A man raises his fist during a protest against the death of Joao Alberto Silveira Freitas in Porto Alegre, Brazil on Monday. | Photo Credit: Silvio Avila/AFP/Getty Images

Nov 30: Biden picks his cabinet, Iran’s nuclear mastermind assassinated, French police brutality

North America

  • Canada’s Atlantic “bubble” has burst as Covid-19 cases continue to rise across the country. The Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador reimposed quarantine requirements for all travellers last Tuesday (Nov 24) as part of efforts to control the virus spread. The four provinces had previously allowed residents within its borders to freely travel without quarantine, while anyone from other parts of Canada and abroad faced a 14-day quarantine.
  • President-elect Joe Biden unveiled some of his key cabinets picks last week, which signalled a sharp deviation from the Trump administration and greater inclusivity. The former vice-president’s pick for secretary of state is Antony Blinken who has been described as a committed internationalist. Economist Janet Yellen will become the first female Treasury secretary; she was also the first woman to chair the United States’ (US) Federal Reserve. Two other firsts in Biden’s pick include Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latino who could be the secretary of homeland security, and Avril Haines as the first woman who could be the director of national intelligence. John Kerry, former secretary of state, was picked to be Biden’s special presidential climate envoy.
  • Western Union suspended its operations across Cuba last Monday (Nov 23) as new US sanctions kicked in. The stoppage of the international remittance firm’s services has cut off a key financial lifeline for many struggling Cuban families, as the pandemic ravages the island’s economy. Remittances to Cuba are estimated to amount to US$2 billion (S$2.68 billion) to US$3 billion (S$4.01 billion) annually. The incoming Biden administration intends to reverse the sanctions, but lifting them will take time.
  • Over 150 Cubans staked out their country’s culture ministry last Friday (Nov 27), in a show of solidarity with dissident artists facing state crackdown. The protest has been seen as an unusually large display of public dissent in the communist nation. The demonstrators called for dialogue over limits on freedom of expression and denounced the crackdown on the San Isidro Movement of dissident artists and activists. Local authorities broke up a hunger strike by the movement and evicted them from their headquarters the night before, on grounds of Covid-19 restriction violations. The group had been protesting the government’s curb on civil liberties and the detainment of rapper Denis Solis over alleged contempt.
  • Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges over its role in the US opioid crisis last Tuesday (Nov 24). The makers of the addictive prescription painkiller OxyContin faced charges of defrauding US officials and bribery. The company’s plea deal carries more than US$5.5 billion (S$7.36 billion) in penalties, most of which will go unpaid. Purdue is also under bankruptcy proceedings to transfer its assets to a “public benefit company” that will disburse it to the thousands of US communities suing it over the opioid crisis. The firm made more than US$30 billion (S$40.1 billion) from the sale of the drug, enriching the Sackler family who were the former owners of Purdue. Official US data estimated that 450,000 people have died from opioid-related overdoses since 1999.
  • Economist Yanis Varoufakis called for a one-day boycott of Amazon on Black Friday – which falls on Nov 27 this year, as part of the coordinated effort against the company’s sites and supply chain. He said the boycott would be “adding your strength to an international coalition of workers and activists” who are campaigning against the online retailer’s record on workers’ rights, environmental impact, tax avoidance, work with police and immigration authorities, and data privacy. Amazon denounced the campaign, calling it a “series of misleading assertions by misinformed or self-interested groups”.
    Economist Yanis Varoufakis called for a one-day boycott of Amazon on Black Friday as a campaign against the online retailer’s record on worker’s rights and other issues.
  • Canadian singer Drake called for the Grammys to be replaced after the snubbing black artists from its 2021 categories. His statements came after fellow Canadian singer The Weeknd failed to be nominated for any categories despite dominating global music charts this year, while the latter had called the Grammys “corrupt”. The recently founded Black Music Collective (BMC), an advisory group of “prominent black music creators and professionals”, have however hailed the 2021 nominations as “historic”. 10 black women were nominated in the top four categories, more than 20 black nominees represented in the general fields, and six nominees for best rap album were black independent artists. The BMC acknowledged that there were disappointments, adding: “our work is not done, and it will take time”.
  • The General Services Administration declared president-elect Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 US election last Monday (Nov 23), allowing for a formal transition from the current administration to begin after weeks of delay. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to say that he has directed his team to cooperate on the transition but vowed to continue fighting the election results. The Trump administration has failed to turn any electoral results in its favour in the courts, with its latest setback in the state of Pennsylvania where its highest court threw out a lawsuit.

