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The Global Issues program examines themes that lie at the intersection of global political trends and Australia’s interests, specifically US foreign policy, global migration & multilateral institutions.

The program has published ground-breaking papers on diasporas, the provision of consular assistance to Australians overseas, and Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.

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A little more on predictions...

As if to reinforce the point made in my earlier post by Philip Tetlock about the unreliability of predictions, here's a magazine front page from twenty-five years ago I just stumbled across on Twitter.

I love this image because it reflects so many elements of the way the future is often depicted in popular culture. First, it is completely of its time. My guess is that anyone familiar with the design language of the late 20th century would be able to date this image pretty accurately to the late 80s, just as you can see the late '60s in the costumes and sets of the original Star Trek series. This reinforces something I think I have said before on The Interpreter: that predictions may be unreliable guides to the future, but they tell us a lot about the people making them and the times they are living through.

Another common feature of 'the future' is how clean it is, removed of all grit, dirt and (presumably) vice. There are exceptions, of course, and not just in the dystopias depicted in films like Blade Runner and the Alien series but even the original Star Wars trilogy, which was all about the forgotten outposts of the universe where criminals and outcasts gathered, and where robots sometimes didn't work until you banged them with a wrench. But in LA 2013, everything seems to work perfectly.

Then there's the inhuman scale of the place. Does anyone walk? How do they get from one of those glass towers to another? And what has happened to the economy in LA 2013, given that every (levitating?) car seems to have been built in around the same year? This reflects another feature common to such depictions of the future: they attempt to abolish the embarrassing imperfections of the past, such as the old bombs that actually clog our roads.  

LGBT rights: It really matters where you live

Daniela Strube is a Research Fellow with the G20 Studies Centre at the Lowy Institute.

Marriage equality and LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) rights are again in the headlines in Australia, with the High Court due to rule today on the Commonwealth’s challenge to the same-sex marriage legislation recently adopted by the Australian Capital Territory.

Given the bumpy road for LGBT rights in this country, it is pertinent to ask whether other countries have experienced a similar journey. Where does the world stand in terms of the legal and social status of homosexuality?

At least here in Australia, we are clearly living in a world where tolerance and diversity are cherished and practiced values and where assimilation to strict social norms is less and less required. This seems hard to reconcile with the current government’s stance on marriage as a union between a man and woman. However, a majority of national governments take this stance.

To date, 15 countries out of 196 allow gay marriage. The first legalisation of same sex marriage occurred only a decade ago, in 2001 in the Netherlands. However, the numbers are rising. Most of the 15 countries to legalise gay marriage have done so very recently. This trend is backed up by a rising social acceptance of homosexuality. This is important, because popular attitudes towards homosexuality correlate with the legal situation of gay and lesbian people.

On the other hand, homosexuality is a capital offence in some countries.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, you can be sentenced to death for being gay. In other countries, police turn a blind eye to crimes against homosexual people. In parts of Somalia or Nigeria, homosexuals are not protected by state laws. Many more countries, at least 76, criminalise homosexuality in some form (more than half are part of the Commonwealth of Nations, with approximately 77% of Commonwealth countries considering homosexuality a criminal offence, while only 25% of the rest of world does). Even in Australia, decriminalisation of homosexuality was only completed in 1997.

It is important to keep in mind that LGBT rights are not only about marriage equality and the legal status of homosexuality; there are numerous other forms of discrimination. In addition to the status and legality of homosexual relationships, LGBT rights concern both human and civil rights, addressing discriminatory practices at work and in public life, immigration laws, parenting rights, military service regulations and the criminal law implications of discrimination and violence against homosexual people. LGBT rights have recently made (troubling) headlines in three countries: Chile, Russia and Uganda.


The horrific murder of 24 year-old Daniel Zamudio in a public park in Santiago almost two years ago has shocked Chile. Daniel was sadistically tortured by a group of men simply for being gay, and died in hospital shortly afterward.

The case confronted Chile with its history of violence and repression against homosexual people. This dark legacy is inconsistent with traditions in other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, where homosexuality was decriminalised in 1830 – Chile passed such a law only in 1999. But the brutality of the hate crime on Daniel Zamudio has shaken up the political elite, including former (and probable future) President Michelle Bachelet, who previously opposed gay marriage but has now changed her views


Russia’s LGBT rights situation has been the subject of significant media interest in wake of the country hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Russia recently passed a law criminalising 'propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships' among minors. The loose wording of the law makes it particularly susceptible to broad discrimination against homosexual people. Following international media outrage, President Vladimir Putin was quick to declare that athletes and Olympic visitors would not be affected by the law.

