Biden Nominates US Haiti Ambassador to State Department Position

U.S. President Joe Biden has nominated U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison for the position of assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.Sison, a career ambassador, the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service, has served in Haiti since 2018. She is a respected diplomat in Port-au-Prince, where she has been outspoken about democratic governance, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”We are very concerned about any action that risks undermining democratic institutions in Haiti,” Sison told VOA during an exclusive interview in February.Before arriving in Port-au-Prince, she served as U.S. deputy representative to the United Nations with the rank of ambassador from 2014 to 2018.She is experienced in global coalition building, transnational threats, peacekeeping, international development and humanitarian relief.Among Sison’s prior posts are U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates; assistant chief of mission in Iraq; and deputy chief of mission in Pakistan.At the State Department, she held the position of principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.Sison has been recognized with multiple awards, notably the Distinguished Service Award and the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award.The U.S. Senate must confirm her nomination before it becomes effective. 

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US Slaps Tough Sanctions on Russia for Election Meddling

The Biden administration on Thursday imposed tough sanctions targeting the Russian economy to punish the Kremlin for the SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign against the United States and efforts to influence the 2020 presidential election. White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has the story.

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UN Releases $1M in Emergency Funding for St. Vincent

The United Nations on Thursday released $1 million from its emergency fund to provide aid to the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines following a series of devastating volcanic eruptions, the body’s spokesman said.The funds will provide for “urgent humanitarian assistance to impacted people, especially those who have been evacuated,” Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.U.N. agencies will be able to distribute drinking water and hygiene kits, as well as money for the most vulnerable to buy food, he said.About 20,000 people were evacuated from the vicinity of the La Soufriere volcano on St. Vincent, which began erupting last Friday for the first time since 1979.About 4,500 people are in shelters, and the country’s airspace is closed.”Most homes in St. Vincent are without water, and most of the country’s 110,000 people have been impacted by ash fall,” Dujarric said.Eruptions have continued to occur daily, with ash clouds covering the country and reaching surrounding islands.The U.N. said Wednesday that depending on winds, the volcanic eruptions could have an environmental and economic impact on Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, Martinique, and Guadeloupe.St. Vincent and the Grenadines is the smallest state to ever sit on the U.N. Security Council, where its two-year term as a nonpermanent member ends in December.

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Serbia’s Government ‘Has to Respect Media,’ Investigative Journalist Says

