This has been a rough year for the world. Autocrats seized control; terrorism and hate crimes are on the rise; and scientists say climate change is now almost certain to have catastrophic effects. And then there’s Yemen.
Even so, there were a couple of bright spots. And since some of us are still in the Thanksgiving frame of mind, we thought we’d take stock of a couple of foreign policy trends, shifts and happenings that left us smiling:
1. Europe’s now got a really strong data protection plan in place: The General Data Protection Regulation, better known by its acronym GDPR, went into effect earlier this year. Nearly six years in the making, the GDPR lays out strong rules for what companies can do with your data. It limits what businesses can do, and gives users much more control over the information they put online.
Under the GDPR, companies must tell users what information is being collected, how it’s being used, how long it will be retained. Though it only protects the data of Europeans, it may reshape how big companies operate more broadly.
Privacy advocates quibble with some parts of the framework. But in general, they hail it is the most significant data protection breakthrough ever.
2. Ethiopia and Eritrea came to a groundbreaking peace. Oh, and Ethiopia appointed a female president: Ethiopia and Eritrea had been locked in conflict for nearly two decades. The Economist described it as a “cold war that once seemed irresolvable.” The struggle was nominally over contested land at the border of the two countries. Over the years, Ethiopia and Eritrea sent thousands of troops to the border, and armed each other’s rebels.
But this summer, the two countries made peace and restored normal relations, easing tension around the region. “There is a wind of hope blowing in the Horn of Africa,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told journalists after the signing of the peace accord. “It is not only the peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea — it is the fact that tomorrow and the day after tomorrow we will have, here in Saudi Arabia, the president of Djibouti and the president of Eritrea — two countries that have also been at odds with each other.”
The peace comes against a backdrop of unprecedented reforms in Ethiopia’s once authoritarian government, including prisoner releases, economic opening and opposition figures allowed back in the country. Most dramatically, has been the appointment of women in several top posts, including half the cabinet ministers, the head of the Supreme Court and even the president of the country, the largely ceremonial head of state.
3. After six decades, the remains of more than 50 U.S. service members were returned to the United States from North Korea: Nearly 8,000 U.S. troops are unaccounted for from the Korean War. This summer, North Korea returned the remains of what is believed to be about 50 service members. (U.S. officials are still working to identify them.) Vice President Mike Pence called it “tangible progress in our efforts to keep peace on the Korean Peninsula.” But for families who lost their loved ones, it means something more personal: “You just cannot fathom the suffering that these families endure,” Sherri Steward, who lost her father and uncle during the Korean War, told AARP. “The Korean War ended for the young men who perished there, but for families of those whose remains have not been recovered, the Korean War never has ended.”
4. The #MeToo movement went global: A little more than a year ago, The New York Times and The New Yorker published stories about Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood producer who allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted dozens of women with impunity. That story sparked an international movement. Around the world, women shared their stories.
In Britain, the “Westminster dossier,” an online spreadsheet, exposed the alleged misconduct of more than 40 politicians. In Japan, journalist Shiori Ito publicly accused a prominent journalist of rape. In Australia, television personality Don Burke (often described as the country’s “Weinstein”) was accused of bullying and harassment by several current and former employees. In China, several prominent professors and television producers stepped down after accusations. Even in conservative Indonesia, a woman was able to successfully push for the prosecution of the man who assaulted her after she obtained video footage.
5. The price of solar panels fell — a lot: It may be one of the only bits of good news in the fight against climate change this year: the price of solar panels are falling even faster than experts expected. Jenny Chase, an expert on solar panel pricing, said the technology has gotten better faster than expected. As a result, solar panel installations have skyrocketed. Solar panels, of course, tap a renewable energy resource and don’t produce greenhouse gasses. If we want to slow the production of carbon dioxide, experts say solar energy will have to be part of the solution.
“Solar power is going to dominate the energy sector this century,” Ars Technica wrote earlier this year. “The question is just how quickly it will bring down costs and take over the world. Yet again, the answer seems to be: quicker than people thought.”
6. After two weeks and an ambitious international effort, 17 Thai teenagers and their soccer coach were rescued from a cave: One day in July, a group of 13 Thai high schoolers hiked to Tham Luang cave for an afternoon of exploration. They’d been there before, and were planning to spend just an hour inside before trekking home for a birthday party.
They wouldn’t leave the cave for nearly two weeks after a sudden flood trapped the boys (some of whom couldn’t swim!) in the flooded darkness. Getting them out took a daring, international rescue.
“We didn’t think the mission would be this successful,” Thai Navy SEALs leader Rear Adm Arpakorn Yuukongkaew told the BBC. When they began the rescue operation, they had only “a little bit of hope that they might still be alive,” he said. “In the end that tiny bit of hope became reality.”
7. The royal wedding made us forget: Even with all the distractions, it was hard to look away. This summer, Prince Harry married American actress Meghan Markle. By royal standards, the pair had somewhat unconventional nuptials, with a gospel choir and the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church presiding. It was glitzy, glamorous and all over the news, a fairy tale that offered a rare respite from the grim headlines.