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How 2021 Made History

SIS faculty list the year's events that they believe will make it into future history books.

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In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to inform nearly every aspect of our lives, but other important events also continued unabated. In our annual look back, SIS faculty present a list, in no particular order, of things that made history in 2021.

Gregory Aftandilian
I believe one of the major events of 2021 that will make it into the history books will be the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rapid Taliban takeover of the country. This event will be remembered as a sad and chaotic ending—witness the heart-breaking scenes from the Kabul airport—of a 20-year war that originally began as an effort to go after Al Qaeda because of its attacks on 9/11 and morphed into a mission designed to transform Afghanistan into some type of democratic state. The latter effort obviously failed and gave added meaning to the phrase, "Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires."
Tazreena Sajjad
Much ink is being spilt in analyzing the achievements made during the 20 years of US occupation in Afghanistan and the “failures” of the state-building enterprise following the US withdrawal from the country. But Afghanistan should not be discussed in terms of the “failures” and “successes” of occupying powers. Rather, the focus should be on the Afghan people, who are now forced to navigate the severe economic situation unfolding in their country, where the banking and financial infrastructure—propped up by international assistance—has collapsed. The new government seeks “order and stability,” while targeting civilians and ethnic minorities in a tense political landscape where food insecurity looms amidst a deadly global pandemic. The focus should be on the millions of Afghans who have been, and continue to be, internally displaced as a result of complex realities of food and climate crises, US air strikes, drone attacks, suicide bombings, and targeted killings, both during the 20-year occupation and in the aftermath of the US withdrawal.
While the news of the US evacuation of 122,000 people—one of the largest airlift evacuations in history—is starting to fade, it is critical to be mindful of the fact that all those evacuated were not Afghans. Many of those vulnerable to the Taliban remain stranded in Afghanistan, and some are desperately attempting to cross into neighboring countries in search of safety. For those evacuated to the US—including children—there remains a wide range of complex challenges for years to come, including: family separation; economic precarity; and a life in limbo, based on the type of legal status they are given and social support services to which they may or may not have access as a result of their different legal status. The vast majority of Afghan refugees, including those who have and will continue to cross the border, number in the millions and will have to be hosted in Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, where they will navigate complex and highly challenging realities in each of these contexts.

The number of military coups in Africa in 2021 was described as the highest level since the end of colonialism, according to the Wall Street Journal. Three military coups were successfully executed: in Guinea, Mali, and Sudan. On May 24, Col. Assimi Goïta, leader of the Malian army, ousted President Bah N'daw after years of instability and political turmoil. Likewise, on September 5, President Alpha Condé of Guinea was toppled in a military coup led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya—a year after Condé won a controversial third term bid. Most recently, on October 25, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan ousted Sudan’s prime minister Abdalla Hamdok to truncate Sudan’s democratic transition process.

The ease and the sequence of the military comeback has once again exposed the threats to the fragile democratic governance in Africa. The reasons offered by the military juntas for toppling their governments include worsening poverty, high-level corruption, and mismanagement of resources. The behavior of the military leaders was condemned by the African Union, whose membership consists of civilian presidents from other African countries. However, the same leaders could not hold their civilian counterparts accountable for poor governance and tampering with constitutions to extend their stay in power. President Alpha Condé of Guinea changed the constitution to contest for a third term in office despite widespread opposition from the masses.

Submitted by Ernest Ogbozor.

What is most remarkable about the summer 2021 violent eruption between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is that it is no longer remarkable. In almost a routine way—every two years or so—tension escalates on the border that separates the densely populated, self-governed but besieged territory of Gaza, and that tension erupts into mutual violence that goes far beyond that border. This time around, Hamas’s rockets and missiles reached Tel-Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem and killed 13 Israelis, including two children. Due to the asymmetry of power, an Israeli air assault killed more than 250 Gazans, among them approximately 70 children. It also caused a wide range of damage to homes. Perhaps the most tragic part is that since a tense ceasefire was agreed to, and both sides claimed victory, nothing changed. A true solution to the situation is only possible in the context of a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But a long-term agreement that will end the siege of the Gaza Strip and the constant threat to the lives of people in and around the territory is possible with political will. Without it, unfortunately, we are doomed to see this story repeat next summer. Or the following one.

Submitted by Boaz Atzili.

The new official summation of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) history, published after the CCP’s Central Committee meeting in November, exalts Xi Jinping as a peer of Mao and Deng, fortifying his claim that China has entered a new and more powerful place in the world order. The summation officially recognizes China’s recovery from its “century of humiliation.”

Submitted by Louis Goodman.

