Camilla Swindle sits in a shopping cart as she and her boyfriend wait in a long line to enter a grocery store in Austin on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times/Redux

Feb 22: Facebook bans news in Australia, Cruz in Cancun as Texas suffers winter, Ex-FARC leaders admit war crimes

North America

  • Nicaragua leaders faced backlash after forming a space agency despite an ongoing human rights crisis and poor response to the pandemic. The National Ministry for Extraterrestrial Space Affairs, The Moon and Other Celestial Bodies was created after it was approved by 76 lawmakers last Wednesday (Feb 17). The nation’s congress is dominated by President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista party. The move came under fire by critics and citizens of the Central American state that has been plagued by food, fuel and Covid-19 vaccine shortages. Critics said that the country lacked the financial capacity for such ambitions, accusing President Ortega of distracting from the government’s poor human rights records and failing response to the pandemic.
  • The US State of New York sued Amazon last Tuesday (Feb 16), claiming it failed to provide workers with a safe environment at two warehouses in the state as Covid-19 infection surged across the country. The suit, filed by New York attorney general Letitia James, claimed that the tech company showed a “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements” and had illegally retaliated against employees who raised alarms.  The attorney general had opened an investigation following complaints and found evidence that Amazon violated New York’s health and safety laws. It is also looking into the firm’s unlawful dismissal and disciplining of employees who reported concerns.
  • Rush Limbaugh, an influential US conservative radio host, died last Wednesday (Feb 17) at the age of 70. He was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer last year. The right-wing radio host was known for his bigoted riffs and personal attacks and had commanded a listenership of millions at the height of his influence in the mid-1990s. Limbaugh often criticised the Bill Clinton administration and liberals, accusing them of plotting to destroy the country. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Donald Trump, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Conservative leaders marked his death and praised him as a “generational media blazer”. However, his critics have said that Limbaugh had helped create a deeply polarised America.
  • Executives from Reddit, Robinhood, Melvin Capital and Citadel testified last Thursday (Feb 18), during a six-hour US congressional hearing on the GameStop trading saga. CEO of the Robinhood brokerage app, Vlad Tenev, denied allegations that the company had helped hedge funds from haemorrhaging money during the short squeeze of the video game retailer’s stocks in January. Tenev defended his company’s trading ban during the volatile period which saw GameStop’s shares value surge 1,600 per cent. He claimed that a lack of liquidity forced Robinhood to suspend trading of hotly traded shares until it raised the capital to resume trading. Chief executive of the brokerage-industry group American Securities Association, Christopher Iacovella dismissed Tenev’s explanation as a “smokescreen”, and the system worked as intended to defend the US financial system.
  • Texan Republican leaders faced growing outrage over their mishandling of a power crisis during the midst of a deadly winter storm, which left millions without power last week. More than 20 have reportedly died from the storm while Texans struggled from a lack of power, food and water. Mayor of Colorado City, Tom Boyd, quit his post after telling his residents to “Get off your ass and take care of your own family!” Several conservative politicians blamed renewable wind energy for the power crisis. Texas senator Ted Cruz came under intense fire for leaving on a family holiday in Cancun, Mexico, as millions of his constituents suffered. US president Joe Biden has pledged federal relief, while politicians and citizens of other states have begun crowdfunding to provide aid to Texas.
  • The US officially rejoined the Paris climate accord last Friday (Feb 19), 107 days after it left on the orders of the former US president. John Kerry, America’s climate special envoy, marked the US’s return with a warning that this year’s international talks are the “last, best hope” of avoiding catastrophic global warming. He added that the US returned “with a lot of humility, for the agony of the last four years.” The US will release a new emissions cut pledge ahead of the April 22 summit in Glasgow. Environmental scientists said that the US needs to set a goal of 50 per cent reduction by 2030, while environmental groups have urged the Biden administration to also aid poorer countries vulnerable to climate impacts.

