Zelensky eyes ‘history being made’ at Swiss-hosted Ukraine peace conference, but Russia’s absent

Zelensky eyes ‘history being made’ at Swiss-hosted Ukraine peace conference, but Russia’s absent
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Swiss Federal President Viola Amherd shake hands during the Summit on peace in Ukraine, in Stansstad near Lucerne, Switzerland on Jun. 15, 2024. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 June 2024
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Zelensky eyes ‘history being made’ at Swiss-hosted Ukraine peace conference, but Russia’s absent

Zelensky eyes ‘history being made’ at Swiss-hosted Ukraine peace conference, but Russia’s absent
  • Zelensky said: “I believe that we will witness history being made here at the summit”
  • Swiss officials hosting the conference say more than 50 heads of state and government will join the gathering

OBBÜRGEN, Switzerland: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday predicted “history being made” at the Swiss-hosted conference which aims to plot out the first steps toward peace in Ukraine even though experts and critics say little substance or few big breakthroughs are expected because Russia is not attending.
The presidents of Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Somalia joined dozens of Western heads of state and government and other leaders and high-level envoys at the meeting, in hopes that Russia — which is waging war on Ukraine — could join in one day.
In a brief statement to reporters alongside Swiss President Viola Amherd, Zelensky already sought to cast the gathering as a success, saying: “We have succeeded in bringing back to the world the idea that joint efforts can stop war and establish a just peace.”
“I believe that we will witness history being made here at the summit,” he said.
Swiss officials hosting the conference say more than 50 heads of state and government will join the gathering at the Bürgenstock resort overlooking Lake Lucerne. Some 100 delegations including European bodies and the United Nations will be on hand.
Who will show up – and who will not – has become one of the key stakes of a meeting that critics say will be useless without the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, which invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and is pushing ahead with the war.
As US Vice President Kamala Harris arrived at the venue, shuttle buses rumbled up a mountain road that snaked up to the site — at times with traffic jams — with police along the route checking journalists’ IDs and helicopters ferrying in VIPs buzzed overhead.
Meanwhile, Türkiye and Saudi Arabia have dispatched their foreign ministers while key developing countries like Brazil, an observer at the event, India and South Africa will be represented at lower levels.
China, which backs Russia, is joining scores of countries that are sitting out the conference, many of whom have more pressing issues than the bloodiest conflict in far-away Europe since World War II. Beijing says any peace process needs to have the participation of both Russia and Ukraine, and has floated its own ideas for peace.
Last month, China and Brazil agreed to six “common understandings” on a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis, asking other countries to endorse them and play a role in promoting peace talks.
The six points include an agreement to “support an international peace conference held at a proper time that is recognized by both Russia and Ukraine, with equal participation of all parties as well as fair discussion of all peace plans.”
Zelensky has recently led a diplomatic push to draw in participants to the Swiss summit.
Russian troops who now control nearly a quarter of Ukrainian land in the east and south have made some territorial gains in recent months. When talk of a Swiss-hosted peace initiative began last summer, Ukrainian forces had recently regained large swaths of territory, notably near the cities of southern Kherson and northern Kharkiv.
Against the battlefield backdrop and diplomatic strategizing, summit organizers have presented three agenda items: nuclear safety, such as at the Russia-controlled Zaporizhzhia power plant; humanitarian assistance and exchange of prisoners of war; and global food security — which has been disrupted at times due to impeded shipments through the Black Sea.
That to-do list, encapsulating some of the least controversial issues, is well short of proposals and hopes laid out by Zelensky in a 10-point peace formula in late 2022.
The plan includes ambitious calls, including the withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied Ukrainian territory, the cessation of hostilities and restoring Ukraine’s state borders with Russia, including Crimea.
Putin’s government, meanwhile, wants any peace deal to be built around a draft agreement negotiated in the early phases of the war that included provisions for Ukraine’s neutral status and limits on its armed forces, while delaying talks about Russia-occupied areas. Ukraine’s push over the years to join the NATO military alliance has rankled Moscow.
Ukraine is unable to negotiate from a position of strength, analysts say.
“The situation on the battlefield has changed dramatically,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, saying that although Russia “can’t achieve its maximalist objectives quickly through military means, but it’s gaining momentum and pushing Ukraine really hard.”
“So, a lot of countries that are coming to the summit would question whether the Zelensky peace formula still has legs,” he told reporters in a call Wednesday.
With much of the world’s focus recently on the war in Gaza and national elections in 2024, Ukraine’s backers want to return focus to Russia’s breach of international law and a restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
On Friday, Putin called the conference “just another ploy to divert everyone’s attention.”
The International Crisis Group, an advisory firm that works to end conflict, wrote this week that “absent a major surprise on the Bürgenstock,” the event is “unlikely to deliver much of consequence.”
“Nonetheless, the Swiss summit is a chance for Ukraine and its allies to underline what the UN General Assembly recognized in 2022 and repeated in its February 2023 resolution on a just peace in Ukraine: Russia’s all-out aggression is a blatant violation of international law,” it said.
Experts say they’ll be looking at the wording of any outcome document, and plans for the way forward. Swiss officials, aware of Russia’s reticence about the conference, have repeatedly said they hope Russia can join the process one day, as do Ukrainian officials.
“Most likely, the three items under review will be endorsed by the participants. But then the big question is ‘OK, what comes next?’” Gabuev said. “And I don’t think we have a very clear answer to that question yet.”
As leaders headed to the conference venue, the war raged on.
Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov of Russia’s southern Belgorod region, writing on social media, blamed Ukraine for shelling Friday that struck a five-story apartment building in the town of Shebekino, killing five people. There was no immediate comment from Kyiv.
In Ukraine, shelling killed at least three civilians and wounded 15 others on Friday and overnight, regional officials said. Gov. Oleh Syniehubov of the Kharkiv region, which has been the focus of a recent Russian offensive.


