- 60-year-old Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty last Wednesday (Dec 29) on five of the six charges she was convicted of, including sex trafficking a minor. The verdict came after a month-long trial that included testimonies from victims of deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell, who was in a relationship with Epstein in the 1990s was accused of the recruitment and grooming of four teenagers between 1994 and 2004. Meanwhile, the UK’s Prince Andrew, a former friend of Epstein also come under the spotlight as he faces a civil lawsuit of sexual abuse claims of which he has strongly denied.
- Three people have been presumed dead after a wildfire tore through Boulder County, Colorado destroying and damaging more than 900 homes in its path. US President Joe Biden declared the event a major disaster last Friday (Dec 31) and has ordered governmental aid to be made available to those affected after thousands have been prompted to flee their burned homes. The source of the blaze remains unclear and investigations into the cause of the wildfire are ongoing despite speculation that sparks from toppled power lines were the culprit.
- Air travel chaos in the US ensued last Saturday (Jan 1), on New Year’s day as more flights continue to be affected due to the spike in Omicron variant-related infections. Out of the 4,529 cancelled flights worldwide, the US recorded more than half—2,604 cancelled flights according to a tracking website known as FlightAware. In addition, 3,447 domestic flights, almost half of the world’s 7,602, were delayed last Saturday (Jan 1). To add fuel to the fire, airports in cities like Chicago have been hard-hit due to the difficult and snowy weather during the winter season. The numerous cancelled flights have been a result of many pilots and flight crew being unable to show up for flights due to contracting the virus.
- The US has cut Ethiopia, Mali and Guinea out of a duty-free trade programme last Saturday (Jan 1) due to alleged human rights violations and recent coups. The three countries have been terminated from the African Growth and Opportunity Act or AGOA “due to actions taken by each of their governments in violation of the AGOA Statute”, according to the US Trade Representative (USTR). The AGOA trade legislation offers sub-Saharan African nations duty-free access to the US if they fulfil specific eligibility conditions. 38 countries were eligible for AGOA in 2020. However, the USTR said that the three countries may still rejoin if they meet the statute’s requirements.
- The Mexican government announced on Twitter last Wednesday (Dec 29) that the country’s central bank will launch its digital currency by 2024. The post said the central bank “considers that these new technologies and the latest payment infrastructure are very important as valuable options to advance financial inclusion in the country.” However, according to Reuters, another anonymous central bank source revealed that the government announcement was “not official”. Additionally, the news was not guaranteed by the country’s monetary authority also known as Banxico.
- Towns surrounding Brazilian state Bahia, home to 15 million people, experienced floods after two dams collapsed due to overwhelming river capacity from heavy rains last Monday (Dec 27). It was reported that at least 20 people have been killed in the floods. Teams of rescuers can be seen in the city of Itabuna transporting supplies and rescuing residents from their homes. The state’s governor Rui Costa made a statement on Twitter, saying that the flooding was the worst disaster that occurred in the history of Bahia and declared that 72 municipalities are in a state of emergency.
- A former Colombian military member, Mario Antonio Palacios, wanted for last year’s assassination of Haiti President Jovenel Moise will be deported from Jamaica to his home country this week (Jan 3). Palacios is accused by the Haitian authorities of being involved in forming the mercenary group that took part in the assassination of former President Moise in July last year in his private residence. Palacios was arrested in Jamaica last October and was convicted for illegally entering the country.
- Peru records the highest inflation rate with the end of last year at 6.43 per cent in 13 years, exceeding the central bank’s annual target of 1 to 3 per cent in 2021. Peru’s central bank chief Julio Velarde said in December that the inflation was due to higher prices for imported goods and the depreciation of the local currency sold against the U.S. dollar. The central bank expects inflation rates to slow down to 2.9 per cent for this year.
- Colombia’s police force captured five people in raids in the city of Medellin and surrounding areas last Tuesday (Dec 28). The raids were in connection to a bombing at an airport in Colombia’s Norte de Santander province which led to the deaths of three people. Colombia’s police made a statement that the three men and two women captured during the raid will be brought to Cucuta to face charges of terrorism and aggravated homicide.
- US President Joe Biden congratulated Chile’s 35-year-old President-elect Gabriel Boric on his electoral victory over José Antonio Kast last year (Dec 19). According to a press statement by the White House press secretary Jen Psaki, President Biden and President-elect Boric discussed their shared commitment to social justice, democracy, human rights, and inclusive growth on call. In Boric’s victory address, he pledged to increase taxes on the “super-rich” and to “bury” Chile’s neoliberal economic model.
