UN chief: World worse now due to COVID-19, climate, conflict

Secretary-general Antonio Guterres says his appeal for peace he issued on his first day in the UN’s top job has not changed. (AP)
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Updated 21 January 2022

UN chief: World worse now due to COVID-19, climate, conflict

  • ‘The secretary-general of the UN has no power. We can have influence. I can persuade. I can mediate, but I have no power’

UNITED NATIONS: As he starts his second term as UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres said Thursday the world is worse in many ways than it was five years ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and geopolitical tensions that have sparked conflicts everywhere — but unlike US President Joe Biden he thinks Russia will not invade Ukraine.
Guterres said in an interview that the appeal for peace he issued on his first day in the UN’s top job on Jan. 1, 2017 and his priorities in his first term of trying to prevent conflicts and tackle global inequalities, the COVID-19 crisis and a warming planet haven’t changed.
“The secretary-general of the UN has no power,” Guterres said. “We can have influence. I can persuade. I can mediate, but I have no power.”
Before he became UN chief, Guterres said he envisioned the post as being “a convener, a mediator, a bridge-builder and an honest broker to help find solutions that benefit everyone involved.”
He said Thursday these are things “I need to do every day.”
As an example, the secretary-general said this week he spoke to the African Union’s envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, twice with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, and once with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his attempt to get a cessation of hostilities in Ethiopia between the government and forces in the embattled Tigray region.
“I hope that we are in a situation in which it might become soon possible to have a cessation of hostilities and that is where I’m concentrating most of my efforts,” Guterres said.
As another example, Guterres said he has also been on the phone to try to get Mali’s military leaders who recently delayed elections scheduled for next month to 2026 to reduce the timetable. He said he spoke to Mali’s military ruler, President Assimi Goita, three presidents from the 15-nation West African regional group ECOWAS, Algeria’s prime minister and the African Union’s leader about “how to make sure that in Mali, there is an acceptable calendar for the transition to a civilian government.”
Guterres said he hopes Mali’s military leaders will understand that they need to accept “a reasonable period” before elections. The secretary-general believes voting should be held in “a relatively short amount of time,” and said: “All my efforts have been in creating conditions for bridging this divide and for allowing ECOWAS and the government of Mali to come to a solution with an acceptable delay for the elections.”
Guterres said the UN Security Council, which does have the power to uphold international peace and security including by imposing sanctions and ordering military action, is divided, especially its five veto-wielding permanent members. Russia and China are often at odds with the US, Britain and France on key issues, including Thursday on new sanctions against North Korea.
On the issue on every country’s front burner now — whether Russia, which has massed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, will invade the former Soviet republic — Guterres said, “I do not think Russia will invade Ukraine, and I hope that my belief is correct.”
What makes him think Moscow won’t invade when Biden and others believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will send troops into Ukraine?
“Because I do not believe in a military solution for the problems that exists, and I think that the most rational way to solve those problems is through diplomacy and through engagement in serious dialogue,” Guterres said, stressing that an invasion would have “terrible consequences.”
The secretary-general said “we have been in contact, of course” with top officials in Russia, though the UN is not directly engaged in the Ukraine crisis.
Guterres is scheduled to deliver a speech to the 193 UN member nations in the General Assembly on Friday on his priorities for 2022.
He singled out three immediate priorities that “are worrying me enormously”: the lack of vaccinations in large parts of the world, especially in Africa; the need to reduce emissions by 45 percent in this decade to try to meet the international goal of trying to limit future global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit); and the “extremely unjust” financial situation in the world that favors rich countries.
Many developing countries have very few resources, high debts that are growing and they pay much higher interest rates than in Europe or North America, have no vaccines, and disproportionately “suffer the impacts of climate change,” Guterres said.
“We need a deep reform in our international financial system in order to make sure that there is more justice in the way resources are available to allow for the recovery (from COVID-19) to be possible everywhere,” he said.
On another major issue, Guterres stressed that the Afghan people can’t be collectively punished for “wrong things that are done by the Taliban,” so it is absolutely essential to massively increase humanitarian aid “because the Afghans are in a desperate situation with the risks of deaths by hunger” and disease in a frigid winter with COVID-19.
“More than half the population is in desperate need of humanitarian aid,” he said, and money needs to be injected into the economy to ensure Afghan banks operate and doctors, teachers, engineers and other workers are paid to prevent the country’s economic collapse.
The issue of recognition of the Taliban government is up to member states, Guterres said, but the UN has been pressing the Taliban, which took power in August as US-led NATO forces were departing after 20 years, to ensure human rights, especially women’s rights to work and girls’ education, and to make the government more inclusive and reflective of Afghanistan’s diverse population.
The secretary-general said he will be attending the Beijing Olympics in February “which is not a political act” but “to be present when all the world comes together for good — for a peaceful message.”


