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Indian Court Rejects Petition to Open Taj Mahal Rooms

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A court in India has dismissed a petition by a leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party asking that the Archaeological Survey of India be directed to open 22 sealed rooms of the Taj Mahal, to see if there are Hindu idols there. The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Unfounded claims that the Taj Mahal is a Hindu temple have surfaced sporadically over the years mostly from some Hindu right-wing groups. In his petition to the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, Rajneesh Singh, head of media relations for the BJP in the temple city of Ayodhya, claimed “some Hindu groups and reputable sants [Hindu ascetics] were claiming” that the Taj Mahal had previously been a Hindu temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. “Later it was converted into [a] memorial for the wife of Shah Jahan,” the petition said. In his petition, Singh also said that his main concern was the sealed rooms of the Taj Mahal. The rooms that the Hindu groups are seeking to be opened were sealed by the archaeological agency for security reasons a few decades ago, several past statements from archaeological authorities said. “We all should know what's there behind those rooms. Please allow me to go to those rooms and do the research," Singh pleaded in his May 7 petition last week. On May 12, while dismissing Singh’s petition, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court said that the question was a “non-justiciable issue.” “The issues lie outside the court and should be done by various methodology and should be left with the historians. … It is not for the Court to direct what subject needs to be researched or studied. We are not able to entertain such a petition,” the court said. The claims that the Taj Mahal is a Hindu temple have emerged since Indian writer P.N. Oak published his book, Taj Mahal: The True Story, in 1989. In his book Oak claimed that it was built as a Hindu structure in the 12th century, long before the Mughals invaded India, and used to be known as Tejo Mahalaya or, the Palace of Lord Shiva. Hindutva – Hindu nationalist – groups claim Shah Jahan converted Tejo Mahalaya to Taj Mahal in the 17th century, the way the Mughal rulers destroyed Hindu temples and converted many of them into mosques. Hindu groups demand that ownership of the Taj Mahal be transferred to Hindus and say they would use it for their own religious services. In 2017, in a statement to a court, the archaeological agency said the Taj Mahal was indeed a Muslim mausoleum built by Shah Jahan, to honor his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Some leading historians said that the claim that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple is ridiculous. Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, who teaches medieval history at India’s Aligarh Muslim University, said that many existing historical documents prove the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan. “The fact that Shah Jahan built this structure is attested to be not only by the Persian chronicles of the period, but also the travel accounts of several European travelers, and a large number of Rajasthani documents [documents from the northern Indian state of Rajasthan],” he said. “A number of original Rajasthani documents- known as Arhsatta Imarti [documents related to building construction] and Chitthis [receipts] detailing the Taj Mahal’s building materials, including Makrana marbles from the mines, their cost and the cost of transportation are still there in Bikaner Archives,” Rezavi, known as an expert in medieval archaeology and architecture, told VOA, referring to the Rajasthan state archives. “None ever mentioned in any historical document that a temple had ever existed at the site of the Taj Mahal or, that it was demolished,” he said. Made of white marble, the Taj Mahal was built following a typical Persian nine-part plan that had never been found in the past in India, Rezavi said. “You cannot show any temple, of any period made of white marble, surmounted with a dome, and built following a noni-partite plan. It is ridiculous if some call the Taj Mahal a Hindu structure or claim that it was built at the site of a razed Hindu temple,” he said. The conspiracy theory that the Taj Mahal used to be a Shiva temple is about as reasonable as the proposals that the earth is flat and the moon made of cheese, said associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, Audrey Truschke. “The construction and sponsorship of the Taj Mahal, by a Mughal king, are quite well-documented from historical sources in the seventeenth century. It is easily the most magnificent in a series of Mughal mausoleums across northern parts of South Asia,” Truschke told VOA. “So far as I can discern, there is not a coherent theory about the Taj Mahal at play here so much as a frenzied and fragile nationalist pride that does not allow anything non-Hindu to be Indian and demands to erase Muslim parts of Indian heritage.” Hindutva iconoclasm should be called out for what it is as these ideologues attempt to falsify and destroy critical parts of Indian heritage, she said. The national spokesperson of Vishva Hindu Parishad, the largest Hindu organization in the country, Vinod Bansal told VOA Friday that this is not a Hindu-Muslim issue at all. "Many want to know what exactly is lying inside those rooms which are closed for a long time. The authorities should cooperate, open the doors and help them know the truth behind those sealed doors. The truth should be exposed to the world," Bansal said. "The Taj Mahal is a World Heritage Site. Nobody will cause any harm to this monument in no situation," he said.

WHO Chief: 'Misguided to Think This Pandemic Is Over'

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The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Thursday at the second U.S.-led virtual COVID summit, co-hosted by Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal.  "So although reported cases and deaths are now decreasing globally, it is misguided to think this pandemic is over. The pandemic is not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere," Tedros said.  "In fact, cases are increasing in more than 70 countries. At the same time, testing rates globally are plummeting, making us blind to the evolution of the virus," the WHO chief said. "And almost one billion people in lower-income countries remain unvaccinated. We must continue to support all countries to reach 70% as soon as possible, with a focus on those most at risk." Meanwhile, the first African factory licensed to produce COVID vaccines may soon shut down that production line, according to a New York Times report, because the facility has not received any orders.  The newspaper reported commercial production of the COVID vaccine never began at Aspen Pharmacare in South Africa. The announcement late last year that COVID vaccines would be produced at the South African facility, after the company signed a deal with Johnson and Johnson, was widely touted as a solution to the continent’s unequal access to the shots.    According to the Times, Stavros Nicolaou, the head of Aspen’s strategic trade development, said that without any orders in the next six weeks, its COVID vaccine production line would have to shut down.  The latest tally from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows there have been more than 520 million global COVID cases and more than 6 million deaths.  More than 11 billion vaccines have been administered, Johns Hopkins said. 

Musk Says $44-billion Twitter Deal Temporarily On Hold

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Elon Musk said on Friday his $44-billion deal for Twitter Inc was temporarily on hold, citing pending details on spam and fake accounts. "Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users," Musk said in a tweet. Shares of the social media company fell 20% in premarket trading. Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company had earlier this month estimated that false or spam accounts represented fewer than 5% of its monetizable daily active users during the first quarter. It also said it faced several risks until the deal with Musk is closed, including whether advertisers would continue to spend on Twitter. Musk, the world's richest man and the chief executive of Tesla Inc, had said that one of his priorities would be to remove "spam bots" from the platform.

