The World Today for August 29, 2018

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A Will, A Way

Cross the southwestern border of Morocco – it’s a dotted line on most maps – and it’s thousands of miles of open desert: A few towns and few people and an occasional camel and windmill break the endless expanse of the Western Sahara.

Oh yeah, and then there is the military – thousands and thousands of soldiers are stationed here, and checkpoints for drivers are frequent.

There’s a reason for this overwhelming military presence, the most in Morocco.

More than 40 years ago, Morocco and a political movement representing the indigenous Sahrawi people first came to blows over Western Sahara, sparking a 16-year guerrilla war that ended in a UN-brokered stalemate.

Now diplomats are giving talks another go in hopes of resolving a conflict with the potential to upset power dynamics across the region.

The conflict stems from Spain’s withdrawal from its former colony of Spanish Sahara on Morocco’s southern border in the 1970s. Morocco laid claim to the territory, despite the international community’s calls for its decolonization and self-determination for the Sahrawi, the BBC reported.

The Polisario Front, the political force representing the Sahrawi from exile in Algeria, declared its own state in the territory. Fighting began – and lasted for more than a decade. Morocco annexed two-thirds of the territory and controversially colonized much of the area it controls.

In the current stalemate, Morocco is adamant on retaining Western Sahara as an autonomous region, and the government is unwilling to allow a referendum on the matter. For its part, the Polisario Front is vying for full-on independence.

This month, however, there’s been newfound impetus to end the conflict.

Since his appointment in 2017, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, former German President Horst Köhler, has ping-ponged across the greater Maghreb region to restart negotiations.

After a series of successful meetings, Köhler this month called on all parties involved to make compromises for a lasting political solution to the conflict, Morocco World News reported. The African Union also lent its support to the UN’s new efforts, signaling a united front in finally bringing an end to the conflict.

But old conflicts die hard.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI announced his country’s willingness to “confidently and responsibly” engage with the UN to find an acceptable solution, but said he wouldn’t do so without the involvement of neighboring Algeria.

The two nations are longtime rivals, with Algeria having politically and militarily supported the Polisario Front throughout the conflict. Without Algeria, the negotiations will be a “waste of time,” Omar Hilale, Morocco’s permanent UN representative, told Moroccan media.

Surprise, surprise: Algeria isn’t willing to get involved, despite nudges from partners like Russia and others.

Morocco hopes Algeria’s stubbornness on the issue will draw more sympathy from the international community to its argument for holding on to Western Sahara.

If left to its own devices, Morocco says, the territory of just over 500,000 people will either become an Iranian-Algerian proxy state bent on destabilizing the region, or a failed state serving as a hotbed for terrorist activity, the Jamestown Foundation wrote in an analysis.

Iran has denied such motives, though Morocco says it has proof of “continuous training from Hezbollah in tunnels, dug under the Moroccan defense wall,” wrote the Algeria Times.

Despite the quagmire of accusations and motives, the Polisario Front at least indicated that it’s willing to once again discuss the matter with Morocco.

But with so many conflicting political narratives, the will for peace doesn’t mean there will be a way.



The Kids Are All Right

China is set to end completely its restrictions on how many children families can have, following the relaxation and eventual elimination of the so-called “one-child policy” in 2016.

According to a brief statement released Tuesday by the National People’s Congress, a new draft of the country’s Civil Code “will no longer retain the relevant content of family planning,” though it will not be completed until March 2020 and it’s not clear when the new rules will come into effect, CNN reported.

Though it once resorted to draconian measures, including forced sterilizations, to limit families to one child, today China is concerned about its aging population.

In October 2015, Beijing announced an end to the one-child policy, encouraging families to have two children, but no more than two, in response to demographic problems resulting from the sudden plunge in the birth rate. But by 2017 the birth rate remained a paltry 1.6 children per woman, well below the 2.1 rate estimated to be necessary to keep the population steady, CNN noted.


No Deal

Riek Machar and other rebel leaders refused to sign a peace deal to end South Sudan’s brutal civil war, which has been raging since December 2013.

Machar and President Salva Kiir signed a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement last month that many hoped would pave the way for a lasting peace. But on Tuesday Machar refused to sign a final deal.

“The main South Sudanese opposition groups, including the SPLM-IO (Machar faction), refused to sign the final document demanding that their reservations be guaranteed in it,” Sudan‘s Foreign Minister Al-Dierdiry Ahmed said, according to Al Jazeera.

One of the main sticking points was a dispute over the number of states. Machar wants to reverse the government’s 2015 decision to divide the country into 32 states, rather than the previous 10, in what Al Jazeera suggested is an attempt to retain more power for himself.

Since it began just two years after South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan, the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.


Flexing Muscles

Even as it prepares for its most sweeping military exercises since the Cold War at home, Moscow is sending the largest naval force it has deployed to Syria since it first entered the conflict in an apparent response to tough talk from Washington over a potential upcoming chemical attack.

Russia’s Izvestiya newspaper said Tuesday that Russia had sent 10 ships and two submarines to the eastern Mediterranean and other naval assets are on the way, Newsweek reported. The ships are mostly armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, the magazine said.

Moscow also mobilized two Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile defense systems in Syria and put air defenses on high alert in anticipation of a US attack, which the Russian Defense Ministry has said would come after a “false flag” chemical weapons attack staged by US-backed militants.

The escalation comes in response to remarks by National security adviser John Bolton, who said last week that the US suspected Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was planning to use chemical weapons to recapture the final Islamist-held province of Idlib and vowed a “strong response” if those suspicions proved true.


The Silent Riders

Deaf taxi drivers in South Korea, apart from their daily job risks, face another challenge: ostracization.

“Koreans would step out of the taxi the moment the driver tried to communicate with a notepad and a pen,” Song Min-pyo, head of a student-led startup called Coactus, told the Korea Times.

In order to get rid of the social stigma and provide more employment opportunities for deaf drivers, Coactus developed “Goyohan Taxi app – or “Silent App” – to allow better communication between the drivers and customers.

Passengers and drivers are able to communicate by using two tablet PCs installed in the car. Using the devices, they can write, select or even speak directions that appear on the driver’s screen.

“We realized more passengers used their voice rather than typing their destinations in the tablet, so we placed the voice recognition tab above all the others,” Song said.

Partly inspired by Uber’s initiative to help drivers with hearing difficulties, the app proved successful during a test run in June. A local taxi company in Seoul agreed to take part in the project.

In the future, the company hopes to create more employment opportunities and break stereotypes associated with being hearing-impaired.

“These drivers have zero accident history and undergo a rigorous driving-suitability test like any other taxi drivers,” said Song.

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