Category Archives: News

worldwide news

Capitol Hill Comes to Terms With Sexual Harassment Debate

From Hollywood to major media outlets, high-profile men are stepping down or being fired from their jobs for alleged sexual misconduct. The issue is now making headlines at the U.S. Capitol, where a wave of allegations is forcing out U.S. lawmakers from both political parties. VOA’s Congressional reporter Katherine Gypson has the latest from Capitol Hill.

US Economy Adding Jobs, But Employers Say Skills Gap is Rising

The U.S. economy posted another impressive month, adding 228,000 jobs in November. The unemployment rate, now at a 17-year low, remains unchanged at 4.1 percent. But even as more Americans returned to the workforce, job recruiters say the job market is changing and both employers and employees need to be prepared. Mil Arcega reports.

Protesters Lash Out at Trump Across Muslim World

Large crowds of protesters across the Muslim world staged anti-U.S. marches Friday after the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with protests in Gaza leading to the death of one Palestinian man.

The Palestinian, Mahmoud al-Masri, 30, was killed by Israeli soldiers during clashes along the Israel-Gaza border after Palestinians called for a “Day of Rage” to protest the U.S. action. The Israeli military confirmed that it shot two people in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, accusing them of being “main instigators” of “violent riots.”

Israeli warplanes also struck Hamas military targets in Gaza in response to a rocket fired from the area. The Palestinian health ministry said at least 15 people were injured in the strikes.

Demonstrations also took place Friday in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

The Arab League, comprised of nearly two dozen countries, will meet Saturday in an effort to create a joint position on the matter.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the United States plans to move its embassy there. Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital. The Palestinians want the eastern part of Jerusalem for its capital of a future independent state.

​Holy sites

Israel has added additional security forces in Jerusalem. In the past, Israel has imposed age restrictions at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound where violence often erupts during tense times.

Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said, “We have no indication there will be disturbances on the mount, therefore there is no age restriction. If there will be disturbances, then we will respond immediately.”

The site is known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. It is the holiest Jewish site and the third holiest in Islam.

The Islamist group Hamas, meanwhile, has called for an uprising against Israel.

​Decade of diplomacy defied

Trump’s announcement defies decades of diplomacy in the quest to bring peace to Israel. Jerusalem has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the quest and it was widely believed that a solution would be reached in the peace process negotiations.

The White House on Thursday denied that the president’s announcement on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem means his administration is pulling out of the Middle East peace process.

“In fact, in the president’s remarks, he said that we are as committed to the peace process as ever, and we want to continue to push forward in those conversations and those discussions,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “And hopefully the ultimate goal, I think, of all those parties is to reach a peace deal. And that’s something that the United States is very much committed to.”

No other country has immediately followed Trump’s lead in planning to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something the White House has acknowledged.

“I’m not aware of any countries that we anticipate that happening at any point soon,” Sanders said. “I’m not saying that they aren’t, but I’m not aware of them.”

The Russian ambassador in Israel, Alexander Shein, said Moscow could move its embassy to West Jerusalem “after the Palestinians and the Israelis agree on all issues of the final status of the Palestinian territories.”

The Russian foreign ministry, in a statement viewed as a surprise by Israelis, said it considers “East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

​To draw up plans

Trump, on Wednesday, said he was directing the State Department to immediately begin drawing up architectural plans for a U.S. embassy in the holy city. But the actual relocation of the U.S. embassy, however, would take years, according to White House officials.

“We have to acquire a site, we have to develop building plans, construction plans, as you point out, ensure we get the authorizations — although I do not anticipate any difficulties getting those authorizations. And then actually build an embassy,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday at a joint press conference with his French counterpart in Paris.

“So this is not something that is going to happen this year, probably not next year,” Tillerson added, also noting that Trump was careful to say in his speech Wednesday that recognition and moving the embassy do not indicate any final status for Jerusalem.

Both Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have expressed concern about the timing of Trump’s announcement, according to U.S. officials.

Asked by VOA whether the president’s declaration had been delayed at the request of the two Cabinet members in order to put into place adequate security at U.S. embassies, Sanders replied the decision was made only after “a thoughtful and responsible process” and that “components of the decision went through the full interagency process.”

Palestinian officials say Trump’s decision has disqualified the U.S. as an honest broker in the peace process. Many U.S. allies are also disagreeing with the move.

Robert Berger in Jerusalem, and Steve Herman at the White House contributed to this report.