Bracing For Her Future: Baby Giraffe Fitted With Orthotic

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Over the past three decades Ara Mirzaian has fitted braces for everyone from Paralympians to children with scoliosis. But Msituni was a patient like none other — a newborn giraffe. The calf was born Feb. 1 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, north of San Diego, with a front leg bending the wrong way. Safari park staff feared she could die if they didn’t immediately correct the condition, which could prevent her from nursing and walking around the habitat. But they had no experience with fitting a baby giraffe in a brace. That proved especially challenging given she was a 178-centimeter-tall newborn and growing taller every day. So, they reached out to experts in orthotics at the Hanger Clinic, where Mirzaian landed his very first animal patient. “It was pretty surreal when I first heard about it,” Mirzaian told The Associated Press this week during a tour to meet Msituni, who was strutting alongside the other giraffes with no troubles. “Of course, all I did was go online and study giraffes for like 24/7 until we got out here.” Zoos increasingly are turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for ailing animals. The collaboration has been especially helpful in the field of prosthetics and orthotics. Earlier this year, ZooTampa in Florida teamed up with similar experts to successfully replace the beak of a cancer-stricken great hornbill bird with a 3D-printed prosthetic. The Hanger team in California had fit orthotics for a cyclist and kayaker who both went on to win medals at the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil and customized a brace for a marathoner with multiple sclerosis who raced in seven continents. And in 2006, a Hanger team in Florida created a prosthetic for a bottlenose dolphin that had lost its tail after becoming tangled in ropes from a crab trap. Their story inspired the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale. But this was a definite learning curve for all, including Matt Kinney, a senior veterinarian for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in charge of Msituni’s case. “We commonly put on casts and bandages and stuff. But something that extensive, like this brace that she was provided, that’s something we really had to turn to our human (medicine) colleagues for,” Kinney said. Msituni suffered from hyperextended carpi — wrist joint bones in giraffes’ front limbs, which are more like arms. As she overcompensated, the second front limb started to hyperextend as well. Her back leg joints also were weak but were able to be corrected with specialized hoof extenders. And given that she weighed more than 55 kilograms at birth, the abnormality was already taking its toll on her joints and bones. While the custom braces were being built, Kinney first bought post-surgery knee braces at Target that he cut up and re-sewed, but they kept slipping off. Then Msituni wore medical grade braces for humans that were modified for her long legs. But eventually Msituni broke one. For the custom braces to work, they would need to have a range of motion but be durable, so Hanger worked with a company that makes horse braces. Using cast moldings of the giraffe’s legs, it took eight days to make the carbon graphite braces that featured the animal’s distinct pattern of crooked spots to match her hide. “We put on the giraffe pattern just to make it fun,” Mirzaian said. “We do this with kids all the time. They get to pick superheroes, or their favorite team and we imprint it on their bracing. So why not do it with a giraffe?” In the end, Msituni only needed one brace. The other leg corrected itself with the medical grade brace. When they put her under to fit the custom brace, Mirzaian was so moved by the animal’s beauty, he gave her a hug. “It was just amazing seeing such a big, beautiful creature just lying there in front of me,” he said. After 10 days in the custom brace, the problem was corrected. All told, she was in braces for 39 days from the day she was born. She stayed in the animal hospital the entire time. After that, she was slowly introduced to her mom and others in the herd. Her mom never took her back, but another female giraffe has adopted her, so to speak, and she now runs along like the other giraffes. Mirzaian hopes to hang up a picture of the baby giraffe in her patterned brace so the kids he treats will be inspired to wear theirs. “It was the coolest thing to see an animal like that walk in a brace,” he said. “It feels good to know we saved a giraffe’s life.”

Zimbabwe Refugee Camp Going Green with Animal Waste

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Zimbabwe and the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, are piloting an effort to avert deforestation and benefit from waste management at the country's biggest refugee camp. The Tongogara camp near Zimbabwe's eastern border with Mozambique has installed machines for refugees to turn animal waste into biogas, which can be used as fuel for cooking, and fertilizer. Dominic Katumbayi, one of the refugees at the Tongogara refugee camp about 400 kilometers east of Harare, now uses organic fertilizer from animal waste for his plants. He said life has changed for his garden and fields since he started using the product. “Before it was a problem, because fertilize you buy, but this one is free,” he said. “Every day I can produce more than 300 liters of fertilizer. Now it’s easy, everybody can come and collect and put in the garden.” The fertilizer is a byproduct from animal waste after it ferments in digesters. The biogas produced during the fermentation is also free to refugees. Some use it for cooking. Francine Kayumba, like Katumbayi, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said she uses biogas because it has the advantage of not producing smoke. If you put a pot on a biogas-burning stove, she said, it stays clean. The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene unit of the UNHCR in Zimbabwe said it started the project after it saw that refugees were struggling to dispose of animal waste at the camp. “We are now thinking of managing it in a good way and then we came up with an idea of the biogas from the piggery as part of the management (of animal waste),” said Yuhei Honda, an associate with that unit. “And this year, we started with a pilot project of this biogas system.” The government hopes to secure more funding to expand the project at the refugee camp, which has about 20,000 people. “The biogas project is a cost-saving initiative meant to ensure that refugees get clean energy,” said Johanne Mhlanga, Tongogara Refugee Camp Administrator. “Refugees are integrated into (a) modern way of having fuel or green energy. So for us it’s a shot in the arm for the population.” Zimbabwe says the project will help reduce deforestation near the Tongogara camp. According to officials, Zimbabwe is losing 330,000 hectares of forests annually, some of it through deforestation for energy use.

Chilean Journalist Dies After Being Shot During May Day Protests

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A journalist who was shot near May Day protests in the Chilean capital Santiago died Thursday, a hospital official said, as the country's president promised there would be no "impunity" in the case. The death of 30-year-old Francisca Sandoval was also confirmed in a statement by the online community outlet for which she wrote. "Francisca did not leave us. They killed her," wrote the Senal 3 de La Victoria site, without elaborating on who it blamed for her death. "We will miss you and we will do everything we can to tell the truth,” it added. Sandoval was shot in the head during violent clashes on the sidelines of a union demonstration organized to mark International Workers' Day on May 1. Two other people were also injured by the gunfire. In a statement, Daniel Rodriguez, the head of intensive care at the hospital where she was treated, explained that Sandoval had died from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by the gunshot. Last week, three alleged perpetrators of the shooting were arrested and the person suspected of shooting Sandoval was placed in pre-trial detention for manslaughter and illegal possession of a firearm. Left-wing President Gabriel Boric in a tweet Thursday afternoon expressed his condolences to Sandoval's family and pledged to "not allow impunity" for the crime. Following the news of Sandoval's death, several vigils took place in the capital, with candles and photos of the journalist. Following the news, some groups also set up barricades and cut off traffic in the Plaza de Italia, the epicenter of the "social outbreak" protest movement since 2019, in the heart of Santiago. 

