FOREIGN editor David Pratt writes about four key stories from across the world ...

Ukraine: Western scepticism over African peace mission to Kyiv and Moscow

NO sooner had a delegation of African leaders arrived in Kyiv on Friday than they faced a first-hand reminder of the war. Shortly after disembarking from the train that had come from Poland, they were greeted by blaring air raid sirens, the boom of Ukrainian air defence systems and fighter jets overhead as Russian missiles again targeted the city.

The peace delegation, including ­leaders from South Africa, Senegal, Zambia, the Comoros and Egypt, said they were ­undeterred and pressed on with plans to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that same day before heading to talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on Saturday.

The National: Russian president Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking at a plenary session of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (Alexei Danichev/Photo host Agency RIA Novosti via AP)

This visit and the views of African ­leaders matter to Ukraine not least ­because Russia is increasingly looking to countries in the “Global South” as a way out from sanctions imposed by the west and condemnation of the invasion.

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine back in February 2022 people across ­different parts of the globe have ­experienced and interpreted it in diverse ways. In the main the world has been broadly ­categorised into three camps – countries allied with Ukraine, those impartial to the ­conflict, and the nations that have defended ­Russia.

It’s worth remembering that Moscow has retained strong relationships with many African countries dating from the Soviet era and more recently has sought to engage them to find backing for its stance on Ukraine.

From the deployment of Russian ­“advisers” back in the 1970s to ­current links with major infrastructure ­projects and partnerships Russia still has ­considerable influence in Africa and many of the continents’ countries are ­precisely the places Putin hopes to rely on in order to find the support he lacks in the Global North.

That said South African leader ­Cyril Ramaphosa who heads the latest ­delegation to Kyiv and Moscow vowed ­recently that Africa would never again be a “pawn” between east and west, ­recalling the proxy conflicts on the continent of the Cold War era.

While those African leaders ­comprising the current delegation have different stances on the war in Ukraine as one voice they have been keen to stress their neutrality.

Their mission they insist is one that “would engage with both President ­Zelenskyy and President Putin on the ­elements for a ceasefire and a lasting peace in the region”.

But Ukraine’s stated position for any peace deal remains that all Russian troops must withdraw from all of its ­territory, ­including the Crimean ­peninsula ­occupied by Russia since 2014.

There are other reasons too why the ­African leaders have become involved. The war has severely restricted the ­export of grain from Ukraine and ­fertiliser from Russia, intensifying global food ­insecurity. Africa, which depends on ­imports of both, has suffered the most.

The African leaders will be aiming to persuade the Russians to extend the ­fragile agreement that allows Ukraine to ship grain through the Black Sea.

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But not everyone is convinced of the ­African delegation’s peace initiative. South Africa’s leadership position in the delegation in particular has drawn ­scrutiny from the US and European n­ations amid scepticism over its ­ability to negotiate impartially with Ukraine and Russia. To begin with South Africa has maintained a non-aligned stance on the war, annoying its trade partners in ­Washington.

This has been further exacerbated by Pretoria’s contradictory messaging on whether it would host Putin in August during the Brics summit of ­member states Brazil, Russia, India, ­China and South ­Africa, in light of the International ­Criminal Court (ICC) issuing a warrant of arrest against him over crimes related to the war.

There are other reasons too why ­Washington and other Ukraine allies are sceptical of South Africa’s positioning. Only a few weeks ago, the US ­Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, publicly alleged that arms or related technologies were loaded onto a Russian ship, Lady R as it was docked at a military port near Cape Town.

Given that the ship was under US ­Government sanctions for transporting military equipment for the Russian government, the incident has somewhat soured relations between Washington and Pretoria despite President ­Ramaphosa’s assurance that there is no evidence of arms being loaded onto the ship.

Whatever the truth behind the affair it has only further reinforced ­scepticism among Ukraine’s allies of South ­Africa’s claims of “neutrality” in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Greece: Authorities under growing scrutiny after boat sinking

The National:

BY any standards it is an appalling tragedy. With more than 500 refugees missing presumed drowned the UN migration agency said could be the second deadliest refugee shipwreck recorded. The deadliest occurred when a vessel capsized off the coast of Libya en-route to Italy in April 2015, killing an estimated 1100 people. 

It was last Wednesday that the heavily overcrowded vessel capsized off Greece’s west coast having left the Libyan port of Tobruk for Italy. 

The Hellenic Coastguard confirmed it had rescued 104 people and collected 78 bodies from the Ionian Sea 47 nautical miles off Pylos, but survivors spoke of as many as 700 on board. 

All the survivors were male, the women and children on board havering been crammed below decks. As the scale of the tragedy became clear questions are being asked about the handling of the rescue efforts and in particular certain apparent inconsistencies in the coastguard’s account of events. 

Coast guard spokesperson Nikos Alexiou has denied reports of survivors saying a patrol boat had tried to tow the fishing boat causing it to capsize.   

According to testimonies from survivors, the fishing vessel departed from Egypt, then picked up passengers in the Libyan coastal city of Tobruk on June 10, who paid $4500 each to go to Italy. Survivors said the coast guard tied up the vessel with rope and attempted to pull it, causing the boat to sway. 

Alexiou said repeated offers of assistance were rejected in radio communications with the vessel as well as calls made over a loudspeaker. He said that a patrol vessel approached and used a “small buoy” to engage the vessel. 

