Four corners: Each week, we bring you the most compelling stories from across the globe as viewed through the lens of our renowned foreign correspondent

Ethiopia: A famine in the shadows

It was the very place that the modern world woke up to the scourge of hunger almost four decades ago. It gave rise to charity supergroups, money raising songs, ‘Band Aid’ concerts and countless promises that we – the world- would never let it happen again.

But happening again it is, with the United Nations (UN) warning that more than 350,000 people in northern Ethiopia’s conflict ravaged Tigray region are now facing famine. No one really wants to call it that of course, least of all the Ethiopian government, so politically sensitive is the use of the word.

As has previously happened in other parts of the world, aid agencies whose visas, permits and access to certain countries or regions is determined by governments or regimes are rather reluctant to call it as they see it for fear their operations will be shut down. This happened some years ago to several humanitarian groups working in the Darfur region of Sudan who were ordered to leave.

Strict assessment criteria must be met too before a crisis can be called a famine. International relief agencies have a complex system for early warning and response to such crises, something called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). This system has five levels from Phase One (food secure) through to Phase Four (emergency) and Phase Five (catastrophe or famine).

In the latest reports from the Tigray region an estimated 353,000 were in phase 5 and a further 1.769 million are in phase 4. But what’s important to recognise here is that this famine is by and large a man- made one.

Certainly, the region has long had pre-existing problems, ravaged as it has by the effects of climate change, drought and locusts leaving swathes of the population living precariously on the margins amidst widespread poverty. But make no mistake about it, the tragedy currently unfolding in Tigray has been brought about by war.

As the IPC system data makes clear this crisis has resulted from the cumulative effects of conflict, including population displacements, movement restrictions, limited humanitarian access, loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets.

Writing in the current edition of the London Review of Books, Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, has painted a damning picture of how this has come about.

He details how satellite imagery and aerial photographs show that only a fraction of the land was ploughed in preparation for the summer rains. De Waal describes also how hunger is once again being used as a weapon of war.

“When villagers are spotted by Eritrean or Ethiopian soldiers they are told: ‘You won’t plough, you won’t harvest, you won’t get any aid. We’ll punish you if you try.’

Viewed from the position of those political leaders battling each other in this war, all that matters of course is ‘winning’ and ensuring that their power remains intact.

Certainly, in my experience of covering those places where famine stalks, rarely if ever do such leaders themselves go hungry. Only seven months ago before the fighting erupted between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) - then the party in power in the area - and the Ethiopian federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the region was classified as borderline “food secure”.

Unacceptable even as that was then, the region since has now tipped into the abyss because power politics is selfishly played out at terrible cost to millions of innocent people.

That neither side wants the outside world to know of the unchallenged murder, rape, kidnapping and starvation underway means that journalists are unwelcome, and these widespread human rights abuses and the famine have largely taken place in the shadows. What is to be done? Well, once again diplomatic pressure must be brought to bear on callous leaders to bring about a cessation of hostilities and provide immediate unhindered access to humanitarian agencies.

But just as importantly perhaps, it’s time to ask ourselves why the world appears to have learned little from the lessons of four decades ago and allowed our promises to never let it happen again fall so easily by the wayside?

Europe: America is back ... again

It was a recent headline in The New Yorker magazine that tried but perhaps failed to hit the nail on the head.

‘For Biden, Trump is an easy act to follow,’ it read, appearing just around the time that US President Joe Biden was settling down for a photo opportunity with Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of this weekend’s G7 Summit in Cornwall.

Almost moments after Biden had landed in the UK, the US president was keen to get his message out and reassure his allies that his presidency is a very different kind of beast from that of his predecessor. You know me, recognise my values, you can trust America was Biden’s signature theme.

“The United States is back, and the democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges,” he told US troops stationed in England. “I believe we’re at an inflection point in world history.”

HeraldScotland: CARBIS BAY, CORNWALL - JUNE 11: US President Joe Biden walks between engagements during the G7 Summit In Carbis Bay, on June 11, 2021 in Carbis Bay, Cornwall. UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, hosts leaders from the USA, Japan, Germany, France, ItalyCARBIS BAY, CORNWALL - JUNE 11: US President Joe Biden walks between engagements during the G7 Summit In Carbis Bay, on June 11, 2021 in Carbis Bay, Cornwall. UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, hosts leaders from the USA, Japan, Germany, France, Italy

Certainly, there’s no shortage of challenges around that the US and its democratic European allies might have a mind to take a common stand on right now. Russia, China, and climate change are the most glaringly obvious beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

But when it comes to Europe, will Trump be as easy an act for Biden to follow as The New Yorker headline suggests?

On the face of it certainly what these two presidents and their respective administrations represent are chalk and cheese. But two factors are worth considering here.

The first is that Trump in his wake left behind an awful lot of scorched earth in terms of international diplomacy, bipartisan relations, and alliances. The second is that what we have seen so far in terms of a Biden administration foreign policy is not that far removed from the old school Washington way of doing things even if the global diplomatic landscape has been re-fashioned these past few years.

The question then is whether Europe is ready once again to embrace that past US way of doing international business and might there still be some lingering concerns over America’s reliability after Trump’s bull in a china shop approach?

If a few polls are anything to go by, then many Europeans for example now believe that when it comes to security, their Continent needs to start looking out for itself.