Death Toll in Slovenia Factory Blast Rises to 6

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A worker hurt in an explosion at a chemical factory in Slovenia has died from his injuries, bringing the total number of people killed in the accident to six, local media reported on Friday. The blast occurred Thursday when a cistern exploded at a resin factory belonging to chemicals company Melamin in the municipality of Kocevje, some 60 kilometers south of Ljubljana. "Unfortunately our fears have been confirmed," Melamin general manager Srecko Stefanic told reporters. The strength of the explosion "did not leave them any chance of survival," he said. Initially, five people were reported to have been killed and six others injured, including two who were hospitalized with serious burns. One of the two has since died in hospital and the other is still in critical condition, public radio reported. AFP was not able to confirm the information. The tragedy was "caused by a human error," Stefanic said, declining to give more information until the investigation has been completed. Local authorities initially asked residents staying within a radius of 500 meters around the plant not to leave their homes and to close their windows as a precaution in case of toxic fumes. The precautionary measure was lifted later Thursday after officials confirmed there had been no negative impact on the environment. Photos showed columns of black smoke billowing from the factory, which supplies resins for paper, construction, wood, rubber and the lacquer industry. Nearly 200 people work at the factory of the company, founded in 1954, according to its website.

Hermit, Martyr and Journalist Among New Catholic Saints

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A Frenchman murdered in the desert, a Dutch priest killed in a Nazi concentration camp and an Indian lay convert are among 10 new saints being created by Pope Francis on Sunday. Tens of thousands of people from around the world are expected in St Peter's Square in the Vatican for the canonization mass, presided over by the 85-year-old pontiff. Under the rules of the Catholic Church, all 10 have already been beatified, or named "blessed," but had to then be attributed a miracle to take the final step to sainthood. Most founded religious orders, but the new saints include Charles de Foucauld, a French soldier and explorer. He became a Catholic priest and lived among Trappist monks in Syria, in Palestine, and finally among the Tuaregs in the Algerian desert. He was murdered by bandits on Dec. 1, 1916, but his works outlasted him and he became one of France's most celebrated men of faith. Vatican theologians attributed to de Foucauld the cure of a cancer sufferer in 1984, and he was beatified by pope Benedict XVI in 2005. His second miracle was declared after a young French carpenter survived a 15-meter fall in 2016. Among the crowd Sunday will be members of the Algerian Catholic church, for whom de Foucauld "is extremely important," noted the archbishop of Algiers, Jean-Paul Vesco. "It was here that his life became incandescent," Vesco told AFP before heading to Rome. Lethal injection Another taking the step to sainthood is Dutch Carmelite priest, theologian and journalist Titus Brandsma, who took a stand against the Nazis during World War II. He spoke out against them before Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940 and afterward, encouraging Catholic Dutch newspapers to resist the occupiers' propaganda. Brandsma was arrested in January 1942 and ended up in the Dachau concentration camp, where he died on July 26 f that year, after being injected with carbolic acid. He was beatified in 1985 after being declared a martyr and was subsequently found to have enacted a miracle in healing a Carmelite priest. Ahead of the mass Sunday, a group of journalists signed an open letter to Pope Francis urging him to make Brandsma an official patron saint for journalists. He "shared the deeper mission that should drive journalism in modern times: a search for truth and veracity, the promotion of peace and dialogue between people," they said. Indian convert Devasahayam Pillai, known as Lazarus, will be the first Indian layman to become a saint, according to the Vatican. A Hindu from what is now the southern state of Tamil Nadu, he converted to Catholicism in 1745 while working at the royal palace, where he met a captured Dutch commander who taught him about Christianity. But his faith, and his preaching of equality of all peoples -- a revolutionary view at the time -- caused a stir and when he refused to renounce his new religion, he was arrested, according to the Vatican. After almost three years of imprisonment and torture, during which he began to be visited by pilgrims, he was shot dead in a forest on the orders of the king on Jan. 14, 1752. He was declared a martyr and beatified in 2012, before being later attributed the miracle of resuscitating a fetus in the 20th week of pregnancy. 

Renewed Focus on Recycled Water in Australia

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In the world’s driest inhabited continent, engineers are hoping to challenge Australia’s long-running opposition to recycled water. Although popular in other parts of the world, Australians have been squeamish about drinking purified sewage. Even severe droughts have not been enough to convince Australians of the benefits of purified sewage. As their cities grow, though, there is a renewed focus on reusing wastewater. In Melbourne, analysis by Aurecon, an Asia-Pacific design and engineering group, has shown that recycling could be more efficient and palatable than desalination, which removes salt from seawater. There are desalination plants serving several Australian cities, including Adelaide, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. At full capacity they can produce enough drinking water to satisfy between around a quarter and half of demand. Other parts of the country have tried, and failed, to embrace recycled wastewater that is scientifically decontaminated and purified. In 2006, the Queensland city of Toowoomba had plans to pump treated sewage into its drinking water supply. It was a high-profile plan, but residents rebelled, and the idea was dumped. Stuart Khan, an engineering professor at the University of New South Wales, said it was poorly planned. “At that time, they were in the heat of a drought,” he said. “It was the Millennium drought. It was an emergency. Toowoomba was running out of water and that is the worse time to have this conversation because this is a conversation that takes time, and the community needs time in order to understand what you are talking about here, what we are planning on doing and to, ultimately, build some confidence in the concept.” Recycled wastewater is already used to irrigate crops and fight fires in Australia and is pumped into its rivers. The impact of climate change in a country with variable rainfall could eventually persuade an often-squeamish population to do what is common elsewhere in the world and drink treated sewage. According to the World Health Organization, several countries reuse treated wastewater for drinking, including the United States, Namibia, Kuwait, Belgium and the United Kingdom. In most cases, the treated water is used to replenish groundwater or reservoirs that are part of drinking water systems. UNICEF has warned that global warming is disrupting weather patterns in ways that would lead to “unpredictable water availability, exacerbating water scarcity and contaminating water supplies.”

