Biden hails averting ‘catastrophic’ default in Oval Office speech

US President Joe Biden addresses the nation on averting default and the Bipartisan Budget Agreement, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, June 2, 2023. (AFP)
US President Joe Biden addresses the nation on averting default and the Bipartisan Budget Agreement, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, June 2, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 03 June 2023

Biden hails averting ‘catastrophic’ default in Oval Office speech

Biden hails averting ‘catastrophic’ default in Oval Office speech
  • Oval Office addresses have always been reserved by presidents for moments of unique national danger or importance

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden told Americans on Friday in a rare Oval Office address that the debt ceiling bill passed by Congress after weeks of wrangling saved the country from “economic collapse.”
Speaking from behind the historic Resolute Desk on live primetime television, Biden said that the deal resolving the standoff between Democrats and Republicans was a compromise where “no one got everything they wanted.”
“We averted an economic crisis and an economic collapse,” he said, adding that “the stakes could not have been higher.”
Biden said he will sign the bill, which authorizes the government to extend the so-called debt ceiling and renew borrowing, into law on Saturday.
The US Treasury Department had warned that if the debt ceiling was blocked beyond Monday, the country could default on its $31 trillion debt. A default would have likely triggered market panic, huge job losses and a recession, with global implications.
“Nothing would have been more catastrophic,” Biden said.
Oval Office addresses have always been reserved by presidents for moments of unique national danger or importance.
Biden used the occasion to project a reassuring, calm tone. Sprinkling his speech with chuckles and smiles, he praised his opponents for negotiating in good faith and promised Americans that he had never felt more optimistic.
Biden said that Congress has now preserved “the full faith and credit of the United States.”
But even with the House and Senate putting aside differences to finally rush through an agreement over the last week, the US economy’s reputation took a hit.
Ratings agency Fitch said Friday that it is keeping the United States’ “AAA” credit rating on negative watch, despite the deal.

The debt ceiling is usually an uncontroversial accounting maneuver approved yearly by Congress. It allows the government to keep borrowing money to pay for bills already incurred.
This year, hard-right Republicans dominating their party’s narrow majority in the House of Representatives, decided to use the must-pass vote as leverage for forcing Biden into accepting cuts to many Democratic spending priorities.
This triggered a test of political strength that threatened to end in chaos before the two sides agreed this week on raising the debt ceiling while freezing some budgetary spending in return — yet stopping well short of Republican demands for cuts.
Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the Republican-led House, had touted the compromise bill as a big victory for conservatives, although he faced a backlash from hard-liners on the right who said he made too many concessions.
But Biden, who is campaigning for re-election in 2024, sees the dramatic resolution to the crisis as a win, showcasing his negotiating powers and his pitch to be the moderate voice in an increasingly extreme political landscape.
He burnished those credentials in the speech by going out of his way to praise McCarthy, a politician long loyal to former president Donald Trump — the man Biden defeated in 2020 and who is seeking his own return in 2024.
“I want to commend Speaker McCarthy. You know, he and I, we and our teams, were able to get along, get things done,” Biden said, calling the Republican negotiators “completely honest and respectful of one another.”


UN General Assembly president ‘encouraged’ by week’s results

UN General Assembly president ‘encouraged’ by week’s results
Updated 13 sec ago

UN General Assembly president ‘encouraged’ by week’s results

UN General Assembly president ‘encouraged’ by week’s results
  • Dennis Francis hails major sustainable development declaration as ‘remarkable’ win
  • ‘We need to maintain this momentum and to build on it with concrete, tangible actions’

NEW YORK: The president of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday said he is “encouraged” by the progress of its 78th session, hailing the “remarkable” win of a major sustainable development declaration.

Dennis Francis spoke of the need to “unite the nations” in his opening address last week. Now addressing the UNGA as the final speaker out of 176 heads of state and ministers, he said the week’s developments are a “welcome reminder that the UN remains focused on the collective challenges of our time.”

But he warned: “Declarations in and of themselves aren’t enough. We need to maintain this momentum and to build on it with concrete, tangible actions.”

