November 27, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

SWITZERLAND

The Politics of Granularity

A few months ago, Swiss voters rejected a referendum on restricting free movement with the European Union.

Now the rich Alpine nation, which is not part of the bloc, is again asking citizens to decide on important issues on Nov. 29.

One initiative would compel Swiss companies to prove whether they, their subsidiaries and their business partners, are complying with international human rights and environmental standards, the Local reported. Those who flout the standards would face penalties.

Proponents say the measures are critical, that it is time businesses take responsibility. Critics say the proposal is potentially unworkable.

“A cursory look at the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives a rough indication of the ungainly spreadsheets hapless junior auditors will be completing to assess whether countries have, for example, freedom of movement, thought, speech, religion and assembly,” wrote Andrew Isbester, a Hong Kong-based Swiss journalist at finews.asia.

But one can imagine why some Swiss might back imposing this burden on their companies. Once a haven for illicit money and tax cheats, Switzerland has caved to pressure from American and European officials to open up its banking system, as Reuters explained. The ex-American banker, whistleblower and convicted felon who helped end the country’s notorious banking secrecy policies, Bradley Birkenfeld, recently penned a book, incidentally, about his experience.

Today, many Swiss are questioning the benefits they have received from financing unsavory international schemes or harboring the ill-gotten gains of violent dictators and oppressors. A recent inquiry in Zurich discovered that Alfred Escher, a beloved son who founded banking giant Credit Suisse, was also a slave owner and trader, wrote the Guardian.

A second referendum would, if approved, ban all financing for the arms industry, prohibit loans to weapons makers and make it illegal to hold shares or invest in military hardware. The Swiss National Bank invested $1.3 billion in nuclear weapons production in 2018, for example, noted SwissInfo.ch, a state-run news service.

The government’s official position is that both referendums go too far. They note that Switzerland already places strict environmental rules on corporate behavior and the arms industry.

But voters appear to want the opportunity to ask themselves these kinds of questions. One planned referendum would ban Indonesian palm oil.

Organizers also hope to add a ballot question that if approved, would give every Swiss citizen around $8,400. Forbes described how such a referendum would help devalue the Swiss franc, which has swelled in value because it is seen as a safe haven for traders during the Covid-19 pandemic. An injection of cash would also help local economies that are struggling amid a surge of coronavirus cases, Foreign Policy magazine added.

While some believe the Swiss’ penchant for referendums – and the questions they decide – goes too far, others these days are wondering: Maybe granularity preserves democracy.

WANT TO KNOW

TURKEY

Cleaning House

A Turkish court sentenced more than 300 military officers and civilians to multiple life sentences over their involvement in the failed 2016 coup, the BBC reported Thursday.

In one of the biggest trials linked to the coup, nearly 500 defendants were accused of attempting to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and seize key state institutions.

The trial mainly focused on a group of air force pilots and military commanders, who allegedly conducted their plot from the Akinci airbase near the capital, Ankara.

The court also indicted US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan has accused of masterminding the plot, a charge Gulen denies. The president has demanded his extradition.

More than 250 people died and more than 2,000 were injured when thousands of civilians supporting Erdogan confronted the rogue soldiers.

Following the coup, Erdogan conducted a massive purge of state institutions: More than 100,000 public sector employees, including teachers and judges, have been suspended or fired over alleged links to Gulen’s movement.

Since the coup attempt, numerous trials have been held and judges have issued more than 2,500 life sentences.

INDIA

Farmers Versus the Market

Thousands of Indian farmers marched toward the capital, New Delhi, Thursday to protest against new farm laws they say will leave them vulnerable to market forces, Al Jazeera reported.

In September, India’s parliament passed bills that would make it easier for farmers to sell their produce directly to private buyers and enter into contracts with private companies. The Hindu-nationalist government believes the measures will stimulate growth and free farmers from the traditional middlemen who dominate the trade.

Many farmer groups, however, worry that the changes will benefit big corporations: They say the new laws will end the purchase of grains at prices guaranteed by the government and leave them at the mercy of private investors.

Farmers have been protesting the laws since September, particularly in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana – which are known as India’s bread basket.

About 58 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population works in the agricultural sector, according to India Brand Equity Foundation.

UNITED KINGDOM

Britain First

Analysts and lawmakers expressed deep concern after the British government announced foreign aid cuts that could deeply affect the lives and well-being of women and children in poor countries, the Guardian reported Thursday.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that overseas aid will be slashed from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of gross national income, a move denounced as “unprincipled, unjustified and harmful” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Aid organizations and legislators said that women would be the hardest hit by the cuts, which impact education, nutrition and healthcare services.

Andrew Mitchell, a former Conservative international development secretary, called the cuts “absolutely outrageous.” He added that millions of children won’t be able to get vaccinated, which could “lead to up to 100,000 deaths.”

Others warned that the cuts would damage Britain’s reputation around the globe.

Parliament’s international development committee will meet in mid-December to analyze the effects of reducing the official development assistance commitment.

DISCOVERIES

FRAUD! A Bird’s Tale

Recently, New Zealand’s endangered kakapo won the country’s annual Bird of the Year contest – again.

Like elections around the world these days, it was a brutal vote, marked by division, fraud, interference and other irregularities, according to the Washington Post.

For example, data analysts spotted roughly 1,500 fake votes cast in favor of the country’s kiwi pukupuku bird by a suspicious email account in Auckland. Organizers immediately disregarded the votes.

“Voter fraud is not the kiwi way,” the kiwi pukupuku bird’s campaign manager explained, urging people to uphold the bird’s values of “democracy, fairness, equality and honesty”: The bird is a national emblem.

Contest officials, meanwhile, urged voters to only vote once per email and warned that they “will be disappointed” if voters didn’t play by the rules.

Sadly, the contest has been marred by irregularities since its inception in 2005.

Last year, officials were forced to defend themselves against claims of Russian interference after hundreds of international votes were registered.

Evidence of ballot-stuffing was also uncovered in 2017 and 2018.

Still, the 2020 vote was a tough one – even before the election, the campaigns were brutal, with candidates taking to Twitter and TikTok to shore up their base. Even so, pollsters – again – got it wrong: New Zealand’s Antipodean albatross, also known as the toroa, was the favorite to win, leading the polls before the vote.

The kakapo previously won the 2008 election and its supporters were delighted that the world would witness the pudgy incumbent “bounce back in style.” Also known as “mighty moss chicken,” the endangered bird is the only parrot in the world that can’t fly and is extremely slow to reproduce. In fact, predators, disease and infertility have reduced their numbers to 209 despite efforts to increase their population.

And, of course, the losers in the election cried foul – although no one demanded a recount. Meanwhile, they are already plotting their comeback.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 12,883,846 (+0.83%)
  2. India: 9,309,787 (+0.46%)
  3. Brazil: 6,204,220 (+0.61%)
  4. France: 2,235,537 (+0.61%)
  5. Russia: 2,196,691 (+1.26%)
  6. Spain: 1,617,355 (+0.77%)
  7. UK: 1,578,429 (+1.12%)
  8. Italy: 1,509,875 (+1.96%)
  9. Argentina: 1,399,431 (+0.65%)
  10. Colombia: 1,280,487 (+0.75%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours