Russia and China veto UN resolution on Syria sanctions

Russia and China have vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Drafted by Britain, France and the United States, the measure won nine votes in favor, while three countries – China, Russia and Bolivia – opposed it. Kazakhstan, Ethiopia and Egypt abstained.

It was Russia’s seventh veto in five years to save its Syrian ally. China, also one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, has joined Russia in vetoing six resolutions on Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned that imposing sanctions on Syria during the ongoing Geneva conference was “completely inappropriate” and would undermine the effort to end Syria’s nearly six-year war.

The proposal marked the first major Security Council action by the new US administration under President Donald Trump, which is seeking warmer ties with Russia.

[Al Jazeera]

3 ways Trump’s Travel Ban could affect humanitarian aid workers

International humanitarian aid organizations say the travel restrictions issued by President Donald Trump could have a dramatic impact on how they operate. We spoke with aid groups that work in the listed countries about the possible effects on their workers.

  1. Aid groups are restricting employee travel – There’s a lot of ambiguity in the executive order on how individuals — U.S. citizens or otherwise — can travel to and from the seven banned countries, says Nick Osborne, vice president of international programs for CARE, a global aid group. At the least, Americans traveling to and from those seven countries could face scrutiny when returning to the U.S. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the order, CARE has placed immediate travel restrictions on their staffers. Oxfam, an international charity organization, says they’ve had to rearrange travel plans for American employees and nationals of the listed countries. The group is concerned about long-term impact on the movement of staff, says Emily Bhatti, press officer of Oxfam America. “The lack of clarity could make it hard for groups to quickly deliver aid if a crisis were to arise. For CARE, the brewing food crisis in Somalia is top of mind.”
  1. Aid workers who are citizens of the seven banned countries not being able to travel to the U.S. – In many countries, local staffers make up much of the crew that operates aid projects on the ground. Many times, these employees have crucial, on-the-ground knowledge that shapes aid strategy. These staffers come to the U.S. for many reasons. Save the Children, for example, brings experts from various countries to meet with members of Congress and U.N. officials, share knowledge with American colleagues and tell their stories to journalists. This March, the group was planning to bring to the U.S. two Syrian experts on mental health to speak at the launch of a report on the effects of civil war on children.
  2. Trump’s ban could cause other countries to place travel bans on U.S. workers – There’s a chance the seven countries may restrict Americans from entering their countries. If that were to happen, aid workers would likely be affected. Unlike diplomats or U.N. employees, aid workers don’t have special visas that ensure safe passage when traveling. In response to the executive order, Iran and Iraq have both called for reciprocal measures.

[NPR]

International airlines allowing nationals of 7 banned Muslim countries to board US-bound flights

By any reading, Donald Trump’s executive order suspending the US refugee program and arrivals from seven mainly Muslim countries has been a disaster. Grandmothers and Iraqis who served alongside American soldiers have been detained. Not good for PR.

The White House has had to drop green card holders from the ban and more than one judge has ordered parts of the program be dropped. The State Department has reversed the cancellation of visas provisionally revoked after Trump’s executive order — so long as those visas were not stamped or marked as canceled.

Many international airlines are again allowing nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries hit with President Donald Trump’s travel ban to board US-bound flights after a federal judge blocked the controversial ban nationwide. US Customs and Border Protection informed major American airlines on a conference call that it was “back to business as usual,” an airline executive told CNN.

It has exposed rifts in the administration, with key players saying they were not properly consulted, and divisions among Republicans, who say such barriers are un-American or that they detect a religious test in the decision to give Christians preferential treatment.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this: Throughout a topsy-turvy campaign, Trump managed to offer a consistent messianic message amid the noise. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he said at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. “It’s going to be beautiful,” he bragged. “It will be so easy,” he boasted.

[CNN]

To Trump the only extremism that matters is Islamic extremism

It’s been nearly a week since a self-described fan of Donald Trump walked into a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire, killing six worshipers. Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, called it “a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant and why the President is taking steps to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security.”

