- The first Omicron case was detected in the US last Wednesday (Dec 1) and has expanded to at least 16 states including Hawaii and New York as of Sunday (Dec 5). Most of the cases reported, including the first reported Omicron case in the country were alleged to come from recent travellers to South Africa. None of the Omicron cases detected so far have resulted in any serious complications including hospitalisation and death. Despite the growing concerns of the Omicron variant, the Delta variant remains a greater peril to Americans according to top federal health officials.
- Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of infamous Mexcian drug lord Joaquín Guzmán also known as El Chapo, was sentenced to three years in prison last Tuesday (30 Nov) for her assistance in the multibillion-dollar drug ring run by her husband. She pleaded guilty in June to helping him smuggle drugs across the Mexican-US border and was further charged for playing a role in her husband’s escape from prison after he was incarcerated in Mexico in 2014. El Chapo is currently serving life imprisonment in the US. Despite El Chapo’s confinement, the Sinaloa cartel remains one of Mexico’s most powerful and comprehensive drug rings in his absence.
- Four students were found dead and seven people injured at a Michigan high school shooting last Tuesday (Nov 30). A 15-year old male student opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol purchased by his father a few days prior, causing the death of four students and injuring 7 others. The shooter, 15-year old Ethan Crumbley has been charged as an adult with first-degree murder and terrorism last Wednesday (Dec 1). His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley were also charged on Friday (Dec 3) with involuntary manslaughter and were arrested the following day. Both parents pleaded not guilty via a Zoom hearing.
- Six conservative US Supreme Court justices have indicated their support for the curtailing of abortion rights during oral arguments in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation case last Wednesday (Dec 1). The case is named for Dr Thomas Dobbs, the head of Mississippi’s health department, and the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. The case focuses on whether the state of Mississippi can ban abortions at 15 weeks — including pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. The case, however, poses a direct threat to the constitutional right to abortion that was established in the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision on the case in June next year.
- Canadian lawmakers – both liberals and conservatives have voted unanimously on Wednesday (Dec 1) to ban the LGBT practice of “conversion therapy”. The practice that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity has been discredited and labelled as harmful by several medical professionals. The rare display of unanimity in the country’s parliament prompted applause in Canada’s House of Commons. Conservative ministers were commended by Justice Minister, David Lametti for propelling the motion. The bill was first introduced in March of last year and again by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – both of which were dissolved in parliament.
- Argentina’s courts said that it will investigate allegations of war crimes committed by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya Muslims. The court has wished to uphold the principles of “universal justice” under its ruling. The legal assertion of “universal justice” argues that horrifying acts against humanity such as the eradication of Rohingya communities in Myanmar is not specific to one country and can be tried anywhere. Six Rohingya women refugees have testified remotely to the court in Argentina. The case is the first universal jurisdiction case regarding the Rohingya genocide in the world.
- The Brazilian Supreme Court has launched an investigation into the comments made by President Jair Bolsonaro regarding false claims that the COVID-19 vaccines increase the risk of contracting Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). His comments made on a social media live stream has resulted in a temporary ban from Facebook and Youtube. The claim has also been strongly dismissed by scientists and medical experts. Brazil remains one of the highest COVID-infected countries in the world with a death toll of more than 616,000 and 22.1 million cases.
- Argentina’s former President Mauricio Macri has been charged with spying on the family members of 44 sailors who perished in the Ara San Juan submarine disaster in 2017. Mr Macri had allegedly ordered the secret service to carry out the task of spying. He has also denied the accusations commenting earlier this month that “[he] never ordered [anyone] in [his] government to spy on anyone”. The indictment comes after relatives of the victims said that they have been followed, intimidated and had their phones tapped following accusations of the Navy’s improper maintenance of the submarine.
- Peruvian prosecutors have called in President Pedro Castillo for questioning over an investigation of the promotion of some military officers. The investigation comes amid an impeachment threat against him. The prosecutors are set to carry out the questioning next Tuesday (Dec 14) after army general, Jose Vizcarra Alvarez and air force general, Jore Luis Chaparro Pinto provided their testimonies to the country’s public prosecutor last month.
- A coalition of United Nations (UN) agencies said in a report last Tuesday (Nov 30) that there has been a 30 per cent rise in the number of hungry people in Latin America and the Caribbean, with more than 59 million people lacking access to sufficient food sources (13.8 million more than last year) across the region. The data was published in the Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2021. UN officials stated the COVID-19 pandemic has “exacerbated the [food security] situation” and has labelled the situation “critical”. However, hunger remains less rife in Latin America as compared to other parts of the globe according to the UN agencies.
- The US has removed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC from its list of “foreign terrorists” organisations. The revocation of FARC’s designation as a “foreign terrorist” organisation “is a credit to the 2016 Peace Accord with the Colombian government” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a tweet last Tuesday (Nov 30). The 2016 Peace Accord is a peace deal that the Colombian government signed with the FARC back in 2016, ending a 50-year conflict that left more than 220,000 people dead.
