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The U.S. government says it is sanctioning four Ukrainians “engaged in Russian government-directed influence activities to destabilize Ukraine.” “The individuals we are targeting, two of whom are members of Ukraine’s parliament, act at the direction of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and support Russia's destabilizing and dangerous influence operations, which undermine not just Ukraine but also the fundamental principles of democracy,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. The U.S. accuses the four Ukrainians of helping Russia “gain access to sensitive information” and “create instability in Ukraine.” Those sanctioned are Taras Kozak, Oleh Voloshyn, Volodymyr Oliynyk and Vladimir Sivkovich. “Russia has used hybrid tactics, including disinformation and other influence campaigns, to destabilize Ukraine for years,” Blinken said. “In 2020, Kremlin officials launched a comprehensive information operation plan designed in part to degrade the ability of the Ukrainian state to independently function; the individuals designated today played key roles in that campaign.” Blinken said the sanctions are “separate and distinct from the broad range of high impact measures the United States and its allies and partners are prepared to impose in order to inflict significant costs on the Russian economy and financial system if it were to further invade Ukraine.” Blinken is in Berlin Thursday for consultations with key allies about the situation along the Russia-Ukraine border as he prepares for talks Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva. Blinken is meeting with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and British Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly, before delivering an address about the crisis in Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden said at a news conference Wednesday he thinks Russia will invade Ukraine, reiterating warnings to Russian leader Vladimir Putin such actions would be met with economic sanctions and other consequences. Russia has denied it has intentions of invading Ukraine and is seeking security guarantees, including that Ukraine is not allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
First-time claims for U.S. unemployment compensation increased sharply last week to their highest level since October 2021, suggesting that some employers may be laying off workers as the omicron variant of the coronavirus surges throughout the country and curtails business operations. The Labor Department said Thursday that 286,000 jobless workers filed for benefits, up 55,000 from the week before, surpassing the 256,000 figure recorded in mid-March, 2020, when the coronavirus first swept into the United States and businesses started laying off workers by the hundreds of thousands. In recent weeks, the U.S. has been recording 750,000 or more new cases of the coronavirus every day, largely because of the highly transmissible omicron variant. In some instances, that has played havoc with sectors of the world’s biggest economy. For the most part, employers have been retaining their workers and searching for more as the United States continues its rapid economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s unemployment rate dropped in December to 3.9%, not far above the five-decade low of 3.5% recorded before the pandemic took hold. Many employers are looking for more workers, despite about 6.9 million workers remaining unemployed in the United States. At the end of November, there were 10.4 million job openings in the U.S., but the skills of available workers often do not match what employers want, or the job openings are not where the unemployed live. In addition, many of the available jobs are low-wage service positions that the jobless are shunning. U.S. employers added only 199,000 new jobs in December, a lower-than-expected figure. But overall, 6.3 million jobs were created through 2021 in a much quicker recovery than many economists had originally forecast a year ago. The U.S. economic advance is occurring even as President Joe Biden and Washington policymakers, along with consumers, are expressing concerns about the biggest increase in consumer prices in four decades — 7% at an annualized rate in December. The surging inflation rate has pushed policymakers at the country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, to move more quickly to end the asset purchases they had used to boost the country’s economic recovery, by March rather than in mid-2022 as originally planned. Minutes of the Fed board’s most recent meeting showed that policymakers are eyeing a faster pace for raising the benchmark interest rate that they have kept at near 0% since the pandemic started. The Federal Reserve has said it could raise the rate, which influences the borrowing costs of loans made to businesses and consumers, by a 0.25 percentage point three times this year to tamp down inflationary pressures. Meanwhile, government statistics show U.S. consumers are paying sharply higher prices for food, meals at restaurants, gasoline and for new and used vehicles.
The United States will continue withholding aid from Sudan until the country's military rulers stop the killing of anti-coup protesters and a civilian led-government takes power, two senior American diplomats said Thursday. The joint statement came after a two-day visit to Sudan this week by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee and the newly appointed U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield. The visit was meant to help pull the African nation out of a worsening crisis in the wake of the Oct. 25 coup. The military takeover has upended Sudan's transition to democratic rule after three decades of repression and international isolation under autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, ousted during a popular uprising in April 2019. While in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, Phee and Satterfield met with Sudanese civilian and military leaders, as well as with families of some of the killed pro-democracy protesters. At least 72 demonstrators have been killed since the October coup. Seven were killed on Monday alone, according to a doctors' activist group. Security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse thousands who gathered in Khartoum. Among the seven killed, some were as young as 19 years old. Around 100 people were wounded, according to the Sudan Doctors Committee. On Wednesday, the committee, which is part of the pro-democracy alliance, documented the fatal shooting of another protester earlier in the day as security forces removed makeshift barricades in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman. The barricades were part of a two-day civil disobedience campaign the pro-democracy movement called for following Monday's crackdown. Police officials have repeatedly accused protesters of attacking security forces and police buildings, but have failed to provide evidence of such attacks. Main protest leaders have repeatedly called on demonstrators to use only non-violent tactics. Sudan's turmoil escalated after the resignation of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok earlier this month. Hamdok, who was ousted in the October coup only to be reinstated a month later under heavy international pressure, stepped down on Jan. 2 after his efforts to reach a compromise failed. On Thursday, thousands again took to the streets, naming the day's march after one of the recently killed young protesters. They beat drums and chanted anti-military slogans. Many reiterated calls for the military to leave power completely. Phee and Satterfield said military leaders they met with during their visit had expressed their commitment to the country's political transition. The two diplomats said they made clear to the generals that the U.S. "will consider measures to hold accountable those responsible for failure to move forward," according to the statement.
