The World Today for June 13, 2023

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Direction: Hopelessness

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Fighting in the civil war in Sudan has prompted 14,000 refugees to flee across the border to their neighbor to the southwest, the Central African Republic (CAR). As Africa News wrote, however, the CAR is not a safe haven.

The United Nations recently issued a warning that the humanitarian situation in the country is becoming critical. Some 3.4 million people – around half the population of the CAR – need assistance and protection, because of flooding and internecine violence.

Around 70 percent of those people “have needs so severe and complex that their survival and dignity is at risk,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mohamed Ag Ayoya told journalists. The country lacks the water and public health infrastructure necessary for its people, he added.

As the Council on Foreign Relations explained, Christian and Muslim groups that have been fighting each other for years have all but destroyed the country’s political system. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, elected in 2016 and reelected in 2020, controls the capital of Bangui, but militant groups are rampaging across the countryside and fighting over turf.

In an effort to inject stability into the country – and perhaps join the ranks of many African leaders and others who engineer their laws to remain in power for many years, sometimes decades, over the objections of pro-democracy activists – Touadéra has scheduled a referendum for July 30 to amend the country’s constitution and remove term limits, Reuters reported.

Pro-democracy activists were critical of the idea, saying that the referendum would upend the progress that the CAR has made since politicians, militant leaders, and others convened in 2015’s Bangui Forum to discuss what the country needed in the wake of an especially serious uptick in violence in the years before.

“The recommendations included ending indefinite rule by the head of state, alongside the need to curb impunity, tribalism, corruption, and coups,” wrote Human Rights Watch, adding that the referendum is a threat to civil society and freedom of expression.

Complicating matters is the involvement of foreign powers. China, for example, recently issued warnings to its citizens after gunmen attacked a gold mine, killing nine Chinese workers, the New York Times noted. CAR officials claimed that rebels committed the murders. But the rebels blamed the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary force that has been active in the country at Touadéra’s behest in order to allegedly improve security, as NBC News explained.

Touadéra claimed he had little choice but to call Wagner. His country needs more than Russians with guns to address its monumental challenges, however.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Fighter’s Last Fight

ITALY

Italian and world leaders paid tribute to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after the business mogul-turned-politician passed away Monday, leaving behind a mixed legacy marked by scandals and sex-fueled parties that dogged him throughout his three terms in office, NPR reported.

Local media said Berlusconi died at the age of 86, but no cause of death was given. He was diagnosed with leukemia in April and was hospitalized last week for planned medical checks relating to his condition.

Once a cruise ship singer, Berlusconi – nicknamed “the knight” – formed Italy’s largest media company, Mediaset, before using his fame and wealth to launch his political career, according to NBC News.

He served as Italy’s prime minister in three separate stints between 1994 and 2011, becoming the country’s longest-serving post-World War II premier.

But Berlusconi’s rule was marred by allegations of corruption and tortuous legal battles, alongside a colorful, flamboyant private life.

The former leader came under fire for his antics, including off-color jokes, racist remarks and his friendship with controversial world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and the late Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi.

He gained international infamy for his “bunga bunga” parties, private dinners that allegedly led to shows performed by young, attractive guests. In February, a court acquitted him of charges that included paying a witness to lie in a case concerning underage prostitution that dogged the former prime minister for more than a decade.

Despite facing 35 criminal court cases, only one for tax fraud led to a definitive conviction in 2014. This resulted in his ousting from the Italian legislature – but he stayed on as the leader of his Forza Italia party and was elected as a member of the European Parliament in 2019.

Last year, he made a comeback after being elected to an upper-house seat in the 2022 Italian general elections. His party also joined the coalition government with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Italian political allies and opponents paid tribute to Berlusconi, who divided opinion in the country but remained a cornerstone of Italian life for decades.

Meloni and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini described him as a “fighter” and “a great Italian.” Opposition politician Matteo Renzi acknowledged that “everyone today must recognize that his impact on political but also economic, sporting and television life was unprecedented.”

