The World Today for February 01, 2024

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Self-Serving Justice

SLOVAKIA

Thousands of people took to the streets in the Central European country of Slovakia late last week to protest criminal justice reforms proposed by the newly elected Prime Minister Robert Fico and his leftist populist allies. They chanted “Mafia, mafia … Fico mobster” and demanded his resignation – three months after he took office.

Fico’s plan would eliminate the office of the national prosecutor, which litigates over graft, organized crime, and extremism. Under the proposal, reported Reuters, regional prosecutors would handle those crimes even though they have not done so in 20 years. But critics say this plan will weaken and disrupt the legal system, especially because the office in question is still investigating around 1,000 cases, some of which likely involve Fico’s allies.

The plan would also reduce corruption-related charges and shorten statutes of limitations that protect criminals after certain lengths of time have passed.

The new government says the change is necessary to modernize the criminal justice system. Critics, however, say Fico and his allies are dangerous and corrupt.

Many believe the critics have a point when it comes to Slovakia’s leader, who is deeply controversial both inside and outside of the country, wrote World Politics Review. For example, last week, he said just hours after missiles rained down on the Ukrainian capital, “there’s no war in Kyiv.”

It is Fico’s fourth stint as Slovakia’s leader, which followed his Smer party’s victory in the general election last fall. In 2018, he was ousted after the murder of an investigative journalist – who was also investigating Fico and other members of his circle – which brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets in protest. This case was among those probed by the special prosecutor’s office that the government wants to eliminate, Politico noted.

Before Fico’s return to power, his predecessor had led a purge of high-ranking officials close to Fico, who were charged with corruption or other crimes. But since the fall, some elite investigators and police officials who deal with top corruption cases have been dismissed or furloughed.

Meanwhile, the protests, which started last year after the plan was first proposed, are likely to continue.

“We’re not ready to give up,” said Michal Šimecka, leader of the opposition Progressive Slovakia political party, at one of the demonstrations against Fico’s proposal. “We will step up our pressure …We will defend justice and freedom in our country.”

Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, who was a member of Progressive Slovakia but now occupies an office that is technically non-partisan and independent, urged Fico and lawmakers to reconsider their plan, saying it might violate the country’s constitution, wrote the Jurist. European Union officials and other observers also called for Fico to drop the initiative.

The issue has become particularly important as Slovak voters prepare to vote for a new president to replace Čaputová, who opted not to run for reelection, on March 23. As Visegrad/Insight explained. Peter Pellegrini, the leader of the ruling coalition party, the center-left Hlas, is seeking the job. But, as a member of the coalition under Fico, Pellegrini faces a tough choice between embracing and distancing himself from the unpopular measure.

Polls show that Pellegrini and his main rival, pro-Western former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, running neck and neck but without either securing more than 50 percent of the vote, a situation that could result in a runoff ballot in April.

Meanwhile, the Slovak Spectator says it’s unlikely the protesters or the opposition parties will stop Fico and his allies. But the newspaper adds that this doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to cause problems for the leader: The deadline to abolish the Special Prosecutor’s Office was Jan. 15 and yet it still stands.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Crackdown 2.0

HONG KONG

Hong Kong is set to introduce a new national security law that would broaden what constitutes sedition and align it more closely with mainland China’s regulations, prompting questions about how the new restrictions will impact the semi-autonomous city’s status as a global financial hub, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The proposed law would cover economic matters related to national security and introduce new offenses, such as treason, foreign interference, insurrection, theft of state secrets, and sabotage. It would criminalize obtaining, possessing, or disclosing non-public information deemed to endanger national security, including information about policy decisions and defense.

Hong Kong’s current leader John Lee said this week that the law’s passage is essential for restoring confidence among businesses and investors, and to root out “the seeds of unrest.” He also mentioned the need to protect innocent individuals, as well as the risks Hong Kong faces from foreign intelligence services. “I think eventually when people see that this law will bring security and stability, they will love it,” he said.

However, critics countered that this measure could further shrink the space for dissent and human rights in the city.

Also, China has already seen a backlash to its recent imprisonment of foreign business people, including one British executive and five Japanese, the newspaper said. Foreign executives have become very reluctant to travel to mainland China, and now possibly Hong Kong, because of the fear of exit bans, imprisonment or just disappearing.

Meanwhile, this is not the first time the city’s officials attempted to pass the legislation: Known as Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the security bill was shelved in 2003 after half a million residents protested against it over concerns about potential infringements on civil liberties, CNN noted.

The push for the law coincides with Hong Kong’s efforts to stem an exodus of businesses and residents following the 2019 mass protests when tens of thousands of citizens held demonstrations opposing Beijing’s encroachment on the city.