Now-retired Pope Benedict XVI neglected to act against clerics who allegedly committed four acts of sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Munich and Freising while he was serving as archbishop between 1977 and 1982, according to a report released Thursday. The Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl produced the report after the archdiocese asked it to investigate allegations of abuses that occurred between 1945 and 2019 in the archdiocese, a religious territory of the Roman Catholic Church in Bavaria, Germany. The report concluded at least 497 victims, mainly young males, were sexually abused during that period, and the firm’s lawyers said many other cases were probably never reported. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the Vatican would not comment on the report until it had read it in its entirety and could give the comments “careful and detailed examination.” But he again expressed the Vatican’s remorse for the abuse of minors committed by clerics. The law firm investigated who knew about the four sexual abuse allegations in question and any actions taken in response. When presenting the report, Attorney Martin Pusch said that Pope Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, did nothing about the allegations when he was archbishop. "In a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that the then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger, can be accused of misconduct," said Pusch. He also said the former pope had "strictly" denied responsibility in response to the accusations. Two cases where Benedict allegedly failed to act involved clergymen who committed several indisputable acts of sex abuse but were still allowed to perform pastoral duties, Pusch said. Benedict’s concern for the victims was “not recognizable,” Pusch said. Benedict retired in 2013, becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to do so. Priest Peter Hullermann, now an infamous pedophile, was transferred to Munich from Essen in western Germany, where he had been accused of sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy but was still reassigned. Hullermann, an example of many sexual abuse perpetrators in the Church, was convicted of molesting even more children and sentenced only to a suspended prison term in 1986, by which time Benedict had been transferred to the Vatican. Hullermann continued to work with children for many years, even after the convictions for sex abuse. The report also accused current Munich and Freising Archbishop Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a prominent ally of Pope Francis, in two cases. Germany’s Catholic Church has been the subject in a series of reports in recent years that have revealed widespread sexual abuse of children by clergymen. A separate study commissioned in 2018 by the German Bishops’ Conference concluded that 1,670 clergymen in Germany had sexually attacked 3,677 children between 1946 and 2014, although many believe the number of victims is much higher. Information from Reuters, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse was used in this report.
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Teenage pilot Zara Rutherford landed in Kortrijk, Belgium Thursday to officially become the youngest woman to fly around the world solo. The Belgian-British 19-year-old landed her single-seat Shark ultralight aircraft to cheers and honking horns from a crowd that had gathered to welcome her home. Rutherford originally embarked from Kortrijk on August 18 - 155 days ago. As she stepped from the cockpit, she shared a hug with her parents and brother and was presented with framed copies of a certificate from the Guiness Book of World Records certifying her accomplishment. The 51,000-kilometer east-to-west journey took her across 52 countries and five continents. To meet the criteria for a round-the-world flight, Rutherford touched two points opposite each other on the globe: Jambi in Indonesia and Tumaco in Colombia. The trip was all the more challenging as she flew without the aid of flight instruments or a pressurized cabin. Rutherford told reporters the last leg of her journey - from a small airstrip near Frankfurt, Germany, where she landed Wednesday, to the Kortrijk airstrip – had been a bit tricky because of rain and snow. Rutherford said she had to wiggle in some valleys and wait for a while for the snow to clear. But Rutherford said she was glad to be home and was looking forward to her favorite sandwich from a local shop. Rutherford had said her big goal is to use this experience to encourage other young women to go into flying or study science, technology and mathematics “and other fields they might not have thought about. She plans to go to college next September in either Britain or the United States to study engineering. Rutherford broke the record set by American aviator Shaesta Waiz, who was 30 when she set the previous record for the youngest woman to circumnavigate the world solo in 2017. Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.
Russia’s buildup of an estimated 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, along with military exercises in Belarus, has raised concern that Russia could be planning an invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s positions include troops, tanks and artillery to Ukraine’s north, south and east. Until 1991, Ukraine was part of the Russia-led Soviet Union. Current tensions with Russia date to 2014, when Russia invaded and seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, a move not recognized by the European Union or United States. Russia has also backed separatists who control a swath of territory bordering Russia in eastern Ukraine. During talks in Ukraine and Germany this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of a swift response from the U.S. and its allies if Russian troops enter Ukraine. Blinken meets Friday in Geneva with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Russia has dismissed allegations of a planned invasion and has sought certain security guarantees, including one that NATO members will not admit Ukraine into the Western military alliance. The U.S. and NATO have rejected such requests. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged Thursday that Ukrainian and Western claims of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine were a “cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own.” In Germany, Secretary Blinken said, “No one should be surprised if Russia instigates a provocation or incident – then tries to use it to justify military intervention, hoping that by the time the world realizes the ruse, it’ll be too late." Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.