Condolences also came from Putin, who called Berlusconi “a dear person, a true friend.”

The late leader’s relationship with the Russian president and contentious comments about the Ukraine war had caused headaches for Meloni’s ruling coalition.

Crime and Punishment

ETHIOPIA

The Ethiopian government criticized the decision by two major aid organizations to suspend food assistance to the African country, a move that could jeopardize the food security of millions of people impacted by civil conflicts and drought in eastern Africa, Agence France-Presse reported.

Last week, USAID – the US government’s main international aid agency – and the United Nation’s World Food Programme halted food distribution over concerns that the aid was being diverted.

Neither agency has identified those responsible for taking the aid and reselling it. USAID said it would recommence distribution if Ethiopia implements reforms to the way aid is delivered.

While Ethiopian authorities announced they will investigate the matter, they later said the halting of aid “punishes millions.” They called the decision “political,” adding that “to make the government only responsible (for the diversion) is unacceptable.”

The suspension of food aid risks affecting millions of Ethiopians already facing food shortages caused by the war in the northern Tigray region, as well as a drought that has also struck neighboring Somalia and parts of Kenya.

The UN estimates that around 20 million people in Ethiopia depend on food aid. The East African country also hosts nearly one million refugees, mostly from South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea.

Since mid-April, about 30,000 people escaping Sudan’s outbreak of civil war have sought asylum in Ethiopia.

Welcome Back

WORLD

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) confirmed Monday that the United States is planning to rejoin the agency after leaving it almost six years ago, a move that observers said is aimed at countering China’s rising influence within the organization, Axios reported.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay told ambassadors and delegates in a special meeting that she had received a letter from Washington officials detailing the return of the US.

The plan will include a timetable for the US’ re-admittance to the agency’s executive board and the payment of more than $600 million in back dues.

The US and Israel stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 after the agency voted to include Palestine as a member state that year.

In 2017, the Trump administration withdrew from the organization, citing anti-Israel bias and management problems. Israel followed suit shortly after.

Azoulay told the Associated Press that the US’ planned return “is the result of five years of work, during which we calmed tensions … improved our response to contemporary challenges, resumed major initiatives on the ground and modernized the functioning of the organization.”

The decision comes over worries within the Biden administration that China is filling the gap left by Washington in UNESCO policymaking, especially in setting standards for artificial intelligence and technology education around the world.

Diplomats and analysts said a US comeback will provide “more ambition, and more serenity,” as well as a big financial boost for the organization after more than a decade of belt-squeezing efforts.

One UNESCO envoy said they would also welcome back Israel if it wanted to rejoin.

The 2017 withdrawal was not the first time the US pulled out of UNESCO: In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan withdrew from the agency over accusations of mismanagement, corruption, and allegations that the agency was being used to advance the Soviet Union’s interests.

The US rejoined in 2003.

DISCOVERIES

Teaching Smiles

It’s common for the Japanese to wear masks during seasonal outbreaks of flu and hay fever, but the practice became nearly universal when the coronavirus hit Japan.

Last month, a poll found that more than half of the population was still wearing masks, even after the government dropped the face-covering recommendation in March.

So many Japanese got used to wearing masks that some people, such as Himawari Yoshida, forgot what life was like without them.

“I hadn’t used my facial muscles much during COVID,” the 20-year-old told Sky News.

Now, Yoshida and many young people are employing the services of “smile instructors” to retrain those muscles.

Instructor Keiko Kawano is helping her students revive that beaming face through a variety of exercises, such as holding up mirrors to their faces and stretching the sides of their mouths with their fingers.

Her company Egaoiku – literally “Smile Education” – has seen a major increase in demand for lessons, including one-on-one sessions that can cost around $55.

For Yoshida, the smiling lessons are “good exercises” that she hopes will help her prepare for Japan’s jobs market.

Meanwhile, Kawano noted that the growing demand for smile coaching comes as many Japanese businesses prepare for the return of tourists to the islands.

“Culturally, a smile signifies that I’m not holding a gun, and I’m not a threat to you,” the smile coach added.

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