Ukraine seeks World Heritage status for Chernobyl zone

Aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (Shutterstock photo)
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Updated 13 December 2020

Ukraine seeks World Heritage status for Chernobyl zone

  • An explosion at the nuclear power plant in April 1986 left swathes of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus badly contaminated
  • Flourishing wildlife have taken over deserted Soviet-era tower blocks, shops and official buildings

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine: A soft snow fell as a clutch of visitors equipped with a Geiger counter wandered through the ghostly Ukrainian town of Pripyat, frozen in time since the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.
More than three decades after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster forced thousands to evacuate, there is an influx of visitors to the area that has spurred officials to seek official status from UNESCO.
“The Chernobyl zone is already a world famous landmark,” guide Maksym Polivko told AFP during a tour on a recent frosty day.
“But today this area has no official status,” the 38-year-old said of the exclusion zone where flourishing wildlife is taking over deserted Soviet-era tower blocks, shops and official buildings.
That could be set to change under the government initiative to have the area included on the UNESCO heritage list alongside landmarks like India’s Taj Mahal or Stonehenge in England.
Officials hope recognition from the UN’s culture agency will boost the site as a tourist attraction and in turn bolster efforts to preserve aging buildings nearby.
The explosion in the fourth reactor at the nuclear power plant in April 1986 left swathes of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus badly contaminated and led to the creation of the exclusion zone roughly the size of Luxembourg.
Ukrainian authorities say it may not be safe for humans to live in the exclusion zone for another 24,000 years. Meanwhile, it has become a haven for wildlife with elk and deer roaming nearby forests.
Dozens of villages and towns populated by hundreds of thousands of people were abandoned after the disaster, yet more than 100 elderly people live in the area despite the radiation threat.
In Pripyat, a ghost town kilometers away from the Chernobyl plant, rooms in eerie residential blocks are piled up with belongings of former residents.
Polivko said he hoped the upgraded status would encourage officials to act more “responsibly” to preserve the crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure surrounding the plant.
“All these objects here require some repair,” he said.
It was a sentiment echoed by Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, who described the recent influx of tourists from home and abroad as evidence of Chernobyl’s importance “not only to Ukrainians, but of all mankind.”
A record number of 124,000 tourists visited last year, including 100,000 foreigners following the release of the hugely popular Chernobyl television series in 2019.
Tkachenko said obtaining UNESCO status could promote the exclusion zone as “a place of memory” that would warn against a repeat nuclear disaster.
“The area may and should be open to visitors, but it should be more than just an adventure destination for explorers,” Tkachenko told AFP.
The government is set to propose specific objects in the zone as a heritage site before March but a final decision could come as late as 2023.
After the explosion in 1986, the three other reactors at Chernobyl continued to generate electricity until the station finally closed in 2000. Ukraine will mark the 20th anniversary of the closure on December 15.
Tkachenko said the effort to secure UNESCO status was a new priority after work on a giant protective dome over the fourth reactor was completed in 2016.
With the site now safe for one hundred years, he said he hoped world heritage status would boost visitor numbers to one million a year.
It’s a figure that would require an overhaul of the local infrastructure and overwhelm a lone souvenir kiosk on the site selling trinkets such as mugs and clothing adorned with nuclear fallout signs.
“Before, everyone was busy with the cover,” Tkachenko said of the timing of the heritage initiative.
“The time has come to do this.”


Afghanistan’s Taliban want to address UN General Assembly, appoint permanent representative 

Updated 45 sec ago

Afghanistan’s Taliban want to address UN General Assembly, appoint permanent representative 

  • UN spokesperson says currently accredited ambassador can no longer represent Afghanistan after ouster of last government 
  • Taliban nominate Mohammad Suhail Shaheen as permanent representative, request to participate in General Assembly 