TRANSCRIPT The Inside Story: Biden’s First Year Episode 23 – January 20, 2022 Opening Animation: U.S. President Joe Biden: I Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. do solemnly swear… Voice of PATSY WIDAKUSWARA, VOA White House Bureau Chief: A challenging first year for President Joe Biden. From managing the pandemic to uniting the nation. U.S. President Joe Biden: The way forward is to recognize the truth and to live by it. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: From competition with China to Russia’s growing shadow over Ukraine ... The challenges, accomplishments and expectations … on The Inside Story: Biden’s First Year The Inside Story: PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: I’m Patsy Widakuswara, VOA’s White House Bureau Chief. Behind me is the White House where President Biden is ending his first year in office with low approval ratings largely due to an economic recovery dragged down by inflation and a pandemic that is surging yet again. This despite him reaching consensus to pass a 1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus plan and a 1 trillion-dollar infrastructure package. A 1.9 trillion-dollar COVID-19 relief package pushed through by the Biden administration in March has helped American businesses and families weather the financial impact of the pandemic. The package sent $1,400 in stimulus funding to millions of Americans, and monthly payments that have proven successful in reducing poverty But for many, rising inflation has minimized the impact of that assistance. Telilia Scott, US Consumer: Due to the COVID, people don’t have money. We’re just starting back to work, and stuff like this. This is outrageous, with the prices of the gas today. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: Consumer prices in December were 7% higher than those of the year-ago period, marking the highest inflation rate in 40 years. Inflation has dampened economic recovery in a year that the administration says has shown the biggest job growth in American history. Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary: Look at the initial unemployment claims. They’re on average 800 — they were at 812,000 a year ago. They’re now at 210,000. Unemployment rate and obviously job creation, the year before the president took office and the last year. As it relates to COVID, if we look to a year ago, only 1% of adults were fully vaccinated. 74% of adults are fully vaccinated now. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: A relatively smooth rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has offered protection to more than 200 million Americans, and even provided a brief return to normalcy last year. That is, until omicron caused cases and hospitalizations to spike yet again. The pandemic and inflation have been two major factors in President Joe Biden’s sinking approval ratings at the end of his first year, around 45 percent, according to Ipsos, a market research firm. Mallory Newall, Ipsos: The president campaigned on eradicating COVID and getting the economy, getting America back to normal. And the longer that the pandemic goes on, the more uncertainty Americans have, and frankly, the more frustration they feel about the fact that they’re still dealing with the pandemic. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: Meanwhile, Biden’s legislative agenda is also a mixed bag. He pushed through a $1 trillion infrastructure law with Republican support — the biggest investment in the nation’s public works in a generation. But he has yet to pass Build Back Better, his $1.75 trillion social spending and climate change plan, even though it has already been cut in half from its original size. Other legislative agenda items remain stuck. Two voting rights bills that would greatly expand federal control over elections are stalled in the Senate due to Republican opposition. Some analysts say the administration and Democrats need to reset their agenda. Kevin Kosar, American Enterprise Institute: They have to ask themselves, realizing that Republicans are going to have very little interest in playing ball ((cooperating)) on high salience issues, what are the smaller things that they could work on that might build up over time and kind of change the narrative from ‘hey, this guy came in and took big swings at the plate and whiffed’ to ‘hey, this guy showed up, and he hit a lot of singles’ Change the narrative from Biden came with two ambitious agendas and failed, to he tried and achieved many smaller victories. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: And despite Biden’s promise to heal a divided nation, Americans are still deeply polarized following the Capitol siege by supporters of Donald Trump on January 6, 2021. Polls suggest most Republicans still believe the baseless claim pushed by the former president, that the 2020 election was stolen. Back in June, six months into the Biden presidency, more than 60 percent of Americans approved of his pandemic response. Since then, Delta and Omicron variants, vaccine hesitancy and mixed messaging from the administration have pushed Biden’s pandemic approval rating to below 50 percent. More from VOA’s Arash Arabasadi. ARASH ARABASADI, VOA Correspondent: Joe Biden campaigned on ending the pandemic. Now one year into his presidency, the pandemic is rolling into its third year. Tom Hart, President of the ONE Campaign: The president is really succeeding on the global response through direct commitments from the United States to countries in need in terms of doses, in terms of dollars, in terms of cooperation. ARASH ARABASADI: What hasn’t happened, says ONE Campaign’s Tom Hart, is bigger buy-in from Biden’s counterparts. Tom Hart, President of the ONE Campaign: Where they are not yet succeeding is providing the leadership to gather other countries together in a unified campaign to end the pandemic. What’s happening is wealthy countries are making individual commitments, and they sound good, but the parts are not adding up to the whole. ARASH ARABASADI: As COVID cases skyrocketed due to the omicron variant, January marked the first time that polls showed more Americans disapproving of Biden’s handling of the pandemic. Eric Feigl-Ding, Senior Fellow, Federation of American Scientists: I think the Biden administration, overall, has done well when it put its mind to it. So, I think they get an A minus, B plus. However, the issue is, oftentimes, some of their policies have over-relied on (a) vaccine-only approach. ARASH ARABASADI: Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding says the Biden administration could have done more to combat misinformation and to ensure that emergency funding for schools upgraded ventilation systems. He faults the Biden administration for not providing home COVID tests and N95 masks for free or at cost after the president recently announced an insurance-based reimbursement program. Eric Feigl-Ding, Senior Fellow, Federation of American Scientists: Altogether, this is a pandemic of political leadership as well as the virus, as well as human behavior and politics around the human behavior. So, the Biden administration is not in control of every aspect of those, especially the misinformation. This is all the more important, and it reveals that the pandemic is not just solely a biological phenomenon. It is an information phenomenon. ARASH ARABASADI: Critics say the Biden administration must do more on the global stage as well as at home to get more vaccines to more people and convince the vaccine hesitant to come on board. Arash Arabasadi, VOA News. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: A bitterly divided U.S. Congress is presenting a challenge to Biden’s ability to deliver on his agenda. And that includes voting rights legislation to prevent states from imposing laws that limit voting access. Republicans say those laws are in place to prevent voter fraud. VOA’s Congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson takes us inside the debate. KATHERINE GYPSON, VOA Congressional Correspondent: A final plea from the president of the United States … Joe Biden on Capitol Hill Thursday making the case one more time for passage of a major voting rights bill. U.S. President Joe Biden: As long as I have breath in me, as long as I'm in the White House, as long as I'm engaged at all, I'm going to be fighting. KATHERINE GYPSON: After months of failed attempts to pass the legislation in an evenly divided Senate, Biden encouraged Democrats to break the filibuster – a major rules change – bypassing Republicans to open up the opportunity for debate. Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary: This is a historic chance to save our democracy, and we need to protect the fundamental form of American government. And his view is this absolutely should be bipartisan. KATHERINE GYPSON: But the White House failed to convince Senator Kyrtsen Sinema – who is the key Democratic vote needed for that change. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat: Eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy from threats in the years to come. It is clear the two-party strategies are not working. Not for either side. And especially not for the country. KATHERINE GYPSON: Sinema’s argument for compromise puts her in the company of Republicans, who argue breaking those Senate rules would be harmful to American democracy – and repeatedly have blocked any attempts to debate voting rights. Mitch McConell, Senate Minority Leader: President Biden and Senate Democrats have been shouting, actually shouting, at the American people that an evil, racist anti-voting conspiracy will destroy democracy forever unless Democrats get total one-party control of the entire government starting next week. KATHERINE GYPSON: But Democrats say this legislation comes at a crucial moment for the United States, as it would expand access to the ballot box for minorities, including African Americans who have faced decades of discrimination and barriers to voting. Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader: If there was ever a power grab, it’s what is happening in the state legislatures right now, where Republican legislators are taking away people’s sacred right to vote and aiming it particularly at certain groups: people of color, young people, people in urban areas, older people, disabled people. KATHERINE GYPSON: A variety of polls show many Americans broadly support the ideas in the voting rights legislation – but are divided along partisan lines when it comes to ending the filibuster. Katherine Gypson, VOA News, Washington. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: The political divide over voting rights is just one of the many challenges that Joe Biden is facing in year two of his presidency, with the clock ticking toward November’s congressional elections.in Capri Cafaro is a former member of the Ohio Senate. She is currently an executive in residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She spoke to “The Inside Story” producer, Elizabeth Cherneff about the president’s plan moving forward. ELIZABETH CHERNEFF, Producer, The Inside Story: The President is of course facing pressure from across the aisle. He's also facing pressure from different wings of his party, that's the moderate and progressive wings in the Democratic Party. What do you feel is the impact of that infighting for the Democrats for the midterms and then also for the party's future? Capri Cafaro, American University School of Public Affairs: I mean, I think that the Democrats, because there has been such a lack of traction and success to achieve the goals that I think were set out by the Biden Harris administration in the beginning of taking over 2021, I think that that is going to continue, that infighting. I think it’s going to erode any kind of unity that might exist within the party, geographically, ideologically, you know, and a number of other factors that I think draw into that. I think to say that linking a Democrat to the Biden White House is not a winning formula for success, I think, in this midterm election. And that's bearing out in in opinion polls about Biden and even opinion polls about, you know, self-identifying as, as a Democrat or Republican. More and more individuals are self-identifying as Republicans than ever. And I think part of that, I think is because there is this perception, whether or not it's real or not, but I think there's a perception that the Democratic Party maybe has lost sight of maybe wanting to compromise, maybe it’s more progressive than what people perceive as a center right nation in the United States. So it really is going to be a very difficult midterm climate. ELIZABETH CHERNEFF: So the public's general impressions right now are kind of hovering around 40%, give or take, somewhat low but they may not be lasting and there's always fluctuations in opinion. What can President Biden do? Do you think to sort of regain public confidence in his administration to get things done? Capri Cafaro, American University School of Public Affairs: I think, I think it would be wise for President Biden to maybe work with the Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate to pare down some of those very large agenda pieces of legislation, whether it's voting rights or even social spending bill. Pick out two or three items that they feel they can actually pass or might be able – like the child tax credit or even some of these matters of paid family leave. There are some elements that I think might be able to get traction by both Democrats and Republicans. Focus on the items that may have the best ability for success and actually get passed into law. And I think sending that message to the American public as well as to Congress I think would say the Biden administration is here, not to just put forth what we often hear as a wish list of policy priorities, but actually mean business to pass the elements that are possible in order to at least move the ball forward. ELIZABETH CHERNEFF: Under Biden, how would you assess the US relationship with Russia and China right now? Capri Cafaro, American University School of Public Affairs: I would say that the relationship is strained obviously with both Russia and China. and I, you know, in some, in some circumstances, certainly with China, our relationship even under the Trump administration was strained because of the tough stances that the Trump administration took on matters of trade and tariffs and the like. And I think those matters continue. Democrats historically have been very critical of unfair and unbalanced trade relationships between China and the United States and workplace and human rights violations that exist in China. You know, the same I would say, with Russia. I think that again, depending on who you're talking to, you know, some may say that we are weaker with Russia, depending on the position you take, because I think the argument may be “well you know in the previous administration, Russia would not have encroached on Ukraine. and it was under the Obama administration that Russia went in and annexed Crimea in 2014. The United States isn’t stepping up for lethal aid and so we’re weak.” All of these things are definitely a part of the narrative as far as the United States not being strong enough against Russia. But there is no two ways about the fact that relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation remains incredibly contentious. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: President Joe Biden came into office with the message that “America is back.” He promised that diplomacy would replace military power as the main instrument of U.S. foreign policy. One year in, we take a look at how America’s allies and enemies are interpreting that message. It’s been a quite a year in U.S. foreign policy — with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, widely seen as the biggest failure of President Joe Biden’s first year in office. Michael Kugelman, Wilson Center: Terrorism has intensified, and the Taliban takeover has led to sanctions that have put Afghanistan in a position where it has an acute humanitarian crisis that could well lead to mass famine. And I think that this very precipitate, chaotic U.S. withdrawal is seen as links to those outcomes. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: The withdrawal is in line with the administration’s goal to decrease military engagement in the Middle East. But challenges remain, including existing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and the stalled effort to rescue the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with world powers that the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018. Still, following years of America First under former President Donald Trump, Biden’s message is that America is back. U.S. President Joe Biden: We'll stand up for our allies and our friends and oppose attempts by stronger countries that dominate weaker ones, whether through changes to territory by force, economic coercion, technical exploitation or disinformation. But we're not seeking, say it again, we are not seeking a new Cold War, or a world divided into rigid blocs. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: But Biden has drawn fault lines — what he calls the struggle between democracies and autocracies. He rallied more than 100 countries at a virtual Summit for Democracy in December, excluding Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he met virtually on separate occasions, reinforcing a key theme in his foreign policy doctrine. Stacie Goddard, Wellesley College: Global cooperation around complex issues with the environment and pandemics that require cooperation with China, that require cooperation with Russia. But on the other hand, also trying to keep on this theme of the United States will cooperate with democracies, the United States is a democratic nation. And the United States does see an authoritarian challenge as a significant challenge. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: China, now a major adversary in military might and geopolitical influence, is Biden’s foreign policy priority. But Russia, another rival, is not staying on the sidelines, mobilizing tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border. Andrew Lohsen, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Russia is not a solved problem. It’s still a major actor that has interests that are divergent with the United States and our European allies. And so it really can’t be put in the box. I think what we’re seeing here is some behavior from the Russian Federation to remind the United States that it’s so they’re interested in wanting to pursue and that those interests can’t be ignored. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: Another unsolved problem is North Korea, where the administration is unwilling to cut a deal unless Kim Jong Un commits to winding down his nuclear weapons program. In this week’s press freedom spotlight: Julian Assange is appealing to Britain’s Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling that the Wikileaks founder be extradited to the United States. The 50-year-old founder of the whistleblowing website is facing charges of hacking and theft. But press freedom advocates say Assange’s case could have broader implications. More from our Henry Ridgwell in London. HENRY RIDGWELL, VOA Contributor: The ruling by British High Court judges Friday overturned an earlier court decision in January blocking Julian Assange’s extradition from Britain to the United States. In that earlier decision, Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled there was a high risk that Assange would commit suicide if held in an American prison. U.S. prosecutors appealed – and the British High Court has ruled in their favor. Marcy Wheeler, U.S. Author on National Security and Civil Liberties: Basically, judging that the assurances they gave to the U.K. that Assange would not be subjected to basically isolation or solitary confinement, unless he does something new to merit it – that those were sufficient to address the concerns raised by Vanessa Baraitser about Assange’s likelihood to commit suicide in U.S. jails. HENRY RIDGWELL: U.S. authorities accuse Assange of conspiring to gain access to U.S. military databases containing classified documents that were later published in WikiLeaks. Supporters of Assange reacted to Friday’s court ruling with dismay. Assange’s fiancée and mother of his child said the U.S. assurances were “inherently unreliable.” Stella Morris, Partner of Julian Assange: Julian represents the fundamentals of what it means to live in a free society, of what it means to have press freedom, of what it means for journalists to do their jobs without being afraid of spending the rest of their lives in prison. HENRY RIDGWELL: Friday’s ruling now leaves the decision to extradite Assange in the hands of Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel. However, defense lawyers can appeal the ruling. Marcy Wheeler, U.S. Author on National Security and Civil Liberties: They’ve also talked about appealing the underlying decision that ruled this did not impinge on journalism. It’s unclear whether they’re going to do that next. They also could appeal to the European courts. HENRY RIDGWELL: Recent revelations could be used by the defense in their appeal. A former Wikileaks insider turned FBI informer has said that he fabricated evidence used by the prosecution. And in September, Yahoo News published a story alleging that the CIA had plotted to kidnap or even kill Assange in 2017. Assange argues the freedom of the press is at stake. In 2010 and 2011, he oversaw the publication by Wikileaks of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were leaked by former U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning. Assange says the leak exposed abuses by the U.S. military. He faces 18 U.S. federal charges relating to allegations of hacking, theft of classified material, and the disclosure of the identities of U.S. informants, which prosecutors say put their lives at risk. Marcy Wheeler, U.S. Author on National Security and Civil Liberties: One of the things (Judge Vanessa) Baraitser said in deciding that he was not protected as a journalist is that at the very same time, he was soliciting these files from Chelsea Manning and offering to crack a password in doing it, he was also hacking targets in Iceland, he ultimately hacked – or attempted to hack – a Wikileaks dissident. There’s a lot in there that Wikileaks doesn’t like to talk about because it has nothing to do with journalism. HENRY RIDGWELL: Human rights and press freedom groups have strongly condemned the High Court decision. Any appeals must be lodged within the next two weeks – but it’s possible judges would reject any further hearings on the case. Henry Ridgwell, for VOA News, London. PATSY WIDAKUSWARA: That’s all the time we have for now. Follow me on Twitter at pwidakuswara … Follow VOA News on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Stay connected at VOANews.com Thanks for being with us. See you next week for The Inside Story. ###