The most concerning aspect that has come to light in the last few months is the broad support the discriminatory law receives among the Russian public. In fact, the Levada Centre has found that more than one-third of Russians hold the view that homosexuality is a disease. This is the breeding ground for a series of appalling hate crimes that have occurred recently. Videos have emerged of torture against gay men where the crimes are motivated by grotesque allegations of a link between homosexuality and paedophilia. Although it is not known who is behind these horrific acts, little is done by the authorities to stop them.


Uganda is known as one of the most hostile countries for homosexual people.

It has recently been in the media for a court case raised against a British national and his Ugandan partner. The case has been used by local demagogues to reinforce the crude propaganda that homosexuality is an evil brought into the country by Western tourists. In fact, Western influence moves in the other direction — the strong influence of Western evangelical movements in Uganda preaching an outdated and violent sexual morality is well known. The Ugandan media has previously published the names and addresses of allegedly homosexual people, seriously endangering them and their families. Anti-gay sentiments are also widespread among the political elite.

In 2009, the so-called ‘kill the gays’ bill was first introduced into parliament, calling for the death penalty for certain homosexual acts. It would also sanctify harsh punishment for people helping or dealing with gays or lesbians. Due to strong international pressure, the bill has been on hold ever since, but a slightly modified version is now under debate in parliament.

It is clear that there is a deepening of the divide in LGBT rights worldwide. If you are gay or lesbian or have a homosexual family member, friend or colleague (and statistically, that applies to pretty much all of us) it has never mattered more where you live.

Photo by Flickr user Person Behind the Scenes.

'They have killed my president'

Perhaps it has become routine, almost hackneyed, to remember where one was on 22 November 1963.

Yet memory of that event can still say something about its impact. For if the Kennedy Administration's 'Camelot' has undergone reassessment and has lost some of its lustre, it's important to recognise how strong was the feeling in America at the time that JFK's assassination ended a life of promise and called into question a future which, while he was alive, seemed to offer hope rather than despair.

My memory comes from the early months of graduate study at Cornell. On the afternoon of 22 November I had just finished working in the stacks of the Olin Library and was about to go outside when Mario Einaudi, the distinguished teacher and writer on European politics, came towards me weeping and said, 'They have killed my president.' Even then, and as I tried to comfort him, I was struck by his usage; not 'the president' but 'my president'.

When we emerged into the open air a crowd of staff and students had already gathered in the space between the Olin and Uris Libraries, standing quietly and talking in hushed tones. And then, silencing all who stood there, the chimes in McGraw Tower started playing 'America the Beautiful'. Many wept and I certainly felt deeply moved.

Now, it should be said that Cornell's is a strongly Democrat campus, then and now, with its links to New York City. So if there had not been grief and emotion, it would have been surprising. But what I saw and felt at that time had echoes all over America.

That evening, in a truly symbolic fashion, the first snowfall of the winter blanketed Ithaca.

Image from Wikipedia.

Putin's re-Sovietisation project and the Ukrainian jewel

John Besemeres is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for European Studies, ANU.

Largely unnoticed by the media in Australia, a lengthy geopolitical tug-of-war has been taking place for dominance in Eurasia.

Though he periodically denies it, Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly bent on restoring some kind of successor organisation to the Soviet Union which Moscow (he) could control. The EU took a long time to react to this development, and the Obama Administration seems to pay only modest attention to it.

Just before retiring as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton labelled Putin's efforts as an attempt to re-Sovietise the region.

The high priority these words seemed to imply for Washington has not been particularly apparent since. But alarmed by increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Putin, the cyberwar fought by Moscow against Estonia in 2007, the shooting war in Georgia in 2008 (provoked by Moscow and its South Ossetian proxies and unwisely triggered by Georgia's pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili), some Eastern and Scandinavian EU members lobbied successfully for some EU (and NATO) push-back.

In Brussels, this came above all in the Eastern Partnership initiative aimed at the former western republics of the USSR: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

Launched in 2009, the Eastern Partnership is an attempt to integrate these countries into the EU via trade and enhanced bilateral contacts in exchange for their undertaking reforms to bring them into line with EU values and practice. Many within the elites in those countries are in fact minded to head in a European direction, though some would prefer only to go just far enough to secure advantages for themselves and a hedge against Moscow.

The NATO equivalent has been this month's 'Steadfast Jazz' exercise, involving over 6000 NATO troops (only 250 of them from the US).

This was a response to an aggressive Soviet-style exercise called Zapad (West) 2009, led by Moscow with participation by troops from Belarus, and another Zapad exercise this year which according to some accounts saw up to 70,000 troops deployed. Zapad 2009 turned on what Moscow identified as a 'terrorist' scenario involving the suppression of an uprising by a 'national minority' group in Belarus and culminating in a simulated nuclear strike on Poland.

Fearing the Eastern Partnership might produce some kind of reprise of the 'greatest geo-political catastrophe of the twentieth century' (Putin's term for the collapse of the Soviet Union), Moscow has set up its own rival project of a Customs Union (CU) aimed at the former Soviet republics, which is to develop over time into a Eurasian Union.

