Jambi sky as a result of forest fire smog. Image courtesy of the Telegraph

The World This Week: September 23, 2019

East Asia

In South Korea, a corruption investigation into Justice Minister Cho Kuk is ongoing. A close ally of President Moon Jaein, Mr. Cho was nominated as Justice Minister two weeks ago despite parliamentary resistance, and he denies any wrongdoing. However, allegations have risen involving Mr. Cho and his wife’s private equity fund, among other issues, and the controversy has contributed to a drop in President Moon’s approval rating. The president is also facing pressure surrounding an economic slowdown and setbacks in US-North Korea talks.

The 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic is October 1, and Beijing is gearing up for the festivities. Hong Kong, however, is on edge, having already decided to cancel a fireworks display on that day. With 47 arrests made just this weekend, more than 1500 overall since June, tensions remain high. And clashes between police and protesters continue, especially around Mass Transit Railway (MTR) stations. Amid the most recent violence, on Sunday a peaceful mall protest devolved into a pair of street fires, vandalized MTR stations and the trampling of a Chinese flag; they were once again met with tear gas.

In response to a decreased demand for air travel brought about by these protests, several airlines asked the Hong Kong government earlier this month for airport fee waivers, in the hopes of minimizing their losses.

North America

Intense controversy has arisen around Trump’s relationship with Ukraine. The delay in aid to Ukraine, intended for its defense from the threat of Russian aggression, befuddled lawmakers for weeks. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel to look into who directed the suspension of aid. Democrats suggest that the president and his personal lawyer wrongfully pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden, a possible future opponent in the 2020 election. Though it is not uncommon to attach conditions to foreign aid, the concern here is about the obfuscation of these conditions and the exclusion of Congress from the process.

            The stakes of the American Iranian also continue to rise. Under increasing U.S. pressure, Tehran could either give in or strike back with more force – and the latter would have devastating impacts for both countries. Though President Trump and President Rouhani each continue to float the possibility of an unofficial meeting; when questioned at the United Nations General Assembly, Trump responded that “We’ll see what happens.” However, the conditions appear increasingly unlikely, especially in light of American accusations against Iran for the attack on Saudi Arabian oil fields.

            Mexico announced its intention to reopen a case from 2014 about the disappearance and apparent massacre of 43 students, an incident that caused issues for the previous administration and drew international criticism. The action is taken in light of Mexico’s sustained struggle to prevent mass-violence within its borders. Less than a week ago, authorities said they found 29 bodies packed in over 100 plastic bags and dumped in a clandestine grave. Murders in Mexico achieved their highest record in the first half of the year – the cartel-ravaged country is on track to surpass the 29,111 recorded last year.

South East Asia

Haze from Indonesian fires spreads to Phuket. Thailand’s southern region up to Phuket recently began experiencing moderate haze as a result of Indonesia’s uncontrolled fires. The geographic area affected by the dangerous pollution levels continues to rise in Malaysia despite cloud seeding attempts. School closures due to unhealthy air conditions affected 68,025 students. The levels of large diameter pollutants in the air resulted in a Mie Scattering phenomenon across Indonesia’s Jambi province. This caused the sky to glow with a bright orange-red hue. Indonesia continues its combined strategy to extinguish the fires: arrests of farmers responsible for starting them, aerial dispersion by its 34 water-bombing helicopters, and round the clock firefighting deployments of 29,000 personnel. 

Indonesia’s counter-terrorism police arrested a suspected suicide bomber and several accomplices this week. The individuals are connected to Jemaah Anshorut Daulah, an ISIS-affiliated militant group, which splintered from the group responsible for the 2002 Bali Bombings. A separate investigation in Singapore resulted in the arrest of three domestic workers from Indonesia which reportedly financed and recruited for the same organization. These mark the 19th domestic workers arrested in Singapore since 2015 for terrorism related charges. The previous individuals were repatriated to their home countries, but it is unknown what will occur in the recent case.

Western Europe

Several days after millions protested all over the world to demand urgent action on climate change, leaders gathered at the United Nations on Monday to rally efforts to continue curbing carbon emissions. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned governments that they would have to offer action plans to qualify to speak at the summit, which is aimed at boosting the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat global warming. World leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were due to address the one-day gathering, alongside companies working to promote renewable energy. Some 60 leaders were scheduled to attend the summit. The agreement will enter a crucial implementation phase next year after another round of negotiations in Chile in December. Pledges made so far under the agreement are nowhere near enough to avert catastrophic warming, scientists say, and last year carbon emissions hit a record high.

British Airways faces a record $230 million fine after a website failure compromised the personal details of roughly 500,000 customers. It would be the largest penalty yet under a tough privacy rule known as the General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force last year in the European Union. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office said that weak security allowed user traffic to be diverted from the British Airways website to a fraudulent page starting in June 2018. The regulator said the company will have a chance to contest the proposed fine. Attackers were able to harvest customer details including log ins, payment cards, and travel booking details, according to the regulator. The airline disclosed the incident in September 2018.

