Voice of America

  • Watchdog: Pakistan's Military Courts 'Disaster' for Human Rights
    A global advocate for justice is calling on Pakistan not to use the tenure of its military courts to try civilians for terrorism-related offenses, saying that doing so would constitute a "disaster" for human rights. The military tribunals have been in operation since January 2015. At that time, the Pakistani parliament authorized them for two years to conduct trials of suspected terrorists in a bid to deter growing terrorism in the country. The authorization was extended for another two years and will lapse on March 30 unless lawmakers approve another extension. In a statement issued Wednesday, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said that the military "justice system” is a “glaring surrender” of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Pakistan. The ICJ said, "Fears that repeated extensions risk making an abusive and discredited process effectively permanent." The ICJ denunciation comes as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government consults with opposition parties on legislation to extend the tenure of the courts. The ICJ cited “serious fair trials violations in the operation of military courts, including: denial of the right to counsel of choice; failure to disclose the charges against the accused; denial of a public hearing; a very high number of convictions – more than 97 percent – based on “confessions” without adequate safeguards against torture and ill treatment.” The Pakistani military announced last month the special courts have handed down death sentences to 310 people and 56 of them have been executed. It added that the executions of a remaining 254 people are pending upon the completion of the legal process in the civilian courts. The army’s media wing noted that 234 people were given “rigorous imprisonment” terms of varied duration ranging from life terms to a minimum duration of five years, and two of the accused were acquitted. The army released the details while the country was observing the anniversary of the December 2014 massacre of more than 150 people, mostly children, at an army-run public school in the northwestern city of Peshawar. The militant attack caused outraged among Pakistanis and prompted the then-parliament to allow the military to try civilians linked to terrorist groups or organizations instigating violence in the name of religion. Convicts are allowed to challenge the sentences in civilian courts, although none of the sentences has been overturned to date. Lawyers and families in appeal proceedings in civilian courts have questioned evidence in some cases and alleged their relatives were coerced into confessions. The Pakistani army and civilian officials reject the charges and maintain the legislation allowing the trials binds the special tribunals to conduct “fair and transparent” hearings. Political parties have backed the military courts, noting Pakistan’s regular judicial system does not offer protection to witnesses. Moreover, judges and attorneys prosecuting suspected hardcore militants have complained of receiving death threats, or have come under attack. The ICJ's statement criticized authorities for failing to enact promised reforms to strengthen the criminal justice system during the four years of operation for the military courts.  

  • Pregnant Meghan Laughs Off 'Fat Lady' Comment on Charity Visit
     A stranger's comment on one's growing stomach may not always be welcome but a pregnant Meghan, Britain's Duchess of Sussex, took it all in her stride on Wednesday when a pensioner called her "a fat lady." Prince Harry's wife, who told well-wishers this week she is six months pregnant, laughed off the remark, meant as a compliment about her growing baby bump. On a visit to animal welfare charity Mayhew, of which she is patron, Meghan was being introduced to pensioners who have benefited from the organization's animal therapy program when an elderly woman named Peggy took a more casual approach to speaking to a member of the royal family. "Lovely lady, you are, may the good Lord always bless you," Peggy told the duchess. "And you're a fat lady," she added, smiling and looking at Meghan's tummy. "I'll take it," Meghan replied, laughing along with others. Meghan said last week she would become patron of Mayhew and three organizations dedicated to causes close to her. On her first visit to the charity as patron, she met beneficiaries, staff and several dogs, some of which she held in her arms. The 37-year-old also planned to attend the premiere of Cirque du Soleil's "Totem" show on Wednesday evening, an event aimed at raising awareness and funds for Harry's Sentebale charity.