The head of a Serbian investigative news outlet being attacked for its work uncovering corruption says his country needs to do more to protect media. During a visit to the U.S., Stevan Dojcinovic, editor in chief of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), met with journalist rights organizations and investigative outlets to discuss recent attacks on his news website and the overall situation for press freedom in Serbia. KRIK has been subject to a smear campaign by pro-government media as well as some politicians in recent months, who falsely accuse it of having links to the head of an organized crime group.FILE – Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic addresses the media in Belgrade, Serbia, June 21, 2020.Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his culture minister have both called for an end to the harassment, with Vucic saying “no one has the right to threaten journalists.” The attacks reflect a wider decline in Serbia’s press freedom rankings. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country at 93 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, in its annual press freedom index. In its 2020 Freedom in the World Report, Freedom House said the government has “steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition and civil society organizations.” The “abusive language, intimidation and slandering campaigns” that seek to portray KRIK and others as being associated with criminal groups were also condemned by the European Parliament. In an interview with VOA Serbian, the award-winning Dojcinovic discussed the challenges for Serbia’s media and what he believes can be done to protect media freedoms in his country. “It seems to me that, for the first time, clear and powerful messages have been sent that this must stop. The government has to respect the media,” Dojčinović said, adding that it was a good sign that the “world is aware and wants to react” to what has been happening. Following are excerpts from a VOA interview with Dojčinović. Questions and answers have been translated and edited for length and clarity. VOA: On several occasions, President Vucic has called on members of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) to stop attacking KRIK in public. Have Vucic’s calls helped stop the attacks? Stevan Dojcinovic: I think that he can stop the pro-government media and members of the National Assembly from attacking us. The attacks continued, even after his calls, so it doesn’t seem to really work. Immediately after the president’s address, [Aleksandar] Martinović, [the head of SNS in Serbia’s National Assembly] accused us of laundering money. They just keep going. VOA: Why do you think that is the case? SD: I don’t think the pro-government media, tabloids and [members of Parliament] do anything that isn’t approved from the top — by the president or the people close to him. That’s how things work in Serbia. I think they are allowed to attack us. The reason for it is because of our job. Because we are engaged in investigative journalism. We investigate corruption, alleged links by state officials to crime and corruption, which the authorities do not like. That’s why they use pro-government media to incriminate us. It is not how things should work. VOA: You have said those behind the campaign against KRIK are being allowed to attack the outlet. Who do you believe provides that approval? SD: I think it is clear that pro-government media in Serbia is releasing content that the government orders them to publish. I suppose that the president does not have to do it personally. Influential associates around him have the power to delegate topics that pro-government media and tabloid press may or may not publish. And I think this is very clear. VOA: In 2020, KRIK’s fact-checking portal Raskrinkavanje found that five of Serbia’s daily papers published 1,172 headlines containing false news. The majority of Serbians consume media from these sources. What can be done to prevent the spread of false news? SD: The audience should not be held responsible. The problem is in the establishing and financing of tabloid newspapers and magazines. These papers are cheap to buy, which is why they can reach a huge number of people. The papers can sell for low prices because they receive large amounts of money through the state financing media projects. Raskrinkavanje has found that the tabloid newspapers producing the most fake news get the most money through financing by the state, or advertising from state-owned companies. In my opinion, this is what needs to be changed about Serbia’s media scene. VOA: How can this issue be resolved? SD: The government is the only party capable of doing that. But it won’t because the pro-government media are in its service. The European Union, which is interested in resolving issues around Serbia’s judiciary and media scene, could have influence. I hope that more pressure will be put on it. One of the major concerns is media ownership: the significant presence of the government in the ownership structure of many media, and the influence ruling parties have on both state and private-owned media outlets. Political influence and concentration distort the media market. The lack of plurality can be detected in television and radio, but also with the printed press. An investigative project by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Reporters Without Borders reached the same conclusion. This article originated in VOA’s Serbian Service.

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US Further Punishes Russia for Cyberattacks, Election Meddling  