Presidents make history, in part, through the people they appoint to senior positions. Joe Biden has already left an important mark by appointing an historically diverse set of senior government officials. In addition to selecting a Black and South Asian female vice president, Kamala Harris, Biden has appointed: the first female treasury secretary, Janet Yellen; the first Black defense secretary, Lloyd Austin; the first Latino homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas; the first Native American cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland; and the first openly gay cabinet secretary, Pete Buttigieg. More broadly, among Biden's first 1500 appointments to administration positions, 58 percent were women, 18 percent were Black, 15 percent were Latinx, and 15 percent were Asian American or Pacific Islander—rates that are roughly on par with or exceed the overall shares of these demographic groups in the US population.

Submitted by Jordan Tama.

From the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, at least 150,000 Indigenous children went through a system of 139 “residential schools” in Canada. In its final report published in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded, “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide’.” The unearthing of more than 1000 unmarked graves containing the remains of Indigenous children who were denied appropriate burial rites, let alone the lives they deserved, with the likelihood that thousands upon thousands more will follow, should be a reminder of the cruelty of settler colonial attempts to “assimilate” Indigenous children, as well as of their ongoing impacts. To speak of these injustices as though they are of the past forecloses real justice in the present and future.

Submitted by Jeff Bachman.

The ouster of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister after 12 years in power was one of the most dramatic political developments in recent Israeli history. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, was unable to form a coalition following four inconclusive elections in two years. The new government, led by Netanyahu’s former chief-of-staff, Naftali Bennett, is a fragile coalition of disparate political parties spanning the political spectrum. Divisive issues like Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians will be sidelined for the foreseeable future, but the longer this government survives, the lower the likelihood that Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a corruption trial, will succeed in staging a political comeback. Netanyahu’s departure from the political arena would, in turn, have important implications for major issues, such as the status of the occupied territories, US-Israel relations, and Israeli democracy.

Submitted by Guy Ziv.

Malaria is one of the deadliest infectious diseases, killing about half a million people a year, including 260,000 children under five mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Bed nets, the most widely adopted preventive measure, cut malaria deaths in children under the age of five only by approximately 20 percent. Now, following a century of research, we have approved the very first vaccine ever for a parasitic disease. On Wednesday, October 6, 2021, the World Health Organization endorsed the first malaria vaccine, Mosquirix, developed by GlaxoSmithKline. Estimates reveal that if the vaccine were distributed to countries with the highest incidence of malaria, it could prevent 5.4 million cases and 23,000 deaths every year in children younger than five. The new malaria vaccine will be most effective when it’s used along with existing prevention methods, including bed nets, chemical insecticides, and frontline medication treatment.

Submitted by Maria De Jesus.

January 2021 marked one of the most significant events in the more than seven-decade-long history of the nuclear weapons age: the entry into force of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Supported by more than 120 countries, this is the first international treaty to ban nuclear weapons and the threat of their use under any circumstances. Together with the Biological Weapons Convention of 1975 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, the new nuclear ban treaty means there now exist comprehensive legal prohibitions on all weapons of mass destruction.

Submitted by Sharon Weiner.

The past quarter century of Latin American elections has largely featured a debate between free- market capitalists and socialists, with the environment on the sidelines. In 2021, green and Indigenous “wellbeing” (buen vivir) candidates and platforms came to the forefront in several elections—inspired in part by successful pro-water movements over the past decade in countries from El Salvador to Costa Rica and from Argentina to Colombia. Zeroing in specifically on 2021: in Ecuador, the Indigenous pro-water candidate, Yaku Pérez, garnered 20 percent of the vote and was a few thousand votes from making it into the final round in a highly-contested election count. More than 80 percent of voters in Cuenca, where Pérez had been governor, backed a ban on mining in its five key watersheds. In Peru, a prominent human rights and environmental lawyer, Mirtha Vásquez, was chosen by President Pedro Castillo, who was elected in July 2021, to be his prime minister. And in Chile, a country deeply rooted in mining, many winners in local elections and several of the leading candidates for president ran on environmental platforms. A green tide may be eclipsing the old pink tide in Latin America.

Submitted by Robin Broad.

On February 1, 2021, following the National League for Democracy Party (NLD)’s landslide re-election in November 2020, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, launched a coup arresting the nation’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, together with other senior members of the NLD. This is not the first time Myanmar’s military has interfered in the country’s politics; in fact, for almost 50 years between 1962 and 2011, the country was under successive military regimes, with the face of the democratic movement being the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Today, Myanmar’s Tatmadaw threatens the nascent efforts at democracy-building that had been underway for less than a decade, an image sullied by the military’s 2017 genocidal campaign against the minority Rohingya population and Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s refusal to acknowledge it.

