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Updated: 42 min 18 sec ago

UN Expert on Human Rights Welcomes Thaw on Korean Peninsula

5 hours 38 min ago
The United Nations independent expert on human rights for North Korea has welcomed political talks and denuclearization efforts, but urged that the human rights situation not be forgotten.   "The human rights situation at the moment has not changed on the ground in North Korea, despite this important progress on security, peace and prosperity," Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana told reporters Tuesday ahead of his briefing to the U.N. General Assembly committee that deals with human rights issues.   Ojea said the "reality" is that the nuclear issue is "extremely serious" and that human rights had been put on a back burner, but at some point, Pyongyang must signal that it will discuss human rights.   "It is the time for North Korea to show commitment to the human rights agenda," he said. "We have seen nothing from North Korea in this respect."   Ojea also called for access to the country, which rejects his mandate and has not allowed him to visit.   In 2014, a U.N. panel wrote an exhaustive report on North Korea's human rights situation. It found systematic, widespread and grave violations of rights rising to potential crimes against humanity.   "The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," the Commission of Inquiry said at the time. The panel said such crimes against humanity were the result of "policies established at the highest level of State."   Abuses included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, sexual violence, enforced disappearance of persons, and the act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.   Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have decreased dramatically in the past year. Starting with North Korea's participation in last February's winter Olympics in South Korea, which led to three separate summits between the leaders of those two countries. In June, President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Trump has said he plans to hold a second summit with Kim soon.   Speaking of the U.S.-DPRK summit, Ojea said there were some "confusing statements" on whether human rights had been addressed. He said the issues of the repatriation of the remains of U.S. soldiers and the release of U.S. prisoners in Pyongyang are human rights issues, but that there must be a discussion about the situation of ordinary North Korean citizens.

Japan: Man Believed to Be Missing Journalist in Syria Freed

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 23:27
Japan's government said Tuesday that a man believed to be a Japanese freelance journalist who went missing three years ago while in Syria has been released and is now in Turkey. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a hastily arranged news conference late Tuesday that Japan was informed by Qatar that the man, believed to be journalist Jumpei Yasuda, has been released. Yasuda was last heard from in Syria in 2015. Suga said Qatar's government told Japanese officials that the man is being protected by the Turkish authorities and is being identified, and that he is most likely Yasuda. Suga said he has notified Yasuda's family of the news. Yasuda started reporting on the Middle East in early 2000s. He was taken hostage in Iraq in 2004 with three other Japanese, but was freed after Islamic clerics negotiated his release. His most recent trip to Syria was in 2015 to report on his journalist friend Kenji Goto, who was taken hostage and killed by the Islamic State group. Contact was lost with Yasuda after he sent a message to another Japanese freelancer on June 23, 2015. In his last tweet two days earlier, Yasuda said his reporting was often obstructed and that he would stop tweeting his whereabouts and activities. Several videos showing a man believed to be Yasuda have been released in the past year. In one video released in July, the bearded man believed to be Yasuda said he was in a harsh environment and needed to be rescued immediately. Syria has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists since the conflict there began in March 2011, with dozens killed or kidnapped. Several journalists are still missing in Syria and their fate is unknown. Those missing include Austin Tice of Houston, Texas, who disappeared in August 2012 while covering the conflict, which has killed some 400,000 people. A video released a month later showed him blindfolded and held by armed men, saying ``Oh, Jesus.'' He has not been heard from since. Tice is a former Marine who has reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers, CBS and other outlets, and disappeared shortly after his 31st birthday. Another is British photojournalist John Cantlie, who appeared in Islamic State group propaganda videos. Cantlie has worked for several publications, including The Sunday Times, The Sun and The Sunday Telegraph. He was kidnapped with American journalist James Foley in November 2012. The IS beheaded Foley in August 2014. Lebanese journalist Samir Kassab, who worked for Sky News, was kidnapped on Oct. 14, 2013, along with a colleague from Mauritania Ishak Moctar and a Syrian driver while on a trip in northern Syria. In March 2014, two Spanish journalists — correspondent Javier Espinosa and photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova — were released six months after being kidnapped by an al-Qaida-linked group.