  • World Economic Forum Warns of Impact of Global Tensions
    International tensions and nationalist politics can further weigh on the global economy this year and hinder efforts to deal with big issues such as climate change, the organizers of next week's Davos forum warned Wednesday. In its annual Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum said the world is evolving into "a period of divergence following a period of globalization."  A "darkening" economic outlook, in part fostered by geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, "looks set to further reduce the potential for international cooperation in 2019," it said.   "With global trade and economic growth at risk in 2019, there is a more urgent need than ever to renew the architecture of international cooperation," said Borge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, which hosts an annual gathering of business and political leaders in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.   "We simply do not have the gunpowder to deal with the kind of slowdown that current dynamics might lead us towards," he added.   In 2018, the global economy slowed more than most experts had predicted and stock markets posted their worst year in a decade. Much of that has been blamed on the standoff between the U.S. and China over trade that has led to both sides imposing tariffs on hundreds of billions worth of goods.   The report, which is based on the views of around 1,000 experts and decision-makers from around the world, found that 88 percent of respondents expect a "further erosion" of global trading rules and agreements that will hold back growth.   The U.S.-China relations will be one of the main talking points at next week's gathering in Davos, with a number of high level representatives from each side due to attend, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and China's vice president, Wang Qishan. Britain's upcoming exit from the European Union will be another key issue after British lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal Prime Minister Theresa May had negotiated with the EU.   The 2016 vote to leave the EU had been driven in large part by a belief that Brexit would restore decision-making powers to Britain. U.S. President Donald Trump has used similar justifications to employ his ``America First'' policies on a range of international issues, such as climate change.   One area identified as being affected by the more fractured geopolitical environment is the need to modernize critical infrastructure projects around the world, such as roads, bridges and power networks, firstly and foremost to avoid accidents such as the collapse of a bridge in Genoa, Italy, last summer that killed 43 people.   John Drzik, President of Global Risk and Digital at Marsh, which helped with the preparation of the report, said the "more protectionist economic environment" is increasing costs and causing delays. The introduction of steel tariffs by the United States, he noted, raised the costs of an infrastructure project in Detroit by approximately 13 percent.   "Persistent underfunding of critical infrastructure worldwide is hampering economic progress, leaving businesses and communities more vulnerable both to cyberattacks and natural catastrophes, and failing to make the most of technological innovation," he said.    

  • US Federal Workers Take On Odd Jobs to Make Ends Meet
    When her paychecks dried up because of the partial government shutdown, Cheryl Inzunza Blum sought out a side job that has become a popular option in the current economy: She rented out a room on Airbnb. Other government workers are driving for Uber, relying on word-of-mouth and social networks to find handyman work and looking for traditional temp gigs to help pay the bills during the longest shutdown in U.S. history. The hundreds of thousands of out-of-work government employees have more options than in past shutdowns given the rise of the so-called “gig economy” that has made an entire workforce out of people doing home vacation rentals and driving for companies like Uber, Lyft and Postmates. Blum decided to capitalize on the busy winter travel season in Arizona to help make ends meet after she stopped getting paid for her government contract work as a lawyer in immigration court in Tucson. She says she has no choice but to continue to work unpaid because she has clients who are depending on her, some of whom are detained or have court hearings. But she also has bills: her Arizona state bar dues, malpractice insurance and a more than $500 phone bill for the past two months because she uses her phone so heavily for work. Blum bills the government for her work, but the office that pays her hasn't processed any paychecks to her since before the shutdown began. So she's been tapping every source she can to keep herself afloat — even her high school- and college-aged children — and is even thinking about driving for Uber and Lyft as well. “So after working in court all day I'm going to go home and get the room super clean because they're arriving this evening,” she said of her Airbnb renters. “I have a young man who's visiting town to do some biking, and he's going to come tomorrow and stay a week,” she added. “I'm thrilled because that means immediate money. Once they check in, the next day there's some money in my account.” The shutdown is occurring against the backdrop of a strong economy that has millions of open jobs, along with ample opportunities to pick up Uber and Lyft shifts. The Labor Department reported that employers posted 6.9 million jobs in November, the latest figures available. That's not far from the record high of 7.3 million reached in August. Roughly 8,700 Uber driver positions are advertised nationwide on the SnagAJob website, while Lyft advertises about 3,000. But the gig economy doesn't pay all that well — something the furloughed government workers are finding out. Pay for such workers has declined over the past two years, and they are earning a growing share of their income elsewhere, a recent study found. Most Americans who earn income through online platforms do so for only a few months each year, according to the study by the JPMorgan Chase Institute. Chris George, 48, of Hemet, California, is furloughed from his job as a forestry technician supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture forest service. He's been driving for Lyft but has only been averaging about $10 for every hour he drives. Paying for gas then eats into whatever money he has made. He just got word that he'll be getting $450 in weekly unemployment benefits, but hadn't received any money as of Monday. In the meantime, he's taking handyman or other odd jobs wherever he can. “I've just been doing side jobs when they come along,” he said Monday. “I had two last week, and I don't know what this week's going to bring.” George Jankowski is among those hunting around for cash. He's getting a $100 weekly unemployment check, but that's barely enough to pay for food and gas, he said. On Monday, he made $30 helping a friend move out of a third-floor apartment in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Jankowski is furloughed from a USDA call center and does not expect to get back pay because his job is part-time and hourly. Jankowski, an Air Force veteran, calls the situation “grueling.” “It's embarrassing to ask for money to pay bills or ask to borrow money to, you know, eat,” he said. Some employers were looking at the shutdown as a way to recruit, at least temporarily. Missy Koefod of the Atlanta-based cocktail-mixer manufacturer 18.21 Bitters said the company needs temporary help in the kitchen, retail store and getting ready for a trade show, and decided to put out the word to furloughed federal workers on social media that they were hiring. “I can't imagine not getting paid for a couple of weeks,” Koefod said. American Labor Services, a staffing agency that employs 500 people a week in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, sent out an appeal to furloughed federal workers on Monday, asking them to get in touch for clerical or light-industrial work. “Some might not realize that they could get something temporary, it could last for a short period,” said Ben Kaplan, the company's president and CEO. Israel Diaz sought out an Uber job and applied to be a security guard after he was furloughed from his Treasury Department job in Kansas City. He said federal work has become increasingly demoralizing and that he and many of his co-workers are considering quitting. “In the old days, you work for the federal government, you get benefits, great,” said Diaz, a Republican and Marine Corps veteran. “Now, it's not even worth it.”  