Under the new military administration, Myanmar has charged 16 people, including Aung San Suu Kyi, with “election fraud and lawless actions” during the 2020 elections, with a court sentencing Aung Sun Suu Kyi to four years in prison on December 6. The military coup itself has fueled widespread protests and a civil disobedience movement and has resulted in the development of the “People’s Defence Forces” to oppose the military and restore democracy in the country. The Tatmadaw has responded with force to crush the opposition, resulting in more than 1000 deaths. Earlier, on January 20, 2021, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar filed preliminary objections to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in an attempt to delay court proceedings over genocide charges brought against it by The Gambia for its treatment of the mostly Muslim Rohingya. The military coup also has jeopardized the prospects for productive dialogue on the future of the Rohingya, many of whom had fled to Bangladesh. Today, Bangladesh hosts more than one million Rohingya refugees who face slim prospects of repatriation to Myanmar.

Submitted by Tazreena Sajjad.

In 2021, we finally saw justice in two cases where white police officers or former police officers killed unarmed Black men in cold blood. All that was needed to convict Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd and to convict Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery was: a video of the crime; a sidelining of the regular district attorney (the indictment of the DA in the McMichael and Bryan trial); a serious prosecutor (the Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office in the trial of Derek Chauvin); police officer testimony against the murderers (important in Derek Chauvin’s trial); and a national outcry, along with massive street demonstrations.

Submitted by Cathy Lisa Schneider.

With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the United States is not at war for the first time in 20 years. This impacts not only active-duty soldiers, military families, loved ones, students on the GI bill, and veterans, but also the entire ethos and psyche of our nation. Let us wage peace as a nation through diplomacy, hospitality, trade, and mutual exchanges from this day forward. Let us denounce the use of violence as an instrument of foreign policy and begin the long process of healing our veterans and the spiritual life of our nation, because our students and the world are tired of war.

Submitted by Barbara Wien.

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to dominate headlines during 2021. We experienced the unprecedented global rollout of novel vaccines, the return of US students to school, and novel therapeutics to prevent severe COVID-19 disease. Yet, as was true for 2020, the pandemic laid bare huge inequities, this time in vaccination rates. In South Africa, for example, only 24 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, despite South Africa's ability to manufacture vaccines and send them elsewhere, including Europe. Public health continued to be politicized around the world, with denialist presidents in Brazil and Tanzania, protests around mask and vaccine mandates, and the rollback of public health protective laws in some US states. The COVID-19 pandemic killed more Americans in 2021 than it did in 2020; grief may be the new thing that unites us. As we move into the holiday season with the threat of a new variant, one wonders when we will learn that global cooperation and solidarity, including the suspension of intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines, will ultimately make us all safer.

Submitted by Nina Yamanis.

COVID-19 and the precautions to avoid it have substantially altered the working world. People in many countries engage less in paid work as employees than they did before the pandemic. Many still fear catching COVID-19, particularly those in health care and other front-line service occupations. Some retired early. Others embraced new pursuits, including further education—often online—or began small businesses. COVID-19 income-support measures have led more people to give serious consideration to universal basic income plans like the one for which Andrew Yang advocated during the 2020 presidential campaign. The substantial expansion of telework and other non-traditional forms of employment are likely to continue long after the threat of COVID-19 has subsided.

Submitted by Stephen Silvia.

Global health politics in 2021 were not limited to battles over COVID-19 vaccines and mask mandates; around the world, abortion debates also flared. While access to abortion expanded in Argentina with the implementation of a new law and Mexico’s Supreme Court declared absolute criminalization of abortion unconstitutional, many places rolled back women’s reproductive rights. Poland’s near-total ban on abortion went into effect, while in the US, new laws in Texas and Mississippi severely restricted access to abortion to the first months of pregnancy.

Submitted by Rachel Robinson.

Globally, refugees, migrants, and other displaced people continued to be treated as political footballs rather than human beings. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko attempted to weaponize humans by sparking an influx of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan through Belarus to the Polish border, where armed officers stood ready to block their entry. Thousands were left to languish in freezing temperatures, proxies in a dispute between Belarus and the European Union. Meanwhile, encounters with migrants along the US-Mexico border surged to a historically high 1.6 million, and images of US Border Patrol agents on horseback corralling Haitians along the border were chillingly reminiscent of violence during the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. And in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee settlement, Cox’s Bazar, hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in their home country of Myanmar. Persistent rough treatment of the world’s most vulnerable in 2021 has continued to normalize the tragic perception that some human beings are disposable.

Submitted by Christine BN Chin.

