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Biden administration aims to clean up power sector with revamped rules

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday announced it has finalized rules targeting carbon, air and water pollution from power plants that

it says could cut over 1 billion metric tons from carbon emissions by 2047 even as demand for electricity grows.

The Environmental Protection Agency tightened a proposal to slash carbon emissions from existing coal and new gas plants, and updated and finalized long-standing rules to reduce mercury and toxic air pollutants and clean up wastewater and coal ash discharge.

“EPA is cutting pollution while ensuring that power companies can make smart investments and continue to deliver reliable electricity for all Americans,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Regan had said in 2022 he intended to take on several regulations together to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, and help states, utilities and plant operators make better investment and plant retirement decisions.

The new rules come as electric utilities brace for a spike in demand from data centers powering technology like generative AI, as well as from the growth of electric vehicles.

The United States is projected this year to add more electric generation capacity than it has done in two decades, with 96% being clean energy, White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi told reporters.

Among the changes the EPA made to the carbon rule is dropping hydrogen as a “best system of emission reduction” for gas plants to achieve new standards.

Now it is just carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) that could be used for the longest-running existing coal units and new gas turbines that run more than 40% of the time. The EPA initially proposed that the standards apply to plants that run more than 50% of the time.

The agency also said coal plants that plan to run past 2039 will be required to install CCS technology starting in 2032 in the final rule. It had initially proposed requiring CCS for plants that will be running past 2040.

The Edison Electric Institute, an investor-owned utility trade group, said it appreciated EPA’s approach of bundling the different pollution rules to ease compliance, but was disappointed the agency didn’t heed its concerns around CCS viability.

“CCS is not yet ready for full-scale, economy-wide deployment, nor is there sufficient time to permit, finance, and build the CCS infrastructure needed for compliance by 2032,” EEI President Dan Brouillette said.

Regan told reporters the agency was confident in the technology, which has been bolstered by Inflation Reduction Act tax incentives, and support from “multiple power companies.”

The agency also said it has launched a process to get feedback on how to reduce carbon emissions from existing gas plants. The EPA removed coverage of existing gas plants from the initial proposal last month and gave no new timeline for developing a rule to cover the current fleet.

The EPA also reduced mercury emissions limits for lignite coal plants by 70% and emissions limits associated with toxic metals by 67%, the first update of that rule since 2012, while also finalizing measures that would eliminate 660 million pounds of pollution per year being discharged into U.S. waterways and protect communities from coal ash contamination.

Environmental groups praised the rules for helping to drive down power sector emissions alongside the IRA, putting the administration closer to its goal of net-zero emissions in the sector by 2035.

“The age of unbridled climate pollution from power plants is over,” said Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, top Republican on the Senate environment committee, said she plans to introduce a resolution aiming to overturn the rules.

“President Biden has inexplicably doubled down on his plans to shut down the backbone of America’s electric grid through unachievable regulatory mandates,” she said.

US police clash with students who demand colleges cut financial ties to Israel

austin, texas — Police tangled with student demonstrators in the U.S. states of Texas and California while new encampments sprouted Wednesday at Harvard and other colleges as school leaders sought ways to defuse a growing wave of pro-Palestinian protests.

At the University of Texas at Austin, hundreds of local and state police — including some on horseback and holding batons — clashed with protesters, pushing them off the campus lawn and at one point sending some tumbling into the street. At least 20 demonstrators were taken into custody at the request of university officials and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

A photographer covering the demonstration for Fox 7 Austin was arrested after being caught in a push-and-pull between law enforcement and students, the station confirmed. A longtime Texas journalist was knocked down in the mayhem and could be seen bleeding before police helped him to emergency medical staff who bandaged his head.

At the University of Southern California, police got into a back-and-forth tugging match with protesters over tents, removing several before falling back. At the northern end of California, students were barricaded inside a building for a third day at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. The school shut down campus through the weekend and made classes virtual.

Harvard University in Massachusetts had sought to stay ahead of protests this week by limiting access to Harvard Yard and requiring permission for tents and tables. That didn’t stop protesters from setting up a camp with 14 tents Wednesday following a rally against the university’s suspension of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling its monthslong conflict. Dozens have been arrested on charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

Columbia University averted another confrontation between students and police earlier in the day. The situation there remained tense, with campus officials saying it would continue talks with protesters for another 48 hours.