UNITED NATIONS: The Taliban, the country’s new rulers for a matter of weeks, are challenging the credentials of their country’s former UN ambassador and want to speak at the General Assembly’s high-level meeting of world leaders this week, the international body says.
The development comes just over a month after the Taliban, ejected from Afghanistan by the United States and its allies after 9/11, swept back into power as US forces prepared to withdraw from the country at the end of August. The Taliban stunned the world by taking territory with surprising speed and little resistance from the US-trained Afghan military. The Western-backed government collapsed on August 15.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres received a communication on September 15 from the currently accredited Afghan Ambassador, Ghulam Isaczai, with the list of Afghanistan’s delegation for the assembly’s 76th annual session.
Five days later, Guterres received another communication with the letterhead “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” signed by “Ameer Khan Muttaqi” as “Minister of Foreign Affairs,” requesting to participate in the UN gathering of world leaders.
Muttaqi said in the letter that former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani was “ousted” as of August 15 and that countries across the world “no longer recognize him as president,” and therefore Isaczai no longer represents Afghanistan, Dujarric said.
The Taliban said it was nominating a new UN permanent representative, Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, the UN spokesman said. He has been a spokesman for the Taliban during peace negotiations in Qatar.
Senior US State Department officials said they were aware of the Taliban’s request — the United States is a member of the UN credentials committee — but they would not predict how that panel might rule. However, one of the officials said the committee “would take some time to deliberate,” suggesting the Taliban’s envoy would not be able to speak at the General Assembly at this session at least during the high-level leaders’ week.
In cases of disputes over seats at the United Nations, the General Assembly’s nine-member credentials committee must meet to make a decision. Both letters have been sent to the committee after consultations with General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid’s office. The committee’s members are the United States, Russia, China, Bahama, Bhutan, Chile, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Sweden.
Afghanistan is scheduled to give the last speech on the final day of the high-level meeting on September 27. It wasn’t clear who would speak if the committee met and the Taliban were given Afghanistan’s seat.
When the Taliban last ruled from 1996 to 2001, the UN refused to recognize their government and instead gave Afghanistan’s seat to the previous, warlord-dominated government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who eventually was killed by a suicide bomber in 2011. It was Rabbani’s government that brought Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11, to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.
The Taliban have said they want international recognition and financial help to rebuild the war-battered country. But the makeup of the new Taliban government poses a dilemma for the United Nations. Several of the interim ministers are on the UN’s so-called blacklist of international terrorists and funders of terrorism.
Credentials committee members could also use Taliban recognition as leverage to press for a more inclusive government that guarantees human rights, especially for girls who were barred from going to school during their previous rule, and women who weren’t able to work.


Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne

Updated 22 September 2021

Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne

  • Debris littered roads in the popular shopping area around Melbourne's Chapel Street, with bricks apparently coming loose from buildings
  • Sizable earthquakes are unusual in Australia's populated southeast

MELBOURNE: A rare quake rattled southeastern Australia early Wednesday, shaking buildings, knocking down walls and sending panicked residents running into the streets of Melbourne.
The shallow quake hit east of the country's second-largest city just after 9:00am local time (2300 GMT) and was felt hundreds of kilometres (miles) away.
The US Geological Survey put the magnitude of the quake at 5.8, later revised up to 5.9, and said it struck at a depth of 10 kilometres (six miles).
Debris littered roads in the popular shopping area around Melbourne's Chapel Street, with bricks apparently coming loose from buildings.
Zume Phim, 33, owner of Melbourne's Oppen cafe, said he rushed onto the street when the temblor hit.
"The whole building was shaking. All the windows, the glass, was shaking -- like a wave of shaking," he told AFP.
"I have never experienced that before. It was a little bit scary."
Sizable earthquakes are unusual in Australia's populated southeast.
"It was quite violent but everyone was kind of in shock," Melbourne cafe worker Parker Mayo, 30, told AFP.
Bricks and rubble lay on the ground outside Betty's Burgers in Melbourne, with large sheets of metal hanging off the restaurant awning.
The restaurant said in a Facebook post that everyone was safe: "We were fortunate that nobody was in the restaurant at the time."
At around just under magnitude six this was "the biggest event in south east Australia for a long time" Mike Sandiford, a geologist at the University of Melbourne told AFP.
"We had some very big ones at magnitude six in the late 1800s, though precise magnitudes are not well known."
A quake of this size is expected every "10-20 years in south east Australia, the last was Thorpdale in 2012" he said. "This is significantly bigger."
Sandiford said Australians should expect "many hundreds of aftershocks, most below human sensitivity threshold, but probably a dozen or more that will be felt at least nearby."
The quake "would have caused many billions of dollars in damage had it been under Melbourne," he added.
Geosciences Australia said an aftershock measuring 4.0 struck shortly after the initial temblor.
The mayor of Mansfield, near the quake epicentre, said there was no damage in the small town but it had taken residents by surprise.
"I was sitting down at work at my desk and I needed to run outside. It took me a while to work out what it was," Mark Holcombe told public broadcaster ABC.
"We don't have earthquakes that I am aware of -- none of the locals I spoke to this morning had that experience with earthquakes here before -- so it is one right out of left field."
Emergency services said they had received calls for help as far away as Dubbo, about 700 kilometres from the quake epicentre, with fire and rescue crews dispatched to help.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking from New York, said there were no initial reports of injuries.
"It can be a very, very disturbing event for an earthquake of this nature," he said. "They are very rare events in Australia."


