India, US push for peace in Afghanistan, decry Taliban’s military advances

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds a press conference with India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in New Delhi on Wednesday. (AFP)
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Updated 29 July 2021

India, US push for peace in Afghanistan, decry Taliban’s military advances

  • Blinken, Jaishankar agree to expand multilateral security partnership

NEW DELHI: Growing concerns over China and turmoil in Afghanistan dominated talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in New Delhi on Wednesday, with both officials urging the Taliban and Kabul to resolve issues to create a country that is “at peace with itself and its neighbors.”

Jaishankar said in a joint press conference in New Delhi at the end of a two-hour meeting with his US counterpart: “We spoke at length about regional concerns, multilateral institutions and global issues.”

It is Blinken’s first visit to India after assuming charge as US President Joe Biden’s secretary of state.

“Regarding Afghanistan, it is essential that peace negotiations are taken seriously by all parties,” Jaishankar said, adding: “The world wishes to see an independent, sovereign, democratic and stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and with its neighbors.”

Blinken appreciated India’s contributions to Kabul’s development and talked about working together to stabilize the war-ravaged country.

“We discussed regional security scenarios, including Afghanistan,” Blinken said in his opening statement.

“India and the US share a common view on a peaceful, secured and stable Afghanistan. India has made and continues to make vital contributions to Afghanistan’s stability and development,” he added.

New Delhi has spent billions on development projects in Afghanistan in recent years and is a firm backer of the Kabul government.

However, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan forced India to evacuate 50 staff from two consulates in the country as the Taliban gained even more territory amid a drawdown of US-led foreign forces.

In April, President Biden ordered the complete withdrawal of about 3,000 US troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, effectively ending the US’ longest war.

Earlier this month, Biden gave an updated timeline and said that the US military mission would end by Aug. 31.

Taliban fighters have swept across the country in recent weeks, with the Pentagon admitting on July 21 that half of all district centers — surrounding 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals — were now in the hands of the Taliban.

Blinken said that he disapproved of the Taliban’s “military adventure” as it “does not serve the objective of peace” in Afghanistan.

“Taking over the country by force and abusing the rights of the people is not the path to achieve those objectives. There is only one path, and that is at the negotiation table to resolve the conflict peacefully,” the US official said.

He emphasized that the Taliban’s military advances were “troubling” and that Washington remains engaged in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban is making advances in district centers; there are reports of them committing atrocities in Afghanistan. It’s deeply troubling. It certainly doesn’t speak well about their intentions for the country. We remain engaged in Afghanistan,” he added.

India’s human rights issues was also brought up in discussions, with Blinken holding talks with civil society leaders in Delhi ahead of his meeting with Jaishankar.

“Shared values — freedom and equality — are key, and none of us have done enough. We need to strengthen our democratic institutions. This is at the core of our relationship, beyond strategic and economic ties,” Blinken said.

Since being elected to office in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have faced allegations of suppressing dissent, pursuing divisive policies to appeal to Hindu voters and enacting the Citizenship Amendment Law two years ago, which Muslims argue is discriminatory.

Debate over India’s human rights record became even more pronounced following the death in custody of 87-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who was arrested on charges of supporting ultra-Maoists while awaiting bail.

“One of the elements Americans admire most is a fundamental freedom and human rights. That’s how we define India. India’s democracy is powered by free-thinking citizens,” Blinken said.

The US secretary of state also met a Tibetan delegation in Delhi and ended his short visit to the capital by meeting with Modi.

Both sides also discussed the upcoming meeting in September of the Quad group of countries comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US. The Quad will hold the summit in Washington, which Modi is expected to attend.

Blinken, however, denied that the Quad had been created to counter China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region following Beijing’s accusations that the “Asian NATO” group was designed to harm China.

The US has long viewed India as a key partner in efforts to overpower China’s economic and military might in the Indo-Pacific region, but Blinken rejected the view that the Quad was a “military alliance.”

He said: “What is Quad? It’s quite simple but important. Its purpose is to advance cooperation on regional challenges while reinforcing international rules and values that we believe together underpin peace, prosperity, and stability in the region.

“We share a vision — India and the US — of a free, open and secure atmosphere in the Indo-Pacific and will work together to make that a reality,” he added.

Foreign policy experts see Blinken’s visit as a “sign of maturity” in India-US ties.

“The press conference was indicative of how the US-India relationship has matured,” Pranay Kotasthane, deputy director of the Takshashila Institution based in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, told Arab News.

“There was no mention of our western neighbor, and the focus was on regional security, economic recovery and global issues such as climate change,” he added, before noting the convergence between the two countries on the situation in Afghanistan.

“On Afghanistan, both countries seem to agree that a Taliban that forces itself on the people of Afghanistan will face the consequences in terms of international recognition and access, and both the countries feel the need for resolution through the intra-Afghan dialogue,” Kotasthane said.

