Four Corners: Foreign Editor David Pratt's weekly digest of stories from around the world  


Ukraine: Political and military views at odds over the use of controversial cluster munitions 


They arrived in Ukraine last week barely days after the United States said they would send them. Along with their delivery comes an almost inevitable controversy, for much of the world has banned the use of cluster munitions. 

Some 123 countries are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which also prohibits the stockpiling, production and transfer of them. That said, the United States, Ukraine, Russia and 71 other countries remain outside the convention. For those unfamiliar with these weapons and why they are so controversial, cluster munitions, also called cluster bombs, are canisters that carry tens to hundreds of smaller bomblets, also known as submunitions.  

The canisters can be dropped from aircraft, launched from missiles or fired from artillery, naval guns or rocket launchers and break apart in the air and spread smaller bomblets across an area the size of a football pitch. The bomblets are designed to explode on impact, spraying high-velocity pieces of shrapnel.  

But a high percentage of the submunitions - between 10 per cent and 40 per cent, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross - often fail to detonate, in effect turning them into landmines that can pose a threat for years after their initial use. It’s this that has made them a highly contentious form of weaponry, which the United Nations has long urged countries to avoid using in war. 

The Cluster Munition Coalition, an activist group trying to get the weapons banned everywhere, says potentially deadly cluster submunitions still lie dormant in Laos and Vietnam 50 years after their use. 

Speaking to CNN recently a US defence official insisted that the munitions Washington would be sending to Ukraine as part of an $800 million security package, have a “dud rate” of 2.35% or lower, based on live-fire testing done as recently as 2020.  

But many remain unconvinced, saying that it not just a question of the “dud rate” but that the weapons should not be used at all. 

While the US and Britain along with other allies of Ukraine have largely shared a position on the conflict the US decision to send cluster munitions has exposed certain differences among NATO allies. 

While stopping short of explicitly criticising US President Joe Biden’s decision to ship the weapons, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reminded that Britain was a signatory to the CCM treaty and “discourages” the use of cluster munitions. 

However another NATO ally, Spain, put forth even stronger opposition to the transfer. 

“While respecting the decisions of the sovereign country of the United States, Spain does not share their (judgment) in sending cluster bombs, we are against sending cluster bombs,” Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles said in the wake of the US decision. 

But political differences aside there are questions too as to the extent of the impact cluster munitions will make on the battlefield as Ukrainian forces step up their offensive against Russian positions across the country.  

To date both Russian and Ukrainian forces have used such weapons for much of the war, but Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pushed his countries allies for more in order to overcome the extensive and well entrenched defences the Russians have put in place. The Ukrainians say the deployment of the US cluster munitions would have an "extraordinary psycho-emotional impact" on Russian forces. 

Military experts point out that trenches can be very resilient to traditional artillery firing rounds with single warheads. Cluster munition artillery shells and rockets have the ability to cover much more ground and do so faster and combine this with the fact that the submunitions that are deployed from them can fall directly into trenches and the effects can be devastating. But not everyone is convinced that cluster munitions will make an immediate difference.  

“The scale of effect will be modest,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, speaking a few days ago to The New York Times. 

“It will make the Ukrainian artillery a little more lethal. The real impact will be felt later in the year when Ukraine has significantly more ammo than would otherwise have been the case.” 

For its part Ukraine insists the newly supplied cluster munitions will only be used in battlefields where there is a concentration of Russian military forces. But critics of the weapons remain sceptical, insisting time will tell of their impact on the civilian population. 



United States:  Actors and writers’ strike set to impact far beyond ‘Tinseltown.’ 

The Herald:

Members of the actors’ SAG-AFTRA union walk a picket line with screenwriters outside of Netflix’s New York office on Friday. Picture: Spencer Platt/Getty Images


It’s the first joint strike in sixty three years. Over the past few days Hollywood actors joined screenwriters on the picket line, after the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union representing more than 160,000 television and film actors in Hollywood, voted unanimously to recommend strike action after the midnight deadline for contract negotiations elapsed.  

Calls for higher streaming-era pay and curbs on use of artificial intelligence lie at the core of the twin strikes increasing the pressures facing the multibillion-dollar media industry as it struggles with seismic changes to its business

“We're in an old contract for a new type of business and it’s just not working for most people," actor Susan Sarandon said outside Warner Bros Discovery (WBD.O) offices in New York. "The corporate greed that the studios have shown has made it very difficult for people to have lives," Sarandon added. 

Put simply the actors are seeking higher pay and safeguards against unauthorised use of their images through artificial intelligence (AI). Performers see their jobs as especially vulnerable to new technology, with generative AI able to replicate facial expressions, body movement and voice with uncomfortable accuracy. The streaming boom too is a factor in contract negotiations providing as it does the bulk of TV actors’ work. Unions say that although series budgets are rising, that increase is not being reflected in the share of the money coming to performers. 

As actors joined writers on the picket lines on Friday, the strike prevented stars from doing promotional work for new films, including Barbie and Oppenheimer, which will be released on July 21. The London premiere of Oppenheimer was moved forward by an hour so that the cast could walk the red carpet before the announcement. 

Early on Thursday morning, Fran Drescher, SAG-AFTRA’s president, and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s chief negotiator, said the film studios remained “unwilling to offer a fair deal on the key issues”, adding that their responses to proposals “have not been adequate”. “A strike is an instrument of last resort,” Crabtree-Ireland insisted. 