Hearing Boris Johnson speak of the alliance between the US and UK as an “indestructible relationship,” is one thing but do Brussels, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere in Europe share such a view? Putting this into context with a just a hint of tongue in cheek, online magazine Politico the other day summed up how close Biden and Europe are as follows.

“Are you splurging cash on defence, like a good NATO ally? Great move, you made Biden’s day. Have you gone ahead with a gas pipeline from Russia the US opposes? That will make for some awkward conversations. And if you’re one of those countries that would have voted for Trump over Biden, don’t complain when the new guy gives you the stink eye.”

Yes, America is back again holding out its arms to Europe. But jilted once before, some folk might just find it hard to kiss and make up.

Peru: Latin America’s new ‘pink tide’

Looking at a photograph the other day of Peruvian schoolteacher, union activist and Marxist, Pedro Castillo in his traditional hat I was reminded of another famous hat wearing leftist of Latin America. I’m talking of course about Augusto C. Sandino, the Nicaraguan revolutionary of the 1920-30’s from whom the later Sandinistas took their name before overthrowing the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979.

This weekend as Peru finished counting the votes in a tight presidential run-off election, the signs are that Castillo who has kept a lead of about 60,000 votes over conservative Keiko Fujimori could well become the country’s next president.

Confirmation of the result has yet to come but should Castillo and his Free Peru party prove to have won, then the talk of whether what might be a far -reaching shift to the left in the region will take on new impetus.

HeraldScotland: Presidential candidate Pedro Castillo walks to a vehicle after landing at the airport and arriving to Lima, Peru, the day after the runoff presidential election, Monday, June 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Guadalupe Pardo).Presidential candidate Pedro Castillo walks to a vehicle after landing at the airport and arriving to Lima, Peru, the day after the runoff presidential election, Monday, June 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Guadalupe Pardo).

Ravaged by Covid and brewing over with anger at ruling elites many other leftist candidates are already running in Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, and Bolivia, bringing speculation that the region might be about to experience another “pink tide” which was kicked off by Venezuela’s election of Hugo Chavez in 1998.

Throughout his presidential campaign Castillo’s core message as to how Peru’s economic model disadvantages the poor, split the vote in the country with those in poorer communities overwhelmingly supporting him and richer urbanites supported Fujimori. The question now is to what extent that voting pattern might become evident in other looming election battles across Latin America.

The days ahead could be tricky for Castillo – dubbed by some as the “barefoot candidate”- given that Fujimori has already alleged fraud even though both domestic and international observers said the vote was clean. Then again, these days post Trump it’s almost par for the course to make such accusations even without evidence.

More worrying perhaps for Castillo is that some of Fujimori’s supporters called for a military intervention last week, to which the army responded by saying it will respect the election results. Tense times lie ahead in Peru. Meanwhile across a region with a population of almost 600 million in three dozen countries, Latin America defies easy generalisation.

But here the pandemic has taken a staggering toll and the political right has been found wanting. For that reason alone, those with an eye on the prevailing political current are convinced that the “pink tide” is once again rising.

Israel: All change?

One of the problems whenever writing about the political demise of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is that almost invariably you turn out to be wrong. As his 12-year grip on power has shown, this is not a politician who goes down without a fight.

I’m wary then of predicting that today with be the day that we see Netanyahu leave office even if all the signs are that his time as Israel’s leader is up. To say that Israel’s political community is awash with bad blood right now would be a considerable understatement. In claims reminiscent of the last days of Trump’s presidency, Netanyahu even at this eleventh hour continues to lash out claiming to be a victim of a “deep state” conspiracy and accusing his opponents of betraying their voters, resulting in some of them needing special security protection.

But working on the assumption that today will be Netanyahu’s last day as PM, what now can we expect from Israel’s new leader in waiting hard-right ultranationalist, Naftali Bennett?

Well, suffice to say, perhaps all the clues are in the words of that last sentence for this is a politician who himself is no shrinking violet, far from it.

That Bennett is set to claim Israel’s highest office with the support of the fringe left and the Jewish state’s only Arab party still has people blinking in disbelief, but then the seduction of power is a peculiar thing.

HeraldScotland: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after the first exit poll results for the Israeli parliamentary elections at his Likud party's headquarters in Jerusalem, Wednesday, March. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit).Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after the first exit poll results for the Israeli parliamentary elections at his Likud party's headquarters in Jerusalem, Wednesday, March. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit).

One thing that can be said is that 49-year-old Bennett is a shrewd and calculating operator with a ruthless streak that more than matches Netanyahu’s. That Bennett would only be in office for two years as part of a rotating premiership with Yair Lapid, the opposition leader who assembled the coalition, only gives rise to further questions as to how much Bennett might be in a hurry to get things done.

Once the leader of a prominent Jewish settler group, it’s hard to see how he will be tempered simply by being part of any coalition. As for Israeli -Palestinian relations, Bennett’s position was summed up on an animated account of his plans posted on his official YouTube page.

“There are some things that we all know will never happen,” says the narrator in a carefree voice. “The Sopranos will never return for another season ... And a peace agreement with the Palestinians will not happen.”

Come to think of it though, I suspect neither the Palestinians nor indeed anyone else ever thought that a possibility anyway.