Iran's most powerful military commander, Gen Qasem Soleimani. | Photo by: Khamenei.ir

US assassinates Iranian general, Australia defends handling of bushfire crisis, and US announces partial ban on flavoured e-cigarettes

North America and Canada

  • The US has announced a countrywide ban on some e-cigarette flavours amid concerns about vaping among teens. The action has been under consideration for more than a year, with several states passing similar rules. Fifty-five people have died and more than 2,500 people have been hospitalised with injuries linked to vaping. South Korea, India, Brazil are among the dozens of countries that have announced sweeping vaping bans. Others, like China, have announced restrictions.
  • The US Army has banned the use of the increasingly popular TikTok app, which allows users to post short, often quirky, self-edited videos, on work mobile phones for security reasons. The app, owned by the Chinese company, ByteDance, has come under close scrutiny recently in the US and other countries. In its defence, TikTok said recently that all US user data was located outside China, and not subjected to Chinese law. It also had strong policies on cyber-security and data privacy.
  • Donald Trump has announced he will sign a long-awaited trade agreement with China on Jan 15. The pact, a “phase one” deal, is expected to reduce tensions between the two economic giants. The US president said the treaty would be signed in Washington in the presence of “high-level representatives” from China. Since the start of the trade war, the two sides have raised import taxes on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of exports, unnerving markets and hurting global economic growth.
  • Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro, 45, has announced he is ending his campaign for the White House. Barack Obama’s ex-housing secretary, who was the only Latino in the race, said in a tweet: “I’ve determined that it simply isn’t our time…I’m not done fighting.” The grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Mr Castro had struggled to raise money for what was seen as a long-shot bid. His exit leaves 14 Democrats campaigning for this year’s presidential election. The White House race begins in earnest next month with the Iowa caucuses.

Latin America

  • Police are investigating a fire-bomb attack on the Rio de Janeiro office of a production company behind a controversial Christmas special aired on streaming service Netflix. The episode, by comedy group Porta dos Fundos, depicts a gay Jesus bringing a boyfriend home to meet his family. More than 2.3 million people have signed an online petition to remove the film. A video circulating online appears to show a far-right religious group claiming responsibility for the attack.
  • Bolivia has announced it is expelling Mexico’s ambassador and two Spanish diplomats, following a tense incident at the Mexican diplomat’s residence last Friday (Jan 3). Spain has since reciprocated the move, while Mexico claims it had already recalled its ambassador owing to concerns over her safety. This breakdown of relations is related to Bolivia’s ex-president Evo Morales, who was given asylum in Mexico in November after fleeing his homeland amid turmoil following his disputed re-election.
  • Elections for a new government to replace overthrown President Evo Morales and the interim Áñez administration that followed have been set for May 3, according to an official from Bolivia’s electoral tribunal. Speaking last Friday (Jan 3), the Supreme Electoral Tribunal Vice President Oscar Hassenteufel said the full electoral calendar will be revealed today.
  • Chile’s foreign reputation for sound fiscal management has survived the biggest social upheaval in a generation largely intact, market indicators show. The government says it now intends to cash in on that credibility. It plans to issue US$8.7 billion of bonds this year, of which $5.3 billion will be sold abroad, up from about $3 billion last year. Despite the recent anti-government protests, market confidence has been recovering and the peso has strengthened 11 per cent since Nov 28 when the central bank announced an intervention, the best performance of any emerging-market currency.
  • In a  2018 Human Rights Watch report, LGBT people in the Eastern Caribbean has been described as being stabbed, beaten, choked and pelted with bottles and bricks. Now, the region, which was dubbed in 2006 as “the most homophobic place on Earth” is the scene of a major battle to overturn British colonial-era laws that ban same-sex intimacy. The Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality is in the throes of legal challenges in five countries that still outlaw “buggery” and “indecency”, effectively criminalising gay people.

Asia-Pacific

  • North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said he is ending the suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests put in place during talks with the US. Mr Kim also said his country would soon introduce “a new strategic weapon”. But he left the door open for dialogue, and said the scope of any testing would depend on the US’s “attitude”. The North conducted several smaller weapons tests late in 2019, in what was seen as an attempt to pressure the US into making concessions.
  • Chinese authorities have launched an investigation into mysterious viral pneumonia which has infected dozens of people in the central city of Wuhan. A total of 44 cases have been confirmed so far, 11 of which are considered “severe”. The outbreak has prompted Singapore and Hong Kong to bring in screening processes for travellers from the city. It comes amid online fears the virus could be linked to Sars or severe acute respiratory syndrome.
  • Indonesian authorities are turning to the technique of cloud seeding to try to stop more rain falling in the flood-hit capital Jakarta. Planes have been sent to inject chemicals into clouds in an effort to alter precipitation. At least 43 people are known to have died, with some 192,000 evacuated. More rain is expected and experts say the city could be entirely submerged by 2050.
  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that 3,000 reserve troops will be deployed to help tackle raging bushfires across the country. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said this is the first time this has happened in Australia’s history. Temperatures surpassed 40 deg C (104 deg F) in parts of south-east Australia last Saturday (Jan 4) as fires ravaged through homes and land. NSW has declared a week-long state of emergency. Since September, the fires in Australia have killed at least 23 people.
  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has come under fire over his handling of an unprecedented bushfire crisis, has defended his government. While he has faced persistent accusations of being too absent, including by taking a holiday to Hawaii, and underplaying the role of climate change, he said he would not be distracted by criticism. This has continued to cause controversy because of Australia’s reliance on coal mining. Many have also called on the government to better fund the country’s largely unpaid firefighting services, pointing to an extraordinary strain on resources, and arguing that smaller communities are being disadvantaged.
  • For more than two weeks, hundreds of Muslim women have been braving one of the coldest winters in India’s capital Delhi to protest against a controversial new citizenship law. They are ordinary Muslim women, many of them homemakers, at the centre of a national debate – standing up to the government. They fear the Citizen Amendment Act could endanger their citizenship if it is used in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This is because the NRC will eventually require Indians to submit documents proving their citizenship. Muslims without the required paperwork do not have the same rights and could be detained or deported.

