Author Archives: Evan Henry

Biden sanctions Russia over belligerent foreign policy

Last Thursday, the White House announced that sanctions are to be placed on Russia for its “harmful foreign activities”, interference in US elections and sweeping cyber-attacks on US government and corporations. The impositions also follow strong international condemnation of Russia’s heavy military deployment at the Ukrainian border. The actions target 32 Russian entities and involve the expulsion of certain diplomats. Biden’s sanctions align with his rhetoric in recent months, during which he has promised to make Putin “pay” for attempting to undermine the American democratic process and accused the Russian government of poisoning Alexei Navalny. The sanctions also sharply contrast from recent American policy towards Russia, a period during which Donald Trump rarely criticised Russia or Putin’s belligerent behaviour on the world stage.

What do the sanctions entail?

The wide-ranging sanctions imposed by Biden’s executive order includes “long-feared” restrictions that ban U.S. financial institutions from participating in the primary market for Russian sovereign debt, effective from June 14th. Once news of the sanctions broke, Russian bonds suffered their largest fall in value for months and the rouble dropped by 2.2%, before making a slight recovery later in the day. Still, a large sell-off of Russian assets was sparked. Nonetheless, one senior Russian official said that the new debt restrictions were the “least painful” option, as they will not affect the secondary debt market, while others have said that a reciprocal response is “inevitable”.

In addition to this, 32 entities and individuals have been sanctioned by Biden’s order. The list includes Russian government and intelligence officials, as well as six Russian companies involved in the Kremlin’s hacking activities. Ten Russian diplomats in Washington are also to be expelled. Some worry that the expulsion of diplomats will worsen intergovernmental dialogue between the two nations, but Putin is still thought to be considering Biden’s offer of a US-Russia summit in the near future.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan says that the measures taken by the White House are “proportionate” and that their goal is “to provide a significant and credible response but not to escalate the situation”. Indeed, Biden’s sanctions are consistent with America’s handling of Russian transgressions since its annexation of Crimea in 2014: to punish illegal Russian behaviour but not to escalate tensions further, particularly given the anxiety surrounding Russia’s military build-up at the Ukrainian border.

What has inspired the sanctions?

The US has threatened to place additional sanctions on Russia for a throng of misdeeds over recent years. However, the introduction of these specific restrictions has occurred in close proximity to a recent US intelligent report confirming attempts by the Russian government to rig the 2020 presidential election. Additionally, the order follows a review, ordered by Biden, into other key areas of concern with Russian behaviour that include reports of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the historic SolarWinds cyber-attack and the poisoning of Putin’s pro-democracy rival Alexei Navalny.

The sanctions are viewed as a single, sweeping response to these various Russian wrongdoings, rather than to one particular incident. This is likely the case for two main reasons. Firstly, the US does not wish to escalate tensions with Russia, but rather wishes to signal that the Biden administration has adopted a harder line than his predecessor. Secondly, devising an individual response to the major SolarWinds cyber-attack would be politically difficult for Biden. Some members of Congress described the attack as “an act of war”, while some highlighted that the US conducts similar operations abroad. Treating Russia’s various offences with a single package of sanctions has allowed Biden to maintain his election promise of a strong stance on Russia while avoiding an image of hypocrisy (i.e., sanctioning Russia for activities similar to those that the US partakes in).

Will Biden’s order result in further US-Russia divergence?

The extent to which the sanctions will damage US-Russo diplomatic relations is still unclear. Many believe that overly harsh sanctions on Russia would be inconsistent with Biden’s offer to hold a summit and normalise relations between the two countries. Given that the sanctions are not disastrously severe, and that Putin is still thought to be mulling over the prospect of a US-Russia summit, it seems that relations between the White House and Kremlin will remain similarly strained. However, Biden signalling a firmer approach to Russia than Trump is not a welcome prospect for the Kremlin, and will likely reduce the belief that they can act with impunity. Indeed, a Kremlin spokesman seemed to explain the increased Russian military activity on its Ukrainian border as a kind of bargaining tool in the case of US action, like sanctions.

