World

Zelensky and Putin meet for the first time. Whakaari/White Island volcano eruption. Aung San Suu Kyi defends Myanmar in International Court of Justice. Widespread concerns about Afghanistan war revealed in Washington Post. By Jonathan Pearlman.

NZ volcano: Australian death toll climbs

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets first responders to the White Island tragedy on Tuesday.
Credit: RNZ / Dom Thomas

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Ukraine: On Monday, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who has been Ukrainian president for seven months, met with Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who has led Russia for almost two decades, to discuss the five-year-old war in eastern Ukraine.

It was the first meeting between the pair and was held at the Élysée Palace in Paris, where it was mediated by the leaders of France and Germany. Zelensky arrived in a mini-van; Putin in an armoured limousine. They did not publicly shake hands and appeared to barely look at each other, despite their summit lasting nine hours.

About 14,000 people have died in the war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. About 1.5 million people have been displaced. The conflict – in a country that is seen as a buffer, or front line, between Russia and the West – has also exacerbated regional tensions. The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on Russia which, along with Ukraine, has been at the centre of alleged meddling in American elections.

This week’s summit was a welcome return to talks but made little progress except for an agreement to exchange prisoners and to implement a ceasefire by the end of December. “I would like to have seen more,” Zelensky said.

Putin wants Ukraine to grant autonomy to the rebel-held regions and to hold local elections there as agreed in a 2015 accord. Zelensky wants armed groups removed and to be given full control of the border before elections are held. He said he hoped the ceasefire was not “fake”, noting the previous ones had all been violated. “A serious ceasefire means not shooting, as I understand it,” he said. More talks will be held in four months.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: On October 30, New Zealand’s hazard-monitoring service, GeoNet, published an alert about increasing “background activity” at Whakaari/White Island, the country’s most active volcano. “Volcanic unrest continues … with a level of uncertainty about what this means,” the alert said.

Three further alerts were issued in the following weeks, including one that warned of heightened activity and raised the volcano’s alert level from one to two (out of five). But this did not require an evacuation or an end to the guided tours that bring about 50 people a day to the island.

On Monday at 2.11pm, six days after the most recent alert, the volcano erupted. Steam and gases were emitted at supersonic speeds, collecting debris and causing a thick white plume of ash to rise 3600 metres before descending to cover the island. On Thursday afternoon, New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management said eight people were confirmed dead while eight were unaccounted for and believed still to be on the island. Plans were under way to recover remaining bodies from the island. The majority of the victims are Australian. A paramedic, Russell Clark, who rushed by helicopter to the island, told TVNZ: “It was like … I’ve seen the Chernobyl mini-series and it was just everything was just blanketed in ash.”

The eruption has prompted questions about the decision to allow tourists to visit, particularly after the detection of increasing activity. Police and the workplace regulator have launched investigations.

On Tuesday, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, told parliament: “These questions must be asked and they must be answered.”

Experts say the eruption was hydrothermal, or caused by steam pressure, which, unlike magma eruptions, is almost impossible to predict. Typically, the only forewarning is sudden tremors or gas releases, which can occur minutes, or seconds, before an eruption.

After the eruption, GeoNet briefly lifted the alert level for White Island to four. It remains at level three.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Myanmar: In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi went to Oslo to accept her Nobel peace prize, 21 years after it was awarded while she was under house arrest in Myanmar. In her speech, she recalled her years in isolation and her pondering of Buddhist precepts. This, she said, had led her to consider the fate of prisoners and refugees and the “great mass of the uprooted of the earth who have been torn away from their homes … forced to live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming”.

This week, Suu Kyi was back in Europe, where she appeared at the International Court of Justice to defend her country against charges of alleged genocide and ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Myanmar is accused of mass murder, rape, and “the systematic destruction by fire of [Rohingya] villages, often with inhabitants locked inside burning houses”. Since 2016, more than 730,000 Rohingya people have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The case was brought by Gambia, a small Muslim-majority country in Africa, which wants the court to protect the remaining 500,000 Rohingya before holding a full hearing. Myanmar’s government denies the atrocities.

The decision by Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader, to defend the case in The Hague was voluntary. Her move was widely praised at home and is expected to assist her party, the National League for Democracy, at elections next year.

Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya crisis – including attributing the atrocities to “misinformation” – has prompted Amnesty International and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to strip her of awards and Canada to revoke her honorary citizenship. The Nobel committee says it cannot withdraw awards, but has noted they are awarded for prize-worthy achievements of the past.

SPOTLIGHT: AFGHANISTAN

United States: Douglas Lute, a retired US lieutenant general, spent more than 30 years in the military before being appointed by George W. Bush in 2007 to oversee the Afghanistan war. He was later kept on by Barack Obama.

In 2015, Lute was interviewed confidentially by a US agency that examines reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. A record of the one-hour interview was published this week in The Washington Post.

“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” Lute said. “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction … 2400 lives lost. Who will say this was in vain?”

Lute’s comments appeared in 2000 pages of documents, based on interviews with 428 people, published by The Washington Post after a three-year freedom of information legal battle.

The documents reveal the concerns of diplomats, generals, aid workers and Afghan officials about the fate of America’s longest war. In its 18 years, the US has spent about $US1 trillion and deployed 775,000 troops, including more than 2300 who have been killed. About 150,000 people, including civilians, have died. Australia has lost 41 soldiers and still has 300 troops there.

Only 62 of the people interviewed in the documents have been officially identified. The newspaper is fighting to identify the remainder.

In one document, James Dobbins, a special envoy for Afghanistan under Bush and Obama, said: “We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”

Last month, Donald Trump made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan and revealed peace talks with the Taliban have resumed. “They do want to do a ceasefire, I believe,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "NZ volcano: Aust death toll climbs".

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

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