President-elect Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff salute as they arrive at the Capitol. | Photo Credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar

Jan 25: Biden becomes the 46th, Hong Kong went into lockdown, Thousands protest for the release of Navalny

North America

  • Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the US last Wednesday (Jan 20), together with his running mate Kamala Harris. The inauguration ceremony was graced by former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Outgoing president Donald Trump was not present and had left for his Florida residence earlier in the day, but former vice-president Mike Pence was in attendance. The usual crowds on the Capitol grounds were replaced by flags due to Covid-19 measures and safety concerns. At 78, President Biden now holds the titles of the oldest person inaugurated as well as the oldest sitting US president, while Harris becomes the first woman, of colour, and of South Asian descent to hold the second-highest office.
  • Newly inaugurated president Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders on his first day on the job (Jan 20), on issues including Covid-19, environment and immigration. The orders put Covid-19 response front and centre, extending federal pauses to evictions, foreclosures and student loans, mandating mask-wearing at all federal facilities, and rejoining the WHO. Some of President Biden’s orders also reversed Trump-era policies on environment and immigration, such as cancelling the Keystone XL oil pipeline, returning the Paris climate agreement, halt on the US-Mexico border wall construction, and ending a Muslim travel ban.
  • Former President Donald Trump pardoned 74 people as his final act in the dying hours his presidency, including his former senior adviser Steve Bannon. The former editor of right-wing news outlet Breitbart is facing a fraud trial, accused of siphoning money from a fundraiser for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall. Rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, who were prosecuted for federal weapons offences, were also pardoned. Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is serving a 28-year prison term on corruption charges, was too in the list of pardons. Political observers noted that Trump did not issue any preemptive pardons for himself and his family members, nor for his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. No Capitol rioters were pardoned as well.
  • Guatemalan troops, armed with riot shields and truncheons, forcibly cleared a group of mostly Honduran migrants last Monday (Jan 18), who have camped out overnight along a road. The group of hundreds were part of a caravan, estimated to be 8,000-strong, headed to the US and fleeing destitution. This was part of the local authorities’ latest effort to break up the caravan and discourage their advance. Some 4,000 migrants have reportedly returned to Honduras and El Savador, while many still hope to find a way to the US.
  • President Joe Biden picked Rachel Levine to be his assistant secretary of health, and is to be the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the US senate. Levine is currently Pennsylvania’s health secretary and the face of its Covid-19 response. The Havard and Tulane Medical School graduate is pediatrician by training, and had led the adolescent health clinic at Penn State University. She was subsequently appointed as the physician general by the state governor before her role as the health secretary. President Biden hailed Levine as a “historic and deeply qualified choice”. She had previously said, “With very few exceptions, my being transgender is not an issue.”
  • Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared that China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province as “genocide”, during the final hours of his term. In his statement, Pompeo said that he “believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state.” President Biden’s secretary of state appointee, Anthony Blinken, agreed with the sentiments. The statement had drawn the ire of China, who has since imposed sanctions on Pompeo and other Trump officials, and denied such allegations.
  • Canada deported thousands of people amidst a raging global pandemic last year, according to a Reuters report. The North American nation removed 12,122 people in 2020, nearly 900 more than the year before. Public health experts have warned that travel of any kind can spread Covid-19. Deportations involve multiple flights and transfers, often putting people in closed and confined spaces, ripe for transmission. Refugee lawyers and the Canadian Bar Association have condemned the resumption of deportations, arguing that it was in contradiction to the national effort against the pandemic and putting government officials involved at health risk. The Canadian border authorities have defended its actions, saying it “continues to uphold both its human rights and public safety obligations”. Refugee lawyers have said that deportations were ramping up.

South America

  • The UN temporarily suspended cash transfer programmes in Venezuela, it said last Wednesday (Jan 20). The programmes provided direct financial aid to the poor via local nonprofits. The international organisation added it was working with the relevant authorities to resume the programmes and ensure the “safety of humanitarian workers” and continued support of vulnerable people. It added that halt did not affect its ongoing humanitarian programmes in the country. The decisions came on the heels of the arrest of five members of the HIV prevention organization Blue Positive, and who are now facing charges of criminal association and money laundering. Their arrests followed a spate of raids by local police on nonprofit organisations, which the UN has described as “disconcerting”.
  • Argentina claimed last Thursday (Jan 21) that the German Falklands travel request was support for its sovereignty claim over the territory. Germany rejected the Argentine proclamation and said that “the activities of private companies cannot be attributed to the Federal Republic of Germany and have no international consequences.” The German airline Lufthansa had requested to fly over Argentinian airspace en route to the British-controlled Falklands to support an Antarctic science expedition. Argentina and Britain have long disputed over ownership of the Falklands, which resulted in a brief war in 1982.
  • Support for Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro fell sharply, but the majority rejected his impeachment, according to recent polls. The survey showed that 40 per cent of respondents rated Bolsonaro’s government as bad or terrible, as compared to 32 per cent in early December. Currently facing a second brutal wave of the pandemic, Brazilians have grown irate at the far-right government over the slow pace of the vaccine rollout. The country has the second deadliest Covid-19 outbreak with over 200,000 deaths and nearly nine million confirmed cases.
  • Venezuela’s opposition has accused President Nicolas Maduro’s government of violating a Covid response agreement last Friday (Jan 22). The government was said to have unilaterally changed the destination of medication and equipment provided by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) to government-controlled facilities that were “not prepared for the care of patients with Covid-19”. PAHO had supplied Venezuela with 340,000 antigen tests and 35 test reading machines, but less than one per cent of the tests have been used. The country has reported over 120,000 coronavirus cases and over 1,000 related deaths, but health experts believe the real number is likely the be higher due to low levels of testing.
  • Nearly half all new coronavirus cases in the Brazilian Amazonian city of Manaus are that of the mutant variant similar to the British and South African variants. The findings were reported last Friday (Jan 22) by a team of local immunologists, who warned of an increased danger of a greater spread of the pandemic. The researchers have called for authorities to step monitoring of arrivals from the city to mitigate the spread.