Spicer’s statement left the press corps baffled. He seemed to be suggesting that a far-right, ultra-nationalist, white supremacist, radicalized by social media into murdering Muslims, somehow proved Trump’s position on the need to focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism.

But let’s pretend, for a moment, that facts actually matter, especially when it comes to the safety of American citizens. Here are the facts about terrorism in the United States:

  • Americans are almost seven times as likely to be killed by a white extremist than by an Islamic one, according to one study.
  • Citing a 2013 study, the New York Times notes: “Right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities.”

 [From CNN article by Reza Aslan, author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”]

8 people have as much money as half the World

Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity, according to a new report published by Oxfam to mark the annual meeting of political and business leaders in Davos.

Oxfam’s report, ‘An economy for the 99 percent’, shows that the gap between rich and poor is far greater than had been feared. It details how big business and the super-rich are fueling the inequality crisis by dodging taxes, driving down wages and using their power to influence politics.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, said: “It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when 1 in 10 people survive on less than $2 a day.”

Oxfam’s report shows how our broken economies are funneling wealth to a rich elite at the expense of the poorest in society, the majority of whom are women.

The richest are accumulating wealth at such an astonishing rate that the world could see its first trillionaire in just 25 years.  To put this figure in perspective – you would need to spend $1 million every day for 2738 years to spend $1 trillion.

The world’s 8 richest people are, in order of net worth:

  1. Bill Gates: America founder of Microsoft (net worth $75 billion)
  2. Amancio Ortega: Spanish founder of Inditex which owns the Zara fashion chain (net worth $67 billion)
  3. Warren Buffett: American CEO and largest shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway (net worth $60.8 billion)
  4. Carlos Slim Helu: Mexican owner of Grupo Carso (net worth: $50 billion)
  5. Jeff Bezos: American founder, chairman and chief executive of Amazon (net worth: $45.2 billion)
  6. Mark Zuckerberg: American chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of Facebook (net worth $44.6 billion)
  7. Larry Ellison: American co-founder and CEO of Oracle  (net worth $43.6 billion)
  8. Michael Bloomberg: American founder, owner and CEO of Bloomberg LP (net worth: $40 billion)

[By Oxfam ]

2016 the hottest year since record keeping began in 1880

Scientists confirmed this week that 2016 was the hottest year since record keeping began in 1880, marking the third consecutive year of record warmth across the globe.

The average global surface temperature (over both land and ocean) in 2016 was 58.69 degrees F — 1.69 degrees above the 20th-century average and 0.07 degrees above last year’s record. “That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you take that and you average it all the way around the planet, that’s a big number,” said Deke Arndt, the head of global climate monitoring at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

According to NOAA, the annual global temperature record has been broken five times since the start of the 21st century (2005, 2010, 2014, 2015, and 2016).

The buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been steadily raising global temperatures for more than half a century now. “A single warm year is something of a curiosity,” Arndt told reporters Wednesday. “It’s really the trend, and the fact that we’re punching at the ceiling every year now, that is the real indicator that we’re undergoing big changes.”

[e360 Digest]

The world’s largest solar plant … and it’s in India

Nearly 300 million of India’s 1.2 billion people live without power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to shrink that number by expanding solar generation twenty-fold by 2022.

At full capacity, the new 2,500-acre plant in Kamuthi could power up to 150,000 homes and add 648 MW to the country’s electricity generating capacity. That’s nearly 100 times greater than the world’s previous largest solar plant, California’s Topaz Solar Farm.

Even more impressive: The Kamuthi plant was built in just eight months, compared to the two-plus years it took to construct Topaz, and at a fraction of the cost — $679 million compared to Topaz’s $2.5 billion.

India, along with the U.S. and China, is currently one of the world’s largest producers of carbon emissions. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s power now comes from coal, and if India added all of its new power in coal, too, then the world would be in serious trouble.

