Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The second round of talks with Cuba will focus exclusively on restoring diplomatic relations, the State Department said Wednesday. A senior State Department official said the administration expects to fully establish embassies before human rights discussions will take place.
“The human rights dialogue is the first such open conversation that we’re going to have with the Cuban government. It is quite honestly premised on having diplomatic relations,” said the official, who briefed reporters on the upcoming talks. “That’s what comes first.”
The Cuban delegation is led by Josefina Vidal, director-general of the U.S. division of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who will spend most of Friday at the State Department with the U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roberta Jacobson. The two will focus on the logistics of opening embassies in both countries, conversations that began last month in Havana. The current U.S. interests section building there will become the embassy.
President Barack Obama announced in December that the U.S. and Cuba would being the process of establishing formal ties. This includes the opening of embassies, examining Cuba’s place on the U.S.’s state sponsor of terrorism list and increasing telecommunications and economic ties. The new policy does not include the formal lifting of the embargo against Cuba, an action that can only be taken by Congress.
The senior State Department official said that the process of removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list was ongoing and involved several offices within the department. The official declined to provide a target date for when the administration expected the review to be complete.
“These processes tend to be a little more complicated than they seem,” the official said.
The department also declined to provide a formal timeline for when full diplomatic relations would be restored and embassies would be operational, but negotiators hoped to “get as far as possible” Friday. It also said the terrorism sponsor review and the establishment of diplomatic relations were being treated as two separate issues.
Assistant Director for the U.S. at the Cuban Foreign Ministry Gustavo Machin said Cuba wants the embassies to be opened before the Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama in April. He told local media that his delegation was heading to the talks in Washington with a "constructive spirit."
Members of Congress have objected to restoration of ties, which was initiated without input from legislators. Those who oppose the move say the U.S. is rewarding President Raul Castro, whom they brand a dictator, for human rights abuses. The administration contends that an opening of ties will give the U.S. greater leverage for positive democratic influence on the island.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Foreign Operations that U.S. support for democratic reform and human rights was “unequivocal.”
“[T]he change that we are making, we believe, actually assists the United States to be able to promote the democracy and the rights that we want for the people of Cuba,” Kerry said. “It will also make it harder for those who want to close the door to blame America for what is happening there, and we believe, in the end, can help create accountability for the hardships that those folks live under.”
The senior State Department official said the department hoped to discuss Friday with the Cuban delegation dates for future talks on human rights.
Curtailing cooperation between Moscow and the European Union(EU) will blunt the economic competitiveness of the European countries, Russian President VladimirPutin said Wednesday.
"Severing economic ties between the EU and Russia will inevitably lead to the loss of certain degree of competitiveness of the entire euro-zone in mid-term and long-term prospective," Putin told reporters following talks with his visiting Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades.
The EU has lost tens of billions of euros due to anti-Russia sanctions and the ensuing counter-sanctions by Russia, which boasts enormous natural wealth and holds leading positions in many other sectors such as nuclear power, he said.
Admitting that cutting ties with the EU also casts negative effect on Russia, Putin said European countries should have taken their national interests into account when imposing sanctions.
Meanwhile, the recent flare-up in the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine would also likely to threaten Moscow's gas supplies to Europe, the president said.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller warned Tuesday to fully halt natural gas supplies to Ukraine in two days due to the absence of prepayments.
Russia's Gazprom and Energy Ministry "are taking energetic measures not only to inform our European partners about the problem on gas supplies but also to get them involved in trying to solve it," Interfax quoted Putin as saying.
Regular contacts were made among Russian, Ukrainian and European sides to solve the gas issues, European Commission Vice- President responsible for the Energy Union Maros Sefcovic said Wednesday.
Putin said Kiev's decision of cutting gas supplies to Donbass " looks like genocide," especially considering current humanitarian crisis there.
