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The RAT-ical New Way of Clearing Land Mines in Cambodia

During the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge (a communist party who ruled Cambodia in the 1970s) genocidal regime in Cambodia, a large number of bombs were scattered throughout Cambodia. One area named the K5 belt is the most landmine contaminated area in the world with up to 2,400 mines per square kilometer. Tens of thousands of people live in close proximity to land mines and are required to go near or on them for daily tasks such as farming. There are an average of 100 landmine accidents per year, adding to the statistic that Cambodia has the largest population of amputees in the world. It is not uncommon for Cambodian hospitals to be overwhelmed by landmine victims in need of artificial limbs. In an attempt to quicken the process of clearing the 4 to 6 million landmines across Cambodia, organizations running the operations have recently hired new help in the form of African giant pouched rats.

Rat called Magawa awarded prestigious gold medal for Cambodia landmine  detection
African giant pouched rat

The rats chosen for these jobs are highly skilled at sniffing out TNT. The organization APOPO, which works with the majority of the mine sniffing rats, requires them to go through a rigorous training program before being allowed on site. This program wires the rats’ brains to connect finding TNT with positive rewards. When the rat correctly sniffs TNT underground, handlers click a clicker and give the rat a treat such as a piece of banana. The rat is attached to a string which is held by a handler or tied to something. The rat can move around freely in one enclosed area at a time before moving to a new location. After up to 12 months of training, the rats are ready to get to work. 

Mine clearing rats at work

As opposed to other methods of detection, rats have a surprisingly high number of advantages. Dogs are often used for tasks like this and like dogs rats have an incredibly keen nose and when trained can sniff out very specific scents. African giant pouched rats are also currently being used to sniff out tuberculosis in countries in Africa. When it comes to mine detection, rats are both cheaper and lighter than dogs, meaning they are less likely to step on a bomb and set it off; they weigh only 1-3 pounds on average. In densely mined areas, metal detectors are used, but in less dense areas metal detectors very often provide false alarms. Because rats are able to search directly for TNT and not the bomb’s metal shell, there are fewer misleading finds.

Branded as HERO rats, the rats are usually given hero’s names such as “Harry Potter” and each works about 8 years before retiring and living its remaining years with fellow HERO rats. Because there have been some conspiracies and controversies (related to wrongfully invading and stealing land) surrounding government run operations to clear the mines, private organizations such as APOPO are providing a much welcomed demilitarization of the process. The rats only add to the easing of communities. Darcie DeAngelo of Binghamton University claims that “the rats humanized the de-miners in a way that demilitarized them. When they [the villagers] see the rat with a soldier, it’s more of this kind of absurdity…It undermines the kind of villainous characterization of the de-miners for the villagers.”

So far, a tenth of the contaminated terrain has been cleared, and APOPOs rats have found about 700 mines since 2016. Hopefully, the rats will be able to continue to assist in clearing the remaining landmines in Cambodia and can have even larger implications on the future with their impressive detecting abilities.

Climate Change Destroying Patagonian Ice Fields

Climate change is hitting Patagonia, a region covering the southern portions of Argentina and Chile, hard. Although the Patagonian landscape contains a diverse range of forests, deserts, and grasslands,  the dense Patagonian ice fields atop the Andes Mountains are most endangered from global warming.

According to NOAA’s 2019 Global Climate Summary, the combined land and ocean temperatures have been increasing at an average rate of 0.13°F per decade since 1880. These temperatures have been rising at a greater rate in recent years, as the temperature has been increasing at an average rate of 0.32°F since 1980. The rapid rise in temperature has led to the rapid melting of the ice fields, and contributed to global sea level rise. Just in 2019, Chile’s 12,000 square kilometer Southern Patagonia Ice Field split in two, alarming scientists as more of the ice breaks away.