China Faces Grim Economic Prospects, Experts Say

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has suggested that China's current job market is "complicated and severe" as the country maintains "unswerving adherence" to the "zero-COVID" policy, whose lockdowns are causing a severe economic contraction throughout the nation. Derived from a survey of 430 private industrial companies, the Caixin purchasing managers' index, a reliable indicator for assessing the economy, fell to 36.2 in April from 42 in March, according to a survey released by IHS Markit last week. A reading below 50 indicates contraction, while anything above that gauge shows expansion. "Demand was under pressure, external demand deteriorated, supply shrank, supply chains were disrupted, delivery times were prolonged, backlogs of work grew, workers found it difficult to return to their jobs, inflationary pressures lingered, and market confidence remained below the long-term average," said Wang Zhe, senior economist at Caixin Insight Group. "Keeping market players and securing jobs will win the future," Li said Saturday, during a national video and teleconference on stabilizing employment, according to the China Daily, a state-controlled news outlet. Li, who holds the number two position in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), urged all regional government departments to "conscientiously implement the decisions and arrangements" of the party's Central Committee and the State Council to maintain jobs and economic stability. "Stabilizing employment is critical to people's livelihood and is the key support for the economy to run within a reasonable range," he said, as he recommended steps for local and provincial governments. Li asked enterprises to resume production while adhering to the controls designed to contain the spread of COVID-19. Lockdowns in more than 20 cities, including Shanghai, have frustrated residents and constrained China's economic growth. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that China's zero-tolerance strategy was not sustainable, a comment Foreign Ministry spokeperson Zhao Lijian called "irresponsible" a day later. Global banks such as UBS, Standard Chartered, DBS, Barclays and Bank of America have downgraded their 2022 GDP (gross domestic product) forecasts for China. China's first-quarter GDP for 2022 expanded by 4.8% year-on-year, higher than expected but still below Beijing's full-year target of 5.5%, according to Xinhua, a state-affiliated news outlet. Liu Meng-chun, managing director at Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research in Taipei, Taiwan, said the slowdown is attributable not only to China’s COVID policies but also to a crackdown on private enterprise, especially in the technology sector. He foresees the state taking a financial stake in some of the technology giants to get more control over their operations but said the change would be more one of style than of substance. "If 1% equity is used to enter the core decision-making circle of its (technology companies) and becomes internal supervision, it represents a change in the supervision model," Liu said. Ming-Fang Tsai, a professor at the Department of Industrial Economics at Tamkang University in Taipei, said that even if Beijing stops suppressing tech giants, it would be difficult to return to the era of rapid economic growth. "Alibaba and Tencent are laying off workers significantly, and now (Beijing) has said that it will stop (the suppression). It will not have any impact on China's economy," Tsai told VOA Mandarin. The tech layoffs fit into a larger picture as China's economy has been hit by the "five crises" of employment, exports, private investment, real estate and debt defaults, leading its economy into a downward cycle, according to Wu Jialong, a Taipei economist. Reduced demand for China's exports, "will reduce employment, income and consumption power, which will affect real estate," Wu said. "In addition, industrial supervision and common prosperity will also make things worse, which will hurt the willingness and ability of private investment and eventually lead to a crisis of debt default." According to Taiwanese economist Liu, if China's zero-COVID policy lasts for a long time, industries such as real estate, finance and technology will be hit hard, as will retail and consumer services. The combination, he said, will delay the country's "common prosperity" campaign launched by President Xi Jinping. "The control of the epidemic will make income distribution more uneven. Polarization will become more serious," Liu told VOA Mandarin. According to Xie Tian, an associate professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina Aiken, even if the zero-COVID policy caused the Chinese economy to collapse, Chinese authorities would be more likely to return to the planned economy of the Mao Zedong era than to adjust to current forces. "Now the CCP has launched a lot of 'supply and marketing cooperatives,' 'unified purchase and unified sales,' just to deal with the economic impact that the city lockdowns may bring, because it wants to suppress the people, and the government controls all goods, sources of goods and channels to achieve its political goals." Xie told VOA Mandarin. "Unified purchase and unified sales" refers to a policy implemented by China from the 1950s to the 1980s to exert state control over agricultural resources such as grain and cotton. The Chinese government purchased these products in rural areas and rationed them out to city dwellers. In July last year, China began a pilot program of "supply and marketing cooperatives." This recalls how the CCP acted as it established a government in 1949 during a post-civil war period of material scarcity.

India wrangles with WHO over COVID-19 death figures

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India rejects WHO’s estimation of 4.74 million COVID-19 deaths in the country.

Jan. 6 Panel Subpoenas McCarthy, 4 Other Republican Lawmakers

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A House panel issued subpoenas Thursday to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and four other Republican lawmakers in its probe into the violent Jan. 6 insurrection, an extraordinary step that has little precedent and is certain to further inflame partisan tensions over the 2021 attack. The panel is investigating McCarthy’s conversations with then-President Donald Trump the day of the attack and meetings the four other lawmakers had with the White House beforehand as Trump and his aides worked to overturn his 2020 election defeat. The former president’s supporters violently pushed past police that day, broke through windows and doors of the Capitol and interrupted the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory. The decision to issue subpoenas to McCarthy, R-Calif., and Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Mo Brooks of Alabama is a dramatic show of force by the panel, which has already interviewed nearly 1,000 witnesses and collected more than 100,000 documents as it investigates the worst attack on the Capitol in two centuries. The move is not without risk, as Republicans are favored to capture back the House majority in this fall’s midterm elections and have promised retribution for Democrats if they take control. After the announcement, McCarthy, who aspires to be House speaker, told reporters “I have not seen a subpoena” and said his view on the Jan. 6 committee has not changed since the nine-lawmaker panel asked for his voluntary cooperation earlier this year. “They’re not conducting a legitimate investigation,” McCarthy said. “Seems as though they just want to go after their political opponents.” Similarly, Perry told reporters the investigation is a “charade” and said the subpoena is “all about headlines.” Neither man said whether he would comply. The panel, made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans, had previously asked for voluntary cooperation from the five lawmakers, along with a handful of other GOP members, but all of them refused to speak with the panel, which debated for months whether to issue the subpoenas. “Before we hold our hearings next month, we wished to provide members the opportunity to discuss these matters with the committee voluntarily,” said Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the panel. “Regrettably, the individuals receiving subpoenas today have refused and we’re forced to take this step to help ensure the committee uncovers facts concerning January 6th.” Rep. Liz Cheney, the panel’s Republican vice chair, said the step wasn’t taken lightly. The unwillingness of the lawmakers to provide relevant information about the attack, she said, is “a very serious and grave situation.” Congressional subpoenas for sitting members of Congress, especially for a party leader, have little precedent in recent decades, and it is unclear what the consequences would be if any or all of the five men decline to comply. The House has voted to hold two other noncompliant witnesses, former Trump aides Steve Bannon and Mark Meadows, in contempt, referring their cases to the Justice Department. In announcing the subpoenas, the Jan. 6 panel said there is historical precedent for the move and noted that the House Ethics Committee has “issued a number of subpoenas to Members of Congress for testimony or documents,” though such actions are generally done secretly. “We recognize this is fairly unprecedented,” said Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the other GOP member of the panel, after the committee announced the subpoenas. “But the Jan. 6 attack was very unprecedented." Kinzinger said it is “important for us to get every piece of information we possibly can.” McCarthy has acknowledged he spoke with Trump on Jan. 6 as Trump’s supporters were beating police outside the Capitol and forcing their way into the building. But he has not shared many details. The committee requested information about his conversations with Trump “before, during and after” the riot. McCarthy took to the House floor after the rioters were cleared and said in a forceful speech that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack and that it was the “saddest day I have ever had” in Congress — even as he went on to join 138 other House Republicans in voting to reject the election results. Another member of the GOP caucus, Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, said after the attack that McCarthy had recounted that he told Trump to publicly “call off the riot” and said the violent mob was made up of Trump supporters, not far-left antifa members, as Trump had claimed. “That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said, 'Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,'” Herrera Beutler said in a statement last year. The GOP leader soon made up with Trump, though, visiting him in Florida and rallying House Republicans to vote against investigations of the attack. The other four men were in touch with the White House for several weeks ahead of the insurrection, talking to Trump and his legal advisers about ways to stop the congressional electoral count on Jan. 6 to certify Joe Biden’s victory. “These members include those who participated in meetings at the White House, those who had direct conversations with President Trump leading up to and during the attack on the Capitol, and those who were involved in the planning and coordination of certain activities on and before January 6th,” the committee said in a release. Brooks, who has since been critical of Trump, spoke alongside the former president at the massive rally in front of the White House the morning of Jan. 6, telling supporters to “start taking down names and kicking ass” before hundreds of them broke into the Capitol. Perry spoke to the White House about replacing acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen with an official who was more sympathetic to Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, and Biggs was involved in plans to bring protesters to Washington and pressuring state officials to overturn the legitimate election results, according to the panel. Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, spoke to Trump on Jan. 6 and was also involved in strategizing how to overturn the election. Several of their efforts were detailed in texts released to the panel by Meadows, who was Trump’s chief of staff at the time. “11 days to 1/6 and 25 days to inauguration,” Perry texted Meadows on Dec. 26, 2020. “We gotta get going!”

