Stories from across the world as viewed by Foreign Editor David Pratt

JAPAN: Assassination looming over poll

TODAY Japan goes to the polls in a parliamentary election. It does so, however, in the shadow of the killing on Friday of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe had served two terms as prime minister to become ­Japan’s longest-serving premier before stepping down in 2020, citing ill health.

But his life was brought to a ­shocking and violent end on the streets of Nara in southern Japan a few days ago when a ­gunman, who has been named as ­41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, stepped forwards firing twice at 67-year-old Abe from behind with what appears to have been a home-made gun.

Yamagami is believed to be a ­former member of the Japanese Maritime ­Self-Defence Force, the country’s ­version of a navy under its pacifist post-war ­constitution.

Across the world, there was shock at the killing, but for many people living in Japan, this act of violence will be difficult indeed to comprehend.

The reason for that is simple, for this is a country – unlike the United States – where gun violence is a rarity not the norm. The figures speak for themselves.

According to data compiled by the ­monitoring and research group ­ in 2017, there were 14,532 homicides by firearms in America, but just one in Japan.

This too was no one-off statistic, for ­figures for the following year of 2018 showed that the total number of people killed by guns in Japan – including accidents and suicides – was nine, while in the US it was a staggering 39,740.

In short, Japan is a country with an ­exceptionally low firearm death rate of just 0.01 per hundred thousand and a homicide rate of even lower.

As Iain Overton, a journalist who ­investigates conflict abuses for the ­organisation Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), pointed out in a recent ­article, just trying to buy a gun in Japan is ­incredibly difficult.

“Prospective gun owners have to ­attend classes and pass a written test, then it’s off to the shooting range, and then to the hospital for a medical test to detect mental illnesses, as well as a drug test,” ­explained Overton on the AOVC website in the wake of Abe’s killing.

Overton detailed how the police also investigate the prospective gun owner’s background, including their relatives’ backgrounds and have the discretion to deny licenses if there are reasonable grounds to suspect a prospective gun owner may endanger the lives of others.

In the wake of Abe’s killing, many ­questions are being asked. Not least among these is how the gunman was able to ­approach one of Japan’s most ­prominent politicians and fire two shots from close range without security ­stepping in.

It has also thrown the spotlight back onto today’s upper house election. ­Yesterday, despite the shock at Abe’s ­assassination, campaigning continued on the final day of electioneering before ­today’s vote which is expected to deliver victory to the ruling coalition led by prime minister Fumio Kishida, an Abe protege.

According to analysts at the ­political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, Abe’s ­killing “heightens the prospect for stronger turnout and greater support for his (Kishida) Liberal Democratic ­Party (LDP).”

A strong showing by Kishida would give the prime minister a firmer grip on his factious party, the biggest faction of which was led by Abe, who remained a domineering presence over the LDP.

If the party does well today, it will ­allow Kishida to emerge from the shadow of a powerful predecessor and define his ­premiership. A consolidation of power would also bolster Kishida’s chances of leading the party into the next election, which must be held by late 2025.

In addition, it would present the ­former banker from Hiroshima the chance to boost defence spending and perhaps ­revise the pacifist constitution, something that even the hawkish Abe was never able to achieve.

What is certain is that the world will be watching today’s election results even more closely after what has already been one of the most tragic and dramatic weeks for Japanese politics in modern times.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Colonialism to coltan – the triggers of conflict

HAVING over the years made many visits to this giant African country, I can scarcely remember a time when real peace prevailed.

Invariably when the Democratic Republic of Congo makes the headlines, almost always they refer to past or present ills. The recent return by Belgian authorities of a gold crowned tooth, the only known remains of the murdered Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba, to his family during a ceremony in Brussels is a point in case. Another was the recent visit to the DRC of King Philippe of Belgium – who expressed his “deepest regrets” for abuses committed during the country’s colonisation of the country – but importantly offered no formal apology.

Ever since those brutal days of Belgian rule way back in 1885, it sometimes feels that this huge resource-rich country veers from one crisis to another. Already, for decades now, the DRC has been the scene of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Last week, there were hopes that its latest iteration might be averted after Congo’s president Felix Tshisekedi met with his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame in Angola amid rising tensions between the two neighbouring countries. A ceasefire and de-escalation of hostilities seemed to be in the offing, but already, fresh clashes between the Congolese military and M23 rebels that Congo claims Rwanda is supporting are breaking out. Peace, it seems, is as elusive as ever. What happens in Congo might seem remote to our lives, but it would be foolish to ignore the significance of events in this, the second-largest country on the African continent and the 11th-largest in the world.

Just as the world is forced to sit up and take notice of the impact on food prices resulting from the disruption of grain supplies because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, so too is the DRC resource-rich, and what happens there has a profound impact on global markets and supplies as well as the lives of countless people who live in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. As usual, it’s Congo’s mineral-rich eastern region that is again the central battleground. More than 120 armed groups operate here. many comprised along ethnic lines and exploited by outside forces and neighbouring countries for their own ends.