Glacier in Chile, lost 66% of ice mass since 1953

Outside of Antarctica, the Patagonian ice fields are the largest mass of ice in the southern hemisphere. Over 99% of all tropical glaciers are located in the Andes. At the current rate of melting, it is projected that between  78% and 97%  of glacial ice mass will be lost by the end of the century. This poses a larger problem to communities, specifically communities in the Andean highlands of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, who depend on glacial meltwater as a clean source of water both for drinking and for agriculture. Glacial meltwater has contributed to 61% of the water supply in La Paz, Bolivia and 67% of the water supply in Huaraz, Peru

Local residents also fear that the loss of glaciers will lead to a loss in tourism. Thousands of people travel to Patagonia and the Andes to hike and take in the beautiful scenery. One local resident and owner of an adventure tourism agency, Luciana Juarez, says, “the receding glaciers are causing ice fields to develop large crevasses that make mountaineering expeditions too dangerous.” But when asked what should be done to help prevent such a future, another local said somberly, “There is no return, I think, because the climate has already changed.”

Photographer Cristian Donoso is making it his mission to capture the devastating effects of climate change in Patagonia. Following in the footsteps of Alberto de Agostini, who left behind over 11,000 photos of the Patagonian landscape, Donoso is recreating de Agostini’s photographs over 100 years later. Donoso calls his project “Ice Postcards”. Donoso so far has found the exact locations of 10 of de Agostini’s images and recreated them at the same time of year in order to create the same seasonal conditions. The difference is startling. One photo in particular shows the Negri glacier that de Agostini took over a century ago. Donoso’s photo merely shows a small fraction of the same glacier. Donoso’s hope with “Ice Postcards” is that he can showcase the severity of this issue to those who can’t see it firsthand. Donoso believes that “No one will fight to protect things that they aren’t aware of”.

de Agostini’s photo of the Negri glacier in Patagonia (left) and Donoso’s photo of the Negri glacier in Patagonia (right)

So what can be done to save the Patagonian icefields? The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization recommends  increasing  support for science-based policy decisions. But following the current trends, the future of the Patagonian icefields is grim. Many of the recommendations are focused on adapting to a new normal. Local governments should create preventative measures and early warning systems for natural disasters as the glaciers melt away. Updated building regulations are essential to reducing devastation from future flooding and mudslides. An increased understanding of water demand and water use as well as good water governance is crucial in order to avoid carelessly running out of the limited water supply. Although the future for the Patagonian icefields are bleak, it should be used as a warning globally for what is to come if climate change is not controlled.

To Boycott or Not to Boycott?

Workers picking cotton in Uzbekistan

For close to a hundred years, forced labor has been a problem in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, ever since the Soviet Union put a production quota system in place for cotton in the 1920s. Since that time, Uzbekistan has relied on the help (willing or unwilling) of an average of two million citizens to meet these production quotas each year, the results of which account for about 15% of total exports from the country. Before 2010, forced laborers included hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren above the age of 11 (who could spend upwards of two months of their school year in the fields) in addition to public workers, including teachers, medical workers, firefighters, law enforcement, bank employees, and military recruits. These public workers could lose their jobs or benefits if they refuse to help with the harvest, and farmers could lose their land, as decided by local authorities and state officials. These officials’ career prospects were generally determined by the success of their region in surpassing cotton production targets.

Although these unethical practices were overlooked while under Soviet control, international scrutiny has mounted in the years since 2000. This scrutiny has culminated in the formation of the Cotton Campaign in 2007, which created the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, an international boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan currently upheld by more than 300 brands and retailers, such as Amazon, Adidas, Macy’s, and Ikea. Although the boycott has been effective thus far at forcing the Uzbek government to make changes, the problem of forced labor has not been fully fixed. A way must be found to lift the boycott soon, or else it could leave a lasting negative impact on Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.

Due to a combination of international pressure and the boycott of cotton quickly gaining traction, Uzbekistan’s first step in changing the cotton harvest was to gradually phase out child labor between 2012 and 2014. This action greatly helped with the problem of child labor, but did little to help with the problem of forced labor in general; in each of the following two harvests, one million people were still forced to pick cotton. Then, in 2017, Uzbekistan committed to eliminate all forced labor and privatize the cotton sector. Early in 2019, the Uzbek government asked the Cotton Campaign to create a path forward by suggesting various policy changes that could help decrease forced labor. Some of these, like increased accountability and the criminalization of forced labor, were adopted, and by the 2019 harvest, the estimated number of forced laborers was down to about 100,000 people, 5.9% of the total. Finally, by 2020 the sector had been completely privatized, and in March 2020, the quota system was eliminated, thus negating the main reason for forced labor.

