’s leaders such as President Museveni of Uganda, President Bashir of Sudan, President Kabila of Congo, and many more. That’s not to mention the Middle East’s reputation for dictatorial governments stemming from the extension of originally elected terms.

   Of course, term limits place some restrictions on democratic choice, but governments with weak institutional restraints on executive power generally have more substantial problems to worry about. Even if Barzani is the best politician for the job, the region of Kurdistan would benefit from a change in power on an institutional stability basis. Furthermore, there’s no law to say that Barzani can’t act as an advisor in some official or unofficial capacity to the new President.

   To solve the issue of leadership most quickly, cost effectively, and securely Parliament should elect a qualified President accepted by the majority of political parties in the region. International leaders, such as the United States, can help make this transition successful by voicing support and continuing the under the table involvement in Kurdistan’s politics.

Turkey’s Role In Fighting ISIS

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As one of the 28 NATO countries, it is often assumed that Turkey will align itself with American interests abroad. But recent tensions between the U.S. and Turkey centered on the Syrian civil war have shown those expectations aren’t always accurate.

Despite international pressure, Turkey has so far avoided a true alliance with the West over attacking Islamic State (IS) forces in Kobani, Syria. Although the Turkish Parliament voted to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria on October 2nd, it has yet to show any signs of follow through.

Up until October 13th, Turkey wouldn’t even allow U.S. troops to operate from their air bases. The most recent concession came from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, for new support of the Kurds fighting IS in Kobani.

“We are facilitating the passage of peshmerga forces to Kobani to provide support,” she announced Monday at a press conference in Ankara.

Considering the proximity of the IS threat to the Turkish border, it’s hard to see why Turkey has been so slow to join the fight. However, three major factors play into Turkey’s hesitation:

1. Turkey’s opposition to Western stance on the Syrian War. Since the first call for help, Turkey has firmly stated they will not participate in airstrikes against Kobani unless the U.S. broadens the fight to topple the Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad. This comes in stark contrast with many Arab countries who have participated in airstrikes, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain.

2. A perspective based in location. Turkey shares a 899 KM border with Syria, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Turkish President Recep Tayyyip Erdogan has repeatedly stated that airstrikes without a deeper plan to stabilize and end Syria’s civil war will only result in more instability. Turkey’s perceptions on the catalysts behind the uprising of IS go much deeper. Therefore, it is a more complex issue than deciding to pull the trigger for them.

3. A history of disagreement. No foreign policy decision is made independently. In assessing whether or not to join the West in their fight against ISIS, Turkey comes to the table with a long history of misalignment on similar issues. The most recent example is Turkey’s refusal to assist the United States in the 2003 Iraq War. They also refused to play a major role in NATO’s 2001 Afghanistan operation, limiting their support to logistics and training. Turkey is weary of getting into bed with an ally who has been on the opposite side of the fence for years now. Furthermore, the U.S. assistance of the Kurds in fighting the terrorists has been another serious point of tension in Turkey, due to the animosity between Turkey’s regime and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

For all these reasons, and many more, Turkey will continue to be reluctant in helping the United States beat back ISIS until some concessions are made on their behalf.

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

A Ceasefire in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Now What?

Middle East & North Africa, Regions
Credit: Creative Commons

Credit: Creative Commons

After an eventful and volatile summer, Israel and Palestine finally reached a ceasefire in the last week of August. While Hamas claimed victory, urging Palestinians to dance in the streets, the 2014 ceasefire is almost identical to the deal reached during the last Gaza war in 2012. Both deals call for:

  1. An end to hostilities on both sides
  2. Opening of pathways across the border for goods and people, depending upon security
  3. Egypt to monitor and follow up if either side take action against the other

While everyone is hoping that the deal sticks this time, something in the international air has changed. U.S.-Israel relations, typically a strong strategic partnership, face some difficult challenges ahead.

The collapse of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks left bitter feelings throughout the administration about the reality of a two-state solution even before the war. Obama’s withholding of the Hellfire missiles, American Airline’s 2 day suspension of flights to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, and Israel’s takeover of 1,000 acres of West Bank lands have added even more strain to a weathered relationship. Not to mention the staggering numbers of dead Palestinians and the upcoming U.N.investigation into Israel’s military tactics in Gaza.

An end to the fighting is definitely welcome in the international community, but the next step has to be taken before the cycle repeats itself.

Who Is the Islamic State?

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Flag of the Islamic State- Creative Commons

Flag of the Islamic State- Creative Commons

You’ve heard of ISIS, but what about the new threat of the Islamic State? As ISIS gained power and territory, leader Baghdadi declared a caliphate made up of territory in both northern Syria and western Iraq.

A caliphate is an Islamic State ruled by one leader. The goal of this caliphate is to enforce their conservative Islamic traditions on as much territory as they can.