South America

  • Former Argentine President Carlos Menem died at age 90, on Sunday (Feb 14) in the week before. He had been battling long-term health problems. The flamboyant personality served as Argentina’s leader for two terms, from 1989 to 1999, and pushed the country into an economic boom. Menem privatised state-owned enterprises and liberalised the nation’s economy. His reign came to an end when it became plagued by corruption scandals involving an alleged illegal arms sale to Croatia and Ecuador. The ex-president was also known to have entertained the Rolling Stones, and sending troops to the Gulf War and Bosnia.
  • Peru’s foreign and health ministers resigned last week following a scandal where politicians received Covid-19 vaccinations ahead of health workers. Ex-foreign minister Elizabeth Astete, who had led the negotiations to purchase a million doses of China’s Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine, admitted to receiving her first dose on Jan 22. Former health minister Pilar Mazetti was accused of concealing information after it was reported that disgraced ex-president Martin Vizcarra and his wife had received early vaccinations. The scandal also involved other public officials who had secretly received early doses.
  • Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro made gun access easier, sparking anger and concern amongst his critics. The pro-gun president announced four presidential decrees on Feb 13 that went into immediate effect, which would allow citizens to legally buy more arms and ammunition. It also stripped federal police and army oversight of gun ownership. Opponents of the right-wing leader fear the move is not so much about individual rights but for facilitating an armed coup d’etat in his favour. Critics have called the president’s actions “a threat to democracy”.
  • A group of major Argentinian creditors have criticised its country’s government for “erratic” economic policies. The Exchange bondholder group said that the government’s current economic policies are hindering growth and weighing on bond prices five months after restructuring some US$65 billion (S$86.16 billion) in foreign debt. The group expressed its concerns that the latest International Monetary Fund talks were being “subordinated to politics”, citing pressure from the ruling Peronist coalition to delay the deal until after midterm elections in October, instead of the planned deadline in May. The Exchange group warned that the current policies of price freezes, grains market interventions and capital controls were “short-term palliatives” that would fail and exacerbate problems later.
  • Former commanders of Colombia’s demobilised rebel guerillas accepted war crimes accusations last Thursday (Feb 18). The formers leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, which included the kidnapping, torture, and murder of their victims. The ruling by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), created under the 2016 peace deal between the government and rebels, was the first time the JEP attributed criminal responsibility of hostage-taking to the former FARC leaders. The 50-year war between the FARC and the Colombian government resulted in 260,000 deaths and millions displaced. 

Asia Pacific

  • Facebook blocked all local and international news content in Australia last Thursday (Feb 18), in a drastic move to oppose Australia’s proposed content law. The legislation would require large tech firms such as Facebook and Google to pay news agencies for content. The blockade sparked immediate public outrage amongst Australian Facebook users, especially as the ban affected non-news websites such as government agency and state health department Facebook pages. The company has since apologised and rejoined negotiations with the Australian government. Facebook has “tentatively friended us again”, said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
  • A young woman, Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, died last Friday (Feb 19) after receiving a gunshot wound amid the anti-coup protests in Myanmar ten days prior. She is the first casualty of the protests against the military coup. Police denied using lethal force against the protestors, however, two other protestors were found by doctors to be struck by live ammunition. Two more casualties were reported of an 18-year-old boy and a 36-year-old man on Saturday (Feb 20). 
  • A man was caught by the South Korean military on the eastern side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) last Tuesday (Feb 16). He was found wearing a diving suit and is thought to have escaped through a damaged drainpipe before swimming southward across the East Sea. His defection comes at a time of increased difficulty in defecting during the Covid-19 pandemic. 
  • Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the Thai Parliament in Bangkok last Saturday (Feb 20) as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha survived a vote of no confidence following a four-day censure debate. The protests had been ongoing since late Friday (Feb 19). An estimated 4,000 police officers had also been put on standby to maintain the large crowd. The demonstrations come as part of a youth-led, pro-democracy movement that had emerged last year, calling for Prayut’s resignation and reformation of Thailand’s monarchy. 
  • All members of the G7 have expressed unanimous support for Japan in hosting the delayed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, later this year. The support comes despite the results of a recent survey of Japanese firms, in which almost two-thirds of the firms believe the Olympics should be cancelled or postponed in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Japan is currently fighting its third wave of coronavirus infections. Last Saturday (Feb 20), Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expressed his wish to “realise a safe and secure Olympics as testimony that human beings will have won the battle with coronavirus”.
  • Taiwan issued warnings to Beijing after heightened military activity close to Taiwan-controlled islands in the South China Sea. The Taiwanese Defence Ministry detected an estimated 20 aircraft over two days (Feb 19 & 20), including fighter jets, nuclear-capable H-6 bombers and an anti-submarine aircraft. In response, Taiwan also deployed monitoring systems in the area. However, Beijing has not commented on its recent activity. 