Under the Minsk agreements and the resolution of the UN Security Council, Kiev must ensure energy supplies to Donbass in line with the provision on the economic recovery and social restoration in eastern Ukraine, according to Putin.
Kiev last Wednesday cut off its gas supplies to Donetsk and Lugansk regions because of "critical damage" of the gas pipelines, which was seen by the rebels as a political move.
Putin on Wednesday stressed that Gazprom did not breach any contract terms on gas supplies to Ukraine through border points in eastern regions.
Russia will cut off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev fails to pay in “three or four days,” President Vladimir Putin said, adding that this "will create a problem" for gas transit to Europe.
“Gazprom has been fully complying with its obligations under the Ukraine gas supply contract and will continue doing that,” Putin told reporters after talks with the president of Cyprus on Wednesday. “The advance payment for gas supply made by the Ukrainian side will be in place for another three to four days. If there is no further prepayment, Gazprom will suspend supplies under the contract and its supplement. Of course, this could create a certain problem for [gas] transit to Europe to our European partners.”
However, Putin expressed the hope that it would not come to that, stressing that “it depends on the financial discipline of our Ukrainian partners.”
He noted that Russia’s ministers and the CEO of Gazprom have “actively” reminded Ukraine of the looming deadline.
On Tuesday, Gazprom's CEO Aleksey Miller reminded Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz of the gas prepayment. Miller said that Ukraine had not paid for March deliveries and warned that Kiev was risking an early termination of the advance settlement and a supply cutoff.
"It takes about two days to get payment from Naftogaz deposited to a Gazprom account. That's why a delivery to Ukraine of 114 million cubic meters will lead to a complete termination of Russian gas supplies as early as in two days, which creates serious risks for the transit to Europe,” Miller said.
Putin said that Gazprom had breached no contract terms of gas supplies to border points to eastern parts of Ukraine.
"It has become known to us that Kiev suspended gas supplies [to Lugansk and Donetsk regions] referring to the alleged damage to gas pipelines," Putin said.
"At the same time, Gazprom is fulfilling the contract signed back in 2009 and an addendum to it made in October last year. In full compliance with this contract, it supplies gas to Ukraine under advance payments made for the volumes, which Ukraine needs."
Putin indicated that these contracts also stipulated border points. "Gazprom is not breaching any provisions," he added.
"As for the damage to the gas pipeline, I don't know for certain, but I know that these regions are home to about 4.5 million people. Just imagine that these people may be left without gas supply during the winter period. In addition to the hunger, there as is already stated by the OSCE and the humanitarian disaster, just imagine these people may also be left without gas supply," Putin said.
He accused some Ukrainian officials of failing to understand the humanitarian issues in Ukraine’s eastern regions.
Citing the OSCE report of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in southeastern Ukraine as well as famine, President Putin said Kiev’s recent decision to switch off gas for those regions “smells like genocide.”
Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz suspended gas supplies to eastern regions on February 19, citing damage to a pipeline. Under the gas deal between Moscow and Kiev, Gazprom promptly launched gas supplies to Ukraine’s southeast through border gas metering stations supplying 12 million cubic meters a day.
Kiev said it restored the damage in several hours and restarted gas supplies. Naztogas has refused to pay Gazprom for the gas supplied to eastern regions from February 19. The same day, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the country’s energy minister and the head of Gazprom to prepare proposals on fuel deliveries to Ukraine’s southeast regions.
Naftogaz has also accused Russia of breaking the agreement to deliver 114 million of cubic meters of natural gas to Ukraine by delivering only 47 million cubic meters.
According to Naftogas, since February 22 Gazprom has been fulfilling only 40 percent of its requests for pre-paid gas, yet the Ukrainian company plans to get 206 million cubic meters of pre-paid gas by the end of February, RIA-Novosti reported Wednesday.
By Natalia Zinets and Anton Zverev
Ukraine came under increasing economic pressure from a collapsing currency and a threat to its gas supplies from the Kremlin on Wednesday, just as a long-awaited ceasefire took hold in the east.
