US decides to rejoin UNESCO and pay back dues, to counter Chinese influence

US decides to rejoin UNESCO and pay back dues, to counter Chinese influence
The United States is ready to rejoin the UN cultural and scientific agency UNESCO and pay more than $600 million in back dues - after a decade-long dispute sparked by the organization's move to include Palestine as a member. (AP)
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Updated 12 June 2023
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US decides to rejoin UNESCO and pay back dues, to counter Chinese influence

US decides to rejoin UNESCO and pay back dues, to counter Chinese influence
  • The US plans to rejoin UNESCO after a decade-long dispute after the UN body included Palestine as a member
  • The US will pay more than $600 million in back dues

PARIS: UN cultural and scientific agency UNESCO announced Monday that the United States plans to rejoin — and pay more than $600 million in back dues — after a decade-long dispute sparked by the organization’s move to include Palestine as a member.
US officials say the decision to return was motivated by concern that China is filling the gap left by the US in UNESCO policymaking, notably in setting standards for artificial intelligence and technology education around the world.
US Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma submitted a letter last week to UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay formalizing the plan to rejoin.
Applause rang out in the solemn UNESCO auditorium as Azoulay announced the plan to ambassadors at a special meeting Monday, and delegate after delegate stood up to welcome the news — and the new influx of money. The return of the US, once the agency’s biggest funder, is expected to face a vote by its 193 member states next month, according to a UNESCO diplomat.
The decision is a big financial boost to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known for its World Heritage program as well as projects to fight climate change and teach girls to read.
The US and Israel stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, and both countries lost their voting rights in 2013. The Trump administration decided in 2017 to withdraw from the agency altogether the following year, citing anti-Israel bias and management problems.
In his letter last week, Verma noted efforts by UNESCO toward management reform, and “decreasing politicized debate, especially on Middle East issues.” A delegation from Washington came to Paris last week to hand-deliver the letter, obtained by the AP.
Since her election in 2017, Azoulay has worked to address the reasons the US left, through budget reforms and building consensus among Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli diplomats around sensitive UNESCO resolutions.
The US decision to come back “is the result of five years of work, during which we calmed tensions, notably on the Middle East, improved our response to contemporary challenges, resumed major initiatives on the ground and modernized the functioning of the organization,” Azoulay told The Associated Press.
She met with Democrats and Republicans in Washington to explain those efforts, according to a UNESCO diplomat. Thanks to those bipartisan negotiations, UNESCO diplomats expressed confidence that the US decision to return is for the long term, regardless of who wins next year’s presidential election.
The diplomats were not authorized to be publicly named discussing the behind-the-scenes work that led to the US decision.
Under the plan, the US government would pay its 2023 dues plus $10 million in bonus contributions this year earmarked for Holocaust education, preserving cultural heritage in Ukraine, journalist safety, and science and technology education in Africa, Verma’s letter says.
The Biden administration has already requested $150 million for the 2024 budget to go toward UNESCO dues and arrears. The plan foresees similar requests for the ensuing years until the full debt of $619 million is paid off.
That makes up a big chunk of UNESCO’s $534 million annual operating budget. Before leaving, the US contributed 22 percent of the agency’s overall funding.
Undersecretary of State for Management John Bass said in March that the US absence from UNESCO has strengthened China, and ‘’undercuts our ability to be as effective in promoting our vision of a free world.”
He said UNESCO is key in setting and shaping standards for technology and science teaching around the world, “so if we’re really serious about the digital-age competition with China … we can’t afford to be absent any longer.”
The US absence plunged the agency into financial uncertainty. UNESCO diplomats described belt-squeezing across agency programs and aggressive efforts by Azoulay to boost voluntary financing from other countries to fill gaps.
One diplomat expressed hope that the return of the US would bring “more ambition, and more serenity” — and energize programs to regulate artificial intelligence, educate girls in Afghanistan and chronicle victims of slavery in the Caribbean.
The diplomat said that the agency would also “welcome” Israel back if it wanted to rejoin.
The United States previously pulled out of UNESCO under the Reagan administration in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. It rejoined in 2003.


