Friday 15 December 2017

Little protest for Putin as peace in Syria comes first

Putin may be behind the murder of a British spy - but there is little the UK can do about their regretful but very necessary ally, writes Rachel Lavin

CROSSFIRE: A 2007 photo shows a woman looking at painting of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bed. Photo: Getty
CROSSFIRE: A 2007 photo shows a woman looking at painting of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bed. Photo: Getty

Rachel Lavin

As the former Russian KGB agent turned British spy, Alexander Litvinenko, lay on his deathbed he wrote a letter for his friend to read from the steps of the University College Hospital, London, in the aftermath of his death.

In it he named the man he believed was responsible for his poisoning by two Russia spies who had slipped the radioactive material, polonium-210, into his tea in the restaurant of the Millennium Hotel just three weeks earlier.

"You may succeed in silencing one man", he wrote "but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

That protest was certainly heard from Marina Litvinenko in the aftermath of an inquiry into the death of her husband that found that Putin was "probably" guilty of approving the assassination last week. She called on David Cameron to impose "targeted economic sanctions and travel bans" as well as the immediate expulsion of all Russian intelligence operatives based at the London embassy.

Yet that howl has not reverberated. International responses have been sympathetic but certainly not reactive. And while British shadow secretary Andy Burnham declared it an "unparalleled act of state sponsored terrorism", David Cameron's response was a little more stultifying, merely promising to raise the findings with President Putin at "the next available opportunity".

This is not the first time questions have been raised over the Russian president's link to the suspicious deaths of those critical of him. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead a short distance from the Kremlin in February of last year, shortly before he was scheduled to release a report showing Russia's direct involvement in the war in Ukraine. He was one in a long line of lawyers and journalists, businessmen and political activists who, under Putin's rule, have died in suspicious circumstances or else been imprisoned with lengthy sentences over questionable charges.

But the reason Western leaders are slow to respond to Putin's suspected injustices, however, is because they need him right now. Putin has a strong foothold in the Syrian conflict, with a close relationship with Assad and a willingness to carry out airstrikes against Isil (although he increasingly targets Syrian rebels instead). With UN-led peace talks between rebel groups and Assad's government set to begin in the coming days, Putin is a necessary ally if they are to negotiate peace in the Middle East.

While the civil war in Syria seems to be slowly ebbing toward a peaceful ceasefire, violent acts of Islamist extremism occurred in increasing regularity around the world last week.

After the Jakarta attacks, concerns were raised last week over the spread of Isis to South East Asia with one security expert telling the New York Times "jihadist groups are alive and well in Indonesia and are committed to carrying out the Isis agenda". Extremist Islamist violence also erupted in Pakistan on Wednesday when 22 people were killed as a university in Charsadda came under gun and bomb attack by the Taliban. And in Somalia 17 people were killed in Mogadishu on Thursday by Al-Shabab, a militant group aligned with al-Qaeda, who attacked a beachfront restaurant, setting off two car bombs and engaging in a gun battle with government troops.

Outside of politics, concerns rose last week as the newly emerging 'Zika virus' epidemic works it's way up from Brazil and threatens the Americas.

The virus which is spread by mosquitoes was initially seen as relatively harmless, causing infected people to fall ill with a mild fever, rash, joint aches and red eyes. However, since last October evidence has shown that it may cause birth defects in children and neurological problems in adults, with the America's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising pregnant women not to travel to countries affected by the virus.

In Sierra Leone, just two weeks before the World Health Organization prepared to officially declare the first country to be free of ebola, a 38-year-old woman died of the disease and her carer became infected, prompting fears of another outbreak. After two years of fighting the disease West Africa will have to wait another 90 days of being ebola-free before it can be given the final all-clear.

In environmental news, on Wednesday scientists declared that 2015 was the hottest year on historical record. The heat was in part due to the El Nino weather phenomenon but the main cause is global warming.

Gerald A Meehl, a scientist at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research said "the whole system is warming up, relentlessly".

Elsewhere, a new study found that the world's oceans may have more plastic debris than fish by 2050. Currently, the equivalent of a dump truck of plastic rubbish ends up in the ocean every minute.

In some good news, Burma's military-backed government unexpectedly released 20 political prisoners. This happened as the government prepares to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party which won an easy majority in last November's general election.

In Nepal, nine months after the deadly earthquake, the government have announced that they will begin rebuilding nearly a million houses this month as well as heritage sites that were destroyed. The 7.8 earthquake killed 9,000 people and damaged more than 900,000 homes.

And finally, the Iran Nuclear Deal has officially been implemented with international sanctions lifted. The deal will see $100 billion worth of trade available to the country and improved diplomatic ties with the United States who, in exchange, have been given the power to monitor and limit Iran's nuclear activity.

How successful the deal will be is still to be seen, but the fact it came about at all is a diplomatic triumph and those involved are optimistic. As leaders gathered in Vienna to complete the agreement, Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: "This is a good day for the world."

Sunday Independent

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