The World Today for October 02, 2023

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Disappearing the Disappeared


The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, recently announced that prosecutors had sought to arrest 16 more members of the Mexican military in relation to the disappearance of 43 students in 2014. The announcement came after a Mexican judge last year ordered the arrests of 83 police officers, soldiers, and civil servants suspected of being involved in the case.

Officials have identified the remains of three of the 43 students, noted Reuters. The rest are among the more than 100,000 people who have tragically disappeared in Mexico due to drug cartel-related activities and other violence.

Twenty-five people are thought to vanish every day in Mexico. Even anthropologist Juan Carlos Tercero, a subaquatic forensics expert who had been searching for missing people, recently disappeared without a trace.

“It’s not that his disappearance is more important than the others,” Marisol Madero, Tercero’s friend told the Guardian. “But if the people who are doing the searching are disappearing, imagine the fear for mothers or other groups dedicated to the search.”

López Obrador’s announcement about the military and the student disappearances was especially ironic, however, because the Mexican president has flirted with political peril by questioning whether so many people have vanished without a trace in his country.

As the Washington Post reported, he dispatched public workers to conduct a census to affirm whether people reported as missing had come back home or not. Families of the missing claimed the president was seeking to play down their suffering before next year’s presidential election.

He wants a do-over of the numbers, saying it’s impossible that the tally of missing people is so high. It’s much lower, he adds.

That’s in contrast to his promises when he assumed office in 2018: Then, López Obrador, a leftist, pledged that he would investigate the disappearances, including the thousands of people reported missing during the country’s so-called “Dirty War” against leftist guerillas that began in the 1960s. The president has arguably failed, however, to hold the powerful military and law enforcement forces to account.

The United Nations recently determined that Mexico has failed to address enforced disappearances since 2017, according to the Yucatan Times.

Further casting shade on his bona fides as an advocate for grieving families, López Obrador suffered a setback when the commissioner in charge of searching for the missing people, Karla Quintana, resigned after the president’s call for a recount, saying only that she had to go “in light of current circumstances,” the Associated Press reported. But she sent the database of 110,000 missing persons she had overseen to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights “for safekeeping,” the Washington Post added.

Meanwhile, investigators trying to verify the numbers on behalf of the president are showing up to question family members of the disappeared, leaving them furious.

“He always says that he has other numbers,” María Herrera, a mother of four missing sons, told the Post. “But the ones who have the real numbers are us, the mothers. Our families are the ones suffering this tragedy.”

Meanwhile, other investigators examining the case of the 43 missing students left in July saying they weren’t getting anywhere, and were being stonewalled by the military.

Cartel members, their allies, and other criminals use disappearance to sow fear in a population, “creating a climate of suspicion and betrayal,” argued the University of Bath’s professor in political violence Brad Evans in the Conversation.

López Obrador might wonder how many voters will feel that way about him next year.


Changing Course


Pro-Beijing opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz won the Maldives’ presidential runoff Saturday, following an election that observers described as a referendum on whether the country will foster closer ties with China or India, Reuters reported.

Official results showed Muiz of the People’s National Congress secured more than 53 percent of the vote, defeating pro-India incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party.

Voter turnout was 78 percent.

The victory was a surprise for Muiz, who was named as a fallback candidate close to the nomination deadline after the country’s supreme court prevented former President Abdulla Yameen from running as he serves a prison sentence for money laundering and corruption.

Yameen’s supporters alleged that the former president was jailed for political reasons. Following the announcement of the results, Muiz requested Solih to transfer Yameen to house arrest.

The polls also came as India and China have been vying for influence in the archipelago nation in recent years.

During his 2013-2018 term, Yameen moved the Maldives politically closer to China, which included joining the Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative seeks to build infrastructure and transport networks to expand trade and China’s influence across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

But Solih, who took office in 2018, sought closer economic and security ties with neighboring India. This policy shift has seen the presence of Indian troops in the archipelago, with opposition parties accusing Solih of jeopardizing the Maldives’ sovereignty.

Solih has countered that Indian troops are in the Maldives only to build a dockyard under an agreement between the two governments.

Ahmed Shaheed, former foreign minister of the Maldives, told the Associated Press that the election outcome primarily reflects the public’s dissatisfaction with the government’s ability to meet economic and governance expectations, rather than concerns about Indian influence.

He suggested that Muiz is unlikely to shift the country’s foreign policy significantly toward China, but may reduce opposition to Chinese projects in the Maldives.

Staying Friends


Russia will keep funding Afghanistan on its own through the United Nations food agency, Kremlin officials confirmed over the weekend as they hosted Taliban representatives for talks on regional threats, the Associated Press reported.