As Trade War Persists, Japan's Abe Heads for First Visit to China

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 20:35
The U.S.-China trade war is helping push Beijing and Tokyo closer.  How close will become clearer later this week, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes his first visit to China since taking office in 2012. Analysts say the three-day trip is unlikely to resolve historic territorial disputes between the two sides, but it will provide Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping a rare opportunity to warm ties and try to advance key policy agendas. Abe arrives Thursday in Beijing accompanied by an entourage of more than 500 business leaders who, with their Chinese counterparts, will attend an investment forum focusing on collaboration in third countries. As relations between Beijing and Washington worsen, China is looking to build closer ties with Abe, a leader who has visited the United States frequently and has sought to build a friendly relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. “For Abe, this is an opportunity that Trump has created for him that suits Japan’s foreign diplomacy interests,” said Ho Szu-shen, Japanese language and culture professor at Taiwan’s Fu-Jen Catholic University.  “If Japanese companies can find a way to cooperate on belt and road projects that could help diminish international criticisms and concerns of countries along the belt about debt trap diplomacy.” In recent weeks, a handful of countries have canceled or scaled back billions of dollars in belt and road projects over concerns about debt.  China denies it is trying to create debt traps and take advantage of developing countries. Japan’s participation in projects with China could help ease those fears.  During Abe’s visit, dozens of investment announcements are expected and some are looking to see whether the two will collaborate in places such as Thailand. "There is a stiff competition between China and Japan vying for deals in third countries and competition adds to both countries costs,” said Jiang Yuechun, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.  “If both countries can find a way to cooperate or complement each other's strengths that could create a win-win situation for both countries and further benefits for third countries as well." Japan has made clear it supports the idea of building infrastructure to help boost economies around the globe, but it also has stressed that investments it participates in be transparent, economically viable and fiscally sustainable for the host country. A Japanese government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while there will be announcements during the visit by private companies, it is “not going to be a big deal like when Mr. Trump came to Beijing.” When Trump visited China last November, the two announced $250 billion in trade deals. Trump is entangled in trade disputes with both Japan and China and criticized the two countries trade practices and deficits with the United States.  Jiang said the two leaders are likely to use the meeting to voice their similar concerns about trade and tariffs. “But I don't think China will ally with Japan to stand against the U.S.  That is unlikely given the U.S. and Japan have a strategic alliance,” he said. As far as trade disputes go, Japan is in a better position than Beijing.  Late last month, Tokyo and Washington agreed to shelve auto tariffs and begin negotiations on a free trade agreement.  China and the United States remain deeply divided. At the same time, however, China has been working hard to push a free trade agreement of its own for the region, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and is likely to use the meeting to buoy support for that agreement and the goal to finish the deal by the end of this year. A Japanese government source said that reaching an agreement is desirable, “but at the same time we can’t compromise too much on standards.”  He also added that there are differing views among participants of RCEP as well, which includes six Asian countries and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.   China is Japan’s biggest trading partner and more than 30,000 Japanese companies have operations in the country.  Last year, Japanese investments grew for the first time since 2012 when a territorial dispute over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and frictions sent relations into a nosedive.  Ties were so tense there were concerns the two countries might enter into a military conflict, which contributed to an exodus of Japanese businesses. That dispute remains unresolved, but Japanese investment is picking up again, growing by 5.1 percent last year.  Abe's visit comes as the two countries mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty, and with that, both are looking to open a new page in relations. Joyce Huang contributed to this report.  

Taiwan Court: Excessive Speed Caused Deadly Train Derailment

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 19:52
Excessive speed was the main cause of the derailment of a train in Taiwan that killed 18 people and injured scores of others, a district court said Tuesday.   The train entered a curve in eastern Taiwan on Sunday afternoon at 140 kilometers (87 miles) per hour, almost twice the speed limit for that section of track, the Yilan County district court said in a statement.   The train's driver has been placed under investigation on suspicion of negligence leading to death.   The driver, Yu Cheng-chung, had disabled the automatic train protection system after sensing "abnormal movements" in acceleration, the court statement said. The system would have allowed him to brake, and without it the driver was left to control the train by hand, it said. "Because the automatic train protection system had been disabled, the driver should have been more careful in controlling the train's speed and used the brakes to prepare for avoiding danger,'' the statement said.   In the train's approach to the station where it derailed, the driver did not notice the speed rules, the court added. The train was not scheduled to make a stop at the station, where the speed limit is 75 kph (47 mph).   "There was no way to make the curve, causing the entire train to derail and flip over, resulting in the deaths of 18 people," the court said.   The driver was released on bail of 500,000 Taiwanese dollars ($16,141) and is not allowed to leave Taiwan.   Possible mechanical problems with the train are also being examined.   The 6-year-old Japanese-built Puyuma trains were built to travel at 150 kph (93 mph) to ease transportation on rugged parts of the mountainous island's east coast. They are designed to tilt when going around curves, making journeys quicker and easing pressure on the road system crossing Taiwan's central mountain range.   The train was carrying more than 360 passengers. The crash injured about 190 people.   Sunday's accident was Taiwan's deadliest railway disaster since a 1991 train wreck killed 30 people.