Syrian migrants stripped, forced back from Serbian border in new footage

Syrian migrants stripped, forced back from Serbian border in new footage
Updated 6 sec ago
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Syrian migrants stripped, forced back from Serbian border in new footage

Syrian migrants stripped, forced back from Serbian border in new footage
  • NGO condemns ‘abusive and degrading’ treatment of 50 migrants
  • Evidence of problem across continent, says Council of Europe official

LONDON: Footage of Syrian migrants in Serbia being stripped and forced back into North Macedonia has emerged, in what human rights groups warn is evidence of growing violence targeting migrants on the edges of Europe.

Legis, an NGO in North Macedonia, sent two video clips to The Guardian newspaper showing a line of semi-naked men on a road near Lojane, close to the border with Serbia.

The videos are dated Feb. 10 and show the second instance of “abusive and degrading” migrant pushbacks that day, Legis said.

In total, more than 50 migrants who crossed the border were stripped and pushed back by Serbian authorities, the NGO added.

Legis President Jasmin Redjepi said the pushback followed an EU-Serbian cooperation summit that aimed to bolster the Serbian border against people-smuggling operations.

 

 

He added: “These incidents occur when the EU prepares restrictions for migrants on the route, and in this case just days after an EU-Serbia border cooperation summit. We then see the direct impact and consequences.”

Though the stripping of migrants has taken place across Europe, the Legis footage is the first instance of the practice taking place on the Serbia-North Macedonia border.

A report by a Belgian NGO estimated that in 2023, almost 350,000 forced pushbacks took place on Europe’s external borders.

Dunja Mijatovic, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, said: “Recent reports of alleged pushbacks by Serbian police officers at the border with North Macedonia, characterized by ill- and degrading treatment and robbery of migrants, possibly including those attempting to seek asylum, require prompt and effective investigation by state authorities.”

She added that the pushbacks on the North Macedonia border are indicative of an “urgent pan-European problem,” with the practice becoming a widespread phenomenon across the continent.

“These incidents are not only disturbing, but also indicative of a wider, worrying trend among Council of Europe member states.

“These actions appear to violate the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits refoulement and collective expulsions, as well as other international standards which require ensuring genuine and effective access to asylum for those who seek it,” Mijatovic said.

“What I have observed and warned about is that migrants have been subjected to treatment that might constitute degrading treatment or torture in several European countries for years, in clear violation of states’ human rights obligations.”


Thousands ordered to flee while they can as bushfire burns in Australia’s south

Thousands ordered to flee while they can as bushfire burns in Australia’s south
Updated 22 February 2024
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Thousands ordered to flee while they can as bushfire burns in Australia’s south

Thousands ordered to flee while they can as bushfire burns in Australia’s south
  • Roughly 50 square kilometers is ablaze northwest of Ballarat
  • A similar area is also burning out of control further to the west

SYDNEY: More than two thousand people have been ordered to evacuate from towns in the west of Australia’s Victoria state due to a bushfire burning out of control on Thursday.
The state emergency service urged residents in the towns of Raglan and Beaufort, home to around two thousand people, and those in surrounding areas to leave while it was still safe and head east to the nearby regional hub of Ballarat, 95 kilometers west of Melbourne.
Roughly 50 square kilometers is ablaze northwest of Ballarat. A similar area is also burning out of control further to the west.
State Premier Jacinta Allan said more than 1,000 firefighters were on the ground, supported by 24 aircraft and more than 100 vehicles. More are set to join the fight soon.
“Leaving immediately is the safest option for those communities,” she said at a news conference. “If you are located in these areas, please heed this advice, please act now to save your own life.”
Officials said no property damage had been reported but it was too soon for an accurate picture.
Large swathes of the state are on high alert for fires and the Bureau of Meteorology on Thursday issued extreme fire danger warnings for several districts due to hot, dry winds and the potential for thunderstorms.
The fires west of Ballarat are expected to worsen throughout the evening until around midnight, when the winds will begin to slow, Jason Heffernan, chief officer of the Country Fire Authority, told the news conference.
Temperatures were above 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) in the northwest of the state at 3.00 p.m. (0400 GMT).