Overall, it is difficult to know how the sanctions will affect US-Russo relations. If they are enough to prevent Putin from joining Biden at a summit, then they will have had a clearly negative effect. Otherwise, even in the case of roughly equivalent Russian retaliation, the two countries’ relationship will likely remain as it has been over recent years: strained.

“Nowhere close” to enough climate action?

A new report from the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Action (UNCCF) has announced that the world’s nations are doing “nowhere close” enough to keep the global temperature increases well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

What does the report show?

The initial Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) Synthesis Report measures the progress of national climate action plans. The report described the findings, based on 75 countries that account for roughly 30% of the world’s emissions, as falling “far short” of what is required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and marking a “red alert” for the planet. Countries were required to submit their reports by the end of 2020, though many failed to do so due with Covid-19 further backlogging civil services. For this reason, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary insists that the report is just a snapshot, and that a clearer picture will have emerged before the COP26 climate summit in November.

Of those countries that did submit reports, the majority did indeed commit to lowering their emissions by 2030. However, the totality of the 75 countries’ current commitments would result in an estimated 1% total drop by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that to meet Paris Agreement’s lower-bound of 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, the cumulative reduction should be around 45%.

Why is it important that countries do meet the Paris Agreements standards?

The historic Paris Climate Agreement, signed in 2015, is a legally binding international agreement that mandates signatories to do their part in the common effort to limit global warming. Its goal is to limit global temperature increases to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably only 1.5°C above these.

If temperature levels are allowed to increase by more than this, experts predict that serious and likely irreversible harm will be done to many of the earth’s natural and human systems. While the risks will not be felt equally everywhere in the world, the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C above pre-industrial temperature levels is likely to be significant. These facts are what have urged the UN and many of its members to call for more meaningful commitments from the Paris Agreement’s signatories.

Will 2021 see improvements from the initial report?

The UN’s General Secretary, António Guterres, called 2021 a “make or break” year for global climate action, stressing that global emissions must be reduced by 45% from 2010 to reach the 1.5°C goal, with the landmark COP26 climate summit taking place in Glasgow this November.

The inclination to imagine that reducing emissions by 45% compared to 2010 levels seems unlikely is understandable, given the report’s findings. Three of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters failed to submit their NDC reports on time. It is still unclear if China and India will submit reports before the COP26 summits. Additionally, countries such as Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Switzerland and Australia, failed to improve upon their 2015 plans’ commitment to emission reduction. Meanwhile, Brazil’s plan made no commitment to reducing emissions by 2030.

However, despite the dreary premonitions that the UNCCF’s report may arouse, seeds of hope can be found in the dynamic, if not rocky, field of global climate action politics. The EU27 is the only one of the world’s four largest emitters to submit a plan on time, but Joe Biden’s American government, which has re-joined the Paris Agreement, is expected to submit an NCD plan by April. It is thought that strong American action to reduce emissions will signal to the world that green commitment is the future.

China has also promised to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Many critics are understandably sceptical of the authoritarian regime’s commitment to the global attempt to mitigate climate change, given the behemoth scale of their brown investment. However, there are others who believe that the Chinese government’s changing rhetoric is not merely verbose signalling, but rather a recognition of the world’s (and its profit-seeking investors’) desire for trustworthy investments that will truly contribute to the fight against climate change.

With this in mind, 2021 may well be a “make or break” year for the effort to reduce global emissions.

Brussels Faces Backlash Over Vaccine Controversy

The EU has faced international criticism over its new controls of coronavirus vaccine exports. The measures were the source of particular worry in the UK and Ireland after the EU indicated it would override part of the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

What are the measures?