At the Paris climate talks last December, Modi pledged that 40 percent of India’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2030. This plant will help them get there.

Indonesia earthquake in Aceh

A 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck Indonesia’s Aceh province on Wednesday Dec. 7.

The earthquake flattened more than 200 houses and buildings, including shops and mosques, in the worst-affected districts of Bireuen and Pidie Jaya. At least 97 people have been killed and more than 200 injured. Aceh province has declared a state of emergency.

Rescuers are combing through the rubble for survivors.Speaking in Jakarta, National Board for Disaster Management spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said the death toll could still rise.

“Now our priority is the search and rescue operation. We have to move so fast to save them,” Sutopo said.

Utah and Mormons are the most generous givers in America

Utah is tops among all 50 US states in generosity, according to a new report released this week at WalletHub. The report breaks down “generosity” into two main categories–a state’s rate of volunteerism and the percentage of income its people spend on charitable donations.

In Utah, people donate an impressive 6.6% of their income to charity. New Hampshire was the stingiest, with just 1.6% of income given away.

Utah also ranks first in the percentage of people who say they donated their time (56%) and the total number of hours they volunteered (75.6 per person, nearly four times the volunteer hours of the lowest state, Kentucky).

Given Utah’s majority Mormon population it’s not surprising that the state came first in charitable giving. According to social science research, Mormons rank first among all religious groups in the United States in terms of charitable giving, donating 5.2% of income.

That’s barely half of the 10% “gold standard” that Christians are taught to strive for. But it’s nearly two percentage points higher than the next-most-generous group, Pentecostals who give 3.4%, not to speak of Roman Catholics (1.5%), and Jehovah’s Witnesses (.9%).

The nonreligious average 1.1%.

[Religion New Service]

Media biases Aleppo vs. Mosul

In Syria and Iraq, two large Sunni Arab urban centers –East Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq– are being besieged by pro-government forces strongly supported by foreign airpower.

In East Aleppo, some 250,000 civilians and 8,000 insurgents are under attack by the Syrian Army and supported by the Russian and Syrian air forces. The bombing of East Aleppo has rightly caused worldwide revulsion and condemnation.

But look at how differently the international media is treating a similar situation in Mosul, where one million people and an estimated 5,000 Isis fighters are being encircled by the Iraqi army with massive support from a US-led air campaign. In the case of Mosul, unlike Aleppo, the defenders are to blame for endangering civilians by using them as human shields and preventing them leaving. In East Aleppo, there are no human shields –though the UN says that half the civilian population wants to depart– but simply innocent victims of Russian savagery.

Destruction in Aleppo by Russian air strikes is compared to the destruction of Grozny in Chechnya sixteen years ago, but, curiously, no analogy is made with Ramadi, a city of 350,000 on the Euphrates in Iraq, that was 80 per cent destroyed by US-led air strikes in 2015.

The extreme bias shown in foreign media coverage of similar events in Iraq and Syria will be a rewarding subject for PhD students looking at the uses and abuses of propaganda down the ages.

[Patrick Cockburn, CounterPunch]

France evicting thousands of migrants from notorious ‘Jungle’ camp

French security forces have started evicting the thousands of migrants living in a notorious camp known as “The Jungle” near the port of Calais. (The name “The Jungle” stems from the level of squalor and chaos.)

Authorities intend to dismantle the squalid camp that has housed thousands of people fleeing wars or poverty for a better life in Europe. People were given two choices: east or west France. NPR adds: “And once they’ve selected one of those regions, the authorities pick out one of the towns where they’ve set up refugee homes or centers.”

The approximately 450 homes or centers across the country “are intended to be temporary” and “will each hold 40 or 50 people for up to four months while their asylum cases are examined,” as The Guardian explains.

However, “those who do not claim asylum will be sent back to their country of origin,” according to the newspaper, and “almost two-thirds of those surveyed in the camp have said they do not want to be evicted and taken to French accommodation, while one-third say that they will continue to try to get to the U.K.”