Hundreds of representatives from civil society as well as public and private organizations spoke at the UN headquarters in New York, Francis said.

The UNGA resulted in four major political declarations, covering “universal healthcare; work to end tuberculosis; pandemic prevention, preparedness and response; and the need to urgently … scale up sustainable development progress.”

The final declaration was described as a “particularly remarkable win” by Francis, who said it serves as a commitment to “push harder and close the gaps.”

He lauded member states for taking part in the high-level dialogue on development financing, highlighting the prevalence of discussions on the need to reform global finance for the benefit of the developing world. “We can’t rest until there’s accessibility, equity and justice in development finance,” he said.

Few topics raised during the week were as “frequent, consistent or as charged” as the war in Ukraine, he added.

The conflict being perpetrated by a permanent member of the UN Security Council is “unconscionable,” and has rekindled “unthinkable” decades-old fears of nuclear weapons, Francis said.

He recommitted to “shining a spotlight on the urgent need to resolve these situations of deep concern.”

Climate change requires each member state to “look closely at our own carbon footprints” and move beyond gross domestic product to a “metric that captures a country’s true vulnerability to shocks.”

Francis urged member states to take part in the UAE-hosted UN Climate Change Conference later this year with a spirit of “unity and solidarity,” and deliver a bold plan of action.

“Whether on climate or conflict, poverty or justice, or peace or strong institutions, these aren’t just global calls, they’re existential calls,” he said.

Francis ended his address by reminding member states: “We hear so often that the clock is ticking. We have it within us today to heal our divisions, find integrated solutions that reflect our universal values and commitments, and usher in a brighter tomorrow.”

UN Security Council urged to classify Taliban oppression of women as ‘gender apartheid’

UN Security Council urged to classify Taliban oppression of women as ‘gender apartheid’
Updated 44 min 11 sec ago

UN Security Council urged to classify Taliban oppression of women as ‘gender apartheid’

UN Security Council urged to classify Taliban oppression of women as ‘gender apartheid’
  • ‘The Taliban are not simply failing to uphold women’s rights, this oppression of women is central to their system of governance,’ says lawyer and campaigner Karima Bennoune
  • Council members unanimously condemn the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan but stop short of using the word ‘apartheid’ to describe it

NEW YORK CITY: Experts on Tuesday urged the international community to officially recognize the “gender apartheid” in Afghanistan amid the escalating restrictions imposed on women and girls by the Taliban regime in the country.

During a media event on the sidelines of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, shortly before a special meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, international lawyer and civil society representative Karima Bennoune said the “drastic restrictions” on 50 percent of the population were “unparalleled” in the world.

“I believe the ‘gender apartheid’ approach is the most promising way forward as the Taliban are not simply failing to uphold women’s rights, this oppression of women is central to their system of governance,” she added.

“Deeming the situation to be gender apartheid not only implicates the perpetrators of the apartheid but, as was the case with racial apartheid in South Africa, it means that no member state can be complicit in or normalize the Taliban’s illegal actions.”

The International Criminal Court defines the crime of apartheid perpetrated by a regime as the systematic oppression and domination by one racial group of one or more other racial groups with the aim of maintaining that regime.

During the Security Council meeting, Bennoune noted that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and a number of governments have already labeled the Taliban’s actions against women and girls as a form of apartheid, and called on the UN to officially codify this approach under international law by adding the word “gender” to the existing definition.

“The apartheid framework recognizes that the ordinary human rights approach, centering the state as the actor to implement human rights, cannot work here,” she said.

“Positive change will only be possible with a consistent, principled international response led by this council, mandated by its 10 Women, Peace and Security resolutions, and supported by states from all regions.”

Sima Sami Bahous, the executive director of UN Women, echoed Bennoune’s views during her comments at the meeting.

The members of the council unanimously condemned the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan but stopped short of using the word “apartheid” to describe it.

Albania’s permanent representative to the UN, Ferit Hoxha, whose country holds the presidency of the council this month, said of the Taliban: “This regime and its rules are medieval and retrograde, with extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests simply unacceptable.