Europe 

  • Ford pledged that all its car sales in Europe will be electric by 2030, in an announcement last Wednesday (Feb 17). The US auto manufacturer said it was going “all-in” on electric vehicles (EV) and would invest US$1 billion (S$1.33 billion) to convert a vehicle assembly plant in Cologne, Germany, to be its first EV facility in Europe. Ford’s announcement is the latest in a string of actions by the world’s largest carmakers to move away from polluting internal combustion engines.
  • British artists, actors and theatre workers signed an open letter, calling for the government to address post-Brexit visa rules. The letter, signed by stars including Sir Ian McKellen, Julie Walters and Patrick Stewart, stated that the new rules are a “towering hurdle” for those seeking work in Europe. The letter also said that those intending to work in Europe would be saddled with expensive fees, numerous red tape, and long approval time. The signatories have called for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “urgently” renegotiate new terms with the EU.
  • Belarus jailed two journalists last Thursday (Feb 18), over their coverage of the protest against the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko. Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were sentenced to two years in prison. The pair were detained in an apartment they had used as a vantage point to live stream the demonstrations over the death of a protester. Both women pleaded not guilty to the charges, and plan to appeal the court’s verdict. The EU has condemned the ruling, while neighbouring Lithuania urged to end the “spiral of repression”.
  • Russia reported to the WHO the first human infections of the H5N8 strain of the bird flu last week. Seven workers were found to have been infected by the strain of bird flu at a poultry farm in December last year. There have been no previously known transmissions of the H5N8 to humans. Local health authorities said that the men have recovered, with no further developments. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that all birds in the affected areas had been “humanely” culled.
  • The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) told Russia to release Alexei Navalny last Wednesday (Feb 17), The ECHR issued its ruling on grounds that the Russian government “could not provide sufficient safeguards for his [Navalny] life and health”. Russia said it will ignore the ruling despite a requirement to comply as a member of the Council of Europe, describing the ruling as “blatant and gross interference” of its state affairs. The Russian opposition leader was a victim of suspected poisoning by Russian intelligence services last August.
  • Spanish demonstrators have clashed with police since last Tuesday (Feb 16), over the jailing of a controversial rapper. Pablo Hasel was sentenced to prison for nine months after he was found guilty of glorifying terrorism and insulting royalty in his music and on Twitter. The verdict of the highly contentious free speech case caused a massive uproar, leading to protests that began in Hasel’s home region of Catalonia and have since spread across the country. Amnesty International and Spanish celebrities have described Hasel’s sentence as having a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech in Spain.

Middle East 

  • A rocket attack aimed at a main military base hosting the US-led coalition deployed in Iraq killed a foreign civilian contractor and injured nine others, including an American soldier, last Monday (Feb 15). An armed group identifying themselves as ‘The Guardians of the Blood’ claimed responsibility for the rare attack on the north-western sector of Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Efforts are underway from the US, Iraq and the Kurdistan Region to identify and hold the attackers accountable.
  • A Lebanese court removed the judge previously in charge of the investigation into the explosion at the Beirut port last year. Judge Fadi Sawan had charged three ex-ministers and the outgoing prime minister with negligence. However, the officials refused to be questioned and accused Judge Sawan of overstepping his power. He was subsequently dismissed from the case upon the request of two of the ex-ministers. 
  • Two thousand doses of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine entered Gaza, Palestine, last Wednesday (Feb 17), after being blocked by Israel. The vaccines are enough to inoculate 1,000 people and will go to high-risk patients, such as those with organ transplants or kidney failure. This comes as Israel faces criticism from human rights groups for not offering to vaccinate several million Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. 
  • Iran has pushed ahead with its plan to restrict inspections of its nuclear sites by the UN nuclear watchdog. The move comes as Iran’s deadline for the US to lift sanctions put in place by the Trump administration, expired on Sunday (Feb 21). The head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, met with the chief of the Iran Atomic Energy Organisation hours ahead of the deadline, to discuss implications of the ban. The decision puts pressure on the US, as the Biden administration is keen to restore the original 2015 nuclear deal with Teheran. Iranian officials have said they are ready to rejoin the deal as long as the United States makes the first move by lifting the sanctions, demanding “action not words”. 
  • Two Syrian shepherds and an Israeli national were successfully repatriated in a Russian-mediated prisoner exchange, according to the Israeli military on Thursday (Feb 18). Following the exchange, allegations have surfaced that Israel had used the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines for Syria as a bargaining tool to facilitate the exchange. The move has sparked a multitude of responses, including the potential loss of political favour amongst Israelis and complaints against Israel’s lack of initiative in vaccine procurement in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Africa 

  • A student was shot dead, while over forty students and staff have been kidnapped by gunmen from a high school in the Kagara district of Niger state last Wednesday (Feb 17). Surveillance aircraft and security forces were deployed to search the forested area the kidnappers had headed towards.  
  • Guinea received 11,000 vaccines from the WHO last Sunday (Feb 21) as the country declared a new outbreak of the virus the week before, while the Democratic Republic of Congo reported four new cases since early February. The WHO has issued warnings of the disease resurgence to six other African nations including Sierra Leone and Liberia, as part of efforts to contain the spread of the virus. 
  • Six children were killed, and five were injured in Adjumani, Uganda, after finding and playing with an old bomb last Tuesday (Feb 15). Ongoing investigations suggest the explosion was from a hand grenade abandoned during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency against the Ugandan government in the 1990s. This is the second deadly accident involving leftover munitions in Adjumani in less than two weeks, with the previous recent explosion killing two people.
  • New research conducted by Pfizer shows that the company’s vaccine produces a weaker immune response against the South African Covid-19 variant. The vaccine produces two-thirds lower neutralising antibodies against the new strain of Covid-19. The company expects that the vaccine is still effective, however is prepared to develop updated and booster shots if further studies prove otherwise. 
  • Heavy gunfire and shelling broke out near the presidential palace in Mogadishu, Somalia last Friday (Feb 19), amid opposition protests against delayed presidential elections. Although President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term expired the week before, there has yet to be an elected successor, sparking public outrage. There have been several deaths and injuries amongst protestors as a result of the violent clash with security forces.
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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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