The Early Edition: September 5, 2019

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.  

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam said today that China “understands, respects and supports” her government’s decision to formally withdraw a suspended extradition bill that has ignited months of protests, as part of measures she hoped would help the city “move forward” from the unrest. In response to questions on why it took her so long to withdraw the bill despite increasingly violent protests, Lam asked the public “not to view the decision in isolation” and reiterated the four measures she put forward yesterday in a bid to placate tensions. The BBC reports.

Lam pledged to use “stern law enforcement” to extinguish violent protests: “to step out of the impasse, the most important thing right now is to stop the violence and to sternly enforce the law,” the C.E.O. said today at a press briefing, explaining “if there is still violence going on every day, it will affect the city’s operation and people’s everyday lives.” Lam again rejected protesters’ demands to set up an independent body to investigate the police’s excessive use of force in the past three months, and said it was impossible to give in to demands for an amnesty for those arrested since “the government cannot do things that are against the rule of law.” Verna Vu reports at the Guardian.

The state-run media outlet China Daily said Lam’s move to withdraw the bill was “a sincere and earnest response to the voice of the community” that “could be interpreted as an olive branch extended to those who have opposed the bill over the past few months.” The headline of the China Daily’s editorial said “protesters now have no excuse to continue violence.” Reuters reports.

Lam’s announcement was met with uniform disapproval across the protest spectrum, with pro-democracy activists promising to continue their campaign until all of their demands are met. AFP reports.

CHINA AND HONG KONG: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam’s announcement to formally withdraw the extradition bill, including where the protests are likely headed, is provided by Amy Qin at the New York Times.

“So long as Beijing does not budge on the protesters’ remaining demands … chances are violent protests will rumble on indefinitely,” Tom Mitchell comments at the Financial Times, warning that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Lam “face a dilemma.”

“Had [Lam] announced an independent investigation into allegations of police brutality … she might have taken the wind out of the movement,” James Griffiths argues at CNN, predicting that “Hong Kong government’s attempt to outflank protesters is doomed to fail.”

“To restore public confidence in the rule of law … Lam should urge that charges be dropped against nonviolent protesters,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board proposes.

“At this stage, nothing short of the government’s addressing the protesters’ fifth, and most sweeping, demand — real universal suffrage for both executive and legislative elections — can be enough,” Yi-Zheng Lian argues at the New York Times, commenting that Lam’s announcement to withdraw the bill “is ridiculous on her part, after holding out all summer … while protesters have been tear-gassed, maimed and subjected to cruel treatment by the police.”

“The better response, from [U.S. President] Trump and all others who care for democracy, is to stand with the people of Hong Kong who want nothing more than a say in how they are governed,” the New York Times editorial board comments, noting that “in the past, the United States would be expected to intercede as the world’s greatest champion of human rights.”

IRAN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani yesterday ordered all limits on nuclear research and development to be lifted — the country’s third major step in scaling down its commitments to the 2015 nuclear accord with world powers. Specifically, Rouhani said that the nation would expand its development work on new centrifuges for enriching uranium; Iran’s move is part of an effort to persuade European countries to adjust the terms of the accord after the U.S. withdrew from it last year. Eric Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

“I, as of now, announce the third step,” Rouhani said on state television late yesterday. “The atomic energy organization [of Iran] is ordered to immediately start whatever is needed in the field of research and development, and abandon all the commitments that were in place.” AFP reports.

The Trump administration yesterday announced a ramping up of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran — offering a reward of up to $15 million for information that can help disrupt the financing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (I.R.G.C..) The State Department through its “Rewards for Justice” program is offering the funds in exchange for details on the revenue sources of the military unit, which the Trump administration sanctioned as a foreign terrorist organization in April. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

U.S. President Trump yesterday left open the possibility of meeting with Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly later this month in New York City: “Sure … anything’s possible … they would like to be able to solve their problems … they’ve got a big problem … they’re getting killed financially,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question at a White House hurricane briefing. While Trump said he appreciates French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to broker talks between him and Rouhani, he asserted that the U.S. would handle negotiations on its own terms. Ian Talley, Aresu Eqbali and Isabel Coles report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Treasury is nothing more than a “jail warden,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated today in a message sent on Twitter. “Ask for reprieve (waiver), get thrown in solitary for the audacity … ask again and you might end up in the gallows,” the message continued: “the only way to mitigate U.S. #EconomicTerrorism (sanctions) is to decide to finally free yourself from the hangman’s noose.” Reuters reports.

“Hawks in Israel and America have spent more than a decade agitating for war against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.” Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times explore whether Trump will “finally” deliver.

ISRAEL-IRAN TENSIONS

“Now is the time to ratchet up pressure on Iran and not the time for talks,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today, as the Islamic Republic appears set to move further away from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. Netanyahu said Iran’s persistent violations of the accord, as well as “aggressive actions” on international shipping and attempts to stage “murderous attacks” on Israel are the drive behind more sanctions. The AP reports.

