Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, the weekly foreign policy update on new global stories. Below is a look back at some of the biggest non-Trump or coronavirus stories of the year.
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Not since World War II has a single event dominated an entire year like the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The virus monopolized global headlines and led to an unprecedented slowdown in activity as offices closed and public spaces emptied. But not everything came to a standstill. People still took to the streets in protest, the wars continued despite the UN Secretary-General’s request for a global ceasefire, and new conflicts broke out. From forest fires to hurricanes, natural disasters have wreaked havoc – a threatening reminder of the impending climate crisis.
Here’s a look back at some of the biggest non-coronavirus stories of 2020.
Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict
At the beginning of November, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, launched a military offensive in the troubled Tigray region in the north of the country. Long-simmering tensions between the federal government and regional authorities came to a head when Abiy accused the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, of attempting to raid a federal military base.
Amid reports of ethnic and religious violence, the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect warned of the risk of genocide and ethnic cleansing. In the city of Mai Kadra, around 600 people from the Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups, minorities in the region, were strangled and hacked to death on November 9, according to the Washington Post.
The three-week conflict culminated in heavy shelling of the regional capital Mekelle by Ethiopian forces before Abiy declared victory on November 28. Almost 1 million people were displaced by the fighting, and around 50,000 sought refuge in neighboring Sudan. While the war is over for the time being, the conflict was a symptom of the longstanding struggle over the country’s ethnic-federal system – one that could have profound implications for peace and stability in the Horn of Africa and beyond, as Teferi Mergo wrote on Foreign Policy.
At the end of September, war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. It was the worst flare-up in combat since a 1994 ceasefire that left much of the territory in Armenian hands. Tensions between the two countries have eased for decades, but they peaked this year after the self-declared Karabakh government held elections in the spring, much to Azerbaijan’s displeasure.
At least 16 people were killed in border fighting during the summer, leading thousands to take the streets of the Azerbaijani capital and call for war. A Russian-brokered agreement ended the war on November 9 and allowed Azerbaijan to retain control of land seized during the conflict, with Armenia pulling out of parts of the disputed area. Under the agreement, the Kremlin will maintain 2,000 peacekeeping forces along the Nagorno-Karabakh-Armenia road.
Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions
While most countries tried to keep track of the looming health and economic crisis at home, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled his neo-Ottoman ambitions to gain Turkish power over the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East in 2020 project.
In January, Turkish troops were deployed to Libya to bolster support for the United Nations-backed National Accord government, which opposed forces loyal to the breakaway General Khalifa Haftar. Tensions over Turkey’s energy exploration emerged over the summer in the eastern Mediterranean. The European Union approved plans to sanction an unspecified number of Turkish officials and companies involved in the drilling. The decision came just days before the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey, a NATO ally, for purchasing Russia’s S-400 missile defense system in 2017.
And in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ankara quickly pledged its “unconditional” support for Baku by supplying weapons, drones and mercenaries that were allegedly recruited in Syria – and at least for the time being helped to win the war for Azerbaijan.
Elections in Belarus, a country often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship, are usually predictable affairs. Not this year: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a teacher who has become an opposition leader, took advantage of the growing dissatisfaction with long-time president Aleksandr Lukashenko to overcome a huge challenge in the August elections.
As expected, Lukashenko was declared the winner of elections that were widely believed to have been rigged. But a few weeks after the vote, the Belarusians took to the streets almost daily in mass protests that at times exceeded an estimated 100,000 people – a once unthinkable sight in the police state.
Over 30,000 people are said to have been arrested since the August 9 elections, and human rights activists have documented harrowing reports of torture and police brutality in prisons. Lukashenko held onto power when Tikhanovskaya established a Lithuanian government in Lithuania that meets with foreign heads of state.
Africa declared polio-free
It wasn’t all bad public health news in 2020. In August, Africa was declared wild-type polio-free by the Independent Regional Certification Commission for Africa after a decade-long campaign to fight the virus that once crippled around 75,000 children in Africa each year explained . Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, described the statement as “one of the greatest public health achievements of our time”.
Several crises in Lebanon
Lebanon was already grappling with the pandemic and worst economic crisis in decades when the largest explosion in the country’s history broke through the port of Beirut on August 4th, killing 200 people and injuring thousands. Thousands of tons of the explosive ammonium nitrate had been stored in a warehouse, along with 15 tons of fireworks and pitchers of oil and kerosene.
The explosion itself was likely caused by an accident, though years of corruption and government malfunction made it possible. Four months after the explosion, no one was held responsible for allowing such a deadly invention to fester in a warehouse for six years.
Protests by Indian farmers
In late November, farmers in India held the largest protest in human history when millions took part in a solidarity strike over controversial changes to the country’s agricultural laws. Farmers fear that the laws passed by Parliament in September could leave them open to exploitation by larger companies.
With around 60 percent of India’s population dependent on agriculture, the new laws have hit a nerve among vast parts of the country. Farmers camping on major highways in northern India have vowed to keep protesting through the winter even if temperatures drop.
Central America was hit by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which landed less than two weeks apart in November – the first time two Category 4 storms occurred within 15 miles of each other in two weeks, according to the Washington Post. The disasters also occurred after what was already a record-breaking hurricane season. More than half a million people have been internally displaced in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua and entire communities have been flooded.
With the region already grappling with the economic impact of coronavirus-related lockdowns, the damage caused by the storms is expected to drive new waves of migrants north to the U.S. border in search of work.
That’s it for this week.
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