Swiss Envoy Sees Lesson for Democracies in Ukraine War

For Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador in Washington, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought back memories of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing a set of democratic reforms known at the time as the “Prague Spring.”

“That’s when I realized for the first time what it meant when free people are being attacked by a bully,” he said in a recent interview. “I was 6 years old.”

Describing those events as his “first conscious political memory,” Pitteloud said, “I remember our cities being flagged with Czechoslovakian flags, I remember the refugees, I remember our old car, our old family car — with Czechoslovakian flags all over the car — just to [show] our solidarity.”

Now 60, Pitteloud said he is proud that his traditionally neutral country has chosen to join other democratic nations in supporting Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty through economic boycotts and votes at the United Nations.

But, he said, he hopes the war will drive home to Western leaders the need for closer economic cooperation even in peacetime and reverse the drift in recent years toward greater barriers to trade “even among nations in the free world.”

“The conflict in Ukraine is a tragic reminder of the importance of international collaboration and the need for close political and economic ties between democratic nations,” Pitteloud told VOA.

Switzerland, he said, is “absolutely convinced” that democratic nations should “intensify” collaboration, and expand trade relations and technology exchanges if they are to prevail in an increasingly competitive global environment.

The issue is of economic as well as geopolitical interest for Switzerland. The exchange of intellectual property accounts for the largest share of trade in services between the United States and Switzerland. While many Americans associate Switzerland with chocolate, watches and banks, in reality exchanges of high-tech and intellectual property now make up 80% of Switzerland’s trade and economic presence in the U.S., the ambassador said.

For Pitteloud, the successful relationship demonstrates that trade between nations that share the same values and norms can benefit both. “And that’s how it should be,” he said.

In a not-so-subtle pitch for his country, the ambassador said that when trading with Switzerland, the United States doesn’t need to worry about the theft of intellectual property or having its market flooded with cheap products.

“We don’t have cheap products,” he said, with a slight wink. Switzerland’s per capita GDP is about $20,000 higher than in the U.S.

While the war in Ukraine has prompted questions worldwide about oil and gas supplies, Pitteloud said Switzerland has benefited from having none of either.

“I think we’re extremely lucky not to have any natural resources,” he said. “We didn’t have oil, we didn’t have coal, we didn’t have diamonds, whatsoever. The only way to be competitive on the world market was to make a difference with the quality of the products that we had.”

Pitteloud said his country’s industrial development began in the 18th century with textiles. “Then we moved into the machinery industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry, and every time we had to have something better than the rest, because we had to pay more for raw material than everyone else because we didn’t have any.”

If being compelled to make something from nothing has pushed the Swiss to become masters of precision, the country’s top diplomat in Washington says he’s spotted a quality in American life that his fellow countrymen could profitably emulate.

“The U.S. is a country where failing is proof that you tried; in Switzerland, failing is almost considered a social crime; in that sense, we need to be more American.”

A blessing his country shares with the United States, he said, is the talent that arrived through successive waves of immigration.

“You would be surprised at how many of the biggest and most successful companies in Switzerland were created by economic or political refugees of Europe who came because they couldn’t find in their own countries the conditions to operate,” the envoy said.

“Switzerland was, for a while, after the revolution of 1848, the only liberal democracy in Central Europe,” he added. The world-renowned watch industry in Switzerland, for example, benefited from French Protestants who brought their skills when they fled persecutions in 1685.

“It was an incredible opportunity for Switzerland,” he said. “In the end what made the U.S. so successful and what made Switzerland so successful is we’re able to draw good people into our society, into our universities, into our economy.”

Pitteloud said he believes the future belongs to countries that value and encourage diversity.

“What most people don’t know is that 35% of the Swiss population is either foreign, foreign-born or second generation,” he said, adding that he himself is “one-fourth [native] Swiss, two-fourths or one-half Italian, one-fourth French, and my wife is from Rwanda, Central Africa. I’m a typical Swiss!”

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Washington OKs 1st Statewide Missing Indigenous People Alert

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday signed into law a bill that creates a first-in-the-nation statewide alert system for missing Indigenous people. 

The law creates a system similar to Amber Alerts and so-called silver alerts, which are used respectively for missing children and vulnerable adults in many states. 

The system will notify law enforcement when there’s a report of a missing Indigenous person. It will also place messages on highway reader boards and on the radio and social media and will provide information to the news media. 

The law attempts to address a crisis of missing Indigenous people — particularly women — in Washington and across the United States. While it includes missing men, women and children, a summary of public testimony on the legislation notes that “the crisis began as a women’s issue, and it remains primarily a women’s issue.” 

A 2021 report by a government watchdog found the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. is unknown due to reporting problems, distrust of law enforcement and jurisdictional conflicts. But Native American women face murder rates almost three times those of white women overall — and up to 10 times the national average in certain locations, according to a 2021 summary of the existing research by the National Congress of American Indians. More than 80% have experienced violence. 

In Washington, more than four times as many Indigenous women go missing than white women, according to research conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle, but many such cases receive little or no media attention. 

An alert system will help mitigate some problems surrounding investigations of missing Indigenous people by allowing better communication between tribal, local and state law enforcement and creating a way for law enforcement to flag such cases for other agencies. The law also expands the definition of “missing endangered person” to include Indigenous people, as well as children and vulnerable adults with disabilities or memory or cognitive issues. 

The measure is the latest step the state has taken to address the issue. The Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force is working to coordinate a statewide response and had its first meeting in December. Its first report is expected in August. 

Many states from Arizona to Oregon to Wisconsin have taken recent action to address the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women. Efforts include funding for better resources for tribal police to the creation of new databases specifically targeting missing tribal members. Tribal police agencies that use Amber Alerts for missing Indigenous children include the Hopi and Las Vegas Paiute. 

In California, the Yurok Tribe and the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an Indigenous-run research and advocacy group, uncovered 18 cases of missing or slain Native American women in roughly the past year in their recent work — a number they consider a vast undercount. An estimated 62% of those cases are not listed in state or federal databases for missing persons. 


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Biden Proposes Raising Taxes on Super Wealthy Americans

In his new budget, U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed a 20 percent minimum tax on households with a net worth of more than $100 million. The proposal highlights the debate over what the government should do about the soaring fortunes of the wealthiest Americans. VOA’s Laurel Bowman reports.

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Could Russia Get Away With War Crimes in Ukraine?