The announcement came as Moscow hosted a summit in the Russian city of Kazan on Friday that included representatives from China, India, and a number of Central Asian countries.

During the talks, Russian officials blasted Western nations for “complete failure” in Afghanistan, saying they should “bear the primary burden of rebuilding the country.” They added that Moscow will keep aiding the war-torn nation independently and through the World Food Programme.

Russia has a long tangled history in Afghanistan. It invaded the country in 1979 and fought there until its withdrawal in 1989. It continued to prop up a pro-Soviet government until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time, civil war broke out in the country until the Taliban took over in 1996, before being driven out of power in 2001.

Now, Afghanistan has been under the control of the Taliban again since 2021, when the Islamist group took over following the withdrawal of US-led foreign troops from the country.

Since then, the armed group has imposed harsh rules based on their strict interpretation of Islamic law, including tough restrictions on women’s employment and education.

No country has recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers and many of the group’s leaders are under sanctions.

Russian representatives have previously noted that international recognition of the Taliban will depend on the inclusiveness of their government and their human rights record.

Analysts said that Friday’s meeting came about because Moscow is seeking to maintain its influence in Central Asia, even as it is fighting a war in Ukraine and losing its power over the region.

Despite designating the Taliban as a terror organization in 2003, Russia has actively sought contact with the group for years.

Since 2017, Moscow has hosted talks involving the Taliban, Afghan factions, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, and former Soviet Central Asian nations.

Coming To a Boil


France’s top administrative court heard a landmark case brought by human rights advocates accusing the police of failing to address widespread racial profiling during identity checks, a case that many plaintiffs hope will instigate reform within the country’s police force, Radio France Internationale reported.

Friday’s hearing comes more than two years after six human rights groups filed France’s first class-action lawsuit against the police. The plaintiffs allege that authorities discriminate against young North Africans and Black men by targeting them for identity checks.

Their demands also include requiring police to record identity check data, imposing restrictions on checks involving children, and establishing an independent system for filing complaints against law enforcement.

The lawsuit is not seeking compensation, but rather petitioning France’s Council of State – the top administrative court – to force the government to make serious reforms.

An adviser to the court urged the council to reject the suit, saying judges did not have the power to impose legislative changes and that the government could not be held “at fault” if policy measures had not brought results.

A ruling is expected in the coming weeks. If successful, it could pave the way for similar legal challenges in France, where class action suits only became possible in 2014 and remain rare.

The hearing comes as French police tactics have come under renewed scrutiny this year after an officer shot and killed Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of North African origin during a traffic stop in a Paris suburb in June.

Merzouk’s death sparked nationwide protests as many people lamented systemic failures in policing communities of Arab and African descent.

The government has denied accusations of systemic racism, countering that officers have been increasingly targeted by violence.

Still, protests continue. Last week, tens of thousands of people protested across France against police violence, often holding a photo of Merzouk, Agence France-Presse added. The demonstrations came days after the country’s inspectorate responsible for investigating police misconduct released its annual report on the use of force by officers.

The findings showed that in 2022, 38 people died as a result of police action, including 22 who were shot dead. Thirteen of those fatalities involved cases of someone refusing to comply with a police order.

Protesters called for an end to state violence and criticized a provision of the internal security code, which allows law enforcement to shoot in case of a suspect’s refusal to comply.

Demonstrators also clashed with the police, and there were reports of unrest and property damage. Three officers were slightly injured and a number of people were arrested in connection with the incidents.


Vocal Intelligence

Many bird species are capable of learning new vocalizations and using them to communicate, a process known as vocal learning. But scientists have wondered whether those with the best vocal learning skills are also the most intelligent.

Now, a research team discovered there is a correlation between avian vocal learning and problem-solving, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

For their study, they conducted a series of tests on 214 individual songbirds representing 23 different species.

They tested various cognitive abilities, such as problem-solving, self-control, and associative learning. For instance, problem-solving tasks involved retrieving treats by removing lids or piercing foil, while self-control required navigating around barriers for food. They also examined the avian’s ability to adapt to color changes linked to snacks.

Their findings showed a strong link between vocal learning and the ability to solve problems, specifically in species with broader vocal ranges, lifelong vocal learning, and mimicry capabilities.

Three species stood out from the large sample: starlings, blue jays, and gray catbirds.

These birds – known for their advanced vocal learning abilities and mimicry – performed exceptionally well in both vocalization and problem-solving.

The study suggests that vocal learning, problem-solving, and brain sizes evolved together. Even so, the team has yet to determine how all these abilities work in bird brains.

“Our next step is to look at the brains of the most complex species and try to understand why they are better at problem-solving and vocal learning,” study co-author Jean-Nicolas Audet said in a statement.

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