Weekly News Digest for January 19th, 2023 Compiled by Aalia Garrett, Niamh Dempsey, Trinity Gates, Sara Anis Ali, Zoe Shepherd, Riley Mied, and Shekina Shindano
Edited by Aalia Garrett, Niamh Dempsey, Sara Anis Ali, and Riley Mied
Asia and the Pacific
Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc Resigns Amid Corruption Scandal
Vietnamese officials have continued to pursue a "blazing furnace" anti-corruption crackdown which led to the resignation of Vietnam President Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The ruling Communist Party proclaimed that Phuc bore political responsibility for "violations and wrongdoing" by officials under his control while he served as Prime Minister. Two deputy prime ministers including, Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam, have since resigned from their positions for their roles in the misconduct. Several of these scandals involved government corruption related to Vietnam’s pandemic control measures. An official state media announcement published on Tuesday praised Phuc for his efforts as Prime Minister in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, which ultimately led to his elevated status to the largely ceremonial role of president in April 2021. While serving as prime minister, Phuc oversaw the nation as it sustained 7% economic growth until COVID-19 struck, leading to strict lockdown policies. However, with these measures in place, Vietnam managed to contain the spread of the virus within the first year of the pandemic and it was among the few countries in 2020 that recorded positive economic growth.
Analysts note that Phuc’s sudden departure comes as unusual for Vietnam, given that it is not only a country with single party rule, but any political changes within the nation are typically very carefully managed in order to give the impression of cautious stability. Before becoming official, Phuc’s resignation must first receive approval from the legislature. Sources indicate that the National Assembly is expected to hold a rare extraordinary meeting on Wednesday to address this matter, similar to the gathering held earlier this month when ministers Minh and Dam were dismissed. It is further speculated that the legislature may also ratify the resignations of more high-ranking officials this week, signaling a further escalation in the nationwide corruption crackdown. While some believe that these measures may pave the way for more competent leaders to rise, others fear that it could lead Vietnam into a period of instability that could alarm foreign parties and investors.
Central America and the Caribbean
Guatemalan Government Prosecutes Former Anti-Corruption Officer
This week Guatemalan officials announced their decision to investigate Iván Velásquez, the Colombian diplomat who led a myriad of anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala. Velásquez led the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission, for over a decade. CICIG was expelled from Guatemala in 2019 by former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. Morales claimed that CICIG put the security of the nation at risk; however, many regional experts believe the expulsion was intended to protect Guatemala’s wealthy ruling class. Velásquez is now the target of Guatemalan prosecutors and is being investigated for “illegal, arbitrary, and abusive acts.” Guatemala’s current anti-corruption prosecutor, Rafael Curruchiche Cacul, was the one to announce that Velásquez is under investigation. Curruchiche Cacul was sanctioned by the United States in 2022 for obstructing corruption investigations and has been accused of pursuing former anti-corruption officials instead.
The investigation against Velásquez is just the latest development in an extensive government effort to maintain control in Guatemala. The Washington Office on Latin America, a United States non-governmental research organization, published a report in October 2022 describing the growing conflict in Guatemala: “A handful of corrupt political, military, and economic elites seeking to maintain their privileges at the expense of Guatemala’s Indigenous majority population have captured the state.” Iván Velásquez is furthermore not the only bureaucrat being prosecuted in Guatemala’s crackdown. Over 30 judges, prosecutors, and magistrates also involved in previous anti-corruption efforts have been forced to flee the country after facing legal charges from the current Guatemalan regime. The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has reiterated his concern surrounding the crisis in Guatemala as well. Farhan Haq, the spokesman for the UN leader, commented on behalf of Guterres saying, “The Secretary-General expresses his concern at the numerous reports suggesting that criminal prosecution is being exercised against those who sought to shed light on cases of corruption and worked to strengthen the justice system in Guatemala.”
Protests Across France Against Macron Policies
Thousands of people across France went on strike this Thursday as the struggle between unions and President Macron continued. Teachers, railway workers, health workers, and oil workers were among those that went on strike and proceeded to bring most French cities, including Paris, to a halt.
This large strike is a result of mounting criticism and frustration with the social welfare model that is currently in place; this model raises the retirement age from 62 to 64 in 2030, which Macron’s government argues is necessary to preserve the state’s pension system without raising taxes or increasing the state’s debt. Labor unions are headstrong in their disapproval of this model, citing that it penalizes people that started working at a young age and will increase unemployment among older workers.
U.K. Blocks Scotland's New Gender Recognition Law
The U.K. government has blocked a new, controversial Scottish bill that aims to allow people to easily and legally change their gender. This bill has been controversial because it will permit people to legally change their gender without a medical diagnosis. Campaigners for the bill noted that the current process to change gender legally is overly bureaucratic, expensive, and intrusive.