On a visit to campus, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, called on Columbia University President Minouche Shafik to resign “if she cannot bring order to this chaos.”

“If this is not contained quickly and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard,” he said.

Shafik had set a midnight Tuesday deadline to reach an agreement on clearing an encampment, but the school extended negotiations, saying it was making “important progress.”

On Wednesday evening, a Columbia spokesperson said rumors that the university had threatened to bring in the National Guard were unfounded. “Our focus is to restore order, and if we can get there through dialogue, we will,” said Ben Chang, Columbia’s vice president for communications.

Columbia graduate student Omer Lubaton Granot, who put up pictures of Israeli hostages near the encampment, said he wanted to remind people that there were more than 100 hostages still being held by Hamas.

“I see all the people behind me advocating for human rights,” he said. “I don’t think they have one word to say about the fact that people their age, that were kidnapped from their homes or from a music festival in Israel, are held by a terror organization.”

Harvard law student Tala Alfoqaha, who is Palestinian, said she and other protesters want more transparency from the university.

“My hope is that the Harvard administration listens to what its students have been asking for all year, which is divestment, disclosure and dropping any sort of charges against students,” she said.

Columbia encampment inspires others

Police first tried to clear the encampment at Columbia last week, when they arrested more than 100 protesters. The move backfired, acting as an inspiration for other students across the country to set up similar encampments and motivating protesters at Columbia to regroup.

On Wednesday about 60 tents remained at the Columbia encampment, which appeared calm. Security remained tight around campus, with identification required and police setting up metal barricades.

Columbia said it had agreed with protest representatives that only students would remain at the encampment and they would make it welcoming, banning discriminatory or harassing language.

On the University of Minnesota campus, a few dozen students rallied a day after nine protesters were arrested when police took down an encampment in front of the library. U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was among the demonstrators arrested at Columbia last week, attended a protest later in the day.

A group of more than 80 professors and assistant professors signed a letter Wednesday calling on the university’s president and other administrators to drop any charges and to allow future encampments without what they described as police retaliation.

They wrote that they were “horrified that the administration would permit such a clear violation of our students’ rights to freely speak out against genocide and ongoing occupation of Palestine.”

Netanyahu encourages police response

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on U.S. college campuses in a video statement released Wednesday, saying the response of several university presidents has been “shameful” and calling on state, local and federal officials to intervene.

Students at some protests were hiding their identities and declined to identify themselves to reporters, saying they feared retribution. At an encampment of about 40 tents at the heart of the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor, almost every student wore a mask, which was handed to them when they entered.

The upwelling of demonstrations has left universities struggling to balance campus safety with free speech rights. Many long tolerated the protests, but are now doling out more heavy-handed discipline, citing safety concerns.

At New York University this week, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges. More than 40 protesters were arrested Monday at an encampment at Yale University.

Spain’s prime minister says he will consider resigning after wife is targeted by judicial probe

BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez denied corruption allegations against his wife but said he will consider resigning after the launch Wednesday of a judicial investigation into accusations by a right-wing legal platform that she used her position to influence business deals.

Sánchez said in a letter posted on his X account that while the allegations against his wife, Begoña Gómez, are false, he is canceling his public agenda until Monday when he will announce whether he will continue or step down.

“I need to stop and reflect,” Sánchez wrote. “I must answer the question if it is worth it to continue, given the mud pit the right and far right have made out of our politics, if I must continue at the helm of the government or renounce that highest of honors.”

Sánchez, 52, has been Spain’s prime minister since 2018. He was able to form a new left-wing coalition government in November to start another four-year term. He is one of Europe’s longest-serving Socialist leaders.

Earlier on Wednesday, a Spanish judge agreed to probe allegations of corruption made by a private group with a history of filing lawsuits mainly for right-wing causes. The court based in Madrid will consider the allegations and proceed with the investigation or toss it out.

“Begoña will defend her honor and collaborate with the justice system in every way that is required to clarify that these facts that appear scandalous are in fact nonexistent,” Sánchez said.

Gómez, 49, does not hold public office and maintains a low political profile.

Manos Limpias, or “Clean Hands,” accuses Gómez of allegedly having used her position to influence business deals. The court did not provide further information and said that the probe was under seal.

Manos Limpias describes itself as a union, but its main activity is a platform pursuing legal cases. Many have been linked to right-wing causes. It acts as the “popular prosecution,” a peculiarity of Spanish law that allows individuals or entities to take part in certain criminal cases even when they haven’t been directly harmed by the accused.