Vietnam Parliament Elects Communist Party Chief as President

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 19:24
Vietnam's rubber stamp National Assembly elected Communist Party General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong as the country's president on Tuesday, consolidating his influence as the most powerful man in the Southeast Asian nation. The 74-year-old Trong is the first Vietnamese leader to hold the two positions since founding President Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s.   He succeeds President Tran Dai Quang, who died last month after battling a viral illness for more than a year.   Raising one hand and placing the other on the constitution, Trong vowed during the swearing-in ceremony to be "absolutely loyal to the nation, people and the constitution."   He acknowledged in his acceptance speech that despite impressive achievements in recent years, Vietnam faces many challenges. "Many heavy tasks and duties are waiting ahead of us," he said.   Earlier this month, the party's Central Committee endorsed Trong as the sole candidate for the presidency.   Nguyen Khac Giang, a researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research in Hanoi, said Trong's serving as general secretary and president could weaken the collective leadership, which was seen as being more democratic than China's single-party rule.   "When power is concentrated in an individual, there's a tendency which could be negative in a way that could lessen the collective leadership inside the party," Giang said.   Vietnam does not have a single paramount leader, with the country run through the collective leadership of the general secretary, president, prime minister and National Assembly chair.   Giang said it's unclear whether the merger of general secretary and president will continue after Trong likely steps down at the next five-year party congress, scheduled for 2021.   Trong, the party's former chief ideologue, was elected to the all-powerful Politburo in 1997, serving as the Communist Party chief of Hanoi and chairman of the National Assembly before being promoted to general secretary in 2011. He was re-elected to another five-year term in January 2016.   Vietnam has seen an increased crackdown on dissidents and corruption, with scores of high-ranking officials and executives jailed since 2016 under Trong's watch.   The anti-corruption drive is likely to continue, according to Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.   "With his consolidated power, it's likely that he will continue his signature anti-corruption campaign, a key factor that has helped him strengthen his power and won him the presidency,'' Hiep said.   Trong became the first general secretary to visit former foe the United States when he met with President Barack Obama at the White House in July 2015.   The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi congratulated Trong on his election.   "President Trong's selection comes at a time when our bilateral ties with Vietnam have never been stronger," Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink said in a statement. "Over the past two decades, the United States and Vietnam have come together to find common purpose based on shared interests. We have expanded our security ties, forged new economic and commercial linkages, and deepened our people-to-people engagement. We share a common desire to promote peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region."   "We look forward to continuing to work closely with President Trong on further strengthening and expanding the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership," Kritenbrink said.  

US Warships Sail Through Taiwan Strait

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 16:48
Two U.S. warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait Monday.  Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters that the USS Curtis Wilbur and the USS Antietam conducted what he described as a "routine transit" to demonstrate the United States; commitment to "a free and open Indo-Pacific." The U.S. Navy conducted a similar "freedom of navigation" exercise through the expansive waterway that separate China and Taiwan back in July.  Monday's exercise took place amid China's increasing pressure on Taiwan in recent months. It broke off relations with the self-ruled island in 2016 when President Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, took office in 2016 and refused to accept Beijing's "One China" principle that Taiwan belongs under the mainland's rule. It has carried out numerous military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, and persuaded several nations to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. The two sides split after the 1949 civil war, when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces sought refuge on Taiwan after being driven off the mainland by Mao Zedong's Communists.

China Celebrates Opening of New Mega Bridge Linking Hong Kong, Macau

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 14:55
China has opened the world's longest ocean-crossing bridge connecting the mainland with Hong Kong and Macau, the latest sign of Beijing's tightening grip on its semi-autonomous territories.  Chinese President Xi Jinping and the leaders of the three cities were on hand in the southern city of Zhuhai for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, complete with digital fireworks exploding on a screen behind him.  The 54-kilometer, $20 billion project, which includes an underwater tunnel, links Zhuhai with the financial hub of Hong Kong and the gambling destination of Macau across the Pearl River delta. Construction on the bridge began in 2009, and was dogged by numerous delays and cost overruns. Traffic will begin crossing the bridge on Wednesday.  The inauguration of the Zhuhai-Hong Kong-Macau bridge comes a month after China opened a new high-speed rail line between Hong Kong and the mainland, which has raised concerns that Beijing is slowly encroaching on the freedoms the territory has enjoyed under the "one country, two systems" formula established when Britain relinquished control in 1997.

South China Sea Code of Conduct Gains Momentum as China Moves to Complete Militarization

