Blinken says US is ‘equal partner’ with African countries

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a speech on the U.S. Africa Strategy at the University of Pretoria's Future Africa Campus in Pretoria, South Africa on August 8. (REUTERS)
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Updated 09 August 2022

Blinken says US is ‘equal partner’ with African countries

  • US top diplomat is in South Africa as part of a three-nation tour of Africa including Congo and Rwanda.

JOHANNESBURG: The United States sees Africa’s 54 nations as “equal partners” in tackling global problems, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in South Africa Monday.
“Our strategy is rooted in the recognition that sub-Saharan Africa is a major geopolitical force — one that has shaped our past, is shaping our present, and will shape our future,” Blinken said at the University of Pretoria in a speech detailing the Biden administration’s policies for Africa.
“It’s a strategy that reflects the region’s complexity, its diversity, its agency; and one that focuses on what we will do with African nations and peoples, not for African nations and peoples,” he said.
Blinken said that the United States and African nations “can’t achieve any of our shared priorities — whether that’s recovering from the pandemic; creating broad-based economic opportunities; addressing the climate crisis; expanding energy access; revitalizing democracies; or strengthening the free and open international order — if we don’t work together, as equal partners.”
South African academics and students responded warmly to Blinken’s speech, which was a broad declaration of US intentions toward sub-Saharan Africa. The United States is often faulted for overlooking the continent in recent decades, opening space for Russian and Chinese interests to make significant inroads.
The United States’ top diplomat is in South Africa as part of a three-nation tour of Africa including Congo and Rwanda in what is seen as a contest between Western nations and Russia to win support from African countries over the war in Ukraine.
Blinken’s tour follows recent trips to African countries by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French President Emmanuel Macron.
South Africa is among many African countries that have taken a neutral stance on the Ukraine war.
Before his speech, Blinken met in Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital, with Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor. Pandor appears to have maintained her country’s refusal to criticize Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Instead, in a press briefing following the meeting, Pandor criticized the US and other Western powers for focusing on the Ukraine conflict to the detriment of other international issues.
“We should be equally concerned at what is happening to the people of Palestine, as we are with what is happening to the people of Ukraine,” she said.
Before the closed-door meeting with Pandor, Blinken had said that the United States’ good relations with South Africa would allow them to be frank in discussing their differences.
Many African countries have declined to follow the US lead in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some were among more than a dozen African governments that have signed security deals with the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian mercenary group that the US and other countries say is backed by the Kremlin.
Sub-Saharan nations also have been major recipients of Chinese investment through its “Belt and Road Initiative,” which supports infrastructure developments.


Taliban fire into air to disperse women’s rally backing Iran protests

Updated 8 sec ago

Taliban fire into air to disperse women’s rally backing Iran protests

KABUL: Taliban forces fired shots into the air on Thursday to disperse a women’s rally supporting protests that have erupted in Iran over the death of a woman in the custody of morality police.
Chanting the same “Women, life, freedom!” mantra used in demonstrations in Iran, about 25 Afghan women protested in front of the Iranian embassy in Kabul, before being dispersed by Taliban forces firing in the air, an AFP correspondent reported.

Fourth leak found on Nord Stream pipelines, Swedish coast guard says

Updated 21 min 54 sec ago

Fourth leak found on Nord Stream pipelines, Swedish coast guard says

  • The two other holes are in the Danish exclusive economic zone
  • The EU suspects sabotage behind the gas leaks on the subsea Russian pipelines

OSLO: Sweden’s coast guard earlier this week discovered a fourth gas leak on the damaged Nord Stream pipelines, a coast guard spokesperson told newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
“Two of these four are in Sweden’s exclusive economic zone,” coast guard spokesperson Jenny Larsson told the newspaper.
The two other holes are in the Danish exclusive economic zone.
The European Union suspects sabotage was behind the gas leaks on the subsea Russian pipelines to Europe and has promised a “robust” response to any intentional disruption of its energy infrastructure.


‘Living in the stone age’: Offline for 18 months in Indian-administered Kashmir

Updated 12 min 48 sec ago

‘Living in the stone age’: Offline for 18 months in Indian-administered Kashmir

  • India shut off the Internet at least 85 times last year in Indian-administered Kashmir, largely on security grounds
  • India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which Internet can be shut

SRINAGAR, India: For editors at The Kashmir Walla, fact-checking a story used to involve a flurry of googling before press time. So when an 18-month Internet and phone shutdown began in the Himalayan region in 2019, they had to improvise.

“We used to leave blank spaces in news stories when we couldn’t verify certain facts. Every week, a team member would fly to Delhi and fill in the blanks,” said Yash Raj Sharma, an editor with the weekly magazine.

It was one of numerous headaches for journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir. Unable to use his mobile, Sharma, 25, recalled driving to a telephone booth at Srinagar airport to dictate an 800-word news story to a friend in Delhi.

“That incident will remain with me forever as a memory of working during the longest communication and Internet shutdown,” said Sharma, who also used to call friends in Delhi to ask them to read out and respond to his emails.