Wind, Fire, Ash Destroy Much of California Avocado Crop

The wildfire that roared through the orchards of California’s Ventura County destroyed much of the region’s avocado crop not just with flames, but also with fierce Santa Ana winds and a thick blanket of ash.

With the so-called Thomas Fire just 10 percent contained by Friday afternoon, after blackening more than 132,000 acres across Ventura County and destroying some 400 homes and other structures, it is too soon to know the extent of the damage to the upcoming avocado harvest.

But experts say even the mostly family-owned orchards spared by the epic conflagration may have suffered devastating losses to their crops from the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that blow out of the California desert, knocking avocados from the trees with gusts up to 80 miles per hour. (129 kilometers per hour)

The fruit cannot be sold for human consumption once it is on the ground because of food safety regulations.

“A lot of that fruit everybody was looking forward to harvesting next year is laying on the ground,” said John Krist, chief executive of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

​Vulnerable to the wind

Avocados are the rare produce trees planted in hillside groves because of their shallow roots, said Ben Faber, a University of California farm adviser in Ventura. The fruit, typically harvested in February or March, is full-sized and heavy by December, held by a long stem.

Those factors make avocados, already growing away from their natural environment in Central and South America, more vulnerable to the whipping winds than the lemon orchards dotting the flatlands of Ventura, Faber said.

Lemons are also a lighter fruit with a shorter, sturdier stem. Ventura County is California’s largest growing region for both lemons and avocados. The state produces about 90 percent of the nation’s avocado crop and 80 percent of its lemons.

Delayed impact

Some avocado trees that do not appear to have been scorched could also reveal damage later, collapsing from internal heat damage. Fruit that did not burn or get blown off the branches may be sunburned by the loss of canopy.

Both lemon and avocado crops are also likely to suffer further from the thick coating of ash left by the Thomas Fire, which interferes with the natural enemy insects that hunt the pests feeding on the fruit trees. Those enemy insects are known to growers as “bio-controls.”

“When you get all this ash, they can’t do their jobs,” Faber said of the enemy insects. “That’s going to cause a disruption to the bio controls that’s going to go on for a year or more. So the impact of the fires is not all immediate.”

Unlike grapes at wineries in California’s Napa Valley wine-growing region hit by wildfires in October, however, avocados and lemons will not be affected by smoke from the fires because of their thick skins.

Experts said at the time that the delicate grapes, if exposed to sustained heavy smoke, could be vulnerable to “smoke taint,” which can alter their taste and aroma.

Prices not likely to rise

Consumers are not expected to see an impact on avocado prices because Ventura County is only a small piece of the worldwide production chain dominated by Mexico and South America, the farm bureau’s Krist said.

Avocado prices have been higher in most U.S. markets during the second half of 2017, according to the Hass Avocado Board, in part because of a poor harvest last year in the United States and Mexico.

The wildfire news didn’t have a major effect on the stock price of the Limoneira Company, the nation’s largest avocado grower, as shares closed essentially unchanged on Friday.

‘Worker Bee’ Round of NAFTA Talks to Focus on Easier Chapters

NAFTA trade negotiators convene in Washington next week for a limited round of talks unlikely to move the needle on major sticking points, but aimed at demonstrating some progress toward closing easier chapters.

Last month’s round of negotiations to update the North American Free Trade Agreement in Mexico City failed to resolve major differences, as Canada and Mexico pushed back on what they saw as unreasonable U.S. demands on automotive content rules, dispute settlement and a five-year sunset clause.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said that the United States wanted to see “meaningful progress” before year’s end.

The “intersessional” meetings in a Washington hotel come with lower expectations and without trade ministers from the three countries, who are due to attend a World Trade Organization meeting in Buenos Aires.

Some lobbyists and trade experts said that chapters with the best chances of showing progress were among those that Canada and Mexico had agreed to create or update in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal: digital trade, food safety, state-owned enterprises and telecommunications.

NAFTA negotiators have not closed any chapters since completing talks on competition policy and small-medium enterprises in late September. Talks have since been dominated by U.S. demands, such as for half of all North American automotive content to be produced in the United States.

Less rhetoric, more substance

“The intersessional could be a chance to turn the temperature down,” said Max Baucus, a former U.S. senator who chairs Farmers for Free Trade, a coalition of U.S. farm sector groups. “This should be a round for the worker bees, with less rhetoric and more concrete negotiations.”

A senior Canadian government source said no progress would be made on the most contentious issues at the Washington talks.

Separately, Canada’s chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, said the U.S. “extreme proposals” were proving very hard to deal with.