The conversation has shifted from gender rights in the past few days, however, because of the U.K. government intervention, adding fuel to recent sentiment across Scotland for Scottish independence. The Scottish government is expected to challenge the ruling through judicial review. U.K. ministers have suggested modifications to the bill, but Scottish ministers are adamant to fight for a bill that has already been approved by the Scottish government in Holyrood. The Gender Recognition Bill was approved by Parliament.
Middle East and North Africa
Turkey’s Attempt to Block Sweden’s NATO Membership
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Sweden decided to end its neutrality policy and apply for membership in NATO. Sweden has remained strategic partners for NATO, especially after Russia invaded Finland, and in the 1990s, both Sweden and Finland sought to shrink their militaries and only aid in peacekeeping missions. After Russia’s initial invasion of Crimea, Ukraine, however, Sweden bolstered its military personnel and reinstated the draft. Now, with Russia’s active attempts to control Ukraine, Sweden has decided to drop its neutrality status altogether.
To receive entry into NATO, all 30 members must approve of Sweden’s application. One country in particular, Turkey, has stalled the country’s acceptance into the organization. Turkish president Erdogan first blocked Sweden’s fast track into the organization and continues to veto the existing application. Erdogan claims that Sweden has supported the PKK—a Kurdish militant organization that conducted attacks in Turkey— and has continued to fight against the Turkish military.
Sweden maintains that it financially supported the Kurds in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Iraqi Kurdish groups that were fighting ISIS. Historically, Sweden has provided refuge for Kurdish asylum seekers, but the country continually maintains that they do not harbor terrorists. Turkey argues that the SDF is a terrorist organization and posits that the organization undermined Turkey’s security. Turkey has had a long history of persecuting its Kurdish minority, and typically, it does not distinguish between Kurds in the PKK and those that aren’t. To get Turkey’s vote of approval, Erdogan demands that Sweden extradites a list of individuals it deems as terrorists or militants, and that the nation would lift its ban on selling weapons to Turkey.
It remains uncertain as to whether or not Sweden will abide by these terms, or whether Turkey will cave to the pressures of other members of NATO.
Netanyahu’s Encroachment on Israel’s Supreme Court
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled plans to weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws passed by the Knesset, the legislative body of Israel. Netanyahu’s appointed justice minister, Yariv Lenin, unveiled lawmakers' plans to reverse any decisions made by the Supreme Court with a simple majority, 61 out of 120 legislators. To reverse the decision, the Supreme Court would need to unanimously agree to block the law. To further reduce the Supreme Court’s powers, the Israeli government decided it would be in charge of appointing the panel that selects all new judges. The previous system only allowed the reigning government to appoint a minority of panel members. The proposed decisions would allow Netanyahu’s administration to appoint like-minded conservative justices while ensuring less dissent from the courts.
Initially, Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party supported greater judicial powers for the Supreme Court, and the Likud party even supported the Supreme Court’s ability to review cases that violated basic rights. However, the prime minister changed his position on the Supreme Court’s powers after he found himself indicted on corruption charges. Now Netanyahu’s government claims his recent moves are needed to check an overactive judiciary. The administration further claims that the Supreme Court’s veto is unjust and unreasonable, and he voices concerns about how the body isn’t democratically elected.
Many former attorney generals criticized the move, arguing that the move drastically weakens the power of the judiciary and destroys the system of checks the Supreme Court had on the Israeli legislative branch. Some may even argue that the decision further empowers Netanyahu’s government to intrude on Palestinian lands and approve of more land-grabbing tactics. However, even previous actions, such as the cases against land grabbing in Sheikh Jarrah and the creation of firing zones in Masafer Yatta, shows that the Supreme Court wasn’t in favor of protecting Palestinian lands. Nevertheless, the decision to strip the Supreme Court of its judicial review powers creates a larger democratic crisis in Israel and shows the erosion of democracy under Netanyahu’s administration.
Setbacks in Biden’s Big Goals for the Future of Climate Change
U.S. President Joe Biden set big goals in creating rules to reduce greenhouse gasses, but recent delays by the conservative courts and EPA staffing have set him back. These delays are going to start affecting the everyday lives of Americans from the vehicles they drive to the power plants lighting their homes. The rules set will determine what will power America’s economy: fossil fuels or renewable energy. The recently signed Inflation Reduction Act is expected to help the President’s cause as it cuts US greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by the end of the decade.