“Two years on from the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, the situation remains dire, with the international community struggling to balance its support for the Afghan people without rewarding the de facto authorities.”

Representatives from several states, including China, Japan, Mozambique, the UK and the US, all called for a reversal of the Taliban restrictions on women and girls.

Speaking on behalf of Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique, the three current African non-permanent members of the Security Council, Mozambique’s representative to the UN, Pedro Comissario Afonso, said: “The lack of representation of the diversity of the Afghan people at the ethnic and social level in the political sphere is both apparent and deplorable.”

With winter approaching, council members expressed concern that the continued failure to reintegrate women into the positions they held before the Taliban takeover will serve only to exacerbate people’s

suffering amid a shortfall in funding for international aid, and the reluctance of many countries to engage with the regime.

Citing a recent UN Development Program report that said gross domestic product in Afghanistan fell by 3.6 percent in 2022, following a 20.7 percent contraction in 2021, China’s representative, Zhang Jun, attributed the decline to a “sharp drop” in humanitarian funding.

“The report claims two thirds of Afghanistan will need humanitarian assistance next year, with 41 million Afghans in a state of food insecurity, and yet the humanitarian assistance program is just 27 percent funded at present,” he said.

“This is a clear demonstration that the cutback in funding is of an ideological and political nature that only stands in the way of the Afghan people; winter is coming.”

Both India and Iran, who share borders with Afghanistan, expressed concern about the “potential consequences for regional insecurity” caused by the situation in the country. However, the Chinese envoy suggested that “on the whole,” the security situation had improved since the Taliban took control.

The Taliban’s choice of representative to the UN is not recognized by the international organization. Naseer Faiq, the representative of the former Afghan government that was toppled by the Taliban, strongly rejected the Chinese representative’s suggestion.

“Taliban assertions of counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts ring hollow as they are leaders, are deeply involved in narcotics production and smuggling within the Taliban centers of power and resources distribution,” he told the council.

“Tragically, two years since the Taliban seized control, the situation of Afghanistan has not improved … the Afghan people continue to suffer.”

Describing Afghanistan under the Taliban as a “hub for terrorism,” Faiq said that despite the challenges, the Afghan people are nonetheless “resolute” in their diversity and would continue to “work tirelessly” to defend their rights.

Echoing calls by Afghan community organizations, he urged the council and international partners to maintain the pressure on the Taliban and demand the reversal of policies that deny women their rights.

“We also call on the UN to recognize and classify the plight of woman and girls as gender apartheid, and emphasize the necessity of ongoing humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan, subject to rigorous monitoring and supervision of aid delivery,” Faiq said.

“We can help shape a better future for the Afghan people and prevent the country from once again becoming a breeding ground for extremism.”

World must ‘profoundly rethink’ global order, Holy See tells UN

World must ‘profoundly rethink’ global order, Holy See tells UN
Updated 26 September 2023

World must ‘profoundly rethink’ global order, Holy See tells UN

World must ‘profoundly rethink’ global order, Holy See tells UN
  • Catholic Church’s governing body expresses concern over events in Syria, Sudan, Palestine
  • Increase in conflict ‘clear evidence of crumbling trust among nations’: Archbishop Paul Gallagher

