The year 2016 may go down as the greatest nadir in American and world history since perhaps the Cold War: there was the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, an affront both to democracy and humanity itself; continued humanitarian crises around the world, including deliberate bombing of civilians in Syria, and less-publicized crises in Myanmar and Yemen; the disruption of European relations caused by Brexit; continued terrorist attacks by Islamic State; the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in American history; increased projection of power by Vladimir Putin, including in America’s presidential election; the discrediting of the news media; and a decline in content from Thought Front despite a major stream of output in the beginning of the year.
Nevertheless, there were some bits of silver lining in the vast expanse of deep, dark clouds.
Perhaps the most uplifting development this year came with the peace accord between the Colombian government and the paramilitary FARC. The agreement comes after five decades of guerilla warfare that resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people (perhaps closer to 300,000). Although voters rejected an accord in an October referendum, nevertheless the next month the country’s congress passed an accord with the group that had been modified to address opponents’ objections. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, even before the final accord was reached.
Another under-the-radar piece of relatively good news was the continued contraction of territory controlled by Islamic State, which even they acknowledged internally. In March, they had already lost 22% of the territory held in Iraq and Syria in January 2015. And things are only getting worse: an October estimate by Conflict Monitor, a service of the private British intelligence firm IHS Markit, concluded that the organization lost 14% of its territory in 2015 and an additional 16% of its territory from January to September 2016. By the numbers, ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria has gone from 90,800 km2 in January 2015 to 65,500 km2, meaning a loss of about 28% of territory in the two countries.
And the numbers do not always tell the whole story, because some small losses of territory were strategically significant.
“The Islamic State’s territorial losses since July are relatively modest in scale, but unprecedented in their strategic significance”, said Columb Strack, senior analyst and head of Conflict Monitor. “The loss of direct road access to cross-border smuggling routes into Turkey severely restricts the group’s ability to recruit new fighters from abroad, while the Iraqi government is poised to launch its offensive on Mosul.”
Islamic State’s revenue and recruitment numbers are also down.
Of note is that this data comes from a private firm. It is not government-furnished, like Robert McNamara’s infamous statistics that showed America winning the Vietnam War.
And things look to be growing worse for Islamic State: IHS Markit released the findings on October 9, one week before the US-backed coalition began its ongoing offensive to retake Mosul.
The general public and President Obama’s critics may not have realized that Islamic State is dwindling, as the organization increased its terrorist attacks outside their territory that drew much more attention. People witnessing coverage of terrorist attacks would not necessarily realize that Islamic State was losing ground in Iraq and Syria, and that the increased terrorist attacks may have been an attempt to compensate by projecting an image of strength.
The year 2016 also saw punishment dealt out for crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court found Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, guilty of war crimes for leading an army that raped, murdered, and pillaged the neighboring Central African Republic. This marked the first time the ICC convicted someone in connection with sexual violence.
Meanwhile, a special United Nations court found Bosnian Serb military commander Radovan Karadžić guilty of war crimes for ordering his army to engage in genocide of Bosniaks in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Serbian Civil War.
(Interestingly, both Bemba and Karadžić had roughly the same defense: the troops they oversaw acted on their own.)
Also convicted of crimes against humanity was former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, who during his time in office directed murder, rape, and torture of his political enemies, as well as ethnic groups. This included imprisoning people in quarters so small that people died of suffocation, and the surviving prisoners had no choice but to sleep on top of their inmates’ corpses. Women in prison were used as sex slaves, and Habré was found to have raped a woman four times. Habré’s conviction came from a Senegalese court backed by the African Union.
The conviction marked the first time a head of state was convicted by another country’s court. Habré is also the first head of state to be personally convicted of rape. The conviction also showed the promise that the African Union will be able to mete out justice for crimes against humanity in the future, and hold its leaders accountable.
There were also major discoveries and scientific breakthroughs, such as physicists detecting gravitational waves that help confirm part of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; the first three-parent baby; and detection of a possible new planet in our solar system. On top of that, Pope Francis publicly declared that evolution and the Big Bang theory are valid science, meaning none of the world’s billion or so Catholics can use a religious basis to deny basic science education.
Medical science had some breakthroughs in 2016 as well. There was the development of the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine for Ebola, deemed “100% effective” at preventing a disease that killed about 10,000 people in an outbreak lasting from 2014-2016. And last month the FDA approved the drug Spinraza, the first treatment available for spinal muscular atrophy, the number one genetic cause of death among infants, where the body cannot maintain spinal cord neurons. Generally children with the disease do not live past two years.
In both the above cases, the medical treatment was found so effective that clinical trials were ended early because it was deemed unethical not to provide treatment to the control groups.
Does that mean 2016 was a good year after all? Well, probably not. For one, we must concede that there will always be scientific breakthroughs in any given year, and an incoming president who denies basic science may very well hinder progress. And Colombia was the only place where a conflict was arguably resolved. Even worse is that there is nothing to indicate things will improve in 2017, and Trump will likely escalate conflicts around the world.
So good riddance to 2016. And a preemptive good riddance to 2017.