- A South Korean national crossed the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into North Korea in an alleged defection last Sunday (Jan 2) according to South Korea’s military. A search operation was carried out after the unidentified person was detected on the border separating the two Koreas last Saturday (Jan 1). Defections to the South have been common since the Korean War hostilities ended in an armistice, while, crossings to the North are drastically rare.
- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un started the New Year with a goal— to boost the countries’ economy and to alleviate food shortages. Kim said in an end-of-year ruling party meeting last Friday (Dec 31) that the country faces a “great life-and-death struggle” and vows to focus on improving the standard of living in North Korea. He made no direct mention of the US, South Korea or nuclear weapons in his speech.
- At least 12 have died and 16 others injured in a New Year’s day stampede tragedy at a Hindu shrine in India. Tens of thousands of people gathered at the shrine known as one of India’s most revered pilgrimage sites. According to local police, the stampede was triggered after an argument between two groups of pilgrims erupted. Additionally, despite the shrine’s cap of visitors to 25,000 a day during the ongoing pandemic, reports suggest that almost twice the permitted number had gathered at the site at the town of Katra Vaishno Devi, possibly further contributing to the event.
- India approved two new vaccines last Tuesday (Dec 28) known as Covovax and Corbevax respectively amid fears of a new wave of Omicron infections. The former vaccine was developed by the Serum Institute of India (SII) while the latter was developed by Biological E in collaboration with US-based Dynavax and Texas’ Baylor College of Medicine. The two new vaccines join a group of six other already approved vaccines for use in India. To date (Jan 2), India has inoculated more than half of its eligible population and has given approximately 1.45 billion doses. It is uncertain whether the new vaccines will be distributed as booster shots for the country’s ongoing vaccination drive.
- More than 400 dead in the Philippines after Typhoon Rai devastated the country last month. The death toll was announced by the national disaster agency last Friday (Dec 31) amid a further 82 missing and more than a thousand injured. The typhoon, which was the country’s deadliest last year, left a trail of destruction in the country’s central and southern provinces. More than half a million houses were damaged or destroyed, leaving many to grapple for inadequate supplies of food, water and shelter materials. The typhoon also resulted in an estimated 23.4 billion Philippine pesos (S$617.2 million) worth of damages to agriculture and infrastructure in the country.
- Germany shuts down three of its last six nuclear plants last Friday (Dec 31) as it moves towards its focus on renewable energy. This decision to phase out nuclear energy was taken by the former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s government in 2002. This stance was also adopted by his successor, former chancellor Angela Merkel, setting this year as the deadline for shutting down the nuclear plants in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with US President Joe Biden last Thursday (Dec 30), warning him that further sanctions will lead to the degradation of ties. President Biden also told President Putin that the US and its allies will respond decisively to any invasion of Ukraine. The call which lasted for an hour marked their latest efforts to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. Russian foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters shortly after that Mr Putin was “pleased” with the conversation. US and Russian officials are set to meet for in-person talks in Geneva next Monday
- A new law decriminalising assisted suicide has taken effect in Austria last Saturday (Jan 1). Adults who are terminally ill or have a permanent debilitating condition will be able to opt for the choice of assisted death. This was approved by Parliament in December, followed by a constitutional court ruling. Under the law, the practice will be regulated, requiring two doctors with one to be a palliative medicine expert to assess each case. Active assistance to suicide will remain illegal in Austria, with the new rules explicitly excluding minors or those with mental health conditions.
- Exploding fireworks on New Year’s eve killed three people in Europe despite bans placed on homemade fireworks. In Germany, a 37-year-old man was killed in a fireworks explosion in the western town of Hennef. Fireworks malfunction has also claimed the life of a 23-year-old man in Austria and a 12-year-old boy in the Netherlands. It was reported by De Telegraaf that 80 people were hospitalised with firework injuries, with some losing their hands and feet in explosions. The sale of fireworks over the New Year period was banned in both Germany and the Netherlands due to the coronavirus pandemic. Officials justified it saying that firework-related injuries would add to the strain on hospitals fighting the virus.
- Social Democrat leader Dimitar Kovacevski was elected as the new Prime Minister of North Macedonia last Wednesday (Dec 29). This follows the resignation of former Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev as he faced defeats in local and mayoral elections in October last year. Under the constitution, Kovacevski is to form his new cabinet with the backing of 64 deputies in the parliament within 20 days. The new cabinet is expected to enter a vote by mid-January.
- Israel launched rockets on Hamas positions at the Gaza strip last Sunday (Jan 2). The airstrikes came as retaliation for two rockets fired by Hamas just a day ago which landed in the Mediterranean Sea off central Israel. There were no reports on casualties from both events. It was not clear if the rockets from Hamas were meant to hit Israel but Gaza often conducts test-firing towards the sea. Apart from a single incident last year (Sept 13), there has been no cross-border rocket fire since the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in May of last year.