War crimes happen whenever there is war, but seldom have they been investigated in real time and within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities, as is happening with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

After a brief initial hesitation to publicly brand the architects of the Ukraine invasion as war criminals, the United States and its European allies began issuing explicit statements about what they were seeing before the war was one month old.

“We’ve seen numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.

“Russia’s forces have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded.”

Normally, investigations into such allegations take place after the guns go silent so that investigators can inspect war-torn regions, document evidence, talk to victims and substantiate crimes.

But in the case of Ukraine, even the normally cautious International Criminal Court has been moved to action within the first week. “I have decided to proceed with opening an investigation,” ICC prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan announced on February 28.

Khan’s probe into possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine must be authorized by the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber, and there appear to be many legal and political obstacles in the way.

Last resort

In July 1998, more than 100 countries signed the so-called Rome Statute, creating an international judicial institution that would investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity internationally. It would also prosecute individuals responsible for such crimes.

Since it began operations in July 2002, the ICC has handled 30 cases, resulting in 10 convictions, 35 arrest warrants and four acquittals. From those convictions, 17 individuals have been incarcerated at an ICC detention center in the Netherlands.

Only an ICC member state, of which there are 123, can refer a case to the court for investigation and prosecution.

Ukraine is not a member. Neither is the U.S., Russia or China.

However, Ukraine has accepted ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate alleged war crimes on its territory.

“The ICC is a court of last resort,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union. He told VOA that the court acts after it has determined that the country where the crimes were perpetrated is unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute war criminals.

U.S. laws even limit the ways the U.S. can support ICC investigations, according to Alex Whiting, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

“The U.S. has actually taken the position that there are different ways to hold alleged Russian perpetrators to account, citing Ukrainian law and the possibility of prosecutions under that law, prosecutions by third states with jurisdiction, and then finally the ICC,” Whiting told VOA.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called his Russian counterpart “a war criminal” who should not “remain in power.”

Double standards

As of now, the ICC has 17 open investigations, mostly in Africa and Asia. The U.S. government has strongly opposed two ICC investigations — in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian territories.

In Afghanistan, a state member of the ICC, the U.S. conducted its longest foreign war for about two decades. The ICC has a long list of crimes allegedly committed by warring parties, including U.S. forces and Taliban fighters, against Afghan civilians from 2003 onward.

The U.S. government, under former President Donald Trump, went as far as to impose sanctions on an ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

Successive U.S. administrations have also objected to the ICC’s probing of alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces against Palestinians.

“I think the U.S. is still seen as hypocritical in the way that it’s engaging with the ICC, because it says as long as the ICC is not addressing or not dealing with accountability for our own conduct, we will be fine with that,” said the ACLU’s Dakwar.

He said that policy has undermined the ICC. “Either you are on the side of international justice, or you are on the other side,” Dakwar added.

The Biden administration has lifted the sanctions on the ICC prosecutor tasked to investigate the Afghanistan case, but the U.S. government says it still disagrees “strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations.”

Dakwar said the U.S. “is really standing at a juncture here because it has to decide on which side of history or which side of international justice it wants to be.”

Bargaining chip?

Lea Brilmayer, a professor of law at Yale University, told VOA there is no way to bring Russia into the criminal court. “It’s wishful thought by politicians when they say Russia should be held accountable for the war crimes in Ukraine,” she said.

In general, she said, only defeated leaders face trials, such as the Nazi generals and politicians who were tried in Nuremberg after World War II. But Russia is unlikely to face the fate of Hitler’s Germany.

While waging the war in Ukraine, Russian officials have held talks with representatives from Ukraine and other countries.

Some experts see the accusations of war crimes against Russian President Vladimir Putin as political rhetoric and a possible bargaining chip in future peace talks, rather than a viable effort to bring the Russians before any legal forum.

They note that in the brief history of the ICC, no world power has yet been investigated and tried for the wars it has conducted or sponsored in other countries.

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Turkish Doctors Flee Amid Violence, Inflation and Indifference

Turkey is in the grip of nationwide protests by doctors over surging violence and worsening economic conditions. The country is witnessing an unprecedented increase in doctors quitting to take jobs overseas, which as Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, threatens one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s major achievements.

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China Announces Visa Restrictions on US Officials

China on Thursday said it would impose visa restrictions on U.S. officials in retaliation for the U.S. restriction of visas for Chinese officials.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the restriction on Chinese officials who he said had been involved in “repressive acts” against ethnic and religious minorities.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, did not say who the U.S. officials were, but said they had lied about China’s human rights record.

“The United States uses the pretext of so-called human rights issues to concoct malicious lies and uses them as excuses to interfere in China’s internal affairs, smear China’s image and suppress Chinese officials,” said Wang. “These actions have no moral bottom line and seriously violate international law and the basic norms of international relations. China firmly opposes this.

“In order to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, and to protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese officials … China has decided to impose reciprocal visa restrictions on U.S. officials who concocted lies on human rights issues involving China, advocated sanctions on China and harmed China’s interests.”

Earlier this month, Wang demanded the U.S. lift its restrictions on Chinese officials or face “countermeasures.”

The U.S. and other Western countries have accused Beijing of conducting genocide against the Muslim Uyghur minority in China’s western Xinjang province. Beijing has denied the accusation.

Blinken last week accused China of attempting to “harass, intimidate, surveil and abduct members of ethnic and religious minority groups, including those who seek safety abroad, and U.S. citizens who speak out on behalf of these vulnerable populations.”

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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Blue Origin Makes Fourth Flight, Successfully Lands after 10-minute Voyage

Blue Origin, the space tourism venture launched by entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, completed its fourth flight with a crew on Thursday, landing successfully in rural west Texas after taking a half dozen passengers for a 10-minute suborbital joyride.

The New Shepard spacecraft blasted off at 8:59 a.m. CDT (1359 GMT), and the crew capsule separated from the six-story-tall rocket a short time later as it soared to an altitude of 66 miles (106 km).

The crew members experienced a few minutes of weightlessness at the very apex of their brief ride before the capsule fell back to Earth to the desert floor under a canopy of three parachutes, landing safely outside the west Texas town of Van Horn.

“What an amazing mission from Launch Site One. Congrats to all of Team Blue on executing and supporting today’s flight,” Blue Origin said on Twitter.

The flight came two days after it was initially scheduled, with poor weather conditions forcing the mission to be postponed on Tuesday.

Unlike Blue Origin’s first three crewed flights, which featured passenger rosters including “Star Trek” actor William Shatner, morning TV host Michael Strahan and Bezos himself, nobody on Thursday’s flight was particularly famous.