South America

  • Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) will withdraw from a collaboration with a Venezuelan hospital to treat Covid-19 patients, the medical non-governmental organisation (NGO) announced last Tuesday (Nov 24). MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said that their ability to operate had been made impossible by restrictions on specialists entering the country. MSF has been working with the Ana Francisca Perez de Leon II hospital in the poor neighbourhood of Petare, east of the capital of Caracas. The NGO said that the local authorities have failed to respond to its requests for work permits for its specialists. Venezuela has reported more than 100,000 cases and nearly 900 deaths from the coronavirus.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said last Thursday (Nov 26) that he will not take the Covid-19 vaccine. This was the latest in a string of statements that expressed his scepticism towards the coronavirus vaccination programmes. The right-wing leader had also said that the Brazil Congress is unlikely to mandate the taking of the vaccine.
  • A court in Venezuela found six former executives of US oil refiner Citgo guilty of corruption and sentenced them to prison, last Thursday (Nov 26). The former company president, Jose Pereira, was fined US$2 million (S$2.68 million) and sentenced to 13 years and seven months while the five others were sentenced to more than eight years. The six have denied wrongdoing. The group’s lawyer, Maria Alejandra, said: “the evidence for the crimes they are accused of was not there, it did not even mention the six of them.” She added that they plan to appeal the ruling. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Friday (Nov 27) said that the US “unequivocally condemns” the Venezuelan court’s conviction and called for their immediate release.
  • Venezuela resumed direct oil shipments to China in August, despite ongoing US sanctions on such activities. The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration were intended to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, but have failed to hatt oil exports or Maduro’s grip on power. Purchasers of the South American nation’s oil circumvented the sanctions through transfers of cargoes between vessels at sea and the use of trade intermediaries. The Venezuelan government had also met with a delegation of Chinese officials and businessmen in November to tout a new law that would allow the government to sign new oil deals confidentially.
  • The United Nations (UN) called for reforms in Brazil over “structural racism” in the country. The statement came after the deadly beating of a black man by white guards in a supermarket last Thursday (Nov 26). The footage of Joao Alberto Silveira Freitas’ beating was widely circulated on social media. Protests erupted across the country with calls for “Black Lives Matter” and boycott of the supermarket chain Carrefour.
    The UN called for reforms in Brazil over “structural racism” in the country after the deadly beating of a black man by white guards in a supermarket.

Asia-Pacific

  • China has lashed out at Washington last Monday (Nov 23) over its withdrawal from the “Open Skies Treaty” with Russia as the move undermined military trust and transparency, imperilling future attempts at arms control. The last arms control pact (New START Treaty) to limit the number of nuclear warheads will expire next February, in which the Trump Administration has no intention of extending unless China joins, which is highly unlikely.
  • Singapore authorities have investigated 37 people and deported 16 foreigners as part of intensified security efforts in the wake of terror attacks in France and elsewhere. The 14 Singaporeans and 23 foreigners investigated had attracted the authorities’ attention for suspected radical inclinations, or for making comments which incite violence or stoke communal unrest. A majority had supported the beheading of a French teacher, Samuel Paty, and the subsequent attacks in France and elsewhere, among other things.
    Singapore authorities have investigated 37 people and deported 16 foreigners for radical inclinations or making comments to incite violence or stoke communal unrest
  • The Seoul Central District Court sentenced the ringleader of the Nth Room, one of the biggest online sex trafficking rings ever discovered in South Korea, to 40 years in prison, falling short of the life sentence demanded by prosecutors. Cho Ju-bin was found guilty of violating laws to protect minors from sexual abuse and of operating a criminal ring to make profits by producing and selling abusive videos. 
  • China’s President Xi Jinping’s announcement of China’s consideration to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a formerly American-based accord, has intrigued many across the Pacific Rim. Should the Biden Administration rejoin the CPTPP, it would be much more complicated for China to join later. Hence, given the political machinations in Washington, China’s interest is viewed as a “now or never issue”.
  • The Chinese embassy in the Philippines has denounced the US last Monday (Nov 23) for “creating chaos” in Asia. This occurred after US national security advisor Robert O’Brien underscored US commitment to Taiwan, and told the Philippines and Vietnam, who are currently locked in maritime rows with China, that they have the US’ support.
  • Japan and China agreed last Tuesday (Nov 24) to restart coronavirus-hit business travel this month and to continue talks on disputed islands in the East China Sea. While the maritime dispute over the East China Sea Isles – called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China – remains unresolved, the two sides have made tentative moves closer through trade agreements.
  • India has banned more than 175 applications with links to China in recent months and has now banned another 43 applications. India cited cybersecurity concerns as the action was taken as these applications were supposedly prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of a state and public order. Relations between the two most populous nations have been frayed since a deadly border clash in June. 
  • A Cambodian court has begun hearings in the treason trial of more than 100 members and backers of Cambodia’s opposition. Proceedings have been deferred to next year, delaying a case widely condemned as a move by long-serving premier Hun Sen to crush his political rivals.
  • Taiwan has officially begun to work on its first domestically-produced submarine to beef up its coastal defences against any invasion from China. The submarines are the latest initiative by President Tsai Ing-wen to reorient the island’s defence policy towards preventing an invasion rather than focusing on the aftermath. This would play a critical role in deterring an amphibious landing by China’s People Liberation Army and also patrol the Taiwan Strait. 
  • Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was remanded in custody last Monday (Nov 23) after he pleaded guilty to charges of organising and taking part in a demonstration outside the city’s police headquarters during the 2019 anti-government protests. His fellow activists Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow were also remanded after they pleaded guilty over charges relating to the protest held in June last year. All three will be sentenced on Dec 2. 
  • South Korea has confirmed the most number of Covid-19 cases since March as the country scrambles to contain the third wave of infections despite months of stringent safety measures nationwide. The sporadic cluster infections come mainly from private gatherings, public facilities, hospitals and the military. 