Biden vows to ‘break cycle of war and destruction’ in dramatic appeal to UN

Updated 22 September 2021

Biden vows to ‘break cycle of war and destruction’ in dramatic appeal to UN

  • US leader’s message gets mixed response as Washington faces growing rivalry for global dominance

NEW YORK: In what could prove to be his most important moment on the world stage to date, US President Joe Biden stood before the UN General Assembly in New York to declare an end to two decades of war, and a recalibration of US resources toward issues such as climate change, technology and infrastructure development.

In his first address to the UN General Assembly as president, Biden emphasized a list of policy priorities that also included preparations for the next pandemic and greater efforts to combat global warming.

However, the US president faces serious challenges in his bid to convince world leaders that foreign policy under his helm seeks greater global partnerships.

The reception to Biden’s message has been mixed at best, with the speech overshadowed by the chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal, which drew significant criticism from allies who believe they were not properly consulted.

Biden told the international body: “Our collective future means we must break the cycle of war and destruction. Now we must again come together to affirm the inherent humanity that unites us is more than outward disagreements. We must be prepared for the next pandemic and climate change.”

He declared that the US has “turned a page” and for the first time in 20 years is not at war. Biden declared that there would be no “new cold war” for national resources to be marshaled on and said that the nation is looking at “what’s ahead of us, not what is behind.”

Biden’s message to the world and to America’s competitors comes at a time when serious questions hang over the ability and willingness of his administration to work in tandem with traditional allies and regional partners.

The US leader sought to lay out a new paradigm for America’s place in the world, saying: “We will lead with the power of our example, not just the example of our power. We will defend ourselves, including against terror threats, and we will use force as necessary. The mission must be clear and achievable, and taken under consent of the American people and whenever possible with our allies. Using military power should be the last resort. The America of 2021 is not the country it was in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.”

But there have been grumblings over whether the US is prepared to seriously shift focus toward “big power” competition with near-peer competitors.

The administration is facing a particularly turbulent few months of foreign policy challenges that have been viewed with concern by America’s partners across the globe. From Afghanistan to the diplomatic imbroglio with France, and pulling out key US defense systems from the Middle East, Biden’s foreign policy has raised alarm bells in key world capitals.

Complicating efforts to shift focus to a sweeping new vision for foreign affairs, Biden’s approval ratings are the lowest since the start of his presidency, with an average of 46 percent of respondents approving and 50 percent disapproving.

Many allied capitals have privately grumbled that former president Trump and his foreign policy team were, in fact, more keen to consult and coordinate with them behind the scenes compared with Biden. “America First” may have been Trump’s most recognizable campaign and governing slogan, but analysts and diplomats in Europe and elsewhere view Biden as continuing rather than repudiating his predecessor’s foreign policy approach on a number of sensitive multilateral issues.

The lofty ideals of Biden’s “build back better world” blueprint, which he attempted to rally world leaders to to collectively work toward, are likely to ultimately clash with China’s competing vision for global governance.

Prof. Brenda Shaffer, a senior adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Arab News that “If the US was really interested in limiting China’s actions, it would not have given up a base in Bagram next to Xinjian. In recent decades, every administration comes in and says it is going to focus on major powers and not engage in nation-building, and every administration in the end continues in its nation-building attempts.”