Long fuel queues persist in Sri Lanka despite scramble to deliver supplies

Updated 23 sec ago

Long fuel queues persist in Sri Lanka despite scramble to deliver supplies

  • Another 40,000 metric tons of petrol supplied by India reached Sri Lanka on Monday
  • New Delhi delivered 40,000 tons of diesel to its southern neighbor two days earlier
COLOMBO: Long queues snaked around gas stations in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital and its outskirts on Monday even though the island nation’s government was scrambling to deliver fuel supplies and douse any unrest as it battles a devastating economic crisis.
Kanchana Wijesekera, Sri Lanka’s minister for power and energy, said supplies of 95-octane gasoline, mostly used in cars, had been received and were being distributed across the country of 22 million people that has been struggling with fuel shortages for months.
“With the 2 cargo vessels unloaded, petrol stocks will be available for the next 6 weeks comfortably,” Wijesekera said in a tweet.
Another 40,000 metric tons of petrol supplied by India had also reached Sri Lanka on Monday, the Indian High Commission (Embassy) said, two days after New Delhi delivered 40,000 tons of diesel to its southern neighbor.
Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst economic crisis since independence, as a dire shortage of foreign exchange has stalled imports and left the country short of fuel, medicines and hit by rolling power cuts.
The financial trouble has come from the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic battering the tourism-reliant economy, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, who resigned as prime minister this month.
M. Sudeera, an auto-rickshaw driver, was waiting in a two-kilometer (1.5-mile) -long queue at Kumbuke, on the outskirts of Colombo, to fill his vehicle, a popular form of public transport in the city and its suburbs.
“Last time, I spent two days in line for 3,000 rupees ($8.46) worth of fuel. With that I did a few hires but it’s barely enough to cover costs,” Sudeera said, standing beside parallel queues of auto-rickshaws, cars and motorcycles.
“Usually we run during the day and spent the night in line for fuel,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took over as prime minister earlier this month, has warned of hardship worsening over the coming months, including food shortages.
Protests against the government’s handling of the crisis have continued for weeks, and erupted into violence earlier this month in which nine people were killed and over 300 injured. But the protests have been peaceful since then, although anger against the government is high.
Inflation in the island nation rose to 33.8 percent in April, compared to 21.5 percent in March, according to government data released on Monday.
Wickremesinghe’s cabinet was expanded on Monday, with eight new ministers sworn in for portfolios including agriculture, fisheries, industries, transport and highways, water supply and irrigation.

Russian soldier sentenced to life at Kyiv war crimes trial

Updated 23 May 2022

Russian soldier sentenced to life at Kyiv war crimes trial

  • Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin pleads guilty, testifies that he shot the man after being ordered to do so

KYIV: A Ukrainian court sentenced a 21-year-old Russian soldier to life in prison on Monday for killing a Ukrainian civilian, in the first war crimes trial since Russia’s invasion.
Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin was accused of shooting a Ukrainian civilian in the head in a village in the northeastern Sumy region in the early days of the war.
He pleaded guilty and testified that he shot the man after being ordered to do so. He told the court that an officer insisted that the Ukrainian man, who was speaking on his cellphone, could pinpoint their location to the Ukrainian forces.
During the trial, Shishimarin asked the widow of the victim to forgive him.
Shishimarin’s defense attorney Victor Ovsyanikov argued that his client, a member of a Russian tank unit who was eventually captured, had been unprepared for the “violent military confrontation” and mass casualties that Russian troops encountered when they first invaded Ukraine.


