Hard Numbers: Yemen prisoner swap, North Korea’s new missile, Germany ditches Russian imports, gender parity in Kiwi cabinet, Juice headed to Jupiter
900: In the biggest prisoner exchange in Yemen since 2020, 900 prisoners are expected to be swapped in the days ahead as part of ongoing talks between Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, and the Saudi-backed government. The confidence-building measure comes amid rising hopes that Yemen's brutal eight-year war might soon come to an end.
1,000: North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile test in a month, with some reporting that Pyongyang tested an advanced, harder-to-detect missile for the first time. Following a 1,000-kilometer flight (620 miles), the missile landed in waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Japanese authorities on the northern island of Hokkaido urged residents to seek shelter.
91: German imports of Russian goods dropped by 91% during the first year of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Moscow had previously been the country’s 11th-biggest source of imports, but as a result of Western sanctions has since dropped to … 46th place.
10: Jacinda Ardern may have bowed out, but women leaders are getting ahead in New Zealand. For the first time, the country has gender parity in the cabinet. Thanks to a reshuffle by PM Chris Hipkins, there are now 10 women and 10 men in his cabinet.
8: Citing poor weather conditions, the European Space Agency has delayed the launch of a satellite to the planet Jupiter, an ambitious mission that will take eight years. The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer project, dubbed Juice, aims to explore whether the fifth planet's major moons hold deep bodies of water. The agency will try again in the coming days.
At 27 years old, with no trial experience to speak of, Ben Ferencz entered the courtroom at Nuremberg in November of 1945. He was tasked with holding to account a regime that had slaughtered millions and tried to annihilate his own people. Acting as chief prosecutor, Ferencz secured convictions against 22 Nazis.
Ferencz, the last-surviving prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, passed away last week at the age of 103. As a child, he and his family fled anti-semitism in Romania. After finishing law school at Harvard, he joined the US army, taking part in the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Bulge. He was then assigned to General Patton’s HQ as part of a special unit investigating Nazi atrocities, interviewing survivors and witnessing first-hand the horrors of the concentration camps. That experience would shape the rest of his life. He would remain a warrior, not on the battlefield but in the public arena as a professor of international law and tireless campaigner for justice for the victims of genocide.
The Nuremberg trials marked a watershed moment in the history of modern human rights law. Never before had an international tribunal sought to hold global leaders to account for starting a war and carrying out crimes against humanity. They also included a new term- genocide – as part of the indictments.
In the decades since, the notion that war criminals may face justice has – however imperfect in practice – become an accepted part of international norms. That’s especially true since 2002 when Ferencz’s efforts helped to establish the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague. International courts have judged the perpetrators of genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in ways that were unimaginable when Ferencz was a child.
Still, more than 75 years after Nuremberg, international justice remains a work in progress. Participation in the ICC is voluntary, and even the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States, refuses to do so, out of concerns that it would limit American sovereignty. That puts Washington – which has faced its own human rights allegations in the past – in the unsavory company of serial abusers like Russia, China, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, which also refuse to ratify the ICC’s underlying statutes.
Despite a recent ICC warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, there’s little chance that he’ll face prosecution. Bashar al-Assad, for his part, has survived the civil war he helped create, and is unlikely to face justice for the gruesome crimes that his regime committed during the war.
The coming years pose particular challenges to the cause of international justice. For one thing, the emergence of new major international powers may make it even harder to secure universally-applicable mechanisms of human rights law. Technological advances, meanwhile, enable state and non-state actors to spread disinformation in an attempt to erode trust in facts and evidence. For instance, the Russian disinformation narratives have asserted that the civilian massacre in Bucha, Ukraine was staged.
Nevertheless, Ben Ferencz and his colleagues gave today's international human rights lawyers and activists the tools to document evidence and gather witness testimony, and the mechanisms to hold leaders accountable.
Ferencz himself was under no illusions about the challenges of creating a system that would bring war criminals to justice. In his later years he remarked “Nuremberg taught me that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task.”
But he also reminded us that “if we did not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the Holocaust possible might one day destroy the entire human race.”
Hard Numbers: Trump leads early, NPR & PBS quit Twitter, stopgap for Darien, global warming juices baseballs
49.3: FiveThirtyEight launched its national polling averages for the 2024 Republican presidential race this week, and Donald Trump leads the pack with 49.3% support. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trails well behind with 26.2%, while fmr. VP Mike Pence and fmr. UN ambassador Nikki Haley are at 5.8% and 4.3%, respectively. Research finds that national polls done a year ahead of the election can reasonably predict the nominee.