In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to ‘punish’ Biden

In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to ‘punish’ Biden
Updated 22 February 2024
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In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to ‘punish’ Biden

In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to ‘punish’ Biden
  • As Gaza Strip death toll climbs, residents once firmly in the Democratic fold — are turning against the president in a crucial swing state he won by just 150,000 votes in 2020.

Dearborn: It’s common to hear residents chatting in Arabic just as often as English in this Detroit suburb’s stores or mosques, those buildings themselves often sporting bilingual signage out front.
But no matter the language, residents in this Arab American and Muslim stronghold in the Midwestern state of Michigan are convinced President Joe Biden, as he steadfastly stands by Israel in its war in Gaza, is not listening to them.
“Vote for Palestine. No Biden,” political organizer Samra’a Luqman says in English, passing out fliers outside a mosque after prayers.
“Don’t vote for Biden,” the activist with Yemeni origins adds in Arabic.
“Of course,” respond many passersby.
As the Gaza Strip death toll climbs, residents here — once firmly in the Democratic fold — are turning against the president in a crucial swing state he won by just 150,000 votes in 2020.
Some are hoping to pressure Biden to back off from his Israel support and call for a ceasefire. Others, like Luqman, say they would never vote for him.
“He’s committing the genocide. He’s funding it,” Luqman, a campaign leader with a group called Abandon Biden, tells AFP.
A campaign is underway by Luqman and others urging voters to vote “uncommitted,” or write in “Free Palestine” on their ballots in the state’s primary next week — a symbolic gesture, since Biden faces no serious challengers for the Democratic nomination.
“This is a campaign about pressuring our current president who can do something about the mass killing of children,” says Abbas Alawieh, a former Democratic chief of staff on Capitol Hill and member of the Listen to Michigan campaign group.
“In this community there are a lot of people who are directly harmed by war,” the Lebanese-born Alawieh tells AFP.
Biden, he says, “is threatening to lose this community. Not just in November, but perhaps for a generation to come.”
The war started when Hamas launched its attack on October 7, resulting in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.
But concern has mounted amid the high civilian toll in Israel’s retaliatory campaign, now at 29,313 people dead, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.
Listen to Michigan began as a pressure campaign, but some voters say their frustration with the president is permanent.
Voting for Biden was the “worst mistake of my life,” says Mohamed Alemara, a 23-year-old medical student of Iraqi descent.
“You don’t kill 30,000 of our people and expect us to vote for you.”
Arab Americans’ vows to ditch Biden often baffle liberal political pundits.
What will Muslims and Arabs do, the thinking goes — vote for Donald Trump, the Republican behind the “Muslim ban” immigration policy, whose supporters flirt with ideas like “Christian nationalism“?
“We’re not a stupid community,” says Luqman. “I’ve survived a Muslim ban, but those kids in Gaza have not survived Joe Biden.”
“My intention is not to vote in an Islamophobe, another genocidal maniac,” she adds. Yet she tells AFP, “the only way I would vote for Biden is if he resurrected” the Gaza dead.
In America’s two-party system, where voters often hold their nose to pick candidates they don’t back 100 percent, 27-year-old nurse Fatima Elzaghir says that “at this point, the lesser evil is Trump.”
Others, like Alawieh, reject the premise of the question.
“How dare you come to me and say, ‘Oh, but later, Trump will be your fault,’” he says.
“Call your representative. Tell them you want a ceasefire.... Once we stop the bloodshed, then we can talk about the political consequences.”
Biden will also have to deal with Michigan’s unions — where some are defecting from the labor-friendly president’s camp.
Many union and workingclass voters already support Republicans, drawn in by their conservative social policies.
But for Merwan Beydoun, a steel mill worker and member of the United Autoworkers Union, Gaza was the breaking point.
“Furious” at Biden, whom the UAW endorsed, Beydoun stopped his contributions to the union’s political arm.
Beydoun says he still believes “in a lot of Democratic policies” and would rather not say how he’ll vote in November. But to earn Beydoun’s vote, the president “needs to wake up” and “change his ways.”
The Biden administration has tried to assuage Arab and Muslim voters’ concerns in part by portraying the president as frustrated with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
But US weapons have flowed to Israel since October 7, while Washington’s efforts to broker a second pause in fighting have failed, and on Tuesday the US blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.
“My intention is to punish Biden for what he’s doing now,” says Luqman. “For the betrayal that he’s done to me and all the community members that have voted for him.”