India revoked the special status of its portion of Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir, on Aug. 5, 2019 in a bid to fully integrate its only Muslim-majority region with the rest of the country.

Anticipating major unrest, authorities imposed a communications blackout, cutting off phone and Internet connections.

The shutdown lasted until Feb. 5, 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated in the region. Slow-speed Internet was restored a year earlier, but with limited access.

For older Kashmiris, it was a journey back in time to the pre-Internet days of their youth of letters and landlines.

For the young, it felt like “living in the stone age,” said Umer Maqbool, 25, who took out a bank loan to buy cameras and other equipment to set up a videography business in August 2019 — just as the shutdown began.

He got no bookings until the Internet was restored, and had to borrow from family and friends to make the loan payments.

“I had put all my hopes on the earnings from the business, but there was something else written in my destiny,” Maqbool, who supports a family-of-five, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

RECORD SHUTDOWNS

India shut off the Internet at least 106 times last year — the highest number of shutdowns globally for the fourth consecutive year, according to digital rights group Access Now, costing the economy an estimated $600 million.

Of these outages, at least 85 were in Jammu and Kashmir, largely on security grounds.

Elsewhere in the country, authorities have also shut off the Internet and mobile Internet during elections, protests, religious festivals and examinations.

It is “extremely easy” to suspend the Internet in India, as federal and state officers can do so “without any prior judicial authorization,” said Krishnesh Bapat, an associate litigation counsel at the non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation.

“The suspensions are justified as ‘strong decisions’ in response to protests or cheating in exams or other law and order issues ... despite the fact that there is little empirical evidence to suggest they lead to better law and order outcomes.”

India’s interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

LAWS FLOUTED

Internet shutdowns have become more sophisticated worldwide, lasting longer, harming people and the economy, and targeting vulnerable groups, according to Access Now, which recorded some 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries last year, up from 159 shutdowns in 29 nations the previous year.

India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which the Internet can be shut.

And in 2020, the Supreme Court said that access to the Internet was a fundamental right, and that the indefinite shutdown of the Internet in Indian-administered Kashmir was illegal. It also said that all orders on Internet shutdowns must be made public.

Yet officials have continued to pull the plug — including in Indian-administered Kashmir — often without giving reasons, and the courts have rarely challenged the government, Bapat said.

“It is difficult to challenge the suspension of Internet services because by the time the aggrieved parties reach the courts, the Internet shutdown orders expire,” he said.

“But the legal challenges are needed because of the frequency with which the laws are flouted.”

In a significant shift earlier this year, the Calcutta high court struck down an order by the West Bengal state government suspending Internet services in several districts, aimed at stopping students from cheating in the exams.

In its judgment, the court said the order was “unreasoned” and did not show a public emergency.

FILL IN THE BLANKS

There have been more than 400 Internet outages in Kashmir over the past decade, and shutdowns have become more frequent in recent years, a tracker showed.

Kashmir has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity, since the partition of the British colony of India into the countries of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

The region is divided between India — which rules the Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city — and Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west, and China, which holds a thinly populated area in the north.

During the 2019 shutdown, Kashmiris waited in long lines to make calls from phone lines in government offices, police stations and other public places, or boarded crowded trains to travel to towns with Internet access.

With Internet speed restricted to 2G during much of the COVID-19 lockdowns, people struggled to work from home, attend online classes or even access health care information online.

It cost Indian-administered Kashmir tens of thousands of jobs as small and medium-sized businesses closed, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and took a heavy toll on young Kashmiris like Maleeha Sofi, 22.

The Monday that the shutdown began, she had planned to go to a college in Srinagar to check on the admission process.

She eventually joined the college eight months later, and struggled with her classmates through the outages that made it difficult to do course work and prepare for exams.

“We have now become used to Internet shutdowns. We know it can happen anytime, so we have learned that we should never rely on the Internet, and learned to live without it,” she said.

But others have run out of patience with the disruption to their studies.

Insha, 22, moved to Delhi four years ago for college.

“I couldn’t stay in a place where the Internet can get disrupted anytime — for days and even months,” she said.

“I didn’t see a future in Kashmir.”


Former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi convicted again, Australian economist gets 3 years

Updated 48 min 34 sec ago

Former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi convicted again, Australian economist gets 3 years

  • Suu Kyi received a three-year sentence after being tried and convicted under the secrets law
  • Australian economist Sean Turnell had served as an adviser to the former leader