2: NPR will stop posting on Twitter, becoming the first major outlet to ditch the bluebird since the platform began labeling news orgs that receive government funding as “state-affiliated media.” That designation is normally applied to outlets in autocratic countries that allow no editorial independence. Twitter CEO Elon Musk recently told the BBC (another “state-affiliated” media outlet) that he may change the label to “publicly funded.” PBS followed NPR's lead on Wednesday, so two major US media outlets have now said "bye-bye birdie."
88,000: The US, Panama, and Colombia are launching a two-month campaign to stem the northward flow of migrants across the perilous Darien Gap, which spans the Colombian-Panamanian border. Since January, more than 88,000 people have braved the crossing, over six times the number from the same period last year.
1: Did the Sports Almanac account for this? A recent study analyzing the past six decades of baseball and temperature data finds that thinner air from global warming accounted for 1% of home runs from 2010-2019. The number is expected to jump to 10% by 2100 – though the data is inconclusive on whether this can help the Mets.
It’s America’s recurring nightmare. On Monday, a disgruntled bank employee used an AR-15 rifle he’d purchased locally the week before to murder five colleagues and injure eight others in Louisville, Kentucky. There have been more mass shootings, 147, than there have been days so far in 2023. We look at the death tolls from 2,000 mass shootings in the US since 2020 by state.
After US speaker meets Taiwan's prez, all eyes on China
US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday met Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in California, the last stop of her trip to the Americas. McCarthy is the most senior US official to meet a Taiwanese leader on American soil since 1979, when Washington officially recognized Beijing – rather than Taipei – as “China.”
The meeting was a bold move by the Taiwanese leader, given that China considers Taiwan part of its territory and is triggered by even the slightest hint of Americans normalizing ties with Taipei. And it definitely won’t help improve the US-China relationship. But so far, Beijing’s response has been more meow than growl.
Ahead of the tête-à-tête in California, China sent fighter jets and naval vessels near the Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. Beijing followed that up by dispatching an aircraft carries and announcing spot inspections of Taiwanese ships.
Still, it wasn’t quite the massive show of force put on by China right after Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last August. Blame bad timing: Xi Jinping likely doesn’t want to freak out French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who Xi is hosting this week at a very awkward time for China-EU relations.
Lukashenko’s delicate dance
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko went to Moscow on Wednesday to pay a visit to his ally (?), friend (?), overlord (?), and partner Vladimir Putin. Whenever these two meet, Lukashenko must tread carefully. Since December 1999, Russia and Belarus have been part of a “Union State” meant to deepen economic and defense cooperation between the two former Soviet countries.
But now Putin, frustrated by a war gone wrong, is nudging Lukashenko toward further integration steps that appear to expand Russian power. Lukashenko has good reason to fear that full “integration” would allow giant Russia to swallow little Belarus whole. But he also can’t resist too aggressively, because he has faced pro-democracy protests at home that might have brought down his regime had Putin not come to his rescue.
For this reason, Lukashenko must continue a delicate dance. He allows Russia to use his country as a staging ground for war on Ukraine, and as a location for the Kremlin’s tactical nuclear weapons too, but he still resists Putin’s pressure to send Belarusian troops to join the fight.
Nicaraguan strongman cancels Easter
The Nicaraguan government is banning Holy Week street celebrations as it cracks down on critics amid a spat with the influential Catholic church.
Tensions have simmered between the church and strongman President Daniel Ortega since the anti-government protests of 2018, when his government accused clerics — who were seeking to mediate between the two sides — of supporting the streets. And amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent, Bishop Ronaldo Alvarez, a prominent Ortega critic, was sentenced in February to a 26-year prison sentence for treason, inflaming tensions in the fiercely Catholic country.
Last month, the government suspended ties with the Holy See altogether after Pope Francis called the government of Ortega – a former Marxist guerilla who somewhat unconvincingly reinvented himself as a man of faith 15 years ago – a ‘crude dictatorship’ and compared its repression of Catholics to Nazi Germany.
As Easter Sunday approaches in Nicaragua, it’s fair to ask: WWJD?
Hard Numbers: US camps in Philippines, Malaysia may nix death penalty, Bulgaria’s close vote, Burkina Faso vs. journalists, hungry as a bear in Japan
4: On Monday, the Philippine government confirmed the location of four new military camps that will indefinitely host rotating US forces, despite China’s opposition. The new encampments, which were announced last February, place US forces closer to Taiwan and key trade routes in the South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
1,300: Malaysia’s lower house of Parliament approved a bill on Monday to abolish mandatory death sentences, possibly sparing over 1,300 death row inmates. If the bill passes the upper house as expected and gets the king’s signature, it will mean capital punishment is no longer obligatory for crimes like murder and drug trafficking.
5: So far, it’s a dead-heat in Bulgaria’s parliamentary election, the 5th in two years, between center-right PM Boyko Borisov and liberal ex-PM Kiril Petkov. Corruption and inflation were the top concerns for voters in the former Soviet ally, which has struggled to form a durable ruling coalition in recent years. Final results are expected later this week.
