- Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine passed a critical milestone last Thursday (Dec 10) when a panel of experts formally recommended that the Food and Drug Administration authorise the vaccine. The agency is likely to do so within days, giving health care workers and nursing home residents priority to begin receiving the shots early next week. United States (US) President Donald Trump signed an executive order last Tuesday (Dec 8), designed to ensure that US efforts to assist other countries in vaccinating their populations against Covid-19 take on a lower priority than domestic inoculations.
- Two whistle-blowers have accused contractors building President Trump’s border wall of smuggling armed Mexican security teams into the US to guard construction sites, even building an illegal dirt road to speed the operation, according to court documents unsealed by a federal judge. The contractors have also been accused of overcharging for construction costs. Trump may have failed to fulfil his 2016 promise to make Mexico pay for the wall, but if the accusations prove true, the administration would have been relying on Mexican workers for the project, potentially at the expense of Americans.
- Washington has agreed to prolong a set of temporary migration protections that allow immigrants from six countries to live in the US, officials said last Monday (Dec 7). The so-called Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some citizens of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras and Nepal was extended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) until at least October 2021. TPS has been in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s administration in recent months as it seeks to scale back humanitarian protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were due to be expelled from the US in early March after a wind-down period.
- President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, said last Wednesday (Dec 9) that the US attorney’s office in Delaware had opened an investigation into his “tax affairs”. Hunter Biden said he handled his affairs “legally and appropriately”. Trump and his allies have sought to tarnish his political opponent Joe Biden with unproven corruption charges involving his son.
- The Trump administration finalised a regulation last Thursday (Dec 10) that greatly restricts access to asylum in the US, part of a last-minute immigration crackdown that incoming President-elect Joe Biden will likely try to reverse. The final rule cuts off asylum access for most migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border through a series of changes to eligibility criteria, according to experts and advocates. It also directs immigration judges and asylum officers to deny broad types of asylum claims. The new policy will almost certainly face legal challenges.
- A few hundred Hondurans formed a caravan bound for the US last Wednesday (Dec 9) after hurricanes battered the country, posing a fresh challenge to efforts to stem immigration from Central America on the cusp of a new US administration. If the exodus grows, it could become the first significant caravan to hit the road since Joe Biden defeated US President Donald Trump in the presidential election last month.
- Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin urged the US Supreme Court last Thursday (Dec 10) to reject a lawsuit filed by Texas to throw out voting results in the four states that Biden won in November’s presidential election, saying the case has no factual or legal grounds and offers “bogus” claims. The chairman of the Texas Republican Party suggested on Friday (Dec 11) the formation of a “Union of states that will abide by the constitution”, after the US Supreme Court rejected Texas’ bid.
- Death row inmate Brandon Bernard has been executed in Indiana after last-minute clemency pleas were rejected by the US Supreme Court. Bernard, 40, was convicted of murder in 1999 when he was a teenager and is the youngest offender to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years. Four more executions have been planned before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.
- Allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro won the majority of votes in a parliamentary election that saw scant participation due to a boycott by the opposition, who called the event a farce meant to consolidate a dictatorship. The elections council said 67.6 per cent of the 5.2 million votes cast in last Sunday’s (Dec 6) election went to an alliance of parties called the Great Patriotic Pole that backs Maduro. Just 31 per cent of eligible voters participated, according to the council.
- Commercial passenger flights have resumed on Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft for the first time in 20 months after Brazilian airline Gol resumed operations using the plane. The aircraft was grounded globally in March 2019 after two fatal plane crashes in the span of six months, which killed a total of 346 people.
- Argentina’s lower house of congress approved a legal abortion bill sponsored by President Alberto Fernández last Friday (Dec 11). The push for reform in Argentina is part of a pro-abortion “green wave” sweeping through Latin America, symbolised by the green handkerchief that has become the campaign’s instantly recognisable flag across the entire nation. The strong influence of the Catholic church has helped keep abortion illegal across most Latin American nations.