  • After Crossing into Guatemala, Migrants Set Sights on Mexico
    More than 1,000 Hondurans were walking and hitchhiking through Guatemala on Wednesday, heading toward the Mexico border as part of a new caravan of migrants hoping to reach the United States. Guatemala's migration authority said just over 1,300 people were able to register at the border and pass through frontier controls under the watchful eyes of about 200 police and soldiers at the Agua Caliente crossing. Some migrants told The Associated Press that they crossed informally elsewhere. Miria Zelaya, who left the Honduran city of Colon and was traveling with 12 relatives, said she did not know what sort of work she hopes to find in the United States but was not dismayed by tougher immigration policies under President Donald Trump. "That does not discourage me," Zelaya said. "The need is greater." Migrants leaving Central America's Northern Triangle nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala routinely cite widespread poverty, lack of opportunity and rampant gang violence as their motivation. Many in the group registered for 90-day visas in Guatemala, saying they felt it would offer peace of mind on the 300-mile (540-kilometer) trek to Mexico's southern border. Hector Alvarado, a 25-year-old announcer, said he had been shut out of job opportunities for belonging to the political opposition and felt forced to leave to find work. He learned about the caravan on Facebook, said goodbye to relatives and hit the road. "My loved ones have already cried over of my leaving," Alvarado said. "Now I have to press on." Previous caravans The latest trek north comes as Trump has been working to convince the American public that there is a crisis at the southern border to justify construction of his long-promised border wall. Trump's demand for billions of dollars to that end has resulted in a standoff with Congress that has forced a partial government shutdown. The fate that awaits the migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border is uncertain. Previous caravans that were seized upon last year by Trump in the run-up to the 2018 midterm election have quietly dwindled, with many having gone home to Central America or put down roots in Mexico. Many others — nearly half, according to U.S. Border Patrol arrest records — have sought to enter the U.S. illegally. About 6,000 Central Americans reached Tijuana in November amid conflict on both sides of the border over their presence in the Mexican city across from San Diego. As of earlier this week, fewer than 700 remained at a former outdoor concert venue in Tijuana that the Mexican government set up as a shelter to house them. Mexico has issued humanitarian visas to about 2,900 migrants from last fall's caravan, many of whom are now working legally there with visas. Hope amid dangers Also Wednesday about 100 migrants set out as a group from the capital of El Salvador, hoping to join the larger group from Honduras. Their numbers represent less than a third of the estimated 350 migrants who leave El Salvador each day. "I can't stay. I'm leaving because the gangs have threatened me — either I join them, or they'll kill me," said Adonay Hernandez, 22, who was carrying just $20 in his pocket but was confident he will make it to relatives in North Carolina. "God is my shield." Others hoped to find a better life in Mexico, where they have options for applying for refuge and work permits. "I know that in Mexico they are helping us," said Franklin Martinez, a 34-year-old traveling with his partner and their 2-year-old daughter. "We are going to ask for refuge and we are going to stay and work. After we have saved enough, perhaps we will go to the United States, but our goal is to make it to Mexico." Liduvina Margarin, vice minister for Salvadorans abroad, met with the migrants before they left a downtown plaza to warn them about the dangers of the northward route. She told them that more than half the Salvadorans who left in caravans have returned to the country. "Our duty is to say to you that you are never going to be better off than in your homeland, in your communities of origin," Margarin said. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Wednesday that Mexico has been monitoring the latest caravan closely. He said the best option is for Central American governments to persuade their citizens to stay. Those who don't will be allowed to enter Mexico in an orderly fashion and presented with options, and their human rights will be respected, Lopez Obrador added.