Hong Kong had long enjoyed freedoms that were not present in mainland China, under the “one country, two systems” framework that was agreed to when the United Kingdom handed over the territory to Beijing in 1997.

But Beijing introduced a national security law in 2020 that shut down the demonstrations and led to hundreds of arrests.

While some business leaders expressed optimism that the law won’t target the business community, others await clarification on its scope and potential implications.

No Cake, Please

FRANCE

French police arrested protesting farmers Wednesday as convoys of tractors approached Paris and other cities across France, part of continuing demonstrations over rising costs, bureaucracy and foreign competition impacting the agricultural sector, France 24 reported.

Authorities arrested 18 people for “obstructing traffic” near Rungis, a key food distribution center near the capital. Police and government officials had previously warned protesting farmers to not approach Rungis, as well as downtown Paris or the airports.

But despite warnings, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said there were around 10,000 farmers demonstrating on French roads Wednesday, blocking 100 sections of major roads.

For two weeks, French farmers have been striking across the country over demands for improved pay, reduced bureaucracy, and protection from foreign competition. Farmers have also long complained about rising fuel prices.

Another chief concern is the potential ramifications of trade agreements between the European Union and the South American trade bloc Mercosur, which they fear could inundate the domestic market with cheaper agricultural imports.

The strikes mark a major challenge for newly-appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal three weeks after he took office. Despite initial concessions from the government, farmers remained angry, prompting Attal to promise new support measures in the coming days.

At the same time, the French government has announced it would block the EU-Mercosur trade deal, with President Emmanuel Macron acknowledging farmers’ concerns.

Farmers’ protests have extended beyond France, with strikes also occurring in Germany, the Netherlands and Poland.

Grievances focused on environmental regulations within the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and concerns over the impact of the Mercosur deal.

In response to farmers’ demands, the EU proposed extending tariff-free entry for Ukrainian farm products while implementing safeguards to prevent market disruption. Additionally, EU officials separately proposed a one-year exemption from rules mandating farmers to leave a share of their lands fallow.

The Right to Tradition

MEXICO

Bullfighting resumed in Mexico City this week, a month after the country’s top court temporarily revoked a lower court’s ruling that sided with animal rights defenders and suspended bullfights in the capital for more than a year and a half, the Associated Press reported.

Thousands of fans witnessed the first bullfights in Plaza Mexico on Sunday, even as hundreds of animal rights advocates demonstrated against the spectacle outside the venue.

Six bulls were killed in the fights, according to the AP.

Bullfighting is still allowed in much of the country, but its future in Mexico City remains uncertain amid ongoing litigation.

In May 2022, a local court ordered an end to bullfighting at Plaza México in response to an injunction presented by the civil organization Justicia Justa. But last month, Mexico’s Supreme Court ordered the sport to resume in the capital while it continues to mull whether bullfights violate animal welfare rules, the central question in the case.

Animal rights groups say the fights do, while maintaining they also impact people’s rights to a healthy environment. However, ranchers and fans countered that a ban affects their rights and businesses, adding that it would impact a sector that generates about $400 million a year in Mexico.

Observers said animal rights groups have been gaining ground in the country in recent years: In some Mexican states, courts and laws have restricted the fights.

DISCOVERIES

Happy Humans, Happy Dogs

When dogs wag their tails, humans think they are happy.

However, a new study shows that tail-wagging likely evolved because of human happiness, the Washington Post reported.

Watching YouTube videos of wolves, animal researcher Taylor Hersh noticed they hardly wagged their tails. That was odd considering that dogs evolved from wolves that were domesticated 35,000 years ago.

Researchers have previously found that through the process of domestication, many traits in dogs have evolved, such as their fur, eyes, body size, and their irresistible “puppy-dog eyes.”

Meanwhile, previous research has already established that humans enjoy anything that’s rhythmic, be it music or tail-wagging. By wagging their tails, dogs trigger brain activity in humans that produces feelings of joy.

As a result, researchers believe ancient humans selected for that trait when welcoming dog ancestors into their lives and breeding the animals, and unconsciously directed them to evolve.

A similar pattern may have occurred in domesticated foxes, according to an American Scientist article.

Besides the evolution of tail-wagging, the research can also shed light on what humans preferred tens of thousands of years ago, researchers say.

“It is a bit like finding prehistorical cave paintings from Homo sapiens or Neanderthals, which indirectly tell us that back then our ancestors enjoyed art or had symbolic reasoning,” Andrea Ravignani, co-author of the study, told the Washington Post.

“In our case, what we know about how modern dogs wag their tails tells us that perhaps our ancestors 35,000 years ago already perceived the rhythmicity.”

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