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 01:06
As China moves to complete the creation of military outposts in the South China Sea, Beijing’s negotiation with southeastern Asian nations over a binding code of conduct is gaining momentum.   But U.S. officials and experts warn China’s insertions in the draft South China Sea code of conduct may put Washington and Beijing on a collision course. The text of the draft also shows that deep divisions remain among claimants.   One of the Chinese provisions in the text states, “The Parties shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”   China also proposed cooperation on the marine economy “shall not be conducted in cooperation with companies from countries outside the region.”   A State Department spokesperson told VOA the United States is concerned by reports China has been pressing members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations “in the closed-door talks, to accept restrictions on their ability to conduct exercises with security partners, and to agree not to conduct oil and gas exploration in their claimed waters with energy firms based in countries which are not part of the ongoing negotiations.”   “These proposals, if accepted, would limit the ability of ASEAN nations to conduct sovereign, independent foreign and economic policies and would directly harm the interests of the broader international community,” added the State Department spokesperson. Competing for influence   For China, the benefits are apparent. The United States and China are competing for influence in the Indo-Pacific region.   China and Southeast Asian navies are heading to their first joint exercises from October 22 to 28. An inaugural ASEAN-U.S. maritime exercise will be held next year.   “In other words, China would like a veto over all the military exercises held by ASEAN countries with other nations. I think this really provides some evidence that China indeed is trying to limit American influence in the region, one might go so far as to say to push American military presence out of the region eventually, but certainly in the area of the South China Sea,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.   While the United States is not a claimant to the sovereignty of disputed islands in the South China Sea, Washington has said China's efforts to militarize outposts in the contested waters endanger the free flow of trade and undermine regional stability, a claim Beijing rebuts.   The United States is also calling for ongoing discussions on the South China Sea code of conduct to be transparent and consultative with the rest of the international community. U.S. officials said the international community has direct stakes in the outcome. Code of conduct draft In August, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan announced China and ASEAN’s 10 member countries had reached a draft agreement. (Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiating Text or SDNT). ASEAN leaders are to meet next month in Singapore.   Highlighting the importance of such a draft, a Center for Strategic and International Studies report said for the first time in many years, an effective diplomatic process to manage South China Sea disputes seems possible.   ASEAN and China have been discussing a potential code of conduct (COC) to manage the South China Sea maritime and territorial disputes for more than two decades.   Leaked details of the draft state the code of conduct is “not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues.” Managing disputes The draft shows deep divisions among South China Sea claimants over many issues, according to experts, especially over the most sensitive issues like the agreement’s geographic scope, potential dispute settlement mechanisms, and details of resource exploration.   “What the code of conduct is intended to do is to manage the disputes to prevent them from escalating, and basically to allow the freezing of the thorny territorial questions, while states can manage the resources and manage tensions in the near to medium term,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative” at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).   In August a trilateral statement from Japan, Australia and the United States called for the Code of Conduct “to not prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of all states under international law; to reinforce existing regional architecture; and to strengthen parties’ commitments to cease actions that would complicate or escalate disputes.”   Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Amy Searight said Washington’s “concrete position” on no prejudice against third parties “is to really criticize China's attempt to marginalize U.S. influences” in the region.  

Taiwan Closely Monitored Two US Warships' Path Through Taiwan Strait

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 00:48
The United States sent two warships through the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. Navy and Taiwan's defense ministry said on Monday, in a move that could anger Beijing amid heightening U.S. tensions with China. The ministry said it was in full control of the situation during the U.S. warships' journey through the Taiwan Strait, the self-ruled island's defense ministry said in a statement. "The Ministry of National Defense stressed that the army was in full control when the U.S. warships passed through the seas around Taiwan and has the ability to maintain the security of the seas and the airspace to ensure regional peace and stability," it said. The U.S. navy conducted a similar mission in July and any repeat would be regarded in Taiwan as a show of support by President Donald Trump's government though it risks irking China, which views Taiwan as a wayward province Beijing has been ramping up pressure to assert its sovereignty over the island. Taiwan's foreign ministry declined comment. Last week, Reuters reported that the United States was considering a new operation to send warships through, aimed at ensuring free passage through the strategic waterway. Taiwan's relations with China have deteriorated since the island's President Tsai Ing-wen from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party swept to power in 2016. This year, China increased military and diplomatic pressure, conducting air and sea military exercises around the island and persuading three of the few governments still supporting Taiwan to drop their backing. Tsai said earlier this month she will maintain the status quo with Beijing, but also vowed to boost Taiwan's national security and said her government would not submit to Chinese suppression.