The EU announced measures to control exports of Covid-19 vaccinations produced within the EU this week amid disagreements over supply shortfalls. The transparency mechanism requires vaccine companies to seek permission from national governments before exporting excess vaccine doses. EU countries can deny authorisation for vaccine exports if the company making them has not met the supply agreed to in their contracts with the EU. The controls will affect 100 countries – most notably the US, the UK, Canada and Japan – with many poor nations exempt from the restrictions. Countries in the EFTA (Iceland, Liechtenstein Norway and Switzerland), Israel, Lebanon, Western Balkans, North Africa and many elsewhere are also exempt.

Why were the measures announced?

In 2020, the EU agreed to buy 400 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, and the vaccine received the approval of EU regulators last Friday. The bloc’s plans came after AstraZeneca announced that it would only be able to provide just over a quarter of the more than 100 million doses it had committed to the EU for the first quarter. The Commission’s discontent was clear. AstraZeneca’s announcement highlighted the fact that vaccine supply across the EU is dwindling. The company’s inability to meet its 100 million dose target also means that the EU’s vaccination rollout targets, based on advanced vaccine purchase agreements, will not be met. The EU initially suggested that AstraZeneca’s UK production plants make up the difference in vaccine doses, given that the company’s EU plants had supplied the UK when its factories faced supply shortages a few weeks ago. However, the company has railed against claims that it is failing to fulfil its contract, publicly released by the Commission, due to a “reasonable best efforts” provision. It claims that this clause does not commit the company to a hard date of providing a certain number of doses.

What was the Northern Ireland concern?

The EU’s export controls initially involved overriding part of the bloc’s Brexit deal with Northern Ireland. Under the deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol, which prevents the presence of a hard border between the Republic and the North, goods from the EU should be exported to Northern Ireland without checks. However, the bloc invoked Article 16 of the agreement, which allows aspects of the deal to be unilaterally overwritten. This course of action was taken to prevent Northern Ireland being used as a backdoor for vaccine exports from the EU to the UK. High-level politicians in Belfast, Dublin and London all criticised the move, which many say would effectively place a hard-border on the island. However, the commission revised the export rules after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s engagement with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Instead, compromised regulations will see northbound vaccines crossing the Irish border recorded in Dublin, but will not face a risk of being blocked.

While a compromise has been struck, much damage has still been done. The commission’s “grave error of judgement” has inflicted considerable reputational damage. Critics say that the EU, which argued so strongly (some even say patronisingly) in favour of the Protocol, was also quick to undermine its own arguments. In addition to this, many DUP members, already opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol’s requirement for checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the UK, are furious at the EU’s short-handed approach. They believe that the bloc’s initial willingness to invoke Article 16 was an act of aggression and a sign that they will undermine the Protocol whenever the EU single-market is at risk of competition. The Commission’s decision to forego consulting the Irish government, whose leader discovered the bloc’s plans via public announcement, has also added to the bedlam and growing disquiet surrounding the EU’s vaccination programme.  

Who else has criticised the EU?

While a compromise was reached with the UK government, many third countries have voiced their displeasure with the EU. Worries about “vaccine nationalism”, initially raised by Boris Johnson, are echoed by representatives from Japan, Canada and South Korea, who now require approval from various national governments to acquire EU-produced vaccines. A significant possibility is that EU countries not meeting their own immediate, short-term vaccination targets will keep, rather than export, extra vaccine doses. This prospect is the main source of international criticism garnered by the EU. South Korea’s foreign minister warned the bloc against fostering “global disunity” by withholding vaccines, despite having ordered roughly enough to vaccinate its population twice, while Canada’s trade minister emphasised the importance of ensuring the openness and stability of world supply chains for effective vaccine rollouts. The WHO also repudiated the idea of vaccine nationalism, saying it would be a “catastrophic moral failure” that would slow down global recovery and increase economic inequality. More positively, President von der Leyen announced that AstraZeneca has committed to begin distribution a week early, in addition to providing an extra 9 million doses and increasing their European manufacturing capacity. Representatives of the EU have offered repeated assurances that the vaccine export controls are merely precautionary and are unlikely to be widely used. How true this is will be borne out in the coming months.

Trump’s predictably divisive presidential pardons

Donald Trump’s administration has recently published a list of 143 presidential pardons on the 45th President’s final day as Commander-in-Chief. The former president’s pardons were touted to include beneficiaries ranging from Trump himself and family members, to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to the subject of the Netflix series ‘Tiger King’, Joe Exotic. Perhaps because of his constant departure from presidential norms, Trump’s power to grant clemency has attracted abnormal attention.

What are presidential pardons?

Every American president is given the right to grant “Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment”, according to Article II Section 2 of the US Constitution. It was intended to be an executive power that acted as a check and balance on the federal justice system and to afford mercy to offenders whose sentences outweigh the severity of their crime. In 1866, the Supreme Court ruled, among other things, that prospective pardons may also be granted by a president. This means a president can grant clemency to someone before any impending charges are filed. The most famous example of a prospective presidential pardon came in 1974, when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon after the Watergate Scandal. The potential of prospective pardons contributed to the unprecedented attention surrounding Trump’s pardoning process. It was thought that he would attempt to shield himself, his family and other close allies from myriad potential legal issues that may arise once he loses the protection gifted to him by America’s highest office. However, this did not occur.

Notable absentees

Surprisingly absent from the former president’s list of pardons are his family members, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Republican lawmakers possibly implicated in the breach of the Capitol earlier this month. Trump was convinced by his legal advisors only days before he left office to refrain from pardoning his family. They told him that to do so without citing specific crimes would convey an admission of guilt, leaving him and his family open to future legal difficulties. The Trump team also believe that pardoning Republican lawmakers potentially involved with the Capitol insurrection would result in him feeling the ire of Republican senators set to decide his fate in an impeachment trial next week.

Significantly, Trump has decided against self-pardoning. This course of action came as no surprise, but had been a significant worry throughout Trump’s entire tenure. The former president likely eschewed self-pardoning for the same reasons he didn’t pardon his own family; namely that it may be interpreted as an admission of guilt.  Additionally, the likelihood of a self-pardon being legally robust is quite slim. The presidential power to pardon, “except in Cases of Impeachment” excerpt of the Constitution is commonly interpreted as saying that a president cannot pardon themselves or others associated with their own impeachment. Basically, if Trump self-pardoned, he can still be impeached by Congress and prevented from running for president again. In fact, this would make it more likely for the Senate to confirm his impeachment. Thirdly, presidential pardons only apply for federal offences. Trump does not have the power to prevent state prosecutors from investigating his financial affairs, for example, as is currently happening in New York. The seeming admission of guilt, along with the Senate confirming his impeachment, that would come with a self-pardon are unlikely to help Trump’s state-level cases.

The most outraged responses to Trump’s list have been fuelled by the exclusion of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently imprisoned in Belmarsh Prison and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been exiled in Russia since 2013. Both men are lauded as defenders of free-speech. Many see Trump’s omission of the two as, firstly, an attempt to pander Republican senators overseeing his impeachment trial next week and, secondly, as an attack on the free press and journalists attempting to hold officials accountable. Trump’s exclusion of the whistleblowers comes in the aftermath of his decision in December to pardon the Blackwater contractors convicted of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

Notable inclusions

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, was granted full clemency. Bannon, who has been described as ‘the most dangerous political operative in America’, was charged last year with illegally extracting funds raised by Trump supporters to privately contribute to a Southern border wall. While Bannon left the administration in 2017 and was subsequently nicknamed “Sloppy Steve”, he and Trump rekindled their relationship in light of the former president’s false accusations of voter fraud. Also pardoned were Elliott Broidy, a Republican Party fundraiser who pleaded guilty to multiple charges of illicit financial activities, and Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Mayor of Detroit who received a twenty-eight year sentence for corruption in 2013. Various other convicted swindlers and criminals have seen their sentences reduced or scrapped in Trump’s final acts as president.

Two headline-grabbing recipients of presidential pardons were rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, who face federal charges for firearm possession and for making a false statement to buy a firearm respectively. Lil Wayne’s pardon seems to have been granted due to his support for Trump during last year’s election campaign, while Kodak Black was praised for his philanthropic work.