Justice Minister Félix Bolaños called the new allegations “false.”

Second Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz, the leader of the junior member of Sánchez’s government, publicly backed him against “this offensive by the Right.”

The possibility of a governmental crisis comes just weeks before important regional elections in Catalonia followed by European elections in June.

Sánchez accused online news sites politically aligned with the leading opposition conservative Popular Party and the far-right Vox party of spreading what he called “spurious” allegations that he said led to the judicial probe.

The Popular Party criticized Sánchez for “playing the role of the victim instead of holding himself accountable.”

Last month, Spain’s government watchdog for conflict of interests tossed out a complaint made by the Popular Party against Sánchez whereby the opposition party claimed that Gómez had allegedly influenced her husband in a decision related to an airline.

Spain’s leader said that he was moved in part to reflect on his future due to his love for his wife.

“This attack is without precedent, it is so serious and coarse that I need to stop and reflect with my wife,” he said. “Most of the time we forget that politicians are people. And I do not blush to say it, but I am a man who is deeply in love with my wife, who is living with the feeling of impotence while being pelted with mud.”

“To summarize, this is an operation to harass me by land, sea and air to try and make me give up politics through a personal attack on my wife,” Sánchez wrote.

Russia blocks UN resolution on peaceful use of outer space

new york — Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution Wednesday reaffirming the need to prevent a nuclear arms race in outer space.

The measure was proposed jointly by the United States, a nuclear power, and Japan, the only nation ever to be attacked with nuclear bombs.

“We have only begun to understand the catastrophic ramifications of a nuclear explosion in space,” said U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “How it could destroy thousands of satellites operated by countries and companies around the world — and wipe out the vital communications, scientific, meteorological, agricultural, commercial and national security services we all depend on.”

The failed text recalled the responsibility of states to comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is the basic framework on international space law. It says outer space is to be shared among nations and shall be free of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. The treaty also says the moon and other celestial bodies “shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes,” and astronauts shall be “regarded as the envoys of mankind.”

The proposed resolution also called on states “not to develop nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction specifically designed to be placed in orbit around the Earth, or to be installed on celestial bodies, or to be stationed in outer space in any other manner.”

Thomas-Greenfield noted that President Vladimir Putin has said publicly that Russia has no intention of deploying nuclear weapons in space.

“And so, today’s veto begs the question: Why? Why, if you are following the rules, would you not support a resolution that reaffirms them?” she asked. “What could you possibly be hiding? It’s baffling, and it’s a shame.”

Thomas-Greenfield just returned from Japan, where she visited Nagasaki, a city on which the United States dropped one of two atomic bombs at the end of World War II.

“It was a reminder of our profound responsibility to prevent the scourge of war and ensure that no place experiences the horror of nuclear weaponry ever again,” she said.

“Adopting this draft resolution would have been a positive and practical contribution to the promotion of the peaceful use and exploration of outer space,” said Japanese Ambassador Kazuyuki Yamazaki. “If adopted, we could have demonstrated our unity in reaffirming the principle of no placement of any weapons of mass destruction in outer space and in opposing the development of such capabilities.”

The proposed resolution, which had more than 60 co-sponsors, created no new international obligations, but reaffirmed existing ones. It was supported by 13 of the 15 council members. After failing to get an amendment added to it, Russia vetoed it and China abstained.

“Today, our council is once again being involved in a dirty spectacle prepared by the U.S. and Japan,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said. “This is a cynical ploy. We are being tricked.”

He said Moscow wanted a text that would have gone further, banning weapons of any kind in outer space.

China’s new U.N. ambassador, Fu Cong, echoed that, saying the draft needed “other substantive elements.” 

US concerns

In February, U.S. officials said Russia is developing a space-based weapon to attack satellites. They do not believe it would target people or cause destruction on Earth.

Analysts at the Washington-based Safe World Foundation think tank say on their website that Russia is most likely developing a system “that would use a nuclear explosion to create weapons effects, most likely an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), that would in turn disable or destroy satellites.”

There are thousands of satellites in space that run the gamut from sophisticated military purposes to running a car’s GPS or providing television programming.

Although the U.S. resolution was not adopted, Thomas-Greenfield said Washington would continue to pursue bilateral arms control discussions with Russia in good faith.

