The World Today for February 20, 2024

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Disaster, in Slow Motion

HAITI

Feb. 7 is a treasured day in Haiti. In 1986, it was on this day that Haitians ejected dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier after 15 years. Five years later, on that very day, Haitians witnessed the swearing-in of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, their first democratically elected president.

It’s a day that signifies freedom, a day enshrined in the Constitution for the transfer of presidential power.

That’s why when Feb. 7, 2024, came and went without Prime Minister Ariel Henry stepping down as he swore to do three years ago, many Haitians weren’t pleased. He is an unelected prime minister who took office following the assassination of Jovenel Moïse in 2021, allegedly perpetrated by Columbian mercenaries with Henry implicated in the plot, according to Al Jazeera.

Henry is still in the prime ministerial office, however, reviled and outliving his welcome, the Associated Press wrote, while governing with little control over the country these days.

Instead, it’s criminal gangs that are firmly in control, while gang violence has reached unprecedented levels, activist Monique Clesca, a former UN official, told CNN.

More than 800 people in Haiti were killed, injured or kidnapped in January, an increase of more than 300 percent compared with last year, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, as reported by the Associated Press. Meanwhile, gangs are using sexual assaults, including “collective rapes,” as a “weapon of terror” to “instill fear, punish, subjugate and inflict pain on local populations with the ultimate goal of expanding their areas of influence,” UN officials say.

Schools are often closed, markets are empty and streets sometimes unpassable.

The violence has also been undermining the impoverished nation’s already moribund economy. Rival gangs fighting over territory near the Rhum Barbancourt distillery in the capital of Port-au-Prince, for example, set almost 20 acres of sugarcane field alight last week, destroying the crop. That has left a situation where producers around the country can’t sell what they produce, therefore can’t earn to pay their loans or their employees, Haiti’s AyiboPost reported.

Luis Abinader, the president of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, appealed to the international community to take action, added El País. Otherwise, he would need to take action, he said, to prevent Haiti’s chaos from spreading. “Either we fight together to save Haiti, or we will fight alone to protect the Dominican Republic!” he warned.

The violence has displaced more than 310,000 Haitians within the country, the UN’s International Organization for Migration wrote. Many other Haitians have crossed the border into the Dominican Republic, though such flows have been happening for years as Haitians have sought economic opportunities across the border. Still, now they are seeking safety.

While the suffering unfolds, Haitian and Kenyan officials have been negotiating in Washington over a proposed deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police officers who would lead a multinational force in Haiti.

Henry requested the Kenyan force in 2022. The UN Security Council approved the move. The Kenyan parliament approved it. But, as Al Jazeera explained, Kenyan President William Ruto’s critics fought the move in court, where a judge ruled that the mission was unconstitutional.

Now Ruto is pledging to send the personnel without the court’s permission, the BBC reported. Still, the Kenyan police are no match for the criminal gangs now running Haiti, wrote World Politics Review.

That’s because in the past few years, Haiti’s bandits, often hailing from the police or with military training, have transformed into hardened paramilitaries, carving the capital into fiefdoms that now comprise around 90 percent of the city, the New York Times said. “They know their terrain and exert strong local governance, having often started life as community defense groups.” These fighters are heavily armed.

Adding to this is a descent into open warfare between the heavily-armed officers of the environment agency and police, wrote VOA news. The leader of the Brigade for the Security of Protected Areas was dismissed by Henry and now those agents are demanding the president’s resignation.

In the meantime, former Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who now leads the opposition, told France 24 that he feared a civil war might break out. Henry’s decision to stay in office past Feb. 7 is causing outrage in political circles. Henry says the security situation in the country is too dangerous for elections.

That makes this country of 11 million people, essentially leaderless because the terms of all democratically elected officials have expired. Now, there is an empty legislature and protests demanding Henry steps down.

Stepping into this void is Guy Philippe, a rebel leader, who in 2004 led the uprising that chased then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the country. He is now joining calls for Henry’s ousting.

Freed last year from a US prison on money laundering charges, he has won the allegiance of the environmental armed brigade, called for “revolution” and  “civil disobedience” across the country, the Washington Post wrote. That’s as destabilizing as the gangs, some believe.

His release “wasn’t really expected by Haitians,” Diego Da Rin, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told the newspaper. It landed “like a bomb.”

Commentators say that given the dire situation in the country, Philippe is the “wild card that could really upend everything,” and not necessarily for the better.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Under Pressure

ISRAEL/ GAZA

The United Nations’ top court began a hearing into Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land Monday, even as Israel and Hamas continue to fight a bloody war in the Gaza strip that has killed more than 29,000 Palestinians, the Associated Press reported.

During the hearing at The Hague-based International Court of Justice, Palestinian foreign minister Riad Malki accused Israel of creating an apartheid-like system of discrimination against Palestinians, and for the sake of a two-state solution urged the court to declare that Israel’s occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state is illegal.