Citing "crimes against humanity and genocide" against the Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang province, the French Parliament on Thursday passed a non-binding motion urging French authorities to condemn Beijing. The measure, which passed 169-1, was led by the Socialist and other opposition parties. In addition to condemning China, the motion urges the government to protect France’s Uyghur immigrant community from harassment by China. The Chinese Embassy in France called the move absurd and said it would harm relations between the two countries. “The French side is fully aware of the absurdity and harmfulness of this resolution. It must show coherence between word and deed and take concrete actions to safeguard the healthy development of Sino-French relations,” the embassy said in a statement. China is accused of carrying out genocide and forced labor against the province’s large Uyghur Muslim population. It denies the accusations. The move comes on the eve of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Several western countries, including the United States, Britain and Australia have announced “diplomatic boycotts” of the games and will not send delegations to attend. French President Emmanuel Macron in December questioned the effectiveness of such boycotts and said he didn’t want to “politicize” the games. Last year, the Dutch Parliament passed a similar resolution which earned a sharp rebuke from Beijing. Italy and Belgium have condemned China over Xinjiang but did not use the term genocide. Some information in this report comes from Reuters.
The World Health Organization this week recommended nations lift or ease their existing COVID-19-related travel restrictions, saying they could exacerbate economic and social stress related to the pandemic. The new recommendation was made Wednesday by the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on COVID-19 following its most recent meeting. The report says countries should lift the bans and restrictions because the committee found “they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress experienced” by citizens. The report said such travel restrictions failed to limit the international spread of the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, which, the committee said, demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time. The report went on to say other travel safety measures such as masking, testing, isolation/quarantine, and vaccination should be based on risk assessments to avoid placing an excess financial burden on international travelers. Meanwhile, the WHO this week recommended two new drugs for treating COVID-19. The first drug, baricitinib, is strongly recommended for patients with severe or critical COVID-19. The drug is taken orally and usually used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The WHO recommends that it be given with corticosteroids. The WHO has also conditionally recommended the use of the monoclonal antibody drug sotrovimab for treating mild or moderate COVID-19 in patients who are at high risk of hospitalization. That includes patients who are older, immunocompromised, having underlying conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, and those unvaccinated. With COVID-19 cases surging throughout the America’s, and COVID-19 test kits in short supply, Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne on Wednesday called on countries to prioritize rapid antigen tests for those with symptoms who are most at risk of spreading the disease. Etienne told reporters at a briefing that 7.2 million new COVID-19 cases were reported in the region over the past week, and countries must “expand testing at the community level to relieve pressure on hospitals, which are working overtime.” Given the current shortage of rapid antigen tests, Etienne said countries need to advise those without symptoms who have been exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine where possible and follow public health measures.
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The World Health Organization reports a significant drop in the number of new cases of COVID-19 in Africa for the first time since the omicron variant began widely circulating on the continent two months ago. The coronavirus pandemic has infected nearly 10.5 million people in Africa and killed more than 234,000. World Health Organization officials say the latest figures reflect a 20 percent drop in coronavirus cases in the week up to January 16, and an 8 percent dip in deaths. While the fourth omicron-fueled wave appears to have peaked, WHO regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti says the continent is not yet out of the pandemic woods. She says further monitoring is needed to determine whether the trend will be sustained. “However, while four sub-regions reported a fall in new cases, we are closely monitoring the situation in North Africa, where cases spiked by 55 percent, and Tunisia and Morocco have both seen an exponential increase, overtaking South Africa as the countries with the most cases on the continent," said Moeti. The highly transmissible omicron variant triggered a sharp surge in the number of cases. But the severity of disease appears to be milder than that of previous strains. Nevertheless, Moeti says the continent has not yet turned the tide on the pandemic. She says there is no room for complacency. She warns further pandemic waves are inevitable as long as the virus continues to circulate. She notes Africa remains particularly vulnerable because of its unequal access to life-saving vaccines. She says Africa faces similar impediments in gaining access to a full range of COVID-19 treatments. The WHO has approved 11 therapeutics that can be used to treat COVID-19. It currently is reviewing the data on two oral antivirals, which have shown promising results in reducing the risk of hospitalization in some patients. WHO regional director Moeti says she fears Africa once again may lose out in gaining access to those treatments because of their limited availability and high cost. For example, she notes two effective antibody treatments cost between $550 and $1,220 for a single dose. “The deep inequity that left Africa at the back of the queue for vaccines must not be repeated with life-saving treatment," said Moeti. "Universal access to diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics will pave the shortest path to the end of this pandemic.” Moeti warns nations to prepare for the appearance of other transmissible, possibly more virulent strains of the coronavirus. She says the coronavirus will continue to mutate and pose an ongoing threat to nations if the inequitable distribution of life-saving vaccines and therapeutics between rich and poor countries is maintained.