The U.S. also has concerns about China’s work in space, where officials say they are rapidly developing a range of counterspace weapons and using outer space to strengthen the capabilities of their military forces on Earth.

“Over the last six years they have tripled the number of intelligent surveillance and reconnaissance satellites in orbit, and they have used their space capabilities to improve the lethality, the precision and the range of their terrestrial forces,” said General Stephen Whiting, commander of the U.S. Space Command.

He spoke by phone to regional journalists Wednesday from Tokyo, where he is meeting with allies.

No longer a US priority, is Afghanistan a Central Asia problem now?

Washington — Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors are holding out hope that America, based on its pledges at September’s C5+1 summit, will expand its role in this neighborhood. The wish list includes delivering more humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, facilitating the expansion of trade, and combating the threats of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. 

Officials speaking with VOA suggest that more aid could be channeled into Afghanistan via Uzbekistan. Additionally, Washington could offer more military assistance to Central Asian states and tangibly support their regional connectivity initiatives. 

While no country has formally announced diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government, Central Asian nations have been engaging with the Taliban based on mutual interests, such as security, trade, and water sharing. Uzbekistan, which has extensive political and economic ties with Kabul, has been urging the West and the larger international community not to isolate Afghanistan. 

Nearly three years since the withdrawal of American forces, U.S. officials insist that they have not abandoned Afghanistan, pointing to ongoing efforts and consultations with Central Asian counterparts. However, they admit Washington’s priorities have shifted to other issues, such as Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

“It will take the U.S. a decade or two to recover from the fact that we lost the war,” said David Sedney, a veteran diplomat and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. “It took us 20 years before we were able to engage in Vietnam in a productive way,” he told VOA. 

Scott Worden, who heads the Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, thinks that Central Asian governments overestimate Washington’s leverage. 

“There are a lot of issues in the world that have to be addressed simultaneously,” he noted in an interview with VOA. “They [the U.S.] are balancing the leverage that they have against issues that are manageable and maybe achievable versus ones like women’s rights, which I think the administration cares strongly about.” 

“It’s just a really tough situation,” Worden added. “In my view, you should not condition humanitarian assistance. Any economic sanctions wind up hurting the Afghans that we want to support. It’s a difficult balance, and so I don’t think there is any obvious additional tool or leverage that could be deployed that they’re withholding.” 

Some Western nations including the United States, however, have filtered humanitarian aid programs through partner organizations that circumvent Taliban officials and deliver aid directly to Afghan civilians.

According to USAID, the U.S. supplied nearly $81 million in Afghan humanitarian aid in fiscal year 2024, and has supplied total funding for Afghanistan of “more than $2 billion since August 2021 … including more than $1.5 billion in [USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance] funding and nearly $550 million in [the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration] funding.”

“Provided through international partners on the ground,” says USAID, this assistance helps “meet the needs of the most vulnerable through food and cash support, nutrition, health care, protection for women and children, and agricultural inputs to support Afghans in meeting their immediate food needs.” 

Like Sedney, Worden suggests being realistic. “There is ample opportunity for the U.S. and other international partners to talk to the Taliban when they want to.” 

“This is all part of a very difficult global conversation,” he said. 

But for Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, known for advocating closer ties with the region, Afghanistan is “utterly ignored right now.” 

Starr emphasizes that this country is critical for regional integration and stability, two goals the U.S. has long vowed to support. 

Sedney observes that “not many people want to talk about Afghanistan,” not just in Washington but in other Western capitals as well. 

Speaking last week at the American Foreign Policy Council, these experts stressed that America’s two decades of involvement in Afghanistan left it with an obligation to go beyond the status quo. 

Starr approves of the steps Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have taken with Afghanistan, particularly regarding commerce, energy supply and water resources. 

Other observers, however, warn about tensions between the Taliban and Tajikistan, which officially supports the National Resistance Front, an armed alliance of anti-Taliban forces that is loyal to the previous regime and carries out guerrilla attacks in Afghanistan. Dushanbe continues to host the previous government’s ambassador. 

Worden identifies several key interests and objectives for Washington, most of which align with those of the region. The first and most important objective is counterterrorism, ensuring that Afghan territory is never again used to launch attacks on the U.S. or its allies. 

Others include negotiations on American hostages; the evacuation of Afghans that the U.S. promised to help following its withdrawal; women’s rights and other human rights; humanitarian assistance; and economic development. 