'Like an Inferno:' US West Burning at Furious Pace

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Wildfires are on a furious pace early this year — from a California hilltop where mansions with multimillion-dollar Pacific Ocean views were torched to remote New Mexico mountains charred by a month-old monster blaze. The two places could not be more different, but the elements in common are the same: wind-driven flames have torn through vegetation that is extraordinarily dry from years-long drought exacerbated by climate change. As the unstoppable northern New Mexico wildfire chewed through more dense forest Thursday, firefighters in the coastal community of Laguna Niguel doused charred and smoldering remains of 20 large homes that quickly went up in flames and forced a frantic evacuation. “The sky, everything was orange. It looked like an inferno, so we just jumped in the car,” Sassan Darian said, as he recounted fleeing with his daughter and father while embers swirled around them. “My daughter said, ‘We’re on fire.’ There were sparks on her and we were patting ourselves down.” Nationwide, more than 5,180 square kilometers have burned so far this year — the most at this point since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Predictions for the rest of the spring do not bode well for the West, with the drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change worsening wildfire danger. “We all know it’s really early for our fire season and we’re all in awe of what we’ve already experienced ... to this point,” said Dave Bales, commander on the New Mexico fire that is the largest burning in the U.S. Fire officials said there was not much they could do in recent days to stop the fast-moving flames burning in tinder-dry forests in the Sangre de Christo range. Fueled by overgrown mountainsides covered with Ponderosa pine and other trees sucked dry of moisture over decades, it's now burned across more than 1,048 square kilometers — an area bigger than the city of Dallas, Texas. Crews fighting flames along the mountain fronts between Santa Fe and Taos mostly held their own on Thursday thanks to welcome help from aerial attacks. But fire operations chief Todd Abel said that in some places where winds were gusting over ridgetops, it was “almost like putting a hair dryer on it.” Even small fires that once would have been easily contained are extreme threats to life and property because of climate change, said Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority. The perfect example broke out Wednesday afternoon when flames that may have been sparked by electric utility equipment were pushed up a canyon by strong sea breezes and quickly ignited large homes. They burned a relatively small area — about 81 hectares — but left a large path of destruction. A sprawling estate selling for $9.9 million had looked in real estate listings like a California dream: teeming with luxuries that included a two-level library, a “wellness wing” with sauna and steam room and a pool on a terrace overlooking scenic Laguna Beach. By nightfall, the mansion once photographed against a pastel sunset had morphed into a nightmare: its arched facade silhouetted against a glowing yellow sky as firefighters trained their hoses on the engulfed structure. After the big flames died down Thursday, the house was one of many smoking casualties marked off with yellow tape. In another driveway, a burned-out car rested on its rims. The steep surrounding hillsides were blackened and stripped of vegetation. Many other homes appeared unscathed and palm trees that had survived the onslaught of embers swayed above in calmer winds. Two firefighters were hospitalized but no other injuries were reported. The fire’s cause was under investigation and damage inspections were still ongoing Thursday, Orange County Fire Authority Assistant Chief T.J. McGovern said. Southern California Edison reported that unspecified electrical “circuit activity” occurred around the time the fire broke out late Wednesday afternoon. Electric utility equipment has repeatedly been linked to starting some of the most disastrous California wildfires, especially during windy weather. The state Public Utilities Commission last year approved a settlement of more than half a billion dollars in fines and penalties for SoCal Edison for its role in five wildfires in 2017 and 2018. In New Mexico, another red-flag warning was expected to end by Friday night for the first time in a week, but extremely low humidity and bone-dry fuels will continue to provide ample opportunity for flames to spread, officials said. “This fire is going to continue to grow,” Bales, the incident commander, warned Thursday night. Residents in four counties east and northeast of Santa Fe remained under a variety of evacuation orders and alerts, and fire officials expected the blaze to continue on a northeast path east of Taos through less-populated areas about 64 kilometers south of the Colorado line. With strong spring winds tossing embers into unburned territory, the fire has grown tens of square miles daily since starting April 6 when a prescribed burn intended to clear out brush and small trees — to prevent future fires — got out of control. That fire merged with another wildfire several weeks later. The blaze has burned more than 170 homes so far, but authorities have said that number is expected to increase significantly as more assessments are done and residents are allowed to return home to areas deemed safe. The New Mexico fire has burned through mostly rural areas that include a mix of scattered ranch homes, historic Hispanic villages that date back centuries and high-dollar summer cabins. Some of the ranching and farming families who have called the area home for generations have spoken at length about the sacredness of the landscape, while many others have been too brokenhearted to express what they have lost.

Meatpackers Convinced Trump Officials to Keep Plants Running During COVID Crisis, Report Says

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Top U.S. meatpacking companies drafted the executive order issued by President Donald Trump in 2020 to keep meat plants running and convinced his administration to encourage workers to stay on the job at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report released Thursday by a U.S. House panel. The report by the House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis details the meat industry’s influence on Trump's White House as it tried to keep production rolling even as employees fell ill. More than 59,000 meatpacking workers at plants owned by the nation's top five meatpackers contracted COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic and at least 269 died, according to the first report by the panel, released in October. "The shameful conduct of corporate executives pursuing profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of resulting harm to the public must never be repeated," committee chair Representative James Clyburn said. The North American Meat Institute, the leading meat industry trade group, said the report "distorts the truth" and "uses 20/20 hindsight and cherry picks data to support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency." The report, based on thousands of documents and interviews with workers, union officials and experts, found that in April 2020, meatpacking companies led by Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods drafted an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to keep meat plants open. The DPA, which was enacted in 1950, gives the president emergency powers to control the domestic economy. The companies sent the draft to Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials and corresponded extensively with the White House, USDA, and other administration officials before the order was finalized and signed on April 28, the report found. Industry executives argued at the time that domestic meat supply was threatened by worker absenteeism. Those concerns were "baseless," the House report said. USDA data showed meatpackers had 622 million pounds of frozen pork in March 2020 and that top meatpackers' pork exports grew as much as 370% in the first year of the pandemic. Jim Monroe, Smithfield vice president of corporate affairs, said the company is proud of its pandemic response. "Did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely," he said. Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesperson, said the company's top priority is worker health and safety and that it has collaborated with federal, state and local officials in its pandemic response in the interest of protecting workers. In April 2020, meat industry executives also lobbied the USDA to encourage workers to report to plants as absenteeism rose, resulting in a public statement to that effect from former Vice President Mike Pence, the report found. The industry worked closely with political appointee Mindy Brashears, the USDA undersecretary of food safety, and corresponded with her via her personal email and cell phone, a potential violation of the Federal Records Act, the report found. The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, also told the House committee that he added softening language, like "if feasible," to CDC guidance for managing COVID-19 spread in meat plants because he was "persuaded by industry concerns" about the potential impact of the guidance.