- Cuba will end its decades-old dual currency system and have a single unified exchange rate of 24 pesos per dollar from January, President Miguel Diaz-Canel said. Diaz-Canel said in a televised speech last Thursday (Dec 10) that streamlining the currency system will put the country on a sounder footing “to go ahead with the transformations that we need to update our economic and social model”. The unification of the currencies is part of a wider reform package which the government has also said will also include modification of salaries, prices and subsidies.
- Bolivia’s civil registry authorised for the first time a same-sex civil union following a two-year legal battle, a decision activists hope will pave the way for an overhaul of the country’s marriage laws. The prohibition has been successfully argued to be violating international human rights standards and constituted discrimination under Bolivian law. Despite considerable opposition from religious groups, gay marriage has become increasingly accepted in Latin America, with same-sex couples now allowed to marry in Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and parts of Mexico. The Mexican Catholic Church’s highest-ranking bishop said he agrees with recent comments by Pope Francis in support of legal protections offered by civil unions for gay couples.
- Hong Kong police said last Monday (Dec 7) they had asked banks to freeze Ted Hui’s accounts because they suspected money-laundering by the ex-lawmaker, who fled to Britain after facing criminal charges related to anti-government protests last year. Steve Li, senior superintendent of the police’s National Security Department, said the order to freeze the accounts was unrelated to Hui fleeing Hong Kong or the charges he faces relating to anti-government protests in 2019. However, Li said that comments Hui had made on social media after leaving Hong Kong violated National Security Law for collusion with foreign powers.
- Bird flu has been detected in a fifth Japanese prefecture, the agriculture ministry said last Monday (Dec 7), as a wave of infections at poultry farms sparks Japan’s worst outbreak in more than four years. Nearly two million chickens will have been culled since the latest outbreak began. Japan’s last outbreak of bird flu was in January 2018 in Kagawa prefecture, when 91,000 chickens were culled.
- Six supporters of Indonesian Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab were killed in a shootout last Monday (Dec 7), police said. It raised worries that the clash would reignite tensions between authorities and Islamist groups in the world’s biggest Muslim majority country. Jakarta police chief Fadil Imran said the incident occurred just after midnight on a highway when the cleric’s supporters attacked a police vehicle with firearms, sickles and a samurai sword.
- The US is preparing to impose sanctions on at least a dozen Chinese officials over their alleged role in Beijing’s disqualification of elected opposition legislators in Hong Kong. Up to 14 people, including officials of China’s parliament, or National People’s Congress, and members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), would likely be targeted by measures such as asset freezes and financial sanctions. China blasted the US sanctions last Tuesday (Dec 8), calling the move “crazy and vile”. China also said last Thursday (Dec 10) it would revoke visa exemption treatment for US diplomatic passport holders visiting Hong Kong and Macau.
- Washington should establish diplomatic ties with North Korea, former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani told the 7th annual Milken Institute Asia Summit last Tuesday (Dec 8). The US should recognise that sanctions and isolations have had little effect on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and try a radically different approach, according to Mr Mahbubani.
- Farmers in India have shut down swathes of the country’s transport, shops and markets as they escalated their protests against new agriculture laws with the launch of a national strike. This is an effort to pressurise the government into repealing new laws they say will leave them poverty-stricken and at the mercy of corporations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi passed the laws in September, saying they would reform an archaic and outdated system and give farmers more control over their crop prices.
- The Papua New Guinea (PNG) crisis deepened as the supreme court threw out the country’s budget and demanded parliament to return to work. The political upheaval comes as the country is still coming to grips with Covid-19 outbreaks across the archipelago, and managing a severely straitened budget. Prime Minister James Marape faced a challenge to his leadership when dozens of government members, including several ministers, abandoned him to sit on the opposition benches, seizing control of parliament and suspending the budget sitting. Marape has insisted that he will not resign.
- Italian prosecutors have charged four members of Egypt’s national security agency over the kidnapping and murder of Giulio Regeni. All four are charged with kidnapping the doctoral student, with one, Maj Magdi Ibrahim Abdel al-Sharif, accused of grievous bodily harm. Italy is expected to put them on trial, probably in absentia, in 2021.