Perhaps the most abstract interest, according to Worden, “is trying to maintain an international diplomatic consensus on the broad conditions and expectations that we have for the Taliban, which include in the endgame a more inclusive society that is not a threat to itself and for its neighbors as well as these U.S. interests.” 

“It’s remarkable that no country in the world has recognized the Taliban,” he said, adding, however, that he sees a divergence between Western-allied emphasis on human rights and women’s rights and the neighboring countries’ economic and security concerns. 

In Worden’s view, the U.S. is pursuing a policy of “quiet engagement” on humanitarian assistance and counterterrorism. At the same time, there is a firm position of non-recognition and not wanting to legitimize the Taliban. 

“Can this dualism sustain over time?” asked Worden, who also sees a cleavage developing, where countries in the region will over time increase engagement with those in power in Afghanistan to achieve their economic and security interests. “Not that they like the Taliban, but they feel like talking to them is better than not.” 

Regardless of who inhabits the White House next January, Worden doubts that U.S. attention toward Afghanistan will increase unless there is an “acute crisis.” 

Republicans tend to “prefer coercion to engagement when you’re talking about regimes that we don’t have much in common with,” he said. “So yes, there is the wild card of potentially making a great deal, but I think the odds of support for armed opposition would increase.” 

U.S.-based Afghan journalist Samy Mahdi, who runs Amu Television out of Virginia, points out that the Taliban enjoy close relations with America’s adversaries, such as Iran, Russia and China. He argues that U.S. assistance has brought about minimum results, and that the Taliban is as radical and dangerous as it was in the 1990s. 

Mahdi recommends a full review of U.S. policy. 

“More communication and transparency are needed on Afghanistan,” he said at the American Foreign Policy Council forum. “We don’t hear much from the U.S. administration about Afghanistan.”

Amnesty: Global rule of law on brink of collapse, fueled by AI

London — A breakdown in the international rule of law is being accelerated through rapid advancement in technology and artificial intelligence, which risks a “supercharging” of human rights violations, according to an annual report, by Amnesty International, published April 24. 

“The international rules-based order is on the brink of collapse. The violations of international law have been multiple and have increased, in fact, largely because of the increasing number of armed conflicts. Perpetrators not only violate international law but seek to justify those violations in the name of self-defense, national security, or counterterrorism,” Amnesty’s secretary-general, Agnes Callamard, told VOA.

Gaza violations

Amnesty highlights the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says more than 34,000 people have been killed, most of them women and children. The figure, which includes Hamas combatants, cannot be independently verified.

“In a conflict that defined 2023 and shows no sign of abating, evidence of war crimes continues to mount as the Israeli government makes a mockery of international law in Gaza. Following the horrific attacks by Hamas and other armed groups on 7 October, Israeli authorities responded with unrelenting air strikes on populated civilian areas often wiping out entire families, forcibly displacing nearly 1.9 million Palestinians and restricting the access of desperately needed humanitarian aid despite growing famine in Gaza,” the report says.

Amnesty’s Callamard said the Gaza conflict had seen “the greatest number of journalists killed, and the greatest number of humanitarian actors killed.”

Israel strongly denies breaking the Geneva Convention or targeting civilians, whom it says Hamas uses as human shields. Israel also denies blocking relief supplies into Gaza despite numerous such accusations from aid groups.

UN paralysis

Amnesty’s report says Israel’s Western allies have failed to stop the bloodshed, citing “the USA’s brazen use of its veto to paralyse the UN Security Council for months on a much-needed resolution for a ceasefire, as it continues to arm Israel with munitions that have been used to commit what likely amounts to war crimes.”

The United States has repeatedly defended its support for Israel, asserting that its ally has the right to defend itself following the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas that killed more than 1,100 people, with dozens of hostages still being held in Gaza.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

The report also highlights widespread human rights abuses and law violations by Russia in its illegal invasion of Ukraine, including “indiscriminate attacks on densely populated civilian areas, as well as energy and grain export infrastructure; and the use of torture or other ill-treatment against prisoners of war.” Moscow denies such accusations.

The global order built in the wake of World War II is breaking down, warned Amnesty’s Callamard. “We are witnessing a rule-based order on the brink of collapse because the architects of the 1948 system, the architects of that system are failing it and are failing the people.”

