Illustration by Ben Beechener

Congress aims to pass final legislation before mid-terms

Legislators in Congress are hoping to pass some policies of the previously rejected Build Back Better plan in the last few weeks before campaigns begin for mid-term elections. Build Back Better had been proposed by President Biden as a significant reform of the US welfare state but was opposed by centrists within the Democratic Party. A reduced version of the bill failed to pass through the Senate in November 2021 as a result of opposition from the Democrat Joe Manchin. With the Senate split 50-50 along party lines, every vote is crucial for the Democrats. However, Manchin has stated that he is still opposed to a change to social spending policies, and it remains to be seen whether a legislative proposal will be agreed on in the coming weeks.

Death toll rises in Darfur following inter-ethnic clashes

On Tuesday, the death toll following ethnic violence in the West Darfur region of Sudan increased to 200, with the possibility of deaths rising even further. The past few months have seen violent clashes between ethnic-Arab groups and the ethnic-African Masalit tribe, the largest group in West Darfur. Alongsidethe targeting of civilians, fighting has also occurred between the Arabic Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Masalit Sudanese Coalition Forces militia. The violence seems to have emerged from inter-community violence in December, in which 88 people were killed, and the more recent killing of Arab tribesmen.

Ethnic violence has been a persistent feature of the region following the civil war from 2003 to 2010 between ethnic-Africans and ethnic-Arabs, emerging from an uprising against the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime. During the conflict, the regime is alleged to have armed Arab militias known as the Janjaweed (many of whom have subsequently been recruited into the RSF), resulting in indiscriminate civilian deaths. The clashes raise significant questions about the ability of the Sudanese government to keep the peace in the region, which is supposed to be jointly coordinated between the RSF, rebel groups, and the Sudanese security forces.

North Korean Missile Parade

On Monday 25th April, North Korea carried out a military parade of banned missiles for the 90th anniversary of the North Korean army. This comes on the back of a series of resent missile tests, including the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), thought to be powerful enough to reach America. Kim Jong-Un stated his commitment to continuing missile testing and stated that North Korea was ready to use nuclear weapons at any point. North Korea’s growing store of nuclear weapons poses a threat to South Korea and Japan, but these recent shows are thought to be directed primarily at America. North Korea may be aiming to engage in new negotiations with the United States to acknowledge its nuclear power and remove economic sanctions

Somalia elects new Speaker of Parliament amid armed standoff

The lower house of Somalia’s Parliament finally elected Sheikh Adan Mohamed Nur as Speaker after a lengthy standoff between African Union peacekeepers and Somalian security forces. Nur, who is a veteran opposition leader, was elected by 98 votes to 74, but getting the vote to take place was more difficult than expected, as President Farmaajo attempted to get Somalian police to prevent lawmakers from entering Parliament. This resulted in an armed standoff, when the President’s rival, Prime Minister Roble asked African Union peacekeepers to secure the entrance to parliament and ensure the safe passage of Parliamentarians. Tensions are high in parliament, after the President unsuccessfully tried to extend his term by two years, while a new government has to be formed by May 17th in order to receive IMF funding.

Japanese Yen reaches 20-year low against the dollar

The Japanese yen has been at historic lows for the past few weeks. On Thursday, the yen dropped to a new low of around ¥130.62 to the dollar following the Bank of Japan’s announcement of its current policies. Unlike other banks around the world, the BOJ is not increasing interest rates. The BOJ’s monetary easing policy involves increasing the supply of money and keeping interest rates low through buying government bonds. The BOJ reasserted its commitment to allowing daily unlimited government bond-buying in order to promote economic activity. The governor of the BOJ, Kuroda Haruhiko, has stated that he believes a weak yen to be beneficial for the Japanese economy in spite of rising inflation affecting food and living costs. It is thought that the policy of keeping the currency low will continue at least until Kuroda’s tenure ends in April 2023.

Peruvian Police evict indigenous protestors from Chinese-owned mine

Indigenous protestors of the Fuerabamba people were evicted from their encampment on the side of the Las Bambas copper mine, owned by the Chinese-owned company MMG. The mine produces 2% of the world’s copper supply, but operations on the site have been suspended for a week as the protestors entered the mine site, which they claim is on their ancestral land. On Wednesday 27th the police claimed that they had fully evicted the tribe from land owned by MMG, while the Fuerabamba President vowed to continue fighting. Civil liberties in the region have been suspended, removing the right of protest and assembly

EU cuts funding to Hungary over rule-of-law concerns

On the 27th April the European Commission formally triggered a new mechanism that allows them to restrict the distribution of EU funding to Hungary, citing concerns about media freedom and the rule of law. The power to cut budgets to particular countries was first approved by the European Union in early 2021 but due to legal disputes this is the first occasion on which it has been used. The mechanism, which was enacted just days after Hungarian far-right PM Victor Orban won a fourth consecutive term in office, still requires a vote in the Council of Europe to go through, with a ‘qualified majority’ needed.