Harry and Meghan Travel in Different Style on Australia Tour

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 20:52
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex took separate boats Monday to Queensland's Fraser Island as their tour of Australia and the South Pacific continued with a reduced schedule for the pregnant duchess.   Prince Harry took a barge for the 43-mile (70-kilometer) crossing from Australia's mainland to the island, while the former American actress Meghan rode in a far more comfortable cruiser.   Meghan is some four months pregnant and has had her schedule reduced after a hectic start to the 16-day tour.   The Duchess rested for the first part of the day while Harry undertook several engagements focusing on environmental issues. Meghan then delighted onlookers by emerging for a waterside stroll with her husband.   Harry and Meghan touched down midmorning at Hervey Bay, 745 miles (1200km) north of Sydney, in a Royal Australian Air Force plane. The couple descended the stairs hand-in-hand, before going their separate ways: Harry boarding a bus and Meghan a car. After their boat crossings, Harry was scheduled for a range of engagements on the world's biggest sand island, known as K'gari - or "Paradise" - in the local indigenous language, on day seven of their Australian tour.   After taking part in a traditional "Welcome to Country" smoking ceremony with representatives of the local Butchulla indigenous people, Harry unveiled a plaque dedicating the popular holiday island's pristine rainforests to Queen Elizabeth's Commonwealth Canopy project.   Harry's itinerary also touched on the history of logging on Fraser Island, whose famed hardwood trees were used to build the London's docks in the 1930s. After their afternoon stroll, the royal couple met locals including Hervey Bay paramedics Graeme Cooper and Danielle Kellam.   The paramedics made headlines last year after a photo of them granting a dying woman's wish to see the ocean at Hervey Bay one last time went viral and captured hearts around the world.   Harry and Meghan are due to leave Australia for Fiji and Tonga on Tuesday. They will return to Sydney on Friday night for the final days of the Invictus Games, Harry's brainchild and the focus of their tour, before finishing off with a visit to New Zealand.    

Indonesia Calls for 'Transparent and Thorough' Probe of Khashoggi Killing

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 20:28
Indonesian President Joko Widodo called for a "transparent and thorough" investigation of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a meeting on Monday with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, the foreign minister of the Asian nation said. Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, maintains close ties with Saudi Arabia and has "expressed concern" over the killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which the kingdom initially denied for weeks. Khashoggi's killing has drawn international criticism, prompting the kingdom on Sunday to describe it as a "huge and grave mistake", while adding that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had not been aware of the case. "Indonesia hopes the investigation being carried out is transparent and thorough," Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters after Widodo's meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, which she attended. The two met at the presidential palace on the outskirts of Jakarta, the capital, to discuss several subjects, including the Khashoggi case. Marsudi said al-Jubeir had conveyed a "statement and explanation" to Widodo about the case, but she declined to elaborate. She is scheduled to hold talks with al-Jubeir in Jakarta on Tuesday. In 2017, King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit the Southeast Asian nation in nearly five decades, and signed a range of cooperation pacts.

Maldives Court Frees Opposition Leader Convicted of Bribery

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 20:01
A court in the Maldives has freed an opposition leader, setting aside a lower court's conviction for bribery. The High Court, in hearing an appeal by Qasim Ibrahim, said Monday that there were procedural violations by the Criminal Court in convicting him. Ibrahim, a political party leader and businessman owning a chain of tourist resorts, was sentenced to more than three years in prison last year after he joined forces with the opposition in trying to unseat President Yameen Abdul Gayoom. He was accused of offering to fund re-election campaigns of government lawmakers in return for voting for an opposition-sponsored no-faith motion against the parliamentary speaker. Ibrahim was exiled in Germany following heart surgery in Singapore and only returned home earlier this month after Yameen's presidential election defeat.

PM Formally Apologizes to Australian Child Sex Abuse Victims

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 16:36
Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered a formal apology Monday to Australia's victims of child sex abuse, saying the nation must acknowledge their long, painful journey and its failure to protect them.  Morrison's emotional speech given in Parliament before hundreds of survivors followed the conclusion of a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the nations' highest level of inquiry. "Today as a nation we confront our failure to listen, to believe, and to provide justice,'' he said, adding: "We say sorry.''  Abuse survivors gathered in Parliament's Great Hall cried, yelled and applauded as Morrison read the apology. "I believe you, we believe you, your country believes you,'' he said. The four-year inquest that delivered its final report in December revealed shocking evidence from more than 17,000 survivors and heard allegations against government, church and private institutions, as well as prominent individuals.  It also heard evidence from leaders such as Vatican Cardinal George Pell, who is charged with committing historical sex abuses himself and was accused of failing to protect children. The prime minister said in his speech Monday that it was time for Australia to confront key questions.  "Why weren't the children of our nation loved, nurtured and protected? Why was their trust betrayed?'' he said.  "Why did those who know cover it up? Why were the cries of children and parents ignored? Why was our system of justice blind to injustice? Why has it taken so long to act? Why were other things more important than this, the care of innocent children? Why didn't we believe?''  Morrison said nothing could be done to right the wrongs inflicted on children.  "Even after a comprehensive royal commission, which finally enabled the voices to be heard and the silence to be broken, we will all continue to struggle,'' he said.  "So today, we gather in this chamber in humility, not just as representatives of the people of this country, but as fathers, as mothers, as siblings, friends, workmates and, in some cases, indeed, as victims and survivors.''  The lawmakers stood for a minute of silence following the apology, which came with the announcement of government plans to create a museum and research center to raise awareness and understanding of the impacts of child sexual abuse, and to ensure the nation does not forget the horrors victims have suffered.  The research center will also assist those seeking help, and guide best practices for training and other services.  The government will also commit to reporting every year for the next five years on the progress of the royal commission's recommendations.  It has already accepted 104 of the commission's 122 recommendations, including a redress payments program, with the other 18 recommendations still under examination.  The government has also established a new office of child safety, to report to the prime minister.  Opposition leader Bill Shorten joined the apology, saying Australia had failed tens of thousands of children, across generations.  "Our nation let you down. Today, we offer you our nation's apology, with humility, with honesty, with hope for healing now, and with a fire in our belly to ensure that our children will grow up safe in the future,'' Shorten said.  While many survivors and campaigners welcomed the apology, others called for more to be done to address the history of abuse. In Canberra, Rick Venero, who was abused at a Marist Brothers school in Sydney, said action should be taken against institutions that protected pedophiles. "(The apology) meant a great deal. It's fantastic to get that from the Australian people,'' Venero said. "(But) it's pretty shattering actually, to come here and everyone's behind it, and the power of these institutions means that nothing's really happening.'' Leonie Sheedy, chief executive of the Care Leavers Australia Network, which advocates for those raised in state care, called on the government to remove a charity tax exemption from institutions that are still deciding whether to opt in to the national redress program for victims.  She said she's never healed from being abused.  "You can learn to live with it, but it never goes away,'' Sheedy told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "It will be with me and all care leavers until the day that they put the lid on the coffin.'' 