While the international arena has acknowledged the potential danger of such a group, not enough has been done to deter ISIS. Having taken the large city of Mosul in June, Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, is not the distant dream our democratic leaders thought.

Their reputation for violence sounds similar to other terrorist organizations, but is even more extreme. ISIS’s extremism even alienated former affiliate Al Qaeda, who disowned their partnership earlier this year.

An example of the lengths this group will go to for success can be found in the Mosul coup. The group kidnapped 30 families and called upon influential citizens to surrender, or “You know their destiny if you don’t let us take over the town.”

As if their violence isn’t warning enough, ISIS now controls four oilfields due to their expansion over the last month. They are selling oil and gasoline from these oilfields to finance the caliphate.

A jihadist organization that already controls so much territory and now has a sustainable income can not be permitted to continue.

 

 

Morocco: Sexual Harassment to Be Expected

Middle East & North Africa, Regions

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Sitting outside the medina in Marrakech at midnight waiting for our bus, I watch as my host family brags about the steals they made in merchandise haggling with the street vendors. I turn my face to the left for a second, hoping to see our bus make it’s way through the forever busy streets. Instead, my eyes fall on an elderly lady fighting off a young male attacker.

I watch at first in puzzlement, and then in dread as the man dressed in all black attempts again and again to grab the old woman’s face and plant a kiss on her horrified face. She is shouting and shoving, but nobody is coming to her rescue. Quite the opposite, many male onlookers are laughing while women duck their heads and hurry past.

He doesn’t stop badgering the old woman until she hands him what looks to be like 20 dirhams. After he walks away, she picks up her bags and hurries to wait for her bus on the other side of the square.

Satisfied for mere seconds, the young man dressed in all black continues on the chase after any woman who appears to be leaving the square alone. I watch as countless women run away from him or fall prey to his trickery.

Upon my arrival in Morocco, I attended an orientation session that included a class in Moroccan Arabic, Moroccan history, and finally a segment on street harassment.

It’s harmless, they say. Keep your head down and you won’t be bothered, they tell you. What I witnessed did not look harmless. Women did keep their heads down and ignored the man’s catcalling, but it only seemed to encourage the man to victimize them.

Although Morocco is one of the most progressive and advanced countries in Africa, there is still a troubling wide gap in their system.

In 2012, a sixteen year old girl named Amina Filali committed suicide after being forced to marry the man who raped her. Her suicide prompted a revolution to get Article 475 of the penal code, a law allowing rapists of underage girls to avoid prosecution by marrying their victims, amended.

Article 475 declares a prison term of one to five years for a person who “abducts or deceives a minor, under 18 years of age, without violence, threat or fraud, or attempts to do so.”

However, the second clause of that article specifies that when the minor marries the man, “he can no longer be prosecuted except by persons empowered to demand the annulment of the marriage and then only after the annulment has been proclaimed.” Essentially, a victim cannot pursue prosecution independently.

The article was successfully repealed in January 2014 due to international outcries over Filali’s suicide. But Morocco still has a long way to go.

A recent study conducted by the state planning commission (HCP), states that one out of two unmarried women in Morocco were subjected to physical and/or verbal sexual violence in 2012. The study also claims that 9% of women in Morocco have been subjected to physical sexual violence at least once.

These numbers can’t go on. The abuse women are experiencing every day must end, and it shouldn’t take a suicide to make the world call for gender equality in Morocco. The country has so much to offer its citizens and outside travelers, but first it must change the way in which women are treated.

Afghan Elections: A Country in Transition

Middle East & North Africa, Regions

Afghanistan underwent presidential and provincial elections this week with surprising success despite Taliban promises to wreak havoc. According to the Afghanistan Interior Ministry the casualties were limited to:

  • 9 police officers dead
  • 7 Afghan army members dead
  • 89 insurgents dead
  • 4 civilians dead
  • 43 civilians injured

While we may balk at the thought of anyone murdered because of election day, these numbers are relatively low in perspective with the Taliban’s threat of violence.

However, the overall success of the democratic election remains to be seen. Preliminary results aren’t expected until April 24th; and if a candidate doesn’t secure more than 50% of the vote runoff elections will take place on May 28th.

Despite these stipulations there is a general approval for the implementation of the democratic process into a country plagued by one of the world’s most extreme terrorist organizations. A survey conducted by the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) showed that 92% of Afghan citizens support the idea of a democratic election. 73% of respondents also said that peace was among their top issues.

The frontrunners of the 2014 elections have been:

Ashraf Ghani

Ashraf Ghani

Zalmai Rassoul

Zalmai Rassoul

Zalmai Rassoul

Zalmai Rassoul

Afghanistan still has a long way to go. The withdrawal by the end of this year of most NATO troops has most countries worried. It is expected the Taliban will probably expand into troop vacated areas first, and unless the bilateral agreement is signed there won’t be any American forces there to stop it. President Karzai is still holding out on this, although all presidential candidates have said they will sign the agreement if elected.

