The World Today for May 22, 2023

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Comforting the Afflicters

MALI

Government troops and foreign fighters – allegedly soldiers affiliated with the Wagner Group, the Russian military contractor – massacred at least 500 people in the town of Moura in Mali in late March last year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Around 20 women and seven children died in the operation that was nominally aiming to kill jihadists who have been operating in the West African nation. UN officials also believe that the soldiers raped 58 women and girls, reported Agence France-Presse.

Calling the findings “extremely disturbing,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said that “summary executions, rape and torture during armed conflict amount to war crimes and could, depending on the circumstances, amount to crimes against humanity.”

The US State Department called on Mali to work with the international community to bring the perpetrators to justice. In a press release, a spokesman said violence like that in Moura would only drive more Malians into the arms of the jihadists who have been seeking to overturn the military government that has ruled the country since 2021.

Malian leaders denied the allegations in the UN report, saying all those who perished in the raid on Moura were Islamist militants, wrote Reuters.

The massacre occurred as Mali is in a sensitive spot. The country endured military coups in 2020 and 2021, but the generals have promised to hold elections in 2024, explained the United States Institute of Peace. In the meantime, their legitimacy is under threat due to widespread frustration with jihadist violence, corruption, human rights abuses, and economic inequality, among other concerns.

A recent scandal involving a secret recording of a woman seeking to bribe government officials on behalf of a tobacco magnate illustrates the corruption that Malians have grown to despise, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project noted.

Islamists, additionally, have killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands since they and other insurgents began operating in Mali in 2012, especially in the country’s remote eastern regions, Human Rights Watch added. The UN and European Union, led by France, have deployed peacekeeping missions to the country to fight the militants. But French officials have complained that Malian leaders have not been allowing the forces to fulfill their mandates.

On June 18, voters in Mali are slated to vote yes or no on whether to accept a new draft constitution that would provide a framework for officials elected in an expected ballot next year, Radio France Internationale reported. Critics have panned the idea of a referendum, saying the country needs to achieve peace and stability first, Al Jazeera wrote.

In the case of Mali, however, it’s hard to tell whether public support is necessary to secure peace or vice versa.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The City in the Heart

UKRAINE

Russian troops took control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin announced Sunday, after more than eight months of fighting that has left most of the besieged city in ruins and resulted in an unknown number of casualties on both sides, Sky News reported.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his troops and members of the mercenary Wagner Group for capturing the city. Wagner chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, confirmed Bakhmut’s capture.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a somber statement, saying there is “nothing left” in Bakhmut and the invading Russian forces had “destroyed everything.”

“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,” he added.

His response was issued in Japan where Zelenskyy was attending the Group of Seven summit in an attempt to rally international support for Ukraine. During the summit, US President Joe Biden announced $375 million more in aid for Ukraine, which included more ammunition, artillery and vehicles, according to the Associated Press.

Despite Zelenskyy’s statement, Ukrainian officials explained that his comments did not mean the city had fallen. Ukraine’s defense ministry said Kyiv’s forces had partly encircled the area and still controlled a section of Bakhmut.

Bakhmut, located in the Donetsk province, had around 80,000 people before the war and was an important industrial center – it hosts salt and gypsum mines nearby.

The city saw the longest battle of the war that began in February 2022. Both Russia and Ukraine are believed to have suffered tens of thousands of losses there, although neither has disclosed casualty numbers.

Control for the city was symbolic for Ukraine: Zelenskyy had said that its fall could allow Russia to gain support for a peace deal that might require Kyiv to make unacceptable compromises.

Bakhmut’s capture was also particularly important for Prigozhin. The Russian oligarch had tried to use the months-long battle to expand his influence amid growing tensions with the top Russian military leaders whom he has harshly criticized.

Political analysts noted that Bakhmut’s fall deals a blow to Ukraine and offers some tactical advantages to Russia. However, they added that it will not prove decisive to the outcome of the war.

