Malta leapfrogs US in passport index

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 12th January 2024

Malta’s passport now offers more visa-free access to destinations than last year: five more, to 190. According to the Henley Passport Index 2024, Malta and Greece moved from the eighth place and now rank fifth, together with Switzerland. The US retained joint seventh place (188 destinations) while the UK now ranks joint fourth (access to 191 destinations).

The report shows four European countries have moved up to share the top spot on the index. Residents of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain now have visa-free access to 194 of 227 destinations – three more than last year. South Korea, Sweden, and Finland all climbed one spot to take joint second place, with access to 193 locations. Austria, Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands shared third place, allowing travel to 192 places.

This year’s ranking reveals some other major shifts: the United Arab Emirates was the fastest climber over the past decade, jumping to 11th place and offering access to 183 destinations without a visa. China, up two spots this year to land in 62nd place, has visa-free access to 85 destinations – almost twice as many as 10 years ago. Rounding out the bottom five places are Syria (access to 29 countries), Iraq (31), Pakistan (34), and Yemen (35).

Henley & Partners compiles the Passport Index based on data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

New Trump term would be threat to Europe, says Lagarde

European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde told France 2 that, if Donald Trump were to be re-elected in 2024, he would “obviously be a threat” to Europe. “If we should learn lessons from history, from the way he led the first four years of his mandate, he is clearly a threat.” Lagarde said. “It’s sufficient to look at the trade tariffs, the commitment to NATO, and the fight against climate change. In just these three areas, in the past, US interests were not aligned with European interests.”

Analysts point out that a second Trump term would likely include tougher border measures, mass deportations, potential end to support for Ukraine – given Trump’s isolationist doctrine – and an increase in import tariffs. During his first term Trump frequently questioned the US’s ongoing role in NATO.

Polls show November elections in the US shaping up to be a rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden, who defeated him in a bitterly fought 2020 contest. Despite Trump’s legal woes, the Republican former president has been leading Biden in surveys.

Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Trump addresses court in New York civil fraud case

The New York civil fraud trial against Donald Trump concluded Thursday after the attorney general’s office and the defence team for the former president wrapped up their closing arguments. Judge Arthur Engoron has already found Trump is liable for fraud in the case, and he plans to issue a decision later this month.

Trump, who was in court Thursday, spoke from the defence table for about five minutes, saying the “financial statements are perfect” and called the case a “witch hunt” before the judge cut him off, urging his attorney to “control” his client, but Trump ended up leaving the courtroom after his comments.

New York Attorney General Letitia James is seeking $370 million in damages and to bar Trump from doing business in the state, alleging that the former president, his adult sons, and his company defrauded banks and insurance companies by inflating the value of Trump’s assets.

French PM Attal keps key defence, interior ministers

France’s new Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, 34, unveiled his government on Thursday, with several cabinet members remaining in their posts – including hardline Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and controversial Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti. In addition to Darmanin and Dupond-Moretti, Bruno Le Maire retained his post as minister of finance and Sébastien Lecornu remains defence minister.

Stéphane Séjourné, who was once in a civil partnership with Attal, was named France’s new foreign minister, replacing Catherine Colonna. The new culture minister is Rachida Dati, who served as justice minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and who had to leave the conservative Les Républicains party to take up her new post. Observers point out that, by poaching a big name from conservative ranks, the government now leans even more to the right.

Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, UN court is told

South Africa formally accused Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians and pleaded with the United Nations’ top court to order an immediate halt to Israeli military operations in Gaza. Israel has vehemently denied the allegations and Israeli leaders have taken the rare step of engaging with the court to defend their international reputation. Israel often boycotts international tribunals or UN investigations, saying they are unfair and biased.

During opening statements at the International Court of Justice, South African lawyers said the latest Gaza war is part of decades of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. The court “has the benefit of the past 13 weeks of evidence that shows incontrovertibly a pattern of conduct and related intention” that amounts to “a plausible claim of genocidal acts,” South African lawyer Adila Hassim told the judges and audience in a packed room of the Peace Palace in The Hague.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the case and vowed to continue fighting Hamas. “This is an upside-down world – the state of Israel is accused of genocide while it is fighting genocide,” he said in video statement. “The hypocrisy of South Africa screams to the heavens.”

South Africa is seeking preliminary orders to compel Israel to stop its military campaign in Gaza, where more than 23,000 people have died. “Nothing will stop the suffering except an order from this court,” Hassim said. Israel will set out its defence today. A decision on South Africa’s request for so-called “provisional measures” will probably take weeks and the full case is likely to last years. Although the court’s findings are considered binding, it was unclear whether Israel would heed any order to halt the fighting. If it doesn’t, it could face UN sanctions, although those may be blocked by a US veto.