The country as a whole resembles 1989 Afghanistan after the Soviet Union ended. That was the last time Afghanistan experienced a transitioning national government. The instability in the 90’s is what led to Taliban control of Afghanistan in the first place, whose to say history won’t repeat itself now?

The responsibility of fighting Taliban insurgency will fall on the Afghan National Security Forces, made up of 248,000 active troops and 28,000 local police. All of whom rely on international funding to function.

The next couple years will be an uphill battle for Afghanistan, and the winner of the recent presidential election will determine whether the country continues to progress or regress back into the Taliban’s clutches.

BBC Timeline of Major Afghanistan Events

Child Sorcerers in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Middle East & North Africa, Regions

As the United Nations announces it’s gradual withdrawal from the Democratic Republic of Congo today despite the growing rebel forces, a serious human rights issue gets the green light.

As of May 2013, 50,ooo children were accused of witchcraft. The child sorcerers are said to be possessed by dark powers, causing them to strangle parents in their sleep, eat the hearts of their siblings, and spread HIV and polio.

In reality, the ‘child sorcerer’ is anything but. Typically, the consist of children born with an unusual birthmark or a poor family. 70% of street kids in the DR Congo claim to be accused of witchcraft. According to the UNICEF report Children Accused of Witchcraft, the children are roaming the streets of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi most.

Dumping a child on the street or a church is a quick fix for the increasingly dire poverty of Congolese citizens. The constitution prohibits the abandonment of children accused of sorcery under a punishment of imprisonment, but the lack of implementation encourages families to do so.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is 80% Christian, and a surge in eglises de reveil, or revival churches has played a hand in an increase of exorcisms.  According to the Human Rights Watch Report, some church leaders and community members also beat, starve, and abandon children accused of witchcraft.

If the UN can’t be bothered to sustain a peacekeeping mission in opposition to the rebel forces, what will inspire them to stop the abuse and murder of children?

 

Why Puerto Rico Will Hurt the United States

Americas, Regions
Credit: Creative Commons

Credit: Creative Commons

The United States is staring down an economic crisis, but it’s not coming from any of the 50 states. The U.S. controls 12 territories outside it’s borders, one of which is experiencing an extreme economic crisis.

Puerto Rico was once an investor’s tax heaven. Since it’s bonds are triple tax exempt, investors who buy in avoid federal, state, and local taxes. A tempting offer combined with cheap labor has also attracted some of the United States’ largest company headquarters.

However, not even the business of United States investors can stop the inevitable. The country announced an additional new debt of 3.5 billion on March 11th through bond sales, bringing the total debt up to $70 billion.

This may save Puerto Rico today, but it’s only pushing the crisis further down the road.

How does this affect us?

The United States took control of Puerto Rico in 1898. While our ties to the island may not extend as far as statehood, the influx of American investment in Puerto Rico’s bonds is ultimately what’s going to hurt us. If Puerto Rico defaults, U.S. stock markets will suffer a massive hit.

How bad can it be?

According to Standards and Poors, Puerto Rico’s debt boils down to $10,600 per capita. That’s 10 x the U.S. median.

With 51% of the country’s 4 million residents on welfare, citizens are fleeing the island in search of jobs at an alarming rate. This past decade marks the largest migration wave since the 1950s.

The problem may be difficult to resolve, but one thing is clear. It’s time to face the financial reckoning of Puerto Rico, before it becomes the European Union’s Greece for the United States.

Berkin Elvan: 15-Year-Old Kickstarting Turkey’s Protests

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Becoming the face of a revolution takes charisma, courage, and vision. Or just an ill twist of fate and bad luck. Berkin Elvan, a deceased 15-year-old boy in Turkey, may be the face of the Middle East’s next political uprising.

Elvan passed away on March 12, after being in a coma for 9 months. A victim of the protests that rocked Turkey in June 2013, Elvan was last seen leaving his house to go buy bread for his family.

Shortly afterwards he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister thrown by Turkish police at protesters in Taskim Square in Instanbul. The use of force was ordered by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main motivator for the protests in the first place.

The 7th victim of the June skirmishes, Elvan’s youth and story has served as a rallying point for protesters around the country.

After news of his death reached Twitter, protests rose up in cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. The uprisings mark the worst unrest since last June, and could propel the country into a full scale revolution.

Full NYT Ad

Full NYT Ad

Protesters are using the Twitter hastag #BerkinElvanOlumsuzdur, or “Berkin Elvan Is Immortal” to raise awareness. A recent full page ad taken out in the New York Times funded by an Indiegogo campaign calls for justice.

Protesters may use a tragic death as a rallying point, but the heart of their issues lie with the government. Erdogan’s recent political scandals and a slowing economy are the true driving forces behind the potential revolution. The pressure on the failing Turkish lira, an exodus of foreign investors since January, and a slipping annual growth rate from 5% to 2% are the things Turkey’s citizens want reversed.