The World Today for March 21, 2024

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Listen to the Children


A primary school in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, recently held elections for their student body president. A BBC video crew asked the student candidates what they would do if they were elected president of their West African country.

“My advice to the future president is to reduce the food prices and to have solutions to the problems of all Senegalese people,” said a student.

Politicians in Senegal might consider heeding that advice when they compete to win the country’s top job on March 24, in an election that wasn’t to take place at all.

Last month, President Macky Sall triggered a political crisis when he announced that he would postpone the election originally scheduled for Feb. 25 for 10 months, citing controversies over disqualified candidates and electoral technicalities that his administration had brought on.

“I don’t want to leave behind a country that will immediately plunge into major difficulties,” he told the Associated Press. “I am saying now that I am going to work for appeasement, for conditions that will allow the country to be peaceful … let’s all hold inclusive discussions before we go to elections.”

Senegalese law forbids Sall from running for a third term, explained the New York Times. Many observers feared he would follow the example of other African leaders and stay in office indefinitely. In recent years he has been assuming more power, jailing protesters and dissidents, forbidding demonstrations, shutting off the Internet, and trampling on other rights.

At least 23 people died in protests that erupted last year, for example, when opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was convicted of “corrupting youth” and sentenced to two years in prison, a decision that would have prevented him from running for president this year. Sonko denied any wrongdoing.

Recently, despite Sall’s machinations, Senegal’s top court ruled that Sall had to hold a vote before his term ended on April 2, wrote World Politics Review. The president then called for an election on March 24 and granted Sonko political amnesty, allowing him to run in the election, added News24.

Supporters of Bassirou Diomaye Faye, another opposition leader, also took to the streets to call for his release from prison so he could run for president. Faye faces charges of defamation and contempt of court, Reuters wrote.

A handful of other candidates for the presidency are now on the ballot. Whoever succeeds Sall faces steep challenges. Thirty percent of Senegalese citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 are unemployed, Al Jazeera noted. Around 70 percent of Senegalese citizens work in the precarious agricultural and livestock industries. According to the International Monetary Fund, the country’s emerging oil and gas industry offers the possibility of more growth.

Now, as the election draws near, there is “an element of unpredictability,” wrote Amy Niang of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, in the Conversation, especially “Sall’s commitment to fulfill his obligations and facilitate an orderly handover.”

Maybe he will listen to the children: “My advice,” said one young primary student on the BBC program, “is that the president must keep all his promises to the nation.”


Taking Stock


Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar resigned from his position as the head of government and stepped down as leader of his governing Fine Gael party Wednesday, a surprise announcement that shocked Ireland’s political elite and led many to wonder if the country would hold early elections, the Guardian reported.

Varadkar said he would resign as taoiseach – the official name of Ireland’s prime minister – as soon as his “successor is able to take up that office.”

He explained that his reasons were “both personal and political,” adding that the next taoiseach will have two months to prepare for the upcoming local and European elections, and up to a year before the next general election.

Varadkar, 45, became Ireland’s first gay prime minister in 2017 when he was elected as Fine Gael leader following the resignation of then-Taoiseach and party leader Enda Kenny. He was also the country’s youngest leader.

He had two spells as prime minister between 2017 and 2020 and again from December 2022 – the latter as part of a three-party coalition agreement that would rotate leadership between Varadkar and Fianna Fáil party leader Micheál Martin.

His decision follows other resignations within the Fine Gael party and a stinging defeat in this month’s double constitutional referendum, Politico noted.

The government had asked Irish citizens to vote on amending what they considered outdated references to definitions of a family, and women’s roles as caregivers, in the country’s 1937 constitution.

But voters rejected both referendums, with 67 percent voting “no” to changing the definition of families, and 74 percent against changing the wording of caregivers.

Many critics and voters attributed the loss to the vague and problematic language in the referendums. Following the vote, Varadkar accepted some of the responsibility for the loss.

Meanwhile, political observers questioned whether Varadkar’s move will trigger early elections.

The opposition party Sinn Féin demanded an early vote, saying that it was time “for fresh leadership,” the Irish Independent added.

The next general election is set to take place before February 2025, with polls currently showing Sinn Féin in the lead.

Ten Years Gone


A United Nations mission set up to aid Iraq in probing alleged crimes by Islamic State (IS, also known as Daesh) militants will end its operations prematurely later this year following disagreements with the Iraqi government, an exit that has raised questions about the prosecution of militant fighters and justice for their victims, Reuters reported.

In an interview with the news agency this week, Christian Ritscher, head of the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh (UNITAD), said the mission will end in mid-September, adding that their work was not finished.

He cited a series of challenges and legal uncertainties while cooperating with Iraqi authorities that contributed to the mission’s premature end.

In contrast, Iraqi officials countered that the UN mission was no longer needed, saying that it had failed to cooperate with local authorities and “didn’t respond to repeated requests for sharing evidence.”