Currently, the major face-off is between Congo and Rwanda, who accuse each other of meddling. But what’s always important to bear in mind is the backdrop to all this fighting – which boils down to control of massively rich territory in which can be found coltan, tin, cobalt, lithium, tungsten and gold, among other invaluable commodities.

Many of these minerals are crucial to our modern world, such as lithium and cobalt for batteries.

Then there is coltan which is short for Columbite and Tantalite. The Tantalite part is responsible for tantalum, a key ingredient without which today’s growing electronic industry cannot function.

Coltan is used to produce laptops, smartphones, electric vehicles, and medical appliances, among other everyday appliances. As a result, its demand is poised to rise exponentially as new devices are invented (double by 2035) and currently, there is no viable substitute for the substance.

Congo is almost unique in being naturally endowed with the vast global supplies of such minerals. This is what really lies behind conflicts in the region.

AFGHANISTAN: There is no escaping the need for dialogue with the Taliban

MOST people other than eagle-eyed news aficionados will probably have failed to notice the name Peter Jouvenal in media stories of late.

Jouvenal was one of five British nationals held by the Taliban since last December but released last month after backroom diplomacy with the Taliban. Jouvenal is a remarkable individual, to say the least. I first met him during the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when he forged a reputation as one of the best war cameramen covering the Afghan guerrilla resistance.

Later, the dual British-German citizen who speaks both Dari and Pashto, married an Afghan woman, made his home in Afghanistan, converted to Islam, and set himself up as a businessman. All that though was before the Taliban arrested Jouvenal, accusing him of “spying”, “breaching the law and violating Afghan culture”. His six months in Taliban detention would have been an ordeal for most people even half 64-year-old Jouvenal’s age, but in interviews since his release, he has spoken unassumingly of his time as a prisoner.

As befitting someone of his vast and detailed knowledge of Afghanistan, its people, politics, culture and turbulent times, he has also spoken eloquently of what the West and wider world now need to do to open up a dialogue with the Islamist group.

“We have to be realistic … we shouldn’t be disengaging with Afghanistan,” Jouvenal told his old friend BBC correspondent John Simpson in an interview a few days ago.

“We should be engaging with them (Taliban) as a friend not in a hostile manner … but as partners, we have to identify those progressive Afghans within the Taliban and support them,” Jouvenal explained. His words will not go down well in some quarters, but few “foreigners” know Afghanistan as intimately as Jouvenal does, and what he says makes sense not least because it would mean ordinary Afghans themselves might not continue to suffer because of the Taliban’s position.

We need dialogue if humanitarian relief is to make its way into the country. We need dialogue if there is to be any chance of women’s rights being effectively addressed and improved. The fact – unpalatable as it might be – is that the Taliban is not going away any time soon, and it would be folly again to abandon ordinary Afghans simply because of Western opposition to the regime under which they have no choice but to live for now. This is not to say that accountability for human rights violations or atrocities can be ignored, but short of another disastrous military intervention, what options are there?

World leaders need to listen more to the likes of Peter Jouvenal.

NICARAGUA: The Russians are coming … again 

RUSSIAN forces are on the move again. No, I’m not talking about Ukraine, but in the far distant and troubled Central American country of Nicaragua. One time Sandinista revolutionary hero and leader turned dictator, president Daniel Ortega has authorised Russian personnel, ships, and aircraft to enter Nicaragua from July 1 to December 31 this year.

The new agreement between Russia and Nicaragua will allow the entry of 80 Russian military personnel, on a rotating basis, to participate in “experience exchanges and conduct training in humanitarian aid operations” with the Nicaraguan Army’s Special Operations Command. Fifty additional troops will take part in security training, and another 50 Russian service members will exchange experiences “in tasks to confront and combat narcotrafficking and transnational organised crime”, the decree states.

It goes without saying that while the numbers of Russians might be small, such moves have not gone down well in Washington. Though the original announcement came almost a month ago, the passing of the last few weeks has done little to diminish US concerns.

In an opinion piece for the American political online newspaper The Hill, Stephen Blank a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) described the agreement as marking “the first step in a series of converging and unprecedented threats to Latin American and US security”. It represents, the analyst said, “what Thomas Jefferson called a ‘fire bell in the night’”.

US jitters are understandable, given that the deal between Moscow and Managua has the potential to serve as the basis for a more enduring Russian military presence in Nicaragua and beyond.

The Kremlin has played things down, insisting that the measure was “routine”, and the decree authorises troops from other countries for such purposes.

But some security analysts maintain that the authorisation for the entry of Russian troops into Nicaragua is not related to humanitarian purposes, as the decree indicates, but to espionage and intelligence gathering.

“If Russian soldiers come to Nicaragua to carry out humanitarian activities, I invite the Nicaraguan people and any observers to look at what Russian soldiers are doing in Ukraine,” said John Feeley, former US ambassador to Panama, speaking on Nicaraguan TV. Other Central American watchers say it’s yet more evidence that Ortega’s increasingly dictatorial regime is heading in a worrying political trajectory. It’s hard to disagree with this, given that under Ortega’s rule, Nicaragua sadly is a far cry politically from the days when he and his Sandinista comrades promised to rid the country of dictatorship.