Europe

  • Russia said last Tuesday (Nov 24) that its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has more than 95 per cent efficacy. The reported results meant it has a success rate comparable to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but at a cheaper cost. The developers of Sputnik V also called for joint collaboration with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to achieve a “higher efficacy”. Many remain sceptical of the reported results, exacerbated by the Russian authorities’ hasty licensing of the vaccine before results of stage three trials were available. Among the European nations, only Hungary has shown serious interests in it, which has caused friction with other European Union (EU) members.
  • European governments are failing to protect their citizens from air pollution, according to data by the European Environmental Agency (EEA). Millions across Europe are still breathing in toxic pollutants from farming, domestic heating and vehicles. The EEA’s data showed that pollutant levels were beyond the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines to ensure breathable air, despite EU legislation and government pledges. Only Ireland, Iceland, Finland and Estonia showed levels of fine particulate matter – one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution – that were below the WHO guidelines in 2018. The EEA found that 417,000 premature deaths across Europe could be attributed to pollution in 2018.
  • The UK and France signed a new agreement to curb the number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. The deal would double the number of French police patrolling a 150km stretch of coastline often used by people-smuggling networks, enhance surveillance technology package, and steps to support migrants into accommodation in France. Humanitarian organisations have condemned the agreement, while Amnesty International UK said it was “profoundly disappointing”.
  • A series of alleged police brutality last week has caught the French government on the back foot, as it scrambled to soothe rising public anger overuse of excessive force. Police officers were dismantling a protest refugee camp in central Paris when they were filmed tipping migrants out of tents, slamming riot shields into individuals, chasing people down streets, and assaulting refugees, journalists and others with truncheons and tear gas. In a separate incident, CCTV footage of a black music producer being beaten by three police officers in his Paris music studio emerged, sparking an outcry. At least five officers have been suspended as part of an ongoing inquiry. French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the acts as “shameful”.
  • EU member governments are at odds over a Europe-wide plan to ban ski holidays over Christmas and new year. France, Germany and Italy are in favour of the proposed ban but Austria and Switzerland dissented over fears that it will damage a multi-billion dollar sector of their economies. The new wave of Covid-19 cases and related deaths have sparked serious concerns that ski resorts could be a hotspot for transmission of the coronavirus. Austria finance minister Gernot Blumel suggested that the EU should compensate for the loss in revenue should ski resorts be shut. Covid-19 clusters in alpine resorts were a major factor in the exponential spread of the virus during the first wave of the pandemic in Europe earlier this year.
  • The EU and UK engaged last-ditch Brexit trade talks last Saturday (Nov 28), amidst growing scepticism among EU member states about the usefulness of further negotiations. With just a month left to the end of the Brexit transition period and the lack of progress, some EU members felt that it was unwise to continue talks and to instead focus on preparing businesses for the repercussions of a no-deal Brexit. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier had also threatened to pull out of the talks if the UK refused to compromise.
  • Alexei Navalny called for the EU to impose sanctions on Russian oligarchs linked to President Vladimir Putin. The Russian opposition leader made the statements during an address to the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee last Friday (Nov 27), urging the targeting of Kremlin’s financial pillars. He said that it was pointless to sanction military leaders, those who rarely travel or those who do not have bank accounts in Europe. Navalny also named Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich and former Arsenal shareholder Alisher Usmanov as those who should be targeted for sanctions.
  • The EU voted to ban the use of lead shot by bird hunters, paving the way to phase out all toxic ammunition. The proposal to ban toxic ammunition came after scientific studies found that a million waterbirds are killed by lead poisoning each year, and millions more poisoned but do not die. Studies have also shown elevated blood lead levels in birds that have caused lowered immune systems in wild birds, potentially facilitating the spread of diseases such as avian flu.