The mission was set up in 2017 to help Iraqi authorities investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the terrorist group during its rampage across Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The mission’s work contributed to at least three convictions on charges of genocide and other international crimes in courts in Germany and Portugal.

In September, the UN Security Council renewed UNITAD’s mandate for one more year following a request by Iraq.

Meanwhile, diplomats and sources acknowledged that difficulties and disagreements plagued the relationship between UNITAD and the government of Iraq. They explained that the country’s use of the death penalty – which goes against UN policy – made UNITAD reluctant to share information with Iraqi authorities.

During the interview, Richter noted that the UN mission was “in a waiting position” because Iraq did not pass legislation that would allow it to aid authorities in holding IS members accountable for international crimes.

He added that officials also did not hold discussions to place safeguards on the use of capital punishment. This put UNITAD in the difficult position of collecting evidence in Iraq – but mainly using it in legal processes abroad.

Even so, diplomatic sources told Reuters that Ritscher and UNITAD failed to take into account Iraqi politics while dealing with Iraqi authorities, an omission that harmed the relationship.

As the mission’s end approaches, analysts and victims wondered about the fate of the evidence UNITAD had gathered and whether Iraq would be able to deliver justice for the victims.

Some diplomats and human rights advocates worry that Iraqi officials will misuse the evidence for trials with little due process, adding that a majority of convictions have been for membership of a terrorist organization, rather than specific crimes, such as sexual slavery.

Razaw Salihy of Amnesty International complained that flaws in the Iraqi justice system “have landed thousands of men and boys on death row via confessions extracted under torture, duress and other kinds of ill-treatment.”

Iraq has denied obtaining confessions via coercion.

Cleaning House


The Vietnamese Communist Party said on Wednesday it had accepted the resignation of President Vo Van Thuong, amid an intense anti-graft campaign and growing political instability that could harm the country’s attractiveness to foreign investors, the Associated Press reported.

Thuong stepped down after a little over a year in the position, becoming the second president to leave office in two years. A statement by the Communist Party said that “violations by Vo Van Thuong have left a bad mark on the reputation” of the party.

The exact nature of the violations is unknown. Nonetheless, Thuong’s departure from office came after weeks of speculation over his removal by the party, ahead of an extraordinary session of Vietnam’s rubber-stamp parliament. Rumors intensified after police arrested the chief of Central Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province on allegations of corruption, days before the president’s resignation.

Presidents in Vietnam hold largely ceremonial positions and rank third among the four leading political figures of the country. At the top is the Communist Party’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 79, who has led an intense anti-corruption campaign.

In March 2023, Vo Van Thuong replaced Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who resigned to “take responsibility” for corruption scandals during the Covid-19 pandemic. A protégé of Trong, Thuong at 54 became the youngest president since Vietnam’s reunification in 1976.

His resignation shows the reach of Trong’s anti-graft campaign, which critics suspected of being used to eliminate political rivals.

Analysts said it also signaled political instability, which could harm Vietnam’s reputation among foreign investors. When Thuong’s resignation appeared to be imminent on Monday, the Ho Chi Minh City stock exchange fell by nearly 3 percent in early trading, Reuters reported.

Vietnam stands in the middle of a race for influence between neighboring China and the US, insisting on striking a balance between the two countries. It has also attracted businesses looking to shift their supply chains away from China.

Foreign investors and envoys have criticized the campaign, saying it further slowed decisions made in the country, already burdened by heavy bureaucracy.


A Wasabi Commitment

Sushi lovers are very familiar with the powerful kick they get from the accompanying wasabi.

Now, a new study has found that the spicy green paste is not just a condiment, but can be used to preserve ancient papyrus scrolls, the Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Thousands of years ago, papyrus was used for a myriad of purposes, including making sails, baskets and writing material. But the material – made from stems of the Cyperus papyrus plant – doesn’t have a long shelf life and is prone to fungal infections.

Researcher Hanadi Saada and his team sought to test the benefits of wasabi, a plant found in China, Japan and Russia’s Far East.

In their experiments, they recreated 1,000-year-old papyri and exposed them to conditions that would simulate years of wear, as well as fungal species that would damage them. The scrolls had red, blue and yellow pigments on them, the team added.

They then created a special mixture by combining water and wasabi powder to treat the infected scrolls. Researchers put the wasabi on aluminum foil close to the papyrus, letting the replica scrolls be exposed to the vapors.

The findings showed that the wasabi, not only eliminated the contamination but also increased the papyri’s tensile strength by 26 percent. Meanwhile, the vapors did not cause any noticeable damage to the pigments.

Other researchers noted that the study is significant because this preservation method is effective and also eco-friendly, unlike traditional disinfectants.

The Grand Egyptian Museum, located in Giza, Egypt, is already planning to use the new preservation technique to protect its collection of ancient papyri.

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