Fri. Dec 13th, 2019

Voters queueing up outside a polling station during district council local elections in Hong Kong, November 24, 2019. | Photo by: Reuters pic

Marathon week for Trump impeachment hearings, turbulent Hong Kong heads to the polls, a Chinese spy defects

North America and Canada

  • Last week, Capitol Hill played host to a string of public hearings by the US House for its impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump. Key witnesses such as US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and former top Russia expert on the National Security Council Fiona Hill testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee, providing damning testimonies against Mr Trump. The president is accused of using diplomatic channels for domestic political gains, with Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being dragged into the fray.
  • US President Donald Trump reversed on plans to ban flavoured e-cigarettes after initially calling for a ban in September. His decision comes amid fear of possible job losses and voter backlash. The vaping crisis in the US has affected over 2,000 Americans with varying degrees of lung injuries, with 42 deaths attributed to it.
  • The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was passed overwhelmingly, with 417-1 in favour, by the US Congress last Wednesday (Nov 20). The bill now remains to be signed into law by President Trump, who has remained ambiguous about signing it. However, insiders have said the President is likely to endorse it. The move by US lawmakers has drawn the ire of China, threatening retaliation if the bill is passed into law. The legislation would require Hong Kong to retain enough autonomy from China to continue with the territory’s special trading status.
  • US Democratic presidential hopefuls returned for a fifth round of a televised presidential debate last Thursday (Nov 21). The 10 presidential hopefuls, including front-runners Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, all addressed the impeachment inquiry, largely condemning President Trump. The debate then returned to topics that have dominated the previous ones: healthcare, taxes, and the environment.
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his new cabinet last Wednesday (Nov 20) with a focus on preventing threats to national unity. PM Trudeau has appointed Chrystia Freeland as minister of intergovernmental affairs and tasked the former foreign affairs minister with preventing a provincial feud from becoming a national crisis. The western Canadian provinces have become increasingly averse to the PM’s environmental policies and have demanded greater support for the struggling oil and gas industry.
  • British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen said that Facebook would have “allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’”. Mr Cohen was speaking at an Anti-Defamation League summit in New York last Friday (Nov 22) when he targeted the social media platform. Facebook has been under increasing criticism for not adequately addressing the fake news problem, and for allowing target political advertisements.

Latin America

  • Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera came out to condemn the abuses committed by police in dealing with the violent unrest that has rocked the South American state for the past month. The continued turmoil in the country arose from the furore against the worsening social and economic inequality and has seen more than 20 dead and thousands injured. The UN has sent a team to investigate the alleged crimes, while local prosecutors are currently looking into over a thousand cases of alleged abuses – ranging from torture to sexual violence – by security forces.
  • Bolivia’s Congress approved a bill to hold new elections without the ousted ex-president Evo Morales last Saturday (Nov 23). The bill annuls the results of last month’s elections to make way for a new one to be held, and crucially, banning re-elections for those who have already served two terms. The caretaker government, helmed by interim President Jeanine Anez, also met with protesters in an effort to quell weeks of dissent where at least 32 have been killed.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets of Bogota, Colombia’s capital, last Thursday (Nov 21) to protest against its deeply unpopular government and to show support for the historic 2016 peace deal the leftist FARC rebel group. Riot police have also resorted to employing tear gas in attempts to quell the unrest. The national strike was sparked by proposed cuts to pensions as well as the perceived intentional slow rollout of peace plans with the rebel group.
  • Three police officers were killed, with an additional 10 injured, after a bomb went off in a police station in Colombia last Friday (Nov 22). Thousands have also gathered back on the streets for renewed protest against the government, prompting the government to close borders, enacting curfews and banning the sale of alcohol.
  • Deforestation of the Amazon ‘at the highest level in a decade’ with almost 10,000 square kilometres lost from the beginning of the year to August. The statistics compiled from Brazil’s government data has shined a spotlight on President Jair Bolsonaro’s impact on the world’s largest rainforest. Mr Bolsonaro has increasingly been the blame for the increased losses due to his weakening of environmental protection measures, the president has brushed off such criticisms and calling the Amazon deforestation as “cultural”.

