- The Democratic Party has regained control of the United States (US) Senate, according to projected results from two critical runoff elections in Georgia. The Senate currently consists of 51 Republicans, 46 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the Democratic Party. Since Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their respective runoffs for the Georgia Senate seats against the pair of incumbent Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the party will have 50 Senate seats and effective control of the upper chamber as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will hold the tie-breaking vote. Warnock would also make history as Georgia’s first Black senator.
- The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) said last Monday (Jan 4) it no longer plans to delist three Chinese telecommunications giants, following “further consultation with relevant regulatory authorities in connection with the Office of Foreign Assets Control”. This is after the NYSE had previously announced it would drop the listings of China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom to comply with a November executive order from President Trump, who sought to bar American companies and individuals from investing in firms that allegedly aid the Chinese military. However, the White House has quietly pushed the NYSE to consider a second U-turn on its decision.
- US intelligence agencies announced in a rare joint statement last Tuesday (Jan 5) that Russia was likely behind an enormous hack of government departments and corporations. They rejected President Donald Trump’s claims that the widespread hack may have been the work of China. The statement represented the US government’s first formal assignment of responsibility for the breaches, as well as the first reference to a motive in the hacking, which intelligence said appeared to be part of an “intelligence gathering”.
- Hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol last Wednesday (Jan 6), occupying the symbol of American democracy and forcing Congress to suspend a session to certify President-elect Biden’s victory. Police evacuated lawmakers and struggled for more than three hours after the invasion to clear the Capitol of Trump supporters. World leaders have expressed their shock at the infiltration of the Capitol, where the two houses of the Congress held a joint session to count and confirm electoral college votes. Some Republicans loyal to President Trump have vowed to support his efforts to overturn the result by formally objecting at the session, in a bid that is almost certain to fail.
- At least one Senate Republican would consider supporting a possible effort by congressional Democrats to impeach President Donald Trump for an unprecedented second time after his supporters stormed the US Capitol. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last Friday (Jan 8) that if Trump did not resign, she had instructed the House Rules Committee to move ahead with a motion for impeachment and legislation on the US Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of a president who is unable to discharge his official duties. White House spokesman Judd Deere said that impeaching Trump with 12 days remaining in his presidency would only serve to further divide the country.
- Twitter permanently cut off US President Donald Trump’s personal account and access to his nearly 90 million followers late last Friday (Jan 8), citing the risk of further incitement of violence. In response to Twitter’s suspension of his account, Trump said that he will look at building his own platform.
- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made clear for the first time last Friday (Jan 8) there could well be an election this year, indicating his government is preparing for a vote he insists he does not want. Trudeau’s Liberal Party only controls a minority of the seats in the House of Commons, which means he needs the support of opposition parties to govern and can be brought down if they unite against him. Trudeau, who says his priority is tackling the coronavirus epidemic, has previously sidestepped questions about an election, saying merely that one was theoretically possible.
- The dollar pulled back from a one-week high against a basket of major currencies last Friday (Jan 8) after a dismal December US payrolls report highlighted the need for further stimulus measures to prop up an economy battered by the coronavirus and its related government lockdown measures. Still, the pullback was somewhat muted as investors expect additional stimulus measures to help buttress the economy until vaccine rollouts allow for the easing of lockdown measures.
- The US, its Central American allies and Mexico will not allow a group of migrants that is readying a trip north from Honduras to travel to the US border, a senior US border official said last Friday (Jan 8). Guatemalan and Honduran soldiers would be deployed to prevent new US-bound migrant caravans from advancing, military officials said. The Mexican government had said last Monday (Jan 4) that it would come up with a plan to deal with US President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy while stressing that Mexico is not to blame for the flows of people. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to dismantle the “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which migrants with US asylum claims have stayed in Mexico while their requests are processed.
- Ghislaine Maxwell’s lawyers said last Friday (Jan 8) that the jailed British socialite may seek bail for a third time as she fights criminal charges that she assisted the late financier Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking of girls. In a letter to US District Judge Alison Nathan, Maxwell’s lawyers said a new bail application would “propose even more stringent and restrictive bail conditions” than the US$28.5 million (S$37.8 million) bail package the Manhattan judge rejected on Dec 28. Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to helping Epstein recruit and groom underage girls for sex in the mid-1990s, and not guilty to perjury for denying involvement.
- US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last Saturday (Jan 9) that he was lifting restrictions on contacts between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. Pompeo said that for several decades the State Department had created complex internal restrictions on interactions with Taiwanese counterparts by American diplomats, service members and other officials. The move to lift these self-imposed restrictions is likely to anger China and increase tensions between Beijing and Washington in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s presidency.
