From China's bubble to Russia's undersea drones, here are big stories around the world that flew under the radar this year.
- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
The past year had no shortage of monster storylines. The surprise eruption of Donald Trump from primary sideshow to GOP nominee to president-elect probably tops the list. But close behind are Britain’s sudden departure from Europe, the rise of populism across the board, and especially a resurgent Russia’s effort to sow dissension in the West to grease its return to global prominence. Those massive headlines overshadowed many others that were huge and important. Here’s a few you may have missed.
- South Sudan is on the cusp of genocide.
In December, the U.N. Human Rights Council warned that atrocities were being committed in South Sudan on an “epic” scale. “A steady process of ethnic cleansing is already underway in some parts of the country. We don’t use that expression lightly,” said Yasmin Sooka, chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan after an internationally brokered referendum in 2011, descended into a bloody civil war in 2013 after political elites, including President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President-turned-rebel Riek Machar, had a falling out. The civil war has fueled tribal contests and violence that killed as many as 50,000 in three years and displaced nearly 3 million people.
Attempts at a peace process have fallen through as warring factions and militias continue to coalesce and kill along ethnic lines. To make matters worse, a U.S.-backed resolution for an arms embargo failed to garner enough votes in the U.N. Security Council on Dec. 23. It’s a depressing outlook for the vocal few who are watching the atrocities in South Sudan unfold — while taking a backseat in the headlines to other conflict zones such as Syria. “To be frank,” Sooka said of South Sudan, “we are running out of adjectives to describe the horror.”
- In Myanmar, the world’s most persecuted minority faces ethnic cleansing.
South Sudan, sadly, isn’t the only brewing genocide that has slipped from the world’s attention. Myanmar’s Rohingya people face state-sanctioned violence, murder, rape, arson, and ethnic cleansing that researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum say are “early warning signs of genocide.” The Rohingya people, an ethnic group of 1.4 million Muslims concentrated in the Rakhine region of northern Myanmar, are treated as less than second-class citizens, forced to live in squalid refugee camps with few rights and no prospects of gaining citizenship from the country they live in. It’s prompted the U.N. and rights groups to call the Rohingya, sometimes dubbed “boat people” for seeking refuge adrift at sea, the most persecuted minority in the world.
International observers say Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and once the world’s modern symbol of freedom for Myanmar, has done nothing to stop the slaughter and persecution of the Rohingya people. Suu Kyi has defended the purges and attacks against the Rohingya, despite U.N. urges to take action. The violence, so far, shows no signs of abating.
- Diseases around the world are becoming incurable.
In September, the United Nations declared antimicrobial resistance “the greatest and most urgent global risk requiring international and national attention.” Antimicrobial resistance is when bacteria, parasites, fungi, and viruses develop resistance to medicinal cures, like antibiotics, especially creating hard-to-kill “superbugs.” It’s now estimated that antimicrobial resistance kills 700,000 people around the world each year. A 2014 study estimated that number could spike to 10 million deaths per year by 2050, unless action is taken.
The U.N. agreed to create an ad hoc group to coordinate responses among global health, environmental, and agricultural sectors, with private sector buy-in. It’s a start, but not enough, according to health experts and officials. “Antimicrobial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development, and security,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization. “We are running out of time.”
- Russia is testing nuclear-capable underwater drones.
To the extent that underwater drones featured in the news in 2016, it had to do with China and, as with most major news stories this year, President-elect Donald Trump. But there was another underwater drone story that slipped beneath the headlines: Russia is reportedly testing nuclear-capable unmanned submersible vehicles. Unnamed U.S. government officials said the underwater drone, dubbed “Kanyon” by the Pentagon, was tested in November, but weren’t sure whether the test was successful.
If successful, however, the drone could be equipped with the world’s largest nuclear missiles, Russia’s RS-28 Sarmat (fittingly dubbed the “Satan 2”), which are capable of wiping out an area the size of England or New York state. The news came just in time for Trump to declare his intent to up the nuclear ante once he steps into office.
- The U.N. tackled an extremely potent but relatively obscure greenhouse gas.