“We will not accept U.S. proposals that would fundamentally weaken the benefits of NAFTA for Canada and undermine the competitiveness of the North American market in relation to the rest of the world,” Verheul told Canadian lawmakers this week.

The Washington meetings follow stepped-up lobbying efforts by NAFTA backers in the United States to warn against the dangers of withdrawing from the nearly 24-year-old trade pact.

Top Detroit auto executives met with Vice President Mike Pence, and pro-trade Republican senators met with President Donald Trump.

Moises Kalach, the head of Mexico’s CCE business lobby and a government consultant, said that the United States would need to back off from some of its “extreme” positions for compromises to be made.

“We’re ready to dance. The question is whether the American government is willing to do so,” Kalach told Reuters.

First Black Astronaut Honored on 50th Anniversary of Death

AP Photo NY560, NY561, NY562

America’s first black astronaut, Air Force Maj. Robert Lawrence Jr., finally got full honors Friday on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Several hundred people gathered at Kennedy Space Center to commemorate Lawrence, who almost certainly would have gone on to fly in space had he not died in a plane crash on Dec. 8, 1967.

The crowd included NASA dignitaries, astronauts, fellow Omega Psi Phi fraternity members, schoolchildren, and relatives of Lawrence and other astronauts who have died in the line of duty.

Lawrence was part of a classified military space program in the 1960s called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, meant to spy on the Soviet Union. He died when his F-104 Starfighter crashed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He was 32.

Astronauts at Friday’s two-hour ceremony said Lawrence would have gone on to fly NASA’s space shuttles and that, after his death, he inspired all the African-American astronauts who followed him. 

 Like Lawrence, Robert Crippen was part of the Air Force’s program. It was canceled in 1969 without a single manned spaceflight, prompting Crippen and other astronauts to move on to NASA. Crippen was pilot of the first space shuttle flight in 1981.

With a doctoral degree in physical chemistry — a rarity among test pilots — Lawrence was “definitely on the fast track,” Crippen said. He graduated from high school at age 16 and college at 20.

“He had a great future ahead of him if he had not been lost 50 years ago today,” Crippen said.

Lawrence paved the way for Guy Bluford, who became the first African-American in space in 1983, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space in 1992, and Charles Bolden Jr., a space shuttle commander who became NASA’s first black administrator in 2009. Next year, the International Space Station is getting its first African-American resident: NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps.

Another former African-American astronaut, Winston Scott, said his own shuttle rides into orbit would not have happened if not for a trailblazers like Lawrence. In tribute to Lawrence, a jazz lover, Scott and his jazz band serenaded the crowd with “Fly Me to the Moon” and other tunes.

Lawrence’s sister, Barbara, a retired educator, said he considered himself the luckiest man in the world for being able to combine the two things he loved most: chemistry and flying.

Lawrence’s name was etched into the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space Mirror at Kennedy for the 30th anniversary of his death in 1997, following a long bureaucratic struggle. It took years for the Air Force to recognize Lawrence as an astronaut, given he’d never flown as high as the 1960s-required altitude of 50 miles.

The Space Mirror Memorial bears the names of two other African-Americans: Ronald McNair, who died aboard space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and Michael Anderson, who died on shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Marsalis Walton, 11, who drove from Tampa with his father, Sam, came away inspired. He dreams of becoming an astronaut.

“It feels good that everyone has a chance to do anything,” the boy said.

From Poles to Filipinos? UK Food Industry Needs Post-Brexit Workers

Britons who voted for Brexit in the hope of slashing immigration seem set for disappointment. In the farming and food industries at least, any exodus of Polish and Romanian workers may simply be followed by arrivals of Ukrainians and Filipinos.

From dairy farms to abattoirs, employers say not enough Britons have an appetite for milking cows before dawn or disemboweling pig carcasses — jobs often performed by workers from the poorer, eastern member states of the European Union.

With unemployment at a four-decade low of 4.3 percent, even Brexit supporters acknowledge the industries will need some migrant workers after Britain leaves the EU in 2019, ending the automatic right of the bloc’s citizens to work in the country.

Employers praise eastern European staff for their skills and work ethic.

“They are a massively valuable part of our work force and a massively valuable part of the food industry overall,” said Adam Couch, chief executive of Cranswick plc, a meat processing group founded by pig farmers.

Food and drink is the largest U.K. manufacturing sector, with a turnover of 110 billion pounds ($147 billion) in 2015, government figures show. Much of it depends heavily on staff from elsewhere in the EU, mainly the post-communist east.

For example, the British Meat Processors Association says 63 percent of workers in the sector come from other EU countries, and in some plants it can be as high as 80 percent.