Russian forces still face the arduous task of capturing the remaining parts of the Donetsk region that are still under Ukrainian control, including a number of strongly fortified locations. The Donbas region, comprised of the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, is Ukraine’s industrial hub and was the starting point of a separatist uprising in 2014.

In September, Moscow illegally annexed the region.

Hanging Judgments

IRAN

Iran executed three men accused of killing security officers during the anti-government protests that have gripped the country since September, prompting condemnation from human rights groups and Western governments, CBS News reported Friday.

A court had found the three individuals guilty of “moharebeh” – or waging “war against God” – for killing three members of the security forces at a demonstration in the central city of Isfahan in November.

Human rights groups criticized the verdicts and accused Iranian authorities of torturing the defendants to extract the “confessions.”

The executions also received condemnation from Australian officials, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong saying the act “exemplifies the regime’s brutality against its people.”

Iran has been grappling with mass demonstrations sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September. Iranian morality police detained the young woman on allegations that she had violated the country’s strict Islamic dress code.

The Iranian government has labeled the unrest as foreign-instigated “riots” and launched a violent crackdown on protesters. Thousands have been arrested and hundreds killed, including dozens of security forces.

Friday’s hangings raised the number of Iranians executed in connection with the protests to seven.

Advocacy groups warned that Iran has seen a spike in executions since the beginning of the year. Officials hanged more than 582 people in 2022, the highest number of executions in the country since 2015 and well above the 333 recorded in 2021.

Iran executes more people annually than any other nation except China, according to human rights groups.

Welcome to the Future

ITALY

Italy will spend nearly $30 million to help people develop their digital skills amid concerns that the growing trend toward the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and other technological advancements could threaten a large portion of the workforce, the Washington Post reported.

Established in 2021, the Fondo per la Repubblica Digitale (FRD) – or “Fund for the Digital Republic” – seeks to help current and future workers become more digitally literate. This is key, say officials, because more than half of Italians between the ages of 16 and 74 lack basic digital skills, compared with an average of 46 percent in the European Union overall.

The fund said it will allocate around $10 million to boosting the skills of people whose jobs are at high risk. The money will fund companies and non-profits to train their employees in using new technologies, including robotics, data science, and AI.

The remaining sum will go toward helping unemployed and economically inactive individuals improve their digital skills to become more competitive in the job market.

The FRD said the plan aims to create “experimental projects that can be scalable” and inform government policy in Italy.

Italy’s efforts came weeks after the country restored access to the AI chatbot ChatGPT. In April, Rome temporarily banned it, citing data privacy concerns.

The rapid emergence of AI technology has prompted lawmakers and regulators around the world to seek solutions on how to handle the new technology.

While analysts suggest the technology will not replace humans, many officials and academics say it could have a detrimental effect on employment.

A report by Goldman Sachs predicted that generative AI – software that generates text, images, and video based on the data it is fed – could disrupt the global economy, and estimated that 18 percent of jobs worldwide might be eliminated.

DISCOVERIES

Bang, Bang

Scientists recently discovered the biggest explosion ever seen in the known universe after witnessing an enormous black hole – a billion times bigger than our Sun – swallowing up a huge cloud of gas, the New York Times reported.

And this chaotic event, occurring eight billion light-years away from Earth, has been going on for about three years, researchers wrote in their study.

Astronomers were searching for exploding stars when they first noticed a very bright flash coming from the Vulpecula constellation. They initially presumed the phenomenon – named AT2021lwx – was another supernova or a tidal disruption event (TDE), a process when black holes eat up stars.

But this cataclysmic event remained bright for years, whereas supernovas and TDEs only last for a few months, according to lead author Philip Wiseman.

“For something to be bright for two-plus years was immediately very unusual,” he explained.

Wiseman and his team also proposed that the AT2021lwx was an outburst of a quasar – a release of energy originating from the periphery of a supermassive black hole situated at the center of a galaxy.

But that region of space was not known for any quasar activity.

Wiseman said the event is “one of the most luminous transients ever discovered,” with a total radiated energy amounting to 100 supernovas.

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