World

Donald Trump impeachment inquiry. Indonesia’s new criminal code. Conditions in Haiti deteriorate. Greta Thunberg at United Nations Climate Action Summit. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Thunberg thunders at climate summit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg before the opening of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York.
Credit: UN Photo / Mark Garten

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, leading Democrats have insisted they did not want to impeach him and would instead aim to topple him at an election. But all that changed as the latest charge emerged – that Trump asked Ukraine’s president to interfere in the 2020 election. On Tuesday, house speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry, describing Trump’s actions as a “betrayal of his oath of office”.

The house of representatives, in which the Democrats have a majority, will now conduct an inquiry and potentially hold a vote on whether to impeach. Trump would then be tried by the senate, where 53 of the 100 members are Republicans. A two-thirds majority is required to convict. So far, the Republicans are backing Trump.

The charge against the president, which he has not completely denied, is that he urged Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky to dig for dirt on Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential contender.

In July, Trump froze almost $US400 million in military aid to Ukraine. Days later, he spoke to Zelensky to allegedly ask him to launch a corruption investigation into Biden and Biden’s son.

Trump has admitted raising Biden and corruption with Zelensky in the phone call. He denied seeking to pressure Zelensky, but added: “I think it would probably, possibly have been okay if I did.”

Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company whose owner was investigated for corruption. Trump was apparently hoping to show that Joe Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice-president, tried to protect his son by urging Ukraine to oust a prosecutor who was investigating the company. Officials in the United States and Ukraine reportedly believe the allegation is unfounded.

The impeachment inquiry is now set to dominate US politics until next year’s election. Trump has long dared the Democrats to impeach him, a move that could motivate his support base and amplify the partisan rancour in which he seems to thrive. Following Pelosi’s announcement, he tweeted: “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!”. It quickly collected 233,000 likes.

The White House is preparing to release a transcript of the call with Zelensky. And yes, Zelensky is the comedian who entered politics after starring in a series in which his character accidentally becomes president and later goes to jail on charges that – in the show – are false.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: For decades, Indonesia has been planning to overhaul its Dutch-era criminal code – a project that could have presented an opportunity to abolish discriminatory and outdated laws and build a new justice system suited to a modern independent democracy. Instead, the proposed code marks a retrograde step and a victory for the nation’s conservative Islamists. It would effectively outlaw extramarital sex and same-sex relations, tighten abortion and blasphemy laws, censor discussions about contraception and make it an offence to insult the president.

The code was due to be passed by parliament on Tuesday until Indonesian President Joko Widodo, responding to domestic and international criticism, intervened to postpone the vote. But the laws can still be passed by incoming MPs who were elected in April and take their seats next month. Widodo’s new vice-president, Ma’ruf Amin, is one of the country’s most powerful clerics. He has endorsed the new code.

Widodo was hailed as a reformer when he was first elected in 2014 but has overseen Indonesia’s continued slide away from liberalism. Discussing Widodo’s last-minute decision to delay the code, Tim Lindsey from Melbourne University told The Sydney Morning Herald: “Either he wasn’t paying attention to the laws, or he came under huge political pressure. Maybe he is just hugely embarrassed by the international media storm.”

This storm was caused by the proposed ban on extramarital sex or, as the tabloid media described it, the “Bali bonking ban”. Australia has updated its travel advice to warn of the potential ban. Bali tourism officials plan to object to the code, noting travellers could be required to provide marriage certificates at hotels.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Haiti: Despite a series of brutal dictatorships and an earthquake in 2010 that killed up to 300,000 people, the common refrain in Haiti is that conditions have never been worse than they are now.

The government does not have enough money to pay for fuel imports, which are running out. This has forced schools and shops to close and brought transport to a stop. Hospitals have delayed surgeries and food prices have spiked. The president, Jovenel Moïse, is accused of corruption, as is his preferred prime minister, Fritz-William Michel, whose nomination has caused fistfights in parliament.

As tensions increased this week, Haitian senator Jean Marie Ralph Féthière, armed with a handgun, confronted protesters outside parliament and opened fire. An Associated Press photographer, Chery Dieu-Nalio, was shot in the face, and security guard Leon Leblanc was injured. Féthière said he acted in self-defence and did not know a journalist was present. Dieu-Nalio, who was not seriously injured, was wearing a flak jacket emblazoned with the word “press”.

The shooting added to the sense that this Caribbean country, with a population of 11 million people, is near breaking point. The estimated unemployment rate is 70 per cent, one of the highest in the world. Fritz-William Michel, if approved, would be Haiti’s 11th prime minister since 2010.

SPOTLIGHT: UN climate summit

United States: In the lead-up to this week’s United Nations Climate Action Summit, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, told the international community: “Don’t come to the summit with beautiful speeches. Come with concrete plans.”

His call was largely ignored.

The summit aimed to pressure countries to make further commitments to curb carbon emissions beyond those outlined in the 2015 Paris agreement. Yet countries offered little. Leaders of coal-supporting nations such as Australia and Japan were not invited to speak. Nor was Trump, who plans to withdraw from the Paris agreement. China announced no new commitments. India confirmed its renewable energy target of more than 400 gigawatts by 2040, and is expected this week to ban plastic bags, cutlery and straws. But its coal use is soaring as its energy demands increase.

About 70 countries committed to stronger emissions targets. But they are mostly small and developing nations and account for less than 7 per cent of total global emissions. Wealthy nations such as Germany, South Korea and Britain announced extra money for the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which assists developing nations to cut emissions. And dozens of large companies and some investors pledged new measures to reduce emissions or avoid supporting polluting industries.

Amid this relative inaction, much of the attention was captured by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said. “… Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” Her comments were not so much beautiful as angry, direct and steeped in disappointment.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Thunberg thunders at climate summit". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.