A farmer in Uzbekistan consolidating mounds of cotton

Some argue that this is enough progress to warrant the end of the Uzbek cotton boycott. Because of the boycott, Uzbekistan is forced to sell most of its cotton to China at relatively low margins, causing about a billion dollars per year of potential revenue to be lost, which is close to 2% of Uzbekistan’s GDP. With this additional money, it would be easier to pay cotton workers, creating a greater natural incentive for farmers to grow cotton and workers to pick it. The privatization of the sector has meant more freedom for farmers, and as a result of decreased revenue from cotton because of the boycott, farmers have switched to other crops, causing cotton production in Uzbekistan to drop by 50% since 2015. A similar situation occurred in Kazakhstan, where the country was unable to meet international demands for privatization, and lost much of its drive for change after being abandoned by international investors for too long.

However, this argument does not address the more drastic downsides a premature end to the boycott could have. Although an end to the boycott would aid Uzbekistan, it could stagnate progress, which could very easily trigger a relapse into similar habits of decades past; labor laws may have changed in recent years in Uzbekistan, but old habits die hard. In place of cotton quotas, there were informal “production targets” in some regions during the 2020 harvest, which functioned similarly. Many farmers made contracts with local authorities to produce a certain amount of cotton, which farmers could be penalized for not fulfilling, and some local authorities still have the power to tell people to pick cotton or pay to have someone pick in their place. According to one Uzbek police officer, “We aren’t supposed to call this ‘forced labor’ anymore, so now we call it mandatory help for the harvest.”

In order to lift the boycott soon, then, it may be necessary to determine the ethicality of Uzbek cotton on a farm-by-farm basis, an idea that has occurred to the Cotton Campaign, but not one that has yet been put in action; as of this past harvest, it is still very difficult to survey cotton production field by field, due to non-compliant law enforcement. Only two independent human rights organizations have been registered in Uzbekistan since 2003, and in 2020, representatives from other human rights organizations were still harassed and threatened by police, and in at least one instance, forcibly tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for two weeks in a region with no active cases.

The next logical step is to shift the sentiment of law enforcement, whether by encouraging the Uzbek government to register more human rights organizations, or by establishing more means of holding law enforcement accountable. Either way, the boycott must remain in place for the near future, but it is urgent that the Cotton Campaign use its leverage to continue talks with the Uzbek government. Uzbek cotton can then return to Western markets as soon as possible, thereby ensuring a much needed regrowth of Uzbekistan’s cotton sector that will be beneficial for all involved, customers, farmers, and workers alike.

Foreign Workers: Unwanted but Vital

The history of nationalism in Japan is different from other Asian countries, which is partly because Japan was never colonized by western powers, and was instead quite removed from international affairs between the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Due to pressure from occupation authorities in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as well as a newly rewritten pacifist Constitution, Japanese nationalism became directly linked with pacifism. However, more overt nationalism in Japan quickly emerged in the 1950s, soon after the end of American occupation, and has steadily grown since that time. This new nationalism has been closely tied with cultural belonging, a reflection of the cultural and ethnic homogeneity present in Japan; only two percent of Japan’s population is not ethnically Japanese. Japan’s nationalism makes it difficult for the country to accept immigrants, which are a crucial factor in Japan’s swiftly declining population.

Japan’s population has been shrinking at a steadily accelerating rate since 2008, losing hundreds of thousands of people per year, and this has a wide range of disastrous side effects that will only get worse if the trend continues. At the heart of the problems are the decrease in the number of people who are working age; close to 90% of employers in Japan experience difficulty in finding skilled workers, the highest rate in the world. Fewer workers means a stagnating economy, and a stagnating economy means a greater number of people surviving on welfare and living in poverty, as well as diminishing influence and significance on the international stage. The economic stagnation in Japan has also resulted in various attempts to reinvigorate the economy in the past few years, which have not had much positive effect and have mostly served to drastically raise the national debt to 250% of the GDP. Thus, the Japanese government has had to look to other means of supporting the economy and growing elderly population.

