The World Today for April 24, 2024

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Finding a Foothold

NORTH MACEDONIA

A symbol of international solidarity, University Hall, recently burned down in the North Macedonian capital of Skopje. The hall was built after a major earthquake in 1963 using donations from 35 countries, Euronews explained.

The incident was ironic given how many North Macedonians could be running out of patience with their country’s foreign relations – frustration that could affect the upcoming first round of presidential elections on April 24.

North Macedonia, a tiny Balkan nation and former Yugoslav republic, joined NATO in 2020 after the country – formerly called just “Macedonia” – changed its name, resolving a diplomatic dispute with Greece.

Now North Macedonia is negotiating with European leaders over its pending membership of the European Union. It is without question one of the country’s most important diplomatic goals.

Late last year, for instance, North Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said EU accession has helped suppress tensions between ethnic Macedonians, who are Slavs, ethnic Albanians, and other minorities. These tensions fueled some of the worst atrocities in Europe in the wars of Yugoslav secession in the 1990s.

“North Macedonia is multi-ethnic, multicultural … The only narrative that has subordinated these conflicting narratives and has become a glue for all these narratives is the European Union,” Osmani told Politico.

At present, for example, an ethnic Albanian, Talat Xhaferi, is now serving as prime minister in a caretaker government, Reuters wrote.

Incumbent President Stevo Pendarovski is seeking a second term with the support of the governing Social Democratic Union coalition, reported the Associated Press. Pendarovski is considered pro-EU. He is running against Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova of the center-right opposition coalition, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).

VMRO-DPMNE seems content to delay EU membership. They opposed Xhaferi’s premiership, too. “Talat Xhaferi is a man who comes from a party in which all the leaders’ mouths are full of European values, but whose actions only show how they are violated,” said a VMRO-DPMNE statement issued early this year.

Neighboring Bulgaria, an EU member, has blocked North Macedonia’s EU application for a year because VMRO-DPMNE lawmakers have refused to grant rights to the Bulgarian minority community in North Macedonia’s constitution, explained Euractiv. Bulgaria has also refused to acknowledge the existence of the Macedonian language, which is similar to Bulgarian. As a result of these issues, North Macedonia has not begun formal membership talks.

VMRO-DPMNE is now leading in the polls. In addition to stopping accession to the EU by refusing to satisfy Bulgaria’s demands, the party would likely scrap ethnic quotas in North Macedonian public sector jobs that Balkan Insight described as a “balancer” mechanism that helped smooth out relations between the country’s ethnic communities.

As a result, the publication added, officials in Brussels are watching the elections closely.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Burden of Proof

ISRAEL/ GAZA

Israel did not provide evidence that a “significant” number of workers in a United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees were linked to militant groups such as Hamas, according to a UN report released this week, the Washington Post reported.

At the same time, the UN’s independent review group examining the situation at the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said it must improve the vetting of staff to ensure neutrality, and work to reestablish trust with donors.

While the report did not outright reject Israel’s claims, it provided insight into the screening procedure and management practices of the agency. The head of the review group, France’s former Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, said UNRWA was “indispensable and irreplaceable” in dealing with the humanitarian crisis faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Many donors, including the United States, suspended their funding to UNRWA in January after Israel alleged a dozen of its 13,000 employees took part in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks that killed around 1,200 people in Israel, and that more than a thousand workers had connections with militant groups.

The suspended donations amount to $450 million, nearly half of UNRWA’s yearly budget. The agency has warned it could go bankrupt by the end of June.

The Israeli government has repeatedly called for the dismantling of UNRWA, an agency founded by the UN in 1949 to provide aid to Palestinians fleeing or being expelled from their homes because of the creation of the state of Israel. In addition to claims about links to Hamas, Israel says the agency contributes to growing antisemitism and the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee issue.

Another report probing Israel’s claims on the dozen involved in the attack – those employees were fired after the accusations were made – is still underway. Still, it was the report released on Monday that donors, including Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, are relying on to resume funding.

Israel responded, “The Colonna report ignores the severity of the problem, and offers cosmetic solutions that do not deal with the enormous scope of Hamas’ infiltration of UNRWA.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, UN human rights chief Volker Türk said he was “horrified” by the destruction of two hospitals in Gaza and the mass graves found there, Reuters reported.

Palestinian authorities said they found 310 bodies in mass graves at the Nasser hospital in Khan Younis and another 30 at the Al Shifa site after Israeli troops withdrew. UN Human Rights Commission spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said the state of the bodies, some of whom “had their hands tied,” indicated human rights violations.

The Israeli military called the claims “baseless and unfounded,” adding that soldiers were examining bodies looking for those of Israeli hostages after receiving intelligence. “The examination was carried out respectfully while maintaining the dignity of the deceased,” the Israeli military said.

Obstacle Course

UNITED KINGDOM

The British government’s long-debated policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing was passed by parliament Tuesday, following years of legal battles, political hurdles and criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups, the Wall Street Journal reported.