But The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) - the association representing major Hollywood studios including Walt Disney and Netflix - disputes the SAG-AFTRA's version of events. 

It says a deal, including better pay and AI safeguards, has been offered, and accused the union of walking away from talks.  

As for the longer term impact of the strike, Scottish actor, Brian Cox star of the series Succession warned the dispute could bring “a situation that could get very, very unpleasant.”  

“They'll take us to the brink and we'll probably have to go to the brink, So it may not be solved... until towards the end of the year," Cox added in an interview with Sky News. 

Certainly, much will depend on the longevity of the strike, but if it goes on for some time many film releases will be delayed and television shows could go off air  and then there are the financial concerns. The one certain is that the strike is sure to impact far beyond ‘Tinseltown.’ 



Italy: No respite in sight for those caught in southern Europe’s blistering heatwave 

The Herald:

Tourists shelter from the sun with umbrellas near the Colosseum in Rome, on Friday as Italy is hit by a heatwave Picture: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images



It has had people fainting in Rome’s Colosseum and forced the closure of the Acropolis in Athens. Southern Europe continues to swelter under a fierce heatwave with a warning that temperatures could hit record highs for the continent this week, raising fears about the impact on human health, crops and animals. 

Weather alerts were in place across Spain's Canary Islands, Italy, Cyprus and Greece.  Health authorities issued a top, red alert warning for 16 Italian cities for the next two days, including Rome, Florence, Bologna and Perugia. According to the Italian daily newspaper la Repubblica, the temperatures expected this weekend could climb around 12C higher (53.6F) in the coming days, particularly for Tuscany and Lazio. 

Italy’s weather website iLMeteo meanwhile has been credited with naming the anticyclone that is causing the heatwave "Cerberus" a moniker that invokes the fearsome three-headed dog of Greek mythology. In Dante’s Inferno and the classics that inspired it, Cerberus is a monster associated with the underworld.  Cerberus is about to be followed by heatwave “Cheron,” named after the ferryman to the underworld in Greek mythology. 

But histrionic names aside the European Space Agency (ESA), whose satellites monitor land and sea temperatures, said July could be a torrid month. 

“Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Poland are all facing a major heatwave with temperatures expected to climb to 48 Celsius on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia - potentially the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Europe," it said.  

Images captured by the ESA's Sentinel 3 satellites had measured the land surface temperature at more than 60 Celsius in the western Spanish region of Extremadura last Tuesday. 

Heatwaves which are defined as prolonged periods of exceptionally hot weather in a specific location, can be extremely dangerous. The impact of extreme summer heat has been brought into focus by research last week that said as many as 61,000 people may have died in Europe's sweltering heatwaves last summer. 

The study by researchers from European health institutes and published in the journal Nature Medicine, said those who died from heat-related causes spread across 35 European countries from late May to early September 2022, during Europe's hottest summer on record. Mediterranean countries - Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain - saw the highest death rate according to population size. 

"The Mediterranean is affected by desertification, heatwaves are amplified during summer just because of these drier conditions," the study’s study co-author Joan Ballester, a professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health told Reuters news agency. As human-caused climate change drives temperatures higher, heatwaves are becoming more frequent and severe say researchers. For the week ahead meanwhile there is no sign of any respite from the blistering temperatures.  



Thailand:  Legal cannabis industry thrives despite politicians claim of corrupting influence 

The Herald:

It happened in June last year and ever since then Thailand’s de facto legalisation of cannabis has brought tourists in by the drove. Even as more countries around the world legalise cannabis, most Asian nations have strict drug laws with harsh penalties for some cannabis offences.  

Singapore for example has already executed two people this year for trafficking marijuana and its Central Narcotics Bureau has announced plans to randomly test people returning from Thailand. Other Asian nations like Japan and China have said that their laws on cannabis use may apply to its nationals even when they are abroad. China, especially, according to a report by the Associated Press, has been very explicit with its embassy in Thailand warning that if Chinese tourists consume marijuana abroad and are “detected upon returning to China, it is considered equivalent to using drugs domestically. As a result, you will be subject to corresponding legal penalties.” 

Undeterred however tourists from across Asia continue to come to Thailand and the weed business is booming in the kingdom as one shop owner told The Washington Post recently. 

“Weed went from being something as sinister as heroin to as innocent as a tomato overnight,” said Rithichai “Mai” Chaisingharn who told the newspaper that his clientele is 50 percent locals and regulars, and 50 percent walk-ins and tourists. But not everyone is happy about the weed boom especially some politicians as became evident during Thailand's recent election. At the centre of attention is Pita Limjaroenrat, whose Move Forward Party (MPF) scored an upset to come first place in last month’s general elections.  

While MFP is widely viewed as the most liberal of Thailand’s political parties, cannabis advocates say it is leading the drive to rein in recreational use, casting a pall over the country’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry. 

For the moment Limjaroenrat has been blocked from taking power by a parliamentary vote that includes military-appointed senators despite winning the most seats in the election in May but that has done little to ease the concern of those in the weed business, 

“Rolling back the law would send a ripple effect across not only the weed industry but many others, including real estate – there are more than a thousand dispensaries in Bangkok alone – so that’s a lot of income disappearing for landlords,” said cannabis seller Aphichai Techanitisawad speaking to Al Jazeera recently. For now though, with Limjaroenrat’s failure to become Thailand’s next prime minister the weed industry thrives and the tourists continue to come.