Some migrants say they intend to hide within the Jungle, in hopes of avoiding being moved to another place in France.

Authorities hope the current eviction process will stand in contrast to what happened in March, The Associated Press reports, when they dismantled the southern half of the camp in a “chaotic, even brutal bulldozing operation that drew complaints from human rights groups.”

[NPR]

UN warns of world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Nigeria’s Boko Haram region

Up to 80,000 children will die in northeastern Nigeria without much-needed humanitarian assistance, a senior UN official said. Boko Haram’s insurgency has left tens of thousands dead, and millions more displaced.

UN Assistant Secretary-General Toby Lanzer said that without further assistance, northern Nigeria and surrounding areas impacted by the Boko Haram militant group’s onslaught will become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The militant group’s seven-year insurgency, aimed at establishing a so-called caliphate, has left at least 20,000 people dead and displaced more than 2.5 million people in the region. The death toll is likely higher due to consequences of the conflict, including fatalities caused by severe malnutrition and lack of access to medical supplies.

“We know that over the next 12 months, 75,000 – maybe as many as 80,000 – children will die in the northeast of Nigeria, unless we can reach them with specialized therapeutic food,” Lanzer added.

More than 6 million people are described as “severely food insecure” across the Lake Chad region, according to UN figures.

[AFP]

Glaring data gap in the War Against Poverty and Disease

It’s surprising how little data is available on the rates of everything from disease to employment in poor countries, says Trevor Mundell, president of global health for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Governments and international organizations and researchers still aren’t collecting basic statistics on a lot of major diseases in Africa. Says Mundell, “[For example] there’s a complete absence of solid data around what the dimensions of [typhoid] in Africa.”

There’s a similar problem with dengue, a very unpleasant virus that’s spread by mosquitoes. This makes it hard to set priorities for health spending, he adds. “How do you plan for the future if you don’t even know the state of the present?”

The data gap is especially noticeable when it comes to statistics on girls and women, and ending the inequality they face is a major focus of the global goals. For instance, it’s hard to get solid, comparable numbers across all countries on everything from maternal mortality to how well girls are transitioning from school into jobs to what assets women own. In some cases — domestic violence against women is a classic example — many countries don’t consider gathering this data a top concern.

As for the huge pool of data we do have — advocates say much of it is difficult to get hold of because it’s being hoarded by everyone from U.N. agencies to researchers.

Jody Heymann is dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and founding director of the affiliated World Policy Analysis Center, which is trying to gather much of this data in one place and make it comparable from country to country. Her dream is to inspire app developers to find a way to get it on smartphones.

[NPR]

Abducted Australian aid worker freed in Afghanistan

Afghan special forces have rescued a kidnapped Australian aid worker, four months after she was taken at gunpoint in the country’s volatile east. Katherine Jane Wilson, said to be aged around 60, is “safe and well”, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said, without disclosing when she was released or who was behind her abduction.  The minister, who has previously said Australia does not pay ransom for kidnappers, voiced relief for Wilson and her family but would not provide details of how she was freed.

Unidentified masked gunmen kidnapped Wilson from Jalalabad, near the border with Pakistan, in late April when she was visiting the city for a women’s embroidery project. Wilson, a well-known aid worker in the country, ran a non-governmental organisation known as Zardozi, which promotes the work of Afghan artisans — particularly women.

Following her abduction an Australian man was seized, along with an American colleague, in Kabul by gunmen wearing police uniforms. The two foreigners, professors from the American University of Afghanistan, were pulled from their vehicle earlier this month after the kidnappers smashed the passenger side window and hauled them out.

Judith D’Souza, a 40-year-old Indian employee of the Aga Khan Foundation, a prominent NGO that has long worked in Afghanistan, was also abducted near her residence in the heart of Kabul on June 9. She was rescued in July.