The proportion has risen partly due to increased demand for more labor-intensive products such as boneless meat.

Association members have found it impossible to recruit the additional employees needed from Britain, the BMPA says.

Pro-Brexit campaigners say Britain needs to reduce its reliance on EU workers.

“Our sights should be firmly set on raising the skill level of our own domestic workers, employing domestic whenever we possibly can and automating,” said Owen Paterson, a member of parliament for the ruling Conservatives.

But Paterson, who as a former Environment Secretary was responsible for U.K. agricultural policy from 2012-14, added: “Where there is a clear shortage and no technological solution, by all means bring in labor but the good news is we wouldn’t be limited to the EU. We will have the whole world to choose from.”

‘Money for a month’

On the meat production line, Romanian Dumidru Voicu explained the attractions of working at Cranswick’s plant in Milton Keynes, a town northwest of London.

“I just want to do something with my life, save some money and make my own business. The money for a week here is the money for a month in Romania,” said Voicu, who arrived in the country about the time that Britons voted to leave the EU in June last year.

An estimated 27,000 permanent staff from elsewhere in the EU worked in British agriculture last year, House of Commons staff noted in a briefing paper for members of parliament. This figure is swollen at times by around 75,000 seasonal workers.

A further 116,000 EU citizens worked in food manufacturing.

The Food and Drink Federation predicts the sector, which employs about 400,000 people, needs to recruit another 140,000 by 2024.

The government, which wants to reduce immigration sharply, has yet to announce its post-Brexit policy but farm minister George Eustice has recognized employers’ concerns. “Leaving the EU and establishing controlled migration does not mean closing off all immigration,” he told parliament in earlier this year.

However, a government document leaked in September showed that restrictions for all but the highest-skilled EU workers were under consideration.

Such a possibility alarms farm employers. “Without EU labor there will be no British pig industry as we know it,” said Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association.

British farmers have relied on foreign labor for a long time, at least around harvest time. A Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was introduced shortly after World War II.

The government ended it in 2013 before Romanians and Bulgarians won the automatic right to work in Britain, arguing that there were now enough EU workers to fill farm vacancies.

With EU citizens to lose that right on Brexit, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) wants the scheme — or something similar — reinstated. This may mean going back to the time when people from beyond eastern Europe filled farm jobs.

Michael Oakes, chairman of the dairy board at the NFU, says older colleagues remember when people from countries such as the Philippines worked on British farms.

“There are other countries in the world that would help to solve the problem but at the moment because they are not within the EU they are not necessarily able to come in and work.”

Filipinos already work on New Zealand farms but such an idea could prove politically difficult in Britain as the pro-Brexit side fought the referendum on promises to curb immigration.

Many of the 17 million Britons who voted to leave are likely to be unhappy if they find eastern Europeans simply replaced by non-EU workers such as Filipinos or Ukrainians.

“Perhaps we need to broaden out the opportunities but a lot of people voted for Brexit because of immigration reasons, so it is a tricky one for the government,” said Oakes.

Making sacrifices

Any new seasonal plan could still recruit in the EU, but might be forced to widen its scope to get the required numbers.

Net migration to the UK fell to 230,000 in the year to June, far from the government’s ambition of arrivals “in the tens of thousands”. Still, EU citizens accounted for three quarters of the 106,000 drop, the Office for National Statistics reported.

The figures present a mixed picture, with a net 20,000 Poles leaving the country in 2016 but 50,000 Romanians arriving.

But some eastern Europeans say they feel less welcome since the referendum and resent the negative attitude of some Britons.

“I was quite upset. Why do you have a problem with me if I am coming to take a job you don’t want and I am paying tax?” said Zoltan Peter, who came to England in 2009 to work on a dairy farm in western England, initially leaving his wife and baby daughter at home in Romania.

Peter now works as a regional manager for LKL, a firm which recruits workers to the dairy industry, but says the early years were not easy. “I didn’t catch my daughter starting to talk, but you sometimes you make sacrifices and eastern European people are making sacrifices,” he told Reuters.

A drop in sterling since the referendum has also made Britain less attractive for farm workers who earn at least 7.20 pounds an hour. That was worth 41 Polish zlotys before the vote but now it buys only 34.

Part of the answer may lie in a drive to recruit and train more British workers, despite Peter’s doubts.

Oakes said he needed people prepared to work long, unsocial hours often in cold, wet conditions. Milking on his farm starts at 4.30 a.m. and the day does not end until 8 p.m. “It is an early start or a late finish, and occasionally on bad days you might have to do both,” he said.

