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November 19, 2018

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party fired six ministers on Monday as the beleaguered party chairman sought to tighten his grip on the government. Social Democrat chairman Liviu Dragnea has come under fire for his management style and corruption convictions, but has vowed to continue as party leader even though he can’t be prime minister because of a conviction in 2016 for vote-rigging.

During a meeting, the party voted to fire the transport, economy, labor, culture, development, sports and communication ministers. Dragnea ally Lia Olguta Vasilescu switched from the labor to the transport ministry, while the others lost their ministerial posts. The defense minister resigned earlier Monday.

Premier Viorica Dancila said the changes were necessary because “we have to respond to new challenges … both in the government and also as we (prepare) to take over the European Union presidency on Jan. 1.”

Dancila, who has little executive power, thanked the previous ministers and explained why the party’s new ministerial proposals were suitable. Dragnea who effectively runs the government said Monday’s decisions were “political and managerial.”

He was handed a 3½-year sentence in June for abuse of power in office, which he has appealed. In a boost for Dragnea, the party approved his ally, Codrin Stefanescu, as the new party secretary. He has been extremely critical about European Union commissioner Corina Cretu, a Romanian Social Democrat who has castigated the government for failing to absorb EU funds.

Earlier, Defense Minister Mihai Fifor and Bucharest Mayor Gabriela Firea resigned their positions to avoid being fired. Fifor said he would dedicate himself to helping the party win the 2020 parliamentary election.

Victor Ponta, a former prime minister and the party chairman before Dragnea, called the new government “a combination of professional incompetence, no backbone and unclean business with public money.”

Firea, who has accused Dragnea of running the party in an underhand and arbitrary manner, resigned as acting leader of the party’s Bucharest branch following reports that the party was poised to remove her. She later said she no longer held two other executive positions in the party.

“It is revenge,” she said. “Dragnea wanted to get rid of me.”

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November 24, 2018

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Tensions in Kosovo rose again Friday after police arrested three ethnic Serbs, including two police officers, on suspicion of involvement in the killing earlier this year of a leading Serb politician in the north of the country.

The three men were arrested in the Serb-dominated town of Mitrovica, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the capital, Pristina, as suspects in the January slaying of Oliver Ivanovic, police said in a statement. A fourth Serb was arrested for resisting police. A fifth person is still at large, police said.

Police said they seized evidence for the investigation into Ivanovic’s killing during raids in four locations. Police showed photos of a drone, automatic weapons and ammunition and other equipment found in the raids.

Prosecutor Syle Hoxha said they have questioned more than 40 witnesses to date in the case. Nobody has yet been charged in the slaying. Thousands of Serbs protested in Kosovo towns, some blocking all main roads leading to Northern Mitrovica, as well as several border posts with Serbia. No violence was immediately reported.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians fought a bloody war with Serbia from 1998-1999 which ended with a 78-day NATO air campaign in June 1999. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 which Belgrade still refuses to recognize.

Earlier this week, tensions soared after Kosovo failed to become a member of the international police organization, Interpol, following intense lobbying by Serbia. Kosovo slapped a 100 percent tax on goods imported from Serbia in apparent retaliation.

In Belgrade, Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic said the arrests were a “demonstration of force” that he said was designed to frighten the Serbs in Kosovo and avert attention from the taxes that Kosovo imposed in violation of a regional trade agreement.

“We must prepare ourselves for long-term support for our people (in Kosovo) that won’t be easy, simple or cheap,” said Vucic. “Serbia will not agree to new rules and new blackmail against our country and our people.”

Vucic spoke after a meeting with the members of the Serbian government. He held meetings earlier on Friday with security officials and the ambassadors or Russia and China, Serbia’s allies in its refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s Cabinet appealed for calm and said the police operation was not linked to any political development. NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, a force known as KFOR, also urged calm and said “there was no unlawful operation or military action and there has never been any threat to safety and security of the citizens.”

KFOR said in a statement that the situation “remains stable and under control on the ground,” but acknowledged rising tensions “at political level due to some international and economic developments.”

Haradinaj met with ambassadors of Western powers including the United States, Britain, Germany, and France, for talks on the country’s situation and to explain the tax on Serb and Bosnian goods. Ethnic Serb leaders in Kosovo also called for calm and asked Serbia and the international community to assist them.

Goran Rakic, mayor of Northern Mitrovica, told The Associated Press that ethnic Serb leaders had formed a crisis center and called on the international community and Serbia for help. He said he had talked by phone with Vucic.

Vucic’s adviser Nikola Selakovic said the arrests of four Serbs in Kosovo were designed to “spread fear, intimidate and demonstrate force” against the Serbs in Kosovo. “This is a game of nerves, a walk on thin line. The goal is to provoke our reaction which would be immediately used for measures against us,” Selakovic said.

Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia. Bojan Slavkovic contributed from Northern Mitrovica.

By Lorraine Chow

Nov. 23, 2018

Ireland’s landmark Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill passed the Seanad, or upper house, on Thursday, putting the Emerald Isle on track to become the first country in the world to divest from fossil fuel-related funds.