Security guard killed in Qatar Embassy attack in Paris

Updated 57 min 38 sec ago

Security guard killed in Qatar Embassy attack in Paris

  • The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had opened a criminal investigation for manslaughter

PARIS: A person has been killed at the Qatar Embassy in Paris and one person has been arrested as part of the investigation, the Paris prosecutor’s office said on Monday, confirming earlier media reports.
A source close to the investigation said the person killed in the early hours of Monday was a security guard and that the death did not appear to have been a terrorism act.
“I can confirm that an investigation was opened today on the count of murder,” the prosecutor’s office said, adding that it was not clear yet if a weapon had been used.
“The circumstances of the death of the guard are yet to be determined precisely.”
Newspaper Le Parisien said earlier on Monday that one person had been killed within the embassy, citing police sources. 


Deluges of rain flood parts of India, Bangladesh

Updated 23 May 2022

Deluges of rain flood parts of India, Bangladesh

  • Both heavily populated nations in South Asia are prone to frequent floods and are considered major victims of climate change

DHAKA: Pre-monsoon deluges have flooded parts of India and Bangladesh, killing at least 24 people in recent weeks and sending 90,000 people into shelters, authorities said Monday.
Both heavily populated nations in South Asia are prone to frequent floods and are considered major victims of climate change.
The deaths have been reported since April 6 in India’s northeastern region with Assam state continuing to experience floods. Those who have left their homes due to the floods are staying in 269 camps set up by authorities.
The Indian army and air force have had to evacuate thousands of people in the last two weeks. Helicopters have been dropping essential items to people stuck in vulnerable spots in worst-hit Dima Hasao district. The Indian Space Research Organization is using satellites to assess the damage.
Flash flooding has been occurring in the Bangladeshi districts of Sylhet and Sunamganj, which border India’s northeast.
At least three rivers were flowing above the danger level Monday, said Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan, executive engineer of the Flood Forecasting and Warning Center in Dhaka, the nation’s capital.
Bangladeshi media said hundreds of villages have been marooned while crop fields have been damaged greatly. People also lack drinking water as wells have been under floodwaters or water supply system has been damaged.
No casualties have been reported in Bangladesh so far.
Jamuna TV station said while flood waters were receding from some areas, many new areas were affected by new flooding on Monday.
Authorities said hundreds of villages remained cut off from electricity supply while road infrastructure has been damaged extensively.


Philippines’ Marcos Jr says discussed defense agreements, climate funding with US envoy

Updated 23 May 2022

Philippines’ Marcos Jr says discussed defense agreements, climate funding with US envoy

  • Possible extension of a pact that allows US troops to conduct exchanges on Philippine soil

MANILA: Philippines president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr said on Monday he discussed the extension of a joint military agreement with an envoy of defense ally the United States, after meetings with senior diplomats of four countries.

Ambassadors of Japan, India and South Korea and the US Chargé d’Affaires made courtesy calls on Monday to Marcos, the son and namesake of the notorious late dictator, following his landslide election victory this month.

Marcos, 64, who take office late in June, said he discussed with the US envoy the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and how it would be redefined amid a changing regional landscape, plus funding for climate change mitigation.

“We would welcome any assistance for the economy that we can get from the United States,” Marcos told a news conference. “Trade, not aid.”

The VFA, which provides a legal framework by which US troops can operate on Philippine soil, was a bone of contention for incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, who repeatedly threatened to scrap it.

“Security concerns of course has always been a big part of our relationship with the United States,” Marcos said.

India’s envoy to the Philippines Shambhu Kumaran during a courtesy visit to president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (BBM Media Office)

Analysts expect Marcos to pursue close China ties, which could complicate relations with former colonial power Washington, his military, and the Philippine public, with which the United States is popular.

He last week spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said he wanted bilateral ties to “shift to a higher gear.”

Marcos said he discussed aid projects with Japan’s ambassador, microfinance with India and with South Korea, information technology, regional security and the possible reactivation of a disused nuclear plant.

South Korea ambassador Kim Inchul during a courtesy visit to president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (BBM Media Office)

The plant was intended by his late father to be part of his economic modernization legacy, but was mothballed after his overthrow in a 1986 “people power” uprising, two years after completion.

Marcos said he asked Arsenio Balisacan, the national anti-trust agency chief, to be economic planning minister, a role he held from 2012 to 2016 under an administration that was a rival to the influential Marcos family.