  • EU Alarmed, Frustrated After Brexit Vote
    European Union leaders are greeting the British parliament's defeat of a hard-reached Brexit plan with a mix of frustration and alarm, even as Europe begins preparing for chances Britain will leave the bloc in just over two months without a withdrawal agreement. If British lawmakers' resounding "no" to the Brexit deal negotiated between Brussels and the British government comes as no surprise, European politicians — like their British counterparts — are now faced with a major question: what's next? "We know what the UK parliament doesn't want," the European Parliament's chief Brexit representative, Guy Verhofstadt, told reporters. "Now it's time to find out what they want." "What we don't want," he added, "is that this mess in British politics is now transferred and imported in European politics." British Prime Minister Theresa May is now expected back in the Belgian capital for more Brexit talks. But she may not get very far. After nearly 18 months of negotiations, EU leaders are unlikely to make any major new concessions. "We'll see," French President Emmanuel Macron told local officials. "Maybe we can improve one or two points, but I doubt it." German Chancellor Angela Merkel says there's still time for more talks, but she also warned it was time to prepare for a "disorderly" or no-deal Brexit. Larissa Brunner, a junior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels, said a no deal now certainly is seen as "a strong possibility." That's the message sounding in the private sector as well. French employers' union MEDEF says companies must prepare for the worst-case scenario. France's wine and spirits industry is braced for a major loss in business with Britain. "I think a hard, no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic both for the EU and the UK. And I think it's pretty much impossible to prepare perfectly for it in the time that is left." Only the stock markets seem unfazed — for now. Another big unknown is the fate of Britain's EU lawmakers. European Parliament elections are in May, and it's possible the fate of Brexit may still be up in the air.

  • Pope to Attend All Sessions of High-Stakes Abuse Summit
    Pope Francis has confirmed he will attend all sessions of his high-stakes sex abuse prevention summit next month that will include plenary meetings, witness testimony and a penitential Mass. The Vatican said Wednesday that the organizers of the Feb. 21-24 meeting met last week in Rome and briefed the pope on their preparations.   Francis tasked the former Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, to moderate the plenary sessions of the meeting.   Francis announced in September that he was inviting presidents of bishops' conferences around the world to attend the summit amid a crisis in his papacy over his own botched handling of abuse cases and a new explosion of the scandal in the U.S., Chile and beyond.   The meeting organizers have urged bishops to meet with victims before they come.    

  • Angola’s Oil Reforms: Miracle or Mirage?
    Angolan President Joao Lourenco has made headline-grabbing changes in the nation’s vital oil sector since taking power in 2017.  Economists say these changes should improve Angola's economy, and may even provide a model for other resource-rich African nations.  But Lourenco’s critics say the reforms are cosmetic and haven’t brought benefits to ordinary Angolans.  Oil has long been a blessing and a curse for citizens of this Southern African nation.  Allies of longtime president Jose Eduardo dos Santos allegedly enriched themselves off oil profits, while most citizens remained desperately poor. But since taking office in 2017, Lourenco has been making welcomed changes. “The current president really, really has — I wouldn’t say he has turned it around, he has taken some major steps that the industry has been waiting and the economy has been looking at," said NJ Ayuk,  head of the Johannesburg-based Centurion Law Group and chairman of the Africa Energy Chamber of Commerce. "And we are seeing things improving if these steps are actually implemented and they actually go forward.” Lourenco is trying to diversify the oil-dependent economy, announcing the nation’s first diamond auction later this month. He also sacked several of the former president’s children from top positions, including his daughter, who was running the state oil company Sonangol. Lourenco also reformed Sonangol, streamlining operations and regulations to make it easier for foreign investors to work in the oil sector. Economist Cobus de Hart of NKC African Economics said it’s too soon to be optimistic. “Most of the improvement is due to higher oil prices," he told VOA. "And obviously it will take some time for the reforms at Sonangol to translate to increased earnings and also a marked improvement in inefficiencies. But moves have thus far seem to have attracted more interest from global oil majors to invest more in the country.” Angolan journalist and human rights activist Rafael Marques, a frequent critic of the government, said the leadership changes at the state oil company are cosmetic and misleading. “The way contracts are allocated, you still have companies that belong to politically exposed persons providing services," he said. "So, some reforms are being implemented. But the point is not to replace one set of crooks by another set of crooks. Most of the public contracts [Lourenco is] signing off are without public tender. And remember, that’s where the oil money goes to.” Nonetheless, Ayuk, who recently visited Angola, said he is hopeful.  He said if Angola continues reforming its oil industry, it could trigger similar efforts in other African countries. “What is really exciting is that most observers are looking at this and saying, ‘Maybe this could be something that we can really build upon and look at as a model that works for Africa.’ The truth of the matter is that if Angola gets it right, there is no reason why Mozambique or South Africa, or Namibia, or Nigeria, or Equatorial Guinea cannot get it right. Because people are tired of not seeing these resources translate to development.“    