The bill—which requires the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund to sell off about €318 million ($361 million) investments in coal, oil, gas and peat assets over a five year period—now heads to President Michael D. Higgins for signature, where it will likely become law by the end of the year, according to the Irish Times.

Alice-Mary Higgins, an Independent Senator and the president’s daughter, was jubilant about the bill’s “swift passage” in the Seanad.

President Higgins told Green News in July that Ireland has a role in tackling climate change. He said the bill, first introduced by independent Donegal Deputy Thomas Pringle in 2016, was “greatly” needed and a “testament to cross-party cooperation and support.”

“While we are a small nation, we have a huge impact on the most vulnerable citizens in the world. It’s morally imperative that we urgently respond to climate change as it’s those most vulnerable who cannot afford to wait for us to act accordingly,” he added.

The bill’s passage is a major step for Ireland, which ranks last among European Union countries in the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index.

Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan welcomed the final passage of the bill.

“Ireland can finally hold its head up high on an issue of climate policy, as the first country in the world to put a national divestment strategy into place,” O’Sullivan said in a press release. “This bill will help protect us from climate change, will allow us to stand as an example to the world and protect Irish tax payers from massive losses as the world moves to a post-carbon future.”

Source: EcoWatch.

Link: https://www.ecowatch.com/ireland-fossil-fuels-divestment-2621293680.html.

November 21, 2018

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday rejected calls from nationalist lawmakers for Germany to drop its support for a U.N.-backed agreement on migration. Several countries — including the United States, Hungary, Austria, Israel, Australia and Poland — have announced they won’t back the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, set to be approved next month in Marrakech, Morocco.

Speaking during parliament’s annual budget debate in Berlin, Merkel told lawmakers that the pact would ensure “reasonable conditions” elsewhere that already exist in Germany, such as the right for migrants to access health services and get financial support.

“That’s why it’s in our national interest that the conditions around the world, for refugees on the one hand and migrants on the other, are improved,” Merkel said. Opposition to the pact has come mainly from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, but a number of lawmakers from Merkel’s own party have also begun to question the agreement.

Health Minister Jens Spahn called recently for a broader debate about the pact and, if necessary, for a delay in approving it. Spahn appears to be trailing other high-profile candidates in a bid to succeed Merkel as leader of her Christian Democratic Union party next month.

One of the leading contenders, Friedrich Merz, called Wednesday night for a clarification that the U.N. pact won’t create any new grounds for asylum “through the back door.” At an event in eastern Germany with the other candidates, Merz also advocated a wider discussion on how the right to asylum in Germany is defined.

Merkel, who has announced she won’t run for a fifth term in 2021, said the migration pact is an example of the way in which global problems can only be solved through international cooperation. Amid a rise in nationalist sentiment around the world, Merkel has become one of the most vocal defenders of multilateralism, frequently noting that Germany owes its revival after World War II to institutions such as the European Union and United Nations.

Presenting her government’s 356 billion-euro ($407-billion) budget for 2019, Merkel cited plans to invest more in care for children and the elderly, improve integration of migrants, raise pension levels and boost renewable energy.

Alternative for Germany’s co-leader, Alice Weidel, earlier accused Merkel’s government of spending “without thinking about tomorrow.” Weidel used much of her speech to defend her party over its receipt of foreign donations and accuse rivals of having similarly dubious sources of income.

Merkel didn’t respond to Weidel’s comments about party funding.

November 21, 2018

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel says it’s in Germany’s interest to support a U.N. agreement on migration that countries such as the United States, Hungary and Poland have rejected. Merkel told lawmakers Wednesday that the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration would ensure many of the conditions that already exist in Germany.

German officials hope the non-binding pact, due to be approved next month in Marrakech, Morocco, will reduce the flow of migrants to Germany by ensuring that they can expect humane conditions elsewhere, too.

Merkel used her budget speech to emphasize the importance of international cooperation, noting that Germany owes its revival after World War II in part to multilateral institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations.

November 24, 2018

PARIS (AP) — French police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse violent demonstrators in Paris on Saturday, as thousands gathered in the capital and beyond and staged road blockades to vent anger against rising fuel taxes.

Thousands of police were deployed nationwide to contain the eighth day of deadly demonstrations that started as protests against tax but morphed into a rebuke of President Emmanuel Macron and the perceived elitism of France’s ruling class. Two people have been killed since Nov. 17 in protest-related tragedies.

Tense clashes on the Champs-Elysees on Saturday saw police face off with demonstrators who burned plywood, wielded placards reading “Death to Taxes” and upturned a large vehicle. At least eight people, including two police officers, were injured in the day of unrest across France, according to authorities. Police said that dozens of protesters were arrested or detained in Paris for “throwing projectiles,” among other acts. In the Place de la Madeleine, scooters were burned to blackened shells.

“It’s going to trigger a civil war and me, like most other citizens, we’re all ready,” said Benjamin Vrignaud, a 21-year-old protester from Chartres. “They take everything from us. They steal everything from us,” said 21-year-old Laura Cordonnier.

The famed avenue was speckled with plumes of smoke and neon — owing to the color of the vests the self-styled “yellow jacket” protesters don. French drivers are required to keep neon security vests in their vehicles.