The European Commission has repeatedly raised concerns about the procurement of public contracts in Hungary, irregularities in the sale of state land, and issues with investigating and prosecuting potential criminal activities. Hungary will mark the test case of whether this mechanism can effectively force states to make necessary changes, and whether it can be used in other troublesome members: it is interesting to note that the European Commission has an ongoing dispute with Poland, also over rule-of-law issues. 

China dips toes into the Indo-Pacific

The China-Solomon Islands Security Pact, signed last week, has continued to cause significant political fallout in Washington, Canberra, Wellington, and the Solomon Islands itself. For the former countries, the worry lies with what they see as growing Chinese assertiveness beyond the South China Seas, with concerns that the wording of the text opens the door to a Chinese military base and for Chinese police and paramilitary presence in the strategically important islands. It also poses a direct challenge to Australia, with the agreement seemingly upending the Australian-Solomon Islands security arrangement, operational since 2003.

Domestically, the deal is causing political fractures. It has been criticised for lacking transparency, and over concerns that the pact could lead to greater suppression of internal dissent. China has been deepening ties in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years, including the Solomon Islands. China has increased construction projects in the country, has extended the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, and the Islands have severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The pact also formalises growing cooperation between the internal security apparatuses of the two countries ­following deadly riots in the Chinatown region of the Islands in 2021, with China training and equipping the Royal Solomon Islands Police.

Bid for Boots

India’s second-richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and a US private equity firm, Apollo Global Management, are planning a bid for Boots, the UK pharmacy chain. Boots was put up for sale in December 2021, and could be valued at up to £6bn. The buying process has faced difficulties due to the war in Ukraine, the private equity firms Bain Capital and CVC Capital Partners withdrawing from the bid, and challenges to buyers over how they will finance Boots’ generous pension scheme. The final deadline for bids is May 16th. If Ambani is successful, Boots could expand its presence into India, south-east Asia and the Middle East.

India suffers widespread power cuts, threats of wildfire

India is currently facing a vast electricity shortage, the worst in six years, as the early onset of summer weather forces power cuts in three states lasting between two and eight hours. Industrial production has been hit as factories suffer outages, and the effects have spread over a large area including Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and the Punjab. India has experienced its hottest March on record, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has issued warnings of extreme fire risks in the country, and in some states schools have been shut and workers sent home early. Even before the expected peak in temperature, Delhi has had 40°C or more for the past week, and hospitals have been out on alert as the number of heat-related admittances is expected to soar. 

Russia blocks gas exports to Poland and Hungary

This week the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom informed the governments of Bulgaria and Poland that their natural gas supply would be halted. This is the first instance in which the Kremlin has sought to use its stranglehold on European economies: Bulgaria depends on Russian gas for 90% of its imports and Poland for 45%. Analysts have seen this as a direct response to the aid given to Ukraine by these countries and their role as forward operating bases for the large NATO and European Union response to the invasion of Ukraine. Both countries’ leaders have downplayed the effect of the Russian decision to cut off their access to natural gas, and furthermore, with summer fast approaching the impact of this economic weapon will be reduced. This suggests perhaps a calculation from the Kremlin to gain a propaganda victory rather than inflict major economic pain. The West as a whole has feared this situation from the beginning of the war in February, and some even before, and has pledged to reduce its dependence on Russian gas imports. The aim is to cut all pipelines by 2030, and though the policies and cost necessary to reach this strategic autonomy are currently unknown, the importance of its implementation is evident by Russia’s actions this week.

Venezuelan Parliament appoints new Supreme Court

On the 26th of April, the government-controlled National Assembly voted to confirm a new slimmed down Supreme Court. Many of those appointed were office holders in the previous court, a nod to the continuity desired for this overhaul. The 20 judges, 12 of whom were in the previous Supreme Court, were chosen out of a candidate list of 254 names. According to the Caracas-based nonprofit Justice Access, only two of the appointed judges are aligned with the opposition groups. This renewal of the Supreme Court comes as a result of great pressure, most visible two years ago during nationwide protests, due to the lack of judicial independence in the country. A recent UN report found that recent reforms have increased political influence in the judiciary. Reform of the justice system was one of the main demands of the united opposition under the internationally recognised opposition leader, Juan Guaido. He has called the latest reform a “mirage”. Negotiations broke off last October and there is still no solution to the crisis faced by the country.