Philippines Scrambles to Find Undersea Energy as Import Prices Hit Consumers

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 15:06
The resource-rich Philippines is doubling up development of its own fuel sources as world oil price hikes hit the largely impoverished population. On October 17, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed a service contract with the Israeli energy exploration firm Ratio Petroleum to scout for fuel under the South China Sea, the Department of Energy in Manila said. It is the first Philippine-foreign energy contract signed since 2013. The Philippines is talking separately with China, despite a maritime sovereignty dispute, about another joint exploration deal. Pursuit of joint exploration with foreign countries reflects not only a lack of technological expertise in the Philippines to exploit its own undersea fuel reserves, but also an urgency to find that fuel, experts believe. “It’s ideal to probably have a good source of oil,” said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila. “It would be ideal if we can be self-sufficient. It would save money given the rising oil price.” Price-sensitive consumers Oil price hikes have rippled around the world this year but hit the Philippines especially hard because food staples such as rice have suddenly started costing more at the same time. Inflation was 6.4 percent August, the highest in Southeast Asia, and 6.7 percent in September. About one-fifth of the 100 million-plus Philippine population lives in poverty, meaning some feel a pinch when they get gasoline for their motorcycles or buy tickets for public transport. Duterte, an otherwise popular president, saw his net trust rating fall from 75 to 57 points from December through June in part because of inflation, analysts believe. Prices for Brent crude oil hit $78.90 per barrel on the world market in September, up from $72.50 a month earlier, for a 40 percent increase over the previous year. Sino-U.S. trade disputes and a cut in oil export loading by Iran have driven the increases.  “The President has been very clear – our country needs to attain energy security and sustainability at the soonest possible time,” energy department Secretary Alfonso Cusi said via his department’s website last week. “We are currently experiencing how our dependence on importation has left us at the mercy of price movements in the global oil markets,” he said. “We need to boost the exploration and development of our own energy resources and the awarding of the petroleum service contract to Ratio Petroleum is a step in the right direction.” Oil and gas exist; expertise lags The Philippines controls untapped fuel deposits estimated at $26.3 trillion, the state-run Philippine News Agency said in February, calling that amount “more than enough to free the country from the shackles of poverty.” But its contractors lack the exploitation expertise available in Western countries, analysts believe. In Asia, Vietnam and Myanmar also rely on foreign partners to tap fuel under the sea. “Often these frontier economies don’t have good capabilities in that area,” said Rajiv Biswas, executive director and Asia-Pacific chief economist with the research firm IHS Markit. “Definitely oil and gas technology is a key area where developing countries, especially countries like the Philippines, need the help of big global players who have advanced technology in oil and gas,” Biswas said. Developing countries may also need the foreign contractor’s investment, he added. Manila is no stranger to foreign oil exploration deals, but deals can be elusive because estimated reserves are not on the scale of places such as the Middle East, while parts of the South China Sea west of the Philippine archipelago are contested. Five other governments claim all or part of the same waters. Philippine officials brought on Shell Philippines Exploration, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, in 2002 to help explore a major undersea tract called the Malampaya gas field. Gas from that field accounts for 20 percent of domestic electricity requirements but Philippine media say reserves are forecast to start declining by 2022. China and the Philippines have talked about joint oil exploration since 2017, with China saying it would be willing to accept just a 40 percent share of any discoveries. The two sides still dispute sovereignty in parts of the South China Sea, but since 2016 officials from both have set the dispute aside to work together economically. The Israeli firm is untested so far, analyst say, but it should pay attention to potential competition. The 7-year contract calls for tapping 416,000 hectares in an undisputed zone for potential oil and gas. “If they want to get more oil exploration projects in the Philippines, they better measure up, because China is coming in,” said Eduardo Araral, Philippine and South China Sea-specialized associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.