Philippine police deny man inhaling white powder in video is president Marcos

Philippine police deny man inhaling white powder in video is president Marcos
Updated 32 sec ago
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Philippine police deny man inhaling white powder in video is president Marcos

Philippine police deny man inhaling white powder in video is president Marcos
  • Police forensic experts present photos of Marcos and the unidentified man to compare their facial features
MANILA: A video allegedly showing Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos inhaling a white powder has been denounced as “fake” and “malicious,” with investigators on Tuesday presenting close-up images of his ear to prove it was not him.
The clip featuring a dark-haired man was part of a video shown at a rally in Los Angeles that was organized by a political group linked to Marcos’s predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
The rally was livestreamed on the Facebook page of pro-Duterte broadcaster SMNI in the Philippines early Monday local time, hours before Marcos was due to deliver his annual State of the Nation address to Congress.
“It is obvious from the video that that is not our president. Their video is fake and obviously not real,” Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said Monday, after the video went viral on social media.
Teodoro said it was part of a “serious plan to destabilize our government.”
The video spread rapidly on Facebook, YouTube and TikTok. One Facebook post was viewed at least eight million times.
Duterte’s former spokesman Harry Roque shared it on his Facebook page with a caption in Tagalog reading: “You be the judge.”
It was viewed 17,000 times.
Police forensic experts held a news conference on Tuesday to prove the man in the video was not the president, presenting photos of Marcos and the unidentified man to compare their facial features.
Enlarged images of their faces and right ears were placed side by side to demonstrate that Marcos’s ear was larger in proportion to his face and had a different shape to those of the other man, whose ear curled over at the top.
“Be it AI (artificial intelligence) or imposter or whatever it was, as far as the (police) is concerned that is not the president,” Interior Secretary Benjamin Abalos said Tuesday.
“That is a different person based on the ear. That’s not even considering the jawline and the entire facial structure,” Abalos said, describing the video as “malicious.”
The Marcos and Duterte families have had a bitter, public falling out as they attempt to shore up their rival support bases and secure key positions ahead of the 2025 mid-term elections.
Duterte and Marcos have accused each other of being drug addicts, although neither man has offered proof of their allegations.

Sri Lanka apologizes for cremating Muslim Covid victims

Sri Lanka apologizes for cremating Muslim Covid victims
Updated 23 July 2024
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Sri Lanka apologizes for cremating Muslim Covid victims

Sri Lanka apologizes for cremating Muslim Covid victims
  • The cabinet issued an “apology regarding the compulsory cremation policy during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the government said in a statement