“Saturday Night Live” comic Pete Davidson had been confirmed as a non-paying promotional guest on the latest flight. But he dropped out earlier this month when the planned launch was postponed from its original March 23 date to allow time for additional pre-flight tests.

Days later the company announced that Davidson, 28, the boyfriend of reality TV star Kim Kardashian, had been replaced on the latest “crew” manifest by veteran Blue Origin designer Gary Lai, architect of the New Shepard reusable launch system.

Lai flew for free. He joined five previously announced paying customers – angel investor Marty Allen, real estate veteran Marc Hagle and his wife Sharon Hagle, entrepreneur and University of North Carolina professor Jim Kitchen and George Nield, founder and president of Commercial Space Technologies.

Bezos, the billionaire founder of online retail giant Amazon AMZN.O, was part of Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed flight to the edge of space last July. He accompanied his brother, Mark Bezos, trailblazing octogenarian female aviator Wally Funk and an 18-year-old Dutch high school graduate.

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Kenya Supreme Court Rejects President’s Bid to Change Constitution 

In a ruling Thursday, Kenya’s Supreme Court blocked changes to the constitution initiated by President Uhuru Kenyatta. Six of the seven judges ruled constitutional amendments must come from ordinary citizens, not the president. 

Following the hotly-contested 2017 election that almost split the country apart, Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga unveiled a plan they called the Building Bridges Initiative. 

The initiative would introduce the permanent office of prime minister and create 70 new constituencies.   

The two leaders argued the best way to avoid election-related violence that has plagued Kenya is to create more political positions. 

But the Supreme Court shot down changes in its ruling Thursday. Chief Justice Martha Koome read the verdict of the judges. 


“The president cannot initiate constitutional amendment and changes through the popular initiative under Article 257 of the constitution, Njoki Ndungu Supreme Court Judge dissenting,” Koome said. “Issue 2 the president initiated the amendment process initially, Njoki Ndungu and Lenaola Supreme Court Judges dissenting.” 

The Supreme Court agreed with the previous ruling of the two lower courts, the high court and the court of appeal, declaring the initiative unconstitutional. 


Odinga served as prime minister under a power sharing agreement that followed Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections.  However, the position was abolished after the 2012 polls. 


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Moldova Watches Ukraine with Special Concern

Moldova is watching the war in neighboring Ukraine with special concern. Like Ukraine, Moldova is not a member of NATO or the European Union, and it has a very large Russian-speaking population – factors that for some Moldovans have sown fears of becoming the next target of Russian ambitions. Jon Spier narrates this report from Ricardo Marquina in southern Moldova.

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DRC Joins EAC Regional Bloc to Facilitate Trade

The Democratic Republic of Congo this week became the seventh country to join the East African Community. The regional trade bloc, which includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, now reaches a quarter of Africa’s population, stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

The 90 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo will be able to move freely and do business in six other African countries.

The leaders of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda welcomed Congo to the East African Community in a ceremony Monday. 

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke, stressing cooperation as the group’s cornerstone.

“I proudly and warmly welcome our brothers and sisters from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the East African Community. We look forward to joining hands in strengthening our community together. Working together, we have more to gain than when we are separate,” Kenyatta said.

Ezra Munyambonera, an economic researcher at the Economic Policy Research Center, says Congo’s addition to the EAC will benefit all the countries in the bloc.

“It (the DRC) has a lot of resources [and it] joining the East Africa Community adds more to microeconomic conditions and microeconomic stability of the region in terms of foreign earnings and attracting investments in the region for wider economic growth,” Munyambonera said. 

The mineral-rich nation is a member of two more regional blocs, the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, or COMESA. 

Erastus Mwencha, a former secretary-general of COMESA, says the continent needs to scale up its production capabilities to benefit from integration and take advantage of its natural resources. 

“The tradable is not that much and so the region needs to develop trade with production, to really go beyond just looking at trade within but also to cater [to] the production aspect. The economies are not deep enough, we tend to produce primary products and because of that, they are not very much integrated,” Mwencha said.

The countries in the EAC bloc have not been able to fully establish a customs union, and while they are working on having a common currency by 2023, experts say that deadline likely will not be met. 

Mwencha says the DRC technology sector will provide more opportunities for entrepreneurs.   

“Whether you are looking at banking industries, fintech, because it’s a big country, which requires the banks to communicate throughout the country, or other services such as the education sector, health sector, there is a lot, in other words, of e-services,” Mwencha said.

As part of the East African Community, the DRC will enjoy lower tariffs and administrative barriers, something it hasn’t experienced for decades, despite using the ports of Mombasa, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to import most of its goods.

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Ghana’s Opposition File Lawsuit to Block Government’s Controversial E-Tax 

The political opposition in Ghana has filed a lawsuit with the country’s Supreme Court after lawmakers passed a controversial tax despite the party’s walk-out from parliament. Ghana’s government says the new tax on electronic transactions and transfers will raise money for the pandemic-hit economy. But critics say the tax will discourage trade and adds to the public’s economic burden.

Ghana’s opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) on Wednesday filed suit with the Supreme Court to block the government-backed tax on electronic transfers and transactions.

The NDC has called the so-called “E-Levy” of 1.5% “regressive” and unlawful because there was no quorum in parliament when it was passed. Opposition lawmakers had walked out of the proceedings in protest.

NDC lawmaker Mahama Ayariga, one of the plaintiffs, told VOA he is hopeful the Supreme Court will declare the tax unlawful.

“The speaker and the majority side knew they didn’t have the number; they hadn’t met the quorum and yet they proceeded and purported to have voted to pass the E-Levy… And if there wasn’t a quorum, there couldn’t have been a decision and so there could also not have been an E-Levy passed. So, the president has nothing before him to sign into law,” he said.

In his state of the nation address on Wednesday, Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo said the new tax would boost the economy as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite the protracted and sometimes acrimonious nature of proceedings, I am happy that the House has, finally, found it possible to pass the E-Levy,” he said. “I believe the levy is going to make a significant contribution to revenue mobilization and the management of the economy, and I want to thank members of the House for making this possible.”

Authorities say the tax is expected to raise about $900 million by the end of the year.

But most ordinary Ghanaians are opposed to the new tax, which will affect anyone using mobile money services.

Accra-based second-hand clothing trader Sophia Anane says it will harm her business.

“What are they using the revenue we generate from cocoa and oil for? The government wants to tax them on what little money they’re making in addition to what the telecommunications companies also deduct as commission. What is our fate?” she asks.

