We are back from winter break and are ready and excited to bring you a new year of international current events coverage! We launched this column last year because we at Freely believe that being attuned to all that is happening around the world is of the utmost importance. But, we understand that constantly keeping ourselves up to date with news from our home countries can be difficult, let alone keeping ourselves up to date with all that is happening around the world. So, let us do the work for you!
Each week, our editor-in-chief Alex Voisine, along with columnists Alice Hakvaag and Rachel Elliott will hand-pick the most important international news stories, and give a brief summary of what happened and why it matters. We will publish the column on our website every Tuesday morning, and will send a link to the column in our weekly newsletter, which we send out every Tuesday afternoon. If you’re interested in subscribing to the newsletter, please send us an email (email@example.com) and we will promptly add you to our listserv.
Thank you for reading, and we wish you a wonderful (and international) New Year!
By: Alice Hakvaag
Protests broke out in the capital, Kinshasa, on Sunday, killing at least seven protesters. They were protesting President Joseph Kabila and his refusal to step down as president, which he should have done in December of 2016. According to an agreement brokered last year, President Kabila had been allowed to run a transitional government for one year, when the next presidential elections would be held. Election officials recently said that the election would be pushed to 2019. Among the protesters were several Catholic churches who, with some Protestant churches, were peacefully marching without a street demonstration permit. Several alter boys were arrested, and among those dead is a sixteen-year-old girl. The country shut down text messaging services and internet access on Sunday to try and squash protesters.
By: Alice Hakvaag
106 prisoners escaped from a Brazil prison after a large prison riot on New Year’s Day. Brazil’s prisons are known to be overcrowded, and criminal gangs often clash inside. The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper reports that only five guards were on duty, as compared to the 900 prisoners inside. The riot began when one gang invaded the housing of another, setting fires and firing weapons. 106 prisoners escaped when a part of the perimeter wall was torn down. 14 prisoners were injured, nine were killed, and police have captured 29 of the escaped inmates. Riot police soon ended the altercation, but worried relatives say that the prison is not disclosing who is dead or alive.
By: Alice Hakvaag
Following a year of high-profile sexual assault allegations, Hollywood actresses, writers, and directors have launched the “Time’s Up” campaign. Among the supporters are Ava DuVernay, Kathleen Kennedy, Natalie Portman, Kate Blanchett, and America Ferrera. Over 1000 women in the film industry have signed on to the project, which plans to establish a $15 million legaldefense fund specifically for working-class women who due to financial reasons might have been left out of this new trend of naming accusers. They also plan to end the practice of non-disclosure agreements, which often prohibit victims from going public with their sexual assault accounts, as well as penalize production companies that fail to act against harassment. So far, they have reached $13 million of their $15 million goal.
By: Alex Voisine
[dropcap size=small]K[/dropcap]im Jong Un, in a rare public address on New Year’s Day, expressed a desire to commence talks with South Korea, in an effort to promote peace in the region. However, his tone was as peaceful towards South Korea as it was bellicose towards the United States, with Un warning the United States that he has a nuclear launch button on his desk, and that North Korea has the capacity to launch a nuclear attack in virtually any part of the United States. A spokesperson for South Korean President Moon Jae-In said that his administration welcomes the opportunity to come to a peaceful agreement with North Korea. Meanwhile, in response to Un’s Monday speech, Donald Trump tweeted that he too has “a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” This is not the first time that Donald Trump has targeted North Korea on Twitter; in fact, he frequently refers to Kim Jong Un as “little Rocket Man,” which experts say is an obvious attempt to try and belittle Un.
While experts agree that the softened tone towards South Korea is unusual, especially given the military exercises organized by South Korea near the border, the warnings directed towards the United States are not unusual. Un’s speech is likely in response to a UN Security Council resolution last week that will increase sanctions on North Korea, following North Korea’s ballistic missile test on November 29th.
By: Alex Voisine
Protesters lined the streets for the sixth straight day in Iran in what is believed to be the biggest threat to the Iranian government since a series of mass demonstrations in 2009. Indeed in just the past three days the Iranian government has claimed it has arrested 450 protesters. Even more seriously, the death toll hit 21 as of Tuesday, January 2. So why are so many Iranians protesting?
While Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed the protests on Iran’s enemies, namely United States, the true cause of the protests most likely has nothing to do with Iran’s so-called enemies. The protests, which began last week, have more to do with Iran’s lagging economy, the rising cost of food and other basic necessities, and the Iranian government’s inability to deliver on its promises to improve the economy.
Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013 and is part of Iran’s Moderation and Development Party, was relatively popular until recently. Unlike his predecessors, Rouhani pledged to open Iran up to trade and establish better relationships with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia, which have historically had tense relationships with Iran. Though unpopular with Iranian hardliners who wanted no collaboration with the US, UK, and Saudi Arabia, Rouhani’s promises for economic improvements were welcomed by many Iranians, despite his close ties with Khamenei.
However, Rouhani’s crackdown on the protests and his failure to jumpstart the economy leave him more unpopular than when he was elected in 2013. “Of course Rouhani and his government will have less power afterwards, especially because his economic policy was criticized during the unrest,” said political analyst Hamid Farahvashian in an interview with Reuters.
Though Rouhani has called for peace and has reminded Iranians (and the world) that Iran has suffered similar protests in the past and recovered healthily, it is unlikely that the protests will end.
A number of diplomats and world leaders have responded to the protests, with Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, warning the Iranian government against revoking Iranian protesters’ rights to peaceful assembly and French President Emmanuel Macron urging Rouhani to “show restraint.” U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, have taken a more aggressive approach, with Haley saying in a press conference that Iran’s attempts to blame its enemies for the protests are “complete nonsense” and Donald Trump tweeting last week: “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’”
Trump is likely referring to funds given to the Iranians through the 2015 Iran deal, which has been long-touted as a diplomatic win in the region. His tweet and Nikki Haley’s statements are especially important because in the next week or so, Trump is expected to make a decision as to whether or not the U.S. government will continue to support its side of the Iran deal.
By: Alex Voisine
The results are in for the December snap election in Catalonia, and it appears that pro-independence parties have maintained a very thin majority in Parliament. The election was called to gauge support for Catalonia’s secession from the rest of Spain, and comes after a chaotic past few months in Spain.
For years, residents of the northeast region of Spain known as Catalonia, which is home to the city of Barcelona, have been seeking independence from the rest of Spain, claiming that they have a distinct culture, language, and economy. Following a highly-disputed election in October that appeared to show that a majority of Catalans voted for independence from Spain, Spanish President Mariano Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, and took control over the region, which previously enjoyed a limited degree of autonomy. The October election was considered illegal by the Spanish central government, and Spanish police forces were sent in to keep voters from going to the polls. In addition to taking control of Catalonia, the Spanish central government has threatened to charge Catalan and pro-independence president Carles Puidgemont with treason. Puidgemont, who orchestrated the October elections in an effort to show the Spanish central government that a majority of Catalans desired independence, has self-exiled in Belgium.
The snap election, which Rajoy called in the hopes of showing that a majority of Catalans do not support independence, did not go as planned, but is not altogether a definite victory for either side. While the pro-independence parties gained a majority in Catalan’s Parliament, the parties against independence have a majority of the votes. Additionally, the anti-independence party “Ciudadanos” won more seats than it ever had in the past (37 seats and 25.3% of the vote) indicating a growing anti-independence movement. In other words, the results of the election are unclear, and it is unclear how the Spanish government will react. As of now, Spain still has control over Catalonia, but on December 21st, right after the results of the snap election were in, Carles Puidgemont tweeted that the election was a victory for pro-independence Catalans, and a loss for Rajoy.
The chaos in Spain has unfortunately had an impact on the economy, with Spain’s foreign minister claiming that the independence crisis could easily have cost Catalonia 1 billion euros. This comes as no surprise considering that over 3,000 companies have moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia in response to the region’s instability following the October referendum.
Stay tuned for updates on this ongoing (and chaotic) story!