The Koreas and United Nations Command Work Toward Disarming the DMZ

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 14:52
North Korea, South Korea, and the United Nations Command (UNC) met Monday to further discuss plans to disarm the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It follows a meeting last week where the three parties discussed ways of implementing a comprehensive military agreement signed during the third inter-Korean summit to achieve that goal. United Nations Command deputy commander Lt. General Wayne Eyre said the UNC will adapt its mission to support current diplomatic efforts, and experts called for the organization to play an active role as the Koreas move toward reshaping the heavily fortified border into a peace zone. Pyeongtaek University Professor Yun Jiwon tells VOA demilitarization has been an ongoing topic since the early 1990s between the Koreas, but until now, the right conditions to do so haven’t been present. The meeting Monday was “aimed at checking and evaluating the status of demining operations at the JSA and consulting over schedules for withdrawing firearms and guard posts and adjusting guard personnel, as well as future plans for mutual verifications," Seoul’s defense ministry said in a statement. As with the October 16 meeting, it was facilitated by North and South Korean colonel-level military officials and a member from the United Nations Command. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, Commander of United Nations Command said in a statement the talks last week “joined the existing Armistice mechanisms used by the Korean People's Army and the United Nations Command, with the more recent Korean People's Army and Republic of Korea military dialogue to further advance implementation of the CMA (Comprehensive Military Agreement)." A pathway to peace During the September Pyongyang summit, the two Koreas agreed to remove 11 guard posts within a 1 kilometer radius of the Military Demarcation Line by the end of this year. Following last week’s meeting, Seoul's defense ministry said both sides will scale down personnel stationed there to 35 on each side in line with the armistice agreement, and share information related to their surveillance equipment. Furthermore, tourists from both sides and overseas will be allowed to freely come and go within the JSA. South Korean officials said they hope to begin rolling out the measure in about a month. Yang Uk, Senior Fellow at the Korea Defense Forum urged caution. “A genuine detente is needed and [the government] should not make any decisions in a hurry,” he said.  “In the end, the plan should be guided by the UNC. They should be managing it… [the process] should be under the UNC’s order,” said Yang. Joseph Yun, former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, said it is the little steps along the way that lead toward the final goal of denuclearization. His concern about the current, rapid pace of North-South dialogue is that the leaders are “out in front” and may not be giving sufficient time for working-level talks to set the necessary foundation for meaningful progress. Demilitarization of the border region is an agreement between North and South Korea, and necessary to foster increased cooperation in the future said Yun, but it’s “not possible without consulting with the UNC.” “The DMZ is under the UNC’s management; therefore, it’s necessary to have the UNC in this process,” said Yun. At the October 16 meeting, it was also agreed to withdraw all firearms from the JSA. Yang said that’s important, recalling an incident in February when North Korean troops fired machine guns at a defecting soldier. Lt. General Wayne Eyre said the UNC is “committed to enabling the current diplomatic efforts” and these included, “The successful implementation of the comprehensive military agreement.” Eyre added, that despite the challenges ahead, “The UNC will continue to fulfill his responsibilities in the ongoing, potentially decisively events that are playing out.” “Current events give hope that the process of moving towards a lasting peace, along with denuclearization, is really making progress,” said Eyre. Through a written statement, the UNC said it “is the home for international commitments with a mandate to restore peace and security in defense of the Republic of Korea. UNC coordinates multilateral engagement and provides a standing multinational framework for the integration of UN Forces into the command.” More talks scheduled Both Koreas will hold an additional round of talks Friday, October 26. Participants will hold the rank of general and are expected to further discuss the implementation of a military agreement reached when the two sides met at Tongilgak, a building on the North Korean side of Panmunjom. The defense ministry said discussions will focus on how to form and run a joint military committee, whose responsibility it will be to enforce the agreement, and how best to form a joint research team for an area of the Han River that’s been closed off to civilians due to escalating tensions. Lee Ju-Hyun contributed to this report.

Taiwan Investigates Train Derailment That Killed 18

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 10:02
Officials in Taiwan have launched an investigation into what caused a train derailment Sunday that killed at least 18 people and injured around 175 others. President Tsai Ing-wen visited the accident site in the northeastern Yilan county on Monday where she met with family members of the victims. The train carrying more than 360 passengers derailed on a popular coastal route on its way from a suburb of Taipei to the southeastern city of Taitung. Some passengers interviewed by news agencies said they felt the Puyuma Express train was going too fast. ​All of the train's eight carriages derailed, and five of them were flipped over, according to a statement from the Taiwan Railways Administration. Photos of the scene showed the train cars lying zig-zagged across the track. Rescue efforts went into the night Sunday with workers using flashlights and cranes to move around and lift up the derailed cars. The area was cleared enough Monday to allow rail service to resume.  