Asia Pacific

  • Hong-Kong has its first-ever lockdown to contain the Covid-19 virus after a surge in cases. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents were ordered to be on lockdown in their homes and are not allowed to leave until all are tested and receive negative results for the virus. Hong Kong has seen a fresh wave of the virus in the last two months and attempted to contain it without imposing a lockdown have seen little success. Hong Kong has 10,086 confirmed cases with 169 deaths as of 24 January 2021. 
  • China’s economy has seen its strongest growth at the end of the Covid-19-hit 2020, and is predicted to grow even further this year as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. China’s GDP grew 2.3 per cent last year, a significant feat in comparison to many other major economies that took a hit in the midst of containing the virus. Analysts credit China’s economic feat to Beijing’s swift response in containing the first outbreak of the virus in Wuhan. Many challenges still persist for China, including how they would fare under the administration of the newly inaugurated US President, Joe Biden. 
  • Chief and heir to South Korea’s Samsung, Lee Jae-Yong returns to prison for bribery. Mr Lee was sentenced to 2.5 years in jail for bribing former impeached South Korean president, Park Gyun Hye. Concerns on how the sentencing of Mr Lee would affect Samsung, the biggest conglomerate in South Korea, have been raised. Samsung Electronics accounts for a large portion of the country’s total exports – nearly one fifth and is noted to be a major contributor to the country’s growth after the Korean War. 
  • Chinese billionaire Jack Ma reappears after months of his disappearance, sparking a rise in Alibaba stock. Mr Ma was seen participating in an online ceremony for rural teachers and was shown in a video of which his whereabouts were in his home town of Hangzhou. Alibaba shares rose by 8.5% after reports of Mr Ma’s reappearance. In his response, Mr Ma mentioned that he spent his time during his disappearance “studying and thinking” with his colleagues and made a resolution to “devote (themselves) to education philanthropy.” 
  • Google made threats to remove Google Search, Google’s search engine, from Australia. The unprecedented move comes from the Australian government’s proposed law that would require tech giants like Google to pay news publishers for news that is shared on their platforms or links that appear when searched. If the law passes, Google would need commercial agreements with news organisations in Australia, of which Google has deemed not possible. 

Europe 

  • The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned that the internet giants needed to be reined in despite the end of Donald Trump’s presidency last Wednesday (Jan 20). She said that they have helped spread “conspiracy theories and fake news” that fueled the rise of Trump. Von der Leyen acknowledged that political leaders needed to address people’s grievances, but governments cannot prevent all from believing “fake news” and its dissemination needed to be tackled at its source. She added that the experience of recent years showed that the time for the tech giants to face a reckoning, with “democratic limits” imposed on their “untrammelled and uncontrolled political power”. Last December, the commission proposed legislation that would make hate speech illegal both online and offline, and for internet companies to be responsible for the content of their platforms. Failure to comply could see large tech firms such as Twitter and Facebook fined up to six per cent of their annual turnover.
  • Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte narrowly survived a confidence vote in the Senate last Tuesday (Jan 19). He was supported by 156 votes to 140 against, with 16 abstentions. The political crisis was triggered after former prime minister Mateo Renzi pulled his small Italia Viva party from the ruling coalition, which included the populist Five Star Movement party. Renzi had disagreed over the handling of the pandemic and the post-Covid economic recovery plans, criticising Conte for failing to utilise the EU bailout fund to bolster Italy’s health service.
  • The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said it will no longer hold the world championship in Belarus this summer, amidst “security concerns”. The federation said it had made the decision “in the face of the growing safety and security concerns related to both the rising political unrest and Covid-19”. The IIHF president René Fasel had initially dismissed pressure to cancel the tournament after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s ruthless crackdown on protesters in recent months. The change came after businesses sponsoring the tournament withdrew support for fear of negative publicity.
  • Russia is guilty of committing human rights violations in the Georgia war, according to a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights last Thursday (Jan 21). The court said that the Kremlin was responsible for the unlawful rounding up ethnic Georgians and their subsequent “inhuman and degrading treatment”. It included torture of Georgian prisoners of war and the expulsion of Georgian villagers from South Ossetia. The five-day conflict in 2008 began when the Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili attempted to militarily wrest back control of the Russia-backed breakaway state of South Ossetia. Russia responded with a full-scale military invasion of the region. Georgian justice minister Gocha Lordkipanidze hailed the ruling as a “historic victory”, while Russia is expected to have a furious response.
  • EU lawmakers are set to condemn the European Commission over its rushed investment deal with China, which could undermine the EU’s human rights credibility. A report published by the Institut Montaigne found that the agreement provided minimal additional market access and “no means” to enforce China’s assurances over the eradication of forced labour. Author of the report François Godement feared that the EU is risking disaster for its interests and irrelevance for its values by going it alone and overestimating its potential for “strategic autonomy”. Members of the European Parliament have expressed regret that the commission has failed to leverage European investments to raise human rights issues on Hong Kong autonomy and the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
  • Tens of thousands of protesters across Russia came out and called for the release of detained Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny last Saturday (Jan 23). It was one of the largest demonstrations and rebuke against President Vladimir Putin in the last decade. The protesters hoped that the show of strength would convince the government to release Navalny. Local authorities at times appeared to struggle with controlling the demonstrations despite being armed with riot gear. Over 2,500 have been arrested over involvement in the protests. Navalny’s team had also released an investigation report on Putin’s allegedly ill-gotten wealth.

