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Analyzing the Top International Stories of 2013 – From Syria to the NSA

From the on-going civil war in Syria and the US war that almost happened, to the global outrage over mass US spying, we’ll spend the hour today discussing the top international news stories of 2013.

GUESTS: Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of a number of books including Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog; Arun Gupta, Independent Journalist and regular contributor to the Guardian, In These Times, The Progressive, and Truthout, and co-founder of the Occupied Wall Street Journal and the Indypendent.

The biggest story of the year was unarguably the US’s near-war with Syria. After revelations of chemical weapons use in August in Ghouta that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, the US blamed the Syrian government and threatened war. At the last minute, Secretary of State Kerry offered President Bashar al Assad a way out by turning over all his chemical weapons. A deal brokered by Russia, resulted in a UN resolution to destroy all of Syria’s weapons and the US backed off from a bombing campaign. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Syrians have died since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 and there remains no end in sight to the bloodshed.

In Egypt – a nation whose uprising took a dramatically different turn than Syria – a military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood resulted in the ouster of President Mohammad Morsi. The Egyptian Army has since cracked down on public protests, killing hundreds of people, and detaining many more.

Iraq saw its fair share of violence this year with strings of deadly attacks and bombings, marking a low point for the post-occupation nation. In fact 2013 was considered the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008, with 8000 people being killed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists found that Syria, Egypt and Iraq were the deadliest nations for journalists this year.

Chemical weapons inspectors working in Syria were surprised to learn that they won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, rather than a widely anticipated win for the 16 year old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai who had just recovered from an attack by the Taliban and written a book about it. Yousafzai became an international cause célèbre for her work promoting girls’ education, while her popularity in her native Pakistan waned.

US drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen continued despite major reports by human rights organizations condemning their impact on civilians. The remote-controlled killings have sparked international outrage.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the US struggled to get a security agreement in place before the end of the year. Afghan President Hamid Karzai balked at the last minute and refused to sign a pact that would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan for at least 10 years to train Afghan soldiers, and continue Special Operations raids and drone attacks when the US deemed it necessary.

More than a hundred of the men continuing to be detained at the US-run Guantanamo prison went on a major hunger strike this year, calling attention to the inhumane conditions they face. That strike, which went on for many months, has been pronounced by officials as over.

Iran elected a new President, Hassan Rouhani, considered to be a reformer and peacemaker compared to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Rouhani’s short tenure has resulted in the thawing of relations between the US and Iran to an extent not seen in decades. Additionally, a high-level meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in November between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries, resulted in an historic agreement for Iran to restrict its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions.

Revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden made headlines around the world as citizens and elected officials alike discovered to their shock that they were being spied upon by the US government. Brazil’s President Dilma Roussef and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, in particular, strongly condemned the US after discovering they had been spied upon. In response, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling the right to privacy a human right. Journalists covering the stories themselves faced scrutiny from the US and UK governments. Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was stopped and searched at Heathrow Airport under that nation’s terrorism laws, and the Guardian newspaper’s editors were grilled at a UK government hearing. The fate of Snowden himself remains controversial. He was eventually offered temporary asylum in Russia and hopes to find permanent sanctuary in another nation.

In Africa, the showdown at the Westgate mall in Kenya in September captured world attention. Dozens of people were killed by armed gunmen affiliated with Somalia’s Al Shabab group.

Meanwhile, in the Congo, a tenuous peace took hold after the head of the M23 rebel group surrendered to the Congolese army, backed by a UN peace keeping force. However, in just the past few days, attacks in the capital of Kinshasa have resulted in at least 40 people killed.

And in the Central African Republic, a rebel group from the North calling themselves the Seleka took over the country, overthrowing President François Bozizé. Fighting between the Seleka and opposition groups has resulted in thousands of deaths, rapes, and even torture. Some are calling the violence genocidal. A full ten percent of the population of 4.6 million have been displaced from their homes and are in desperate need of food aid. UNICEF has just issued a disturbing report citing the mutilation and beheading of at least two children. Over 1000 people were killed in December alone.

The lingering effects of the Arab Spring continue to be felt around the world. This past month, anti-government protesters in both Thailand and Ukraine took to the streets demanding the ouster of ineffectual corrupt governments. In Thailand, protesters called for the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. And in Ukraine tens of thousands of protesters have been denouncing a deal which President Viktor Yanukovych made with Russia. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of teachers in Mexico went on strike for nearly two months calling for higher pay and against performance-based evaluations.

In Bangladesh, garment factory workers launched historic strikes and rallies to protest working conditions after a multi-story factory called Rana Plaza collapsed in April killing more than 1,200 and injuring 2,500, mostly women workers. While European retailers signed an accord to help prevent another disaster, US retailers like Walmart and Gap refused to sign saying that it would give too much power to worker unions.

The new Pope called out the ills of global capitalism as tyrannical and was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. He has been touted as a reformer for emphasizing service to the poor and criticizing the extreme Christian right. However, as Pope he still considers homosexuality an abomination and condemns the ordination of women.

Gay rights took a turn for the worse internationally. In Uganda, a bill awaiting President Museveni’s signature would imprison people for life for having same-sex relations. India’s parliament passed a similar bill, threatening life in prison for activities “against the order of nature.” And, Russia’s State Duma banned what it calls the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”

Uruguay became the first country to pass a bill legalizing and regulating marijuana. The law is being characterized as “The world’s most far-reaching cannabis law,” which will go into effect next year and would involve the government setting the price of marijuana and licensing sellers. Uruguayan lawmakers see it as an alternative to the failed “war on drugs.”

Two years after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, evidence continues to grow of a massive cover-up to hide the true scale of the disaster by the Japanese Government and TEPCO. Radioactive water has been seeping into the Pacific ocean water from holding tanks which have been built to store 400 tons of contaminated water being generated per day and unskilled workers including homeless people are being used to clean up the fallout. Yet current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vows to continue using nuclear power as a viable energy source despite growing anti-nuclear sentiment among the Japanese public.

And finally, a number of notable people died this year. In April former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died, leaving behind a legacy of unrestrained neo-liberal capitalism. She was the only woman to have ever held the office of Prime Minister in Britain. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez died after a long battle with cancer. Chavez championed a Bolivarian revolution that remains alive with the recent win by his successor Nicolas Maduro. Famed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe also died – he was best known for his award winning novel Things Fall Apart. And, of course, the entire world mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela, the revolutionary anti-aparthied leader who went on to become South Africa’s first democratically elected, and first black President.