Newscoop Footnotes: August 21, 2019

Welcome to Newscoop Footnotes — the weekly review of important news deserving more attention. Hi, I’m Arasha Lalani.

Looking today at the state of democracy around the world. Many of the planet’s democracies and democratic republics are on the brink right now — America, Russia, Italy, Israel, the UK, India, Hong Kong. The list goes on.

Today we’ll review three of those.

1.  First, to Hong Kong. And yes, we know that the global financial hub is neither a full-fledged democracy, nor a democratic republic. But since Britain handed it back to China in 1997, Hong Kong has, for all intents and purposes, functioned as a democratic system — with a free market economy very dependent on international trade and finance.

China seems to be trying to change some of that. Last February, the Chinese-approved chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, tried to push through a new bill making it possible for China to seek extradition of Hong Kong citizens and foreign nationals. That would create risk for activists, journalists, and others who are a political annoyance to China.

Young Hong Kongers fear the corrosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement in place since 1997. In response, on March 31st, a largely decentralized but widely networked movement began. Thousands of protestors grew to hundreds of thousands, and then to millions. Protestors temporarily occupied Hong Kong International Airport. And after some confrontations with police, they even apologized to the public for the inconvenience they had caused.

The most important of protestors’ demands are that the extradition bill be withdrawn, and that truly free elections be held for Legislative Council and chief executive.

Protests continue to gather steam. Last Sunday, 1.7 million people attended the rally in Victoria Park.

2.  Next to Israel, often praised as the “only democracy in the Middle East.” Well, democracies do not, as a rule, block dissenting voices, which is what happened this past week.

US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar, who have been critical of both Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had planned to visit the Palestinian West Bank last week. Both Tlaib and Omar support BDS — the Boycott Divestment & Sanctions campaign that promotes boycotts against Israel until it meets what it says are its obligations under international law. That includes equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Because Congresswoman Tlaib is Palestinian, Israeli policies toward Palestinians are not theoretical for her.

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories makes it necessary for those traveling to the West Bank to go through Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in TelAviv. But after Donald Trump — not known for his tolerance of dissent and criticism — goaded Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu into refusing them entrance, that’s exactly what Netanyahu did.

Criticism of Netanyahu came fast and furious. In both the US and Israel, the move was criticized as undemocratic. Trump’s ambassador to Israel, bankruptcy attorney David Friedman, defended Netanyahu, calling BDS “economic warfare.” This is the same David Friedman who suggested that Israel annex parts of the Palestinian West Bank. Friedman has also personally invested in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land — widely considered to be the greatest stumbling block to achieving peace.

3.  And finally to India, a democracy that many see as the most stable in the developing world. That may be changing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist BJP Party won last May’s election by an enormous margin. After the election, the New York Times reported that “some analysts expect that he will continue to allow others in his party to push extreme positions when it comes to Hindutva, the belief in the primacy of the Hindu religion.”

That was prescient. Emboldened by the election results, Modi has lurched to the right, expanding policies that would turn India into more of a Hindu state, but at the expense of minorities.

On Monday, August 5th, Modi took the highly controversial step of revoking Article 370 of India’s constitution, which had given near-autonomous status to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s side of the Kashmir region. As Modi announced the measure, a lockdown was imposed on the Kashmir valley. All communication lines were cut, schools and government offices were closed, Kashmiri political leaders were arrested, and Indian paramilitary troops were deployed. Even some journalists were detained.

Kashmir has been hotly contested between India and Pakistan since 1947, leading to three wars and much bloodshed. The two countries are now both nuclear powers, and the risks are far greater. For Modi to take such an incendiary step without Pakistan’s buy-in, in one of the most volatile spots of the globe, seems to much of the world more than a little crazy.

In his historical review of India for the Washington Post on August 14th, Ramachandra Guha expressed his concern for the future of India as a multicultural democracy. “India is in danger of becoming … an ‘election-only democracy.’ Once a party has won an election, it is unaccountable for its acts. Parliament barely functions. Large sections of the media are scared or co-opted. The judiciary is overburdened and dysfunctional. The civil service and the police are in the pocket of the BJP.”

And while all of that was happening, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini took steps to dismantle human rights protections there, and to push that government toward collapse. Russia violently arrested opposition candidates, as well as thousands of peaceful protestors. The UK gets set to implode over a hard Brexit. And the Trump administration suggested a rewrite of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. 

It’s been a rough few weeks. Right now, Africa seems to show more promise for democracy than do many of the world’s most developed countries.

This has been the latest edition of Newscoop Footnotes – important events getting too little attention.

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