- After five years of construction, the mammoth high-speed railway project, connecting the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming with the Laotian capital Vientiane, officially began operations last Friday (Dec 3). Its opening marks the beginning of China’s ambitious plans to extend the 1,000-kilometer rail route to Singapore through Thailand and Malaysia. For Laos, this joint venture, in which China holds a 70 per cent stake, represents new opportunities for the land-locked country wedged between Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Yet, expectations that the railway would lower freight costs, boost exports, and attract more foreign visitors after borders are reopened comes at a cost of over US$6 billion, equivalent to almost a third of Laos’ GDP.
- The first cooperative naval drill between Russia and ASEAN was launched last Wednesday (Dec 1) off the coast of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia as the region confronts heightened tensions with China over the disputed South China Sea. The ARNEX-21 joint exercise, which lasted three days, involved eight warships and four planes from Russia and seven South-East Asia’s regional bloc countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.
- In a bid to appeal to the international community for assistance in releasing Afghan frozen assets worth US$9 billion and humanitarian aid to the war-torn country, the Taliban government released a decree last Friday (Dec 3) on woman’s rights – banning forced marriage of women, but without any mentions of lifting current restrictions on educational and employment opportunities for females. Thousands of girls in grades seven to twelve are still not permitted to attend, and the majority of women remained barred from returning to work since the Taliban takeover. Based on a recent United Nations Development Programme report, prohibiting female participation in the workforce may cost the Afghanistan economy up to US$1 billion.
- Philippine Senator Christopher Go, Duterte’s hand-picked successor, announced his withdrawal from the presidential race last Tuesday (Nov 30), leaving Duterte’s PDP-Laban faction without a candidate in next year’s general elections. In May next year, Filipino voters will head to the polls to elect a successor to President Rodrigo Duterte, whose six-year tenure nears its end as the Philippine constitution forbids him from seeking re-election to a second term. The president has set his sights on a different political post and will be vying for a senator’s seat instead.
- Pakistan received a one-year loan of US$3 billion at an interest rate of 4 per cent from Saudi Arabia last Saturday (Dec 4). The extension of the loan comes a week after Pakistan and the International Monetary Fund reached an agreement on measures to resurrect a delayed US$6 billion funding package that was stalled earlier this year as a result of issues over necessary economic policies and reforms. Conditions such as the suspension of tax exemptions and subsidies, a hike in the petroleum levy, higher energy tariffs and an audit of US$1.4 billion additional funds provided to Pakistan in April last year were called for, with little consideration for Pakistan’s economic slowdown amidst inflationary pressures.
- In an attempt to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the European Union (EU) announced a major international infrastructure plan last Wednesday (Dec 1), with the aims of advancing infrastructure in developing countries and boosting trade links with the rest of the world amidst the sluggish global recovery. By 2027, the Global Gateway initiative intends to mobilize €300 billion (US$340 billion) through a mix of grants and investments from member states, development banks, the private sector, and EU financing bodies, including the European Investment Bank and laid out spending plans for digital, renewable energy, and transportation networks, as well as strengthening global health, education, and research institutions.
- Sweden’s first female prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, was reappointed last Monday (Nov 29) following her resignation just hours after taking office two weeks ago. Ms Andersson, of the Social Democrats, was briefly in coalition with the Swedish Greens. The alliance fell apart after the parliament rejected her government’s budget plan in favour of one proposed by opposition parties, notably the populist Swedish Democrats positioned on the right side of the political spectrum.
- The European Commission proposes extended detention for asylum seekers crossing from Belarus borders, permitting Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to hold migrants for up to 16 weeks on their side of their respective borders while considering and registering asylum claims, instead of the maximum 10 days currently envisaged in EU laws. The move comes as Europe struggles to respond to the escalating migrant crisis. Last Wednesday’s (Dec 1) proposal, if passed, will take effect almost immediately and will remain in force for six months.
- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met for discussions in Stockholm last Thursday (Dec 2) amid escalating tensions due to the unusually large build-up of around 100,000 Russian troops, along with a host of military tanks and artillery systems near the Ukrainian border. Rising concerns over the growing threat of military action, fuelled by fears over Moscow’s intentions, have prompted Kyiv to call on The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to prepare a package of sanctions as a means to deter any Russian attack. Meanwhile, Russia may find itself with a pretext for an invasion against the backdrop of Crimea and the wave of harsh Western sanctions.
- Over 17 European nations have reported traces of the Omicron variant with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recording a total of 164 positive cases of the new strain in Europe as of last Saturday (Dec 4). In the Netherlands, the variant was found in Dutch test samples that were collected as early as mid of last month, even before South Africa announced its discovery. Such recent developments have prompted numerous governments to adopt tighter restrictive measures, ranging from a partial lockdown in the Netherlands to a complete one in Austria as well as vaccination restrictions in parts of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany.