  • Iran Calls for Release of Journalist Reportedly Arrested in US
    Iran requested Wednesday the release of a prominent American-born journalist who was reportedly arrested in the U.S. Iran's English-language Press TV reported Marziyeh Hashemi, who is employed by the news outlet, was detained at an airport Sunday in the Midwestern U.S. city of St. Louis and was being held in Washington. She has not been formally charged, the report said, and U.S. law enforcement agencies did not immediately comment on her reported arrest. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told state TV the arrest of Hashemi, a black Muslim woman, is an example of the "apartheid and racist policy" of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. Press TV quotes Hashemi as saying prison officials have not allowed her to wear a hijab, a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women, and was only giving her pork to eat, which is prohibited by Islam. These accounts of her treatment have not been independently verified. Hashemi is a native of the southern city of New Orleans. Her birth name is Melanie Franklin. Several Iranian media outlets reported Hashemi has lived in Iran for more than a decade. She has reported on discrimination against women, Muslims and African-Americans in the U.S. Her arrest comes as Iran faces mounting criticism for arresting dual nationals and others with Western ties in an effort to gain leverage in negotiations with global powers. Iran confirmed last week it has detained U.S. Navy veteran Michael White at a prison in the country, the first American known to be detained under Trump's administration. Four other American citizens are known to be held in Iran, including Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his father, both serving 10-year sentences on espionage convictions.

  • Anguished Families Identify Victims After Kenya Hotel Attack
    Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced that a 19-hour siege on the DusitD2 hotel and office complex in Nairobi is over, but the Kenyan Red Cross said Wednesday that dozens of people are still missing. "The security operation at Dusit complex is over, and all terrorists eliminated. As of this moment, we have confirmation, 14 innocent lives were lost through the hands of these murderers, terrorists, with others injured," Kenyatta said. The president said Kenyan security forces had killed all four attackers, and 700 people were rescued. A few hundred meters from the scene of the attack, victims' relatives and friends gathered to identify the bodies. Margret Ojoo spoke of frantic efforts made by her daughter and some friends to find Ojoo's niece, who was trapped in the complex. In the end, her daughter discovered the niece had been killed. Yassin Jamaa lost two nephews who worked for Adam Smith International, a government consulting company that has offices in the DusitD2 complex. "I have lost two boys. One got married the other day, and they both started working at the international agencies. But unfortunately, we have lost them," Jamaa said. The company said Abdallah Dahir and Feisal Ahmed were killed on the terrace of a restaurant in the complex. Both men had worked on the Somalia Stability Fund, a project to bring peace and prosperity to Somalia through various community initiatives. Jamaa said he could not understand the motivation of al-Shabab, the group that claimed responsibility for the attack. "The ones who brought this pain to me are carrying our name, Islam. I am also a Muslim. The question I'm asking: 'Why are they killing human beings?'" Jamaa said. The Islamist extremist group has carried out several killing sprees in Kenya, including the 2013 Westgate Mall attack that left 67 people dead. 

  • UN Security Council OKs Monitoring Mission for Yemen Port City
    The U.N. Security Council unanimously authorized Wednesday the deployment of up to 75 monitors to Yemen's port city of Hodeida as part of efforts to maintain a critical cease-fire there. The resolution provides for the creation of a special political mission for an initial period of six months. It will be known as the U.N. Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA) and will join an advance team headed by Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert, which deployed to the city late last month. "Hopefully with the deployment of this substantive mission, we can start to make progress on the ground," said British Ambassador Karen Pierce, whose delegation drafted the resolution. Last month, delegations representing the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and Houthi rebels met under U.N. auspices near Stockholm for a first round of talks aimed at ending the nearly four-year-long conflict. Parties agreed to the localized truce in Hodeida, as well as redeployment of fighters to agreed locations outside the city. Agreements were also reached on the exchange of thousands of prisoners and for easing the situation in the southwest city of Taiz. Wednesday's resolution authorizes the monitors to deploy quickly and oversee the cease-fire not just in Hodeida city, but throughout the governorate, as well as verifying the parties' compliance to redeploy their forces. UNMHA is also tasked with working with the parties so that the security of Hodeida and its ports are guaranteed by local security forces. Yemen's U.N. envoy, Abdallah Ali Fadel al-Saadi, welcomed the resolution and reiterated the Hadi government's commitment to the agreements made in Stockholm. But he criticized the rebel Houthi group, accusing it of having violated the cease-fire agreement 573 times since it went into force on December 18, causing deaths and injuries. "We call on the Security Council to bring pressure to bear on these militias to implement Security Council resolutions on Yemen," the envoy said. The cease-fire in Hodeida is an important first step to restoring peace across the war-torn country. More than 24 million people — 80 percent of the population — are in need of humanitarian assistance and of those, some 10 million are on the brink of famine. In addition to a food crisis, the country's economy has collapsed. A Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in support of Yemen's government in March 2015. Since then, the U.N. estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed, mostly due to coalition airstrikes.