As the truce appeared to be coming into force, the Ukrainian army reported no combat fatalities in the past 24 hours, but the news did nothing to halt a currency slump that forced the central bank to ban most trading before intervening to prop up the hryvnia.
In rebel-held eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists were withdrawing heavy guns from the front. Kiev said it was too early to do likewise, but its acknowledgement that most of the front was quiet suggested it too could implement a truce that had appeared stillborn when the rebels launched a major offensive last week.
The cautious good news from the front has come amid dire economic consequences for a country teetering on bankruptcy.
With the hryvnia currency in free fall as investors flee, the central bank called a halt by banning nearly all commercial currency trading until the end of the week.
It later jumped into the market to buy dollars, reversing a free-fall in the hryvnia that it called "irrational".
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said the ban was bad for the economy. He had learned about it on the Internet and would demand an explanation from central bank chief Valeria Gontareva.
Gontareva said there was no fundamental reason for the panic in the currency market.
At the day's end the central bank announced it had bought $80 million at an official rate of 28.046 to the dollar, close to the rate at the start of the week and 12.8 percent higher than the close after a plunge on Tuesday.
Exchange kiosks in Kiev were selling limited amounts of dollars for 39 hryvnias, around 20 percent worse than rates advertised in the windows of commercial banks where dollars were not available.
A construction worker exchanging dollars at a kiosk in a grocery shop in return for a bag filled with thousands of hryvnia, laughed and told shoppers: "Soon we will have to walk around with suitcases for cash, like in the 1990s."
The hryvnia has lost at least half its value so far this year after halving over the course of 2014.
In a potential new blow, President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would halt gas supplies to Ukraine, for the fourth time in a decade, if Moscow did not receive advance payment.
That could disrupt flows to Europe, which receives around a third of its gas from Russia, with 40 percent shipped via Ukraine. However, Russia cut off gas to Ukraine for six months last year without affecting Europe.
Criticising Ukraine for cutting off gas to eastern regions under the control of the pro-Russian separatists, Putin said: "Imagine these people will be left without gas in winter. Not only that there is famine ... It smells of genocide."
"We hope ... that gas supplies will not be interrupted. But this does not depend only on us, it depends on the financial discipline of our Ukrainian partners," Putin said.
News that no Ukrainian troops had died at the front was by far the most unambiguous signal yet that the French- and German-brokered truce is now holding.
The rebels had initially spurned the ceasefire, insisting it did not apply to their main target, the town of Debaltseve, which they stormed last week.
Kiev has since accused the separatists of reinforcing for a possible further assault deeper into territory the Kremlin calls "New Russia". But for now, the fighters appear determined to be seen to implement the agreement.
Reuters journalists, operating independently in rebel-held territory, saw columns of howitzers driven away from the front in several locations on Wednesday after initial moves on Tuesday.
A column of 24 self-propelled howitzers headed away from the front through the city of Makiyvka adjacent to the main rebel stronghold, Donetsk. Another five were spotted driving away from the front near Yenakiyve, further north.
The rebels have promised that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will soon be able to verify that they have removed all heavy guns.
The OSCE says it cannot yet verify the withdrawal because the sides have not provided data on how many guns were in place before the truce. The European security body reported some shelling and shooting at various locations, including near Shyrokyne, a coastal town where Kiev has also reported fighting.
The Kiev military nevertheless said the number of ceasefire violations had "significantly decreased" for a second straight night. No shooting was recorded at all in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Mariupol areas, it said. Overall, rebels had fired shells and mortars 15 times and opened fire four times with light weapons during the 24-hour period.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said: "For now there is still no order on the withdrawal of weapons, as the fighters have not yet fulfilled the first point of the Minsk agreement, to cease fire."
Kiev fears the rebels, backed by Russian troops, may now be planning to capture Mariupol, a port of 500,000 people. Moscow denies aiding its sympathisers in east Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said additional sanctions against Russia were "teed up" should events in eastern Ukraine require a significant response.