Middle East

  • Iran has vowed retaliation after the architect of its nuclear programme, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated on a highway near Iran’s capital, Tehran, last Friday (Nov 27), in a major escalation of tension that risks placing the Middle East on a new war footing. Despite no immediate claim of responsibility, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Israel was to blame. Israel will face accusations that it is using the final weeks of the Trump Administration to try to provoke Iran, in hopes of closing off any chance of reconciliation between Tehran and the incoming US Biden Administration. Many Iranian officials also believe that Trump is determined to weaken the chances of diplomacy by antagonising Iran before the handover to Biden.
     
  • The billions of dollars in civilian aid for Afghanistan from international donors come with strings attached, as it came with difficult conditions pending in progress with peace talks underway between the government and the Taliban. Countries such as the US and Germany have restricted future funding, and some even committed for 2021, departing from four-year pledges made in the past. While US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale, said that significant progress has been made, the rise in violence in Afghanistan says otherwise. Since the start of the negotiations in September this year, attacks against Afghan forces and civilians have been 50 per cent higher.
  • The violence that erupted in Nasiriyah, Iraq last Friday (Nov 27) resulted in a death toll of six and at least 60 wounded by Saturday morning (Nov 28). The clash had been between the dwindling members of the October 2019 anti-government protest movement and supporters of populist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who instructed his followers to take to the streets in a show of force.
  • Iran seeks to project power through an enhanced navy. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), which previously solely focused on the Gulf, is currently looking to project its naval presence beyond the Strait of Hormuz as it finds itself involved in conflicts beyond its shores. The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy’s (IRIN) enhanced navy will allow it to patrol the Gulf of Oman and conduct operations further from its own bases as it seeks to secure its trade routes and fend off potential enemies. 
  • Turkish prosecutors have launched an investigation after the crew of a German frigate searched a Turkish commercial freighter. The German frigate Hamburg is part of the EU’s Operation Irini, intending to enforce the UN’s arms embargo on Libya and inspect vessels thought to be carrying weapons to and from Libya. However, Turkey claims that the search was unauthorised and conducted by force, insisting that its objections prior to the search were ignored. Turkey also rejected a call by the European Parliament for sanctions against Ankara over President Erdogan’s recent visit to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in north Cyprus.
  • The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has run out of money till the end of the year. Despite being chronically underfunded for years, this is the first time the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has gone bankrupt. The agency’s finances have also been ravaged by US President Donald Trump’s decision to slash hundreds of millions of dollars of aid, as well as a crisis in confidence after its previous commissioner-general was accused of abusing his authority.
  • Lebanon’s top investigator has asked Parliament to investigate 10 former ministers dating back to September 2013 he suspects are responsible for the condition that led to the devastating Aug 4 explosion. The highly explosive chemicals had been left at the port’s Hangar 12 for nearly seven years until the explosion, destroying large parts of the city, injuring more than 6,500 people, killing nearly 200 people and rendering thousands homeless. So far, about 25 people have been arrested and 33 charged in the blast probe.
  • The UN and Qatar have finalised an agreement to establish an office in Doha for a UN counterterrorism programme. The United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office (UNOCT) Programme Office on Parliamentary Engagement will serve as a hub for research, knowledge and capacity-building, leveraging on innovation and partnerships to enhance support to parliamentarians worldwide.
  • The UN says relief aid is needed for three million Syrian refugees as recent rains in northern Syria have damaged hundreds of tents in displacement sites in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.
  • Israeli forces have shot and killed a Palestinian man at a checkpoint after an alleged car-ramming attack outside of Jerusalem, hitting and lightly injuring an Israeli border police officer. Similar incidents have happened, rendering a number of local and international human rights groups to raise concerns that Israeli security forces have used excessive force when confronting Palestinians who carried out attacks or were suspected of doing so. 
  • Israeli army soldiers attempted to forcibly pull out and arrest an injured Palestinian from an ambulance of the Palestinian Red Crescent in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian appeared to be injured following protests on Tuesday (Nov 24) against Israel’s policy of home demolitions in the Jordan Valley.
  • Houthi rebels in Yemen have given a long-awaited approval to a UN plan to visit and assess a deteriorating oil tanker off Yemen’s coast that is threatening to spill 1.1 million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea. The UN has warned the Safer, stranded since 2015, could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, but access to the vessel has been complicated by the war in Yemen.
  • The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has stopped issuing new visas to citizens of 13 mostly Muslim-majority countries over security concerns.
  • Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi succumbed to Covid-19 last Thursday (Nov 26), three weeks after being admitted to the hospital in the UAE. 