  • Small Quake Shakes N. California, No Immediate Damage Reported
    A small earthquake shook buildings and roused Northern California residents from their sleep early on Wednesday, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported the 7.2-mile (11.6 km) deep earthquake at 3.7 magnitude in the Oakland, California, area, at about 4:42 a.m. PST (1242 GMT). Reuters witnesses were among many who felt buildings tremble, but there were no immediate reports of damage. "We felt it, but we haven't had any calls or anything," a dispatcher for the Oakland Fire Department said by telephone. Many residents took to Twitter to complain about having been shaken out of their sleep. "Thought I was going to have a nice peaceful sleep, but Mother Nature thought otherwise," said a Twitter user identified as Ross Melen.

  • Economic Fallout Mounts as US Government Shutdown Continues
    The White House has doubled projections of how much economic growth is being lost because of the partial government shutdown, now in a record 26th day with no end in sight to President Donald Trump's standoff with opposition Democrats over his demand for taxpayer money to build a barrier at the southern border with Mexico. Kevin Hassett, the chairman of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers, said Tuesday the country's robust economy has already lost a half percentage point from the shutdown, during which 800,000 government workers have been furloughed or forced to work without pay. He said quarterly economic growth is being reduced by .13 of a percent each week the shutdown continues. Trump is meeting Wednesday with a group of nearly 50 Democratic and Republican lawmakers that calls itself the Problem Solvers Caucus, as he continues to make the case for more than $5 billion in funding for construction of the border wall aimed at stopping illegal migration into the United States. Democrats have offered $1.3 billion in new border security funding, but none specifically for a wall. Taking to Twitter, Trump cited other examples of walls he argued were 100 percent successful. Pelosi asks to delay State of Union speech House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a staunch opponent of Trump's call for a wall, asked him Wednesday to delay his scheduled January 29 State of the Union address before Congress unless the shutdown ends this week, or deliver his address in writing, a practice presidents followed more than 100 years ago. Pelosi cited security concerns, noting that the U.S. Secret Service, which guards Trump and his family, and the Homeland Security agency have not been funded during the shutdown, "with critical departments hamstrung by furloughs." About one-fourth of government operations has been impacted since December 22, closing some museums, curtailing airport security operations and limiting food inspections, among other government services. The Trump administration recalled 50,000 federal civil servants on Tuesday, many of them to help process refunds during the country's annual tax return filing season, but they, like other "essential" employees already working without being paid, also will not be compensated until the impasse over border wall funding ends. Bill guarantees back pay Trump is set Wednesday to sign a bill to guarantee that federal workers, regardless of whether they were forced to work or furloughed during the shutdown, eventually get paid their lost wages, as has been done during previous shutdowns over the last several decades. Workers for private contract companies hired by the government, however, are unlikely to recoup lost wages. If the shutdown lasts another week, government workers will miss their second paycheck this month. Helping hand for furloughed workers Some financial institutions have adopted programs to help those workers deal with a sudden loss in income, while a number of Washington area restaurants are giving away meals to federal workers. The charity World Central Kitchen, which is known for its work feeding people in disaster zones such as Puerto Rico after a hurricane devastated the U.S. territory in 2017, is opening a popup stand Wednesday in Washington to feed federal employees. The site is on Pennsylvania Avenue, about halfway between the Capitol and the White House, and the group's founder, chef José Andrés, said the location is symbolic of the need for Americans to come together. "We're going to be open for any federal family that needs food," Andrés said in a Twitter video announcing the project. "We will have food for you to eat or food to take home. But also I hope it will be a call to action for our senators and congressman and especially President Trump to make sure that we end this moment in the history of America where families are about to go hungry." While Trump and Democratic leaders blame each other for the situation dragging on, a number of recent polls have put more of the responsibility on the president. Most Americans blame Trump for impasse A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday indicated 51 percent of respondents blame Trump and 34 percent blame congressional Democrats. In the same poll, 62 percent of people said they support adding more border patrol agents, and there was a roughly even split of 43 percent of people both supporting and opposing additional fencing at the border. The Senate and House were both due to be in recess next week, but leaders in both chambers have said that break will be canceled if the shutdown is still in effect. "We're going to stay out for a long time, if we have to," Trump told supporters in a conference call Tuesday. In Congress, the House has passed several bills that would follow Pelosi's plan to reopen the government for now and debate the border later, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not bring up any legislation that Trump would not support. McConnell vs Schumer McConnell on Tuesday called on Senate Democrats to make "an important choice." "They could stand with common sense, with border experts, with federal workers, and with their own past voting records by the way, or they could continue to remain passive spectators complaining from the sidelines as the speaker refuses to negotiate with the White House," McConnell said. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump should "see the pain" the shutdown is causing. "He'd benefit from listening to the stories of federal civil servants who were working without pay, locked out of their jobs, maybe then President Trump will understand the damage he's causing by holding these people hostage until he gets what he wants," Schumer said. "Meanwhile, Leader McConnell, Senate Republicans are hiding in the shadows as if they have some kind of aversion to doing their job when it involves the slightest break with the president."

