Sweeping revolutions brought on by popular protests captivated the world in 2011 and a global financial downturn and European debt crisis punctuated the turmoil.
The question that occurred to many people who watched these remarkable events take place was: "What happened to spark all of this?" This is not the first time that revolutions occurred in a series: the American, French & Haitian Revolutions fed off each other's victories. Time Magazine's report on the year of the protestor documented the ripple effect, unlike previous periods of protest, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and with less success in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. And the U.N. got involved in the use of force, refugee settlement, food distribution and Middle East issues on a scale never before seen.
Politics observers (or history buffs) read Thucydides, written in 431 B.C. about the Peloponnesian War, where the residents of a small neutral island were told to submit and surrender: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." It is supposed to be a dose of political realism in order to understand that "might" makes "right" in the international system. But in 2011, that rule was turned on its head, at least in parts of the Arab world.
Some analysts believe it was the information revolution that sparked the pro-democracy movement. Others say technology was not the core, but helped those who wanted change, young and old, to spread the word and mobilize.
The revolutions that did succeed are fraught with growing pains and rivalries, some based on power, some along sectarian lines. Syria continues to be in the midst of massive and deadly crackdown on its civilian opposition; United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has urged the U.N. Security Council to investigate Syria for crimes against humanity.
The seminal events of 2011 did not end with the Arab Spring. Mother Nature was a force that seemed more powerful than in previous years. Movement of the Pacific tectonic plate under the North American plate caused an earthquake and devastating tsunami that crippled Japan's Fukushima reactors, which will take 40 years to clean. Drought in Somalia turned the hunger needs to a famine and refugees fleeing from nation to nation in the horn of Africa became victims of crime.
The year also saw the deaths of traditional American foes.
When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs in what might have been closure to a national tragedy, U.S.-Pakistan relations soured badly -- and were worsened by a friendly-fire accident that resulted in a further downturn of relations.
And North Korea's Kim Jong Il died, leading to the fear that the transition in the Kim dynasty to 20-something Kim Jong Un might increase military confrontations with South Korea and Japan.
2012 holds some promise but also the prospect of continued turmoil:
- The biggest challenge of the coming year will likely be dealing with Iran and North Korea. Iran's defiance of U.N. mandates and sanctions continues unabated. One diplomat, who represents a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, told CBS News that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have made it clear that they will not have Iran (if it were to develop a nuclear weapon) and Israel as nuclear neighbors without pursuing their own. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East defines a tinderbox.
- The turmoil in Syria is at center stage now, with Arab League observers not succeeding in protecting the protestors; Egypt's elections may or may not satisfy the protestors' desires for a true democracy.
- Fence mending will be needed or U.S.-Pakistan relations will continue to sour.
- Food needs in the Horn of Africa continue at emergency levels.
- Drug-trafficking and related crimes need attention. The U.N. Secretary General's 2011 message on the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, was that drug-trafficking has become a major threat to the world's health and security. The World Drug Report for 2011, issued by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was grim: drug-trafficking is no longer a social and criminal ill but a trade that funds organized crime, terror and security threats.
- Tension in the Middle East, between Israel and Palestine is at a boiling point and negotiations are stalled.
- China's Communist Party will decide on leadership in Hong Kong and on the value of its currency.
- With Venezuela's Hugo Chavez seriously ill, the future of the oil-rich revolution is likely to be in the spotlight in the coming year as will Cuba, as Raul Castro (and brother Fidel) have not groomed a successor.
- Iraq's future and Iran's relations in a turbulent time may be in focus.
- In June 2012, Brazil hosts the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (known as the Rio + 20) to focus on making cities more livable, protecting the oceans, renewable energy, and eradicating poverty.
- World population numbers also give cause for concern. The U.N. celebrated the 7 billionth child born in 2011; by 2050, there will be 9 billion.
What to make of all the turmoil? Curiously, although it seems like the world took a beating in 2011, the world is a less violent place. Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker, who has documented levels of world violence says, "homicide rates have plummeted over the centuries, and during the past sixty-five years, the rate of death from war has fallen to historically unprecedented lows."
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the U.N. has "never been so needed" with growing demand and humanitarian crises around the world.
All these turbulent transitions may hold some hope for better governance in the end. And some of these transitions have opened doors. Many of the changes came about because of the revolution of information, aided by the increased use of unmanned predator drones, which bring both increased intelligence to protect civilians and have raised questions about collateral damage and civil liberties.
Kim Jong Il, North Korea's de facto Communist dictator for more than 12 years, repeatedly threatened the international community with nuclear weapons while mystifying the world with his extraordinary cult of personality.
Kim succeeded his father, President Kim Il Sung, but he never took the title of President, being dubbed instead by the government as North Korea's "Dear Leader" and the chairman of its National Defense Commission. He was the first leader of a communist state to inherit power.
Kim's persona, and mystery concerning his private life, extended even to his place of birth. Some records say he was born in the former Soviet Union, although one of the official biographies says he was born in a small mountain village in North Korea.