Some economists argue the government is wrong to burden Ghanaians with new taxes while they are still recovering from pandemic restrictions and disruptions.

Director of research at the Accra-based Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) John Kwakye the government should instead focus on improving tax collection.

“There are several loopholes in our tax system that if they were plugged, we’ll be able to raise our tax to GDP ratio to something like 20%. We’re now doing just about 12%. So, to me, if these other measures were being taken, I don’t think that even the E-Levy will be necessary,” he said.

Ghana’s Supreme Court is expected to hold a hearing on the opposition’s challenge to the new tax in the coming weeks.

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Post-Coup Mali Plagued by Self-Censorship, Fake News

Mali’s military government this month banned popular French radio and TV broadcasts after Radio France Internationale reported on alleged rights abuses by the Malian army and Russian mercenaries. The restrictions come as press freedom advocates cite a worrying trend of pro-Russian propaganda in countries where the mercenaries are working with government forces.

On March 18, the director of information at Joliba TV News, Mohamed Attaher Halidou, made a televised address from the station’s Bamako studio.   

Halidou asserted that a free press plays an important role in democracy, and he criticized the lack of condemnation by Malian media organizations over the ban of French broadcasts. 

This came days after Radio France Internationale and France 24 television were taken off the air in Mali. The government banned the broadcasts in response to reports by RFI on human rights abuse accusations against Mali’s army and mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor.

Speaking to VOA, Halidou said there is widespread self-censorship in Mali, as both civilians and journalists fear reprisal from Mali’s military rulers. 

Today, he said, fear has changed everything, because journalists, even before writing an article, start to think: “What am I going to say in this article? Is it going to bother those in power?” There is this pressure now that weighs on journalists, he says. Freedom of expression is threatened. There is nothing worse for a journalist than to self-censor, he said. 

Mali’s government has refused to grant accreditation to foreign journalists in recent months, deported a French reporter, and imprisoned an economist after he spoke to the press about international sanctions that have been imposed on Mali. 

Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, speaking from Paris, said the current situation in Mali strongly resembles what happened in Central African Republic in recent years, with Russian mercenaries on the ground, government restriction of media, and self-censorship among journalists.

“Journalists were targeted, and media outlets were not really allowed to operate and to tackle sensitive issues such as human rights abuses and also particularly what the Russian mercenaries were doing,” he said.

Froger also said that fake news targeting France and in favor of the mercenaries was widespread.

Abdoulaye Guindo is the coordinator of Malian news website Benbere, which has a platform that debunks false reports and propaganda that circulate online in the country. Speaking from Conakry, Guinea, where he is attending a conference, Guindo said that he first noticed a spike in disinformation after the 2021 coup, when the current military leaders took power for the second time in less than a year.  

He said, we have noticed an increase in fake news directed against European forces, notably Barkhane and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we’ve also noticed a lot of fake news which he said was meant to glorify Wagner troops and to push the population to applaud and to accept the arrival of the Wagner force in Mali. 

Operation Barkhane is the French anti-insurgent military operation that is in the process of withdrawing from Mali.

Froger said that though the situation is tense for now, Mali is not as isolated as the Central African Republic, and he believes that press freedom in the country will eventually improve, either through a change in policy or the handing over of power. 

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Putin Demands Western Countries Pay for Gas in Rubles

Foreign buyers of Russian gas could have to pay in rubles starting April 1, according to a decree signed Thursday by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Refusing to pay in the Russian currency will result in the suspension of contracts, Putin said.

The decree targets the United States, the United Kingdom and European Union countries, which Putin calls “unfriendly.”

“In order to purchase Russian natural gas, they must open ruble accounts in Russian banks. It is from these accounts that payments will be made for gas delivered starting from tomorrow,” Putin said in a television appearance.

“If such payments are not made, we will consider this a default on the part of buyers, with all the ensuing consequences,” the Russia leader said. “Nobody sells us anything for free, and we are not going to do charity either — that is, existing contracts will be stopped.”

Despite the strong words, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reportedly said they had spoken to Putin and were told existing contracts will remain in place.

Western governments and companies have called the proposed move a breach of already existing contracts, which stipulates payments should be made in euros or dollars.

The move to force ruble payments is seen as retaliation for the vast array of sanctions the West and other countries have placed on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine last month.

Europe gets about one-third of its gas from Russia.

The value of the ruble plummeted at the beginning of the war but has rebounded to near pre-war levels.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.

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Key Inflation Gauge Sets 40-year High as Gas and Food Soar in US

An inflation gauge closely monitored by the Federal Reserve jumped 6.4% in February compared with a year ago, with sharply higher prices for food, gasoline and other necessities squeezing Americans’ finances.

The figure reported Thursday by the Commerce Department was the largest year-over-year rise since January 1982. Excluding volatile prices for food and energy, so-called core inflation increased 5.4% in February from 12 months earlier.

Robust consumer demand has combined with shortages of many goods to fuel the sharpest price jumps in four decades. Escalating the inflation pressures, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global oil markets and accelerated prices for wheat, nickel and other key commodities.

The inflation spike took a toll on consumers, whose spending in February rose just 0.2%, down from a much larger 2.7% gain in January. Adjusted for inflation, spending actually fell 0.4% last month.

The Federal Reserve responded this month to the inflation surge by raising its benchmark short-term interest rate by a quarter-point from near zero, and it’s likely to keep raising it well into next year. Because its rate affects many consumer and business loans, the Fed’s rate hikes will make borrowing more expensive and could weaken the economy over time.

Michael Feroli of JPMorgan is among economists who now think the Fed will raise its key rate by an aggressive half-point in both May and June. The central bank hasn’t raised its benchmark rate by a half-point in two decades, a sign of how concerned it has become about the persistent surge in inflation.

On a monthly basis, prices rose 0.6% from January to February, up slightly from the previous month’s increase of 0.5%. Core prices rose 0.4%, down from a 0.5% increase in January.

Gas prices have soared in the past month in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, which led the United Kingdom and the Biden administration to ban Russia’s oil exports. The cost of a gallon of gas shot up to a national average of $4.24 a gallon Wednesday, according to AAA. That’s up 63 cents from a month ago, when it was $3.61.

Thursday’s report follows a more widely monitored inflation gauge, the consumer price index, that was issued earlier this month. The CPI jumped to 7.9% in February from a year ago, the sharpest such increase in four decades.

Many economists still expect inflation to peak in the coming months. In part, that’s because price spikes that occurred last year, when the economy widely reopened, will begin to make the year-over-year price increases appear smaller. Yet Fed officials project that inflation, as measured by its preferred gauge, will still be a comparatively high 4.3% by the end of this year.

