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Sensemaker: The West vs Autocrats

Sensemaker: The West vs Autocrats

Monday 14 June 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Boris Johnson will keep most Covid restrictions on England in place for another four weeks – two weeks if vaccination and infection data improve – after the planned 21 June unlocking (more in Matt d’Ancona’s Slow View today).
  • After being delayed by Covid, Euro 2020 – the tournament’s name hasn’t changed, having already been printed on millions of items of merchandise – finally kicked off over the weekend.
  • The trial of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was ousted in a military coup in February, began. She faces charges, which her lawyers called bogus, of corruption, improperly importing walkie-talkies, and flouting Covid restrictions. 

The West vs Autocrats

Leaders from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies ended their summit in Cornwall with a communiqué that, on first reading, looks punchy but whose language, on another reading, feels slippery. 

On Covid vaccines, for example, the leaders committed to funding over one billion doses for developing countries. But the number includes vaccine commitments already made in February 2021 – and it’s not big enough. Activists think it needs to be multiplied by 10. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown called it “an unforgivable moral failure”.

There was failure, too, on the other crisis – climate. The G7 leaders recognised that coal power generation is the “single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions”, but failed to set an end date on its use. Leaders rejected a proposal to stop the production of diesel and petrol cars.

A lot of their time was spent relitigating Brexit. Boris Johnson, who hosted the summit, wanted the meeting to project Global Britain onto the world stage but found himself fighting off questions on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which prevents customs checks along the Irish land border in an attempt to preserve the peace process, but at the expense of requiring checks on some goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. 

It started when Canada offered its assistance in supporting the peace process, and then EU leaders teamed up to tell Johnson that the UK must stick to its commitments under the EU withdrawal agreement. Johnson, irked, said “some of our friends here today do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country and a single territory”.

That the bottom-line of the summit was “multilateralism is back” shows how far the G7 had fallen over the preceding years. In their communiqué, the leaders did show a united front in one important respect – one that feels, especially after the Donald Trump years, something like a moral triumph.

Leaders called on China to respect “fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang”, where the state is facing accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity against the province’s Muslim minority group. While there was no agreement on banning Western participation in work that generated from forced labour, the leaders said they will “identify areas for strengthened cooperation and collective efforts towards eradicating the use of all forms of forced labor in global supply chains”. Leaders also called on China to respect “the freedoms and high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong”, on which Beijing continues to tighten its grip and where pro-democracy activists have been jailed.

There were strong words, too, for Russia. G7 leaders called on the country “stop its destabilising behaviour and malign activities, including its interference in other countries’ democratic systems, and to fulfil its international human rights obligations and commitments”. It referenced the Novichok poisoning of Alexei Navalny (“the use of a chemical weapon on Russian soil”), the civil society crackdown (Russia designated Navalny’s opposition movement and groups linked to it as “extremist” before the summit), and cyberattacks and ransomware, which have plagued US companies and government agencies.

Joe Biden will meet Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday where he’s expected to raise the concerns in person. China has already reacted to the summit. A spokesperson at its London embassy denounced the meeting, saying it “exposed the sinister intentions of a few countries including the US”. 

“We’re in a contest, not with China per se, but with autocrats and autocratic governments around the world as to whether democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” Biden said.

New things technology, science, engineering

Privacy Inc.
When WhatsApp changed its terms and conditions earlier this year, there was a widespread backlash against the Facebook-owned chat app. Many users thought the app would start sharing their messaging data with Facebook, something the app denies. Now WhatsApp has launched a major privacy-focused advertising campaign in the UK. The campaign’s focus is on WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption, which means messages can only be read on the device which sends one and the device which receives it. The home secretary, Priti Patel, described it as “not acceptable” in the fight against illegal content. Will Cathcart, WhatsApp’s boss, told the BBC that governments should “be out there trying to encourage or even mandate that companies offer the strongest security possible”. The argument represents a faultline in modern law enforcement. Frustrated that big tech companies would never hand over user data, the FBI recently revealed it had covertly operated and distributed its own chat app to the criminal underworld.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

New Israel
Israel’s parliament ousted Benjamin Netanyahu, whose 12-year reign as prime minister was the country’s longest, and approved a government led by Naftali Bennett. The new prime minister is often described as further to the right than Netanyahu. Bennett sees no path to Palestinian statehood and wants Israel to annex much of the occupied West Bank. He said he will “work for the sake of all the people”. Netanyahu, who’s being tried for corruption, said he’ll return to Israeli politics.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Delta race
It turns out that the 21 June deadline for lifting Covid restrictions on England was never set in stone. At least, that’s what Boris Johnson’s government is saying now that cases of the Delta variant have been on the rise, causing a delay to the unlocking (Sensemaker readers, of course, were warned this was coming). It will probably be a four-week delay, but may be shorter based on some key statistics. The first is the number of hospitalisations due to Covid, which is up about 5 per cent from last week, but far below the 40,000 peak in January. The second is the speed of rising infections. The Delta variant is, according to the government, “at least 40 per cent more transmissible” than the Alpha, or Kent, variant. Last week alone, infections rose by 60 per cent. Third is the chance of becoming seriously ill if infected. Unlike in the first and second waves, a large proportion of the population has been vaccinated. Of the 40 per cent of the population that received two doses, they make up fewer than five per cent of hospital admissions. The race is between double-jabbing people and the spread of the Delta variant. Ultimately, it’s a high vaccination rate – the fourth and final number – that will allow an end to Covid restrictions. Read my colleague Matt d’Ancona’s Slow View today for the full picture.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Dirty rivers
Water companies have been discharging raw sewage into English rivers at a scale at least 10 times greater than Environment Agency prosecutions indicate. The finding comes from a new report by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a non-profit research centre in Oxfordshire. The centre argued that weak regulation, underreporting by water companies, and a failure to prosecute them created a situation where unlawful sewage discharges have, over the past 10 years, gone unchecked. “For rivers, wildlife and environment there has been unchecked dumping of untreated sewage which would have resulted in ecological damage,” Peter Hammond, visiting scientist at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, told the Guardian.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Lobbying rules
Ministers should be banned from lobbying for up to five years after leaving office, and face civil penalties if they break the rules, according to an emergency report by the committee on standards in public life published today. Lord Evans, committee chair, made the recommendation. He had served as head of MI5 under prime minister David Cameron who is named in today’s report in relation to his work for Greensill, the failed financial services firm. Cameron had texted civil servants, and the chancellor, seeking financial support and opportunity for Greensill, which employed him as a “paid advisor” after his resignation. Asked by a parliamentary committee what he meant by a “rate cut” in one message to a civil servant, the former prime minister said he was “a victim of spellcheck”. The committee’s report was due to be published later, but was brought forward because, Lord Evans wrote in its foreword, “our system of standards regulation is currently under sustained public scrutiny”.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia 

Photographs by Getty Images

Slow Views