  • Colorism Reveals Many Shades of Prejudice in Hollywood
    The breakthrough representation of minorities in Hollywood blockbusters has ignited a frequently overlooked discussion about whether prejudice isn't just about the color of a person's skin, but the shade. "Colorism,'' the idea that light-skinned minorities are given more privilege than their darker-skinned peers, is a centuries-old concept that many insiders say remains pervasive in the entertainment industry. The instant reckoning of social media has brought prominence to the issue and on Tuesday the ABC sitcom "black-ish," known for not shying from heavier topics, confronted it.   In the episode "Black Like Us," parents Dre and Bow (played by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross) are appalled when they see that daughter Diane (Marsai Martin) appears darker in her poorly lit classroom photo. Their outrage sparks a tense conversation within the family.   "We felt that this was the year to just put it on our shoulders and see what we can do and hope at the very least we can get people to talk about it openly," said co-showrunner Kenny Smith.   Executive producer Peter Saji wrote the episode. A light-skinned, mixed-race man, Saji drew from his own experiences as well as research.   "There is a light-skinned privilege that I never really wanted to admit I felt or experienced. I sort of grew up 'Oh, we're all black. We all experience the same struggle,'" he said.   More often when movies and television shows ignite conversations about colorism, it's unintentional.   In 2016, a furor erupted over a trailer showing actress Zoe Saldana portraying singer and activist Nina Simone. Saldana's skin was darkened and she wore a prosthetic nose.   When images from "Ralph Breaks the Internet" came out last year, it appeared Princess Tiana, Disney's first black princess, had a lighter complexion and sharper features. Anika Noni Rose, who voices Tiana, met with animators and spoke about how important it was that dark-skinned girls see themselves represented. The studio also consulted the civil rights group Color of Change.   "They had to spend some real money to actually fix this. They recognized the problem, they listened and they worked to change it," said Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson.   The issue isn't unique to black people. In India's Bollywood film industry, the starring roles tend to go to lighter-skinned actors, many of whom endorse products promoting fairer skin.   The movie "Crazy Rich Asians" left some Asian-Americans disappointed by a lack of brown or dark-skinned actors.   Meanwhile, "Roma" director Alfonso Cuaron received praise for casting Yalitza Aparicio in the lead role of an indigenous maid. The character is more at the forefront than her lighter-skinned Mexican employer.   For African-Americans, bias toward lighter-skinned people dates back to slavery. Skin complexion sometimes determined what type of jobs slaves were assigned or if, post-slavery, they were worthy of receiving an education. In later decades, universities, fraternities and other institutions were known for using the "brown paper bag" test: Those with skin lighter than the bag were in.   "It's part of white supremacy, or holding up whiteness over other backgrounds," Robinson said. "It has deep implications, historical implications in the black community from beauty standards to professional opportunities to how families have treated one another."   The problem also exists within the music industry. Mathew Knowles, who managed daughters Beyonce and Solange and Destiny's Child, said it's no accident that most of the recent top-selling black artists are lighter-skinned like Mariah Carey and Rihanna. He said Beyonce often got opportunities that darker-skinned artists probably wouldn't.   "There's another 400 that are of a darker complexion... that didn't get a chance at Top 40 radio," Knowles said. "They got pigeonholed that they were black and in the 'black division,' and they got pigeonholed in just R&B, black radio stations.''   Knowles, himself darker skinned, said his own mother instilled in him that darker skinned women were less desirable. It's a perception that he thinks is starting to shift.   "We have to have social courage to speak up about this stuff and stop being quiet about it," Knowles said. "The only way we change is to be uncomfortable and truthful about our feelings and beliefs."   That is a strategy that "black-ish" co-showrunner Smith also agrees with.   "With anything it's always best to have a truthful conversation," Smith said.  

  • Nigerian Opposition Candidate Says He Would Remove Multiple Exchange Rate
    The main opposition candidate for next month’s presidential election in Nigeria said on Wednesday he would eliminate multiple exchange rates to attract foreign investors. Atiku Abubakar, a businessman who served as vice president between 1999 and 2007, has portrayed himself as a champion of the private sector. He is the main challenger to President Muhammadu Buhari in a poll to be held on Feb. 16. Nigeria has at least three exchange rates which the central bank introduced in 2015 at the height of a currency crisis triggered by low oil prices. “I will rather allow the currency to float so that we can have a realistic single exchange rate that would be stable. That will encourage foreign investors,” Abubakar told Reuters. “We will review that policy and ensure we achieve convergence as far as exchange rate policy is concerned,” he said. Abubakar also said he would remove a costly fuel subsidy and identify government enterprises to privatize.

