The World Today for December 07, 2018

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NEED TO KNOW

MAURITANIA

The Master and the Mother

Slavery is alive and well in Mauritania.

Unfortunately, there is a very personal reason for that.

“People think that God created them to be slaves,” Brahim Bilal Ramdhane, an anti-slavery activist in the West African country, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, speaking of exploited workers whose families have served “masters” for generations.

Technically, slavery ended in Mauritania in 1981. It was criminalized in 2007. Yet the Global Slavery Index estimates that around 90,000 people, or 2 percent of Mauritania’s population, are enslaved. And only a few people have ever been prosecuted for holding their fellow citizens in servitude.

As the Guardian explained, the institution stems from long-held social structures in a country that straddles the divide between Muslim North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Light-skinned Arab “white Moors” own dark-skinned African “black Moors.” The former tend to live in the city, while the latter often work like indentured servants in the countryside, handing over the fruits of their labor to their masters.

It’s a brutal existence. CNN told a story of a master leaving the infant daughter of a slave he had raped out to die, reasoning that the woman could work harder without the child. When the mother discovered her dead baby, she asked if she could take a break to give the child a proper burial. Her master told her to get back to work.

“Her soul is a dog’s soul,” the master said to the mother.

The government admits that slavery exists but denies that it is widespread. Activists like Ramdhane face jail or worse for calling out leaders who turn a blind eye to bondage. Around 150 human rights defenders are now sitting in jail, the Associated Press reported. Opposition leader and anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid is among them.

“To speak out about slavery in Mauritania is to risk losing your liberty” was the headline in the Independent.

Mauritania’s lack of progress in tackling slavery led US President Donald Trump to end trade benefits for Mauritania starting next year, wrote Quartz. A US trade official said Mauritania will need to “eradicate forced labor and hereditary slavery” to regain those benefits, which include around more than $60 million of imports annually to the US – a significant sum of foreign cash for an impoverished country.

The Mauritanian government reacted angrily, saying Trump wasn’t treating Saudi Arabia so harshly despite the kingdom’s human rights abuses. “Would Trump have taken this decision if he was expecting a $110 billion arms contract with us?” government spokesperson Mohamed Ould Maham asked.

Maybe not. But don’t change the subject, Maham.

WANT TO KNOW

VENEZUELA

Frenemy of My Enemy

Russia offered Venezuela a $6 billion lifeline Thursday even as Washington strives to isolate President Nicolas Maduro.

Following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Maduro said that Russia had agreed to invest more than $5 billion in Venezuelan oil production and $1 billion in mining — mainly for gold, the Miami Herald reported.

Moscow and Russian companies will invest in Venezuela’s diamond sector, bring in new satellite technology and provide some 600 tons of wheat in 2019, Maduro said. And Moscow will continue to supply and maintain Venezuela’s military arsenal.

The announcement comes amid an escalating wave of US sanctions designed to pressure Maduro into changing course, if not oust him altogether, including a recent measure prohibiting US residents and citizens from dealing in Venezuela’s gold industry.

But the Herald noted some analysts were nonplussed by Maduro’s announcement, suggesting there are likely some serious strings attached, considering Venezuela already owes Russia an estimated $6 billion in overdue loans.

KOSOVO

Ominous Rattles

Saber rattling is common in international politics. But it’s especially ominous in the Balkans, where fighting killed around 100,000 people as recently as the 1990s.

That makes Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic’s suggestion on Wednesday that she might consider military intervention if Kosovo’s parliament votes to create a standing army particularly worrisome.

The predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo parliament is set to vote on Dec. 14 on transforming its 4,000-strong defense force into a regular army, Al Jazeera reported.

Such a transformation would take years. But that didn’t stop Serbian politicians from suggesting it might result in the expulsion of the remaining minority Serbs from Kosovo. Or from rattling the saber.

“I am hoping we would never have to use it [the army] but this is currently one of (the) options on the table as we do not want to watch this … ethnic cleansing,” Brnabic told reporters in Belgrade.

On the plus side, analysts said actual military action is highly unlikely, and Brnabic is simply courting Serbian nationalists with his fierce rhetoric.

AUSTRALIA

Mandatory Backdoors

Australia on Thursday passed a bill that could force the makers of private messaging applications like Whatsapp to include backdoors that allow law enforcement access to the content of messages.

The Assistance and Access Bill will allow the police to instruct such firms to build in backdoors when doing so won’t create “systemic weaknesses” in the service’s security, Fortune reported.

But that’s a murky area, a series of hacking scandals has shown, and the magazine said most security professionals actually oppose backdoors because they make it easier for foreign intelligence agencies and corporate spies to gain access to private information.

The bill is expected to be made law by royal assent before Christmas, but the opposition Labor party is still hoping it will be amended next year – at least to add a clear definition of “systemic weakness.”

Meanwhile, the move could have global implications, Agence France-Presse said, noting Canberra can demand compliance from local and international providers and may keep such requests veiled in secrecy.

DISCOVERIES

Ancient Pyramids, Ancient Ingenuity

Most want to know how ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramids. Soon, we may know.

British and French archaeologists recently found evidence that the ancient Egyptians used ramps to haul the huge blocks of alabaster used to construct the pyramids out of quarries, the Telegraph reported.

The international team found the remains of a ramp at a quarry in Hatnub, Egypt. They date back 4,500 years to the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, who commissioned the Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

“In our most recent season, we discovered an extremely well-preserved ramp leading up out of the quarry, with traces of post holes that will enable us to reconstruct in more detail the ancient technologies of stone haulage and extraction,” said archaeologist Roland Enmarch of the University of Liverpool.

The ramp is flanked by staircases and postholes on each side.

“Using a sled which carried a stone block and was attached with ropes to these wooden posts, ancient Egyptians were able to pull up the alabaster blocks out of the quarry on very steep slopes of 20 percent or more,” explained Yannis Gourdon, of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo.

As the adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

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