Middle East 

  • 32 killed and 100 wounded in Baghdad market suicide bombings. Explosive vests were set off by two suicide bombers in a crowded market in central Baghdad. SITE intelligence group identified The Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim terrorist group,  of being responsible for the deadliest attack in Baghdad since January 2017, targeting Iraqi Shiite Muslims. Suicide bombings in Baghdad have become rare ever since the defeat of militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2017. Many Iraqi’s believe that rising political tensions in the country led to the deadly attacks. 
  • Israeli tycoon, Beny Steinmetz, has been sentenced to five years in prison for corruption and forgery. Mr Steinmetz, a mining magnate, has been found guilty by the Swiss court for bribing officials between 2006 and 2010 in the pursuit for mining rights to tap into rich iron ore resources in the remote mountains of Guinea. Mr Steinmetz was not alone in the act. His co-defendants – a French man and a Belgian woman, were also found guilty and sentenced to prison for corruption. All three have denied the charges. 
  • Israel bans international flights to and fro Israel in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19. The Israel government has announced that international flights will be halted for a week from Monday, 25 January 2021. Ultra-Orthodox communities have expressed their resentment towards the lockdown measures that have been imposed in the country, resulting in clashes with police. The country has undergone three nation-wide lockdowns since December 27 last year. 

Africa

  • Thousands of youths protest in the streets of Tunisia over economic distress and inequality. In a series of political unrest, inequality and economic distress, youths marched on streets demanding jobs, accountability from the government and an end to police violence. Amidst peaceful demonstrations, protests have taken an ugly turn at night as youth protesters clash with police forces, leading to the arrest of hundreds of protesters. The arrests have raised concerns from human rights activists and civil society groups. The protests occur 10 years after the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions that were sparked in Tunisia. 
  • Lesotho faces a food crisis amid Covid-19 lockdown measures. Almost a quarter of the population’s nation of 2.2 million will be dependent on food aid as food insecurity increases as a result of border closures and Covid-19 restrictions. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has stated that “Covid-19 had reduced household incomes” with the increase of unemployment. An increase of 35% of residents require food assistance this year in comparison to 2019 despite the abundance in rain this year. 
  • Morocco confirms its first case of the Covid-19 UK strain. In a statement mentioned by the nation’s health ministry, the first imported case of the extra contagious UK variant was detected in a Moroccan citizen returning from Ireland via Marseille, France. Morocco has not received any of the orders of the vaccine and is in the midst of a plan to vaccinate 80% of its population for free. Morocco has 466, 289 cases with 8,150 deaths as of 25 January 2020. 
  • Thousands flee in Northern Mozambique as conflict surges amid a cholera outbreak. The northern province of Cabo Delgado has displaced more than 500,000 people in 2019 and the numbers are growing amid violence and escalating conflict. The large numbers of residents fleeing is a result of the insurgency of The ISIS-linked militant group Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamaa in Cabo Delgado last August. The UN has called out for international help regarding the humanitarian crisis and the cholera breakout with the start of the rainy season. In a statement by the director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Africa, Valentin Tapsoba, he stated that  “the situation in Cabo Delgado is dire, it’s a humanitarian crisis, the international community cannot let the situation continue like this”. Majority of those displaced are living in cramped conditions offered by locals as large numbers of families share small living spaces. According to UN representatives, long-term support for education and health are among requests made by the displaced people
  • More than 80 killed and hundreds wounded as violence erupts in Sudan’s Darfur region weeks after the beginning of a withdrawal involving peacekeepers with the United Nations and African Union. The violence between various ethnic groups began and escalated after a man was stabbed to death after an argument. Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdock has sent a team to investigate and a state-wide curfew has been ordered. Many people’s hope for peace has dwindled as a result of the events that took place. 
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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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