NEW YORK: A “profound rethink” of the multilateral system is needed to respond to the world’s growing challenges, the Catholic Church’s central governing body told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.
The Holy See was represented by Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary of relations with states, who said: “We’re living at a crucial moment for humanity, in which peace seems to give way to war. Conflicts are growing and stability is increasingly put at risk.”
He lauded the UN’s historical efforts to reduce poverty, help migrants and promote nuclear disarmament, but he warned: “In these last years we’ve seen crumbling trust among nations, clear evidence of which is the increase in number and gravity of conflicts and wars.”
This has resulted in an “inevitable and equally significant increase in the number of meetings held at different levels, though not always in direct proportion to the effectiveness required in pursuing the proposed goals.”
And though “rivers of words” are spent by delegations at international forums, “one doesn’t always find … the same willingness to listen,” Gallagher said.
He relayed a message from Pope Francis decrying “ideological colonization,” which he defined as richer, more powerful countries “attempting to impose their worldview on poorer countries.” The rule of law “seems sometimes to be replaced by the law of the strongest,” Gallagher added.
He called for a return to listening and dialogue in the international arena, in an effort to avoid further conflicts and lessen the suffering of humanity.
He added: “All states must rediscover a spirit of service with the intention of building a global solidarity that expresses itself concretely in helping those who suffer.
“As part of this shared commitment, rulers must put aside their own needs, expectations and desires for sovereignty or omnipotence before the concrete gaze of the most fragile.”
Gallagher said the conflict in Ukraine “has been instrumental to bringing back the elevated threat of nuclear escalation into the discussion.”
He described the use of nuclear energy in warfare as a crime “not only against the dignity of human beings, but against any possible future for our common home.”
Another pressing concern for the Holy See is the proliferation of artificial intelligence, Gallagher said. The “expanding digital galaxy we inhabit … touches every aspect of our lives and community,” he added.
As a result, there is an “urgent need” to engage in ethical debate on the use and integration of AI in daily life around the world, Gallagher said.
He relayed a message from Pope Francis: “We must be vigilant and work to ensure that the discriminatory use of these instruments doesn’t take root at the expense of the most fragile and excluded.
“It isn’t acceptable that the decision about someone’s life and future be entrusted to an algorithm.”
The Holy See’s concern over AI extends to the use of autonomous weapons systems in conflicts, with “only humans” being “truly capable of seeing and judging the ethical impact of their actions.”
The Catholic governing body called for the creation of a global organization to oversee the use of AI.
But technological developments can offer hope to the global fight against climate change, Gallagher said, adding that the international community “needs to focus on a positive outcome” at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in the UAE.
Turning to the issue of human rights, he said: “Let us never forget that the true litmus test to see if human rights are being protected is the degree to which people have freedom of religion or belief in a country.”
Gallagher added: “Disturbingly, we continue to live in a world where people are persecuted simply for professing their faith in public.”
He also noted the Holy See’s concern at the subjective use of the terms “hate crime” and “hate speech,” adding that they are being used to keep people from expressing their religious beliefs. “Religious freedom is one of the absolute minimum requirements necessary to live in dignity,” Gallagher said.
The Holy See is also concerned by the humanitarian situation in Syria, with people in the country “plagued by 12 years of war, earthquakes and great poverty,” he added. The Church is encouraging the resumption of a political process of reconciliation in Syria.
Sudan is also of great concern to the Holy See, Gallagher said, adding that the governing body “makes a heartfelt appeal for the laying down of arms so that dialogue can prevail and the suffering of the population can be alleviated.”
Frequent violence as a result of coups in sub-Saharan Africa has “disrupted the democratic process, caused death and destruction, and caused humanitarian and migration crises,” Gallagher said.
“Behind episodes of terrorism and violence are also international economic interests that encourage the unjust dynamics of colonialism,” he added.
The Holy See expressed “serious concern” over events in Jerusalem and its status as a holy city.
Gallagher said: “I renew my appeal not only to the Israelis and Palestinians to open to sincere dialogue, but also to the entire international community.”
He ended is address by urging the world to move away from “the logic of the legitimacy of war,” adding: “The battlefield has become practically unlimited and the effects potentially catastrophic. Peace is possible if it’s truly willed, and if peace is possible it’s a duty.”

AI needs ‘guardrails’: UN deputy secretary-general

AI needs ‘guardrails’: UN deputy secretary-general
Updated 26 September 2023

AI needs ‘guardrails’: UN deputy secretary-general

AI needs ‘guardrails’: UN deputy secretary-general
  • 78th UN General Assembly, attended by 88 heads of state, draws to close
  • UN deputy secretary-general warns while AI had potential it needed ‘guardrails’

NEW YORK CITY: While artificial intelligence had great potential benefits, it must have safeguards, the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said on Tuesday.

Speaking at a press briefing on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York, Mohammed told Arab News: “The new era of technology is of great concern to us.

