World leaders return to UN and face many escalating crises

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers the opening address at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. (File/Reuters)
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers the opening address at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. (File/Reuters)
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Updated 21 September 2021

World leaders return to UN and face many escalating crises

World leaders return to UN and face many escalating crises

NEW YORK: In person and on screen, world leaders return to the United Nations foremost gathering for the first time in two years on Tuesday with a formidable, diplomacy-packed agenda of escalating crises to tackle, including the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic and a relentlessly warming planet.
Other pressing issues include rising US-China tensions, Afghanistan’s unsettled future under its new Taliban rulers and ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region.
Last year, no leaders came to the UN because the coronavirus was sweeping the globe, so all addresses were pre-recorded. This year, the General Assembly offered leaders a choice — come to New York or remain online. More than 100 decided to appear in person in the General Assembly hall.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, who opens the weeklong event, “will pull no punches in expressing his concern about the state of the world, and he will lay out a vision to bridge the numerous divides that stand in the way of progress,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Guterres has already demonstrated that in pointed pre-meeting remarks about the virus and climate change.
By tradition, the first country to speak is Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, isn’t vaccinated. He reiterated last Thursday that he doesn’t plan to get the shot any time soon, justifying his refusal by saying he had COVID-19 and therefore has a high level of antibodies.
A key issue ahead of the meetings has been COVID-19 entry requirements for leaders to the United States — and to the UN headquarters itself. The US requires a vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test, and the UN will operate on an honor system whereby anyone entering the complex attests that they do not have symptoms and have not tested positive in the last 10 days.
The three most closely watched speakers on Tuesday morning are expected to be US President Joe Biden, appearing at the UN for the first time since his defeat of Donald Trump in the US election last November; Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in a surprise move will deliver a video address; and Iran’s recently elected hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi.
Ahead of the opening of the General Assembly’s annual General Debate, Guterres issued a dire warning that the world could be plunged into a new and probably more dangerous Cold War unless the United States and China repair their “totally dysfunctional” relationship.
The UN chief said in an interview this weekend with The Associated Press that Washington and Beijing should be cooperating on the climate crisis and negotiating on trade and technology, but “unfortunately, today we only have confrontation” including over human rights and geostrategic problems mainly in the South China Sea.
Speaking last week about Biden’s speech, Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said “the really significant question is exactly how he frames relations with China.” He predicted that Biden “won’t be as forthright in criticism of China as Trump was, especially in 2019 and 2020,” but rather will “try and cast China as a country that is challenging the rules-based world order and a country that should not be trusted with leadership of the international system.”
On the latest speakers list released earlier this month, China’s speech was supposed to be delivered on Friday by a deputy prime minister. But the UN confirmed Monday that Xi will give the country’s video address instead. His speech and any comments about the US rivalry are certain to be closely watched and analyzed: China’s presence in the world, and its relationship with the United States, affect most every corner of the planet.
Other leaders scheduled to speak in person during the meeting, which ends Sept. 27, include King Abdullah II of Jordan, the president of Venezuela, and the prime ministers of Japan, India and the United Kingdom along with Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Leaders delivering prerecorded statements this year include the presidents of Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. French President Emmanuel Macron was supposed to deliver a pre-recorded statement on Tuesday, but the government said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will now deliver the country’s address virtually on the final day.
France and China have reacted angrily to the surprise announcement by Biden, alongside the leaders of Australia and Britain, of a deal to provide Australia with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. Australia had signed a contract worth at least $66 billion for a dozen French conventional diesel-electric submarines and their construction was already under way.
Le Drian told a news conference Monday that there is a “crisis of trust” between the United States and its oldest ally, France, as well as Europe, which has been excluded from the new US-UK-Australia alliance focused on the Indo-Pacific and aimed at confrontation with China. He said Europeans “should not be left behind,” and need to define their own strategic interests.


