US to reopen embassy in Solomon Islands over China influence. Libya left with two prime ministers in political standoff. Global study of pharmaceutical pollution of rivers finds risk to wildlife and humans. By Jonathan Pearlman.

US seeks Ukraine resolution but stands firm on NATO

US President Joe Biden
United States President Joe Biden gives an update on Tuesday on the situation between Russia and Ukraine.
Credit: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: In a national address from the White House on Tuesday, United States President Joe Biden called for a diplomatic resolution of the Ukraine crisis and signalled a willingness to negotiate on issues such as arms control and military transparency.

But he insisted that Ukraine should be free to join NATO.

“We will not sacrifice basic principles,” he said. “[Nations] have the freedom to set their own course and choose with whom they will associate.”

Speaking in the Kremlin on the same day, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also called for talks to end the standoff, including on arms and transparency. But he reiterated his demand that Ukraine should not be allowed to join NATO – a move, he said, that would undermine Russian security.

“We do not want war in Europe,” he said. “Countries have the right to join military alliances as our colleagues in NATO always maintain, but it is also important to maintain one’s security not at the cost of the security of other countries.”

Putin was speaking after holding talks with Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor. Scholz told reporters after the meeting that “all involved” were aware that NATO members had no current plans to admit Ukraine as a member.

“We just can’t have a possible military conflict over a question that is not on the agenda,” he said.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, adopted a similar line, saying his country was committed to joining NATO but that such a move may be “just a dream”.

“How much should Ukraine go on that path?” he said. “Who will support us?”

In 2014, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and began supporting a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, in which about 14,000 people have died. Putin opposes Ukrainian membership in NATO and wants NATO forces to be withdrawn from all countries that were former Soviet states.

The US said this week Russia had amassed 150,000 troops around Ukraine and that an invasion could be imminent. Putin, who has denied planning to attack, said this week some troops had been withdrawn from the border areas after completing military exercises. Washington said the withdrawals could not be confirmed. The Ukraine crisis has already led to sharp rises in the price of oil, which is Russia’s biggest export.

Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to NATO, told reporters this week: “We do not understand – fundamentally, none of us do – what is inside President Putin’s head and so we cannot make any guess about where all of this is headed.”

The neighbourhood

Solomon Islands: The US plans to open an embassy in Solomon Islands to try to counter efforts by China to gain influence in the country.

The move follows riots last year in the capital, Honiara, that targeted Chinese-linked businesses and stemmed partly from tensions caused by the Solomons government’s decision in 2019 to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Following the riots, China sent riot equipment and dispatched advisers
to assist the Solomons police.

Explaining the decision to open an embassy, the US State Department expressed concern that China was becoming “strongly embedded” in the region. According to a notification to congress obtained by Associated Press, the State Department said China had been “utilising a familiar pattern of extravagant promises, prospective costly infrastructure loans, and potentially dangerous debt levels” when engaging with political and business leaders.

“The United States has a strategic interest in enhancing our political, economic, and commercial relationship with Solomon Islands, the largest Pacific Island nation without a US embassy,” the notification said.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, confirmed the plan to open an embassy during his visit to Fiji last week.

The US opened an embassy in Solomon Islands in 1988 but closed it in 1993 as Washington switched its focus to setting up missions in former Soviet-bloc states.

Democracy in retreat

Libya: Libya’s lower house of parliament, which is based in the eastern city of Tobruk, has appointed a new prime minister in a move that has left the country with two leaders and threatened to unravel the country’s fragile political accord.

Citing the failure of the incumbent prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, to hold elections, Libya’s house of representatives last week appointed former interior minister Fathi Bashagha as prime minister.

Dbeibah became prime minister last year as part of the formation of a United Nations-brokered government of national unity that brought together the rival governments based in Tobruk and in Tripoli, the capital. It was hoped the new government would end the turmoil that has upended the country since a NATO-backed uprising removed Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011.

Elections were scheduled to be held on December 24, but the electoral commission delayed the vote due to disputes between the rival factions over the procedures for approving candidates.

The parliament has argued that Dbeibah’s term ended on December 24, but he said he will remain in office until he can hand control to an elected government. When he was appointed interim prime minister, he promised not to stand for the presidency. But he later announced his candidacy. Bashagha is also a candidate.

The UN secretary-general’s special adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, this week urged Dbeibah and Bashagha to “preserve calm” and called for elections to be held as soon as possible.

Spotlight: Drugs in rivers

Globally, pharmaceutical use has surged in recent years, from about 1.6 trillion daily doses of medicine in 2010 to 2.2 trillion last year.

But the manufacture, consumption and disposal of pharmaceutical products results in vast quantities of drugs being emitted to the environment, where they disrupt ecosystems and cause damage to wildlife and humans. The build-up of antibiotic waste in the environment, for instance, can cause the development of resistant bacteria that pose serious threats to global health.

To examine the extent of pharmaceutical pollution around the world, a team of 127 researchers from 86 institutions took samples from 1052 sites along 258 rivers in 104 countries – the most extensive such study ever conducted. Pharmaceuticals were detected in all locations, with two exceptions – in rivers in Iceland and in a remote indigenous village in Venezuela where modern medicine is not used. The most polluted sites were in Lahore in Pakistan, La Paz in Bolivia, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Delhi in India, and Tunis in Tunisia. In 26 per cent of sites, concentrations of at least one pharmaceutical ingredient were at levels that were unsafe for marine organisms.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded: “Pollution of the world’s rivers by medicinal chemicals is a global problem that poses risk to both aquatic ecology and potential [antimicrobial resistance] selection.”

The most frequently detected pharmaceutical ingredients were carbamazepine, an anti-seizure drug, and metformin, which treats diabetes.

The lead author of the study, John Wilkinson, from the University of York, told the BBC that encouraging proper use of medicines might help to reduce waste but there were still no clear solutions to the problem.

“Typically, what happens is, we take these chemicals, they have some desired effects on us and then they leave our bodies,” he said. “Even the most modern efficient wastewater treatment plants aren’t completely capable of degrading these compounds before they end up in rivers or lakes.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "US seeks Ukraine resolution but stands firm on NATO".

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

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