However, further action is still needed to meet America’s goal of cutting its total emissions in half by 2030. These actions will include more restrictions on coal-fired power and tailpipe emissions, and higher efficiency standards on heavy industry and home appliances. Right now, the U.S. is falling behind on its ability to slow things down and have an impact. Obstacles contributing to this delay include staffing shortages and concerns of the federal courts reversing any ambitious climate rules. The update by the public regulatory agenda published earlier this month pushed back its self-imposed deadlines on several new rules.
The EPA did note it was considering the implications of the West Virginia vs. EPA court decision in June that limits how much executive branch agencies can act without explicit authority from Congress. The EPA still has power under clauses of the Clean Air Act to limit conventional pollutants from operations directly onsite at these plants. The agency has promised stricter standards on mercury and other toxic pollutants, restrictions on wastewater from power plants and rules to reduce haze, but those changes are not progressing well. Directors of the EPA claim regulations take time to develop and get out into the world, but they are still committed to using the tools available to advance Biden’s bold environmental agenda.
The United States hit debt limit
On Thursday, January 19, the United States hit its debt limit encouraging the Treasury Department to begin a series of accounting moves to ensure the federal government can continue paying their bills. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen says the government will begin using extraordinary measures to prevent the country from breaching its statutory debt limit. Yellen is asking lawmakers to raise or suspend the cap in order for the government to continue meeting their financial obligations. Yellen is urging the Congress to act promptly as the length of the extraordinary measures is uncertain as well as the challenges of the payments and receipts of the U.S. government.
The $31.4 trillion dollar debt is a product of decades of tax cuts and increased government spending by both parties. This comes at a time of great division in our government and could end in economic devastation. House Republicans have vowed to not raise the borrowing limit unless President Biden agrees to make steep cuts in federal spending. However, Biden is holding firm in his decision to not negotiate conditions for a debt-limit increase. The extreme measures implemented will allow the government to continue paying federal workers, Medicare providers, investors who hold U.S. debt and other recipients of federal money until early June.
This leaves the country at risk of a financial crisis if lawmakers do not raise the limit before the Treasury Department is able to buy more time. Most Democrats take the position that negotiations over the debt limit only enhance the risks of an economic disaster by encouraging Republicans to use it as leverage. Congress still has a few months remaining to raise the limit, but the economic toll will keep growing as the country gets closer to running out of cash and the United States can’t pay its bondholders. Yellen has begun initiation of a debt issuance suspension period that will last through June 5 in order to delay a default.
This debt problem has created a larger divide between Democrats and Republicans. House Republicans are calling for sweeping fiscal reforms while Democrats want to see a debt-ceiling increase with no demands attached. The cost of not raising the borrowing gap could turn out to be catastrophic leading to a recession in the United States and potentially even starting a global financial crisis.
Brazil Brings Charges Against January 8th Protestors
Eight days after thousands of Brazilians stormed the capital of Brazil to protest Jair Bolsonaro’s loss in the presidential election against Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Office of the Prosecutor General has delivered charges against 39 defendants. More charges are expected to be delivered against the thousands of people arrested on January 8th.
The defendants were charged with armed criminal association, violent attempt to subvert the democratic state of law, staging a coup, and damage to public property. Because the alleged crimes do not involve xenophobia or prejudice, the crimes do not meet Brazil’s criteria to be charged as terrorism. The prosecutors requested that the defendants be imprisoned and 40 million reais of their assets be frozen. Forty million reais is the equivalent to 7.7 million U.S. dollars.
Since the riots, many people have drawn parallels to the riots that occurred on January 6th in the U.S. Similar to U.S. insurgents, Brazilian protesters sought to overturn Bolsonaro’s loss. Unlike the U.S. riots, there are no initial reports of deaths or injuries in the capital of Brasilia. The protests in Brazil, 3 months after Bolsonaro’s loss, emphasize the polarization that still exists in the country. More broadly, both riots have highlighted general trends in the growing traction of populism and the far right.
Women Kidnapped in Burkina Faso
On Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Chief, Volker Turk, called for the release of 50 women who were kidnapped in Burkina Faso by suspected rebels. On January 12, gunmen abducted 50 women in Burkina Faso’s province of Soum. The group of women were approached by armed men while they were picking wild fruit outside the village of Liki. As soon as their disappearance became known, the government made immediate efforts to search for the women. Burkina Faso has been struggling to combat violent activity by armed rebel groups with links to al-Qaeda and ISIS. Over two million people in Burkina Faso have been displaced since the violence in neighboring Mali made its way into the country’s borders. This has been Burkina Faso’s biggest kidnapping to date, indicating that terrorist attacks are becoming more prevalent and signaling a significant security crisis that needs to be addressed in Burkina Faso.