She added: “Washington is likely to focus at the UN on issues of broad international agreement that all support on the rhetorical level — climate change, energy transition, eradicating poverty, justice, etc.”

Biden’s speech emphasized that with the Afghanistan war supposedly behind it, the US must treat climate change and the pandemic as the new national priorities.

According to Shaffer, the administration’s emphasis on climate change diplomacy “puts China in an excellent position. China just needs to agree to some goal to be implemented well down the road, and in exchange for this can get a real strategic concession from Washington.”

And while Biden stressed that the US must continue to support democracy and repudiate authoritarian systems, it is unclear whether the US is ideally positioned to counter a resurgent China that seeks to make its own mark on the international stage, particularly in the developing world.

According to Matthew Kroenig, of Georgetown University, “China presents a comprehensive threat to the rules-based international system, including in international institutions. China has gained influence within institutions with the purpose of undermining these bodies’ founding mission. China vetoes UN Security Council resolutions that are contrary to its interests, prevents the WHO from conducting an adequate investigation into the pandemic’s origins, and blocks the UNHRC from taking action on the genocide in Xinjiang. I would like to see Biden articulate this challenge from Beijing and for him to call on responsible powers to come together to address the threat.”

Biden’s policy ethos has the US sharing a common responsibility with the international community to find new ways to end conflict, and “break the cycle of war and destruction.”

That may be easier said than done. Disrupting such a cycle will require a clear-eyed approach that takes into account domestic considerations as well.

Kroenig said: “The major shift in US strategy toward great power competition and away from terrorism and insurgency happened in the Trump administration, but Biden is continuing this trajectory. Whereas Trump focused heavily on competition and confrontation, Biden is attempting a more balanced approach that includes, first, strengthening the US at home, and, second, seeking engagement with China on common challenges, like climate change.”

Biden urged the international community to “get to work” on the common tasks ahead to make a better world for all. Competition with China is increasingly likely to heat up on a number of fronts, regardless of the US leader’s intent to seek dialogue rather than confrontation. Biden said that the US and the international community now stand at an “inflection point” and must decide how the world can “come together to affirm the inherent humanity that unites us.”

Looking beyond the nobility of such a goal, many of America’s traditional allies will still wonder whether Biden’s administration will live up to the grand ideals and sweeping calls for improving lives across the world, or whether his speech will become a footnote in a line of foreign policy blunders.


Biden, UK's Johnson talk trade and trains in White House meeting

Updated 22 September 2021

Biden, UK's Johnson talk trade and trains in White House meeting

  • Johnson took the Amtrak train from the United Nations General Assembly in New York to Washington for the meeting

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson discussed the dangers of climate change and bantered about the joys of rail travel on Tuesday during an Oval Office meeting aimed at highlighting the US-British alliance.
Biden told the visiting prime minister, who once worried his warm relationship with former President Donald Trump would hurt relations under the US Democratic leader, that he looked forward to coming to the United Kingdom for a conference on global warming later this year.
"It's fantastic to see the United States really stepping up and showing a lead, a real, real lead," Johnson said, referring to the issue of global warming. Under Biden, the United States has renewed pledges to cut greenhouse gases and promised to finance projects to combat climate change.
Johnson took the Amtrak train from the United Nations General Assembly in New York to Washington for the meeting. "They love you," Johnson said to Biden, seemingly referring to the US railway staff. Biden was a regular train commuter for over 30 years.
"We're going to talk about trade," Biden said when asked about a potential UK-US trade agreement, which would be of great significance for post-Brexit Britain.
Johnson first met Vice President Kamala Harris, who said the United States and Britain are more interconnected than ever before. Tackling the pandemic, dealing with climate change and upholding democracy around the world remained top priorities for both countries, Harris said.
Johnson praised the US military's role in the "Kabul airlift" and thanked the US government for lifting a ban last year on imports of British beef imposed after an outbreak of mad cow disease.
"I want to thank the US government, your government, for the many ways in which we are cooperating now, I think, at a higher and more intense level than at any time I can remember," Johnson said.
Johnson's team regards the visit as a triumph, demonstrating that Britain can thrive on the world stage after its divorce last year from the European Union. It comes amid a US rift with EU rival France, in which Britain played a crucial part.
A submarine deal the United States and Britain recently announced with Australia came at France's expense, prompting France to withdraw its ambassadors to the United States and Australia and cancel a defense meeting with Britain.
France continues to see Britain as the junior partner in the long-running "special relationship" between the United States and Britain, some say, years after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was ridiculed for supporting US President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in March 2003.