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In Ukraine’s Lviv, Large Soccer Stadium Turned Into Refugee Shelter

The beautiful medieval city of Lviv in western Ukraine has become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over Ukraine. One Local soccer stadium, built for the 2012 Euro Cup, has been turned into a refugee center. Anna Kosstutschenko reports for VOA in Lviv.
Videographer: Yuiry Dankevych

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Biden to Mark Transgender Day of Visibility With New Actions 

President Joe Biden is commemorating Transgender Day of Visibility by celebrating prominent transgender Americans and advocating against what his administration terms “dangerous anti-transgender legislative attacks” that have passed in statehouses across the country.

Biden on Thursday is announcing new measures aimed at making the federal government more inclusive for transgender people, including a new “X” gender marker on U.S. passport applications beginning on April 11 and new Transportation Security Administration scanners that are gender-neutral.

The Democratic president’s administration is working to expand the availability of the “X” gender marker to airlines and federal travel programs and will make it easier for transgender people to change their gender information in Social Security Administration records.

Visitors to the White House will soon also be able to select an “X” gender marker option in the White House Worker and Visitor Entry System, which is used to conduct screening background checks for visitors to the executive mansion.

“Transgender Americans continue to face discrimination, harassment, and barriers to opportunity,” Biden wrote in a proclamation marking the day. “In the past year, hundreds of anti-transgender bills in States were proposed across America, most of them targeting transgender kids. The onslaught has continued this year. These bills are wrong.”

Biden also planned to release a video message to transgender Americans on Thursday.

“Jeopardy!” champion Amy Schneider, the first openly transgender winner on the quiz show, will visit the White House on Thursday to meet with second gentleman Doug Emhoff. Emhoff, along with Admiral Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, will also host a conversation with transgender kids and their parents at the White House.

In Florida, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will meet with LGBTQ+ students in the wake of the state’s new law that bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade. Republicans argue that parents should broach these subjects with children. Democrats have said the law demonizes LGBTQ people by excluding them from classroom lessons.

“Their conversation will focus on the impacts of Florida’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, students’ experiences at school and, in particular, support for LGBTQI+ student mental health and well-being,” the White House said.

HHS, the White House said, will also be the first agency to fly a trans pride flag.

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Ukrainian President Says Defense Is at a ‘Turning Point’

Ukraine’s president said his country’s defense against the Russian invasion was at a “turning point” and again pressed the United States for more help, hours after the Kremlin’s forces reneged on a pledge to scale back some of their operations.

Russian bombardment of areas around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv and intensified attacks elsewhere in the country further undermined hopes for progress toward ending the bloody conflict that has devolved into a war of attrition. Civilians trapped in besieged cities have shouldered some of the worst suffering, though both sides said Thursday they would attempt another evacuation from the port city of Mariupol.

Talks between Ukraine and Russia were set to resume Friday by video, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia.

A delegation of Ukrainian lawmakers visited Washington on Wednesday to push for more U.S. assistance, saying their nation needs more military equipment, more financial help and tougher sanctions against Russia.

“We need to kick Russian soldiers off our land, and for that we need all, all possible weapons,” Ukrainian parliament member Anastasia Radina said at a news conference at the Ukrainian Embassy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the case directly to U.S. President Joe Biden.

“If we really are fighting for freedom and in defense of democracy together, then we have a right to demand help in this difficult turning point. Tanks, aircraft, artillery systems. Freedom should be armed no worse than tyranny,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation, which he delivered standing in the dark outside the dimly lit presidential offices in Kyiv. He thanked the U.S. for an additional $500 million in aid that was announced Wednesday.

There seemed little faith that Russia and Ukraine will resolve the conflict soon, particularly after the Russian military’s about-face and its most recent attacks.

Russia said Tuesday that it would de-escalate operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” Zelenskyy and the West were skeptical. Soon after, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian shelling was hitting homes, stores, libraries and other civilian sites in or near those areas.

Britain’s Defense Ministry also confirmed “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes” around Chernihiv.

It said Thursday that “Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units. Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”

Russian troops also stepped up their attacks on the Donbas region in the east and around the city of Izyum, which lies on a key route to the Donbas, after redeploying units from other areas, the Ukrainian side said.

Olexander Lomako, secretary of the Chernihiv city council, said the Russian announcement turned out to be “a complete lie.”

“At night they didn’t decrease, but vice versa increased the intensity of military action,” Lomako said.

A top British intelligence official said Thursday that demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine were refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft.

In a speech in the Australian capital Canberra, Jeremy Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency, said President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion, he said. Although Putin’s advisers appeared to be too afraid to tell the truth, the “extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” he said.

U.S. intelligence officials have given similar assessments that Putin is being misinformed by advisers too scared to give honest evaluations.

Five weeks into the invasion that has left thousands dead, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country topped a staggering 4 million, half of them children, according to the United Nations.

“I do not know if we can still believe the Russians,” Nikolay Nazarov, a refugee from Ukraine, said as he pushed his father’s wheelchair at a border crossing into Poland. “I think more escalation will occur in eastern Ukraine. That is why we cannot go back to Kharkiv.”

Zelenskyy said the continuing negotiations with Russia were only “words without specifics.” He said Ukraine was preparing for concentrated new strikes on the Donbas.

Zelenskyy also said he had recalled Ukraine’s ambassadors to Georgia and Morocco, suggesting they had not done enough to persuade those countries to support Ukraine and punish Russia for the invasion.

“With all due respect, if there won’t be weapons, won’t be sanctions, won’t be restrictions for Russian business, then please look for other work,” he said.

During talks Tuesday in Istanbul, the faint outlines of a possible peace agreement seemed to emerge when the Ukrainian delegation offered a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral — dropping its bid to join NATO, as Moscow has long demanded — in return for security guarantees from a group of other nations.

Top Russian officials responded positively, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying Wednesday that Ukraine’s willingness to accept neutrality and look outside NATO for security represents “significant progress,” according to Russian news agencies.

But those statements were followed by attacks.

Oleksandr Pavliuk, head of the Kyiv region military administration, said Russian shells targeted residential areas and civilian infrastructure in the Bucha, Brovary and Vyshhorod regions around the capital.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the military also targeted fuel depots in two towns in central Ukraine with air-launched long-range cruise missiles. Russian forces hit a Ukrainian special forces headquarters in the southern Mykolaiv region, he said, and two ammunition depots in the Donetsk region, in the Donbas.