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  • US Envoy: Taliban Must Engage Afghan Government
    A high-level U.S. diplomat responsible for negotiations with the Taliban made it clear the insurgent group would have to engage with the Afghan government if they wanted the peace process to move forward. "The road to peace will require the Taliban to sit with the Afghan government. There is a consensus among all the regional partners on this point," Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, told a group of journalists Wednesday in Kabul. The Taliban's refusal to engage directly with the sitting administration in Kabul seems to have become a stumbling block in negotiations that started last year, after U.S. diplomats gave in to a major Taliban demand and met them directly. So far, the Taliban have held several meetings with the Americans. The last significant round of talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban was held in December in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE government also took part in those discussions. The Afghan government sent a delegation in hopes of joining the talks, but the Taliban refused to meet them. Taliban statements describe members of President Ashraf Ghani's administration as "puppets" or "stooges" of the "invaders." The next meeting, reportedly scheduled in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, was called off by the insurgent group after it came under pressure by the Saudi government to meet with representatives of the current Afghan government. Earlier this week, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid tweeted a statement saying the U.S. agreed last November to discuss "the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing Afghanistan from being used against other countries in the upcoming meeting." The statement then claimed that the U.S. was unilaterally changing the agenda and warned that the negotiations could stall. Responding to the statement, Khalilzad said, "If the Talibs want to talk, we can talk. If they want to fight, we can fight," adding that in the end, if the Taliban chose to fight, the United States would support the Afghan government. Khalilzad, who is on a trip to the region that has included stops in China, India and the UAE, is expected to arrive in Islamabad next. Lisa Curtis, the director for South and Central Asia at the U. S. National Security Council, is already in Islamabad as part of the interagency delegation traveling with Khalilzad.

  • White House Denounces Rep. King’s White Supremacy Remarks
    The White House is describing comments by Republican Rep. Steve King about white supremacy as “abhorrent.” Presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is praising the move by House Republicans to strip the nine-term Iowa lawmaker of his committee assignments. King was quoted last week by The New York Times as saying: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Those comments were widely denounced as racist. The House on Tuesday approved a Democratic measure rebuking King. In addition, a member of the Republican leadership suggested that King leave Congress. At the White House, Sanders says King’s comments were, in her words, “abhorrent.” When President Donald Trump was asked on Monday about King’s remarks, he said: “I haven’t been following it.”

  • Iran says it Will be Ready for New Satellite Launch in Few Months
    Iran will be ready for a new satellite launch in a few months' time after a failed attempt this week, President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, ignoring U.S. and European warnings to avoid such activity. Western officials say the missile technology used in such launches could be applied to delivering a nuclear weapon. Iran's bid to send a satellite, named Payam, into orbit failed on Tuesday as its launching rocket did not reach adequate speed in its third stage. Rouhani was quoted by state media as saying, however, that Iran had "achieved great success in building satellites and launching them. That means we are on the right track. "The remaining problems are minor, will be resolved in a few months, and we will soon be ready for a new launch," he said. The United States warned Iran this month against undertaking three planned rocket launches that it said would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution because they use ballistic missile technology. France's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday condemned the abortive launch and urged Iran to cease ballistic missile tests, which Paris sees as of potential use for nuclear arms. "The Iranian ballistic program is a source of concern for the international community and France," ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said in a statement. "We call on Iran not to proceed with new ballistic missile tests designed to be able to carry nuclear weapons, including space launchers, and urge Iran to respect its obligations under all U.N. Security Council resolutions," von der Muhll said. Iran, which deems its space program a matter of national pride, has said its space vehicle launches and missile tests do not flout a U.N. resolution and will continue. Under the U.N. resolution enshrining Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, Tehran is “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles suitable for carrying nuclear weapons. Some states say this phrasing does not make it an obligatory commitment. Iran has repeatedly said the ballistic missiles it is developing are purely defensive in purpose and not designed to carry nuclear warheads. The nuclear deal is now at risk after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from it, in part because it did not cover Iran's ballistic missile program, and reimposed tough sanctions on Tehran.

  • UN: 900 People Killed in DRC Ethnic Violence
    Nearly 900 people were killed in ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo in mid-December, the United Nations Human Rights office said Wednesday. "The U.N. Human Rights Office said Wednesday that according to allegations from credible sources, at least 890 people were killed between 16 and 18 December in four villages in Yumbi territory, Mai-Ndombe province in the west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in what appear to have been clashes between the Banunu and Batende communities," a statement read. Most of the population of the nearby villages have been displaced, including an estimated 16,000 who crossed the Congo River into neighboring Republic of Congo, according to the statement. The U.N. has launched an investigation into the mass killing, as have national judicial authorities. "It is crucial that this shocking violence be promptly, thoroughly investigated, and the perpetrators be brought to justice," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said. Earlier this week, a local priest said at least 400 people had been killed, causing election officials to cancel voting in the region, Reuters reported. It was not immediately clear whether the violence was related to the recent presidential election, which has been contested by the runner-up.