- United Arab Emirates (UAE) Defence Ministry struck a record arms contract with France last Friday (Dec 3) which is set to boost UAE’s airpower capabilities as well as strengthen military partnerships within the Persian Gulf. This US$19 billion deal for 80 French Rafale jets and 12 Caracal military helicopters was signed as French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a two-day tour to the Gulf that included stops in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. While Paris contends that arms sales in the Middle East are in the interest of stability, human rights groups, however, have criticised the agreements, citing spotty records of Abu Dhabi’s and its allies’, specifically weapons sold to UAE previously ended up being utilised in atrocity-ridden operations in Yemen.
- During France President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia last Saturday (Dec 4), the French president and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman had a joint phone call with Lebanon’s prime minister, in a major gesture to ameliorate strained relations between the two nations. Lebanese Minister George Kordahi resigned on Friday (Dec 3) intending to resolve a diplomatic spat over comments he had made earlier in October criticising Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen crisis, which had provoked Riyadh to impose an embargo on Lebanese imports.
- Efforts to revive negotiations on the 2015 nuclear disarmament agreement in Vienna were stalled last Friday (Dec 3) as Tehran’s new negotiating team walked back on previous progress made during the first six rounds of talks. Discussions are likely to resume this week, yet the existence of conflicting demands of the states involved often leads to a stalemate. The impasse has made the diplomats from the three European nations present – Germany, France and the United Kingdom – weary and disappointed with the slow progress. If Iran refuses to compromise, the West only has the option of reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council for violating past UNSC resolutions.
- Clashes erupted between Iranian soldiers and Taliban fighters near the Afghanistan-Iranian borders last Wednesday (Dec 1). The conflict reportedly ended without any casualties on both sides and was later described by officials as a “misunderstanding” between border residents. Despite Afghan local media reporting the Taliban capture of five outposts of the Iranian forces, the Iranian media denied such reports, claiming their forces have complete control over the border.
- An attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq’s Makhmour province last Friday (Dec 3) claimed the lives of three civilians and ten Peshmerga soldiers. The attack comes as the US prepares to pull out Coalition forces and convert the remaining military personnel to auxiliary roles by the end of this month. At the same time, territorial disputes in Diyala province in Eastern Iraq, in addition to the insufficiently coordinated action between Kurdish forces and their counterparts in Baghdad has inevitably led to a security vacuum that the Islamic State militants have increasingly exploited.
- Gambians headed to the polls for the first time last Saturday (Dec 4) since the former president Yahya Jammeh was expelled from the country in 2017 after almost 22 years in office. The former leader’s exile and flee to Equatorial Guinea came after a military intervention was triggered as a result of his refusal to accept his defeat in the December 2016 elections. Six candidates including current president Adama Barrow are running for this year’s elections with President Barrow in the lead with 14,599 votes as of early Sunday (Dec 5). The Gambia uses a voting system that includes the use of marbles to cater to the country’s high illiteracy rate.
- At least 31 people have been killed in a bus in central Mali after militants attacked the vehicle carrying passengers to a local market last Friday (Dec 3). According to local officials, the unidentified gunmen fired upon the bus, killing the driver first and then setting the bus on fire. Many others have been reported to be missing or injured. The region where the attack occurred has seen escalating violent insurgency in the last few months fuelled by insurgents linked to the militant group Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. The attack comes just one day following a militant attack on a UN convoy that killed one worker and wounded another.
- At least 23 people have died in Kenya after a bus containing church choir members crashed into a flooded river last Saturday (4 Dec). The bus was en-route to a wedding when it was swept away by the Enziu River after the driver attempted to cross a bridge submerged in fast-flowing water. Four of the deceased were children but it is uncertain how many passengers were in the bus at the time of the tragedy. The flooding has possibly been a result of heavy rains in various parts of Kenya recently.
- Sudan’s top military general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said in an interview last Saturday (Dec 4) that the military will exit the political landscape after the scheduled 2023 elections. The general led a military takeover in end-October causing the turnover of Sudan’s transition to civilian-led democracy. However, a deal last month reinstated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdoke to lead a technocratic cabinet until elections in mid-2023. Al-Burhan mentioned that he “[does not] think that the army, the armed forces, or any of the security forces will participate in politics [when a government is elected]”
- Botswana’s court of appeal upheld the decision last Monday (Nov 29) to legalise same-sex relationships in the country. The unanimous decision on Monday that upholds the 2019 ruling was hailed as a major milestone for gay rights in the country and is said to set an example for other countries in the continent of which most criminalise homosexuality. President Mokgweetsi Masisi has also shown his support for the LGBTQ+ community saying in a 2018 speech that “Just like other citizens, [the LGBTQ+ community] deserve to have their rights protected”. Before the 2019 High Court ruling, gay sex was punishable by up to seven years in prison.