In southern Ukraine, a Russian missile destroyed a fuel depot in Dnipro, the country’s fourth-largest city, regional officials said.

The U.S. said Russia had begun to reposition less than 20% of its troops that had been arrayed around Kyiv. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said troops from there and some other zones began moving mostly to the north, and some went into neighboring Belarus. Kirby said it appeared Russia planned to resupply them and send them back into Ukraine, but it is not clear where.

The Ukrainian military said some Russian airborne units were believed to have withdrawn into Belarus.

Top Russian military officials say their main goal now is the “liberation” of the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. Some analysts have suggested that the focus on the Donbas and the pledge to de-escalate may merely be an effort to put a positive spin on reality since Moscow’s ground forces have become bogged down and taken heavy losses.

The Russians also are expected to try to blockade Chernihiv.

Russian forces have already been blockading Mariupol, a key port in the south, for weeks. The city has seen some of the worst devastation of the war and many attempts to implement safe evacuation corridors have collapsed. Ukraine accused Russian forces last week of seizing bus drivers and rescue workers headed to Mariupol.

The Russian military said it committed to a localized cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia from Thursday morning.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that Ukraine was sending out 45 buses to collect people. She said the International Committee of the Red Cross was acting as an intermediary.

Similar evacuation efforts have been planned before and collapsed amid recriminations over fighting along the route.

Civilians who have managed to leave the city have typically done so using private cars, but the number of drivable vehicles left in Mariupol has dwindled and fuel stocks are low.

Russia has also operated its own evacuations from territory it has captured in Mariupol. Ukraine alleges Russia is sending its citizens to “filtration camps” in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine and then forcibly taking people to Russia.

The U.N. is looking into those allegations.

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Taiwan Studying Ukraine War Tactics, Discussing With US

Taiwan’s defense ministry has set up a working group to study the tactics of the war in Ukraine, including how the country has been able to hold out against Russia, and has been discussing this with the United States, its minister said Thursday.

Taiwan, claimed by China as its own territory, has raised its alert level since the Russian invasion, wary of Beijing possibly making a similar move on the island, though it has reported no signs this is about to happen.

The possible impact of the war on China’s military thinking on Taiwan, and how China could attack the island, has been widely debated in official circles in Taipei.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of parliament, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said they had had “contact” with foreign countries to talk about how the war was being fought, and had set up their own working group to study it.

Topics Taiwan is following include Russia’s poor military performance and Ukraine’s resistance, he said.

“It is not only discussed in exchange meetings between the United States and Taiwan, but also discussed with other countries that have regular contacts with Taiwan,” Chiu added, without giving details.

Taiwan’s team on Ukraine includes academics from the National Defence University, he said.

“However, we will not make remarks rashly, but through internal discussions which are important, to get results that are helpful for building armaments and preparing for war.”

While Taiwanese officials have seen many parallels in the Ukraine war and their own situation, including having their own giant neighbor with territorial ambitions, they have also pointed to major differences.

Taiwan has talked, for example, of the “natural barrier” of the Taiwan Strait which would make China putting troops on the ground much more difficult than Russia just crossing over its land border with Ukraine.

Taiwan also has a large and well-equipped air force, and is developing its own formidable missile strike capability.

China has been stepping up its military pressure against Taiwan over the past two years or so.

Taiwan rejects China’s sovereignty claims, and says only the island’s people can decide their future.

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Vietnamese Carmaker to Build Electric Vehicles in N Carolina

A Vietnamese automaker announced plans Tuesday to build a plant in North Carolina to manufacture electric vehicles, promising to bring 7,500 jobs and ending the state’s streak of near-misses for landing carmakers.

VinFast will build its first North American plant in Chatham County southwest of Raleigh, with production expected to start in 2024. It expects to employ 7,500 by 2027 with average salaries of $51,000, according to the state Commerce Department.

“VinFast’s transformative project will bring many good jobs to our state, along with a healthier environment as more electric vehicles take to the road to help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement.

The company is expected to invest $4 billion in building the plant on a nearly 800-hectare site about a 30-minute drive southwest of Raleigh. The plant is planned to be able to manufacture 150,000 cars per year. The state has agreed to use job development grants to reimburse $316 million over 32 years if it hits job-creation and investment goals. The state is also planning to provide as much as $450 million for site preparation, road improvements and other infrastructure work.

A release from the state Commerce Department said the manufacturer considered sites in 12 states before narrowing its search to North Carolina and a site in Savannah, Georgia. The release said the workforce, incentives and site preparation were key factors in its choice.

“North Carolina’s strong commitments in building a clean energy economy, fighting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in transportation make it an ideal location for VinFast to develop its premium, smart and environmentally friendly EVs,” VinFast Global CEO Le Thi Thu Thuy said in a statement.

The United Auto Workers union has plans to organize workers at the new VinFast plant, as well as other electric vehicle and battery factories that are locating in Southern states, union President Ray Curry said Tuesday. The union has funding available now to start organizing efforts, Curry told the Automotive Press Association in Detroit.

The union, he said, already has a presence in North Carolina.

“We believe that we are the preferred union,” Curry said. “We are the auto workers, and our goal would be to be able to represent any auto work assembly that would take place in the country, especially EVs that are transforming right now.”

The UAW also will try to organize Ford and General Motors battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as factories run by Tesla and electric vehicle startup Rivian. Both have plants that were represented by the union under previous owners. Such campaigns, depending on their duration, could cost tens of millions of dollars, he said.

Landing the car manufacturing plant is considered a major accomplishment for Cooper, legislative leaders and economic recruiters following a series of disappointments stretching back decades.

In the early 1990s, North Carolina lost out to South Carolina for BMW’s first full-service factory outside of Germany, then later to Alabama, which landed Mercedes-Benz’s SUV plant. More recently, the state fell short in competing for new plants by Tesla and Rivian Automotive.

Freightliner already operates truck production plants in North Carolina, and Volvo Trucks’ North America headquarters is based in Greensboro.

The VinFast plant acquisition is the latest in a string of significant economic victories for the state over the past 12 months.

Apple announced plans last April to build its first East Coast campus in Research Triangle Park between Raleigh and Durham, creating 3,000 new jobs over the next decade.

Toyota revealed in December it will build a $1.3 billion battery plant near Greensboro that will employ at least 1,750 people and help fulfill the automaker’s plans to drastically increase electric vehicle sales in the U.S.