The current solution: bring in foreign workers to boost industries with labor shortages, especially elder care. Because of the exclusionary nature of nationalism in Japan, this has been made much more difficult for government policy makers. Over the past 10 years, the number of foreign workers has tripled from 500,000 to 1,500,000, and a policy introduced last year plans to add another 350,000 foreign workers to that number by 2025. However, because of societal pressures, the government has been unwilling to call this an immigration policy, and very few of these foreign workers have the chance to become permanent residents in Japan.

Additionally, due to nationalistic sentiment, treatment of foreign workers has been extremely poor. Although recently reformed, the program for training foreign workers has been criticized and sued several times for mistreatment of trainees, including subjecting trainees to harsh conditions. There is no reprieve for foreign workers once they are a part of the workforce, either. Foreign workers are not given as many overtime hours, tend to make less money than promised, and are in general treated by employers and coworkers as second class citizens. In 2017, the Labor Standards Inspections office found that out of nearly 6,000 employers visited who employed foriegn workers, more than 70% violated labor standards.

Japan’s nationalistic exclusion also has broader future consequences for its foreign labor market. Nationalism has caused Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister until three months ago, to pursue a more activist foreign policy, with one of his goals over the past few years having been strengthening Japan’s military might. A result of this was relations slipping with nearby Asian countries like China and South Korea. This gave Abe more freedom in his actions, as it meant a diminished importance of sentiments in Beijing and Seoul in the minds of Japanese citizens. It has also caused many Japanese citizens to believe that China and South Korea pose military threats to Japan. This is a problem when China has long been the largest supplier of foreign workers to Japan.

Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese Prime Minister since September 14 of this year, has been left with a precarious situation perpetuated by the problematic anti-immigration sentiment. As his term unfolds, he will have the challenging task of ensuring the avoidance of an economic collapse. It remains to be seen how he will do so, and whether Suga will choose to abide by the public naturalist view, challenge it, or try to change it.

A New Wave of Discrimination in Myanmar

Myanmar has a long-standing anti-Muslim narrative, especially against the Rohingyas. In the 1980’s the Myanmar government began to deny Rohingyas citizenship.  In 2012, the Ministry of Immigration and Population adopted the motto of “The earth will not swallow a race to extinction but another race will”. Buddhist nationalists distributed pamphlets and spread the idea that the Rohingya, an ethnically Muslim minority, should be forced out of Myanmar, a Buddhist country. Later that year, violence ensued as Buddhist nationalists began to attack the Rohingya with machetes and spears alongside police. On August 25, 2017, tensions escalated once again as military troops and Buddhist mobs began to torch Rohingya villages and attacked, raped, and killed over 6,700 Rohingyas. Myanmar denies that the attacks were genocidal and instead claims that they were “fighting Rohingya militants”. In January 2020, the United Nations’ court ordered that Myanmar take action in protecting the Rohingyas from further genocide. However, now during the worldwide pandemic, the Myanmar government is using Covid-19 as an excuse to further discriminate against the Rohingyas. 

The Rohingya are being dehumanized by many Myanmar politicians through their rhetoric especially leading up to the Myanmar Presidential Election in November. The Rohingya are serving as a scapegoat for the most recent wave of coronavirus with propaganda declaring that they brought the disease over from Bangladesh. One Myanmar lawmaker posted on Facebook demanding for the segregation of the Rohingya from the Buddhists. Kyaw Win , the director of Burma Human Rights Network said that his team has been seeing a rise in discrimination and hate speech against the Rohingya online by Buddhist nationalists. Shops are refusing to sell their merchandise to the Rohingya.

The Myanmar government also uses Covid-19 as an excuse to extort money from the Rohingyas. There are fines in Myanmar for not following Covid-19 procedures or protocol, such as not wearing a mask or not social distancing. The police overlook most violations of these rules by Buddhists and disproportionately punish the Rohingyas. Also, there are higher fines in areas with a higher population of Rohingyas. For example, in predominantly Buddhist areas the fine for not wearing a mask is only 1,000 Kyat or $0.75 USD. In predominantly Rohingya areas the fine for not wearing a mask is 10,000 Kyat, or $7.75 USD. Some Rohingyas have had to forego food for the week in order to buy a mask to try and avoid the large fines. However, there have been reports that the police will still take the money out of people’s pockets as a ‘fine’ regardless if they are or aren’t wearing a mask.