Over the coming months, judges will probe the legality of Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War – the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem – lands Palestinians claim for the creation of an independent state.

Over the past 57 years, Israel has built 146 settlements in the West Bank, as well as annexed east Jerusalem, making the city its capital. In total, 700,000 Jewish settlers live in the disputed areas, except Gaza, where Israel withdrew its troops and settlers in 2005, the newswire said.

A majority of the international community deems these settlements illegal and doesn’t recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. More than 50 are scheduled to speak at the hearing.

The hearings follow a request by the UN General Assembly for a non-binding advisory opinion into Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Judges will likely take months to issue an opinion.

Israel’s representatives were not scheduled to speak during the hearing but submitted a five-page letter to the court, saying that the case “fail(s) to recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens,” address Israeli security concerns or acknowledge Israeli-Palestinian agreements to negotiate issues, including “the permanent status of the territory, security arrangements, settlements, and borders.”

Meanwhile, the hearing is piling pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ally of the extreme right settler movement, who on Saturday faced renewed calls to step down by thousands of demonstrators in Tel Aviv, the largest protest since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Deadly Bush

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

At least 26 people died in a gunfight on Sunday that involved tribal groups in a rural area of Papua New Guinea, where clashes between tribes have become increasingly violent, the New York Times reported.

The violence occurred in the highlands’ Enga Province, leaving dozens of bodies lying in a field, along roads and a river. It was the latest outbreak of inter-tribal violence, which killed 150 last year.

The police said Sunday’s incident involved at least 17 tribes, in a country that is home to over 300. Papua New Guinea’s population of 10 million is particularly diverse, speaking more than 800 languages, and mostly rural, with around 85 percent living in the countryside.

“We really struggle with trying to live with each other, understand each other, given all the different diversities,” said researcher Elizabeth Koppel at a panel discussion in October. Papuan tribes have been divided over issues including water, resource management, politics and land.

The tensions have escalated to violent clashes in the last decades, growing deadlier with the use of more sophisticated tools. Tribespeople have switched from traditional weapons to firearms imported from abroad. In the aftermath of Sunday’s clash, observers said some tribes had hired mercenaries.

The situation has become difficult to manage for the Papuan government. Researcher Michael Main said the police were “outgunned.” In 2023, a three-month lockdown was imposed on Enga amid violent confrontations, and the province’s governor asked Australia to help.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Monday said his country was ready to provide more support, after signing a security agreement with Papua New Guinea last year.

People Power

MEXICO

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Mexico on Sunday, in a so-called “march for democracy,” with protesters outraged by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposed changes to an electoral agency ahead of elections in June, the Associated Press reported.

During the marches, about 90,000 people called for free and fair elections and denounced corruption, and demanded to “get López out.” The demonstration was called by opposition parties the same day the ruling left-leaning party Morena registered its candidate, former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum.

Sheinbaum is seen as the heir of López Obrador, 70, whose election in 2018 was hailed by supporters as the ousting of the elite from power. He took office after beating the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had ruled Mexico for seven decades.

López Obrador has defended a plan to cut funding to the National Electoral Institute, an autonomous agency that is tasked with organizing federal elections. His reform proposal includes drastic staff reductions, which he claimed could save taxpayers $150 million a year, the BBC explained. He says that the agency is made up of corrupt establishment leaders.

However, critics say the plan is a danger to democracy and the independence of the electoral system.

López Obrador, who is barred by the constitution from running for a second term, remains largely popular in Mexico, and his protégée Sheinbaum is set to win the June 2 presidential election, according to the latest opinion polls.

DISCOVERIES

Reading the Unreadable

Artificial intelligence recently deciphered part of a 2,000-year-old charred scroll found in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, a breakthrough that some scholars say could “rewrite the history” of the ancient world, NBC News reported.

Earlier this month, three computer-savvy students won a $700,000 prize for using AI to help distinguish ink inside the Herculaneum papyri.

The ancient documents consist of a collection of 800 rolled-up Greek scrolls that were carbonized during the eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE – an event that also buried Herculaneum and nearby Pompeii with volcanic ash.

Previous efforts to open up the scrolls failed, prompting scientists to come up with creative ways to unveil them.

The recent breakthrough was part of the “Vesuvius Challenge,” a global competition launched to unravel the scrolls’ mysteries. Led by Professor Brent Seales, a team from the University of Kentucky pioneered a technique combining X-ray tomography and AI to virtually unwrap the scrolls and reveal hidden ink.

After 18 teams entered the competition, three students – Luke Farritor, Youssef Nader, and Julian Schilliger – emerged as the winning trio.

Their machine-learning algorithms deciphered 2,000 letters from one of the scrolls, shedding light on topics such as music and pleasure, possibly authored by Epicurean philosopher Philodemus.

Contest organizers added that the scroll’s author concluded his writing by throwing shade at “unnamed ideological adversaries – perhaps the stoics? – who ‘have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular.’”

The next phase of the challenge will be to unveil the remaining 90 percent of the ancient text.

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