The last year may have seemed a depressing one to environmentalists. The Arctic was at one point 50 degrees warmer than it should be, scientists measured a 58 percent decline in wildlife in the past four decades, and the United States elected a climate-change skeptic, who could upend 2015’s landmark Paris Accords. But while environmentalists pour a little more whiskey into their holiday eggnog, they also have something positive to toast. In a relatively uncovered story in October, 197 countries reached a historic agreement to reduce one of the most potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
The agreement expands the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an ozone-busting pact hailed as one of the world’s most successful environmental agreements. It could cut back projected HFC emissions by nearly 90 percent during the 21st century. If fully implemented, the agreement could forestall a 0.5-degree Celsius warming — which is a big deal when a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise would spur dangerous and destructive impacts of climate change.
- Investors worry that ailing Eurozone banks could plunge Europe into a new recession.
European bankers have sounded the alarm, but few outside the finance world have taken serious notice. Prolonged low interest rates and depressed asset prices have made full recovery from the 2007-2008 financial crisis tougher for European banks than for their U.S. counterparts.
In Germany, Deutsche Bank AG’s capital position is in question after facing a series of big regulatory fines. In Italy, banks that are stuck with bad loans and a stagnant national economy are running out of cash. In December, the Italian government agreed to inject public funds into its ailing banking sector, including the world’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi. It turns out the bank’s capital shortfall was nearly twice as large as the government thought — meaning a larger bailout is in order, which could make it harder to save other Italian banks.
Some investors worry that if lenders such as Deutsche Bank and Monte dei Paschi go under, they could take the Eurozone’s entire financial system with them.
- China’s bond bubble nears a bursting point.
China has saturated its market with easy credit and major fiscal stimuli for years. It was a boon to the world’s second-largest economy in the short term, especially after the financial crisis, but one that is quickly becoming a burden as unsustainable bubbles in housing, bonds, and stocks, teeter on the brink of bursting. In recent weeks, Chinese authorities have curbed short-term lending and halted futures contract trading in bonds in an attempt to deter speculators.
The capital-market woes come as China is trying to adjust to a slower-growing economy. Chinese currency, too, is under pressure, with Beijing trying to limit capital outflows. Public and private debt has ballooned, with total debt now 260 percent of gross domestic product, raising fears that unsustainable lending could come crashing down with a series of defaults, sending aftershocks around the world.
“A debt crisis there would change everything in the global economy,” Barron’s noted this summer.
- Immigration to the United States is changing — and declining.
“Illegal” immigration was a hot-button political issue during the interminable 2016 presidential election, particularly for President-elect Donald Trump. But lost in the fray was the fact that immigration, particularly from Mexico to the United States, has been on the decline: The undocumented migrant population in the United States has decreased by half a million since 2010, according to a report by the Center for Migration Studies. Declining economic opportunities in the United States after the financial crisis played the biggest part, while tighter immigration laws had a relatively small impact.
Yet other studies show a steady flow of Central American migrants and refugees to the United States, spurred by violence, poverty, and economic malaise in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. There’s also been an uptick in non-Latin American immigrants trying to get into the United States, including those from Africa and Asia, though overall numbers pale when compared with Mexican immigration. It adds up to a declining and changing face of immigration in the United States.
- Europe’s refugee crisis continued unabated. And now, it’s deadlier.
Europe’s massive influx of refugees and asylum-seekers dominated headlines in 2015 as the debate over welcoming refugees frayed the European Union’s political and social seams, but largely dropped off the radar by the middle of 2016 after a €6 billion deal was reached with Turkey to stem the flow of desperate Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans. But the migrants have not gone away: The total numbers of refugees vying to reach European shores has in fact surged in 2016, up 17 percent from 2015.
The journey to Europe has also become more dangerous, with an average of 13 people dying each day. In October, the U.N. declared 2016 the deadliest year yet for refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe as smugglers become more brazen and open to risks with their desperate passengers. Kept mostly out of sight, though, it’s fallen off the political to-do list almost everywhere.
“The crisis is as big as ever, and as yet unsolved by governments,” Gauri van Gulik, deputy Europe director at Amnesty International, said in August.
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