Authorities said that 5,000 protesters flooded the Champs-Elysees at the demonstration’s peak that had dwindled by dusk. There were nearly 81,000 protesters in total nationwide. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner denounced protesters from the far-right whom he called “rebellious,” as he accused National Assembly leader Marine Le Pen of encouraging them.

But the Interior Ministry played down the scale of Saturday’s demonstrations by highlighting that up to 244,000 people took part in last Saturday’s protest. The unrest is proving a major challenge for embattled Macron, who’s suffering in the polls.

The leader, who swept to power only last year, is the focus of rage for the “yellow jacket” demonstrators who accuse the pro-business centrist of elitism and indifference to the struggles of ordinary French.

Macron has so far held strong and insisted the fuel tax rises are a necessary pain to reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels and fund renewable energy investments — a cornerstone of his reforms of the nation. He will defend fresh plans to make the “energy transition” easier next week.

Paris deployed some 3,000 security forces on Saturday, notably around tourist-frequented areas, after an unauthorized attempt last week to march on the presidential Elysee Palace. Police officials said that a no-go zone, set up around key areas including the presidential palace and the National Assembly on the Left Bank of the Seine River, has not been breached.

But authorities are struggling because the movement has no clear leader and has attracted a motley group of people with broadly varying demands. The anger is mainly over a hike in the diesel fuel tax, which has gone up seven euro cents per liter (nearly 30 U.S. cents per gallon) and will keep climbing in coming years, according to Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne. The tax on gasoline is also to increase four euro cents. Gasoline currently costs about 1.64 euros a liter in Paris ($7.06 a gallon), slightly more than diesel.

Far left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon explained to BFMTV the historical importance of this issue in the Gallic mindset: “When tax is no longer agreed to, it’s the start of revolutions in France.”

Chris Den Hond and Patrick Hermensen contributed to this report.

November 23, 2018

PARIS (AP) — African artworks held in French museums — richly carved thrones, doors to a royal kingdom, wooden statues imbued with spiritual meaning — may be heading back home to Africa at last. French President Emmanuel Macron, trying to turn the page on France’s colonial past , received a report Friday on returning art looted from African lands.

From Senegal to Ethiopia, artists, governments and museums eagerly awaited the report by French art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron himself.

It recommends that French museums give back works that were taken without consent, if African countries request them — and could increase pressure on museums elsewhere in Europe to follow suit. The experts estimate that up to 90 percent of African art is outside the continent, including statues, thrones and manuscripts. Thousands of works are held by just one museum, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, opened in 2006 to showcase non-European art — much of it from former French colonies. The museum wouldn’t immediately comment on the report.

Among disputed treasures in the Quai Branly are several works from the Dahomey kingdom, in today’s West African country of Benin: the metal-and-wood throne of 19th-century King Ghezo, the doors to the palace of Kign Gele, and imposing, wooden statues.

The head of Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Yonas Desta, said the report shows “a new era of thought” in Europe’s relations with Africa. Senegal’s culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, told The Associated Press: “It’s entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks. … These works were taken in conditions that were perhaps legitimate at the time, but illegitimate today.”

The report is just a first step. Challenges ahead include enforcing the report’s recommendations, especially if museums resist, and determining how objects were obtained and whom to give them to. The report is part of broader promises by Macron to turn the page on France’s troubled relationship with Africa. In a groundbreaking meeting with students in Burkina Faso last year, Macron stressed the “undeniable crimes of European colonization” and said he wants pieces of African cultural heritage to return to Africa “temporarily or definitively.”

“I cannot accept that a large part of African heritage is in France,” he said at the time. The French report could have broader repercussions. In Cameroon, professor Verkijika Fanso, historian at the University of Yaounde One, said: “France is feeling the heat of what others will face. Let their decision to bring back what is ours motivate others.”

Germany has worked to return art seized by the Nazis, and in May the organization that coordinates that effort, the German Lost Art Foundation, said it was starting a program to research the provenance of cultural objects collected during the country’s colonial past.

Britain is also under pressure to return art taken from its former colonies. In recent months, Ethiopian officials have increased efforts to secure the return of looted artifacts and manuscripts from museums, personal collections and government institutions across Britain, including valuable items taken in the 1860s after battles in northern Ethiopia, Yonas said.

In Nigeria, a group of bronze casters over the years has strongly supported calls for the return of artifacts taken from the Palace of the Oba of Benin in 1897 when the British raided it. The group still uses their forefathers’ centuries-old skills to produce bronze works in Igun Street, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Eric Osamudiamen Ogbemudia, secretary of the Igun Bronze Casters Union in Benin City, said: “It was never the intention of our fathers to give these works to the British. It is important that we get them back so as to see what our ancestors left behind.”

Ogbemudia warned the new French report should not remain just a “recommendation merely to make Africans to calm down. “Let us see the action.”

Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Babacar Dione in Dakar, Senegal; Sam Olukoya in Lagos, Nigeria; Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali; Edwin Kindzeka Moki in Yaounde, Cameroon, and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

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