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Uganda reopened schools this month after a nearly two-year shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of students have returned, but many others have not, due to poverty and the need to earn income for their families. Fifteen-year-old Rania Kyomuhangi is one of six children in her family who will not be returning to school. When schools closed in March 2020 for more than 15 million students, Rania had just reached high school, with a dream to be a medical doctor. “I feel bad because I see my friends, my neighbors, them calling us, telling us that they are going back to school. Asking us that when are you going back to school, and I don’t know what to say,” said Rania. Uganda reopened schools January 10. The government launched a one month back-to-school campaign to ensure all children return. The Ministry of Education has issued guidelines for schools not to raise tuition for returning students. Some families, however, are still unable to pay the fees. The state minister for primary education, Joyce Moriku Kaducu, said people who are not able to afford tuition should devise other means to ensure the children resume their studies. “Some parents may not have money, but they may have food. In rural schools they may have cassava, they may have maize, they may have beans," she said. "That is also something the school can say okay, you don’t have the money, but are you able to bring some food stuff, which we can translate into money?” Oliva Naiga, a former teacher and Rania’s mother, comforts her six children with a bible session. She was laid off and with no school to hire her, could not afford to take the children back to school. The minister’s suggestion did not resonate with her. “We tried Rania to take her back where she was, pleading that we shall pay slowly. They were not ready to accept. And I see my girl is growing. It is not easy to stay with a girl who is growing at home for two years,” she said. UNICEF Uganda says that during the school closure, the country’s 15 million students collectively lost 2.9 billion hours of learning time per month. Many of those children began working during the closure, and Munir Safieldin, the UNICEF country representative, said their families will not easily give up that income. “And to facilitate the return to school, we definitely need to look into a number of support systems, support programs. Which I also understand, there’s a trade-off. These support systems like social protection systems, where families which are experiencing poverty, should be supported,” said Munir. Munir notes that these programs require a lot of public financing, which is a challenge for a country like Uganda.
North Korea this week resumed railway imports from China for the first time since its lockdown began in 2020, potentially signaling a new phase in its approach to the pandemic. Since Sunday, North Korean freight trains have made several round trips across the Yalu River separating the North Korean city of Sinuiju and the Chinese city of Dandong. That is a significant relaxation of COVID-19 measures for North Korea, which has taken perhaps the world’s most severe pandemic precautions. However, there are more questions than answers about what the move says about North Korea’s future pandemic approach and when it will attempt to fully resume trade with China, its economic lifeline. Why did North Korea resume trade now? It is possible the decision was driven by desperation spurred by shortages of food or other supplies. There could also be far duller explanations, though, said Peter Ward, a Seoul-based specialist on North Korea’s economy. “There are loads of reasons why you’d want to reopen it. And those reasons may not be, ‘Well, there’s going to be a revolution next week unless people in north Pyongyang get their food rations,’” he said. North Korea, Ward suggested, might be increasing entry options for imports from China, which was already sending some goods to North Korea by ship. It is also possible a well-connected official in Sinuiju, which relies on trade with China and has suffered economically during the pandemic, may have lobbied North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to restart the railway imports. Or it could be that North Korea is now confident enough in its import safety measures, following months of preparation. What goods are North Korea importing so far? During the pandemic, North Korea has experienced shortages of food, medicine, fertilizer, and construction supplies. Some of those items appeared to be included in the first shipments from China, according to video broadcast by several Japanese and South Korean media outlets. “But I think there is a strong chance Kim Jong Un also used the deliveries to Pyongyang to stock up on the gifts he intends to dole out for upcoming celebrations in order to maintain loyalty to the Kim family,” Jean Lee, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based research organization, said. On Thursday, a state media readout of a high-profile Politburo meeting mentioned that North Korea should prepare to “grandly” celebrate the coming birthdays of late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, which are major public holidays. The Daily NK, a Seoul-based publication with a network of sources in North Korea, reported this week at least some of the initial shipments included soybean oil, a cooking staple, which will be distributed as gifts on the holidays, known as the Day of the Sun and the Day of the Shining Star. “Everything right now is focused on preparations to glorify the Kim family — not necessarily on the well-being of the North Korean people,” Lee said. What safety precautions is North Korea taking with the import process? A lot. In fact, North Korea appears to be so cautious that it may not even be allowing any North Koreans to enter China to facilitate the shipments. Video of the transfers appears to show a Chinese locomotive dropping off train cars full of goods to North Korea, before bringing empty cars back to China to reload. Once in North Korea, the cargo appears to enter a disinfection facility recently constructed at an airport near the border, according to commercial satellite photos reported by NK News, a Seoul-based outlet that covers North Korea. At the facility, the goods will likely be sterilized and quarantined, possibly for weeks, analysts say. Many scientific studies conclude it is very difficult for people to be infected with COVID-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. However, North Korea is taking no chances, Colin Zwirko, senior NK News correspondent, said. “North Korea maintains the most severe ‘zero-COVID’ policy in the world because an outbreak could lead to the collapse of the entire system, they admit this in state media. This means they are willing to prevent infections at all costs, even if it requires quarantining objects for long periods that might stand little chance of transmitting the virus. It's a better-safe-than-sorry approach,” Zwirko says. In the past, North Korean officials have embraced numerous scientifically questionable theories about how COVID-19 spreads. The virus, state media