2023: a terrifying year for global human rights – HRW  

From Gaza to Ukraine to  Sudan, 2023 has been a “terrifying year” for human rights, which have further deteriorated around the world, Human Rights Watch states in its annual report published on Thursday and presented to the UN.

In the document of over 700 pages, which reviews almost 100 countries, the organisation catalogues “immense suffering” caused by the war between Israel and Hamas, by that between the two rival generals in Sudan, or by the continuation of conflicts in Ukraine, Burma, Ethiopia, and the Sahel. The report said 2023 “was a terrifying year not only for human rights repression and wartime atrocities, but also for selective government anger and transactional diplomacy”. These behaviours send “the message that the dignity of some deserves to be protected, but not that of everyone, that some lives are worth more than others”, said Tirana Hassan, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, speaking of “hypocrisy”.

The report criticises in particular the European Union, whose “foreign policy priority towards its southern neighbours remains that of containing at all costs the departures of migrants towards Europe, persevering in a failed approach which has highlighted the erosion of the bloc’s commitments to human rights”. Also targeted by this “double standard” is the difference between the “rapid and justified condemnation” by many countries of the Hamas attacks on 7th October and the “much more contained” responses, in particular by the US and EU, in the face of the Israeli bombing of Gaza. Also mentioned were the lack of condemnation of the intensification of repression in China, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet. In this context, HRW describes an international human rights system “under threat”.

Referring to what it called the “Hamas and Israel war crimes”, HRW says that “in 2023, civilians were targeted, attacked, and killed on a scale unprecedented in the recent history of Israel and Palestine”. The dossier accuses Hamas of “war crimes” for the 7th October attacks against Israel, and Israeli forces for the reprisals against the population of Gaza. In Gaza, “one of the most important crimes committed is the collective punishment” of civilians, “which corresponds to a war crime”, as well as “starving” the population, says the report.

Global unemployment set to worsen in 2024 – UN

The global unemployment rate will increase slightly in 2024, the United Nations said as it raised concerns about stagnant productivity, worsening inequalities, and inflation biting into disposable income.

The International Labour Organisation said the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down, with ongoing geopolitical tensions and persistent inflation triggering aggressive moves by central banks. That said, global growth in 2023 was modestly higher than anticipated, and labour markets showed surprising resilience, the ILO said. However, real wages declined in most of the G20 countries as wage increases failed to keep pace with inflation. The 2022 global unemployment rate stood at 5.3 per cent and made a modest improvement last year to 5.1 per cent. However, in 2024 an extra two million workers are expected to be looking for jobs, raising the global unemployment rate to 5.2 per cent.

Disposable incomes have declined in the majority of G20 nations and, generally, the erosion of living standards resulting from inflation is “unlikely to be compensated quickly”, the ILO said in its World Employment and Social Outlook Trends report for 2024.

Widening inequalities and stagnant productivity are causes for concern. Real wages fell in other G20 countries, with Brazil (6.9 per cent), Italy (5 per cent) and Indonesia (3.5 per cent) experiencing the sharpest declines.

UK moves to compensate wrongly convicted Post Office staff

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said his government would legislate to compensate hundreds of self-employed Post Office branch managers wrongly convicted of theft due to faulty software. The move to overturn the convictions and award the subpostmasters compensation was intended to help right “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”, he said. It follows renewed focus on a scandal, stretching back two decades, which saw hundreds of subpostmasters wrongly convicted of theft because of the glitch in new ‘Horizon’ accounting software. Numerous lives were ruined by the false accusations, which started in the early 2000s. Some Post Office branch managers were jailed and went bankrupt, losing their homes and their health. Four people took their own lives and dozens of those eventually exonerated died without ever seeing their names cleared.

Ecuador President defies gangs to take on the army

Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa has challenged armed gangs to take on the military rather than civilians as soldiers were deployed to combat the criminal groups. More than 300 suspects have been arrested under the state of emergency. Mr Noboa struck a defiant tone in a radio interview. The 36-year-old president, who has only been in power for two months, challenged the gangs. “Be brave, fight the soldiers,” he told them, referring to the fact that most of those who have been targeted by the gangs have been civilians or unarmed prison guards. At least 14 people have been killed in recent days.

Photo: AP / Ariel Ochoa
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