“This procedure lasted a few minutes and then after the small buoy was untied by the migrants themselves, the patrol moved away and watched the vessel from a close distance,” Alexiou insisted speaking on Friday. “There was no effort to tug the boat.” 

But human rights group Amnesty International said it is deeply concerned about the lack of clarity in the Greek authorities’ version of the incident. 

“The Greek government had specific responsibilities toward every passenger on the vessel, which was clearly in distress,” Adriana Tidona of Amnesty International said.

“This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, all the more so because it was entirely preventable.” 

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But UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres went far wider in his criticism.  

“Let’s be clear. This is not a Greek problem. This is a European problem. I think it’s time for Europe to be able, in solidarity, to define an effective migration policy for these kinds of situations not to happen again,” Guterres said during a news conference at UN headquarters in New York.  

The EU’s executive commission says the 27-nation bloc is close to an agreement on how member countries can share responsibility in caring for migrants and refugees who undertake the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. This will be no consolation however for those who lost loved ones in this sinking as patrol boats and a helicopter spent another day scouring the area for survivors. 

Japan: Much still to do after historic changes to consent and sex crime laws

The National:

IT is seen as part of a landmark reform of what critics have long complained is an antiquated penal code. Japan on Friday passed legislation to increase the age of sexual consent from 13 to 16 and broaden the definition of rape. The change in the age of consent is the first in more than a century and has been introduced to strengthen the protection of children from abuse. 

One of the biggest reforms passed is to change the language used to define rape to include a greater emphasis on the concept of consent. 

Under the stricter sex crime laws, the definition of rape from “forcible sexual intercourse” to “non-consensual sexual intercourse”, broadens the conditions under which the offence can be prosecuted. 

Rape had previously been defined as “forcible sexual intercourse” committed “through assault or intimidation”, including by taking advantage of a victim’s “unconscious state or inability to resist”.  

The law had also previously required evidence of “intent to resist”. But activists had argued this is too hard to prove in many cases, such as when a victim experiences the common “freeze” response or is too afraid to resist physically. 

The expanded definition also includes acts committed using drugging and intoxication. It also criminalised the grooming of minors. 

It was back in 2019 that Japan’s laws on sexual consent drew attention, after a string of defendants charged with sexual crimes were acquitted. 

It led to the Flower Demo movement, with groups of sexual violence victims and their supporters gathering once a month to demand changes to sex crime laws. 

Japan has had the lowest age of consent among the G7 countries, but this change to the 1907 clause in its penal code will bring it into line with most US states, the UK and Canada. 

The legal amendments also make it easier to prosecute people accused of taking or distributing photos of a sexual nature without the subject’s knowledge or consent seen as a controversial issue in Japan where “upskirting” and hidden cameras taking explicit photos of women has long been a problem. 

A survey last year found that nearly 9% of more than 38,000 respondents across Japan had experienced this kind of “voyeurism,” according to public broadcaster NHK.  

Welcome as the amended laws are, activists however caution that much work remains to be done from laws protecting people with disability from sexual abuse, to extending the statute of limitations for victims and changing public attitudes as a whole. 

Mali: West African nation 'profoundly divided'

The National: Colonel Assimi Goita has assumed control of Mali

MALIANS vote today to approve or reject constitutional amendments that would reinforce presidential powers before a promised transition from military rule back to democracy in the West African nation.  

The referendum is the first in a series of scheduled polls meant to pave the way for presidential elections in February 2024, which Mali’s military leaders committed to hold following pressure from regional powers. 

The proposed constitutional amendments strengthen the powers of the president and offers an amnesty to leaders of coups that came before its promulgation, fuelling speculation that junta leader Assimi Goita (above) will run in future elections despite the military’s pledge to the contrary. 

It also gives a prominent place to the armed forces, national sovereignty, and the fight against corruption, while legitimising traditional authorities and languages and creating a Senate. 

Having already delayed the referendum for three months citing logistical problems, today’s vote is seen as an indicator of the junta’s commitment and capacity to organise voting in a country where jihadist militias have overrun swathes of its arid north and centre. 

But the country appears divided, and tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of a new Malian constitution held separate rallies in the capital Bamako before today’s referendum.  

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Around 50,000 supporters of the “yes” campaign backed by the military government gathered in a stadium on Bamako’s outskirts, in a meeting attended by junta leader Assimi Goita. 

Advocates for the amendments have spoken in favour of aspects of the proposed changes including the creation of a separate court of auditors, the legitimisation of traditional leadership and a clause to include national languages as official alongside French. 

Opponents of the draft text meanwhile filled the 3000 seats at the Culture Palace in Bamako on Friday before a power cut forced them to join a crowd that had gathered outdoors. 

Opponents of the amendments are concerned about the new constitution placing more power in the president’s hands ahead of the elections amid uncertainty over whether Goita will run. They also question the legality of amendments carried out by a non-democratically elected government. 

“Too much power in the hands of the future president will squash all the other institutions,” Sidi Toure, a spokesperson for the opposition party PARENA, said, noting that the new constitution excludes bi-nationals from running for president. 

“Mali and Malians are profoundly divided,” said Toure, whose party has aligned with a “No” vote. The results of the referendum are results expected in the following 72 hours.