The abductions underscore the growing dangers faced by foreigners in Afghanistan, plagued by Taliban and other militant groups.

[Yahoo News]

The Olympic Refugee Team has its own flag and anthem

At the opening ceremony in Rio, the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team marched in the Parade of Nations carrying flags emblazoned with the five-ring Olympics logo. It was a powerful unifying gesture in a time marked by global unrest; these ten athletes were representing not just their war-torn countries, but the world. But in a certain light, assigning this team the most universal sporting symbol on Earth was to deprive them an identity of their own. What this group really needed was its own symbol.

Now, members of the Refugee Olympic Team have that option. A non-profit called The Refugee Nation commissioned artists to develop a flag and national anthem for the Olympic team that would represent the athletes and the growing number of refugees around the world. “We felt they deserved a more unique identity.”

Refugee FlagThe flag is a banner of bright orange crossed by a single black band—colors that evoke the life jackets so many refugees have worn on their journeys to safety. “If you’ve worn a lifejacket as a refugee, you will feel something when you see this flag,” says Amsterdam-based Syrian refugee Yara Said, who designed the flag. “It’s a powerful memory.”

“The flag is a statement,” she says. “We are here, we are strong, we are human, and we’re going to go on.”

[Wired]

Israel says Gaza World Vision director diverted millions to Hamas’s military wing

Israel’s domestic security agency accuses the Gaza head of the U.S.-based humanitarian aid organization World Vision of funneling as much as $7 million a year, some 60 percent of World Vision’s annual budget for Gaza, over the past 10 years to Hamas’s terror activities.

World Vision is among the largest Christian charities in the world and receives considerable funding from the United Nations and Western governments. Operating in more than 100 countries, it has a budget of $2.6 billion. In a statement Thursday, the charity said it was “shocked to learn of the charges” against Mohammed el-Halabi and called for Israel to facilitate a fair legal process.

The Shin Bet accusation said, “[Halabi] established and promoted humanitarian projects and fictitious agricultural associations that acted as cover for the transfer of monies to Hamas,” “Examples of these projects and associations include: greenhouse construction; restoration of agricultural lands; psychological and public health projects for Gaza residents; aid to fishermen; a treatment center for the physically and mentally disabled; and farmers’ associations. All of these projects and associations were used to transfer funds to Hamas.”

Halabi’s brother Hamed el-Halabi said his brother has been working for World Vision for 13 years and has managed the Gaza branch for the past 10. Halabi said of his accused brother: “He is a workaholic person; he travels a lot, so I don’t believe that he had time to meet with Hamas or any of its other factions.”

Halabi also said that World Vision had recently looked into the financial situation of its office in Gaza and spent about a month auditing documents, “without finding anything.”

A spokesman for Hamas in Gaza said that Israel’s accusations were simply “propaganda.” Hazem Qasem said that international organizations worked freely in Gaza and that Hamas did not interfere with their work or budgets. “Israel can arrest anybody at the Erez Crossing and claim he is a Hamas activist, but that doesn’t mean it is true,” Qasem said.

[Washington Post]

Continuing to fund the lost Afghanistan war

The longest war in US history just got even longer. As NATO wrapped up its 2016 Warsaw Summit, the organization agreed to continue funding Afghan security forces through the year 2020.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced at the summit that thanks to an additional billion dollars in NATO member-country donations, the organization had come up with close to the $5 billion per year that it has pledged to the Afghan government.

Of that $5 billion you can guess who is paying the lion’s share. That’s right, the U.S.

We send $3.45 billion every year to, according to Transparency International, the third most corrupt country on earth — while Americans struggle with unemployment, stagnant wages, and inflation. That is why I always say that foreign aid is money stolen from poor people in the United States and sent to rich people overseas.

The Taliban are stronger than ever in Afghanistan. They control more territory than at any time since the original US invasion in 2001. Despite 15 years of US interventionism, nearly 2,500 dead US soldiers, and well over a trillion dollars, Afghanistan is no closer to being a model democracy than it was before 9/11. It’s a failed policy. It’s a purposeless war. It is a failed program.