Eastern Europe & the Caucasus

Russian president Vladimir Putin has announced a program to bankroll the modernization of the secessionist Abkhazian military forces, prompting a rebuke from the government of Georgia. Georgia lost control of the region during an interethnic conflict in the 1990s. Abkhazia declared itself an independent state, although only a handful of states have recognized that claim. The region relies heavily on Russian financial and political support to maintain its autonomy from the Georgian government, which considers it a Russian-occupied Georgian territory. Georgia has sought to join NATO in recent years, and suspended diplomatic relations with Russia after a brief 2008 war, which it lost.

The European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB), the European Union’s financial stability watchdog founded in 2010 after the global financial crisis, warned 11 member states that household debt levels and housing market volatility had reached concerning levels. The Board noted that the Czech Republic had enacted certain macroprudential policies that were doing some level of work to stabilize these pressures, but policymakers needed to do more to prevent a potential financial crises stemming from those triggers.

South America

Tensions continue to mount between Colombia and Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuelan regime. The United States has invoked the 70-year old Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. The treaty outlines economic and military allows for joint action aimed at countering Maduro’s increasingly aggressive moves against his Colombian neighbor. Colombia has claimed that Maduro’s regime is actively arming guerilla fighters and subsequently encouraging forays across the Colombian border. The Trump administration is looking to increase pressure on the Maduro regime. Trump made the claim that recently fired National Security Advisor John Bolton was “holding him back” from escalating sanctions against Maduro’s regime. The situation in Venezuela is one to watch as Maduro’s grip over the country seems to be slipping.

Fires continue to rage in the Amazon rainforest as international coverage of the issue is beginning to slow. In response to international media coverage and subsequent pressures Brazil has quelled a vast swath of the fires. Yet the fires continue to rage at a record pace. The lands that are ablaze still span an area much larger than reported in previous years. Doubts about Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro’s commitment to protecting the ecosystem seem to be coming true. Commercial logging and criminal networks are taking the majority of the blame for the uptick in fires this year.

Developments in the story of Argentina’s economic woes are sparse. Treasury Minister Hernan Lacunza is set to meet with Argentina’s biggest bondholders in New York City, to discuss how he plans to pull the nation’s economy out its rut. The situation needs to be rectified soon before South America’s third largest economy takes any more hits.

Central America

Thousands of people across Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua experienced an approximately eight-hour blackout on September 16th. This is said to have been caused by an overload at a substation on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. The most affected country was Nicaragua, particularly in the capital region surrounding Managua.  

The United States’ attempt to establish “safe third country” agreements with Central American states continues. The primary example of this type of agreement is with Guatemala, in which it is agreed that Guatemala is a safe enough alternative that asylum seekers may not advance to the US thereafter. In a similar fashion, El Salvador has been decreed a safe haven for asylum seekers, a decision that has faced staunch backlash from refugee and migrant activists. They cite internal instability and myriad security problems within El Salvador and claim that this policy will simply endanger more lives. Tied to these deals is a hefty amount of United States’ foreign aid. 

The Middle East and North Africa

Iran released a British-flagged oil tanker on Friday that it had been holding since July. The ship is now en route to the UAE. The tanker was seized on July 19th in the Strait of Hormuz, and Iranian authorities held the ship at the Bandar Abbas port. Iran seized the British ship after British marines “helped take control” of an Iranian supertanker earlier in July. The British released the supertanker after Iran promised it would not sail to Syria, but then the ship was later seen sailing off the Syrian coast. 

Earlier this week US forces carried out an air strike against Daesh (Islamic State) fighters in southern Libya. Daesh reportedly is using the civil conflict in Libya to recruit radical jihadists. This is the third air strike in a week’s time; the U.S. military’s Africa Command carried out the first strike on September 19, the second one five days after. This third strike reportedly killed 17 Daesh fighters and was carried out by an Air Force Reaper drone based in Niger. These three missile attacks are the first missile attacks ordered by the Trump Administration against Daesh this year, compared to six attacks launched last year. Strikes against Daesh in Libya had previously focused on the compounds in Northern Libya, but after Daesh lost their hold in Sirte the leadership fled south and resumed recruitment efforts from there. In contrast to President Trump’s claim that ISIS was defeated, Daesh remains an active threat in the region and a clear military target for the United States.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Johnson and Johnson has developed a second experimental Ebola vaccine to stop the current outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced this week that the vaccine will be used in the Democratic Republic of Congo in hopes of eliminating the deadly virus. Efforts to administer the vaccine in the DRC were delayed due to a dispute between global health officials and the DRC’s former health minister, Dr. Oly Ilunga, who believed there was a lack of sufficient testing and the possibility of creating confusion. Ilunga attempted to flee the country last week before he was arrested for the misuse of Ebola funding.

The WHO’s original efforts to eliminate the virus with the first experimental vaccination, developed by Merck, faced criticism from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for their restriction on the availability and eligibility of the vaccine. The distribution of both vaccines has prioritized administration to higher-risk individuals who are in close proximity to those who are currently infected. Approximately only 225,000 people have received the vaccine compared to the approximately 525,000 people who should have by now. In response, MSF is standing up an independent committee to manage future Ebola vaccination efforts similar to those previously formed to respond to yellow fever, cholera, and meningitis.

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