have reported, could spread through migratory birds, snow, air pollution, or anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets sent by South Korean activists. How much trade will North Korea allow? So far, Japanese and South Korean media have reported at least three roundtrips by freight trains from Sunday through Wednesday. South Korean officials said Thursday they have “steadily detected” train activity, but they could not say how long the train service will continue. On Monday, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed that rail traffic between North Korea and China had “resumed operation,” suggesting the activity could become regular. It is not clear, however, how quickly the quarantine and disinfection facilities will fill up. Some analysts speculate that that process could be a choke point limiting a wider resumption in trade. So far, it appears that the trains have only sent goods in one direction, to North Korea, but Daily NK reported Thursday that some North Korean trading companies have begun preparing items for export to China, following an order from authorities. Both sides have a long way to go to restore pre-pandemic trade levels. According to Chinese government data released this week, China’s trade with North Korea in 2021 fell about 90% compared to 2019, the year before the pandemic restrictions began. How will North Korea handle the pandemic moving forward? While many analysts think North Korea’s trade with China will gradually increase this year, others warn there could be setbacks, especially as China calibrates its own “zero-COVID” policy and struggles to keep out the more transmissible omicron variant. It is also not clear whether North Korea will loosen other pandemic restrictions, such as its domestic travel restrictions and border security policies. Since the pandemic began, North Korea has dramatically increased patrols along its border with China, reportedly even issuing shoot-to-kill orders for illegal crossers. The measures have led to a drastic reduction in the number of North Korean escapees and cut off virtually all informal trade, such as smuggling and remittance payments. Pyongyang may not feel comfortable easing many of those restrictions until it has tools, beyond lockdowns, to combat the virus. North Korea has refused offers of COVID-19 vaccines from other countries and the United Nations-backed COVAX vaccine distribution initiative. According to the World Health Organization, it is one of only two countries yet to begin vaccination campaigns, the other being Eritrea.
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International health workers say the end of the war in Afghanistan brings new hope to efforts to rid the country of the crippling disease polio. For many years, efforts to immunize all Afghan children under five years old were considered unfeasible because of widespread insecurity and threats to health workers. But with the end of the war, and Taliban pledges last year to support the polio immunization campaign, aid agencies now say they can access nearly all parts of the country, giving them an opportunity to eradicate poliovirus. “If we succeed to implement the planned polio campaigns with high coverage of 95%, we can interrupt the circulation of polio virus by the end of 2022,” Kamal Shah Sayed, a UNICEF spokesman in Afghanistan, told VOA. Backed by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), a three-day nation-wide polio immunization campaign targeting nearly 10 million children was launched in Afghanistan on January 17. Four additional campaigns are planned for this year. Taliban back immunization campaign Once considered a major obstacle in the way of anti-polio efforts because of their indiscriminate attacks as they fought U.S. and Afghan Government forces, the Taliban are now helping U.N. agencies to eradicate polio, Sayed confirmed. The U.S. withdrew all forces from Afghanistan last August as the Taliban fighters toppled the U.S.-backed Afghan government and declared the country an Islamic Emirate. Only four cases of poliovirus were confirmed in 2021 in the landlocked country, down from 56 cases a year before. However, there are still several challenges for making a polio-free Afghanistan in 2022. Poliovirus is still virulent in the neighboring Pakistan and can easily be transferred through the long and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossings. Polio cases also saw a significant drop in Pakistan from 79 cases in 2020 to only one confirmed case in 2021, according to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Program. Poor awareness about poliovirus and how to protect children against it remains another problem, particularly in rural Afghan communities. Immunization workers also need to have access to every household across the country, but this has been resisted by some Taliban officials who prefer to conduct immunization campaigns at local mosques. “The house-to-house polio campaigns are very important,” said Sayed of the UNICEF adding that such access should be especially ensured in the traditional “key polio reservoir regions of the South and East.” The drive to rid Afghanistan from poliovirus is taking place as the country suffers from an economic paralysis and a widespread humanitarian crisis which threatens most of the country’s estimated 35 million population. The U.N. has called for nearly $5 billion to provide life-saving food, health, and shelter assistance to the most vulnerable Afghans in 2022. The polio immunization campaigns appear to have no funding shortfalls thanks to some 70,000 Afghan volunteers as well as financial contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, the Canadian government, United Arab Emirates, and the Japanese government, UNICEF said.
Police in Pakistan’s second-largest city, Lahore, said Thursday a powerful bomb attached to a motorcycle was detonated in a busy marketplace, killing at least two people and injuring at least 20 others. Police officials say the bomb went off in the eastern city’s Anarkali bazaar, known for selling Indian goods. In video taken at the scene, clothing and wreckage from a motorcycle can be seen on the ground as well as damaged store fronts. People can also be seen attempting to help the wounded. A senior police official, Abid Khan, told The Associated Press the dead and wounded had been transported to a nearby hospital. Some of the wounded were listed in critical condition. Officials say they believe a timer attached to the device triggered the explosion. Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a statement condemning the bombing. There has been no claim of responsibility. The incident follows an attack late Monday in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in which two gunmen on motorcycle opened fire on a security checkpoint near one of the city’s busy markets, killing a policeman and wounding two others. The AP reports that following the incident in Islamabad, the Pakistani Taliban, who have been emboldened since the Afghan Taliban seized power across the border in Afghanistan, warned they could carry out more attacks in the near future. Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.