The World Today for April 07, 2022

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The Game of Neutrality

WORLD

As his soldiers fight Russian forces, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently pledged that his country would become permanently neutral – that is, aligned neither with NATO nor Russia – in exchange for security guarantees designed to prevent more fighting in the future.

What does that mean exactly?

On one level, neutrality isn’t complicated. “We will not host foreign military bases on our territory, as well as deploy military contingents on our territory, and we will not enter into military-political alliances,” said Oleksander Chaly, a Ukrainian diplomat, on Ukrainian national television, according to Reuters.

The vast majority of countries in Europe belong either to NATO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led alliance that also includes Belarus and other former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia, noted NBC News. But six European Union members – Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Finland, Malta and Sweden – are now neutral, showing that Ukraine would potentially be in good company.

There are many other levels, however.

Firstly, Zelenskyy appeared to offer neutrality in order to head off a possible Russian plan to carve up Ukraine, the Associated Press reported. A partition of Ukraine’s eastern regions, where Russia-backed separatists rule, from the Western regions would be a disaster for Zelenskyy politically but, more importantly, potentially hobble Ukraine economically for years to come.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also likely suspicious about whether Zelenskyy really wants Ukraine to foreclose any hopes of joining NATO. Ukraine technically abandoned its neutral state in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, incidentally. Today, Ukraine’s constitution cites NATO membership as an aspiration, added the Guardian. The constitution can’t be changed while martial law is in effect, either, as it is now. That said, Zelenskyy has said that Ukraine has no chance of joining NATO anytime soon.

Furthermore, what Zelenskyy means by neutrality is probably not the same as what Putin means, Vox wrote. To Zelenskyy, neutrality means Ukraine can become like Austria or Ireland – not a NATO member but Western-looking, perhaps even a member of the European Union. To Putin, neutrality likely means Ukraine’s complete subservience to Russian domination.

Neutrality is not a cure-all, either. As the British newspaper iNews argued, neutral Switzerland has enjoyed peace and prosperity not because of its lack of military entanglements but because the mountainous country has built near-impenetrable defenses and keeps a well-trained army on call to repel aggressors.

And Switzerland’s neutrality is more flexible than one might think. Breaking with two centuries of history after coming under Western and domestic pressure, the country has joined the US and EU in slapping sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, reported the Washington Post.

“We are in an extraordinary situation…,” President Ignazio Cassis told reporters in late February.

Neutrality sounds like a good idea but it’s complicated: Case in point: Swiss President Cassis insists that Swiss neutrality is intact.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Teeter, Totter

ISRAEL

Israel’s government moved toward collapse Wednesday after a right-wing lawmaker from the ruling coalition announced she was joining the opposition, raising concerns that the country might head for an election in less than a year, Axios reported.

Coalition whip Idit Silman of the Yamina Party said she couldn’t support the unity government anymore and called for the formation of a new right-wing government without holding fresh elections.

Her exit caused the fragile coalition of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to lose its majority in parliament – until now, it had held a majority by one seat.

Silman said the reason behind her departure was a memo by Israel’s health minister allowing individuals to bring leavened items into hospitals during Passover. She said she “couldn’t allow it to harm Israel’s Jewish identity.”

But sources within the coalition said her departure was primarily motivated by recent criticism the Israeli unity government received over last month’s terror attacks and for failing to provide building permits to Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.

They added that Silman also reached an agreement with former prime minister and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised her a high-level spot on his party’s list in the next elections.

Netanyahu welcomed Silman’s move and urged other right-wing members to follow her, to “come back home.”

Silman’s exit risks collapsing the fragile coalition comprised of right-wing and Arab parties, which was formed last year following four legislative elections in two years.

If one more lawmaker leaves the coalition, the opposition could have the 61-member majority needed to dissolve the legislature and call new polls.

Parliament is in recess until next month.

Upright Justice

BURKINA FASO

A Burkinabe military court sentenced former President Blaise Compaore to life in prison Wednesday over his role in the 1987 murder of Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, France 24 reported.

The court tried the former president in absentia on the charges of attacking state security, concealing a corpse and complicity in Sankara’s murder, which coincided with the 1987 coup that brought Compaore to power.

Compaore fled the country following a popular uprising in 2014 and has been living in exile in the neighboring Ivory Coast ever since.

The tribunal also sentenced to life Compaore’s former head of security, Hyacinthe Kafando, and General Gilbert Diendéré, a commander during the 1987 coup. Diendéré was the main defendant present at the trial.

The former president has denied the allegations and denounced the proceedings as a “political trial.” Even so, Compaore’s government had kept the details of Sankara’s death under wraps, fueling speculation that he was the mastermind.

The case against him only began after his ouster but the proceedings were halted earlier this year following a military coup that deposed elected President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.

During the trial, a number of witnesses pointed to an “international conspiracy” that included former colonial power France and Ivory Coast to remove the revolutionary leader.

Sankara remains a folk hero in Burkina Faso, a country with a long history of political unrest currently battling a jihadist insurgency that has killed about 2,000 people and displaced around 1.8 million.