California's Minimum Wage Projected to Rise to $15.50 Under Inflation Trigger

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California's minimum wage will rise to $15.50 an hour for workers at all businesses, large and small, on Jan. 1, 2023, under an automatic inflation trigger built into state law and never previously activated, the governor's office projected on Thursday. The announcement came a day before Governor Gavin Newsom, a first-term Democrat, was slated to present his revised budget plan to the state legislature controlled by his party, including a proposed $11.8 billion inflation-relief spending package. The economic stimulus proposal, similar to one enacted last year to help California recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, includes a plan Newsom previewed in recent weeks offering $400 tax rebates to vehicle owners to help offset escalating gasoline costs. Newsom said his package taps into a "historic" state budget surplus to help individuals and families cope with rising costs of living, which the state Finance Department projects will grow 7.6% between fiscal year 2021 and fiscal 2022. Regardless of whether Newsom's package becomes law, the Finance Department estimates that some 3 million workers stand to benefit from the first inflation-based minimum wage hike expected to take effect under a labor statute enacted in 2016. That law requires an automatic 50-cent-per-hour increase above California's prevailing minimum wage levels - already the highest any state requires for larger companies - whenever the U.S. consumer price index rises more than 7% from year to year. That means the statewide minimum wage for companies employing 26 or more workers, and those with 25 or fewer workers, will both go to $15.50 in the new year. Without an inflation trigger, the minimum wage for smaller companies was due to have topped out at $15 in January, catching up with the level now required at larger firms. Only two states -- Massachusetts and Washington state -- exceed California's existing $14 minimum wage for smaller companies. They require at least $14.25 and $14.49 per hour, respectively, at businesses of all sizes, U.S. Labor Department figures show. The District of Columbia is higher still, at $15.20 an hour. The U.S. federal minimum hourly wage is currently set at $7.25. Other highlights of Newsom's inflation package include $2.7 billion in emergency rental assistance for low-income tenants and $1.4 billion to help utility customers pay overdue bills. The California Republican Party issued a statement urging the legislature to suspend state gasoline taxes as "the most effective way to relieve pain at the pump."

Latest Developments in Ukraine: May 13

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For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine. The latest developments in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. All times EDT: 12:02 a.m.: Al Jazeera, citing the U.S. think tank the Institute for the Study of War, reports that Russia likely controls the Ukrainian city of Rubizhne and probably the town of Voevodivka as well. Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

Asian American athletes inspire tomorrow's superstars

by ShareAmerica, 4 days ago

The inspiring performance of Asian American athletes in recent years is something we are "all jumping to hang onto," says one expert.

Without Hariri, Lebanon's Sunnis Leaderless Ahead of Vote

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Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community is gearing up for Sunday's parliamentary polls without strong leadership for the first time in decades after former premier Saad Hariri stepped down from political life. In a country where government posts and parliamentary seats are distributed along sectarian lines, Lebanon's Sunni community has long served as a major political force. Months ahead of the May 15 vote, Hariri announced his retreat from political life, leaving his constituents without a preeminent Sunni figure while the country grapples with an unprecedented financial crisis. His Future Movement party in March said it would boycott the election, a move that experts believe could empower political rivals, mainly the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah movement. "Traditional Sunni leaders, including former premiers, are mobilizing ... to prevent Hezbollah from taking advantage" of the political void, said Karim Bitar, an international relations professor at the University of Saint Joseph in Lebanon. The Future Movement, Lebanon's biggest Sunni-led party, currently has 18 lawmakers in the 128-member parliament, which makes it one of the largest blocs. Its decision to boycott polls has created internal rifts. One former deputy, Mustafa Alloush, relinquished his party membership so he can challenge Hezbollah in the elections. "When we withdraw from the scene, we give our adversaries a chance," he told AFP, advocating for a unified front to thwart Hezbollah's growing dominance. Saudi rift Hariri was thrust into the political limelight following the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafic, also an ex-prime minister. In the wake of the tragedy, Hariri played a major role in mass demonstrations that ended a 30-year Syrian military presence in Lebanon. He was at the helm of the pro-Western "March 14" bloc that won a parliamentary majority in 2009 but unraveled not long after. During the last vote, in 2018, Hariri's bloc lost nearly a third of its parliamentary seats.  Many attributed the three-time premier's waning popularity to his conciliatory approach towards Hezbollah, which angered allies, including Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has long pushed for a more aggressive policy towards the Iran-backed group which is Lebanon's main political and military force. "There is no doubt that to avoid a civil war I had to compromise," Hariri said in January. "This worry guided all my steps, made me lose my personal fortune, as well as some friends abroad and many allies." In November 2017, Hariri stepped down as prime minister while in Riyadh, prompting accusations that the kingdom was holding him against his will. French President Emmanuel Macron had to intervene to secure Hariri's return to Lebanon from where the Sunni leader then rescinded his resignation. Sunni divisions The Hariri family has been a mainstay of Lebanon's political scene since the end of the 1975-90 civil war and rarely absent from elections. They are not the only prominent Sunni figures missing from this year's campaign. Ex-prime ministers Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam have also stayed out of the electoral race, amid calls for a boycott. However, Dar al-Fatwa, the country's top Sunni religious authority, warned of the dangers of abstention. Current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose post is held by a Sunni under a longtime convention, encouraged his fellow Sunnis to cast ballots. Bitar sees "the re-emergence of several Sunni poles" and said various actors "will seek to fill the void while waiting for a possible return of Saudi influence and Saad Hariri." In Beirut's Tariq el-Jdideh neighborhood, a Future Movement stronghold, giant portraits of Hariri lined the sides of the road. Banners called on residents to boycott the election, but not everyone was convinced. "We are going to vote because we do not accept that other parties take advantage of the situation," a 60-year-old man who gave his name as Ahmad, said, referring to Hezbollah. Another resident, Anwar Ali Beyrouti, said "the division of the Sunni camp serves the interests of Hezbollah," adding that the Shiite party would be "the only one benefiting."