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure

Updated 23 September 2021

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure

  • Eliyantha White treated sports stars and top politicians including the country’s prime minister
  • But mainstream doctors described White as a fraud and Ayurveda physicians rejected his claims

COLOMBO: A high-profile shaman who tried to end Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 outbreak with “blessed” water has died of the virus, his family said Thursday.
Eliyantha White, 48, who treated sports stars and top politicians including the country’s prime minister, claimed in November he could end the pandemic in Sri Lanka and neighboring India by pouring pots of his “blessed” water into rivers.
Health minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi endorsed the water treatment, but was infected two months later and ended up in a hospital intensive care unit.
She was later demoted, and lost her portfolio, but remains in the cabinet.
White attracted international attention in 2010 when legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar publicly thanked him for treating a knee injury, saying it helped him hit the first-ever one-day international double century against South Africa.
In a 2010 interview, White claimed he had “special powers” since the age of 12.
He has since treated other Indian cricket stars, including Gautam Gambhir and Ashish Nehra.
White’s family said he had refused the Covid-19 vaccine.
His body was cremated at Colombo’s main cemetery on Thursday in line with quarantine regulations.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was among politicians to have consulted White, said on Twitter: “His legacy will continue to live through all the lives, he touched and healed of various ailments.”
But mainstream doctors described White as a fraud and Ayurveda physicians rejected his claims — even though the shaman said he used methods from the 3,000-year-old Indian medical tradition.
Sri Lanka’s total coronavirus deaths exceeded 12,000 with more than half a million people infected so far.
Doctors say the real toll is at least twice as high and authorities have resorted to mass cremations to clear bodies piling up at hospitals and morgues.

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors

Updated 23 September 2021

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors

  • Thailand is keen to welcome back foreign visitors, after nearly 18 months of strict entry policies caused a collapse in tourism

BANGKOK: Thailand’s disease control committee has proposed a halving of a two-week hotel isolation requirement for vaccinated arrivals, amid delays in plans to waive quarantine and reopen Bangkok and tourist destinations from next month.
Thailand is keen to welcome back foreign visitors, after nearly 18 months of strict entry policies caused a collapse in tourism, a key sector that drew 40 million visitors in 2019.
“Reducing the quarantine is not only about tourism, but will help business travel and foreign students,” senior health official Opas Karnkawinpong told a news conference, adding tests would also be required.
Under the proposal, to be presented to government on Monday, those without vaccination proof would be isolated for 10 days if arriving by air, and 14 days if by land.
Authorities this week delayed to November plans to grant vaccinated visitors entry without quarantine, due to the country’s low inoculation rate.
Only Phuket and Samui islands currently waive quarantine for vaccinated tourists, as part of a pilot scheme.
Less than a quarter of the estimated 72 million people living in Thailand have been fully vaccinated.
The country is still fighting its most severe wave of infections, which has accounted for about 99 percent of its 1.5 million cases and 15,884 deaths.

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering

Updated 23 September 2021

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering

  • Countries slated to give their signature annual speeches on Thursday include South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Burkina Faso and Libya

The inequity of COVID-19 vaccine distribution will come into sharper focus Thursday as many of the African countries whose populations have little to no access to the life-saving shots step to the podium to speak at the UN’s annual meeting of world leaders.
Already, the struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic has featured prominently in leaders’ speeches — many of them delivered remotely exactly because of the virus. Country after country acknowledged the wide disparity in accessing the vaccine, painting a picture so bleak that a solution has at times seemed impossibly out of reach.
“Some countries have vaccinated their populations, and are on the path to recovery. For others, the lack of vaccines and weak health systems pose a serious problem,” Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, said in a prerecorded speech Wednesday. “In Africa, fewer than 1 in 20 people are fully vaccinated. In Europe, one in two are fully vaccinated. This inequity is clearly unfair.”
Countries slated to give their signature annual speeches on Thursday include South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Burkina Faso and Libya.
Also among them will be Zimbabwe, where the economic ravages of the pandemic have forced some families to abandon the long-held tradition of taking care of their older people. And Uganda, where a surge in virus cases have made scarce hospital beds even more expensive, leading to concerns over alleged exploitation of patients by private hospitals.
On Wednesday, during a global vaccination summit convened virtually on the sidelines of the General Assembly, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would double its purchase of Pfizer’s COVID-19 shots to share with the world to 1 billion doses, with the goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the global population within the next year.
The move comes as world leaders, aid groups and global health organizations have grown increasingly vocal about the slow pace of global vaccinations and the inequity of access to shots between residents of wealthier and poorer nations.
The World Health Organization says only 15 percent of promised donations of vaccines — from rich countries that have access to large quantities of them — have been delivered. The UN health agency has said it wants countries to fulfill their dose-sharing pledges “immediately” and make shots available for programs that benefit poor countries and Africa in particular.
During an anti-racism event on Wednesday commemorating a landmark but contentious conference 20 years ago, President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo pointed to the fact that only about 1 in 1,000 people in his country have gotten at least one shot.
The disparity in vaccine availability around the world “clearly does not demonstrate equality between the countries and peoples of this world,” Tshisekedi said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy likewise called out failures in sharing coronavirus vaccines during his speech Wednesday night, his hopes in 2020 of “effective multilateralism and effective international solidarity” dashed a year later, “where one thing is to share objectives and quite another is to share vaccines.”
Also on Thursday, foreign ministers are due to ponder climate change as a security issue when the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body, meets in the morning.
Climate change has been a major focus during this week’s General Assembly gathering. World leaders made “faint signs of progress” on the financial end of fighting climate change in a special United Nations feet-to-the-fire meeting Monday, but they didn’t commit to more crucial cuts in emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government