And Boom Supersonic announced in January that Greensboro would be the home for its first full-scale manufacturing facility for next-generation supersonic passenger jets. That also comes with a goal of more than 2,400 new jobs by 2032.

VinFast is part of Vietnamese conglomerate Vingroup, which is providing capital to expand electric vehicle sales to the U.S. and eventually Europe. The company already is selling vehicles with internal combustion engines and electric powertrains in Vietnam.

In November, the company introduced the VF e35 midsize and VF e36 large electric SUVs at the Los Angeles Auto Show, but it did not reveal prices.

The company’s former chief executive said last year that VinFast plans to start taking orders in the spring and delivering vehicles in the U.S. in the fall. Initially the SUVs would be built at a new factory in Vietnam, but VinFast was planning to build a U.S. factory that would start producing in the second half of 2024.

VinFast, with a U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles, plans to sell vehicles through its own network of stores, with much of the order process done online. Already the company has plans for 60 stores in California alone. It also will have some service centers and mobile service.

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Anti-Asian Crimes Persist in US a Year after Atlanta Spa Shooting

Carol Liao, a 30-year vendor of herbs and massage chairs in Oakland’s Chinatown, opens her shop doors only for customers she knows, those who have visited before, or better, placed a phone order for one of her $9,000 massage chairs.

Some shopkeepers and restaurant owners in Chinatown say business is gradually improving so far this year. Liao isn’t so sure. She was broken into once last year. Two immediate neighbors have boarded their stores and two more have moved out for safety reasons.

Even as COVID-19 abates, Liao said, the threat of crime deters commerce. She still has repeat customers, so she stands out at the curbside to make sure no suspicious people enter the shop. So far, so good.

“The reason (business) is lower this year is, first off, because of the safety, too many bad incidents, the shootings,” said Liao, who’s from Taiwan. “This year is worse than last.”

The mostly Cantonese, 20-block tract of Oakland businesses has become safer since the city police department stationed cars and foot patrols there in August last year, Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan said. No violence targeting shoppers has been reported since then, he said. Robberies, assaults and a killing had been reported in the months prior.

He said some of the roughly 300 shops and eateries in the zone, which was not known for high crime before 2020, have lengthened their hours to compensate for an estimated 15% loss of business in 2020-21. The crime rate rose between March 2020 and August 2021, coinciding with COVID-19 and the backlash against Asians.

California-based advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate recorded 10,905 “hate” incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific islanders in the U.S. from March 19, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021.

The second quarter of 2021 saw a spike of 2,478 cases, compared to 1,289 in the third quarter and 535 in the fourth, Stop AAPI Hate data show. Verbal anti-Asian incidents make up 63% of reported cases, and 16% of reports were of physical violence. Chinese Americans made up 42.8% of the people reporting incidents.

“Overall, we know that the top cities are San Francisco and New York, which have high concentrations of low-income Asian Americans in dense areas, and that’s correlated to more hate incidents,” said Russell Jeung, the Stop AAPI Hate founder and a professor in the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University.

Crimes targeting Asians rose by 150% in 2020 over 2019, when former U.S. President Donald Trump blamed China for the coronavirus outbreak that began sweeping the United States about two years ago.

Liao’s fears still resonate around much of the United States, where anti-Asian sentiment remains a threat one year after a bellwether Atlanta-area spa shooting.

The shooting of March 16, 2021, killed six Asian women. The shooter was sentenced to life in prison. The crime drew widespread attention to a growing rash of violence and slurs against Asians nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic that had begun a year earlier in China.

Killings of Asian women in New York City in January and February 2022 show that the attacks haven’t ended, Jeung said. In San Francisco’s Chinatown this month, a camera store was robbed during the daytime. In another incident, on an early March morning in Oakland, two Chinese-owned shops — closed at the time — were hit by bullets during a gun battle, alarming Liao and her customers.

Chinatown veterans attribute the continued crime wave to friction in Sino-U.S. relations, the high number of cash-only transactions and a sense that it’s easy to avoid arrest due to defunding of some urban police departments since mid-2020 in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Chinatowns in Oakland and San Francisco have higher-than-normal numbers of cash transactions.

Veteran San Francisco restaurateur George Chen said violent crime such as robberies against Chinese-owned businesses had “almost become normalized” because “China is deemed to be an enemy and not just a competitor.”

Chen’s comment echoes a foreign policy speech given by U.S. President Joe Biden in February in which he called China the “most serious competitor” to the United States.

The chief executive officer of the high-end China Live restaurant uses surveillance cameras and employs a security manager to keep his staff of 100 safe. San Francisco’s Chinatown is an upmarket area that is popular with tourists.

“There are more police patrols, but we basically need more self-surveillance as we can’t be relying on more cops to solve the problems,” Chen said.

Liao attributes the criminal activity to non-Asians targeting more “successful” Asians in her district where merchants often prefer cash over more theft-proof forms of payment.

Today’s anti-Asian crimes and remarks can be traced back to the previous century, when Asian immigrants were seen as second-class citizens and barred from citizenship until 1952, Columbia University professor Jennifer Lee wrote in a January 2021 study.

Trump’s “China virus” comment “reanimated a century-old trope that Asians are vectors of filth and disease, exposing not only the precariousness of their status but also the country’s nativist fault line,” Lee wrote.

The COVID-19 coronavirus was discovered in late 2019 in the Chinese city Wuhan, sparking the world’s first outbreak.

If the anti-Asian crime rate does eventually fall, just the fear of it will persist as long as images of any lingering attacks make the television news, Jeung said.

“That’s the fear paradox,” he said.

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Rights Group, War Victims Welcome Trial of Darfur Militia Leader

Years after atrocities took place in Sudan’s Darfur region, one of the key suspected perpetrators is about to face trial.

Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, goes on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague on April 5.

An arrest warrant was issued by the ICC for the paramilitary leader in 2007. He faces 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in 2003 and 2004. He surrendered in 2020 and was brought to The Hague, which confirmed his indictment the following year.

Kushayb has denied the charges and unsuccessfully challenged the court’s jurisdiction.

The ICC says Kushayb was one of the most senior leaders in the tribal hierarchy in the Wadi Salih locality and member of the Popular Defense Forces, a paramilitary group. He allegedly commanded thousands of janjaweed militias from August 2003 until March 2004 under former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in 2019.

Kushayb is alleged to have implemented the counterinsurgency strategy of the government of Sudan, resulting in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, according to the ICC.

Kushayb is accused of personally participating in some of the attacks against civilians between August 2003 and March 2004, when civilians were killed, raped and tortured, the ICC says.