US to Host Men's and Women's Rugby World Cups for First Time

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Rugby's biggest tournament is finally heading to the United States.  Now comes the hard part for the sport's leadership: Generating enough interest and sustainability to secure the sport's place in a crowded U.S. market.  The Rugby World Cup will be staged in the U.S. for the first time after being voted on Thursday as the host of the men's event in 2031 and the women's tournament two years later.  It marks rugby's biggest attempt to move into the wider American sporting consciousness and unlock what World Rugby — the sport's international governing body — regards as an area of untapped potential, in both a commercial and sporting sense.  "The golden nugget that everybody wants to get hold of" was how World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont described America.  "What we will leave in the U.S.," he said, "is an extremely sustainable, vibrant sport that will go from strength to strength."  USA Rugby's vision is of countrywide membership more than quadrupling to 450,000 by 2031, of stadiums "from coast to coast" staging matches — there have been around 25 venue bids, including from NFL and Major League Soccer arenas — and of significant investment in the domestic Major League Rugby so the U.S. Eagles are a competitive team in time for 2031.  A competitive, perhaps quarterfinal-bidding team, would crucially be necessary for the Eagles and the World Cup to get traction in the U.S. The Rugby World Cup is staged during September-October, when America is already transfixed by the NFL and college football, the Major League Baseball pennant races and playoffs, and the start of the NBA and NHL.  USA Rugby already has some experience. The Rugby World Cup Sevens at the baseball home of the San Francisco Giants in July 2018 drew more than 100,000 people across three days, and U.S.-decent TV ratings on NBC.  "(The World Cups are) an invitation to increase our levels of awareness, to increase our sport's fan base," said Victoria Folayan, who played sevens rugby for the U.S. and is USA Rugby's athlete representative. "The doors are opening. Being able to take that step is just the beginning."  To that end, World Rugby's experience of taking its men's showpiece tournament to Asia for the first time in 2019 — when Japan was the host and reached the quarterfinals — will be key in getting the U.S ready for its debut. Not just the public, but the national team itself.  While the U.S. women's team won the inaugural women's Rugby World Cup in 1991 and reached the final in the next two events, the men's national team has never got out of the pool stage in eight trips to the World Cup — three wins in 25 matches — and is basically shut out from playing the world's top teams on an annual basis.  As it did successfully for Japan, World Rugby will pour coaching expertise into the Eagles and work to give them more test matches to improve. There is an ongoing attempt to shake up the men's international calendar so that emerging teams like the United States have more opportunities.  Hosting the two World Cups will cost around $500 million, and profits and losses will be shared between World Rugby and USA Rugby, which filed for bankruptcy as recently as 2020.  The bid received support from the White House, with U.S. President Joe Biden sending a letter to World Rugby last month giving government guarantees and his backing for the "development of rugby in the United States."  The men's Rugby World Cup is regarded by some as the world's third biggest sporting event, after the soccer World Cup and the summer Olympics.  The United States is hosting all three of those in a five-year span from 2026, starting with the men's soccer World Cup that year — with Mexico and Canada as co-hosts — and then the Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.  For the first time, World Rugby used a streamlined bid process to enable it to announce the hosts of all the World Cups from 2025-33, for both men and women.  The Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit up in green and gold after two-time-champion Australia was awarded the men's World Cup in 2027 and the women's tournament in 2029. The men's World Cup is returning to Australia for the first time since 2003.  It is being viewed as a chance to rejuvenate rugby in the country as the World Cups come after the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2025, bringing much-needed revenue to its governing body that was badly hit by the pandemic.  Rugby Australia chief executive Andy Marinos described it as "the start of a new era for Australian Rugby."  "Australia will become the center of the rugby world over the next decade," he said, "and that is incredibly exciting."  The 2027 tournament will be the 40th anniversary of Australia and New Zealand hosting the first Rugby World Cup in 1987.  England was announced as the host of the women's World Cup in 2025.   

18.5 Million Nigerian Children Are Out of School, UNICEF Says

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About 18.5 million children, the majority of whom are girls, do not have access to education in Nigeria, a figure up sharply compared with 2021, the U.N children's fund says. Last year, UNICEF estimated that 10.5 million children were out of school in Africa's most populous country. "Currently in Nigeria, there are 18.5 million out-of-school children, 60% of whom are girls," Rahama Farah, the head of the UNICEF office in Kano, told reporters Wednesday. The numerous attacks on schools by jihadists and criminal gangs in the north have particularly harmed children's education, Farah said. "These attacks have created a precarious learning environment, discouraged parents and guardians from sending their children to school," Farah said. Since the 2014 Boko Haram abduction of 200 schoolgirls from the northeastern town of Chibok, dozens of schools have been targeted in similar mass abductions. Last year, around 1,500 students were kidnapped by armed men, according to UNICEF. While most of the young hostages have since been released for ransom, some still remain in captivity in forests, where  armed groups hide out. In the predominantly Muslim north, Farah said, only one in four girls from "poor and rural families" completes middle school. Insecurity, he stressed, “emphasizes gender inequalities.” Mass violence and kidnapping have forced the authorities to close more than 11,000 schools in the country since December 2020, according to UNICEF. The U.N. agency has since warned of an increase in reported cases of child marriage and early pregnancy.