This is presented as a benign EU equivalent, forming a co-operative building block together with the EU and China of a new multi-polar Eurasian security structure. The former republics have mostly been sceptical of Putin's insistent invitations to join Moscow's various new multilateral bodies, including the CU, seeing them as a thinly-disguised device for restoring Moscow's dominance. Even those which have joined the CU (Kazakhstan and Belarus) or signaled their intention of doing so (Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) continue to cultivate links with one or more of the EU, US and China, and resist many of Moscow's initiatives.

Putin has had to resort to press-gang tactics to herd the reluctant former republics into his CU and away from the EU. Meanwhile the Eastern Partnership has been pushed ever closer towards the moment of decision, with a special EU summit to take place in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius on 28-29 November. Lithuania, which currently occupies the rotating six-monthly EU presidency, has been active in promoting the Eastern Partnership, and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, a one-time Soviet party official, has been one of its most forceful advocates.

It has been expected that at Vilnius, the key Eastern Partnership candidate, Ukraine, would sign an Association Agreement with the EU, giving Ukraine freer trade with Europe while falling short of full EU member status.

It has also appeared increasingly likely that if Yanukovych finally committed unequivocally to signing the Association Agreement, the EU would respond with economic aid to save Ukraine from pending crisis and protect it from the effects of the punitive trade sanctions Russia has been overtly threatening. But recently, the autocratic Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who has been tacking west very strongly for several months, seems to be hedging or even reconsidering his options. In particular, he has failed to free his domestic arch-enemy, ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he narrowly beat for the presidency and who has been in jail since 2011. If she is not released under reasonable terms, if not pardoned outright, the chances of an Association Agreement being ratified by EU members would be slim.

With Ukraine, Russia is an empire; without it, it cannot be one, to paraphrase Brzezinski's bon mot. Which side of the mountain Yanukovych finally lumbers down will be of great strategic significance. After European Russia, Ukraine is the largest European country by territory, and the fifth largest by population (46 million), with a very substantial resource endowment and great economic potential. It was a vital part of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and Russia is very keen to regain full control of those assets.

The strange thing about the geopolitical struggle for the heart of Eurasia is that Moscow seems to be the only contestant taking it fully seriously. The EU is divided and, though its mind has been concentrated somewhat by Putin's bellicosity, it still is not resolutely determined to prevail. Putin, on the other hand, is very focused. For many Russians, including Putin, Ukraine is a wayward and rather comical provincial backwater of Russia itself, occupying areas that the Russians regard as vital to its military strength and cultural and historical identity. 

The Russian leadership, whatever weaknesses it may have, is always closely attentive, almost obsessively so, to its strategic advantage.

Putin thinks about these matters intelligently, carefully and constantly. Unlike his democratic Western counterparts, many of whom he views with at times ill-concealed contempt, he has plenty of experience in the job, plans much more of the same in the future, and is capable of thinking long and to good effect. He can fine-tune his coercive 'energy diplomacy' manoeuvres, dividing and manipulating his target counterparts with rare skill. And no one ever calls him to account.

Western leadership and unity, by contrast, does not present well. President Obama had (and largely still has) rock-star status with European publics, and therefore with their leaders, but has made very little use of it to repair the rifts of the Bush years.

Irritated by its European allies' miserly and declining spending on defence (by contrast, Putin has embarked on a $700 billion rearmament program over 10 years, and will on one estimate increase his defence spending by a quarter next year alone), Washington is 'pivoting' away from Europe to Asia, and calling on its European allies to do more for themselves. The protracted economic stagnation and resulting social stresses, the growing divergence in strategic perceptions, even the long-running Snowden smash-hit entertainment skilfully promoted by Kremlin impresarios all greatly weaken Western effectiveness. The Transatlantic Free Trade Area negotiations are a welcome light in the distance, but the journey towards it could prove long and arduous. 

Against this none-too-promising backdrop, how the Eastern Partnership project turns out is all the more important. It's not an easy thing for Brussels for a number of reasons. Ukraine's Yanukovych may in the end decide not to sign an Association Agreement but rather to accept another bribe from Putin, as he did in 2010 when he extended the Russian Black Sea Fleet's leasehold on naval facilities in the Crimea for thirty years, to 2047, in exchange for a lowering of Moscow's extortionate price for Kyiv's gas imports. Even if Yanukovych signs, and the EU ratifies, he may well subsequently renege on the political and economic reforms agreed as a quid pro quo. He is likely in any case to continue trying to play off Moscow against Brussels and vice versa.

Accepting Ukraine at this stage cannot be seen as a reward for its adoption of 'European values'. It can only be justified on strategic grounds as a step aimed at ensuring that those values may have a greater chance of being implemented some time in the future.