Britain ruled out deploying combat troops to Ukraine, a day after it said it was sending 75 military trainers to help the Ukrainian army. Poland said it intended to send military instructors to train Ukrainian soldiers.
World governments failed to protect civilians from violence by states and armed groups, Amnesty International said Wednesday, calling the global response "shameful and ineffective."
In its annual report, the human rights watchdog called 2014 a "catastrophic" one for millions of people around the world.
"As people suffered an escalation in barbarous attacks and repression, the international community has been found wanting,'' Amnesty secretary general Salil Shetty said in a statement.
The report said millions of civilians suffered horrific violence and human rights violations from Syria to Ukraine, Gaza to Nigeria, while the number of displaced people around the world exceeded 50 million last year for the first time since the end of World War II.
It criticized the European Union's response to the 4 million Syrian refugees displaced by conflict in the world's worst refugee crisis. By the end of 2014, only 150,000 Syrian refugees were living in EU states, it said, while 3,400 refugees and migrants had died in the Mediterranean Sea trying to make their way to Europe.
"It is abhorrent to see how wealthy countries’ efforts to keep people out take precedence over their efforts to keep people alive," Shetty said.
Amnesty singled out the United Nations Security Council for criticism, with Shetty saying it had "miserably failed" to protect civilians.
UN Security Council
The five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. -- "consistently abused" their veto right to "promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians," he said.
The report pointed out that the threat of a Russian veto has made it impossible for the Security Council to take any action because of events unfolding in Ukraine.
Amnesty is now urging the five states to give up their right to veto action in cases where genocide and other mass killings are being committed.
The report said armed groups committed abuses in at least 35 countries -- out of 160 surveyed -- in 2014, and called the rise of the Islamic State militant group a particular concern.
The report said the Islamic State group committed wide-scale war crimes, including mass summary killings and abductions that targeted minorities.
The militants also killed members of the Sunni community they suspected of opposing them, the report said.
Hundreds of women and girls were subjected to sexual abuse by Islamic State fighters.
A huge number of arms were delivered to Iraq, Israel, Russia, South Sudan and Syria in 2014, despite the likelihood of these weapons being used against civilians, it said.
The report also highlighted how several governments, including Kenya and Pakistan, reacted to security threats with "Draconian and repressive" tactics.
Call to Action
Shetty said world leaders "have it in their power to alleviate the suffering of millions" by committing enough political and financial resources.
"The global outlook on the state of human rights is bleak, but there are solutions. World leaders must take immediate and decisive action to avert an impending global crisis," he said.
In 2014, Amnesty International recorded and investigated human rights abuses in 160 countries and territories worldwide. These are some of the findings:
* War crimes or other violations of the “laws of war” were carried out in at least 18 countries.
* Armed groups committed abuses in at least 35 countries, more than 20 percent of the countries Amnesty International investigated.
* 119 countries arbitrarily restricted freedom of expression, including jailing of journalists and forced closures of media outlets.
* 62 governments held prisoners of conscience -- people who were simply exercising their rights and freedoms.
* 93 countries conducted unfair trials.
* 131 countries tortured or otherwise ill-treated people.
* 28 countries around the world have laws that completely ban abortion even in cases where a woman’s life or health is in danger and in cases of rape.
* 78 countries have laws in effect that are used to criminalize consensual sexual relationships between adults of the same sex.
Source: Amnesty International
Rice says that politics had not been injected into the US-Israel relationship until Netanyahu's Congress invitation.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew met with the emir of Qatar and emphasized the importance of fighting "terror financing," amid suspicions that money from one of the key U.S. Middle East allies had gone to violent extremists in the region.
"(Secretary Lew) ... emphasized the vital importance of combating the financing of terrorism," Treasury said in a statement. "(Lew) expressed his hope that in the coming months ... the two nations can continue to work together to take effective, lasting action to disrupt the activities of terrorist financiers."
