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Weekly News Digest for March 26, 2021

Compiled by Kelly Dobso, Trinity Gates, Stephanie Cannon, Michael Banks, Jessie Bowers, Dinah Gorayeb, Austin Myhre, and Charlotte Smith


Breaking News:

Middle East: Stranded Cargo Ship Blocks the Suez Canal

A container ship of nearly a quarter-mile long has been stranded across the single-land southern stretch of the Suez Canal since Tuesday evening. After powerful winds forced the ship aground on one of the canal’s banks, it has blocked nearly the entire canal and created a large traffic jam in one of the world’s most important maritime shipping routes. By Wednesday morning, more than 100 ships were stuck at each end of the 120-mile canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and carries roughly 10% of worldwide shipping traffic. The ship, Ever Given, was heading from China to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, amid poor visibility and high winds from a sandstorm that struck most of northern Egypt this week, which, according to a spokesman for the Suez Canal, caused an "inability to direct the ship."

The stranded Ever Given mega container in the Suez Canal is holding up an estimated $9.6 billion worth of goods each day, according to shipping data. Despite efforts to free the ship, according to experts, it could take weeks until the canal is open. According to Lloyd's List tracking data, there are currently more than 160 vessels waiting at either end of the canal, including 41 bulk carriers and 24 crude tankers. BIMCO, the largest international shipping association, says the delays will only continue to grow and affect suppliers, and "for each day of delay my thought is it will take two days to undo the delays."

East Asia: Philippines Claims Chinese Vessels Encroached in South China Sea

On March 21st, the Philippines urged China to recall more than 200 Chinese vessels that are currently stationed at the Whitsun reef (known by the Philippines as Julian Felipe) in the South China Sea. The Philippines first spotted these vessels on March 7th. Over the past few weeks, the Philippine military and coast guard conducted air and maritime patrols to confirm these reports, submitting their findings to government agencies.

In 2016, an international tribune invalidated China’s claim to 90% of the South China Sea. However, China ignores and continues to violate this ruling by building artificial islands or fishing in contested areas. The Philippines specifically emphasizes that the Whitsun Reef falls within its exclusive economic zone. Arguing that the presence of these vessels violates their maritime claims to this area, the Philippines implored China to reverse this purported incursion and floated the possibility of responses beyond diplomatic protests. According to China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, these vessels consistently fish near this area and must currently shelter in the area due to sea conditions. This response is not satisfactory to the Philippine government, as overfishing and reef environment destruction is a great concern.

Furthermore, Philippine intelligence argues that Chinese military-trained personnel man these ships, which is more worrisome than standard fishing ships. Ultimately, this underlies a larger narrative, where China continues to violate international rulings regarding the South China Sea and creates more tension with its neighbors.

North America: President Biden Demands Ban on Federal Assault Weapons Following Boulder Shooting

On Tuesday, in the aftermath of the lethal supermarket shooting that occurred in Boulder, Colorado, President Biden called for a federal ban on assault weapons and better background checks. While addressing the shootings, Biden urged the Senate to take action on the two bills passed earlier in March by the House, which would strengthen background checks and close gun sale loopholes. Biden also argued for a general ban on rifles and high-capacity magazines, steps that Biden referred to as “common sense” that would save future lives.

Moreover, President Biden, along with other White House officials and Colorado legislators, remarked that gun reform legislation would be more effective in the aftermath of the Boulder shootings than “thoughts and prayers.” This sentiment echoes what the Democratic representative of Colorado Jason Crow stated when he explained that the victims of these kinds of tragedies will always be in his thoughts and always have his prayers, but his ultimate job is to create laws to make communities safer.


North America

President Biden Revives Efforts to Relieve Problems That Prompt Central Americans to Migrate to the US Border

Due to increasing economic strife, corruption, violent crime, and climate change, thousands of migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are arriving at the southern border of the United States in the hopes of achieving a better life outside of their countries of origin. In addressing the migration stemming from this region, President Biden relies on policies put in place by the Obama administration and also involves backtracking policies enacted in the Trump administration.