By: Alex Voisine
The landlocked country of Kazakhstan has become China’s most recent partner in its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a $1 trillion infrastructure project that seeks to open up markets around the world to trade with China. The Chinese shipping company COSCO, which bought a 49% share in a warehouse complex near Khorgos, Kazakhstan, has recently been focused on buying ports in countries like Greece. Kazakhstan thus seems like an unlikely target, given that it is some 1,600 miles away from the nearest sea route. However, China plans to build a small city, called Nurkent, and an expansive industrial complex, which will eventually function as a stopover for its land-based trade routes. The industrial complex will serve many purposes, but primarily will heat up electronics sent from China over a westward land route to Europe that is so cold in the winter that electronics are often damaged. It will also cool down wine and food exports from Europe to China during the hot summer months.
The project is worrying Russia though, which has historically been an important partner with China in the transportation of goods from China to Europe. Russian officials are worried that China will bypass Russian trade routes by creating its own trade route to the Caspian sea, via Kazakhstan.
In addition to diplomatic concerns, current residents of the small city that China hopes to build around the industrial complex in Kazakhstan have expressed concerns over their quality of life. Currently, there are only about 10,000 residents, many of whom were encouraged by the Chinese to move and were promised reliable jobs. Though there are plans to employ over 100,000 people and thus create more of a bustling city, as it stands, the town is markedly desolate. Some experts worry that it will never grow to 100,000, as automation and technology are increasingly replacing human labor. Furthermore, anti-Chinese sentiments in the country, which are based in the fear that Kazakhstan will become an economic puppet for China (much like it was for Russia before it gained independence), may stall progress.
By: Rachel Elliott
In his first tweet of 2018, President Trump criticized Pakistan for what he considers weak attempts to crack down on terrorism in the country. The president also said that the “33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,” was misguided, while threatening to end the funding to Pakistan altogether.
In response, a diplomatic protest ensued, and the American ambassador in Islamabad was called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister tweeted later in the day that this untrustworthiness was unwarranted, considering Pakistan’s position as the US’ “anti-terror ally.” The relationship between the US and Pakistan has become more strained in recent months. While US officials, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have expressed their frustration with Pakistan in the fight against terror, Pakistani officials believe they have done more than enough. Afghani Ambassador to the US Hamdullah Mohib and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed with Trump’s claims against Pakistan. The former President also took to Twitter to reinforce the idea that the war on terror goes beyond Afghanistan’s borders and into sanctuaries for terrorists. He suggested the US and Afhanistan create a coalition to force Pakistan into action against terror in the Middle East.
The Trump administration announced Thursday that all security aid to Pakistan will be suspended indefinitely. Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the amount of funds would be significant, but did not provide the number.
By: Rachel Elliott
A ban that was announced last year, on all ivory trade and ivory products in China, came into effect with the beginning of the new year. The ban has been hailed by Chinese celebrities as well as international organizations like WWF and WildAid as a major step to end poaching and the world’s largest market for the commodity. One concern in the country is the lack of coverage in Hong Kong, a center for the ivory market. The province is not subject to the law, and therefore the sale can continue there, though Hong Kong’s government is to vote on a five-year plan banning ivory.
It is estimated that over 30,000 African elephants are killed each year by poachers. Activists hope that the ban in China will help reduce this number. The international trade ban of ivory was established in 1990, but the country allowed the sales within China’s borders. A study by Save the Elephants found, however, that Laos has the largest growing ivory market, with most purchasers being Chinese tourists. Cambodia and Vietnam are also popular markets for the illegal trade.
By: Rachel Elliott
Last week, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski pardoned former President Alberto Fujimori, leading to an eruption of protests. Fujimori is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses under his leadership (from 1990-2000) including killings by death squads. The 79-year old was removed from his prison cell and taken to a hospital for reported low blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythm. The move is seen to be Kuczynski’s attempt to avoid impeachment himself, hoping to gain support from Fujimori’s former support base. The current president has denied these claims.
The pardon has drawn widespread criticism, in addition to protests throughout the country. Two members of the Peruvian Congress and the Culture Minister have resigned in protest. On Christmas Eve, crowds in Lima marched through the streets chanting, “No to the pardon!” and “down with the corrupt.” Famous Peruvian writers, including Nobel-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa, released a denouncement letter in response to the pardon, calling it a disgrace and irresponsible. Supporters of the president believe it was a humanitarian gesture and praise Fujimori for combating leftist rebels and economic improvement in the 90s. Human rights experts from the United Nations called the move a “slap in the face” for victims of Fujimori’s human rights violations.