Philippine coast guard says Chinese claim of intrusion ‘inaccurate’

Philippine coast guard says Chinese claim of intrusion ‘inaccurate’
Updated 22 February 2024
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Philippine coast guard says Chinese claim of intrusion ‘inaccurate’

Philippine coast guard says Chinese claim of intrusion ‘inaccurate’
  • Located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, the Scarborough Shoal is also claimed by China

MANILA/BEIJING: A Philippine coast guard official on Thursday described as “inaccurate” its Chinese counterpart’s claim that a fisheries vessel “illegally intruded” into Beijing’s waters.
The Chinese coast guard said earlier on Thursday it drove away a vessel of the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and accused them of “illegally intruding” into its waters near Scarborough Shoal.
“This statement is inaccurate. The BFAR vessel, BRP Datu Sanday, continues to patrol the waters of Bajo De Masinloc. Currently, the BFAR vessel is actively ensuring the security of Filipino fishermen in that area,” Commodore Jay Tarriela, the coast guard’s spokesperson on South China Sea issues told reporters.
Located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the Scarborough Shoal is also claimed by China, making it one of Asia’s most contested maritime features and a flashpoint for flare-ups.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion in annual ship commerce. Its territorial claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
In 2016, an international arbitration tribunal in the Hague said China’s claims had no legal basis, a decision Beijing has rejected.


Ukraine leader downplays loss of Avdiivka, seeks faster support

Ukraine leader downplays loss of Avdiivka, seeks faster support
Updated 22 February 2024
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Ukraine leader downplays loss of Avdiivka, seeks faster support

Ukraine leader downplays loss of Avdiivka, seeks faster support
  • Russian troops took control of Avdiivka last week in Moscow’s biggest battlefield gain since its forces captured Bakhmut last May
  • Zelensky pointed to earlier gains made by Ukraine forces, particularly in the northeastern Kharkiv region and destruction of Russian ships

KYIV: President Volodymyr Zelensky downplayed Ukraine’s loss of the eastern town of Avdiivka to Russian forces and called for faster support from allies as the war against Russia neared the two-year mark, in comments broadcast on Wednesday.

Russian troops took control of Avdiivka last week in Moscow’s biggest battlefield gain since its forces captured Bakhmut last May. Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin says Russia will press on with its drive through eastern Ukraine.
Zelensky, in excerpts from an interview with Fox News to be aired on Thursday, acknowledged that last year had been “complicated” for Ukraine, particularly as 2023 came to a close.
But, speaking in English, he pointed to earlier gains, particularly in the northeastern Kharkiv region, where the Fox interview took place.
“During these two years we got (back) part of the Kharkiv region. Now we are in this region ... and we unblocked the Black Sea. There are grain routes and we destroyed a lot of their ships of the Russian fleet,” Zelensky said.
“That is what we did over two years. And what they could do? Only this one place. But what for?“
Avdiivka lies 15 km (nine miles) northwest of the Russian-held main town of Donetsk region, also named Donetsk.
Russian analysts say its capture will keep Donetsk safe from Ukrainian shelling as Moscow considers how to pursue its drive to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In his comments, Zelensky expressed new discontent with the slowdown in Western aid for Ukraine’s war effort, without singling out the United States.
US President Joe Biden’s request to extend a big aid package has been held up by wrangling in the US Congress.
“We have to be more quick. That means to lose all the bureaucracy. Otherwise we will not have any chance,” he said.
The president acknowledged that finding an alternative to US support would not be easy.
“Of course, we will find. We will not stay in the same place. We have to survive. We have to find some parallel steps,” he said in the interview, conducted in part on a hospital ward.
“You understand that this help is crucial. So without it, sorry, we will have more and more such heroic guys who will be in the hospitals. If you don’t have a real defending shield and similar powerful artillery with rounds, of course you will lose people.”
The US Senate has passed a $95 billion aid package that includes funds for Ukraine, but House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson has declined to bring it up for a vote on the floor of the House.