Updated 23 September 2021

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government

  • Norway’s incumbent government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, conceded the election on Sept. 13

OSLO: Norway’s center-left election winners meet on Thursday for three-way talks to determine whether they can form a majority coalition government, with oil, taxes and EU relations among the sticking points.
Labour, the Socialists and the Center Party won a majority of seats in Norway’s parliament on Sept. 13, beating the ruling Conservative-led government, with a transfer of power likely to take place next month.
Labour leader Jonas Gahr Stoere, who is expected to become Norway’s next prime minister, has during the last week held individual meetings with Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and the Socialist Left’s Audun Lysbakken.
But Thursday’s gathering at a resort an hour’s drive north of Oslo is believed to be the first time the three will sit down together since the election.
Billed as exploratory talks, the initial phase is set to determine whether detailed negotiations should be opened next week, or if Stoere has to settle for ruling in a minority.
Norway’s status as an oil and gas producer, contributing to climate change, was at the heart of the election campaign, although a transition away from petroleum is likely to be gradual despite progress by pro-environment parties.
Norway’s oil and gas industry pumps around 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, accounting for over 40 percent of export revenues, although output is projected to fall from 2030 onwards.
The Socialist Party wants to halt all exploration for new resources, which would hasten the oil industry’s decline, but Labour and Center have rejected this position.
Labour is wary of potential job losses from petroleum’s demise, and champions state-sponsored policies to encourage a transfer of engineering know-how from oil production to renewable energy.
Norway’s incumbent government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, conceded the election on Sept. 13 and will step down as soon as Labour is ready to form a cabinet.

Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29

Updated 23 September 2021

Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29

  • National security crimes are punishable by up to life in prison
  • Hong Kong laws prohibit media from publishing the contents of such proceedings
HONG KONG: A closely monitored national security case involving 47 Hong Kong democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, most of whom have been in custody for more than six months, will resume on Nov. 29, a judge ruled on Thursday.
Magistrate Peter Law in the Western Kowloon Court ruled more time was needed for pre-trial legal proceedings to be finalized. Hong Kong laws prohibit media from publishing the contents of such proceedings.
The case is then expected to move to the High Court.
National security crimes are punishable by up to life in prison, but only higher courts have the authority to give such long sentences. The West Kowloon Court can only give sentences of up to three years.
The 47, who include opposition politicians, are among more than 100 people who Hong Kong police have arrested under a national security law that Beijing imposed on the former British colony last year that critics say erodes the freedoms promised when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing and the city’s government say the law is necessary to ensure stability, safeguard prosperity and guard against outside interference.
The 47, of whom only 14 have been given bail, were arrested on charges of participating in an unofficial, non-binding and independently organized primary vote last year to select candidates for a since-postponed city election, which authorities say was a “vicious plot” to subvert the government.
Diplomats and rights groups are closely watching the case amid mounting concerns over the independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system, which is seen as the foundation on which its financial reputation was built.
Authorities have repeatedly said the judiciary is independent and upholding the rule of law. They have also said prosecutions are independent, based on evidence and had no relation with the background or profession of the suspects.
Bail hearings in March for the 47 went on for four days and dragged late into the night. Several of the defendants became ill and most of their appeals for bail have been denied.
The security law sets a high threshold for defendants seeking bail to demonstrate they would not break the law, a departure from common law practice, which puts the onus on prosecutors to make their case for detention.
Reasons for denying bail included unanswered emails from the US Consulate and WhatsApp messages with foreign journalists, which were taken as proof there was a risk that defendants could endanger national security if released on bail.
The protracted hearings and the reasons for rejecting bail have stunned diplomats and rights groups, who see it as a dramatic display of the Chinese-ruled city’s authoritarian turn.