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s government Tuesday formally apologized to the island’s Muslim minority for forcing cremations on Covid victims, disregarding WHO assurances that burials in line with Islamic rites were safe.
The cabinet issued an “apology regarding the compulsory cremation policy during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the government said in a statement.
It said a new law would guarantee the right to burial or cremation to ensure the funeral customs of Muslims or any other community were not violated in future.
Traditionally, Muslims bury their dead facing Makkah. Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhists are typically cremated, as are Hindus.
Muslim representatives in Sri Lanka welcomed the apology, but said their entire community, accounting for about 10 percent of the island’s 22 million population, was still traumatized.
“We will now sue two academics — Meththika Vithanage and Channa Jayasumana — who were behind the forced cremation policy of the government,” Hilmy Ahamed, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told AFP.
“We will also seek compensation.”
Ahamed said a young Muslim couple suffered untold anguish when their 40-day-old infant was cremated by the state against their wishes.
Then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned burials despite his administration facing international condemnation at the UN Human Rights Council and other forums for violating Muslim funeral norms.
In a book published earlier this month, he defended his action saying he was only carrying out “expert advice” from Vithanage, a professor of natural resources, not to let Covid victims be interred.
She has no medical background.
Rajapaksa halted his forced cremations policy in February 2021 following an appeal from then Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan during a visit to Sri Lanka.
The government then allowed burials at the remote Oddamavadi area in the island’s east under strict military supervision — but without the participation of the bereaved family.
Rajapaksa was forced out of office two years ago following months of protests over an unprecedented economic crisis, which had led to shortages of food, fuel and medicines.


India’s Modi focuses on jobs creation in first budget after winning polls

India’s Modi focuses on jobs creation in first budget after winning polls
Updated 23 July 2024
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India’s Modi focuses on jobs creation in first budget after winning polls

India’s Modi focuses on jobs creation in first budget after winning polls
  • India’s finance minister says economy grew at sizzling 8.2 percent rate duirng last fiscal year
  • Modi remains under pressure to generate jobs to sustain India’s economic growth

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s newly formed government presented an annual budget to Parliament that raises spending to generate more jobs and spur economic growth, while aiming to appease coalition partners it needs to stay in power.

In her budget speech Tuesday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government is focused on driving domestic growth through jobs, training and small businesses.

India’s inflation rate is stable and moving toward the government’s 4 percent target, she said, while the economy grew at a sizzling 8.2 percent rate in the last fiscal year.

“India’s economic growth continues to be the shining exception and will remain so in the years ahead,” Sitharaman said.

More than a decade after he first took office as prime minister, Modi is under pressure to generate more jobs to help sustain growth.

The proposed budget includes a $24 billion package for job creation over the next five years and raises spending on loans for small and medium-size businesses. It allocates $18 billion to support agriculture and farm technology, such as climate-resilient seed varieties.

It also would raise spending, to $133 billion, on construction of thirty million homes for the poor, schools, airports, highways and other infrastructure. The budget would cut taxes on big corporations and allocate more funds to two states, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, that are governed by the Modi government’s biggest coalition partners.

The government plans to build new airports, medical colleges and sports and tourism facilities in eastern India’s Bihar state, which is ruled by the Janata Dal (United) party.

Sitharaman also announced special financial support for southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, ruled by the Telugu Desam party.

Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party is relying on those two regional parties to keep its coalition government in power after it failed to win a majority on its own in recent national elections.

India’s economy — the fifth largest in the world — is projected to grow at an annual rate of between 6.5 percent to 7 percent in the fiscal year ending in March 2025. But experts say the benefits of its rapid growth are shared unequally, as wealth of already affluent Indians has risen steadily without reaching the the majority of Indians who toil in the country’s large informal sector, where the quality of jobs is poor and precarious.

Billions of dollars worth of subsidies to manufacturing have not led to creation of enough jobs. To mitigate rising unemployment, the government said it will provide 12-month paid internship opportunities to 10 million young people in India’s top 500 companies for a five-year period. Sitharaman said the training cost will be borne by the companies.

According to the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy, youth unemployment was at 9.2 percent in early July, underscoring the challenge of delivering jobs in the world’s most populous country, where millions graduate every year.

Inequality has surged in India in the last decade. According to a report by World Inequality Lab, wealth concentrated in the richest 1 percent of India’s population is at its highest in six decades.

The government is aiming for a fiscal deficit of 4.9 percent of India’s gross domestic product for the 2024-25 financial year, lower than the 5.1 percent figure in February’s short-term budget, Sitharaman said.

India is one of the highest current sources of emissions that lead to global warming, but the government announced plans Tuesday to set up a new 800-megawatt coal-fired thermal power plant. Sitharaman said the government will also support development of small and modular nuclear reactors to help meet India’s future energy demand.

The budget also allocates $1.37 billion to address damage from floods. India, which is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate impacts, has suffered an increase in flooding due to extreme rains and glacier melt in the last few years.

The budget requires approval from both houses of Parliament, but it is bound to be enacted as Modi’s coalition government holds a majority.