So far, the United Kingdom has paid Rwanda nearly $300 million to take asylum seekers, but none have been sent since an initial agreement was made in 2022 to reduce the number of migrants and asylum seekers because of a series of court battles and resistance from lawmakers within the ruling Conservative Party.

Last year, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda was not a safe place for refugees, saying the country did not have safeguards to ensure legitimate asylum seekers wouldn’t have their claims wrongly rejected and be returned to their country of origin, where they could face persecution – a violation of international law.

The ruling prompted the British government to negotiate additional safeguards with Rwanda and pass a motion stating that Rwanda was a safe country: On Tuesday, the Lords, the UK’s upper house of Parliament, approved a new bill that will bar British courts from blocking deportations on the grounds that Rwanda is an unsafe destination.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described the policy as a “genuine game-changer” in the government’s effort to tackle illegal migration, particularly those making the dangerous trip across the English Channel. He added that the first flights would depart “come what may” in the upcoming months.

Even so, the UN’s refugee agency and other human rights groups remain opposed to the plan due to concerns the UK will be violating its commitments to international law. Others questioned whether the plan would actually deter migrants from coming to the UK.

Meanwhile, the British public and politicians remain divided over the policy. While some Conservative lawmakers warned that the plan is incompatible with the UK’s responsibilities under international human rights law, others complained that it was not tough enough, NPR added.

Curbing illegal migration is one of Sunak’s key promises to voters. The general elections are to be held later this year.

Legal analysts said the deportation measure will likely face court challenges and a reluctance by airlines to carry these deportees to Rwanda.

Cutting the Chains

EUROPEAN UNION

The European Parliament approved a new law on Tuesday that would ban products made by forced labor from the European Union market, a measure aimed mainly at China but also other countries accused of engaging in the practice, Euronews reported.

With an overwhelming majority of 555 votes in favor versus six against and 45 abstentions, the law is aimed at eliminating products tainted by modern slavery and human rights abuses, and targets both imports and exports.

Scheduled to take effect in 2027 pending approval from EU nations, the regulation will empower national authorities to investigate and prohibit products suspected of being linked to forced labor.

If suspicions arise regarding non-EU countries, the European Commission can launch investigations.

Companies found violating these rules face fines, while products made from forced labor already circulating in the EU will be donated, recycled or destroyed.

Lawmakers said the new rules will play a crucial role in protecting human lives and strengthening the European market.

Analysts said the legislation seeks to begin tackling the global crisis of forced labor and illegal profits stemming from it: The International Labor Organization estimates that around 28 million people worldwide are subjected to forced labor, generating $236 billion annually.

While the new regulations target products everywhere in the world, the measures are seen as a deliberate move against countries such as Turkmenistan and China, where there is evidence of state-sponsored forced labor, the news outlet wrote.

A new report showed links between major European clothing brands and forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, where Beijing is accused of conducting systemic human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs and other minority ethnic groups.

Some lawmakers said the bill will help strengthen the market and protect human lives. But despite support, the legislation has faced resistance from policymakers since it was first proposed in 2022.

Critics, such as Germany’s pro-business Free Democratic Party, warned about excessive bureaucracy and disruptions to supply chains.

One of the chief concerns is that the new rules could lead to shortages in “sensitive” components needed in Europe for its transition to green energy. In a compromise, the new law includes provisions for critical products, allowing for delayed bans until companies demonstrate compliance.

Even so, workers’ rights advocates cautioned that the law lacks measures for victim remediation and falls short of addressing state-imposed forced labor in high-risk areas such as Xinjiang.

DISCOVERIES

Long, Lost Friends

The relationship between dogs and humans goes back thousands of years, but that doesn’t mean man’s best friend didn’t compete with other animals for affection.

A new analysis of the buried remains of a 1,500-year-old fox in northwestern Argentina suggested that humans and the canid species also once shared a close bond, CNN reported.

In their study, scientists studied the skeleton of a Dusicyon avus, a fox species that became extinct some 500 years ago. Although considered a fox, it was about the size of a German shepherd but less bulky.

The D. avus remains were first found buried alongside a human at a site in northern Patagonia in 1991. Recent analysis of bones showed that it had no cut marks, which means that it was not eaten by the ancient hunter-gatherers living in the area.

Further study also showed that its diet was similar to that of the humans, hinting that the fox was tamed and kept as a pet.

“That suggests either the community was feeding it, or it was around the community and feeding on the kitchen refuse,” said lead author Ophelie Lebrasseur. “It would suggest that there’s a closer relationship and integration of the canid within the society.”

The new finding adds to a growing body of evidence showing a close relationship between humans and foxes: Ancient burials in Europe and Asia have also uncovered the remains of dogs and foxes laid to rest with humans.

But the recent study also sheds some insights into D. avus, a species that was once widespread across South America.

The extinction of South American foxes likely wasn’t due to interbreeding with dogs introduced by European colonizers, as DNA analysis suggested they couldn’t produce fertile offspring.

However, dogs may have competed for resources and transmitted diseases, contributing to the foxes’ decline, according to other researchers.

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