On April 24, President Biden formally recognized the 1915 liquidation of Turkey’s approximately 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman-era rulers as genocide. This action was of critical importance to Armenians because of the US’s stature as the world’s most influential champion of human rights and justice. It also set the record straight about the central humanitarian crisis of World War I, which, it has been argued, served as a blueprint for mass killings by dictatorial regimes throughout the twentieth century.

Submitted by Hrach Gregorian.

This past year has been the year of governance OF platforms vs. governance BY platforms. Whether it was Parler or Facebook or Twitter, platform companies wrestled with what to do about content on their sites. Facebook famously banned a now former US President and called for some government regulation. But the platform company sector itself was not alone in its grappling. Governments, whether regional, such as that in the European Union, or national, such as that in the United States, debated the thorny, multifaceted regulatory challenges made even more complex by economic competition, varying histories and cultures of industry-government relations, and geopolitical considerations.

Platforms are, for the most part, increasingly global. Within the US, a growing number of different Congressional committees held hearings, called platform chief executives on the carpet, and debated how to move forward. In sum, platform governance, no longer an arcane subject, was front and center in mass and social media coverage as well as in political debates and differences. But one certainty emerged: consensus that something needs to be done and that governance by platforms alone is not working. What that ‘something’ is remains to be seen and needs to be viewed in cross-national as well as national/domestic political perspective.

Submitted by Nanette Levinson.

For the first time in 62 years, an estimated 100,000 Cubans engaged in demonstrations across the island on July 11. Protestors voiced a variety of demands in response to grievances that had been festering for years and became intolerable in 2021 due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, the closing of borders to all foreign travelers, food shortages, blackouts, and severe inflation after the government abruptly ended the dual currency system. Some also called for significant political changes, and in light of Raúl Castro stepping down as first secretary of the communist party in April, the very legitimacy of the Cuban revolution faced unprecedented challenges. The government responded quickly with economic measures to alleviate suffering and promises for greater reform, which indicates that, one way or another, Cuba is likely to undergo a transformation as a result of the turmoil in 2021.

Submitted by Phil Brenner.

Azerbaijan consolidated its November 2020 victory over Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, regaining territory occupied by Armenia for 20 years and developing plans for cooperation among Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia to increase peace and prosperity in the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian seas. This is an important possible turn-around for a “frozen conflict.”

Submitted by Louis Goodman.

The Pandora Papers contained 12 million files from 14 companies that were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The ICIJ coordinated a worldwide investigation of the contents of these files, an effort that involved more than 600 journalists from 117 countries. There have been previous leaks of similar documents, like the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, but the Pandora Papers revealed the incredible scope of money, property, and other assets hidden in the offshore financial system, which is in the trillions of dollars and involves vast numbers of people, including politicians, government officials, athletes, and celebrities, using offshore jurisdictions to hide their wealth. Sometimes, the wealth being hidden in these jurisdictions was obtained illegally, perhaps through corrupt activities, but more often, the wealth was obtained legally but is now hidden offshore, untaxed and unavailable to fund things like schools and health care back home.

Submitted by Daniel Schneider.

The Indian Farmer Uprisings erupted in 2020 to protest the Bharatiya Janata Party’s aggressive further neoliberalization of Indian farm policy. The uprisings extended and expanded into 2021 to comprise the largest peaceful protest in recorded history. Tens of millions of Indian farmers took to the streets and have occupied Delhi for over a year in a struggle for agrarian viability and to stave off corporate capture of agri-food markets. This was already a world-historical mobilization, but when Modi suddenly repealed the farm laws last month, it became a watershed moment in international agrarian politics—and potentially a tipping point in agricultural policy at large. As the Indian Farmer alliances continue to demand Minimum Support Prices for their agri-food products, food, farm, and land justice movements around the world have pledged solidarity and are taking note.

Submitted by Garrett-Graddy Lovelace.

The history-making event in question is that someone finally managed to make a filmed version of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel, Dune, that is both true to the original story and updates the presentation in significant ways. Dune is a complex novel, interweaving themes of imperialism, resource-dependence, and messianic politics in ways that are enormously difficult to translate to the screen—witness previous failed attempts, such as David Lynch's widely reviled 1984 version. Denis Villeneuve's version succeeds, in part, by refusing to privilege any of these themes and allowing each of them to unfold at their own pace. The film also employs admirably diverse casting and gender-swaps a key character, allowing the story to play out in a more inclusive way. This is a Dune that’s updated but faithful to its source. Succeeding where so many others have failed is an accomplishment worthy of recognition and hopefully augurs well for the planned sequel, covering the rest of the novel.

Submitted by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson.

The “kinder and gentler” San Francisco Giants won a franchise-record 107 regular season games, defeating the “mega-payroll” Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League West 2021 championship. They showed clearly that “nice guys can finish first!”

Submitted by Louis Goodman.