The United States cannot allow a foreign power to intervene with impunity in American elections, President Joe Biden said Thursday, after he took action to punish Russia for that and a major cyberattack.  “Today I’ve approved several steps, including expulsion of several Russian officials, as a consequence of their actions,” Biden said at the White House. “I’ve also signed an executive order authorizing new measures, including sanctions to address specific harmful actions that Russia has taken against U.S. interests.” Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, April 15, 2021.Biden said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call earlier this week that he could have gone further but chose to be proportionate and does not seek to escalate tensions between Washington and Moscow.  “If Russia continues to interfere with our democracy, I’m prepared to take further actions to respond,” he added.  Thirty-two entities and individuals linked to Moscow are being sanctioned for disinformation efforts and interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.   Ten personnel from Russia’s diplomatic mission in Washington were expelled, including ”representatives of Russian intelligence services,” according to the White House.   The Biden administration is formally blaming the SVR, the external intelligence agency of Russia, for the massive cybersecurity breach discovered last year involving SolarWinds, a Texas-based software management company that allowed access to the systems of thousands of companies and multiple federal agencies.   The Russian flag flutters on the Consulate-General of the Russian Federation in New York City, April 15, 2021.The Russian spy agency reacted by calling the accusation “nonsense” and “windbaggery.”    The Russian Foreign Ministry said it told U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan that the new sanctions are a serious blow to bilateral relations and that Moscow’s response to them will follow soon. The Foreign Ministry, in a statement, added that it was entirely inappropriate for Washington to warn Moscow against further escalation.  Besides Thursday’s widely anticipated moves by the Biden administration, ”there will be elements of these actions that will remain unseen,” said a senior U.S. official speaking to reporters on condition of not being named.  Biden, during his seven minutes of remarks in the East Room on Thursday afternoon, said he believed he and Putin would meet for a summit this summer somewhere in Europe.  At that meeting, the president said, the two countries “could launch a strategic stability dialogue, to pursue cooperation in arms control and security,” as well as address such issues as reining in nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, the coronavirus pandemic and “the existential crisis of climate change.”   Congressional reaction  U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said the president’s actions demonstrate the United States ”will no longer turn a blind eye to Russian malign activity.” But Schiff, in a statement, predicted sanctions alone will not be enough to deter Russia’s misbehavior.   Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., looks on before a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 15, 2021.”We must strengthen our own cyber defenses, take further action to condemn Russia’s human rights abuses, and, working in concert with our allies and partners in Europe, deter further Russian military aggression,” Schiff said.   “I am glad to see the Biden administration formally attributing the SolarWinds hack to Russian intelligence services and taking steps to sanction some of the individuals and entities involved,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner. “The scale and scope of this hack are beyond any that we’ve seen before and should make clear that we will hold Russia and other adversaries accountable for committing this kind of malicious cyber activity against American targets.”   Numerous Republican members of Congress, while praising the president’s action, are calling for more measures — particularly to halt the controversial Nord Stream 2 project.  “If the Biden administration is serious about imposing real costs on the Putin regime’s efforts to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and weaken our allies and partners, then it must ensure the Russian malign influence Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is never completed,” House Foreign Affairs Committee lead Republican Michael McCaul said in a statement.   FILE – Workers are seen at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, near the town of Kingisepp, Leningrad region, Russia, June 5, 2019.Nord Stream 2 is a multibillion-dollar underwater gas pipeline project linking Russia to Germany. Work on the pipeline was suspended in December 2019 after it became a source of contention between Russia and the West.   Nord Stream officials said Russia resumed construction on the gas pipeline in December. The United States has opposed the joint international project because of possible threats to Europe’s energy security. Nord Stream 2 is intended to double the annual gas capacity of an existing Nord Stream pipeline.   “Nord Stream 2 is a complicated issue affecting our allies in Europe,” Biden replied to a reporter following his speech. He said that he has been opposed to the project for a long time and it is “still is an issue that is in play.”  US sanctions  Biden’s administration had already sanctioned seven Russian officials and more than a dozen government entities last month in response to Russia’s treatment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.   The U.S. actions taken Thursday expanded prohibitions on primary market purchases of ruble-dominated Russian sovereign debt, effective June 14.   “There’s no credible reason why the American people should directly fund Russia’s government when the Putin regime has repeatedly attempted to undermine our sovereignty,” said a senior administration official in explaining the move. ”We’re also delivering a clear signal that the president has maximum flexibility to expand the sovereign debt prohibitions if Russia’s malign activities continue or escalate.”   Russia has largely ignored previous U.S. sanctions, which were narrower and primarily targeted individuals.   “These are ’unfinished business’ sanctions that telegraph the Biden administration’s more forceful approach to dealing with Russia. The measures are dialed to make good on Biden’s promise to significantly impose costs on Russia without provoking a downward spiral in relations,” said Cyrus Newlin, associate fellow with the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.   A street sign marking Boris Nemstov Plaza is seen at the entrance of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington, April 15, 2021.”I think we could continue to see targeting against the Russian intelligence agencies, potentially against Russian government figures and their families, which is something that many sanctions experts have been pushing for,” according to Nina Jankowicz, a Wilson Center disinformation fellow. ”This is only the tip of the iceberg of the full range of responses available to the U.S. government, both public and nonpublic, that we can take in response to Russia’s malicious cyberactivity.”  “The economic consequences for Russia will be fairly minor: The Russian financial system is much more insulated from sanctions than it was in 2014, and new restrictions on sovereign debt don’t extend to secondary markets. I suspect Moscow will respond reciprocally with diplomatic expulsions, but preserve political space for a bilateral summit, which the Kremlin places high value on,” said Newlin, of CSIS.   “The Biden administration has reserved more punishing sanctions options in the event of further Russian aggression in Ukraine,” Newlin added. ”These could be an expansion of sovereign debt restrictions to secondary markets or measures targeting Russian state-owned companies and banks. Against the backdrop of Ukraine, today’s measures also serve as a warning shot.”  Jankowicz said she agreed with that assessment, noting ”the timing of this is pretty significant, because we’ve seen a buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, the most significant buildup since 2014.”  According to Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, this package of sanctions does not really relate to what is going on with Ukraine. She terms it the Biden administration’s way of wrapping up unfinished business with other issues, allowing a pivot ”to a more proactive, future-oriented relationship with Russia.”   VOA’s Katherine Gypson and Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.