- Turkey’s lira recorded its worst year in 2021 under Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan since he took office in 2014. The lira crashed in recent months, causing Turks to convert their savings to euros and dollars. President Erdogan last Friday (Dec 31) urged Turks to keep their savings in lira and shift gold savings into banks. The lira lost 44 per cent of its value against the dollar over the year, rattling the Turkish economy. This was largely a result of the government’s new economic programme that focused on exports and credit despite inflation of more than 21 per cent.
- A US judge, Nathaniel Gorton, dismissed a lawsuit against Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi intelligence official by a Saudi state-owned firm Sakab Saudi Holding Co last Wednesday (Dec 29). The ruling came after the director of the US National Intelligence Avril Haines invoked the state secrets privilege to block classified state information from being released in the case. Sakab and nine other Saudi companies sued Jabri alleging that he masterminded a scheme to defraud them of US$3.5 billion (S$4.72 billion) while serving the former Saudi interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The decision was seen as a loss for the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has engaged Jabri in a legal battle since August 2020, one in Canada and two in the US. Jabri has been living in exile in Canada since Prince Nayef was ousted as heir to the throne in the 2017 palace coup.
- Bahrain appointed its first ambassador, Waheed Mubarak Sayyar to Damascus last Thursday (Dec 30) since it downgraded ties with Syria in 2011. Gulf Arab states shut missions in Damascus after the Syrian regime used brute force to crush the 2011 protests, triggering civil unrest in the country. This move is part of a diplomatic shift in the Middle East as more Arab countries began to revive ties with Syria. Oman in 2020 became the first Gulf state to reinstate an ambassador to Syria. In Nov last year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent its foreign minister to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The UAE has since called for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League.
- Tensions are continuing to escalate between the Taliban and Pakistan security forces over border fencing at the Durand line. Fresh clashes were reported at the Nimroz border last Thursday (Dec 30). Local news media reported that Taliban forces prevented Pakistani forces from extending border fences. This came amid claims from the Taliban and Pakistan that they have settled the row over the border fence by agreeing to further work on the fencing through mutual agreement. Pakistan has been fencing the border with Afghanistan since 2017 to end terrorist infiltration and smuggling despite strong opposition from Afghanistan. Fencing has been a disputed issue in Pakistan-Afghanistan ties because both Afghans and Pakistan disagree on border demarcation since colonial times.
- The Houses of Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa was engulfed in flames last Sunday (Jan 2), severely damaging the building. President Cyril Ramaphosa has called it a “terrible and devastating event”. Moreover, the blaze came one day after Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s state funeral at St George’s Cathedral. A man in his 50s was arrested last Sunday morning (Jan 2) in relation to the fire, although no injuries have been reported so far. This is the second fire at the parliament in under a year after the fire in March of last year.
- Anne Chidzira Muluzi, the first “first lady” in Malawi died last Wednesday (Dec 29) due to cancer. She passed away at the age of 69 at a private hospital in Kenya. Muluzi became the first female first lady after her husband Bakili Milizi was elected the country’s president in 1994 following the end of one-party rule. Malawi’s current President Lazarus Chakwera said he was “deeply shocked” to learn of the former first lady’s death. Similarly, Vice-President Saulos Chilima said in his tribute that the former first lady extended her hand to “thousands of needy and vulnerable children” through her Freedom Foundation Trust.
- A South African court has blocked oil giant Shell from conducting seismic testing for oil and gas along the country’s eastern coastline. The testing involves blasting sound waves through a relatively untouched marine environment home to many whales, dolphins and seals. Environmentalists who fear that the project will harm marine life contributed to the decision. In response, Shell said it had “paused” its operations while it “[reviewed] the judgement”. Additionally, local indigenous communities were also represented in the case and claimed that their customary rights to the land and fishing had not been respected as a result.
- Two people have been killed by security forces during anti-military protests in Khartoum, Sudan last Sunday (Jan 2), bringing the death toll to 56 since a coup took place in October last year. According to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD), one of the men died of gunshots to the chest while the other died of injuries to the head. Six people have also died while hundreds were injured in last Thursday’s (Dec 30) nationwide protests.
- South Africa holds a nationwide funeral mass for South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu after his death last month (Dec 26). The Nobel Peace Prize winner is renowned for assisting the end of the racist regime in South Africa and was a major contributor behind the movement to end the policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the country’s white minority against the black majority from 1948 to 1991. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his eulogy that Tutu was “the spiritual father of our new nation”. About 100 people attended the funeral and attendee numbers were kept to a minimum due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.