- The European impasse over a much-needed coronavirus stimulus package had been overcome when Hungary and Poland lifted their veto. This package would allow cash-strapped countries access to a historic level of funding. Hungary and Poland initially vetoed linking the disbursements of the funds with compliance of European values. Solidarity Poland, a small Polish party that is part of the government’s majority coalition, reacted with fury when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki agreed to the compromise. The party voted last Saturday (Dec 12) on whether to break away from the ruling coalition, which would cause the government to lose its majority in parliament. The motion was rejected 12 to 8 by the leaders of the Solidarity Poland party.
- European Union (EU) countries struck a deal on the bloc’s new climate target on Friday (Dec 11) after discussions through the night, pulling the political trigger on a policy revamp to make every sector greener. Leaders from the bloc agreed to cut their net greenhouse gas emissions at least 55 per cent by 2030, from 1990 levels.
- American drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said last Wednesday (Dec 9) that their developments for the Covid-19 vaccine had been accessed unlawfully during a hacking cyberattack on Europe’s medicine regulator. The two partners did not believe that any personal data from trial participants had been compromised. The European Medicines Agency assured that the hacking would not have an impact on the timeline for the vaccine’s review.
- Norway’s government has now barred its citizens from speaking against transgender people even in their own homes. The Norway parliament voted to expand its current law which was passed in 1981 to include both private and public remarks designated as hate speech against transgenders. Opponents of the expanded law argued that the law criminalises free speech.
- French President Emmanuel Macron proposed legislation to outlaw a broad array of activities last Wednesday (Dec 9) that it defines as forms of “Islamist separatism”. This includes the abuse of homeschooling to online hate speech. The legislation is a response to the spread of radical Islamism, an ideology that the government says aims to undermine the values of the French Republic and its principle which separates religion from the state, by building a parallel society where religious rules override civil ones.
- United Kingdom’s (UK) Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that there is a strong possibility that the UK will fail to strike a post-Brexit deal with the EU. Four Royal Navy patrol ships will be ready on Jan 1 to help protect Britain’s fishing waters in the event the Brexit transition period ends on Dec 31 without a deal, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) said. Weeks of intensive talks between officials have failed to overcome obstacles in key areas, including competition rules and fishing rights. The bloc would allow access to UK hauliers and airlines for six months if the overall deal was not reached. The EU will also offer British fishermen access to its seas and open negotiations over quotas if the UK government reciprocates.
- World leaders should declare states of “climate emergency” in their countries to spur action to avoid catastrophic global warming, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in opening remarks to a climate summit last Saturday (Dec 12). More than 70 world leaders were due to address the one-day virtual gathering aimed at building momentum for much steeper cuts in planet-warming emissions on the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Paris climate accord.
- Switzerland has frozen the financial assets of the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, following the violent aftermath of the elections in the east European country. Lukashenko and his son Viktor are among 15 people banned from entering or travelling through Switzerland, the government said. It demanded the release of people who have been arbitrarily detained and the investigation of allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security forces.
- The US imposed terrorism sanctions on Iran’s envoy to the Houthis last Tuesday (Dec 8), a step possibly aimed at pressuring the group to reach an accord to end the five-year war in Yemen. The US Treasury described Hasan Irlu as an official of Iran’s elite Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a pillar of Iranian efforts to project its power in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. The Quds Force is itself a US-designated foreign terrorist organisation. Iran imposed sanctions on the US ambassador to Yemen, Christopher Henzel, the next day. Iran’s foreign ministry said that he was blacklisted for his “pivotal role in the occurrence of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen”.
- Egypt received its first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines last Thursday (Dec 10). The vaccine called Sinopharm was developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group and the shipment came from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has been carrying out phase three clinical trials. The UAE health ministry said that Sinopharm has 86 per cent efficacy. The vaccine has already been used on about one million people in China in an emergency programme.
- The US Senate failed to block the Trump administration’s sale of US$23 billion (S$30.7 billion) in advanced fighter jets and drones to the UAE. The Senate fell short of the two-thirds support that would be needed to overcome a presidential veto, which President Trump threatened to do. Backers of the sale described the UAE as an important US partner in the Middle East. Opponents criticised the UAE for its involvement in the war in Yemen, a conflict described by the UN as one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
- Israel released US$1.14 billion (S$1.52 billion) in tax money which was withheld from the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority had been unable to pay full wages of its 130,000 employees in the past months and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said that they would pay full salaries once the tax money had been received. The release of tax money came after Israel and Palestine announced that they were resuming civil and security cooperation.