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Canadian Lawmaker Apologizes for Appearing Naked During Virtual Legislative Session 

A member of the Canadian Parliament has apologized after appearing naked Wednesday during a virtual legislative session via Zoom.Calling it “an unfortunate error,” District Representative William Amos of Pontiac, Quebec, explained in an email and on Twitter that he was changing in his office after a jog and did not realize his camera was on.William Amos, Canadian lawmaker. (Mélanie Provencher, House of Commons Photo Services)Amos was nude during a question-and-answer session that included Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and fellow lawmakers and legislative staffers. The pandemic has required many Canadian lawmakers to participate in sessions via videoconference instead of in person.As Trudeau concluded an answer from the Parliament chamber floor, Quebec lawmaker Claude DeBellefeuille called attention to Amos, whose image could be seen on the Zoom feed.“We have seen that the member is in very good shape, but I think that this member should be reminded of what is appropriate and to control his camera,” she said, drawing laughter from other members of Parliament.A screenshot obtained by the Canadian Press, a national news agency, that eventually went viral shows Amos standing behind a desk between the Quebec and Canadian flags, his private parts hidden by what appears to be a mobile phone in one hand.Amos said in his apology that he was embarrassed by the incident.“It was an honest mistake, and it won’t happen again,” he said.

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US Allies Confirm Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan

U.S. allies including Britain have announced they too will begin pulling their troops out of Afghanistan, following Washington’s announcement it intends to withdraw all American armed forces personnel by September 11 – the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.Camera: Henry Ridgwell    Produced by: Henry Ridgwell, Rod James

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US Allies Announce Afghanistan Troop Withdrawal

U.S. allies have announced they will begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan following Washington’s confirmation that it intends to withdraw all its armed forces by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which triggered the U.S.-led invasion.U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kabul Thursday for talks with the Afghan government following the announcement. “We’ve achieved the objective we set out nearly 20 years ago. We never intended to have a permanent military presence here,” Blinken told reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.“The threat from al-Qaida in Afghanistan is significantly degraded. Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice. After years of saying that we would leave militarily at some point, that time has come. But even when our troops come home, our partnership with Afghanistan will continue,” Blinken said.Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, center right, walks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at the Sapidar Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 15, 2021.Britain, which has 750 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission to train Afghan forces, confirmed it would begin withdrawing from the country next month.Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement Thursday, “The people of Afghanistan deserve a peaceful and stable future. As we draw down, the security of our people currently serving in Afghanistan remains our priority and we have been clear that attacks on Allied troops will be met with a forceful response. The British public and our Armed Forces community, both serving and veterans, will have lasting memories of our time in Afghanistan. Most importantly we must remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, who will never be forgotten.”Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
FILE – Relatives of three Czech soldiers, who were killed by a suicide bomber in eastern Afghanistan, mourn at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague, Czech Republic, Aug. 8, 2018.Among Afghans, the withdrawal of foreign troops provokes mixed feelings. “What we saw during the Taliban, it doesn’t even exist in my memory anymore. I don’t want to think about it because our country is moving toward development, it is moving toward peace,” said Mohammad Karim, a kite maker from Kabul.Fellow Kabul resident Sayed Ahad Azizi also hopes for more stability. “Peace is the only thing that all people want but if foreign troops stay here, the realization of peace in Afghanistan will be impossible,” he said.The Afghan withdrawal is a watershed moment for Afghanistan – and for the West, said Norman. “The initial mission was simply to rout out al-Qaida which have had a haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban. And that mission kind of changed and grew over time to be one of deposing the Taliban, trying to help Afghanistan transition to a more equal democracy et cetera. And I think Western powers, and the U.S. in particular, is seeing the limits of that kind of engagement.”The U.S. and its allies will reflect on what has been achieved in two decades of conflict. For Afghanistan, the fight for democracy and freedom is far from over. 