Filipino parents, teachers urge U-turn over government’s back-to-school plans

Updated 15 min 14 sec ago

Filipino parents, teachers urge U-turn over government’s back-to-school plans

  • Classroom return ‘experiment’ in low-risk COVID-19 areas draws mixed reactions

MANILA: Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s thumbs-up for a limited return to classrooms for students in areas with low numbers of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases has been criticized by worried parents and teachers.

The leader’s approval for the resumption of in-person classes in “low risk” parts of the Philippines on Tuesday drew mixed reactions with some objectors urging the government to reconsider its decision.

The government said on Monday that for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak it would reopen nearly 120 schools as part of a “pilot” project.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque pointed out that the move was necessary because otherwise, “we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”

According to a report by the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the Philippines was among 17 countries globally where schools had remained completely shut throughout the pandemic, highlighting what it described as “18 months of lost learning.”

Benjo Basas, national chairperson of the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition, an umbrella organization of public-school teachers’ associations, told Arab News that the Philippines’ decision was “untimely and dangerous” given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country, and would only put further pressure on an overwhelmed healthcare system.

He said: “Our government has yet to fix its COVID-19 response, and the more than 20,000 new cases posted almost every day over the past week can attest to that. If in-person classes will push through, it’s like putting people at risk, especially the children.”

On Tuesday, Filipino health authorities reported 16,361 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total number of infections in the country to 2,401,916. Of those, 2,193,700 (91.3 percent) people had recovered, while 37,074 (1.54 percent) had died.

Basas pointed out that any resumption of face-to-face classes should be carefully planned, and the Department of Education must guarantee the safety of all participants before questioning who would be held accountable if someone gets infected at school.

“While we agree that there is no better alternative to face-to-face learning, the current pandemic situation does not allow for this. Education can be delayed. What is more important at the moment, is the lives and health of everyone,” he added.

During a press conference, Education Secretary Leonor Briones said the pilot scheme would cover 100 public schools and 20 private institutions, limiting class sizes to 12 learners in kindergarten, 16 in grades one to three, and 20 at senior high school level.

Meanwhile, the classes would be limited to three- to four-hour sessions based on “consent from parents and guardians. If there are changes in the risk assessment, then we will stop it,” she added.

As per guidelines released on Monday, public schools would need to pass a “readiness assessment” before reopening while private schools would be subject to a joint validation by the departments of education and health.

The guidance said: “We reiterate our demand for a science-based and evidence-based risk assessment for all participating schools. These shall help determine their present condition and urgent needs for the safe conduct of in-classroom learning, which the government shall immediately address.”

Some parents, however, have said they would refuse to allow their children to become part of an “experiment.”

Lee Reyes, 36, who has three children in grade school, told Arab News she would never risk the health and safety of her sons and daughter.

“For what reason? (To protect them from) COVID-19? If some adults, despite being vaccinated, still get infected, what about unvaccinated children? Also, kids are kids. Grown-ups tend to forget social distancing, and some even take off their masks. So, no. I would rather spend time helping my children learn their lessons from home,” she said.

Another mother, Lei, 50, also voiced concerns over the safety of her children, one at college and vaccinated, and the other in junior high school and unjabbed.

She said: “If my eldest child has to commute every day, there is a risk. Or even if I let her stay at the dorm. Although I know I need to teach her to be independent, now is not the best time during a pandemic and the flu season.”

In a Facebook post, parent Bella Mel, said: “Better safe than sorry. Because if our children get sick, it will only be them who will suffer. And there’s no Department of Education to help shoulder the hospital bills. So why push for it? Let’s just accept this is the new normal.”