The World Today for March 20, 2018



The Inconvenient Voice

Hopeful in their aspirations but fearful of humankind’s darkest instincts, America’s founding fathers were suspicious of democracy. They opted, therefore, to create a democratic republic, mixing the franchise with a government of checks and balances.

Today, the Netherlands is grappling with similar questions.

On March 21, Dutch voters will cast ballots in a referendum on a surveillance law that allows government officials to covertly gather Internet traffic data on large groups of people, including being able to hack devices, Reuters reported.

The law, adopted last summer, is controversial for all the typical reasons. Its supporters say it’s essential to combat terrorism. Detractors say it compromises privacy.

One of the main powers it allows “is untargeted interception of cable traffic and automated analysis of that data, which is basically mass surveillance,” said university student Nina Boelsums, who organized the referendum campaign, in an interview with tech news website ZDNet.

The referendum is nonbinding. But, under the 2015 law that allows such advisory referendums, as long as 300,000 people sign to put a question to citizens and 30 percent of voters head to the polls, the government must seriously consider the referendum’s results.

Since Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is considering repealing the referendum law, the poll will likely carry weight.

There’s a larger question framing the issue of whether the government should be empowered to eavesdrop on people watching cat videos, however.

Last month, the lower house of the Dutch parliament, the Tweede Kamer, voted to abolish advisory referendums entirely. The Dutch Senate is expected to approve the bill.

Referendums have burned Dutch and other European leaders, the Financial Times said. They have repeatedly put ballot questions to voters with the goal of strengthening the European Union. But in nearly every referendum the voters have rejected their plans.

Britain’s vote in 2016 to quit the EU – Brexit – is, of course, the poster child here.

In that same year, Dutch voters rejected a proposed EU-Ukraine deal, forcing their leaders to renegotiate the pact. One could say that uneducated Dutch voters foolishly didn’t care that Ukraine was locked in an existential struggle against Russia that symbolized a new Cold War. On the other hand, though, more than a year later, Ukraine is still locked in that struggle with no end in sight and it’s not clear if the West is much worse off.

Writing in the Conversation, Coventry University political scientist Matt Qvortrup, said Dutch leaders were clearly behaving selfishly.

“Politicians do not like to be embarrassed,” wrote Qvortrup. “Now, rather than having to explain themselves to the voters, Dutch politicians want to abolish the right to demand referendums.”

Even Thomas Jefferson might have to think hard about this one.



Jumlas and Dramebaaz

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014 achieved a parliamentary majority unprecedented in the current era – remains extremely popular. But he ought to be worrying about two little words: “jumlas” and “dramebaaz,” or “promises” and “gimmicks.”

Renowned for announcing one dramatic scheme after another – Clean India, Make in India, Smart Cities, and so on – Modi recently took some flak from erstwhile Congress President Sonia Gandhi for “dramebaaz” at a party planning session where India’s moribund Grand Old Party finally showed some signs of life, reported the Times of India. And after the defection of an important ally, the BJP faces a looming no-confidence motion, a worrying sign of changing winds, though Modi no doubt has the votes to defeat it.

The cracks in the foundation could well stem from broken jumlas. A new parliamentary report shows the PM’s big-ticket schemes have barely gotten off the ground because they’ve been starved of funds, Bloomberg said, with his six top infrastructure schemes spending just 21 percent, or $1.2 billion, of the $5.6 billion allocated.


Your Money’s No Good Here

The White House slapped sanctions on four more Venezuelan government officials and banned the digital currency that beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro hoped to use to circumvent other financial restrictions.

The measures are designed to put further pressure on Maduro ahead of a presidential election where he’s widely expected to stack the deck in his favor, the New York Times reported.

The four officials sanctioned include a Venezuelan state bank director, the head of the agency responsible for imposing price controls, the acting chief of the Office of the National Treasury, and the former president of the board of directors of the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security.

Banning the Petro – Venezuela’s nascent crypto-currency – sends a signal to other countries, such as Russia, considering digital currencies as a way to evade sanctions. But because the Petro hasn’t really succeeded, banning it isn’t likely to have much economic impact.

“The Trump administration’s desire here is to continue to gradually ratchet up sanctions,” the paper quoted a risk analysis expert as saying.


Breach of Duty

Nigeria had advance warning that Boko Haram was moving toward the town of Dapchi, yet failed to act to prevent the kidnapping of some 110 schoolgirls, Amnesty International alleged.

“The Nigerian authorities have failed in their duty to protect civilians, just as they did in Chibok four years ago,” Reuter’s quoted Osai Ojigho, Amnesty’s Nigeria director, as saying in a report issued Tuesday.

That earlier abduction, in which the Islamist militants kidnapped 276 students from the town of Chibok in 2014, awakened the world to Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram, now nine years old.

The latest failure could be disastrous for President Muhammadu Buhari, who won election in 2015 on a promise to make Nigerians safer than his predecessor had managed.

A military spokesman denied they received advance warning that the militants were in the area of Dapchi. But Amnesty alleged that the Nigerian army and police received at least five phone calls warning that Boko Haram was on the way to Dapchi as early as four hours before the attack.


Against the Odds

The ash, sulfuric acid and water that erupt from a super volcano are enough to clog the skies and dramatically reduce global temperatures by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit, plunging the world into a near-apocalyptic winter.

But a new study published in the journal Nature suggests that the largest volcanic eruption of the past two million years didn’t freeze out the human population – instead, the cold temperatures forced prehistoric populations to the African coast, where they thrived, the New York Times reported.

Scientists once speculated that the eruption at Toba, a supervolcano situated on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, nearly brought the human species to extinction 74,000 years ago. So when anthropologists recently analyzed debris from the eruption on the coast of South Africa, they expected to see little sign of human life.

But after combing through layers sediment, they found glass shards, stone tools, human bones and evidence of fires, leading researchers to conclude that humans migrated to warmer coastal regions after the eruption and were able to thrive under the darkened skies against the odds.

Some scientists, though, continue to contest whether Toba produced a volcanic winter at all. As one put it, most of the information coming out “keeps putting nails in the Toba coffin.”

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