Amnesty highlights a worsening civil conflict in Sudan, which it says has triggered the largest displacement crisis in the world, with more than 8 million people forced to flee. The report also highlights China’s role in providing support to Myanmar’s military junta, in its war on minority groups and crackdown on basic human rights.

Big tech and AI

Amnesty also warns of a disturbing convergence of human rights abuses and technology, including artificial intelligence, or AI.

“In an increasingly precarious world, unregulated proliferation and deployment of technologies such as generative AI, facial recognition and spyware are poised to be a pernicious foe – scaling up and supercharging violations of international law and human rights to exceptional levels,” the report said.

Amnesty said the technologies pose significant risks as huge numbers of people across the globe vote in elections in 2024.

“Politicians have long used manipulation of ‘us vs. them’ narratives to win votes and outmanoeuvre legitimate questions about economic and security fears. We’ve seen how unregulated technologies, such as facial recognition, have been used to entrench discrimination.” 

“Coupled with this, Big Tech’s surveillance business model is pouring fuel on this fire of hate, enabling those with malintent to hound, dehumanize and amplify dangerous narratives to consolidate power or polling. It’s a chilling spectre of what’s to come as technological advances rapaciously outpace accountability,” the report said.

Amnesty: Global rule of law on brink of collapse, fueled by AI

A breakdown in the international rule of law is being accelerated through rapid advancement in technology and artificial intelligence, which risks a “supercharging” of human rights violations. That’s according to the new annual report by rights group Amnesty International. Henry Ridgwell has more.

Facing repression in China, Muslims seek freedom in NYC

In a dramatic surge, U.S. border patrol authorities detained more than 24,000 Chinese citizens crossing the southern border in fiscal year 2023, a 12-fold increase from the previous year. Many come seeking asylum, and among those that do, a small group of China’s ethnic Hui Muslims stands out. Aron Ranen brings us the story from the Big Apple.

‘Loose Ends’ provides closure one project at a time

When a person dies, it often falls to their children, loved ones, lawyers or even friends to sort through the things they’ve left behind. Sometimes, those things are unfinished projects or hobbies, that’s where the group Loose Ends comes in. Nina Vishneva has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

US Senate passes bill to force TikTok divestment or ban

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted late Tuesday to send legislation to President Joe Biden that would require Chinese owner ByteDance to divest the popular short video app’s U.S. assets within about nine months or face a

Ban.

The measure, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Saturday, has been driven by concerns that China could access Americans’ data or surveil them with the app and Biden has said he will sign it into law.

“For years we’ve allowed the Chinese Communist party to control one of the most popular apps in America that was dangerously shortsighted,” said Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee. “A new law is going to require its Chinese owner to sell the app. This is a good move for America.”

TikTok, which says it has not shared and would not share U.S. user data with the Chinese government, has argued the law amounts to a ban that would violate the U.S. free speech rights of its users.

The company did not immediately comment but over the weekend, it told its employees that it would quickly go to court to try to block the legislation.

“We’ll continue to fight, as this legislation is a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of the 170 million Americans on TikTok… This is the beginning, not the end of this long process,” TikTok told employees on Saturday in an email seen by Reuters.

The Senate voted 79 to 18 in favor of the bill. 

Generative AI threatens voter confidence in what’s real   

Artificial intelligence surrounds U.S. political life, from fundraising to campaign advertising. Some lawmakers are looking to better police the use of generative content in this year’s presidential election as they say it threatens voter confidence in what is real. VOA correspondent Scott Stearns reports.

Channel tragedy spotlights Britain’s Rwanda migrant law

London — French authorities say a 7-year-old girl was among five migrants who drowned in the English Channel on Tuesday just hours after British lawmakers voted through legislation aimed at deterring asylum-seekers from making the crossing.

Local officials said the inflatable dinghy carrying some 112 people hit a sandbank after leaving a beach near the village of Wimereux.

“A few hundred meters from the shore, the engine stopped, and several people fell into the water,” said Jacques Billant, prefect of the French Pas-de-Calais region.

“Despite this complex and delicate situation, 57 people who were still in the inflatable boat remained on board. Not willing to be rescued, they managed to restart the engine and decided to continue their sea route towards Britain,” Billant told reporters.

Such is the determination of the migrants to reach British shores. Over 6,300 people have made the journey across the English Channel in small boats so far this year.

The tragedy happened early Tuesday morning, a few hours after British lawmakers passed legislation that the government hopes will allow it to deport asylum-seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel to Rwanda for processing.