Dubbed “Africa’s Che Guevara,” Sankara came to power in 1983 and is remembered for his progressive policies, such as recognizing the dangers of climate change and desertification, as well as boosting women’s rights.

Sankara is also responsible for renaming the former French colony of Haute-Volta as Burkina Faso, which means “Land of the Honest” or “Upright.”

Shortening Childhood

JAPAN

Japan recently lowered its adult age, a move that human and women’s rights advocates fear could make it difficult to protect women under the age of 20, who have been coerced into appearing in pornographic movies, Japan’s Jiji Press reported.

Earlier this month, Japanese lawmakers voted to change the Civil Code to lower the legal age for adulthood to 18 from 20, which had been the age of majority for more than 140 years.

The changes are aimed at giving young people more rights and responsibilities and encouraging them to be more active in civic life: The new legal age will allow 18-year-olds to sign employment contracts and apply for credit cards and loans.

Meanwhile, the legal age for drinking, smoking and gambling will remain at 20, according to the Washington Post.

Still, some lawmakers and activists have expressed concern that the amendments don’t protect vulnerable young people: Some worry the adult industry will begin scouting people in junior high and high schools for positions in the porn industry when they turn 18.

Advocates warn that young people could be coerced or tricked into signing contracts without realizing they will be participating in a porn movie. Before the reforms, sales of movies starring 18- and 19-year-olds could be blocked by using the right to annul contracts signed by minors without the consent of their guardians.

But the revised Civil Code removes such protections, and now 18-year-olds can only annul contracts if they prove they were threatened or defrauded when signing them, something difficult to prove.

Japanese lawmaker Ayaka Shiomura appealed to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to close the loophole but her efforts were laughed at in parliament, the Post noted.

Even so, the Japanese government responded by declaring April as the month for reducing sexual assault against youngsters. It also launched public awareness campaigns.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • China called for an investigation into the killings in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, describing the images of civilian deaths as “deeply disturbing,” according to the Associated Press. But Beijing refused to name perpetrators despite Ukrainian officials blaming invading Russian troops for the massacre.
  • NATO foreign ministers met on Wednesday to consider ways to aid Ukraine, with the meeting to include Pacific partner nations on Thursday, the Washington Post reported. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the meetings would also focus on a resolution to the conflict that will ensure Russia does not mount similar attacks in the future. “We have to do things to make sure that this can’t happen again, that Russia is deterred, that Ukraine is defended,” he said.
  • The Czech Republic has sent old Soviet-designed tanks into Ukraine, delivering desperately needed heavy weaponry to outgunned Ukrainian soldiers fighting a far better-equipped Russian invading force, the Wall Street Journal reported. Meanwhile, the United States is sending up to $100 million in additional military aid to Ukraine, the Hill added, even as NATO considers supplying the country with weapons.
  • Russia came one step closer to a potential foreign currency debt default Wednesday when the country’s finance ministry announced it was required to make payments in rubles to holders of its dollar-denominated bonds, the Financial Times noted. The ruble payment comes after the US Treasury Department barred American banks from accepting dollar payments from Russia, thus blocking $649 million in interest and principal payments due on Monday.
  • Ukrainian officials warned this week that Russian mobile crematoria had been operating in Mariupol in an apparent attempt to conceal the death toll amid the city’s fierce fighting, the Moscow Times wrote. At least 5,000 have died in the siege including 200 children. Aid workers are still unable to access the city.

DISCOVERIES

What’s Good For the Goose…

Too much time in space is not good for the bones.

Prolonged periods in microgravity can cause bone loss – or osteoporosis – in astronauts. Scientists, however, have developed a novel remedy, New Scientist reported.

Astronauts at the International Space Station have to exercise at least two hours a day and take bone-preserving drugs to prevent significant bone loss.

But for longer journeys, they will need injections of strong bone-forming drugs which take up a lot of cargo space.

To resolve this, researcher Kevin Yates and his team created special lettuce packed with an important hormone that stimulates bone formation.

The researchers used a soil bacterium to transfer a gene that produces a version of the parathyroid hormone (PTH) into lettuce.

Presenting their findings at the American Chemical Society Spring 2022 conference in California, Yates’ team said the most productive specimen produced 10 to 12 milligrams of PTH per two pounds.

That means that a space traveler will only need about 13 ounces of the genetically-modified lettuce to keep their bones strong.

“This is a new way of thinking and solving problems for space exploration,” said Yates.

The scientists noted that the lettuce could also be used to treat osteoporosis on Earth too, where the condition affects millions of people.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 493,710,804

Total Deaths Worldwide: 6,158,922

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 11,046,673,345

Countries with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*

  1. US: 80,248,986 (+0.05%)
  2. India: 43,031,958 (+0.002%)
  3. Brazil: 30,069,094 (+0.09%)
  4. France: 26,579,448 (+0.57%)
  5. Germany: 22,303,440 (+1.90%)
  6. UK: 21,531,184 (+0.24%)
  7. Russia: 17,679,300 (+0.08%)
  8. Italy: 15,035,943 (+0.47%)
  9. Turkey: 14,929,905 (+0.07%)
  10. South Korea 14,779,405 (+1.55%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

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