Asia-Pacific

  • Australia’s second-largest bank, Westpac, has been accused of 23 million breaches of anti-money-laundering laws by the country’s regulators. The bank had ignored red flags and enabled payments from convicted child sex offenders in ‘high-risk’ countries, the lawsuits also claimed that Westpac was aware of ‘heightened child exploitation risks’ in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries but took no action. The bank is facing fines of up to US$14 million for every transaction it failed to monitor adequately or report on time.
  • Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa named his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister last Wednesday (Nov 20). Mr Mahinda was a former two-term president and is seen to have close ties with Beijing, which could spell a boon for China. The Rajapaksa brothers have been credited with quashing the Tamil Tigers a decade ago, but have also been accused of war crimes and human rights abuses.
  • South Korea has decided to extend an important military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan last Friday (Nov 22) to the relief of the US. The pact was signed in 2016 to allow the two East Asian nations to share military secrets on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capacity. The recent breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two US allies has led to South Korea almost pulling out from the pact.
  • A Chinese spy by the name of Wang ‘William’ Liqiang defected to Australia whilst providing a trove of intelligence detailing China’s foreign interference. Mr Wang told Australian counter-intelligence agency that China ran political interference operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, and was personally involved in a number of those operations. He revealed that Beijing covertly controlled listed companies to fund intelligence operations, including surveillance and profiling of dissidents and the co-opting of media organisations. China, however, has come out to discredit the defector, calling him a “fraud”.  Mr Wang is currently living in Sydney with his family, requesting political asylum.
  • Residents of Bougainville headed to the ballot boxes last Friday (Nov 22) in a two-week referendum to decide if the region will seek independence from Papua New Guinea. The archipelago could potentially become the world’s newest country, but the journey to this point has been long and stained with bloodshed. The islands had faced a decade-long civil war and finally ending in 1998, not before an estimated 20.000 Bougainvilleans died.
  • Pope Francis has called the use of atomic energy for purposes of war a “crime” during his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Sunday (Nov 24) as he paid tribute to the victims of the atomic bombs during World War Two. The Pontiff said that “Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation.” The Pope is presently on his Asian tour, which began in Thailand.
  • Unprecedented turnout as Hong Kong residents head to polls for local elections last Sunday (Nov 24) which has been seen as a proxy referendum on months of anti-government protests. Voters are to decide who they want for the 452 district councillors who will be overseeing everyday neighbourhood affairs. Latest polling results show the pro-democracy camp capturing more than half of the seats, on-track for a landslide victory, while the pro-establishment parties only securing 42 seats so far. This election is seen as significant as it may be a barometer of support for the anti-government movement, which may add pressure on embattled leader Carrie Lam. There are 4.13 million registered voters with over 70 per cent voter turnout this year, as compared to 3.12 million registered voters in 2015 and only 47 per cent turnout.

Europe

  • Serbia President Aleksandar Vučić has accused Russia of espionage last Thursday (Nov 21), as the country’s intelligence agencies uncovered a Russian spy plot involving members of the Serbian army. The statement comes after a video was anonymously uploaded to YouTube, showing a purported Russian spy handing a bag of cash to another man. The Kremlin has denied knowledge of the incident but said that relations between the two countries should not be affected.
  • Austria will convert Adolf Hitler’s birthplace in the northern town of Braunau into a police station in a bid to prevent the house from becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. The house was taken over by the government in 2016 but faced a legal tussle with the owners, which was finally concluded in the land’s highest court. “The house’s future usage by the police should set a clear signal that this building will never be a place to commemorate Nazism,” said the interior minister, Wolfgang Peschorn.
  • Some 7,000 people crammed together in the northern Italian city of Modena as part of a growing “sardines” movement against the agenda of the far-right leader, Matteo Salvini last Monday (Nov 18). Mr Salvini has been campaigning for his party’s candidate for the regional elections in Emilia-Romagna, a traditionally left-wing stronghold. Demonstrations against far-right leader began last Thursday (Nov 14) in Bologna, and continued last Sunday (Nov 24) in the coastal city of Rimini where Mr Salvini will inaugurate his party’s regional headquarters.
  • Greece announced plans to relocate some 20,000 migrants from the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos to facilities on the mainland by early 2020. The three islands have played host to the country’s largest migrant camps, where conditions have been criticised as poor and overcrowded. However, the new facilities, designed to hold at least 5,000 people each, have drawn flak from rights activist who has likened them to “detention centres”.
  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage last Tuesday (Nov 19) in the first of several planned televised debates before the Dec 12 general elections. Neither were seen being able to land a knockout hit against the other. The PM reiterated his stance to “get Brexit done”, while Mr Corbyn accused his counterpart of plans “to sell our national health services out to the United States and big pharma”.
  • Thousands of people marched in France to protest against alarming levels of deadly domestic violence against women last Saturday (Nov 23), with more than 130 killed in this year alone. An EU study showed that France has a higher rate of domestic violence than most of its European peers, while President Emmanuel Macron as decried it as “France’s shame”. The government is expected to announce a slew of new measures to combat such crimes.

Middle East

  • The US declared that Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land are no longer considered illegal last Monday (Nov 18), in a dramatic shift of foreign policy on the issue. This change means the US now rejects a 2016 UN resolution that states that settlements on the West Bank are a ‘flagrant violation’ of international law. This move has also prompted calls from Israeli political hardliners to take over the territory and “apply our sovereignty to these communities”. Critics have warned that US’s decision risks an escalation of tensions in the region.
  • More than 100 killed, and hundreds more arrested in Iran as local security forces crackdown on nationwide protests against a petrol price hike over the past week. The UN was shocked by “the use of live ammunition” and has urged for restraint. The Iranian government also cut internet access in a move to stop further dissent, prompting the US to impose sanctions on its Communications Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came out to support the price hike whilst accusing opponents of the state and foreign enemies for the recent spate of unrest.
  • Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted for fraud and accepting of bribes last Thursday (Nov 21), putting his political career in greater peril. He stands accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars of champagne and cigars from billionaire friends, trading favours with a newspaper publisher and using his influence to help a wealthy telecoms magnate in exchange for favourable coverage. This comes as the country faces a political crisis where neither of the two largest political parties are able to form a majority coalition government.
  • PM Netanyahu’s main political rival Benny Gantz failed to form a majority coalition government last Wednesday (Nov 20 and this puts the political scene into further disarray. The embattled PM and his rival Mr Gantz both lead the two biggest winning parties of the last general elections, but neither could make headway in forming a government. President Reuven Rivlin ordered parliament to appoint a new PM or face other much-unwanted elections.
  • Syrian government forces targeted a refugee camp and hospital last Wednesday night (Nov 20), killing at least 22 civilians and dozens injured. Medical personnel on the camp were also hurt. The facility is located near the village of Qah in the Idlib province of Syria near the Turkey-Syria border and on a supposed UN no-strike list. Both Syrian and Russian forces have been accused of using the GPS coordinates on the list to target civilian infrastructure.
  • Leaked cables revealed that Iran has widespread influence in Iraq up to the highest levels of power. Jointly published by The Intercept and the New York Times, the 700-page leak showed Iraq’s current prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, having a “special relationship with Iran”. The documents also showed that the Iranian intelligence have infiltrated Iraq’s military leadership, and tapped into a network of sources once run by the CIA.

Africa

  • Jeremy Corbyn said his Labour government would return the Chagos Islands, which were excised by the British in 1965, to Mauritius. The islanders were evicted from the atolls to make way for a US military base, and were prevented from returning ever since. Mr Corbyn’s statement came after the UK failed to respect a UN deadline to return the archipelago to Mauritius last Friday (Nov 22), as part of the UN’s decolonisation effort.
  • The World Food Programme has warned that Burkina Faso could risk becoming “another Syria” as a result of an “escalating humanitarian crisis” stemming from growing extremist violence and long-term effects of the climate crisis. The West African state situated in the arid central Sahel region is facing increased attacks from a jihadist insurgency that have displaced half a million people and put 2.4 million in need of food aid.
  • Zimbabwe riot police employed tear gas and struck people with batons to disperse a crowd who had gathered to hear a speech by the country’s leading opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, last Wednesday (Nov 20). The rising public discontent of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa comes amidst a failing economy, a severely deteriorated healthcare system, and unfulfilled election promises. The opposition has accused Mr Mnangagwa of dictatorship and political suppression akin to the Mugabe-era.
  • Alibaba founder Jack Ma gave out the first US$1 million to ten young African entrepreneurs, with the top honour receiving a quarter-million US dollars. This was part of Mr Ma’s Africa Netpreneur Prize, a decade-long US$10 million investment into the continent’s start-ups. The eccentric, self-made billionaire said, “If Africa wants to develop, solve its problems and have sustainable growth, the most important thing is that we need entrepreneurs to join forces.”
  • Prominent rights activist Almaas Elman was shot dead last Wednesday (Nov 20) in Mogadishu, Somalia. Security officials said she was travelling in a car within a fortified airport compound when she was struck by a stray bullet and died “within a few minutes”. Ms Elman and her family were well-known peace campaigners, whose works included the “Drop the gun, pick up the pen” campaign, which encourages child soldiers to return to peace and education.
  • British lawmaker Peter Hain has accused HSBC, Standard Chartered and India’s Bank of Baroda as well as their senior directors of being “directly culpable” in the looting of South Africa’s treasury under former president Jacob Zuma. Mr Zuma was ousted as president in 2018 over allegations of corruption and is currently facing a judicial inquiry. This comes amidst increased scrutiny of the role of global finance in facilitating corruption, fraud, and money laundering.
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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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