To alleviate this regional turmoil, the Biden administration wants $4 billion to further development, security, and anti-corruption efforts in the Northern Triangle countries, which has the aim of reducing poverty, fighting violence, as well as increasing climate resilience. Furthermore, Biden is also revitalizing the US asylum system, which will ensure observance of international law, and also allow at-risk youth to apply for asylum in the United States from their home countries instead of after arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Bipartisan Group of Senators Seeks to Cooperate on The Filibuster Debate

In the midst of the recent Senate debate regarding the potential elimination of the filibuster, a group of bipartisan senators united for the purpose of preserving the filibuster and determining how the Senate functions. This group of 20 senators, called the G-20, consists mainly of centrists but also of ideological members of both parties, and aspires to encourage bipartisan approaches to issues such as minimum wage, and immigration, as well as the present argument over the filibuster. The G-20, which is divided equally between 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, met last Wednesday for lunch and pledged to meet every two weeks and cooperate on relevant problems currently facing the Senate.


Asia and the Pacific

East Asia: The U.S., Canada, the E.U., and the U.K. Sanction China Over Human Rights Abuses

This week, the U.S., Canada, the E.U., and the U.K. announced coordinated sanctions against China for human rights abuses, particularly the repression of its Uyghur Muslim population. These are the E.U. and U.K.’s first human rights sanctions against China since the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989.

For brief context on the Uyghur situation, there are about eleven million Uyghurs, which is a predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. Since 2017, and possibly beginning in 2014, China imprisoned more than one million people, subjecting far more to widespread surveillance, severe religious restrictions, forced labor, and sterilizations. Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the U.S.’s intelligence networks allege that China continues to build and expand detention camps.

These sanctions target senior Chinese officials as well as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organization that operates detention camps. While China’s foreign ministry accused the U.S. of basing these sanctions on disinformation and—like with its Hong Kong-related sanctions—meddling in China’s internal affairs and international relations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused China of continued genocide. Australia and New Zealand offered support for the sanctions, and Russia, who recently experienced renewed U.S. sanctions, condemned them. China pushed back by leveling sanctions against European lawmakers, think tanks, and academics, a move that could threaten a future China-E.U. investment agreement.

Southeast Asia: Russian Government Intends to Strengthen Ties with Myanmar

Russia’s government announced it is planning on deepening military ties with Myanmar’s military-run government, as Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin met with Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing on March 26. During the meeting, Fomin stated that Myanmar is a reliable ally of the Russian government in Asia. This meeting marked the first high-profile visit to Myanmar by a foreign official since February’s military coup.

South Asia: U.S. Intelligence Warns of Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

According to U.S. intelligence reports, the Taliban will likely takeover Afghanistan in two to three years if troops are withdrawn. There are currently 3,500 American troops in Afghanistan, and President Biden must decide by May 1 if troops should remain. The Trump administration made a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 with the agreement for troops to be withdrawn by mid-2021. The Taliban has stated they will retaliate with attacks on foreign forces if the agreement falls through.



North Africa: Thousands Affected by Fire in Sierra Leone Slum

The diamond-rich former British colony, Sierra Leone, is currently one of the poorest countries in the world whose capital, Freetown, was recently destroyed in a fire late Wednesday, March 24th. The total toll of the damage is unknown; however, experts believe that thousands are likely to have been affected. Most homes within the area are flimsily constructed and made of corrugated sheeting and recovered materials. Tom Vens, European Union (E.U.) ambassador to Sierra Leone, released a statement that the E.U. is looking at ways to currently send aid to all those affected.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict: MSF Witnessed Soldiers Killing Civilians

In the continuation of the conflict on Tigray, on March 24, 2021, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) staff claimed that they witnessed the extrajudicial killing of four Ethiopian civilians by soldiers in Tigray earlier in the week. While driving down a main road on Tuesday, March 23, the MSF team and two public buses were stopped by soldiers following the aftermath of an ambush on an army convoy. MSF claimed that passengers were forcibly deboarded from their bus where four men were separated from the women and apparently shot. The Ethiopian embassy in London released a statement claiming, “no person, including serving soldiers, is above the law.”



