The World Today for February 22, 2023

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A People, Betrayed


After losing their jobs and selling their cars and other assets, parents in Lebanon are giving their children to orphanages because there is nothing left to sell to feed their children.

“It was a hard decision,” Hussein Kassar told the Pulitzer Center, referring to his decision to send his four children to an orphanage. “But we can only choose between bad and worse.”

Kassar’s struggle is echoed across the country, which is in the middle of an economic collapse. The economy, for example, has shrunk by 60 percent since 2018. In 2019, inflation, debt, a lack of foreign investment and declining economic productivity were hurting Lebanon even as officials sought to raise taxes to fund services, triggering mass civil unrest and destabilizing the political system.

Then the coronavirus struck. In addition to the pandemic, in August 2020, a massive explosion in a poorly managed chemical warehouse destroyed much of Beirut’s waterfront and killed over 200 people. Two years later, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing energy and food costs to spike, hitting importers like Lebanon hard.

Today, 40 percent of the country lives in poverty, earning less than $2 per day. As many as 300,000 Lebanese have emigrated abroad for work, wrote Qantara, a German state-funded media venture between Deutsche Welle, the Goethe Institute and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations. Around half of the country’s gross domestic product is the result of cash transfers from the Lebanese diaspora.

The currency has been devalued by 90 percent and inflation is in triple digits, added the Guardian in an editorial that described the Lebanese as a “people betrayed.” Footage in Euronews showed recent protests related to these issues.

Meanwhile, in February, banks went on ‘strike,’ closing their doors to customers after the high court ruled that one of the country’s largest banks must release the money held in bank accounts by two depositors after they had to sue the bank to access their funds, ABC News reported.

Prior to that, some depositors had been holding up banks or staging sit-ins to be able to access the funds in their accounts.

Meanwhile, the factors limiting a recovery are many and inveterate.

Due to internal disputes under a power-sharing agreement between the country’s Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and Maronite Christians, Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been unable to appoint a cabinet, noted Axios. And parliament has been unable to appoint a president.

A lack of stable government leads to other problems. Corruption, for example, lies at the root of the Beirut explosion, the BBC noted, but legal challenges have stymied probes into the incident for more than a year. Protesters have assembled in front of the offices of justice officials accused of attempting to derail the investigation in order to save their own skins.

Writing for the Arab Center Washington DC, Patricia Karam argued that the protesters need to assemble into a more cohesive and effective political force that could rebuild the country’s political system, crack down on corruption, and address people’s needs.

Because at the moment, anyone able to do something about Lebanon’s multitude of problems isn’t doing very much at all.


Dismantling Safety


Russia will suspend its participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the United States, raising the stakes in the tense relationship between Moscow and the West over the war in Ukraine and sparking concerns about the pact’s future, CBS News reported Tuesday.

President Vladimir Putin declared the suspension of the New START treaty during his state of the nation address Tuesday, which he also used to accuse the US and its NATO allies of igniting the war in Ukraine.

Signed in 2010, the treaty limits each country’s nuclear arsenal and includes sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance. But since the coronavirus pandemic, the two nuclear powers have suspended mutual inspections.

During his address, Putin said that even though the US had pushed for the resumption of inspections, NATO has been helping Ukraine mount drone attacks on Russian air bases hosting nuclear-capable strategic bombers.

He explained that Russia is not withdrawing from the treaty but added that Moscow will stand ready to resume nuclear weapon tests if the US also restarts them.

Putin’s announcement drew criticism from Washington as “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible.”

Observers noted that a restart in nuclear weapons tests would put an end to a global ban on such tests in place since the Cold War.

In 2021, Russia and the US agreed to extend the treaty for five years just days before it was due to expire in February of that year.

But last year, Moscow refused to allow the resumption of inspections and has indefinitely postponed a planned round of consultations under the treaty.

The Roar


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused demonstrators of “trampling on democracy,” as huge protests continued this week against the ruling right-wing coalition’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, the Guardian reported.

More than 100,000 people protested outside the country’s parliament in Jerusalem on Monday, as a preliminary vote over the judicial reform passed following a bitter debate that dragged on into the early hours of Tuesday.

The planned overhaul would allow a simple parliamentary majority to override Supreme Court decisions and have more influence on the committee that appoints judges.

Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have defended the changes, saying they will help balance different branches of government and counter a perceived left-wing bias in the court’s decisions. The prime minister has criticized the protests for “threatening us with civil war and blood in the streets.”

Critics, meanwhile, said such a move would give politicians unprecedented power in a country with no formal constitution.

The controversial bill has sparked some of the largest demonstrations in Israeli history, with strikes and marches held outside the Israeli parliament for the past two weeks.

Criticism has also emerged from economists, military leaders, Israel’s crucial hi-tech sector and the business community, and the country’s allies including the US. A recent poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 12 found that 60 percent of voters want the government to halt or postpone the legislation.

While the preliminary vote applies to one aspect of the changes, it is only the first of three votes required for the reform plan’s parliamentary approval. Even so, many see it as an act of bad faith that it went forward despite repeated pleas for a postponement to allow for talks with the opposition.

The Leave to Leave


Spain passed a law this month that will allow employees to take paid “menstrual leave” from work, becoming the first European country to do so, Euronews reported.

Under the new rules, women will have the right to a three-day menstrual leave of absence a month, which can be extended to five days for those with disabling periods.

A doctor’s note is required for the leave, and the public social security system will cover the cost.

Equality Minister Irene Montero hailed the passing of legislation as “a historic day of progress for feminist rights.” Spain now joins only a handful of countries that allow menstrual leave, including Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, and Zambia.

Even so, the policy received a mixed reaction among politicians, women’s rights groups and trade unions: While officials say the bill aims to help fight stereotypes that surround periods and hinder women’s lives, others fear it might stigmatize women in the workplace – such as preventing them from getting hired because employers fear the new hires will take excessive leave.

Many European women are asked during job interviews whether they intend to become pregnant, an illegal question, but one prompted by mandatory maternity leave periods that can stretch to more than a year in some European countries.

The “menstrual leave” is part of a broader package on sexual and reproductive rights that includes permitting abortions to anyone over the age of 16, as well as providing period products for free in schools and prisons, the Associated Press noted.

Legislators also adopted a second set of reforms that strengthened transgender rights, including allowing any citizen over the age of 16 to change their officially registered gender without medical supervision.


Hidden In Plain Sight

Cryptographers discovered the long-lost secret letters of 16th-century monarch Mary, Queen of Scots, a find that reveals new details about her final years, CBS News reported.

The international codebreaking team found more than 50 letters containing about 50,000 never-before-seen words after digging through the digital archives of France’s national library.

Long rumored to exist, the documents were overlooked in the past because they were mislabeled as being from Italy, they wrote in their study.

The coded letters were written from 1578 to 1584 when Mary Stuart, a Catholic, was imprisoned in England because of the perceived threat she posed to her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

The codebreakers explained that the deciphering process “was like peeling an onion” and took around two months. Initially, it was hard to determine who had written the letters but they found hints of an imprisoned woman and her son, as well as the name “Walsingham.”

Walsingham refers to Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, a figure historians believe “entrapped” Mary in 1586 into supporting the foiled Babington Plot to assassinate the queen.

Mary was beheaded in 1587 after being found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I.

Mary had directed the letters to her supporter, Michel de Castelnau Mauvissiere, who was also France’s ambassador to England.

While she made no mention of a plot, she lamented her treatment in jail and expressed concern when her son, King James VI of Scotland, was abducted.

Historians praised the findings as “a literary and historical sensation,” adding they will likely alter the existing biographies of the executed monarch.

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