On April 5, ICC spokesperson Fadi El Abdallah told VOA, “The chamber will hear the prosecution’s opening statement first, followed by a short, unsworn statement by the accused and a short remark presented by the representative of victims.”

The first prosecution witness and experts will testify on April 6, he added.

Elise Keppler, an official with the Human Rights Watch International Justice Program, underscores the trial’s significance.

“It’s the first time that a leader is being held to account for massive crimes committed in Darfur,” Keppler told South Sudan in Focus. “This is a rare opportunity for accountability, a first crucial opportunity.”

Keppler said she hopes the trial will be the beginning of achieving justice in Sudan for victims as well as the perpetrators.

“This trial shows that even though it can be incredibly slow going for accountability to advance, it can and does happen.” And she warned that “would-be-perpetrators should take note that this person, Ali Kushayb, is being held to account.”

The delay in trying Kushayb and other accused individuals in Sudan is mainly because of former President Bashir’s refusal to cooperate with the court, Keppler said. She pointed out that Bashir also is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Darfur.

Adam Rijal, a spokesperson for internally displaced persons in Darfur says war victims are excited that Kushayb is finally held to account.

“This is a triumph for all the victims, and it shows that their patience all these years, in the face of continued crimes committed against them, will be rewarded with justice,” Rijal said. 

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In Guatemala, Woman’s Fight for Ukrainian Refugees has Global Reach

As millions of Ukrainians flee their homes, there has been an outpouring of support from people around the world. One Ukrainian woman in Guatemala has mobilized the online community to help Ukrainians. For VOA News Eugenia Sagastume has the story.
Camera: Eugenia Sagastume

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UN Chief: 2 Billion People Live in Conflict Areas Today

The United Nations chief said Wednesday that one-quarter of humanity — 2 billion people — are living in conflict areas today and the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since 1945, when World War II ended.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cited conflicts from Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and Sudan to Haiti, Africa’s Sahel, “and now the war in Ukraine — a catastrophe shaking the foundations of the international order, spilling across borders and causing skyrocketing food, fuel and fertilizer prices that spell disaster for developing countries.”

He told the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission on Wednesday that last year 84 million people were forced to leave their homes because of conflict, violence and human rights violations. And that doesn’t include the Ukraine war which has already seen 4 million people flee the country and displaced another 6.5 million within the country, according to U.N. agencies.

Guterres said the U.N. estimates that this year “at least 274 million will need humanitarian assistance.” This represents a 17% increase from 2021 and will cost $41 billion for the 183 million people targeted for aid, according to the U.N. humanitarian office.

Guterres also cited the 2 billion figure of people living in conflict countries in a report to the commission in late January, which said there were a record number of 56 state-based conflicts in 2020. It doesn’t include the Ukraine war, which started with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and has affected almost all 40 million people in the country.

The secretary-general told the commission that conflicts are increasing “at a moment of multiplying risks that are pushing peace further out of reach — inequalities, COVID-19, climate change and cyber threats, to name just a few.”

He also pointed to an increase of military coups and seizures of power by force around the world, growing nuclear arsenals, human rights and international law under assault, and criminals and terrorist networks “fueling — and profiting from — divisions and conflicts.”

“The flames of conflict are fueled by inequality, deprivation and underfunded systems,” Guterres said, and these issues must be addressed urgently.

According to his report to the commission, the world is seeing the increasing internationalization of conflicts within countries, and this, together with “the fragmentation and multiplication” of armed groups linked to criminal and terrorist networks, “makes finding solutions arduous,” he said.

Consequently, Guterres said, “there are fewer political settlements to conflicts,” with Colombia a notable exception.

“Over the last decade, the world has spent $349 billion on peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and refugee support, he said. “And global military expenditures rose to nearly $2 trillion in 2020.”

The Peacebuilding Commission has worked to advance peace and prevent conflict in countries including Ivory Coast, Iraq, Africa’s Great Lakes region and Papua New Guinea, the secretary-general said, and the Peacebuilding Fund has grown, investing $195 million last year.

But it relies on voluntary contributions and peacebuilding needs are far outpacing resources, which is why Guterres said he is asking the U.N. General Assembly to assess the U.N.’s 193 member nations a total of $100 million annually for the fund.

“When we consider the costs of war — to the global economy but most of all to humanity’s very soul — peacebuilding is a bargain, and a prerequisite for development and a better future for all,” he said. 

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CDC Drops COVID-19 Health Warning for Cruise Ship Travelers

Federal health officials are dropping the warning they have attached to cruising since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving it up to vacationers to decide whether they feel safe getting on a ship.

Cruise-ship operators welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, which came as many people thought about summer vacation plans.

An industry trade group said the move by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention validated measures that ship owners have taken, including requiring crew members and most passengers to be vaccinated against the virus.

The CDC removed the COVID-19 “cruise ship travel health notice” that was first imposed in March 2020, after virus outbreaks on several ships around the world.

However, the agency expressed reservations about cruising.

“While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings,” CDC spokesperson Dave Daigle said in an email.

Daigle said the CDC’s decision was based on “the current state of the pandemic and decreases in COVID-19 cases onboard cruise ships over the past several weeks.”

COVID-19 cases in the United States have been falling since mid-January, although the decline has slowed in recent weeks, and the current seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. is roughly unchanged from two weeks ago, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. States have rolled back mask mandates, putting pressure on federal officials to ease virus-related restrictions.

Outbreaks continue to be reported on cruise ships, which conduct random testing before the end of voyages.

On Sunday, a Princess Cruises ship returning from the Panama Canal had “multiple” passengers who had tested positive for the virus. Princess Cruises said all the affected passengers showed mild symptoms or none at all, and that all crew members and passengers had been vaccinated. About a dozen passengers tested positive before the same boat docked in San Francisco in January.

Operators are required to tell the CDC about virus cases on board ships. The agency has a colored-coded system to classify ships based on the percentage of passengers who test positive. The CDC said that system remains in place.

Cruise-ship operators have complained since the start of the pandemic that their industry has been singled out for a shutdown and then tighter COVID-19 restrictions than others, including airlines.

The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that the CDC’s decision to remove its health warning “recognizes the effective public health measures in place on cruise ships and begins to level the playing field between cruise and similarly situated venues on land.”

Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a site that publishes review of trips, called the CDC decision big news.

“Symbolically it’s a notice of winds of change when it comes to cruising,” she said. “I do think it can convince some of the doubters. What the CDC says does matter to cruisers.”

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