“The United States came up with “maximum pressure” — but the Israeli government is the only one carrying it out,” Steven A. Cook argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that “Israel’s strikes in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq seemed to have made an impression on Iran’s leaders.”

Militia fighters and experts believe Israel and the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militant group “could stumble into their first all-out conflict since 2006” — notwithstanding a “pause” in hostilities. Sulome Anderson at Foreign Policy explains.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban detonated a car bomb in front of an Afghan military base today — killing at least four civilians and injuring four more, as the U.S. and Taliban try to negotiate a deal to see American troops leave the country. The base in Puli Alam, the capital of Logar province, houses members of the country’s special forces. The AP reports.

The attack came a few hours after at least 10 people were killed and dozens more were wounded in a car bombing in central Kabul early today. That blast, claimed by the Taliban, took place in Shash Darak, a heavily fortified area near several important complexes including Afghan intelligence service the National Directorate of Security (N.D.S..) Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper yesterday began briefing his European counterparts on the draft peace deal with the Taliban, while cautioning that negotiations were still ongoing “in some ways” and a final deal had not yet been brokered. Esper declined to talk to reporters traveling with him from Washington about his meeting with President Trump a day earlier and said political decisions were “pending.” The AP reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

“Yemeni government officials have begun indirect talks with United Arab Emirates-backed southern separatists in the Saudi city of Jeddah to end fighting in Aden and other southern provinces,” a Yemeni official said yesterday. Reuters reports.

Money from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi “did not buy a quick victory [in the Yemeni conflict], but four years on, it is still paying to fill more Yemeni graves,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies argues at Just Security, commenting that “the overarching war in Yemen has now become tripartite – the Houthis vs the Saudi-backed Yemeni government vs the U.A.E.-backed S.T.C. – and a new [United Nations Security Council] U.N.S.C. resolution is badly needed to address the current reality.”

IMMIGRATION

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday subpoenaed the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) for documents and communications related to U.S. President Trump’s alleged offer to pardon government officials on the U.S.-Mexico border who break the law while carrying out his immigration agenda. The subpoena was issued to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and requires a response by Sept. 17; Trump has denied making such an offer. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the subpoenas were part of the panel’s investigation into whether to pursue articles of impeachment against Trump. “The dangling of pardons by the president to encourage government officials to violate federal law would constitute another reported example of the president’s disregard for the rule of law,” Nadler said in a statement. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Migrant children in government custody who were separated from their parents experienced “intense trauma” – including intensified fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress – that shelters were not prepared to deal with, a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general. The shelter staff also said Trump administration policies compelling sponsors of children to undergo fingerprint background checks “delayed unifications and led to overcrowding in shelters.” Renuka Rayasam reports at POLITICO.

The Mexican government’s increased effort to deport Central American migrants crossing its southern border has “significantly stemmed” the flow of illegal migrants entering the U.S. in the past few months, figures show. The around 30% decrease in unlawful crossings between July and August marks a victory for the Trump administration, Michelle Hackman and Juan Montes report at the Wall Street Journal.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper plans to fund $3.6 billion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall with approximately $1.8 billion coming from “deferred military construction projects outside of the United States,” and the remaining half relying on “deferred military construction projects located in the United States [including U.S. territories].” Luke Hartig at Just Security unpacks the Pentagon’s plan.

ELECTION SECURITY

Executives from tech giants Facebook and Google met with U.S. intelligence officials in California yesterday for talks on how the firms are working to combat election interference ahead of 2020, according to sources familiar with the meeting. The gathering, which took place at Facebook’s headquarters, was attended by representatives from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.), the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S..) Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill. 

Director of the Cybersecurity Directorate at the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) Anne Neuberger yesterday highlighted ransomware attacks as a “key concern” for the 2020 elections. “Ransomware is really interesting — 4,000 attacks a day over the last number of years. … that is certainly something that would be a key concern for the elections,” Neuberger said at Billington CyberSecurity’s 10th annual summit. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

A federal judge yesterday ruled that a terrorism watchlist created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks is unconstitutional in its current form, reopening the legal debate about a major national security tool used by the F.B.I. and several other government agencies. U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga declared that the Terrorist Screening Database does not give Americans on the list an adequate opportunity to challenge their status as potential terrorism suspects. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

“Although terrorists have become skilled at manipulating the Internet and other new technologies, artificial intelligence (A.I.) is a powerful tool in the fight against them,” top U.N. counter-terrorism official Vladimir Voronkov stated this week at a high-level conference on strengthening international cooperation against the threat. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig was found not guilty of lying to officials and hiding information about his lobbying efforts in Ukraine. The case against Craig arose from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. The AP reports.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday it was “unacceptable” for nuclear-armed states to prohibit Ankara from obtaining its own nuclear weapons, without saying whether Turkey had plans to obtain them. Speaking to his ruling A.K. Party members, Erdogan said “some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two … but [they tell us] we can’t have them … this, I cannot accept.” Reuters reports.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent their top diplomats to Pakistan yesterday to help Islamabad ease tensions with India over the disputed Kashmir region. Munir Ahmed reports at the AP. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).