- A new Venezuelan National Assembly dominated by lawmakers from President Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) has been sworn in. Until now, the National Assembly had been the only major institution not controlled by the PSUV party. The coalition led by PSUV won a majority of seats in the December election, which most opposition candidates boycotted. The opposition and most Western democracies have said the poll was neither free nor fair. The opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, held his own swearing-in ceremony for MPs from the old congress. Guaidó is still seen by the US and Britain as Venezuela’s rightful leader following the disputed 2018 re-election of Maduro. However, while two European diplomats stressed the EU still did not recognise Maduro as president, the EU said last Wednesday (Jan 6) it can no longer legally recognise Guaidó as the country’s legitimate head of state after he lost his position as head of parliament.
- Venezuela’s oil exports had plunged by 376,500 barrels per day (BPD) in 2020 after being pressured by strict US sanctions, to levels not seen since the 1940s. The punishment, aimed to financially squeeze socialist President Nicolás Maduro, has led state-run Venezuelan oil company PDVSA to pursue new customers, rely on mostly unknown intermediaries to resell its oil and deepen ties with Iran, another country under US sanctions. An Iranian ship arrived at the Venezuelan port of La Guaira last Thursday (Jan 7) in what appeared to be a continuation of the commercial alliance between the two countries targeted by US sanctions. Iran has been supplying gasoline to ease fuel shortages in Venezuela caused by decay of the South American nation’s refineries and worsened by sanctions. It has also shipped food to help Maduro’s government.
- The critical care wards of major hospitals in Peru and Bolivia stand at or near collapse after end-of-year holidays, reflecting wider regional public health capacity concerns as much of Latin America struggles to secure adequate Covid-19 vaccine supplies.
- US-based EIG Global Energy Partners has sold to Fluxys Belgium a portion of South America’s biggest natural gas pipeline, clearing a regulatory obstacle to buy a bigger share of the Brazil-Bolivia duct, EIG’s CEO Blair Thomas said last Tuesday (Jan 5). EIG wants to bid for the 51 per cent stake in the pipeline owned by Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras, as part of a wider move into the country’s growing natural gas industry. EIG aims to create a private-sector alternative for processing and transporting gas from oil majors as the country develops this century’s largest offshore finds, known as the pre-salt.
- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reiterated baseless allegations of US election fraud and continued to back President Donald Trump last Wednesday (Jan 6), as Trump’s supporters invaded the US Capitol building. Bolsonaro also said last Thursday (Jan 7) that Wednesday’s mob attack on Congress was caused by the lack of trust in the vote count in the US election, warning the same could happen in Brazil, which has been internationally praised for its efficiency and speed in counting ballots.
- Communist-run Cuba said last Friday (Jan 8) it had signed an accord with Iran to transfer the technology for its most advanced coronavirus vaccine candidate and carry out last-stage clinical trials of the shot in the Islamic Republic. The allies are both under fierce US sanctions that exempt medicine, yet often put foreign pharmaceutical companies off trading with them, and as such, they seek to be self-reliant.
- South Korea has more deaths than births for the first time in history. Only about 275,800 babies were born in 2020, down 10 per cent from 2019. Some factors that have supposedly contributed to the decline in birth rates are: women having difficulties achieving a work-life balance, soaring real-estate prices and the failure to secure well-paid jobs. Last month, President Moon Jae-In launched several policies like providing cash incentives for families to address the low birth rates.
- Virginity tests on sexual assault survivors have been outlawed in Pakistan’s most populous province after women’s rights activists, academics, journalists, etc. petitioned in March and June 2020 to ban them. The Lahore High Court in Punjab province declared the practice illegal last Monday (Jan 4). Justice Ayesha Malik directed the government to create guidelines and training programmes for examiners to ensure the end of such practices that are deemed intrusive, traumatising and unscientific. This marks a significant milestone for women there since it is emphasised in their culture that the hymen is a signal of a woman’s purity.
- Dozens of former lawmakers and opposition activists suspected of “subverting state power” were arrested last Wednesday (Jan 6) in Hong Kong under the territory’s national security law. The law, imposed by Beijing on June 30, led to the arrests of at least 53 people for participating in unofficial election primaries for the territory’s legislature last year. American lawyer John Clancey was also one of the many who got detained, which could pose major diplomatic issues for Washington. Foreign ministers from the US, Canada, Britain and Australia condemned the arrest, calling on China to respect the freedom of the people on the island.
- Malaysia expects to pay less than S$270 million to Singapore for the termination of the high-speed rail (HSR) project after requesting to suspend the project in 2018. Mr Ong said in Parliament that costs incurred included abortive costs for consultancy services, design of infrastructure and manpower required. Singapore has received S$15 million from Malaysia in 2019. Malaysia had allowed the bilateral agreement to lapse on the deadline of Dec 31, 2020, after both sides could not agree to changes it had proposed.
- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called the United States the “biggest enemy” and said Washington’s hostile policy toward North Korea would not change regardless of who occupies the White House, state media reported last Saturday (Jan 9). Speaking at a party congress in Pyongyang just days before US President-elect Joe Biden is due to take office, Kim said that dropping those hostile policies would be key to North Korea-US relations, state news agency KCNA said. Kim also called for more research and development of advanced military equipment, as well as further progress in expanding the country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. The remarks came a day after Kim explored ways to renew inter-Korean ties and vowed to expand diplomatic relations in remarks to the congress.
- A passenger jet carrying more than 60 people crashed into the Java Sea last Saturday (Jan 9), Indonesian officials said. The Sriwijaya Air flight had taken off from Jakarta, the capital. Officials said they found body parts and possibly part of the wreckage. The fate of the plane, a Boeing 737-500, also carried the potential to ensnare the troubled American aviation giant in more bad publicity, even though the cause of the crash had yet to be determined.
- Nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov appears poised to win Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election yesterday (Jan 10), a snap vote triggered by the collapse of the previous government in the Central Asian nation. Violent protests which erupted last October sprung Japarov, 52, from a prison cell to the prime minister’s chair and culminated in him assuming the interim presidency, although he later gave it up to run for a full-time role. Despite his nationalist stance, he has repeatedly pledged to develop a strategic partnership with former Soviet overlord Moscow.
- British Judge Vaness Baraitser ruled last Monday (Jan 4) that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the US to face criminal charges, saying his mental health problems meant he would be at risk of suicide. However, the judge denied Assange bail last Wednesday (Jan 6), citing the risk of him fleeing justice. The US said it would continue to seek the extradition of Australian-born Assange. The US authorities accused the 49-year-old of 18 offences relating to the release by WikiLeaks of vast troves of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables which they say put lives in danger.
- The EU’s medicines regulator has given the green light to Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine, the second shot it has approved after Pfizer-BioNTech’s product. It had also reached a deal with Pfizer and BioNTech to secure nearly half of the firms’ global output for 2021. Many EU countries are currently facing high rates of infections and mounting criticism over what some view as a slow pace of vaccinations across the region. Meanwhile, European countries are also racing to contain two new Covid variants found in South Africa and the UK, that are more transmissible and have driven a surge in infections. A study conducted by Pfizer has shown that the Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine appears able to protect against these new variants of the coronavirus.
- German listed companies must include women on their executive boards as part of a landmark bill agreed by the country’s coalition government last Wednesday (Jan 6) after voluntary efforts failed to close a gender gap. Listed companies with four executives or more must appoint at least one woman to their boards, according to a draft law to be voted on by parliament.
- The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said last Tuesday (Jan 5) that he was “very disappointed” that China had still not approved the entry of a team of international experts tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus.
- The World Bank said last Tuesday (Jan 5) that Covid-19 disruptions are giving countries the opportunity to pursue “greener, smarter, more equitable” development policies, but that onerous debt burdens for poorer nations present a “major obstacle” to recovery. “Left unaddressed, the problem of unsustainable debt, and restructurings that do too little, will delay vital recoveries, especially in the poorest countries,” World Bank President David Malpass warned in the bank’s winter edition of its Global Economic Prospects report.
- Russia and China opposed a candidate from Fiji seen as a staunch human rights defender to lead the top United Nations (UN) rights body, creating a deadlock just as Washington may seek to rejoin the forum it quit in 2018. The Human Rights Council presidency rotates annually between regions and is usually agreed by consensus, with any contests typically resolved quickly and cordially, diplomats say. The impasse means the council, the only intergovernmental global body to promote and protect human rights worldwide, is set to resume work in Geneva this week with no leader for the first time in its 15-year history. While its decisions are not legally binding, they carry political weight and can authorise probe into violations.
- The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) demanded yesterday (Jan 10) that Prime Minister Boris Johnson pay billions of pounds in compensation to Scotland for the mounting costs and disruption of Brexit. Many Scottish fishermen have halted exports to EU markets, as the post-Brexit bureaucracy may make their businesses unviable with the introduction of health certificates, customs declarations and other paperwork. The red tape has added days to their delivery times and hundreds of pounds to the cost of each load.
- Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy seized a South Korean oil tank vessel with the commercial name Hankuk Chemi last Monday (Jan 4) for “violating environmental protocols” in the Persian Gulf. The vessel was said to be carrying 7,200 tonnes of ethanol. South Korea’s foreign ministry demanded the vessel’s immediate release, adding that its forces (the Cheonghae unit) stationed in the Strait of Hormuz were dispatched to the area. Following the seizure of the tank, spokesman of the Iranian foreign ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said a high-level official from the South Korean foreign ministry would travel to Tehran on Sunday (Jan 10) to discuss South Korea’s prolonged holding of billions of Iranian dollars due to the US sanctions. A spokesman for South Korea’s foreign ministry, Choi Young-sam, said last Tuesday (Jan 5) that the South Korean government is still communicating with its Iranian counterparts to release the vessel.