The migrants would be processed in the African state and have no right to return to Britain, even those granted refugee status.

The legislation effectively orders the courts to ignore existing British laws or international treaties that could block the deportations. Britain’s Supreme Court ruled the policy was illegal in November 2023, as there was a risk that refugees could be sent from Rwanda back to their countries of origin. It is unclear if further legal challenges could delay the flights.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the prospect of being sent thousands of kilometers away to Rwanda will deter migrants from making the journey to Britain.

“The first flight will leave in 10 to 12 weeks. Now, of course, that is later than we wanted. But we have always been clear that processing will take time,” Sunak said Monday evening after the legislation passed.

The government argues the policy is moral, as it aims to end the dangerous journeys operated by people smugglers. But both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have called for Britain to rethink the legislation.

“By shifting the responsibility for refugees, reducing the U.K. courts’ ability to scrutinize removal decisions, restricting access to legal remedies in the U.K. and limiting the scope of domestic and international human rights protections for a specific group of people, this new legislation seriously hinders the rule of law in the U.K., and it sets a perilous precedent globally,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at a news briefing Tuesday in Geneva.

Under the deal, Britain pays Rwanda at least $458 million over five years, with extra payments on top worth tens of thousands of dollars for each migrant sent to the country. The opposition Labour Party has called it an “expensive gimmick” that won’t work.

The passing of the legislation after years of wrangling and court battles is being seen as a political victory for Sunak. Whether the policy deters migrants from making the deadly journeys across the English Channel remains to be seen.

Migrant support groups dispute Sunak’s claims that the policy will stop the boats.

“We will not see the boats stop because of this [Rwanda policy]. We will see more deaths, we will see more dangerous risks being taken,” Kay Marsh of the migrant charity Samphire told Reuters.

Turkey arrests pro-Kurdish reporters in ‘terrorism’ probe, relative says

Istanbul — Nine Turks working for pro-Kurdish media outlets were arrested Tuesday in Turkey, their employers and lawyers said, with a relative of one saying they were accused of “terrorist activities.”

Four women and five men were arrested at dawn in Istanbul, the capital Ankara, and the southeastern city of Urfa, lawyers from the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), a press freedom organization, said.

MLSA said those arrested work for news organizations including the Mezopotamia Agency and the newspaper Yeni Yasam and include several journalists and “press employees.”

The nine were denied access to their lawyers for 24 hours, MLSA said in a message on X.

“No declaration has been made about the reasons for the detention of the journalists” on Tuesday morning, it said.

Mezopotamia said one of its journalists was arrested in Ankara during “a police operation at his home.”

A relative of one of the journalists, who asked not to be named, told AFP the police showed up at the journalist’s home at dawn.

She said the families of the journalists had been informed that their arrests were “part of an investigation opened in 2022 for terrorist activities.”

The journalists based in Istanbul were being held on Tuesday in a police station in the city, she said.

The international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, contacted in Istanbul, said it was “monitoring the situation closely.”

Elsewhere, Belgian police searched the studios of two Kurdish channels, Sterk TV and Medya News, that broadcast from Belgium, the two media outlets said in a statement to AFP.

The Belgian public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Tuesday that the searches were carried out “during the night” “at the request of the French judiciary,” which is seeking to “establish possible evidence of terrorist financing.

A source close to the police operation who asked not to be named told AFP those raids had “no link” to the arrests in Turkey.

Myanmar junta slams US aid plan

WASHINGTON — Myanmar’s ruling junta, the State Administrative Council, is criticizing a U.S. aid package that is being funneled through opponents of the regime, saying the United States should consider whether its actions amount to support for terrorism. 

The assistance marks the first implementation of the BURMA Act, part of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act aimed at helping pro-democracy forces battling the SAC. 

Under the act, the aid is intended to strengthen federalism in Myanmar by providing nonlethal assistance to armed groups, helping pro-democracy organizations, assisting aid organizations operating from Thailand, and financing investigations of junta human rights violations. The aid is restricted to ensure it does not benefit the SAC or any entity affiliated with the Myanmar military. 

“We believe the U.S. is manipulating Myanmar to counter China’s influence in the region,” the junta said in a statement provided to VOA on March 29. “Despite the U.S. presenting itself as a champion of democracy, the aid disproportionately benefits Myanmar’s opposition groups, particularly the National Unity Government (NUG) and the People’s Defense Force (PDF).” 