At the time of his death at 69 from an apparent heart attack, Kim's legacy - in addition to fostering the militarization of North Korea and further impoverishing its people - was a consistent defiance of the United Nation's ban on the development of nuclear weapons and the testing of long-range ballistic missiles.Continue »
As state-run TV in Tehran broadcast images of a RQ-170 Sentinel drone and U.S. officials acknowledged that is it likely to belong to the U.S., Iran's U.N. Ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee sent a letter to the Secretary General, the President of the General Assembly and the Russian President (this month) of the Security Council, calling their attention to the increased "provocative and covert operations against the Islamic Republic of Iran by the United States Government."Continue »
The Middle East is back on the agenda. Israel's military chief of staff reportedly warned this week that an increase in rocket attacks against Israel might lead to a large-scale military operation in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Additionally, Israel's defense minister warned of a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear program after the international nuclear watchdog agency reported that Iran conducted secret weapons-related tests and may be close to developing a nuclear warhead.
Lt.-Col. Avital Leibovich, the head of the international media division of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), told CBS News that the Israeli military now needs to deal with several fronts, where in the past they have had only one.
Today, Leibovich said, in a regional environment altered by the "Arab Spring," Israel's borders with Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria pose the greatest risks to its population and the IDF. On the northern border with Lebanon, Israel has to contend with the Shiite militia Hezbollah, which stores its weaponry under civilian villages in the south of Lebanon. Near Gaza, Israeli citizens now face missiles fired from the Hamas-run enclave that can reach farther into the Jewish state than ever before. And in Syria, uncertainty surrounding the fate of the embattled Assad regime, which last May organized mass marches on the Golan Heights border with Israel.Continue »
At the U.N., where the rebel National Transitional Council flag was raised last month and the new government allowed to represent Libya in the General Assembly, diplomats from around the world, almost without exception, applauded the news of Qaddafi's demise, said CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk.
U.N. diplomats from the U.S, U.K. and France underscored the support that their leaders have expressed in the future of Libya, Falk said.Continue »
As Americans mark the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan conflict, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the U.S. and Pakistan are increasingly strained because of the violent attacks that the Haqqani network, a fierce militant group tied to al Qaeda and based in Pakistan, have brought to the Afghan insurgency, particularly attacks on U.S. troops.
American officials have asserted that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has ties to the Taliban and to the Haqqani network, although U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this week said Pakistan has been asked to take action against the Haqqani network where, he said, they take safe haven.
Several reports with dueling statistics reflect the challenges facing the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and the difficulties with the tiered handover of security from the NATO-led coalition to the Afghan police and army. The U.N. Secretary-General's recent report, "The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security," says incidents involving armed clashes and improvised explosive devices were up 39 percent compared to the same time last year.Continue »
As the U.N. Security Council takes up discussion Monday of the Palestinian bid for statehood, President Obama has some tough decisions to make about how to proceed with the peace process in the Middle East.
Mr. Obama's address to the U.N. General Assembly was supportive of Israel, and clear on the U.S. threat to veto the Palestinians' bid in the U.N. Security Council -- making it impossible for Palestine to become a state member of the U.N.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Mr. Obama for his speech, and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman congratulated him. But President Obama proposed no specific plan, leaving it to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- in her role as U.S. representative to the Middle East Quartet of the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the European Union -- to plot the next steps.Continue »
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, President Obama is set to focus on the "transformational nature of the past year," the White House said, meaning the transitions to democracy around the world since he was the at General Assembly a year ago. He has a tough audience to calm, both at home and with world leaders. Dominating the agenda this year have been the Palestinian statehood issue and the intense negotiations to restart Middle East peace talks.
There is a sense of urgency at U.N. headquarters in New York. Meetings about terrorism, nuclear safety, and the impact of an economic downturn on poor nations have packed the agenda, but as the clock ticks toward Friday with the expectation of a formal application for statehood at the U.N. by the Palestinians, world leaders are hoping to hear a way out of a high stakes confrontation.
Obama is expected to focus instead on the positive, the changes of government from despots to democratic leaders and the continuing battles in the Middle East and Northern Africa in what has come to be called the "Arab Spring," in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya -- and to spotlight the need for change in Syria and Iran.Continue »
As the clock ticks toward Friday and the Palestinians' looming formal application for statehood at the U.N., all sides involved -- the Palestinians, the Israelis, the European Union negotiators, and President Obama -- know how high the stakes have become in this face-off.
Palestinian leaders have said it is essentially too late to put the brakes on the request, but feverish negotiations continue to find a solution that would avert the spectacle of a failed bid for statehood in the Security Council.
"The key thing is to see if we can find a way out of the possibility of a great showdown confrontation, and get to a situation where there is a big advance for Palestinian statehood and a renewed negotiation," former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now Special Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, tells CBS News in an exclusive interview.Continue »
Speaking to the Arab League Tuesday, Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan bolstered his position of leadership in the Arab world, and highlighted his country's rift with Israel, saying, "The recognition of a Palestinian state is the only right way. It's not an option, but an obligation. God willing, by the end of this month, we will have the opportunity to see Palestine in a very different status at the United Nations."