It’s time to end this game and get back to the wise foreign policy of the founders: non-intervention in the affairs of others.

[Excerpts of article by Ron Paul, former Presidential hopeful and US Congressman]

The lost generation: Children in conflict zones

A catastrophic by-product of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East is a lost generation of unschooled children. These children find themselves, through no fault of their own, not only displaced but lacking the opportunity for proper schooling and thus, denied a chance to learn and develop the necessary skills to become fully functional members of society. This lost generation is the tragedy of our time.

According to a 2015 report by UNICEF, conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region has driven 13 million children out of schools.

Unschooled children are not only a moral challenge, but also one that has negative short-term and long-term consequences both for the refugees, but also for their societies.

Besides providing an education, schools serve an important function by socializing children. In addition, children in conflict zones face severe trauma through the loss of family members to violence.

The lack of education, coupled with a sense of despair and hopelessness creates the perfect conditions for the radicalization of refugee children.  Children tired of working long hours in sweatshops for little pay tend to find the offer to fight at a salary of $400 a month particularly enticing.

Jordan and Turkey have absorbed an estimated 200,000 and 300,000 children respectively in their schooling system, which has put an incredible strain on their existing educational infrastructure.

[Al Jazeera]

Syrian refugee entrepreneurs boost Turkey’s economy

A wave of Syrian refugees is taking advantage of the opportunities and relative ease of doing business in Turkey — to the benefit of the country’s economy. Since 2011, 4,000 new businesses have been set up by Syrians or Syrians with Turkish partners — and the number is accelerating.

According to the Economic Policy Research Foundation, an Ankara-based think-tank, 1,600 were set up in 2015, with 590 more established in the first three months of this year alone.

“There is now enough evidence that they are now doing something positive and contributing to the Turkish economy,” Guven Sak, the think-tank’s head, said. “It’s not just people on the street; there are many people who came with some kind of funding, and have figured out ways to invest it.”

A report this week by Standard & Poor’s also concluded that the new arrivals, who now account for almost 4 per cent of the population, have boosted Turkey’s growth. Frank Gill, the report’s author, depicts the migration as a “positive shock” increasing Turkey’s attractiveness to investors as a country with a young, economically active population.

Most of the Syrian migrants live outside refugee camps, some in abject poverty, with beggars on the streets of almost every Turkish town. But many are middle-class, with savings of their own or the ability to borrow.

[Financial Times]

Behind the global crackdown on NGOs, recognition of their power

Around the globe, from Malaysia to Morocco and from India to Ethiopia, governments have been cracking down on activists who are trying to hold them to account. The worldwide trend constitutes “the broadest backlash against civil society in a generation,” says Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Different governments use different methods: some simply close non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by decree; others starve them of funds, arrest their leaders, censor their reports, or send secret police to intimidate them.

Last year, according to a report by CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations, there were “serious threats to civic freedoms” in 96 countries. What is behind this blowback against the NGOs? Partly, it seems to be a reaction by authoritarian rulers–and some who claim to be democratic–to the increasingly vocal criticism that ordinary citizens direct at them.

“The resistance [to the NGOs] is more motivated because autocrats see the capacity” of their citizen-critics, adds Mr. Roth.

That resistance is hardening. In China, for example, though the NGO law’s text is still secret, it is expected to make the police responsible for managing foreign groups and to make registration more cumbersome.

Last year, the Indian government revoked the operating license of Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog, which had strongly criticized official mining and nuclear policies. The authorities have banned more than 9,000 Indian charities from receiving foreign funds since last April.

That is an approach taken most ferociously by the Russian government, which has forced NGOs receiving any money from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” a term suggesting traitorous intentions. If they take money from groups branded as “undesirable foreign organizations,” they could be prosecuted.

[Christian Science Monitor]