Pandemic has spurred engagement with online extremism: Experts

Pandemic has spurred engagement with online extremism: Experts
Updated 9 sec ago

Pandemic has spurred engagement with online extremism: Experts

Pandemic has spurred engagement with online extremism: Experts
  • 7% more terror-related content reported in 2020 than preceding year
  • Most people referred to UK’s counter-extremism program have mixed, unclear or uncertain motivations

LONDON: Engagement with extremist content has proliferated over the last 18 months as people have been forced inside and online by COVID-19 lockdowns, experts have warned.

“What we’ve seen is evidence of spikes of online activity in a wide range of extremist issues during lockdown,” Jacob Davey, head of research and policy of far-right and hate movements at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told The Guardian.

“It is not just terrorist material but a broad cocktail of online harms, as people spent more time indoors.”

Last year, the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit said over 7 percent more pieces of suspected terrorism content were reported to them during 2020 compared with the year before.

Paul Gill, a professor of security and crime science at University College London, said the nature of the terror threat was already evolving after the defeat of Daesh’s so-called caliphate in 2019. “That has meant there were already fewer directed plots and a rise in self-initiation,” he told The Guardian.

The on-off lockdowns of the past 18 months have only served to turbocharge this change, as associating in person became more difficult and social isolation from community and family created “a perfect storm of other risk factors for radicalization,” Gill said.

“If you have any grievance you can go online and find people who will validate your grievance, and make you feel like you are part of something,” he added.

An increasing number of terrorist attacks — or closely related cases — were “hard to define,” he said.

The UK is currently coming to terms with the murder of an MP at the hands of a suspected Islamist, but as Gill alluded to, the circumstances surrounding the murder are not immediately obvious.

Some have blamed Islamist extremism, while others cite a rising tide of online hatred against public officials.

According to MI5, Islamist extremism remains the greatest threat to British public safety, but other forms — such as right-wing extremism — remain a clear threat, as does the growing category of instances with a mixed, unclear or uncertain motive.

Of all referrals to Britain’s counter-radicalization program from 2019 to 2020, the latest period for which figures are available, 51 percent were in the MUU category, while the rest were split between Islamists and right-wing radicals, at 24 and 22 percent respectively.


15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India

15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India
Updated 35 min 49 sec ago

15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India

15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India
  • The Indian Meteorological Department extended and widened its weather alert on Tuesday
  • Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake

DEHRADUN: At least 15 people died and over a dozen were missing after landslides and flash floods triggered by several days of heavy rain hit northern India, officials said Tuesday.
Forecasters have also warned of more heavy rains in the coming days in the southern state of Kerala where floods have already killed at least 27 people since Friday.
Officials in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand said 10 people were killed in fresh landslides on Tuesday after five died in similar incidents on Monday.
Five of the deceased were killed after a cloudburst — an ultra-intense deluge of rain — triggered a landslide, completely burying a house along with its inhabitants in the town of Nainital early Tuesday.
“We have recovered five bodies from the disaster site and a further search is on,” local official Prateek Jain told AFP.
Another landslide in the northern Almora district left five people dead after huge rocks and a wall of mud demolished and engulfed their home.
The Indian Meteorological Department extended and widened its weather alert on Tuesday, predicting “heavy” to “very heavy” rainfall in the region for the next two days.
The weather office said several areas were drenched by more than 400 mm (16 inches) of rainfall on Monday, causing landslides and flooding.
Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state.
Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake, a tourist hotspot, and the Ganges bursting its banks in Rishikesh.
More than 100 tourists were also stuck inside a resort in Ramgarh after the overflowing Kosi river deluged several localities.
Landslides are a regular danger in India’s Himalayan north, but experts say they are becoming more common as rains become increasingly erratic and glaciers melt.
Experts also blame construction work on hydroelectric dams and deforestation.
In February, a ferocious flash flood hurtled down a remote valley in Uttarakhand, killing around 200 people. At least 5,700 people perished there in 2013.
In the south, large parts of Kerala have been battered by floods and landslides since late last week, leaving at least 27 people dead.
Many dams in the state were nearing the danger mark and authorities were evacuating thousands to safer locations as major rivers overflowed.
India’s weather office said heavy rains will lash the state in the next two days after a brief reprieve on Tuesday.