The emir of Qatar had previously met with U.S. President Barack Obama and said he is committed to fighting Islamic State. Qatar is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremist group, which controls a wide swath of territory in Syria and Iraq.
By Ruth Marcus
The most striking thing about interviewing Rula Ghani, the first lady of Afghanistan, may be that the interview is taking place at all.Consider: Zeenat Karzai, the physician wife of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, was rarely seen in public during her husband’s decade-long tenure.
Ghani, whose husband, Ashraf Ghani, became president last year, is a natural-born diplomat, careful to note the distinction between her situation (two grown children) and that of her younger predecessor. “We are in different phases of our lives,” said Rula Ghani, 66.
Zeenat Karzai herself once acknowledged the societal constraints against taking an active role as first lady. “He [Hamid Karzai] and I both know our country’s culture, traditions and the current state of affairs,” she explained in a rare 2013 BBC interview. “We need to take this into account.”
Ghani, raised in a Lebanese Maronite Christian family and educated in France, the United States and Lebanon (she and her husband met as students at the American University of Beirut), has adopted a decidedly different route. It began during the presidential race, when she campaigned alongside her husband, just once, on International Women’s Day.
“I told him, it’s kind of strange, here you’re going to be talking about women’s rights. . . . I think I should be there with you,” she recalled in an interview at the Afghan embassy in Washington. She not only appeared, but, at her husband’s suggestion, spoke, briefly, about women’s ability to use the skills developed in the household — educating, managing and peace-keeping — in a public capacity.
“For me it was really a no-brainer, and I was surprised by the reaction that people thought it was such a huge step,” Ghani told me.
She made news, again, during the inauguration, when her husband lavished praise on “my partner” for her work on behalf of Afghan women.
When they returned to Afghanistan in 2002 (Ashraf Ghani had been working here, for the World Bank) and her husband served as finance minister, she worked with an organization, Aschiana, that helps feed and educate street children. Bored out of her wits in the presidential palace, she decided to open her own office “to try and forge a role for myself,” advocating not only for women and girls but other vulnerable populations. She now has a staff of six.
This month found her on a solo two-week visit to the United States, with speeches at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University, appearances on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show” and “Morning Edition,” and visits with her American-born children (Mariam, a Brooklyn-based artist; and Tarek, a doctoral candidate in business at Berkeley).
In a Western democracy, the job of first lady is at once anachronistic and fraught — its occupant caught between competing conceptions of women’s roles. Multiply those tensions a thousand-fold in a developing, Muslim country such as Afghanistan, which simultaneously has quotas designed to ensure women’s representation in government and appalling practical restrictions on the ability of women and girls to obtain educations and live freely.
Ghani deftly threads the cultural needle, serving as a soft-spoken force for change while refraining from pushing too hard against societal norms. Thus, Ghani is happy to wear a headscarf when in Afghanistan but goes uncovered in the West.
“I’m now first lady and so I’m no longer myself, I have a responsibility to the rest of the women, and so if that’s the culture of the moment, I will abide by it,” Ghani said.
Similarly, she speaks not of feminism but of the family. “If I were a feminist, I would be talking about women’s rights left and right and annoying men and pushing their buttons,” Ghani said. “I have a very mild approach to things. It doesn’t mean that my commitments are not strong.”
To speak with Ghani is, also, inevitably to worry about the tenuous future facing girls and women in Afghanistan, as the U.S. presence recedes and her husband’s government weighs peace talks with the Taliban.
“We need to find solutions that include them,” Ghani said of the Taliban. “Certainly women’s rights will be a very important issue, and I don’t think that my husband will stand for any regression on that account, but this is their country, too.”
In the interim, she argues, women’s gains in education and the workplace need to be entrenched. “The women of today will not kneel in front of the Taliban,” she said. “But we can make [women] even stronger and then the question will be moot — totally moot.” Let us hope.