The NUG is the opposition’s shadow government; the PDF is made up of civilian armed groups battling the military. 

The junta statement calls on the United States to review its aid allocation “to reassess whether their actions, which some label as terrorism, represent a legitimate path to reclaiming power.” 

The junta, which has killed and imprisoned thousands of people since overthrowing the democratically elected government in February 2021, accuses the NUG and PDF of responsibility for the civilian deaths. The statement did not elaborate on the charge that U.S. support for resistance groups in Myanmar is linked to Myanmar’s adversarial relationship with China. 

The promise of the BURMA Act 

The Burma Unified Through Rigorous Military Accountability Act, commonly called the BURMA Act, says it aims to “continue to support the people of Burma in their struggle for democracy, human rights, and justice.” 

It identifies specific resistance groups as beneficiaries, including the NUG, and the National Unity Consultative Council, or NUCC, which comprises several opposition groups. 

Also named are the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which is made up of members of the ousted Myanmar parliament; the civil disobedience movement; “and other entities in Burma and in other countries” that seek to “bring about an end to the military junta’s rule.” 

The act promises to “hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations,” and to “hold accountable the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.” 

It provides $75 million for refugee assistance programs, including in Thailand and India, and $25 million for “technical support and non-lethal assistance” to the NUG and PDF. Smaller amounts are earmarked for governance programs, documentation of atrocities, and assistance to political prisoners, Rohingya and deserters from the junta’s military. 

The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group, have faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar for decades. In 2017, a military crackdown by the Myanmar army forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, seeking refuge from the violence and persecution. 

The act authorizes appropriations to be allocated annually from fiscal years 2023 through 2027, with $121 million earmarked for FY 2024.  

Process of the funding 

During debate on the bill, the U.S. House of Representatives initially proposed a more limited $50 million aid package but agreed to the larger sum advocated by the Senate before final passage. 

“We are pleased with the $121 million proposed by the Senate, instead of the $50 million proposed by the House. However, we believe this amount is insufficient, and should be closer to $300 million to meet the humanitarian needs on the ground,” said James Shwe, from the Los Angeles Myanmar Movement, which works with Myanmar activists in the United States. 

In a Zoom call with VOA, Shwe also criticized what he sees as the high administrative costs of aid distribution. 

“Because of the lack of state-to-state cooperation in a case such as Myanmar, where the aid is meant for humanitarian assistance, but not for the ruling power, this leads to several layers of management,” he said. 

“The aid is funneled through USAID partners, the biggest of which is the U.N., which has to operate under the rules of the junta. In many cases, the U.N. will in turn deal with [non-governmental organizations]. The NGO then needs to distribute that aid to [civil society organizations] on the ground. This leads to ever-increasing administrative costs and less actual assistance to those in need.” 

Shwe said administration costs eat up around 45% of aid funds. 

“Only $75 million of the $121 million is allocated for cross-border aid, which we believe will be more effective than channeling funds through the U.N., the largest partner of USAID,” Shwe added. But he welcomed the lawmakers’ decision to specifically name the NUG and the NUCC in the act, ensuring that they will play a role in the allocation of the funds. 

Hopes for assistance amid U.S. engagement 

Hopes for continued humanitarian assistance to Myanmar are on the rise after U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet and USAID Assistant Administrator Michael Schiffer met this month with representatives from the NUG. 

“The meeting underscores the ongoing commitment of the United States to engage with Myanmar’s NUG leadership and support their endeavors to promote democracy, peace, and stability in the region,” said an April 11 State Department press release. 

Chollet also met in late March with ethnic armed organizations allied with the NUG.

“Met today with leaders of Burma’s ‘K3C’ ethnic group alliance on their extraordinary efforts to pursue a federal democracy in Burma,” he wrote on X on March 28. “We discussed steps for the international community to expand assistance to those in need and secure a better future for the people of Burma.”

The K3C alliance, comprising the Kachin Independence Organization, Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, and Chin National Front, is politically aligned with the NUG and collaborates militarily with its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force. 

“We briefed them on the political and military situation in our state, as well as the humanitarian situation,” said Aung San Myint, secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party, who shared details of the meeting with VOA by phone.  

“Following our presentation, they assured us of continued collaboration as the U.S. Department of State. … We have hope for increased humanitarian aid as discussions progress with U.S. officials.”

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