- The US military dispatched two B-52H bombers from the US to the Middle East on Thursday (Dec 10) as part of an ongoing effort to deter Iran from potential attacks. According to a senior US military official, the flight was not an offensive action, but a deterrence to prevent Iran from acting out. This followed troubling indicators in Iraq which showed that Iran or Iranian-backed proxy forces might be planning attacks.
- Israel authorities cleared the police of any wrongdoings, in the case of a nine-year-old boy who was shot in the face by an Israeli officer early 2020. The boy had lost an eye after the incident. Residents said that the boy had just gotten off a school bus in Issawiya, a Palestinian neighbourhood in east Jerusalem when the police opened fire. The police defended themselves, saying that they responded to riots in the neighbourhood and used non-lethal weapons.
- The Middle East region reported a “cyber pandemic” according to the UAE government’s top cybersecurity chief. The UAE saw a 250 per cent increase in cyberattacks in 2020. Mohamed al-Kuwaiti, the head of UAE Government Cyber Security said that the UAE was the target of huge attacks from “activists” against the UAE after it established formal ties with Israel in August.
- Israel established relations with Bhutan last Saturday (Dec 12), as it looks to continue to expand its diplomatic links internationally. Israel’s accord with the Himalayan country did not appear to be related to its budding ties under US-sponsored accords with Arab and Muslim countries, though Israeli officials sought to portray it as evidence of its growing acceptance abroad. The agreement follows several years of secret contacts between Israel and Bhutan to establish relations, Israel’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
- The US believes Eritrean soldiers have crossed into Ethiopia, despite denials from both nations, a US government source and five regional diplomats said. Evidence of Eritrean involvement cited in the US view of the month-long war includes satellite images, intercepted communications and anecdotal reports from the Tigray region. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace pact ending two decades of hostilities in 2018 and now regard the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a mutual foe.
- Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo won re-election with 51.59 per cent of the vote. The opposition party protested in the city of Tamale, claiming that there were some irregularities and attempts to subvert the will of the people. The election violence which started on Monday (Dec 7) resulted in five fatalities.
- Israel and Morocco have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations, US President Donald Trump announced last Thursday (Dec 10). Israel and Morocco’s restoration of diplomatic and other relations would include the immediate opening of liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv, as well as the opening of embassies. The US would recognise Morocco’s claim over the disputed Western Sahara region. Algeria rejected Trump’s decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, saying the step would undermine efforts to end the decades-long conflict over the desert territory.
- The agreement between the Ghanian government and Chinese energy company, Shenzhen Energy Group, was met with opposition by environmental activists. The coordination to build a 7,000-megawatt coal power plant in the Ekumfi district would result in the wastewater, ash pit and mercury emissions which pose serious health and environmental risks to the local fishing and farming communities.
- Russia and Sudan officially announced the finalised agreement to set up a naval base in Port Sudan. The deal discussion lasted three years before it was signed on Dec 1. The naval base would give Russian forces a small but significant toehold on the Red Sea for a period of 25 years.
- President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Felix Tshisekedi met violent scenes in Parliament after his move to end the country’s fragile governing coalition. Political allies of former Congolese leader Joseph Kabila expressed their strong protests against the move. Tshisekedi said he planned to form a new majority coalition and warned he might be forced to dissolve Parliament and hold fresh elections.
- The Trump administration has offered to create a US$150 million (S$200 million) fund for the victims of the 1998 embassy bombings who have become US citizens. The proposal is an effort to resolve issues around the deal signed by Sudan and the Trump administration in November 2020, which has been held up by two senior Democratic senators. However, critical issues remain, including the rights of victims of 9/11 to sue Sudan for any role in the attacks.
- US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to calls for sanctions on the Ugandan Army whose officials are accused of abusing human rights. Pompeo highlighted that the US expects its partners to live up to their obligations to hold free and fair elections. The US is paying attention to the actions of individuals who seek to impede the democratic process.