Netanyahu visit risks US exposure to war crimes allegations: HRW

Netanyahu visit risks US exposure to war crimes allegations: HRW
Updated 23 July 2024
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Netanyahu visit risks US exposure to war crimes allegations: HRW

Netanyahu visit risks US exposure to war crimes allegations: HRW
  • Israeli prime minister to appear before joint Congress session on July 24
  • Lawmakers should be ‘seriously concerned about liability risks’: Human Rights Watch director

LONDON: US lawmakers risk exposure to war crimes allegations amid Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance before a joint Congress session on July 24, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s visit “highlights the continued and significant US supply of weapons to Israel’s military despite credible allegations of ongoing war crimes in Gaza,” HRW added.

Late last year, the Biden administration increased the threshold for delivering weapons exports to foreign countries, in an apparent attempt to reduce the likelihood of international law violations.

Washington is also mandated by domestic laws to carry out a risk assessment before providing arms exports.

But despite HRW and Oxfam warning in March that Israeli assurances to the US over the legal requirements were “not credible,” the Biden administration reported to Congress in May that Tel Aviv was “complying” with the new US threshold and domestic laws.

Tirana Hassan, HRW’s executive director, said: “US officials are well aware of the mounting evidence that Israeli forces have committed war crimes in Gaza, including most likely with US weapons.

“US lawmakers should be seriously concerned about the liability risks of continuing to provide arms and intelligence based on Israel’s flimsy assurances that it’s abiding by the laws of war.”

HRW and Oxfam filed a dossier to the US State Department that highlighted Israel’s numerous violations of international law in Gaza.

The Israel Defense Forces have “unlawfully attacked residential buildings, medical facilities and aid workers, restricted medical evacuations and used starvation as a weapon of war,” HRW said.

“Israeli authorities have detained and mistreated thousands of Palestinians, with persistent reports of torture.

“In the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces have killed over 500 Palestinians since Oct. 7, settlers and soldiers have displaced entire Palestinian communities, destroying every home, with the apparent backing of higher Israeli authorities and effectively confiscating Palestinians’ lands.”

US weapons have been used by Israeli forces throughout the period, HRW warned, citing reports by CNN, National Public Radio, the New York Times and Agence France-Presse.

Under international law, a state assisting another state or non-state actor can be complicit in war crimes if prior knowledge and contribution to the partner’s intentions is found. Individuals can also be prosecuted under this guideline.

HRW called on the US and other weapons suppliers to immediately suspend military assistance to Israel.

By using its leverage, including through targeted sanctions, the Biden administration can “save lives,” the organization added.


US warns of China-Russia cooperation in Arctic

US warns of China-Russia cooperation in Arctic
Updated 23 July 2024
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US warns of China-Russia cooperation in Arctic

US warns of China-Russia cooperation in Arctic
  • Russia has in recent years beefed up its military presence in the Arctic
  • China has poured money into polar exploration and research

WASHINGTON: The US Defense Department warned Monday of increasing Russian-Chinese collaboration in the Arctic, as climate change opens the region to greater competition over maritime routes and resources.
“We’ve seen growing cooperation between the PRC and Russia in the Arctic commercially, with the PRC being a major funder of Russian energy exploitation in the Arctic,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told journalists, using an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.
There is also growing military cooperation, “with Russia and China conducting joint exercises off the coast of Alaska,” Hicks said as the department released its 2024 Arctic strategy.
“All of these challenges have been amplified because the effects of climate change are rapidly warming temperatures and thinning ice coverage, and it’s enabling all of this activity,” she said.
The Arctic strategy describes it as “a strategically important region” for the United States that includes “the northern approaches to the homeland” and “significant US defense infrastructure.”
Russia has in recent years beefed up its military presence in the Arctic by reopening and modernizing several bases and airfields abandoned since the end of the Soviet era, while China has poured money into polar exploration and research.
The rapid melting of polar ice has sent activity in the inhospitable region into overdrive as nations eye newly viable oil, gas and mineral deposits as well as shipping routes in an area with a complex web of competing territorial claims.
“The Arctic may experience its first practically ice-free summer by 2030, and the loss of sea ice will increase the viability of Arctic maritime transit routes and access to undersea resources,” the Arctic strategy says.
“Increases in human activity will elevate the risk of accidents, miscalculation, and environmental degradation,” and US forces “must be ready and equipped to mitigate the risks associated with potential contingencies in the Arctic.”
China later defended its Arctic policy and said it acts on the “principles of respect, cooperation, mutual wins and sustainability,” adding it was “committed to maintaining peace and stability” in the region.
“The United States distorts China’s Arctic policy and makes thoughtless remarks on China’s normal Arctic activities (which are) in accordance with international law,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.