Donald Trump’s time as US president has never been bereft of controversy and outrage. One can only admire how little his final pardons deviate from that trend.

The Shebeen and Covid-19 in Ireland

The shebeen (or síbín, in Irish) has seen a quiet revival in Ireland since the pandemic of loneliness accompanying Covid-19 lockdowns reached Ireland in early 2020. It is widely known that the pub is a temple of communal interaction, deeply entrenched in the psyche of many Irish people. Pub closures have left a void in Irish society and particularly in its rural communities, where pubs are not only social hubs, but economic pillars. It appears that some have reverted to the shebeen in an attempt to quell their craving for human contact that social distancing and lockdowns induce.

What is a shebeen?

A shebeen is an illegal, unlicensed pub, usually found in people’s homes or sheds. Their historical origin is in Ireland, but the illicit bars soon made their way around the world, appearing and evolving in countries like South Africa, the US and Canada. Interestingly, while shebeens have long been in decline in Ireland, they became an essential meeting-place for the black people community under apartheid in South Africa and most are now legally operated there. Shebeens have become far less numerous in Ireland, but have made somewhat of a comeback since the onset of multiple Covid-19 lockdowns, which left people craving physical and social interaction. While shebeens are not exclusive to the Covid-19 period, there has been an upsurge in shebeen raids and reports in Ireland since the first lockdown in March.

The problem with shebeens during Covid-19

Shebeens have raised concerns for two main reasons during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Firstly, leaving the pandemic aside, they are illegal. Defined as “unlicensed drinking premises” under the Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1962, to be found attending (or to supply alcohol to) a shebeen is to break the law. It is reasonably difficult to differentiate between a shebeen and a “man-cave” or legal home-bar. Gardaí are provided with vague metrics to instruct their course of action. The Act states that large quantities of alcohol stored on a premises and evidence of frequent consumption are indicators of incriminating behaviour. This allows for substantial variation in the make-up of a shebeen. They may range in sophistication from a crude few taps and some seating to being almost indistinguishable from a licensed pub. In addition, the law states that an unlicensed premises can serve alcohol to the owner, family members, residents, workers and “bona fide” guests. Hence, the distinction between a genuine private gathering space and a shebeen is precarious under this framework. However, these ambiguities are irrelevant in a time of national lockdown, during which household visits are banned.

Consequently, the second issue that the shebeen’s return to relative prominence in Ireland presents is that assembling in a shebeen likely breaks public health rules, even during milder levels of government regulations. Non-adherence to these rules can contribute to the spread of Covid-19, which is economically and physically undesirable, and may result in unnecessary burden being placed on an already inefficient national healthcare service. It can also cause undue tension between citizens making sacrifices to comply with regulations and those using shebeens, which carries its own undesirable ramifications. Likewise, licensed publicans and other business-owners feel aggrieved that their pubs, which must obey public health guidelines when open, have been labelled as virus-spreading “scapegoats” and forced to close while shebeens have become increasingly prevalent. It is important to note that while shebeens have become more pervasive since the outbreak of Covid-19, an Garda Síochána have repeated that their presence does not represent endemic lawlessness. Shebeens have always been in Ireland and probably always will be. The Gardaí have appealed to the public to report any shebeens, and will raid all illicit premises they are alerted to.

Understanding the Irish shebeen renaissance during the pandemic

Social drinking is a unique outlet for Irish people. The swathe of mental health issues that have arisen as a result of lockdowns and social isolation offer a simple explanation of why many have risked breaking the law and public health guidelines. People have become lonely, and one of their primary means of interacting with other humans has been placed off-limits. Generally, shebeens are not in the business of cramming in rabbles or making money. Rather, they are small spaces where a few people meet to satisfy their need for human connection. While the shebeen presents complex moral and legal quandaries, the reasons behind their upswing are as basic as any other human craving.   

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