Pentagon ‘Deeply Committed’ to Laws of War as ICC Considers Investigation

The Pentagon has reasserted its commitment to complying with the laws of war, after news emerged that the International Criminal Court is seeking an investigation into alleged war crimes by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Pentagon spokesman Mike Andrews, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, told VOA on Friday that the United States is “deeply committed to complying with the law of war, and we have a robust national system of investigation and accountability that more than meets international standards.”

Andrews was replying to a move by ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in November requesting judicial authorization to investigate the alleged misconduct by members of the U.S. military and Central Intelligence Agency.

The alleged war crimes by U.S. personnel are centered on reports from secret detention facilities in Afghanistan and on the territory of other states who are party to the ICC, particularly between 2003 and 2004.

Andrews said the U.S. objects to such an investigation, specifying that “we do not believe that an International Criminal Court examination or investigation with respect the actions of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan is warranted or appropriate.”

Meanwhile, a defense official told VOA that the United States has never consented to be under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, meaning it is not obligated to comply with the court’s actions.

“The U.S. has a longstanding and continuing objection in principal to any ICC assertion of jurisdiction over U.S. personnel,” the official said.

Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor, requested permission from the ICC judges on November 20 to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the ongoing armed conflict in Afghanistan. The court has been examining the situation in Afghanistan since 2006.

ICC origins

The International Criminal Court began operations in 2002 and was designed to be permanent and independent of national governments as it investigated war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

While it has the support of small- and medium-power states, world powers such as the United States, Russia and China have been reluctant to sign on. The United States has specifically passed legislation prohibiting U.S. support of the ICC. Those laws authorize Washington to use “any means necessary” to repatriate U.S. citizens detained by the court.

The U.S. also has diplomatic immunity agreements with some nations in which they agree not to turn U.S. citizens over to the ICC. The court is investigating situations in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Kenya, Libya, Mali and Uganda.

The ICC Office of the Prosecutor is conducting preliminary examinations in nine other situations: Afghanistan; Colombia; Gabon; Guinea; Iraq/the United Kingdom; Nigeria; Palestine; registered vessels of Comoros, Greece, and Cambodia; and Ukraine.

UN Calls on Social Media Giants to Control Platforms Used to Lure African Migrants

The U.N. migration agency called on social media giants Friday to make it harder for people smugglers to use their platforms to lure West African migrants to Libya where they can face detention, torture, slavery or death.

The smugglers often use Facebook to reach would-be migrants with false promises of jobs in Europe, International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Leonard Doyle said.

When migrants are tortured, video is also sometimes sent back to their families over WhatsApp, as a means of extortion, he said.

“We really … ask social media companies to step up and behave in a responsible way when people are being lured to deaths, to their torture,” Doyle told a Geneva news briefing.

There were no immediate replies from Facebook or WhatsApp to requests by Reuters for comment.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe since 2014, and 3,091 have died en route this year alone, many after passing through Libya.

This year, 165,000 migrants have entered Europe, about 100,000 fewer than all of last year, but the influx has presented a political problem for European countries.

Who ‘polices’ pages?

IOM has been in discussions with social media providers about its concerns, Doyle said, adding: “And so far to very little effect. What they say is, ‘Please tell us the pages and we will shut them down.’

“It is not our job to police Facebook’s pages. Facebook should police its own pages,” he said.

Africa represents a big and expanding market for social media, but many people are unemployed and vulnerable, he said.

“Facebook is pushing out, seeking market share across West Africa and pushing out so-called free basics, which allows … a ‘dumb phone’ to get access to Facebook. So you are one click from the smuggler, one click from the lies,” he said.

Social media companies are “giving a turbocharged communications channel to criminals, to smugglers, to traffickers, to exploiters,” he added.

Images broadcast by CNN last month appeared to show migrants being auctioned off as slaves by Libyan traffickers. This sparked anger in Europe and Africa and highlighted the risks migrants face.

Doyle called for social media companies to invest in civic-minded media outreach and noted that on Google, pop-up windows appear if a user is looking at pornography images, to warn of danger or criminality.

The IOM has helped 13,000 migrants to return voluntarily to Nigeria, Guinea and other countries from Libya this year. It provides them with transport and pocket money and documents their often harrowing testimonies.

Doyle said it was currently repatriating 4,000 migrants to Niger. Switzerland said Friday that it was willing to take in up to 80 refugees in Libya in need of protection, among 5,000 who the U.N. refugee agency says are in a precarious position.