“It has massive potential for the SDGs (sustainable development goals) — whether it’s health, or it’s industry, cities, education — but they have to have guardrails.”

She pointed out that this year’s UNGA was the first time that AI had been mentioned during the general debate, and that 14 speakers discussed the topic.

“We had huge engagement with that. There were a number of side meetings, some outside of the UN, but they did gather huge numbers of experts and stakeholders.

“Everyone’s saying that really, the place for us to be discussing those guardrails and protection of the potentials, I would say, is the UN, and I think that was good news for us,” she said.

Mohammed told journalists that having only one head of state – US President Joe Biden – from the five countries of the UN Security Council present at the UNGA was “disappointing.”

“Certainly, we might have had more commitments that would have been tangible, had they been here, on many of the SDGs but also the more general agenda that was discussed at the debate,” she added.

But she noted that 88 heads of state were in attendance this year.

On Afghanistan, Mohammed said she was profoundly disappointed at the state of women’s rights in the country, which was taken over by the Taliban in 2021.

“Just when you think it’s getting bad for women in Afghanistan, it gets worse. I think that here, we have to continue to keep the voice and engagement loud. It was good to have that discussion in the Security Council today and to see Afghan women speak. We will continue to keep that voice alive,” she added.

Mohammed also condemned the underrepresentation of women at the assembly, despite the fifth SDG being gender equality.

“We have no apologies to say, ‘it is wrong for you to present all male delegations in this day and age.’ What we did here is to show the UN itself presents women at the table.

“It’s always been time for a female (secretary-general), and we are not short of women leaders in the world to take that position.”

Mohammed praised the increased presence of member states’ finance ministers at the UNGA.

She said: “There were finance ministers in this building. That’s really important. This has not been a domain where the finance constituency thinks they should come and have a conversation on finance. And they were here, and there were many heads of state and government who wanted to speak on the financing for development meetings.”

The “next bus stop” on the path to meeting SDGs, Mohammed noted, would be the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings, to be held in Marrakesh, Morocco in October.

She pointed out that the SDG summit, on the sidelines of the UNGA, saw “an impressive increase” in involvement and awareness of development goals, adding that this year’s summit featured 165 speakers as opposed to the 100 which spoke in 2019.

UN Under Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management Movses Abelian said more than 2,000 bilateral meetings had been held on the sidelines of the General Assembly, which was attended by at least 13,000 diplomats, over 2,500 journalists, and 40,000 other guests.

Mafia boss Messina Denaro’s body returns to Sicily: report

Mafia boss Messina Denaro’s body returns to Sicily: report
Updated 26 September 2023

Mafia boss Messina Denaro’s body returns to Sicily: report

Mafia boss Messina Denaro’s body returns to Sicily: report
  • Messina Denaro, captured in January after three decades on the run, died on Monday in hospital in central Italy
  • He was one of the most ruthless bosses in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the “Godfather” movies

ROME: Italian police escorted the body of Sicilian Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro back to his hometown Tuesday, media reports said, where he is expected to be buried quickly and with little ceremony.
Messina Denaro, captured in January after three decades on the run, died on Monday in hospital in central Italy, taking to the grave the secrets of his brutal reign.
His coffin was driven in a hearse out of the hospital in L’Aquila and is expected to arrive in his hometown of Castelvetrano in Sicily in the early hours of Wednesday, according to the ANSA news agency.
Police normally ban funerals for mafia bosses, and only a few family members — including two sisters and a brother — are expected to be present at his burial in the town’s cemetery, the agency said.
Messina Denaro was one of the most ruthless bosses in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the “Godfather” movies.
The 61-year-old was convicted of involvement in the murder of anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992 and in deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993.
One of his six life sentences was for the kidnapping and murder of the 12-year-old son of a witness in the Falcone case.
Messina Denaro disappeared in the summer of 1993 and spent the next 30 years on the run as the Italian state cracked down on the Sicilian mob.
But he remained at the top of Italy’s most-wanted list and increasingly became a figure of legend.
It was his decision to seek treatment for colon cancer that led to his arrest on January 16, 2023, when he visited a health clinic in Palermo.