First Trump–Biden debate labelled worst ever. Almost 100 dead in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Bougainvilleans seek compensation over environmental damage from Panguna mine. Amnesty International suspends activity in India after accounts frozen. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Shambolic debate sets tone for final weeks

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first US presidential debate.
President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first US presidential debate.
Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Azerbaijan: Armenia and Azerbaijan mobilised their armies and prepared for war this week over the fate of a mountainous territory, Nagorno-Karabakh, the status of which has caused decades of tensions between the two former Soviet republics. By Wednesday, almost 100 people were believed to have been killed as the fighting spread beyond the tiny enclave.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which has about 150,000 residents, is in Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority Turkic-speaking nation, but most of its residents are ethnic Armenians, who are largely Christian and speak Armenian.

In the late 1980s, a war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory during which some 30,000 people were left dead. Since the war ended in 1994, the territory has been run by the local Armenians, who regard it as an independent state.

Last weekend, fighting erupted between Azerbaijani troops and forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia. Both sides blamed the other for the outbreak of violence.

The conflict threatens to draw in regional powers such as Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a military alliance with Armenia but has friendly ties with Azerbaijan. Turkey and Russia are currently locked in separate proxy battles in Syria and Libya, where they support opposing sides.

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: The controversial Panguna mine in Bougainville has been closed since 1989 but local villagers say the pollution and environmental damage from the operation continues to harm their health and livelihoods.

More than 150 Bougainville residents this week sent a complaint to the Australian government and to mining giant Rio Tinto, saying the mine had left behind billions of tonnes of waste that has poisoned water sources, caused health problems and flooded sacred sites. Rio Tinto had majority ownership of the mine until 2016.

Theonila Roka Matbob, a traditional landowner, told the Human Rights Law Centre that some communities near the mine had to walk two hours a day to find clean drinking water because local waterways were clogged with waste.

“Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution,” she said. “Every time it rains, more waste washes into the rivers, causing flooding for villages further downstream.”

The complaint by the Bougainville residents follows the public outrage caused by Rio Tinto’s destruction of sacred Indigenous rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia in May. The firm’s chief executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, is stepping down over the incident.    

Responding to the Bougainville complaint on Tuesday, Rio Tinto took a conciliatory approach. It said it was aware of the “claims of [Panguna’s] adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts”. “We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint,” a spokesperson said.

Tensions over the mine, which has one of the world’s biggest copper deposits, led to a civil war in the province from 1988 to 1998 that left as many as 20,000 people dead.

On Tuesday, Bougainville swore in a newly elected president, Ishmael Toroama, who will oversee negotiations with Papua New Guinea over the province’s bid to gain independence. Bougainville’s population overwhelmingly voted for independence at a non-binding referendum last year.

One of the new MPs is Matbob, the second woman to win an openly contested seat in Bougainville. She said the mine should not be reopened until the “legacy issues” – concerns about its environmental and human impacts – had been addressed.

Democracy in retreat

India: Amnesty International this week suspended its operations in India after authorities froze its bank accounts in a move that has raised further concerns about prime minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to stifle critics.

Greenpeace India has also come under pressure in recent years. It was forced to cut its staff by a third after its funding was frozen.

Since taking office in 2014, Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, has cancelled the registrations of about 15,000 non-government organisations under foreign funding laws, barring them from receiving overseas funds.

Amnesty said it believed the freezing of its accounts was prompted by its recent reports about alleged torture and other rights violations in the Kashmir region and about the conduct of police during religious riots in Delhi in February that left more than 50 people dead, most of whom were Muslims.

“This is latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organizations by the Government of India over unfounded and motivated allegations,” Amnesty said.

India’s ministry of home affairs said the allegations were “exaggerated and far from the truth” and accused Amnesty of “rerouting” money to avoid laws regulating foreign grants.

Amnesty said the only other country where it had ceased operations is Russia. It does not have a presence in mainland China.

Spotlight: Worst US debate

United States: “You’re the worst president America has ever had,” said Joe Biden, in one of the relatively few succinct and uninterrupted statements in a sprawling and chaotic US presidential debate this week.

The 90-minute debate, in Cleveland, featured constant jibes from both Donald Trump and Biden, as the discussion meandered from topics such as the Supreme Court and the Covid-19 pandemic to the business dealings of Biden’s son.

Biden tried, but often failed, to remain above the fray. He called Trump a racist, a liar, a clown and “Putin’s puppy”. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden said at one point. “This is so unpresidential.”

Trump attacked Biden as weak on crime and claimed his own advice to Americans to protect themselves from Covid-19 by injecting bleach was made “sarcastically”.

The debate covered revelations published in The New York Times this week about Trump’s tax returns. The newspaper reported Trump’s businesses have made heavy losses and that he paid no federal income taxes in 10 of the past 15 years. During the debate, Trump insisted he had paid “millions of dollars” in taxes in 2016 and 2017, though his records indicate he paid just $US750 in each year. He said he would release his tax returns, a promise he has made repeatedly since 2015.

Trump and Biden also sparred over the president’s efforts to rush through the confirmation of a new Supreme Court judge following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump has nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a 48-year-old devout Catholic. Her appointment would give the conservatives a 6-3 majority on the bench and could lead to the winding back of abortion rights, gun controls and healthcare benefits. Trump dismissed claims that he should not make an appointment because of the impending election, even though Republicans blocked Barack Obama’s nomination before the 2016 election.

“We won the [2016] election,” Trump said during the debate. “Elections have consequences. We have the senate.”

A CBS News poll after the debate found 48 per cent said Biden won, 41 per cent said Trump won, and 10 per cent declared it a tie. George Stephanopoulos, the political commentator and former Democratic adviser, said the event was “the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen in my life”. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 3, 2020 as "Shambolic debate sets tone for campaign’s final weeks".

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

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