Australia PM: Technology best way to achieve climate target

Australia PM: Technology best way to achieve climate target
Updated 19 October 2021

Australia PM: Technology best way to achieve climate target

Australia PM: Technology best way to achieve climate target
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week agreed to attend next month’s climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland

CANBERRA, Australia: A net zero carbon emissions target by 2050 would be a “great positive” for Australia if it can be achieved through technology and not a carbon price, the prime minister said on Tuesday as he pressures government colleagues to commit to more ambitious action ahead of a climate summit.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week agreed to attend next month’s climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, but his government colleagues have yet to approve the commitment he wants to net zero.
“If you have a credible plan ... with the proper transparencies Australia’s well known for, then it can be a great positive for Australia,” Morrison told Parliament, referring to the net zero target.
“If you have the right plan, ... if you have technology, not taxes,” Morrison added.
Morrison was a minister in the conservative coalition government that in 2014 repealed a carbon tax introduced by a center-left Labour Party government. The coalition continues to oppose any measures that would penalize polluters through a carbon price or tax.
The rural-based junior coalition partner, the Nationals party, are the major obstacle to Australia adopting net zero.
Nationals lawmakers have debated Cabinet’s draft climate policy for the past three days but remained bitterly divided by Tuesday.
They were shown government modeling on Tuesday that predicted the economic impacts of more ambitious climate targets.
Nationals Sen. Matt Canavan was among the lawmakers who did not believe the modeling.
“The party room here is being gaslighted and that’s kind of ironic given it’s being gaslighted by people who want to end the use of fossil fuels,” Canavan said.
The government rejected opposition calls to make the modeling public.
Morrison said the world’s responses would have “significant impacts on rural and regional Australia, but they also present significant opportunities.”
“The plans that the government are considering will ensure that we can deal with both the costs and the benefits, because we understand there are impacts, that this is not a road that is only ... where you’ll find opportunities,” Morrison said.
Morrison said he would make his government’s plans public before the next election, which is due by May.
Australia has not budged from its 2015 pledge at the Paris climate conference to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, despite many countries adopting far more ambitious targets.
Morrison is unlikely to persuade his colleagues to agree to a new 2030 target before he goes to Glasgow.
Reducing emissions is a politically fraught issue in Australia, which is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquified natural gas. The nation is also one of the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitters per capita because of its heavy reliance on coal-fired power.
The conservative government’s lack of ambition on climate change is regarded as a reason behind the government’s surprise reelection in 2019 and strong voter support in coal-rich Queensland state.
Morrison had argued that the Labor opposition’s pledge to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2050 would wreck the economy.


Singapore expands quarantine-free travel for vaccinated passengers

Singapore expands quarantine-free travel for vaccinated passengers
Updated 19 October 2021

Singapore expands quarantine-free travel for vaccinated passengers

Singapore expands quarantine-free travel for vaccinated passengers
  • Air travel lanes now open to passengers from the United States, Canada, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands

SINGAPORE: Singapore on Tuesday began quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated passengers from eight countries, part of a plan to ease restrictions as the business hub gears up to live with the coronavirus.
The latest easing expanded a program that began with vaccinated air travel lanes with Germany and Brunei last month, and is now open to passengers from the United States, Canada, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.
Singapore Airlines said flights from Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles and New York were scheduled to arrive Tuesday under the program.
“We have seen very strong demand for our Vaccinated Travel Lane flights,” the carrier said.
“This is across all cabin classes, as well as various travel segments including leisure, families, and business travel.”
Passengers arriving as part of this scheme — which will include South Korea from November 15 — will not have to quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated and test negative for the virus before they depart and when they arrive.
To enable families to travel, Singapore has allowed entry to unvaccinated children aged 12 years and under if they are accompanied by someone flying under the scheme.
The city-state initially fought the COVID-19 pandemic by shutting borders, imposing lockdowns of varying intensity and aggressive contact tracing. But with more than 80 percent of the population fully vaccinated, authorities are keen to revive the economy.
“Singapore cannot stay locked down and closed off indefinitely,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said October 9, when he announced a raft of measures under the “Living with Covid-19” strategy.
The city-state is home to the regional offices of thousands of multi-national corporations, which rely on Singapore’s status as a business and aviation hub for their operations.
Singapore’s vaccinated travel lanes may also provide a shot in the arm for the pandemic-hammered airline and tourism industries, analysts said.
Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for about five percent of Singapore’s GDP, said Song Seng Wun, a regional economist with CIMB Private Banking.
“We used to get 1.6 million tourists every month, our airport used to handle over a thousand flights a day pre-pandemic. Now it is just over 300 flights a day,” he said.
Statistics from the Singapore tourism board showed international visitor arrivals plunging to less than 2.8 million last year from a record 19.1 million in 2019.


New Zealand hits coronavirus high, pushes vaccination as way out

New Zealand hits coronavirus high, pushes vaccination as way out
Updated 19 October 2021

New Zealand hits coronavirus high, pushes vaccination as way out

New Zealand hits coronavirus high, pushes vaccination as way out
  • Health officials found 94 new local infections, eclipsing the 89 that were reported twice during the early days of the pandemic 18 months ago

WELLINGTON: New Zealand counted its most new coronavirus cases of the pandemic Tuesday as an outbreak in its largest city grew and officials urged vaccinations as a way out of Auckland’s two-month lockdown.
Health officials found 94 new local infections, eclipsing the 89 that were reported twice during the early days of the pandemic 18 months ago. Most of the new cases were in Auckland, but seven were found in the nearby Waikato district.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said lockdown rule-breakers were contributing to the spread of infections and noted that many of the new cases had been detected among younger people.
“I know the highs and lows of cases is incredibly hard on people, particularly those in Tamaki Makaurau,” Ardern said, using the Indigenous Maori name for Auckland. “I just wanted to reinforce again that we’re not powerless. We do have the ability to keep cases as low as we can.”
New Zealand had successfully eliminated earlier outbreaks by imposing tough border controls and strict lockdowns, as well as aggressive contact-tracing and isolating those who were infectious. But the approach failed against the more transmissible delta variant. The government has since eased some of Auckland’s lockdown rules, allowing more people to return to work.
Ardern has also embarked on an all-out effort to get people vaccinated. That’s included a televised “Vaxathon” festival on Saturday which saw a record 130,000 people getting shots, more than 2 percent of the New Zealand’s population of 5 million.
Ardern has promised to outline a path out of lockdown for Auckland based on vaccination numbers.
The government has previously talked about the importance of getting 90 percent of people aged 12 and over fully vaccinated, including a high proportion of Maori, who have been particularly hard hit by the outbreak.
But that goal remains some distance away, with 85 percent of eligible people having had at least one dose and 67 percent fully vaccinated. The numbers are lower among Maori.
Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago, said he was concerned that contact tracers in Auckland would soon become overwhelmed. He said lawmakers needed to consider temporarily reimposing stricter lockdown rules as a circuit breaker.
“There are burning embers all over the city,” Baker said. “They have lifted the wet blanket of the strong lockdown, and people are getting lockdown fatigue.”
Baker said he thought it was possible for the government to continue eliminating the outbreak outside of Auckland, provided it kept in place strict border controls around the city.
He said the most important goal in any reopening would be to ensure the health system was not overrun.
Health officials on Tuesday also said they had authorized people with weakened immune systems to get a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine and were recommending they do so.