Abbas set the date for the commencement of the Palestinian Authority's statehood bid for September 20, the day before President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly. He is then expected to outline the Palestinian position when he speaks to the General Assembly on September 23. But the timing of a vote -- and whether or not Abbas will attempt to bring the vote to the Security Council, where the Obama Administration has vowed to veto a Resolution, or direct to the General Assembly -- is not clear.
Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor told CBS News that Israel is still hopeful that there will be a diplomatic solution and the vote averted, "We have to sit down with the Palestinian authority in direct negotiations in order to bridge the problems. There is no other way around that." Prosor said, "We are trying to get to direct negotiations - up to the last moment."
In Cairo, at an Arab League meeting, Catherine Ashton, the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that there is no united position on the Palestinian statehood bid, "There is no resolution on the table yet, so there is no position."
After meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr, she said, "What is clear from the European Union is that the way forward is negotiations," but Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said in a press conference after the meeting that "consultations and communications will continue in order to reach the goal" of Palestinian membership at the U.N.
Some have forecast dire consequences if the showdown reaches the U.N. A New York Times editorial this week said, "A United Nations vote on Palestinian membership would be ruinous. Yet with little time left before the U.N. General Assembly meets, the United States, Israel and Europe have shown insufficient urgency or boldness in trying to find a compromise solution. The need for action is even more acute after alarming tensions flared in recent days between Israel and two critical regional players -- Egypt and Turkey."
Palestinian statehood question to be center stage at U.N. in Sept.?Supporters of Palestinian state could circumvent U.S. veto at United Nations
At the U.N., Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin confirmed that Moscow would back the Palestinian bid, "We will vote in favor of the Palestinian U.N. bid, but I must say that we will not push Palestinians to move in that direction."
In Washington, U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made the president's position clear.
"Our view remains that neither course - neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly - is going to lead to the result that they seek, which is to have a stable, secure state living in peace; that they have to do this through negotiations; and that that's the fastest and best course to do so."
Nuland said that the Obama administration is speaking with Israelis and Palestinians to get them back to negotiations before the U.N. General Assembly.
Prosor, meanwhile, doubted that the Palestinian bid represented all Palestinians, "Abbas is coming to the United Nations and declaring unilateral statehood about what? Is it Abbas or is it Hamas? It's the only guy I know who is the President of an Authority who has zero authority about what is going on in Gaza."
Israel's U.N. Ambassador, Ron Prosor, considered one of Israel's most experienced diplomats, spoke to CBS News about the implications of a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations and the threats to peace in the Middle East.
He spoke with CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk at U.N. Headquarters, about the threat of a nuclear Iran,the attack against the Israeli Embassy in Egypt, and about how derailed Middle East peace talks could be put back on track.
See the interview below:
The Palestinian issue -- and a vote on Palestinian statehood at the U.N. General Assembly this month -- continues to be the likely front burner issue at this year's General Debate, which will hear from President Obama, starting on September 21.
Dan Diker, Secretary General of World Jewish Congress, who was at the U.N. for a press briefing with the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians on the Palestinian statehood question, told CBS News that, regardless of efforts to avert the vote by restarting the peace process, the vote is likely to occur.
Diker told CBS in an exclusive interview after the briefing, "(Palestinian President) Mahmoud Abbas is going to soon end his political career. Mahmoud Abbas, from his point of view, wants to leave Palestinian politics having made a positive contribution, from his point of view, to the Palestinian people. This is a legacy issue for Mahmoud Abbas."Continue »
With attacks against fleeing refugees increasing at the Kenya border, and gangs and warlords still present in Mogadishu after the militant Al-Shabaab vacated the capital, the Kenyan police, the African Union forces, and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) military troops are inundated, unable to stop the brutal attacks and rapes, overwhelmed by the mandate to assist the aid organizations in delivering food safely, and unable to keep the peace in a region that is experiencing famine, violence and disease.
At the U.N., the 9,000-strong African Union (A.U.) peacekeeping force, known as AMISOM, is asking for the deployment of the additional 3,000 troops that the United Nation Security Council already authorized. Last year, the African Union asked for more: authorization by the U.N. Security Council of a force of 20,000 (which the African Union approved), an air and sea division, a no-fly zone, and for the Security Council to deploy a U.N. peacekeeping force by transforming the current A.U. force into one of the U.N.'s regular peacekeeping operations.Continue »
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad has "lost all sense of humanity," and President Barack Obama has called the attacks in Syria "horrifying."
Italy recalled its ambassador from Damascus this week. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said: "The Government has been trying to keep the world blind about the alarming situation in the country by refusing access to foreign journalists, independent human rights groups and to the fact-finding mission mandated by the Human Rights Council."
Still, no official action was taken by the world body.Continue »
North Korea is developing a new mid-range ballistic missile that could reach as far as the U.S. territory of Guam, according to report released by Japan's Defense Ministry.
The annual report, widely known as the 2011 White Paper, also highlights North Korea's atomic bomb testing as "a significant threat to Japan's security when the North is boosting capabilities of ballistic missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction."
The report, released Tuesday, does not bode well for progress in the talks between the U.S. and North Korea.Continue »