17 Killed in Taiwan Train Derailment

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 20:29
At least seventeen people were killed in a train derailment on a popular coastal route in Taiwan Sunday. Another 132 were injured, the Taiwan Railways Administration said in a statement. All of the train's eight carriages derailed, and five of them were flipped over, according to the statement. Local news reports say that as many as 30 people remain alive and trapped inside the carriages in the northeastern Yilan county. Photos of the scene show the Pyuma Express lying zig-zagged across the track.

Meghan's Schedule in Australia Cut Back after Hectic Start

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 18:25
The pregnant Duchess of Sussex has had her schedule cut back during her first royal tour, after a hectic start to her visit to Australia and the South Pacific with husband Prince Harry. The tour is an extremely busy one, with the royal couple scheduled to attend more than 70 engagements during a 16-day trip across four countries. Meghan, who is due to give birth in the spring, skipped an event in Sydney on Sunday morning, leaving Harry to attend a cycling competition at the Invictus Games alone. She later joined the prince to watch sailing events, and at a lunchtime reception hosted by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Kensington Palace said the royal couple had moved to reduce Meghan's schedule ahead of their visit to Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand in the second phase of their tour. "After a busy program, the duke and duchess have decided to cut back the duchess's schedule slightly for the next couple of days, ahead of the final week-and-a-half of the tour," the palace said in a statement. Meghan's envisaged role on a scheduled Monday trip to Fraser Island, off Queensland state in Australia's north, was unclear, with the palace statement saying only that "the Duke will continue with the engagements on Fraser Island." The couple are due to leave Australia for Fiji and Tonga on Tuesday. They will return to Sydney on Friday night for the final days of the Invictus Games, Harry's brainchild and the focus of their tour, before finishing off with a visit to New Zealand. Harry spent considerable time at the lunchtime reception chatting with competitors assembled for the Invictus Games, which gives sick and injured military personnel and veterans the opportunity to compete in sports such as wheelchair basketball, and to find inspiration to recover.

Public Trust in Vaccines Plummets After Philippines Dengue Crisis

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 16:13
The ability to fight future pandemics could be at risk following a plunge in public confidence in vaccines in the Philippines, according to a report from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The plummeting trust can be traced to 2015, when the government of the Philippines began a large-scale dengue fever vaccination program after an increase in cases of the mosquito-borne disease. An election in 2016 saw a change in government, as President Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Then, in November 2017, the French company Sanofi, which makes the vaccine, called Dengvaxia, said it posed a risk to people who had not previously been exposed to dengue fever. If they later became infected, they could have a more severe case of dengue, according to the company.   WATCH: Public Trust in Vaccines Plummets After Philippines Dengue Crisis Philippines concern to outrage Most countries adapted to Sanofi’s announcement by updating guidelines and labeling. In the Philippines, public concern turned to outrage, which was fueled by a highly politicized response from the government, according to lead researcher Professor Heidi Larson. “This was an opportunity to jump on the previous government for all their wrongdoings ‘Why did you get this vaccine?’ And it became an uproar and created not only quite a crisis around this vaccine, but it bled into other areas of public confidence in vaccines more broadly,” Larson told VOA in a recent interview. The researchers measured the loss in public trust through their ongoing Global Vaccine Confidence Index. In 2015, 93 percent of Philippine respondents strongly agreed that vaccines were important. This year, that figure has fallen to just 32 percent, while only 1 in 5 people now believes vaccines are safe. ​Risk of pandemic “This dramatic drop in confidence is a real concern about risks to other diseases such as measles, on the one hand. On the other hand, too, Asia is ripe for a pandemic in influenza viruses to take hold, and in the case of a pandemic or an emergency outbreak, that’s not a time when you can build trust,” said Larson, who also cautioned that misinformation played a big part in undermining confidence in vaccines. “The role of social media in amplifying those concerns, in amplifying the perception of risk and fears and their public health consequences, is dramatic,” Larson said. Large-scale immunization programs are in the trial stage to tackle some of the world’s deadliest diseases, like malaria. Meanwhile, containing the outbreak of any future pandemic, like influenza, would likely rely on emergency vaccinations. The report authors say it is vital that governments and global institutions do more to build public trust in vaccines.

Public Trust in Vaccines Plummets After Philippines Dengue Crisis

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 16:11
The ability to fight any future outbreaks of disease could be at risk, following a huge loss of public confidence in vaccines in the Philippines. That's according to a new report from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The drop in trust could also affect the rollout of future vaccination programs, and researchers say the case of the Philippines holds lessons for other countries trying to tackle deadly diseases, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

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