The World Today for October 10, 2016


A Shot in the Arm

When US President Barack Obama won the Nobel Prize in 2009 – nine months after he assumed office – it was obvious that the Norwegians were giving the new young president a shot in the arm as he assumed the responsibility of cleaning up the messes left behind by his predecessor.

Now, as the New York Times reported over the weekend, eyebrows are raising again for similar reasons in the wake of the Nobel committee awarding Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos the peace prize.

Santos won the prize because of his herculean efforts to end the 52-year-old civil war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC – which has killed around 260,000 people and displaced another six million. But last week, just before he was awarded the Nobel, the Colombian people rejected the deal Santos reached with the FARC leaders, so he has little to show for his hard work.

He recently announced he would donate his $925,000 prize money to victims of the war, suggesting his name deserves to be listed among other laureates like Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela.

Whether the vote reflected a bad deal, Santos’ poor salesmanship or a tide of global anti-establishmentarianism that led to other shock-votes like British voters opting to leave the European Union is a matter of opinion.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee sided with the first explanation, saying, “What the ‘No’ side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement.”

But the Los Angeles Times noted that time might not be kind to Santos. Nobels have also been awarded to the inventor of DDT, a now-banned pesticide that is harmful to the environment, and the doctor who pioneered cruel lobotomies as a cure for mental illness.

Criticism of the Nobel Prize in economics, created decades after the death of the prize founder, Alfred Nobel, has also been rampant.

A recent book review in the Atlantic claimed the economics prize was the birth child of free marketers seeking to exploit the 300th anniversary of the Bank of Sweden to boost the appeal of laissez faire capitalism in the socialist Scandinavian country. Hardly a lofty origin story.

FARC rebels aren’t so cynical, however.

“We believe that the Nobel Peace Prize will help President Santos bring to completion the ratification of the peace, which was signed in Havana, a ratification that is currently impossible,” FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez told the Associated Press.

Even the greatest opponent of the deal, Colombia’s ex-President Alvaro Uribe, said he hoped the prize would help Santos negotiate a better agreement, ABC reported.

Perhaps then, say observers, the Nobel Peace Prize is a kind of wish fulfillment, an expression of a desire for peace in a violent world that takes on life, in a sense, as a dream.

Dreams aren’t real. It’s easy to disparage them. But little happens without dreams. So Santos and the members of the Nobel committee keep dreaming.


Tragedies and Legalities

As the US and UN excoriate Russia and Syria for their “barbaric” bombardment of Aleppo, citizens of neighboring Yemen are just as outraged.

Thousands of people, some of them armed, gathered at the United Nations headquarters in the capital of Sanaa on Sunday to call for an international investigation into air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition that killed at least 140 people a day earlier, Reuters reported.

As in Syria, the UN, the European Union and the US condemned the attack, which hit a hall where many of the country’s elite were gathered for the funeral of the interior minister’s father.

A UN official said more than 525 people were wounded in what was one of the deadliest single attacks of the country’s civil war, the Associated Press said.

The Saudi-led coalition backs the sitting government, which is fighting the Houthis and Saleh loyalists in a civil war that broke out in 2014 and has killed thousands. The Saudis fear the Shi’ite Houthis are a proxy for Iran, the kingdom’s regional archenemy.

Meanwhile, state department officials were privately skeptical of the Saudi military’s ability to target Houthi militants without killing civilians and destroying “critical infrastructure” needed for Yemen to recover, Reuters reported.

At the same time, the US is worried about legal blowback over a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year despite warnings from some officials that the US could be implicated in war crimes for supporting the Saudi-led air campaign.

Taking Out the Stick

A week after a government crackdown on protesters resulted in a deadly stampede in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has opted to crack down harder.

On Sunday, Ethiopia declared a six-month state of emergency to protect property and citizens’ lives – as well as the government’s place in power, NPR reported.

Last week, at least 55 people were killed in a stampede after security forces opened fire and deployed tear gas to try to disperse anti-government protesters in the restive region of Oromia.

It was just the latest incident in months of such protests, which human rights groups say have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and the arrests of tens of thousands.

The protests began in November over a now-cancelled plan to expand the borders of Addis Ababa into Oromia. But the Oromos, who make up about a third of Ethiopia’s population, believe they’re excluded from power by the ethnic Tigrays in control of the government. The Amhara people also feel marginalized.

Whether they’re right or wrong, experts say the protests are a threat to foreign investments in cement, cut flower, textile and fruit juice businesses – which have helped make Ethiopia one of the fastest growing countries in the world, as well as one of the poorest.

Terror and Good Samaritans

Germany averted an alleged terrorist attack over the weekend, and the Syrian man suspected of plotting to set off a bomb was captured early Monday – by another Syrian national who tied him up and called police, German media reported.

Jaber Albakr, 22, had spent the weekend on the run. Spiegel Online reported that Albakr had approached another Syrian national at Leipzig train station Sunday and asked him if he could stay at his home.

The unidentified man later called police, Spiegel Online quoted police sources as saying. Albakr was reportedly arrested after being found tied up at the man’s apartment.

Several hundred grams of highly dangerous explosives were found in the suspect’s home after a tip-off by German secret services. Meanwhile, police have detained a possible accomplice, Bloomberg reported.

Germany has not yet suffered a terror attack on the scale of those that have hit Brussels and Paris – though a shooting spree in Munich that killed 10 people and a bombing at a music festival in July has sparked fears that it’s only a matter of time.


Ancient Mind Readers

Humans definitely aren’t telepathic.

But we are able to glean one another’s intentions based on perceived action. It’s called theory of mind, and a new study shows that some species of non-human apes possess it, too – and quite possibly have for millennia before humans even existed.

In the study published in the journal Science, researchers specifically tested apes for attributing “false belief,” a cognitive skill thought to be exclusively human that underpins our ability to empathize.

In the study, apes watched an action-packed soap opera in which a man hides a rock under one of two boxes, only to be driven off by another man in an ape suit, cleverly named King Kong.

Once the man had left, King Kong proceeded to relocate the rock in the second box, before taking it with him all together.

Curiously, when the man retuned, infrared eye-tracker technology showed that the apes’ focus was on the man’s original hiding place before he had even made a choice – they anticipated his false action.

It’s a finding that could have some huge evolutionary implications.

“If apes do in fact possess this aspect of theory of mind, the implication is that most likely it was present in the last evolutionary ancestor that human beings shared with the other apes…at least 13 to 18 million years before our own species Homo sapiens hit the scene,” the study’s co-leader, Christopher Krupenye, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke, wrote in a special feature for CNN.

Learn more here.

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