- Iran’s government under President Hassan Rouhami has approved a bill that aims to better protect women against domestic and other forms of violence and specifies punishments for perpetrators. The legislation defines violence as “any behaviour inflicted on women due to sexuality, vulnerable position or type of relationship, and inflicts harm to their body, psyche, personality and dignity, or restricts or deprives them of legal rights and freedoms”. The bill also requires funding from the judiciary to support victims of violence. It must now be approved by the country’s Parliament to become law.
- Israel leads the world vaccine race with 12 per cent given jabs. Israel has given vaccinations against coronavirus to more than one million people, the current highest rate in the world. Priority is given to those over 60 years of age, health workers and the clinically vulnerable. This result was accredited to paying a premium to get early vaccines developed by US company Pfizer and German partner BioNTech and the repacking of large ultra-frozen pallets into insulated boxes the size of small pizzas, which allowed for efficient distribution. Though Israel is in its third lockdown, it has managed to avoid major problems that are faced by other countries.
- Iraq was unable to pay government workers for months at a time last year, with its economy hammered by the pandemic and plunging oil and gas prices, which account for 90 per cent of government revenue. Iraq has been trying to make ends meet by burning through its reserves, which are insufficient. The government has thus proposed sweeping measures to try to bolster the economy, including tax increases, but many politicians are counting on the prospect of increased oil prices this year to delay passing what economists say are urgently needed reforms.
- Saudi Arabia and its allies restore diplomatic ties with Qatar after three years. At the 41st annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit last Tuesday (Jan 5), leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the rest of the GCC member states with Egypt, pledged “solidarity and stability” in an agreement to reconcile with Qatar to put an end to the Gulf crisis. That was when Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed a diplomatic, trade and travel blockade on Qatar in 2017, accusing the tiny Gulf nation of supporting terrorism and of being too close to Iran, which Doha has denied. With the reconciliation, Kuwait, a mediator for both sides, announced that Saudi Arabia is also reopening its airspace, sea, land borders with Qatar.
- Iran will expel UN nuclear watchdog inspectors unless US sanctions are lifted by a Feb 21 deadline set by the hardline-dominated parliament, said parliamentarian Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani last Saturday (Jan 9). Iran said last Monday (Jan 4) it had increased uranium enrichment to 20 per cent, breaching the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has continually denied it intends to assemble nuclear weapons. However, the three European signatories to the deal, cautioned in their statement that Tehran’s latest move “risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming US administration”.
- At least 22 civilians have been killed in a rebel attack on a village in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The rebels used machetes and bladed weapons to carry out the massacre and loot the settlement. Violence in Mwenda village of the Beni territory was inflicted by the Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) according to Donat Kibwana, the administrator of the Beni territory.
- The new coronavirus variant in South Africa is even more problematic than a mutated form in Britain, health authorities said last Monday (Jan 4). Scientists say the new South African variant has multiple mutations in the important “spike” protein that the virus uses to infect human cells. It has also been associated with a higher viral load, meaning a higher concentration of virus particles in patients’ bodies, possibly contributing to higher levels of transmission. Still, there is no evidence yet that the Covid-19 vaccines approved so far will not work against the new strains.
- Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera won the Central African Republic’s Dec 27 presidential election. According to provisional results announced by the electoral commission last Monday (Jan 4), he secured more than 53 per cent of the votes in the first round.
- An outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu on a poultry farm in the Thies region east of the capital of Dakar, said the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) last Thursday (Jan 7). The outbreak has killed 58,000 birds, with the remaining animals culled. H5N1 causes a highly infectious, severe respiratory disease in birds called avian influenza. Though humans can occasionally contract it, transmissions among humans are less likely to occur.
- The UN fears “massive community transmission of Covid-19 in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Since the conflict that erupted on Nov 4, 2020 between Ethiopian forces and those of the Tigray region, hospitals have been looted, some have been destroyed and some fighting continues. With many displaced and the interruption of Covid-19 surveillance and control work for more than a month, there could be massive community transmission of the pandemic.
- Bobi Wine, a Ugandan opposition leader, appeared to be dragged from his car by police during an online press briefing where he was calling for an investigation into rights abuses in his country. Wine said last Thursday (Jan 7) that police fired live rounds and teargas and arrested his campaign team ahead of the elections. Despite having to face violence, he says his battle to unseat the Ugandan President, Yoweri Musenevi, would continue. His campaign has thus far stirred opposition to Museveni, and his stand against an old ruling elite and inequality has inspired young people in urban areas and many across the continent.