On the other hand, it does seem highly likely that if Yanukovych is shown the door by Brussels this time, he will rebound into the arms of Moscow. In that event he would seek and probably receive enough economic and political support to win re-election in Ukraine's 2015 presidential elections, if necessary by jailing as many of his opponents as he chooses, and doing whatever else is required to meet the objective. Moscow would certainly not object or withdraw aid in protest.

Yanukovych would not then become a complete vassal of Moscow, any more than the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan are at present. But Ukraine would nonetheless become the jewel in Putin's neo-imperial crown, the indispensable province restoring the proud Soviet patrimony he recalls nostalgically from his days as a patriot schoolboy when the world stood in awe and fear of the mighty Soviet Union. 

Putin's vision is that this area of 'stability' and 'traditional values', which he latterly presents in almost Huntingtonian terms as true Orthodoxy, should stand steadfastly against decadent Western values as part of a new geopolitical balance in Eurasia, in which Russia and its satellites would become one pole of at least equivalent weight, in Putin's eyes, to the other two. 

The sharply anti-Western propaganda he has stepped up domestically since the lèse-majesté he suffered on the streets of Moscow in 2011-12 fits well with this external strategy of creating a Russian-dominated autocratic entity between Europe and China. His own pivot to the East is focused above all on the strategic and economic partnership he proclaims and promotes with his like-minded counterparts in Beijing. 

It must be doubted that Russia has the economic, ideological, political or even the demographic strength to sustain itself as an equivalent pole to Europe, much less to China, on the Eurasian continent. Already some of the former Soviet Central Asian states are increasingly looking to China, particularly for trade and investment purposes, but also to some degree as a hedge against Moscow. In the longer term the real threat to Russia's standing and influence is from China, not from the hated West. But while a concealed anxiety about China's rise occasionally shows through, much more often Putin seems to see getting closer to his giant Eastern neighbour as in some way increasing his strategic weight in relation to the US.

If a new line of demarcation is drawn on the far west of the Eurasian landmass that is intended to ensure that democracy, human and minority rights, free markets, decent governance, and freedom of expression and assembly are shut out beyond the eastern borders of the European Union, it will be a major strategic defeat for the West.

Nor will those EU members nearest to that line necessarily be secure from attempts at subversion or penetration. Putin wants to reverse the outcome of the Cold War. Western absent-mindedness and pusillanimity have helped him significantly in his endeavour thus far, and could yet come to his aid again.

Photo by Flickr user World Economic Forum.

Aid & development links: Aid effectiveness, China in the Pacific, Philippines and more


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Documentary trailer: Tales from the Organ Trade

From the synopsis on the official website:

TALES FROM THE ORGAN TRADE is a gritty and unflinching descent into the shadowy world of black-market organ trafficking: the street-level brokers, the rogue surgeons, the impoverished men and women who are willing to sacrifice a slice of their own bodies for a quick payday, and the desperate patients who face the agonizing choice of obeying the law or saving their lives.

Fifty years ago, it was the stuff of science fiction – a dying patient resurrected with a transplanted body part. Today, it is an everyday miracle. Every year, tens of thousands of human organ transplants are performed around the globe. Most transplanted organs come from cadavers or relatives of the patient. But demand for this organ far exceeds the supply. So thousands are bought and sold on a black market that flourishes in dozens of countries where the rule of law is hostage to the dollar sign. International organizations monitoring the situation estimate – conservatively – that black market transplants generate over $500 million a year.

(H/t Sullivan.)

Development links: Digital currency, polio in Syria, transparency, gender and more

Depressing chart of the day: Overfishing

Marty Harris is an assistant digital editor at the Lowy Institute.

Measuring the impact of over-fishing is difficult: conducting global stock assessments is both complex and expensive, while seasonal and long-term changes in currents and water temperatures effect feeding and spawning habits, complicating results.

For example, are declining cod stocks in the Greenland Sea the result of over-fishing or climate change?

A new study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin estimates the state of the world's fisheries based on a number of indirect measurements, such as catch estimates, fishing days per fish, and the decline of predator biomass. The 'catch only' assessment, based on Food and Agriculture Organization figures, is pretty scary:


...several deeper analyses of the status of the majority of world fisheries confirm the previous dismal picture: serious depletions are the norm world-wide, management quality is poor, catch per effort is still declining. The performance of stock assessment itself may stand challenged by random environmental shifts and by the need to accommodate ecosystem-level effects.

The global picture for further fisheries species extinctions, the degradation of ecosystem food webs and seafood security is indeed alarming. Moreover, marine ecosystems and their embedded fisheries are challenged in parallel by climate change, acidification, metabolic disruptors and other pollutants. Attempts to remedy the situation need to be urgent, focused, innovative and global.

(H/t Kevin Drum.)