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Diaspora Expresses Concerns About Haiti’s Security During Town Hall on Referendum

Members of Haiti’s diaspora expressed concerns Tuesday about the country’s ongoing insecurity, the economic crisis and the lack of information about the new draft constitution, during a virtual event hosted by the Haitian Embassy in Washington.The two-hour event, streamed live on Facebook, got off to a late start and struggled with technical issues. But it offered the diaspora an opportunity to ask Haiti’s top election officials questions about the draft constitution, which includes new privileges and representation for Haitians living abroad.A small group of people at the embassy, who were socially distanced and wearing face masks due to COVID-19 restrictions, asked questions. Others submitted questions on social media.President Jovenel Moise said a new constitution is needed to fix problems in the current charter, which was adopted in 1987. Critics say Moise’s effort is just an attempt to consolidate power. Among the proposed changes of interest to Haitians living abroad are the ability for the diaspora to run for office and the designation of a set group of lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies to represent them in Parliament.The 2018 U.S. census estimates there are more than 1 million Haitian Americans living in the United States. The largest group resides in South Florida.The top concern raised by town hall participants was insecurity.”Everyone’s scared,” said a woman who identified herself as a former singer and activist who has been living in the U.S. since the 1980s.The Haitian minister-delegate in charge of elections, Mathias Pierre, blamed bad actors.”The government understands we have a security issue, but we want to tell people that the issue is not a coincidence — whenever there are elections, there are security issues,” the minister said. “This has happened in the past. We have had kidnappings around elections. I was talking to a politician who told me as soon as Jovenel (Moise) is gone, the insecurity will end. Does he know something we don’t know?”Pierre acknowledged that kidnappings are a major concern and told the audience the government has taken measures to address it. He cited a state of emergency in neighborhoods where the kidnappers reside and hold captives, and the establishment of specialized cells within the national police force tasked with addressing abductions.FILE – Demonstrators march near a burning road block during a protest against the government of President Jovenel Moise, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 28, 2021.Others worried about the ongoing economic crisis. Many Haitians living in the United States would like to buy and build homes, invest and open businesses in Haiti but are hesitant to do so.”The economic crisis is a consequence of the political instability,” Pierre said. “When you have a society where democracy cannot function properly, it causes economic crises. That’s why we need to have elections to elect officials who can help the country move forward.”A man who identified himself as a lawyer asked why the electoral process had not been more inclusive.”I have some issues with why there is no effort made to have more people participate in the process” he said.”The participation of the diaspora is not easy,” Guylande Mesadieu, president of the Provisional Electoral Council, said. ” If it were easy, we would have done it already. We are committed to working toward 5% of the diaspora being represented in the government. The government is very interested in having the diaspora participate in the process. That’s why we traveled here today to talk to you about the constitution.”Only 7% of eligible Haitian voters participated in the 2015 presidential election that brought Moise to power, according to Pierre. He said diaspora participation could make a difference.”If the diaspora decides to seriously participate in the process, we can up our participation rate to 36%. And then, you’ll see what your participation means to the process,” he told the audience.The last question pertained to making it easy for people who live far from the embassies and consulates to vote.”If that hasn’t been done, it’s a waste of time,” the questioner said.”The CEP (Provisional Electoral Council) has several scenarios that it has planned for,” Pierre responded. “We have created platforms. We have technology to help us determine where the voters are. We are looking at different scenarios, and I think the diaspora will be the first to know. This constitutional referendum will be a test not only for us but also for the diaspora.”Many questions went unanswered because of time constraints, but Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., Bocchit Edmond, vowed to hold more town halls soon.”I know your time is precious, and if you took the time to come here, it’s because you thought it was important. Thanks to those watching online,” Edmond said. “We are available to address your concerns. I would like for the diaspora to participate, and we will do everything in our power to make that happen.”

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