Over 700,000 Rohingyas were displaced due to the genocide in 2017 and over 130,000 of them were sent to displacement camps in Myanmar. These camps give the Rohingya little access to food, medical resources, education, and general humanitarian services. Additionally these camps are overcrowded and serve as a breeding ground for diseases such as Covid-19. Some reports say that if infected with Covid-19, the Rohingya will not be allowed to go to the hospital. They must instead stay at one of the detention camps to receive treatment. These camps don’t have the capacity to handle such medical cases if an outbreak were to arise. These camps don’t even have the resources for adequate testing to see if there even is a coronavirus outbreak. More Rohingyas have been sent to the camps during the pandemic after they were arrested for travelling within the country. On January 6, 2021, the Myanmar police arrested 99 Rohingya for travelling without documentation and they will be held there for six to twelve months. They don’t have documentation because, although they have lived in Myanmar for all of their life, Myanmar denies all ethnic Rohingya citizenship. Instead these ethnic Rohingyas are seen as illegal aliens. This violates the current international human rights law which guarantees the right to freedom of movement within the country and or leave the country. If Myanmar continues to discriminate against the Rohingya throughout the coronavirus pandemic, there could be a new wave of nationalist-motivated genocide; this time biological genocide.

Anti-Chinese Sediment in Australia is on the Rise

A month ago, China accused the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, of trying to “stoke domestic nationalism” after demanding an apology from the Chinese Government for a tweet by a spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The tweet consisted of a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.  China refused to apologize for the image and said that Australia was attempting to steer attention away from the atrocities committed by Australian military personnel in Afghanistan.  This is just another example of the quickly unraveling ties between Australia and China that is being exasperated by stubborn nationalism.

Tension between China and Australia have been on the rise for the past few years.  Australia was the first country to ban Huawei, a giant Chinese tech company, from its 5G networks as well as block ten different investment deals across multiple industries.  Tensions worsened further earlier last year when Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 which originated in Wuhan, China.  Australian criticism of Chinese actions in Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea has also angered the government of China.  In response, China curbed Australian beef imports and imposed very high tariffs on Australian goods like barley and wine. It is expected to raise tariffs on other goods including lobster, sugar, copper ore, and coal.  

This poses a large problem for Australia since about 35% of their trade is with China, while only 4% of China’s commerce relies on Australia.  An all out trade war could cost Australia 6% of the country’s total GDP.  Einar Tangen, who is an analyst based in Beijing as well as an economic advisor to the Chinese government stated that “Australia is playing above its head by trying to politically pressure China when it’s dependent on China for its economy.”  Despite this coercion, Australia is unwilling to back down.  According to the Australian Prime Minister, Australia will not reverse its policies after the Chinese embassy shared a list of grievances with the media in Australia, telling the news that “I can assure you, we will always be Australia, act in our interests and in accordance with our values.”

These tensions have caused anti-Chinese sentiments to spread throughout the country.  According to one survey of Asian-Australians, since April there were 386 racist incidents against Asians including, but not limited to: spitting, physical intimidation, and abuse.  The survey also found that 90% of incidents were not reported to the authorities and the majority of the acts were by strangers in public places.  The Australian government condemns the incidents and says China is spreading propaganda stating “Australians rightly deplore racism. Knowing this, the Chinese Communist Party uses accusations of racism in an attempt to divide us and deflect criticism of their own conduct.”  Many other countries, including the United States, have reported a rise in racist attacks against people of Asian descent, but proportionally speaking Australia has a higher rate of racist incidents than the United States.  A group of anti-China politicians in Australia has formed as well.  They call themselves “Wolverines” after the resistance group of high school kids in the movie Red Dawn.  Wolverines are calling for a national pushback in Australia against China and the Chinese Communist Party.  What is causing this anti-China movement in Australia  that even has backing by politicians?