New South Korean President Stresses Freedom in Speech Aligned with US Policy

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol used the Korean word meaning “freedom” 35 times during his first speech in office, aligning his administration with U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy centered on human rights and building a coalition of liberal democratic nations, according to experts. “The most important core value is freedom,” Yoon said on Tuesday, and it is “paramount” for South Korea and other countries that share the value of liberal democracy to meet multiple challenges around the world, including food and energy crises, global supply chain issues and armed conflicts. Bruce Klinger, former CIA deputy division chief of Korea and current senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, “Yoon’s speech reflected his intention to have foreign policies based on principles of freedom, democracy, human rights and adherence to norms of international behavior.” He continued, “He has made clear that, unlike his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, he will not avoid [criticizing] North Korea and Chinese human rights abuses, violations of U.N. resolutions and encroachments on the sovereignty of other nations,” referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. South Korea is surrounded by the autocratic countries of North Korea, China and Russia. Seoul embraced a democratic form of government when a 1953 armistice agreement ended the fighting of the Korean War. Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said Yoon used his speech to convey a message to North Korea, China and Russia that Seoul will challenge those nations on the disregard for liberal democratic principles, including human rights. “President Yoon’s speech strongly affirmed South Korea’s solidarity with the United States and other free, democratic countries,” Revere said. “His remarks sent a clear message to authoritarian and totalitarian leaders in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang about how South Korea plans to align itself as liberal democracies push back against those powers who reject democracy and freedom,” Revere said. Soo Kim, former CIA analyst and current policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Yoon’s speech was “alluding to both freedom in South Korea and abroad.” She said, “Abroad, we are seeking democracy and the rule of law being threatened in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The friction between the U.S. and China also represents a juxtaposition between the two systems” of liberal democracy and autocracy. Kim added, “At home, South Korea is also facing challenges in addressing civil liberties, most notably through some of the controversial laws pushed by the Moon administration.” Moon was criticized for largely ignoring human rights violations in North Korea and China in his quest to achieve inter-Korean reconciliation with Beijing’s support but without upsetting Pyongyang. Moon’s peace initiative often ran counter to the Biden administration’s efforts to rally its democratic ally to counter North Korea’s threat involving weapons tests and China’s military aggressions in the Indo-Pacific. During the Moon government, South Korea’s parliament passed a law in December 2020 that banned South Korean activists from releasing balloons containing anti-Pyongyang leaflets into North Korea as Seoul tried to engage its northern neighbor in his peace initiative. Robert King, who served as the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues during the Obama administration, said, “Based on [his] inauguration speech, I believe the Yoon administration will play a positive role” in human rights of North Korea. He added, “Ignoring human rights in the hope that North Korea would engage with South Korea has not worked.” Harry Kazianis, president and CEO of the developing think tank Rogue States Project, said, “Yoon will advocate for human rights to be at the center of his foreign policy agenda.” He sees Yoon “willing to call out press freedom abuses, human suffering and lack of basic human rights in any nations he wishes – especially in North Korea.” According to Patricia Kim, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, however, Yoon’s approach toward foreign policy based on democratic values will meet opposition. “A shift toward a more value-based diplomacy will undoubtedly create friction between South Korea and its autocratic neighbors,” Kim said. “The Yoon administration will have to make tough policy choices in the years ahead while dealing with domestic economic difficulties, an ever-growing North Korean threat, and great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters.” VOA’s Korean Service contacted the Chinese Embassy in Washington and North Korea’s Mission to the U.N. in New York City for comments on Yoon’s speech. Neither responded. Yoon’s “freedom” speech came at a time of intense tensions on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea is ratcheting up the development and testing of its nuclear and missile programs while continuing to deprive its citizens of human rights such as the freedoms of speech, press and religion. North Korea has conducted 16 rounds of weapons tests since January, including the latest three short-range ballistic missiles Seoul said Pyongyang launched on Thursday evening. North Korea, which has rejected offers of COVID-19 vaccines, confirmed the first acknowledged cases of the omicron variant of the virus in the country this week. Pyongyang said over 18,000 people show symptoms of COVID-19 as the country went into a strict emergency lockdown. Just a day later, the official Korean Central News Agency said that six people had died, one of whom “tested positive for the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron.” The KCNA also said Friday that nearly 190,000 people were “being isolated and treated.”

11 Dead, 31 Rescued After Boat Capsizes Near Puerto Rico

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A boat loaded with suspected migrants capsized north of an uninhabited island near Puerto Rico and 11 people had been confirmed dead while 31 others were rescued Thursday, authorities said.  It wasn't immediately clear how many people were aboard the boat when it turned over, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad. He said a "mass rescue effort" was still underway. At least eight Haitians were taken to a hospital, although the nationalities of all those aboard the boat were not immediately known.  The incident was the latest in a string of capsizings across the region as migrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic flee violence and poverty in their countries.  A U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter spotted the overturned boat late Thursday morning.  "If not for that, we would not have known about this until someone would have found any sign or received reports from people that their loved ones are missing," Castrodad said. "They found them early enough that we were able to coordinate a response." The boat was spotted more than 18 kilometers north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, which is off Puerto Rico's west coast. The U.S. Coast Guard said those rescued were 20 men and 11 women.  'Dangerous' trips Last Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard and Dominican navy rescued 68 migrants in the Mona Passage, a treacherous area between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. One woman believed to be from Haiti died, Castrodad said.  "These voyages are dangerous," Castrodad said. "They're unsafe, they are grossly overloaded … [and] no lifesaving equipment. It wouldn't really take much for any of these vessels to capsize."  From October 2021 to March, 571 Haitians and 252 people from the Dominican Republic were detained in waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The majority of those Haitians, 348 of them, landed in Puerto Rico's uninhabited Mona Island and were rescued.  In fiscal 2021, 310 Haitians and 354 Dominicans were detained, compared with the 22 Haitians and 313 Dominicans apprehended in fiscal 2020.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard said that in the fiscal year that ended September 30, it apprehended 1,527 Haitians, 838 Cubans and 742 people from the Dominican Republic in the region, which includes Florida and the Caribbean.  Since then, trips of human smuggling boats have increased, authorities say.  In January, the Coast Guard searched for at least 38 people missing off Florida's coast after a suspected human smuggling boat that had left the Bahamas capsized in a storm. A sole survivor was reported. Desperate Haitians  Hundreds of Haitians have arrived in Florida alone in recent months after swimming ashore.  Haiti is struggling with a surge in gang-related violence that has killed dozens of people, including women and children, and caused thousands of families to flee their homes. Kidnappings also have spiked, including those of eight Turkish citizens who on Sunday were forced off a bus they had boarded in the Dominican Republic.  Kidnappings in the country of more than 11 million people have increased 180% and homicides are up 17% in the past year, according to the United Nations, which last week expressed concern over "the rapid deterioration of security and human rights" in Haiti.  Many have criticized the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden for deporting more than 20,000 Haitians in recent months given the country's deepening turmoil.

Biden Considers Korea DMZ Visit When in Asia

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U.S. President Joe Biden is considering a trip to the Korean Demilitarized Zone when he visits Asia later this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday.  Biden is expected to visit South Korea and Japan from May 20-24 and hold talks with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.  Psaki said the White House was still finalizing details of the Asia schedule but a trip to the heavily fortified DMZ separating the two Koreas is a step that is taken by many who visit the region.  Several former U.S. presidents, and Biden himself before he became president, have visited the DMZ, but former President Donald Trump became the first to have met a North Korean leader there when he held a third meeting with Kim Jong Un in June 2019 as part of his unsuccessful effort to persuade him to give up his nuclear and missile programs.  The DMZ is often described as the world's last Cold War frontier and has existed since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.  Psaki repeated a U.S. assessment that North Korea could be ready to conduct a seventh nuclear test as early as this month. North Korea has not tested a nuclear bomb since 2017 but resumed testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles this year.  "We shared this information with allies and partners and are closely coordinating with them," Psaki said.  North Korea has recently stepped up its weapons tests and resumed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches this year for the first time since 2017.  U.S. and South Korean officials have been saying for weeks that there are signs of new construction at Punggye-ri, North Korea's only known nuclear test site, and that Pyongyang could soon test another bomb.  North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast on Thursday, South Korea and Japan said, in its latest tests aimed at advancing its weapons programs, even as it reported a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time.  In condemning the latest launch, the U.S. State Department said it remained committed to a diplomatic approach with North Korea and reiterated a call for Pyongyang to return to dialog. 


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