2: Burkina Faso’s military junta has expelled two French reporters in its crackdown on journalists. The junta, which seized power in a coup last September (the country’s second in 2022), has not offered an official reason for the move, but it comes after one of the journalist’s publications investigated the execution of children inside military barracks in the northern part of the conflict-plagued West African country.17: Japanese bear encounters have been on the rise in the wild … and at dinner. A new vending machine in Semboku, northern Japan, is clawing a profit by selling wild bear meat for $17 (2,200 yen) per 250 g. It’s proving so popular that the operator is getting mail-order requests from as far away as Tokyo.
Russia nabs US journalist
A Wall Street Journal reporter apprehended by Russia’s notorious Federal Security Bureau in the city of Yekaterinburg Thursday has appeared in court in the Russian capital on espionage charges, which the Journal has dismissed as bogus.
Evan Gershkovich, who works out of the Moscow bureau for the New-York based outlet and earlier this week penned a bombshell feature on how sanctions are hurting the Russian economy, was on a reporting trip when he was seen being escorted into an FSB van in scenes reminiscent of the Soviet era. Indeed, he’s the first US journalist to have been arrested by Russian authorities since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The Committee to Protect Journalists has demanded his immediate and unconditional release.
The Kremlin claims that the 31-year-old reporter was “collecting state secrets” on behalf of the US government. But many analysts say this is likely an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to flex his muscles and gain some leverage amid reports that Russia is stalling in Ukraine, with one US general claiming that ongoing fighting in Bakhmut is a “slaughter-fest” for Moscow.
Putin may be looking to secure some sort of trade deal with the US, like he did last fall when Washington agreed to swap WNBA star Brittney Griner, held in a Russian prison, for Viktor Bout, a Russian citizen and notorious arms dealer held in US custody since 2008. But Griner was held for the lesser offense of possessing a small amount of weed oil. Espionage is a whole other ballgame.
We’ll also be watching to see whether US media outlets now respond by pulling reporters out of Russia. After all, the US State Department has urged all US citizens to leave the country fearing a situation just like this.
Bolsonaro back in Brazil
Brazil’s far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro ended his self-imposed exile in Florida on Thursday, returning home to lead the opposition against his archenemy, leftist President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. After losing the election to Lula last autumn, he never conceded and skipped town instead of attending the inauguration. Lula was confirmed on New Year’s Day, and a week later Bolsonaro supporters stormed government buildings in the capital in Brazil’s own Jan. 6.
Lula must now decide whether to try to put Bolsonaro behind bars or ban him from politics — both of which could backfire because the former president remains hugely popular among his base. He should know: Lula was imprisoned for corruption in 2018, only to retake the presidency a few years later. Bolsonaro faces a litany of investigations, and while his advisors downplay the risk of him being jailed, the threat of legal action could mobilize his fans.
Bolsonaro’s return comes at a tricky time for Lula. While his approval ratings are higher than Bolsonaro’s, Lula campaigned on eradicating poverty but is struggling to pull the country out of an economic slump. He’s also been tussling with the central bank over high-interest rates, which he says is hurting the poor.
Will Lasso get lassoed?
Ecuador's constitutional court has given the go-ahead for parliament to pursue impeachment proceedings against President Guillermo Lasso over his brother-in-law’s alleged involvement in corruption and drug trafficking. This is only the first step in the process, but once it gets to the legislature, Lasso is in serious trouble: He's widely unpopular, and the opposition likely has enough votes to oust him.
If that happens, there are three possible scenarios. First, the conservative Lasso could step down and call a snap election, with the left-wing party of former President Rafael Correa a clear favorite. The embattled president could also let VP Alfredo Borrero take over, although he’d struggle to finish Lasso's term without making big political concessions and spending money Ecuador can't afford.
But the most likely — and dangerous — option is that Lasso challenges his removal by dissolving parliament before he’s impeached and rules by decree until a fresh election, as the Andean nation's constitution allows him to do. That outcome would trigger "chaos on the streets and maybe even a constitutional crisis," says Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow.
Last week, Uganda’s parliament passed legislation that criminalizes identifying as LGBTQ, which puts individuals at risk of life imprisonment, or in some cases, even death. Similarly, draconian legislation over identifying as LGBTQ is under consideration in Ghana, and VP Kamala Harris’s visit to Zambia this week – for a summit celebrating democracy – is stoking anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. As of 2023, many parts of the world are still unsafe for the LGBTQ community, as same-sex acts are deemed illegal in 65 countries, from Latin America to Oceania. The death penalty is a possibility in 11 countries worldwide. We look at the range of penalties in Africa and Asia, the two continents with the highest number of countries criminalizing same-sex acts.