Some scholars speculate that it stems from Australia’s “White Australia Policy” roots.  After independence in 1901, policies were put in place to keep Australia ethnically British and white.  The policy consisted of 3 acts that were all passed in 1901: the Immigration Restriction Act, Pacific Island Labourers Act and the Post and Telegraph Act.  The most infamous part of the Immigration Restriction Act was a dictation test where people wanting to immigrate to Australia had to be able to write 50 words in any European language chosen by the officers.  This was very often manipulated to the point where overseas shipping companies would not give tickets to people likely to fail the test.  The White Australia policy was ended in 1958, but it’s nationalistic legacy still remains. Australia’s nationalism is partly to blame for its tensions and poor relationship with China.  If the Australian government does nothing to stop attacks on Asian-Australians or keeps refusing to back down from its strict policies, the effects for Australia could be detrimental.  Australia seems like an aggressive hound locking eyes with a wolf.

Rodrigo Duterte is Keeping Nationalism Alive in the Philippines

During WWII the Philippines were transitioning to self-rule, focusing on achieving freedom while also proving to the US that they knew what was right for their country. This assertiveness that was developing paved the way for nationalism in the Philippines. However, after they had achieved their independence, the country and it’s leaders began moving in the direction of building their international relationships. The government put their focus towards building up their economy and global achievements so that they could become a strong country that other weaker countries would look to for support.

Author George Orwell argued that “ ‘The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality’ ”. The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, portrays both patriotic and nationalistic tendensies. He shows love towards the Philippines, making him a patriot, but he also strives for independence and has a strong desire for power that he can’t break away from, making him a nationalist. When addressing the public in December 2019, President Duterte stated that the Philippines needs to “keep the embers of nationalism alive”. 

President Duterte often makes outrageous comments. He has “joked about not being able to join the gang rape of an Australian missionary, cursed out the Pope, called both US President Obama and the US Ambassador to the Philippines a “son of a bitch,” and told police they can kill drug dealers if they fight back”. He has faced great criticism from the US and the EU after making comments about his similarities to Hitler. Critics have both stated their concerns about his war on drugs and the allegations against him regarding killings apparent. But these comments have only angered Duterte. 

The President frequently likens himself to Adolf Hitler. He has made claims that he wants to kill millions of drug addicts in order to help rid the country of crime, just as Hitler did with the Jewish population during WWII. In 2015, Duterte went live on TV and confirmed that he was a part of a “death squad” and threatened that if he were to be elected president he would “kill thousands more criminals and dump them into Manila Bay”. When running for President in 2016, he campaigned strongly against crime, focusing mostly on the presence of drugs in the Philippines. From the time he took office in June 2016 to September 2016, his police officers had killed hundreds of suspected drug users.Sources report that as of June 2020, tens of thousands of people may have been killed during the president’s declared war on drugs. 

This war on drugs was introduced when Duterte won the presidency in 2016. He made promises that he would rid the Philippines of drugs. This declaration has led to “widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings”. During a speech in 2018, the President admitted his role in the killings, saying “What is my sin? Did I steal even one peso? Did I prosecute somebody who I ordered jailed? My sin is extrajudicial killings”. Government officials in the Philippines attempted to retract the President’s statements, saying that he was being “playful”. But, Duterte has been caught making statements similar to those in the past. During a campaign rally in 2015, he stated that “If I became president, you [alleged criminals] should hide. I would kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable. I will definitely kill you. I do not want to commit this crime. But if by chance per chance God will place me there, stay on guard because that 1,000 [killed in Davao City] will become 100,000.” And, just months after his election win in 2016, he had made more claims of responsibility. During a press conference he responded, “Extrajudicial killing? I will do the explanation in public for international release if you want. For the things that really happened during the criminals and the police in operations – punitive operations, police action – I am willing to answer all of them. I assume full responsibility for what happened because I was the one who ordered it.” 

His anti-drug agenda has resulted in the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children since took office. Now adding to these public statements, The International Criminal Court is able to conduct a preliminary examination regarding Duterte’s possible humanitarian crimes. Domestic and international efforts are being put into motion to ensure that he is held responsible for his role in these deaths.