Europe

  • Turkey’s parliament has passed a bill that will allow the government to deploy troops to Libya to intervene in the civil war. Turkish lawmakers approved the bill last Thursday (Jan 2), with 325 in favour to 184 against. Leaders around the region, including the US, have condemned the move to be a dangerous threat to regional stability. Turkey is allied with Libya’s UN-backed government, which is based in the capital, Tripoli.
  • Spain’s interim Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has been backed by Catalonia’s largest separatist party to form a coalition government. Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) MPs are to abstain in a confidence vote this week, paving the way for a new term for Mr Sánchez. The ERC said a Mr Sanchez-led government would hold talks on Catalonia’s future. Spain has been racked by political uncertainty for almost a year. The country saw two inconclusive elections last year coupled with Catalonia’s on-going drive for independence.
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was not warned about the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iran’s top military commander Qasem Soleimani. The UK has 400 troops based in the Middle East and works alongside US forces in the region. Tory MP Tom Tugendhat said there was a “pattern” from the current White House not to share details with its allies, which was a “matter of concern”. Other UK MPs have also taken to Twitter to condemn the act. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has urged Iran to “take a diplomatic route” to reduce tensions with the West and come in “from the international cold”.
  • Ethical veganism is a “philosophical belief” and so is protected in law, a tribunal has ruled for the first time. The British landmark legal case was brought by vegan Jordi Casamitjana, who claims he was sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports because of his belief. His former employer says he was dismissed for gross misconduct. The judge ruled that ethical vegans should be entitled to similar legal protections in workplaces as those who hold religious beliefs. Mr Casamitjana’s beliefs affect much of his everyday life. He will, for instance, walk rather than taking a bus to avoid accidental clashes with insects or birds.

Middle East

  • Iran’s supreme leader has vowed, “severe revenge” on those responsible for the death of top military commander Qasem Soleimani. The 62-year-old, who spearheaded Iranian operations in the Middle East as head of the elite Quds Force, was killed by an airstrike last Friday (Jan 3) ordered by US President Donald Trump. The killing marks a major escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran. Iran said the US would be held responsible for its “criminal adventurism”. Mr Trump tweeted that the US will strike 52 Iranian sites “very fast and very hard” if Tehran follows through with its vow of revenge.
  • Oil prices have risen sharply after the killing of a top Iranian general in Iraq. Analysts warned the action could escalate tensions in the region and affect global oil production. The price of Brent crude jumped by more than 3 per cent and at one point hit US$69.50 a barrel, the highest since September. Even if tensions subside, Caroline Bain, an analyst at Capital Economics, said that the firm expects the price of oil to move higher this year due to “output restraint, slower growth in US oil production and a gradual pick-up in global economic growth”.
  • The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has decided to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution over corruption charges. The move would likely delay a trial until after fresh elections next March. In November, the prime minister was charged by the attorney general with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. He was alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to get more positive press coverage. Mr Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, would need the support of more than half of MPs for immunity to be granted.

Africa

  • Opposition and human rights groups have criticised a new Ethiopian anti-terrorism law saying it does not go far enough in terms of reform. The law – passed last Thursday (Jan 2) – replaces old legislation which described as terrorism any gathering that disrupted public services. Now, it says that workers have the right to strike even if they do disrupt public services and it also removed text used to authorise the arrests of dozens of journalists and opposition politicians.
  • The United Nations has called for increased international support for Zimbabwe as eight million people – or roughly half the population – face hunger. The World Food Programme is planning to double the number of Zimbabweans that it assists to 4.1 million but says it will require over US$200 million to meet its needs in the first half of 2020 alone. It also faces challenges in scaling-up its operations in the country as the shortage of local currency coupled with rapid inflation requires switching from cash-based assistance to food distributions.
  • Newly-elected Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune formed his government last Thursday (Jan 2), two weeks after he took office following a controversial election. Tebboune’s cabinet is composed of 39 members. Tebboune was elected last month in a poll marred by an official turnout of less than 40 per cent, with a month-long protest movement boycotting a vote they saw as a ploy by the establishment to consolidate its power.
  • The losing candidate in Guinea Bissau’s presidential run-off poll has filed a Supreme Court challenge against the election result. Domingos Simoes Pereira said there had been substantial fraud, with votes cast surpassing the number of voters in some areas. However, African Union observers said the poll was free and fair.
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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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