Africa

  • Leaders in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray state have rejected the government’s claims that federal troops are surrounding the regional capital, Mekelle, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gives the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) until Wednesday (Dec 2) to surrender. However, government troops capturing the Tigrayan capital might not necessarily end the conflict. Since both sides are heavily armed, the conflict could evolve and become entrenched, leading to prolonged insurgent warfare, or even spill over into neighbouring countries.
  • Attackers have killed dozens of people working in rice fields in northeastern Nigeria, in the village of Koshobe last Saturday (Nov 28). Within the 60 farmers who were contracted to harvest paddy in the rice field, 43 were slaughtered while six were injured. Eight others are still missing, presumed to have been kidnapped. Both Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) are active in northeast Nigeria and have increasingly targeted agricultural workers in their violent campaign, accusing them of spying and passing information to the military and the local militia fighting them.
  • More than 43,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled to neighbouring Sudan due to the Tigray conflict. To cope with the flood of Ethiopian refugees crossing its borders, Sudan will need US$150 million (SG$201 million). Despite Sudan’s struggles with its own deep economic crisis, it has still sought to provide help to accommodate the mass refugee influx. Sudan has also been going through a fragile transition since April 2019 after the removal of its previous president, Omar al-Bashir.
  • A suicide bomber blew himself up last Friday (Nov 27)  in an ice-cream parlour in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, killing seven people. The death toll could rise as 10 others were wounded and rushed to nearby hospitals. While it was not immediately clear who was responsible for the blast, the armed group al-Shabab, allied with al-Qaeda, frequently carries out bombings, including the suicide attack on Nov 17 in a restaurant near a police academy, killing five people.
  • Paul Rusesabagina, who was depicted as a hero in the film Hotel Rwanda, is currently on trial for “terrorism” and other charges in the central African country. Rusesabagina, a political dissident, has been credited for saving 1,200 lives by letting people shelter in the hotel he was managing during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. He has since lived in exile in Belgium and the US but was arrested in August after returning to the country. Rusesabagina claims he had been kidnapped and held incommunicado with his rights violated.
  • A disused mine collapsed late last Wednesday (Nov 25) in Bindura, a town in Zimbabwe, trapping 40 informal gold miners. The number of those trapped underground could be higher as informal miners do not keep a tally of people operating in the mines they occupy. While six miners have been rescued so far, the rescue operations have been stalled by flooding as most parts of Zimbabwe are currently witnessing a wet spell.
  • An estimate of at least 600 civilians has been killed in the Mai Kadra massacre by local youth group Samri, which was done in support of other Tigrayan civilians, police and militia. Attackers specifically targeted ethnic Amharas and Wolkaits, but people of other ethnic groups were killed as well. While Amnesty has not been able to confirm who was responsible for the killings as the TPLF rejected any responsibility, witnesses blamed forces loyal to the TPLF.
  • Former militia leader Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka has been sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes and mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He was convicted last Monday (Nov 23) at the end of a trial that lasted two years. After evading arrest for years, Sheka turned himself in to UN peacekeepers in July 2017. 
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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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