World

Donald Trump’s impeachment trial begins. UN rules on Kiribati climate refugee. Vladimir Putin’s plan to ‘rule forever’. China acts to stop spread of coronavirus. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Coronavirus fears spread across globe

Chinese children wear protective masks to guard against the coronavirus as they wait to board trains at Beijing railway station before the yearly Spring Festival this week.
Credit: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: As the third impeachment trial in American history began on Tuesday, President Donald Trump helicoptered over the Swiss Alps in Marine One to Davos, the small town that plays host to a yearly forum of world leaders, corporate heads, celebrities and activists.

In Washington, the impeachment managers – a group of Democrats assigned to prosecute the case – argued that Trump’s alleged attempt to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential contender, marked the “worst nightmare” of America’s founding fathers. In response, the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, insisted the trial was a political witch-hunt.

The opening battles centred on the rules for the trial, which is held in the senate. The first three votes of the proceedings were on motions to subpoena documents related to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. All 53 Republican senators voted against; all 47 Democrats voted in favour. The duration of the trial will depend on whether the Republicans allow witnesses to be called. But the conclusion is foregone: a two-thirds majority is required for a conviction, which would require 20 Republicans to vote against Trump. And while the trial is historic, so is the extent of the rift between America’s two main parties.

In Davos, Trump, attending his second forum – Barack Obama and George W. Bush attended none – received a warm welcome from business leaders, claiming his economic measures had created a “roaring geyser of opportunity”. He described climate change activists as prophets of doom, apparently referring to Greta Thunberg, who later told the forum, “Your inaction is fuelling the flames.”

Trump’s address did not mention the impeachment hearings, instead painting a glowing picture of the American economy. It was widely seen as a re-election speech.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Kiribati: Four years ago, Ioane Teitiota, a father of three from Kiribati, was deported from New Zealand after failing in a bid to be recognised as the world’s first climate refugee. Teitiota argued that the rising seas in Kiribati, where the average elevation is less than two metres above sea level, were causing land and water shortages that had led to local tensions and made it unsafe to return.

New Zealand courts rejected Teitiota’s claim, ruling he did not face persecution. He then took his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which has released a landmark ruling on his case. The committee rejected Teitiota’s bid, saying his life was not at imminent risk, but it did find that governments cannot deport people who face immediate dangers due to climate change.

The ruling, which is non-binding, comes as human rights groups and environmental advocates are pushing for people living in areas vulnerable to climate change to be given a right to relocate if their homes become uninhabitable.

In Kiribati, Teitiota expressed disappointment with the United Nations ruling, saying he cannot find work and is concerned about a lack of drinking water and the health of his children.

“I want to ask these big countries to please take our case seriously,” he told ABC news, “because we need their help.”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Russia: Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia for longer than any leader since Stalin but is legally required to retire when his current presidential term ends in 2024. Previously, when he was required to step down in 2008 after serving two terms, he became prime minister for a term and returned to the presidency in 2012.

On Monday, Putin unveiled proposed changes to the constitution that appeared designed to entrench his hold on power beyond 2024. The changes will significantly expand the role of the State Council, a little-noticed advisory body whose role has largely been ceremonial to this point. This has led to speculation that Putin, 67, might exercise power through the council, which will be tasked with setting “the main direction of domestic and foreign policy”.

But Putin also insisted he intends to step down as president, saying he wanted to avoid the situation in the 1980s, when a series of ailing Soviet leaders remained in power until they died. The proposed changes will allow presidents to serve only two terms, regardless of whether they are consecutive. Putin is currently in his fourth term.

Still, as is often the case with Putin, his precise intentions remain unclear. The proposals led to speculation he could be ill or may genuinely be seeking a more effective constitutional arrangement.

The opposition accused Putin of seeking to “rule forever”. The changes stipulate that future presidents must have lived in Russia consecutively for 25 years and must not have had a foreign passport or residency permit. This would bar one of Putin’s most vocal critics, Alexei Navalny, who studied at Yale in 2010.

SPOTLIGHT: Wuhan virus

China: In late December, several workers at a seafood market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China, fell ill with flu-like symptoms and were found to have a new strain of respiratory virus. This coronavirus – a type of virus that usually infects animals but not humans – has since been detected in more than 500 people across China. Cases were also identified in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the US involving people who had been in Wuhan. By Thursday, 17 people had died.

China’s National Health Commission has confirmed that the virus has been transmitted from person to person, not merely from animals, raising fears of a global epidemic. No vaccine yet exists.

The outbreak occurred just as China prepared to begin celebrating the Lunar New Year, a holiday during which hundreds of millions of people return to rural villages to visit family. The event marks one of the world’s largest mass migrations, with people crowding into buses, trains and planes or attending large celebrations – ideal conditions to spread a virus.

The emergence of the new coronavirus prompted concerns that China may try to conceal information about the outbreak to avoid disrupting the new year celebrations, which provide a significant economic boost. These stem largely from Beijing’s actions during the spread of SARS, a coronavirus that killed almost 800 people in the early 2000s. That epidemic was revealed by a semi-retired surgeon who was later put under police surveillance.

Thus far, however, Chinese officials have been co-operating with the World Health Organization, which this week convened an expert panel to consider whether to declare a global health emergency. Authorities in China have tightened health checks at hospitals and closed the market in Wuhan, but said the situation was “controllable”. On Tuesday, the city of Wuhan cancelled its new year celebrations.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 25, 2020 as "Coronavirus fears spread across globe". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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