More Concerns over COVID-19 and Vaccine Rollout Across Europe

New discussions within the E.U. have erupted on whether or not European countries should block exports of the COVID-19 vaccine after intense delays which have delayed many governments’ plans to combat the virus and return to normalcy. In addition, the U.K.'s exit from the E.U. following Brexit has prompted officials to push forward a block of exports to Britain, which has received over a million vaccine doses produced in European factories and has not returned any exports back to Europe.

Another major issue facing Europe has been mapping vaccine production. Italy gained media attention after a factory was subjected to an investigation after major delays in vaccine distribution. In addition, Denmark has extended its suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine after concerns that it could cause blood clots despite numerous health officials disputing the claim. A number of countries like France and Germany have ordered month-long lockdowns after a rise in COVID-19 cases. Overall, concerns have risen across Europe as infection rates rise and vaccine rollout falls behind the U.K. and the U.S.

Conflicting Reports on Alexi Navalny’s Health Arise

Lawyers for Alexi Navalny, an imprisoned opposition leader being held in Russia, have spoken out about poor health conditions that could be the result of delayed side effects after his nerve agent poisoning last year. Navalny’s lawyer cited inhumane living conditions after the prison health system didn’t diagnose the symptoms or authorize care to improve his deteriorating condition. Russia’s prison authorities issued a statement declaring that Navalny’s health was stable and satisfactory after an examination. Navalny’s symptoms include back pain that spread to his legs. His right leg has reportedly lost sensation from the calf down, and his pain has been exacerbated from sleep exhaustion.


Latin America and the Caribbean

Brazil Enacts a COVID-19 Crisis Committee

Brazillian President Jair Bolsanaro announced the formation of a new COVID-19 crisis committee on Wednesday that will now include state officials, claiming that 2021 is ‘the year of vaccination, for Brazilians. This comes in the wake of a record-setting 3,000+ new reported deaths the day prior - the most deaths the country has ever seen in a single day. Following the swearing-in of new health minister Marcelo Queiroga, Bolsonaro claimed that mass vaccination would become the new priority for the state after previously dismissing the urgency of a vaccine rollout and downplaying the pandemic. The new committee will include members of the legislative branch, the Supreme Court, ministers, and six state governors; however, leaders who have been opponents to the Bolsanaro administration are being left out of this committee. In addition to mass inoculation, the committee will also be responsible for tackling the P1 variant of coronavirus that originated in the Brazillian state of Amazonas.

Cuba Rolls Out Experimental Vaccine

Frontline medical staff in Cuba are beginning to receive the experimental vaccine produced on the island. The vaccine, called Soberana 2, is still in phase 3 trials and is the island nation’s best hope for lifting the imposed lockdowns on the capital of Havana and the state’s best hope for the return of its tourism sector. The process of inoculating over 150,000 Cuban doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers is now fully underway. The numbers of infections and deaths from COVID-19 are much lower in Cuba than elsewhere in the world but the lockdown has caused serious economic hardship which leads the Diaz-Canal administration with the goal of vaccinating all of Havana by the end of May.

Puerto Rico Receives Education Grants

Puerto Rico has been granted immediate access to $912 million in federal funds that had not been available to students in public and private schools on the island as a result of restrictions imposed by the Trump administration. The new funds come less than two weeks after Puerto Rico reopened dozens of public and private schools for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began. These funds include $390 million approved under the CARES Act as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as additional aid from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund following weather and climate disasters that have hindered the islands ability to efficiently enact educational programs. The US Department of Education will work alongside local officials to fully implement the funds.


Middle East

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu Short of Majority as Vote Count Ends

Local media stated Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc will end up with 52 seats, only nine short of the threshold for the majority, in contrast with the Arab party, which is projected to win four seats and hold the balance of power. The outcome of this election will determine the source of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. The Arab party, Raam, has not declared whether it will support the effort of Mr. Netanyahu to form a governing coalition or those of the opposing bloc remaining in office, who are set to win 57 seats. Although support from the Raam party could securely give them the majority and control of the government, they are fragmented and unlikely to work together; however, if neither bloc succeeds, the country could face its fifth election since 2019.


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