BANGKOK: A court in military-ruled Myanmar convicted former leader Aung San Suu Kyi in another criminal case Thursday and sentenced Australian economist Sean Turnell to three years in prison for violating Myanmar’s official secrets act, a legal official said.
Suu Kyi received a three-year sentence after being tried and convicted with Turnell under the secrets law, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information about the case.
Three members of her Cabinet were also found guilty, each receiving sentences of three years.
Turnell, an associate professor in economics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, had served as an adviser to Suu Kyi, who was detained in the capital Naypyitaw when her elected government was ousted by the army on Feb. 1, 2021.
He has been in detention for almost 20 months. He was arrested five days after the military takeover by security forces at a hotel in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, while waiting for a car to take him to the city’s international airport.
He had arrived back in Myanmar from Australia to take up a new position as a special consultant to Suu Kyi less than a month before he was detained. As director of the Myanmar Development Institute, he already had lived in Naypyitaw for several years.
The day after the military’s takeover, he posted a message on Twitter that he was: “Safe for now but heartbroken for what all this means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better.”
He was charged along with Suu Kyi and the three former Cabinet ministers on the basis of documents seized from him. The exact details of their offense have not been made public, though state television said last year that Turnell had access to “secret state financial information” and had tried to flee the country.
Turnell and Suu Kyi denied the allegations when they testified in their defense at the trial in August.
Turnell was also charged with violating immigration law, but it was not immediately clear what sentence he received for that.
Myanmar’s colonial-era official secrets act criminalizes the possession, collection, recording, publishing, or sharing of state information that is “directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
All sessions of the trial, held in a purpose-built courtroom in Naypyitaw’s main prison, were closed to the media and the public. The defense lawyers were barred by a gag order from revealing details of the proceedings.
The same restrictions have applied to all of Suu Kyi’s trials.
The case that concluded Thursday is one of several faced by Suu Kyi and is widely seen as an effort to discredit her to prevent her return to politics.
She had already been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment after being convicted of illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, sedition, election fraud and five corruption charges. The cases are widely seen as being concocted to keep the 77-year-old Suu Kyi from returning to active politics.
Suu Kyi is still being tried on seven counts under the country’s anti-corruption law, with each count punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine.
Defense lawyers are expected to file appeals in the secrets case in the coming days for Turnell, Suu Kyi and three former ministers: Soe Win and Kyaw Win, both former ministers for planning and finance, and Set Aung, a former deputy minister in the same ministry, the legal official said.
About half-a-dozen foreigners are known to have been arrested on political charges since the army takeover, and they generally have been deported after their convictions.
Australia has repeatedly demanded Turnell’s release. Last year, it suspended its defense cooperation with Myanmar and began redirecting humanitarian aid because of the military takeover and Turnell’s ongoing detention.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, when he visited Myanmar in January this year, asked for Turnell’s release in a meeting with the leader of ruling military council. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing replied that he “would consider it positively.”
The UN Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer said she conveyed a specific request from Australia for Turnell’s release when she met with Min Aung Hlaing in August. Myanmar’s government said the general replied that, should the Australian government take positive steps, “we will not need to take stern actions.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights monitoring organization, 15,683 people have been detained on political charges in Myanmar since the army takeover, with 12,540 of those remaining in detention. At least 2,324 civilians have been killed by security forces in the same period, the group says, though the number is thought to be far higher.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the takeover, which led to nationwide protests that the military government quashed with deadly force, triggering armed resistance that some UN experts now characterize as civil war.


Canada’s Hudson Bay a summer refuge for thousands of belugas

Updated 29 September 2022

Canada’s Hudson Bay a summer refuge for thousands of belugas

  • Decrease in ice due to climate change, in an area that is warming three to four times faster than the rest of the planet, is a cause for concern for researchers

CHURCHILL, Canada: Half a dozen beluga whales dive and reemerge around tourist paddle boards in Canada’s Hudson Bay, a handful of about 55,000 of the creatures that migrate from the Arctic to the bay’s more temperate waters each summer.
Far from the Seine river where a beluga strayed in early August north of Paris, the estuaries that flow into the bay in northern Canada offer a sanctuary for the small white whales to give birth in relative warm and shelter.
In the murky bay, the belugas, with small dark eyes and what look like wide smiles, seem to enjoy the presence of a cluster of tourists who traveled to the remote town of Churchill — home to some 800 people and only accessible by train or plane — to observe the cetaceans.
For more than seven months of the year, between November and June, the bay is frozen.

The thaw marks the return of the belugas to the haven, where they are protected from orcas and feed on the rich food found in the estuaries.
The gray color of the young whales stands out against the bright white adults as they glide through the water in packs, all the while communicating in their own array of sounds.

Nicknamed “canaries of the sea” due to the 50 or so different vocalizations — whistles, clicks, chirps and squeals — they emit, belugas are “social butterflies” and “sound is the glue of that society,” said Valeria Vergara, who has been studying them for years.
“Belugas are sound-centered species, and sound to them is really like vision to us,” the researcher with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation told AFP.
Listening at the speaker of a hydrophone, the 53-year-old scientist tries to distinguish the multitude of sounds from the depths — a cacophony to the untrained ear.
“They need to rely on sound to communicate and they also rely on sound to echolocate, to find their way... to find food,” said Vergara, who has identified “contact calls” used between members of a pod.
Newborn belugas, which measure around 1.8 meters (six feet) long and weigh some 80 kilos (175 pounds), remain dependent on their mother for two years.
As an adult, the mammal — which generally matures in the icy waters around Greenland and in the north of Canada, Norway and Russia — can grow to six meters long and live between 40 and 60 years.
The Hudson Bay beluga population is the largest in the world.
But the decrease in ice due to climate change, in an area that is warming three to four times faster than the rest of the planet, is a cause for concern for researchers.