What just happened
Long stories short
- Fiji reopened its borders to tourists for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
- Eric Zemmour, the former journalist who considers Marine Le Pen a “leftist”, announced his candidacy for president of France.
- The English women’s football team beat Latvia 20-0.
Afghanistan’s new rulers said there would be no revenge killings on their watch. In reality more than 100 former members of the Afghan security forces have been summarily executed or disappeared by the Taliban since it took power in Kabul in August, Human Rights Watch says. An HRW report published yesterday led immediately to demands from senior US Democrats for an evacuation “czar” to save others still in Afghanistan and fearing for their lives after working alongside western forces.
So much for the amnesty. Taliban leaders deny the claims in the report, but its authors interviewed 40 family members, former officials, healthcare workers and other witnesses in person and another 27 by phone. Their findings support others since the collapse of the elected Afghan government.
The trap. Multiple witnesses said victims were in fact trapped by the amnesty promise: told to register with the Taliban authorities to obtain letters of amnesty, they found out too late that the registration process gave the new regime the names and addresses it needed.
One household got a knock on the door and an assurance no one need be scared. A former member of the security forces who lived there was later apprehended on the street and executed, his body left for family members to find. Another victim, a prison guard, was urged to come back to work and allegedly shot as he walked through the prison gates.
The report covers only four of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, but
- its authors say the cases reflect “a broader pattern of abuses”;
- a Taliban spokesman admitted to the New York Times that without a national security system in place “some people are taking advantage of this vacuum” to settle scores, especially outside Kabul;
- separate reports of revenge killings include one by CNN of a pregnant policewoman killed by the Taliban in September and another by Amnesty International of the murder of 13 ethnic Hazaras including former government soldiers and a 17-year-old girl.
Meanwhile Afghanistan has run out of cash. Most of the foreign aid that accounted for 45 per cent of GDP under the last government has been suspended. Foreign reserves worth $9.5 billion have been frozen and Afghanistan has been locked out of the international banking system. The UN says it needs $200 million a month in emergency food aid to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.
Girls are not allowed to go to secondary school. The Taliban has said they will be allowed back but for now the only ones receiving an education are getting it in secret.
The cut-through. Whether the disastrous human cost of the allies’ rushed withdrawal exacts an electoral cost for the Biden administration won’t be known till next year’s midterms. But a stink of incompetence attaches to Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, once a rising Democratic star. “If I were the president right now, I would think seriously about changing quite a few people around me,” Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential candidate and current conservative voice of reason, tells the NYT. Brett Bruen, a former senior Obama White House staffer, has called for Sullivan to be fired. If America really is about second chances, maybe he could redeem himself as evacuation czar.
Listen to Matthew d’Ancona on the Kabul fiasco here.
belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries
The sun has risen twice now on the new republic of Barbados. The hangovers are presumably easing. But by all accounts the ceremony at which the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom was lowered in Bridgetown for the last time, and the new flag of Barbados was raised, gave way to quite a party. Credit to Prince Charles for an unvarnished acknowledgement of the “appalling atrocity” of slavery on which so many British fortunes were built. Credit to Robyn Rihanna Fenty, aka Rihanna, for embracing her new role as national hero (although “new” may not be quite accurate given that 22 February has been “Rihanna Day” in Barbados since 2008). And credit to those Barbadians who had the courage to tell reporters they didn’t feel sufficiently consulted about the change. It may spread, even so. There are still 15 countries left with the Queen as head of state.
New things technology, science, engineering
Lush quits social
Lush, the beauty brand, is getting out of social media. It’s still on Twitter, but on Friday – Black Friday – it shut down its Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok accounts and its founder told the Guardian it wasn’t a PR stunt. It was because of recent whistleblower accounts of internal Facebook discussions that showed the company was well aware its platform could be harmful for young people’s mental health. “We’re talking about suicide here, not spots or whether someone should dye their hair blonde,” Mark Constantine said. (Mashable picks up the story here.) Going out on a limb can be bad for business, as bp found with the Beyond Petroleum campaign, long since abandoned, which the company now says cost it £10 billion.
The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY
Boots and the morning after
What are we to make of Boots’ 50 per cent Black Friday discount on morning after pills? If the chain can reduce the price for an American holiday, some are asking, why not keep it low? Boots says “it is not usually possible to sustain significant discounts in the long term”. But this isn’t the first time the UK’s largest high street pharmacy has taken flak for its emergency contraception pricing. In 2017 Labour MPs pressured the company into dropping the price for a levonorgestrel pill – the cheapest option – from £25.99 to £15.99. To note, £16 is still high. Online chemist Chemist4U, which sells the exact same pill for £3.49, told Sensemaker “it doesn’t need to be” that pricey – even taking into account staffing for consultation. Boots kept the prices high in 2017 to avoid being accused of “incentivising inappropriate use and provoking complaints”. You can get contraception for free from the NHS. But should one of the UK’s biggest pharmacies be taking a moral stance on this?
Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics
A very rare white sperm whale has been spotted off the coast of Jamaica. It was seen by the captain of a liquefied natural gas tanker, the Coral Encanto, who sent footage to a Dutch marine conservation organisation, SOS Dolfijn, which confirmed it as a “real Moby Dick” and a very special sighting. It’s estimated to be about 10 metres long, compared with up to 18 metres for a fully grown sperm whale, and light-coloured because of a condition known as leucism that can also affect other cetaceans. The whale in Herman Melville’s novel was a white sperm, but in real life they’re rarely seen. The last one to be photographed appeared off Sardinia six years ago and hadn’t been seen by humans for nine years before that. Hunted almost to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the sperm whale has recovered well. The (US) National Wildlife Foundation estimates there are about 300,000 worldwide. Not that you’d know it.
Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity
Europe’s belt and road
Could the EU ever rival China as a funder of infrastructure in the developing world? It’s going to try. Ursula von der Leyen announces a €300 billion “Global Gateway” initiative today that’s intended as an answer to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road scheme, which has funded 13,000 projects in 165 countries (and left many of them indebted to Beijing). The European plan is different in two respects. It will mobilise private as well as public money, and focus more on digital and green developments than the Belt and Road projects, which tend to be heavy on concrete and tarmac. By no means is all the European money “new”, nor will it all necessarily materialise. And one EU official admitted to Politico that the plan in its current state is “nothing more than a letter of intent”. Still, the intent is clear: soft power over hard.
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Edited by Xavier Greenwood and produced by Phoebe Davis.
Photographs Getty Images