UN chief hails ‘historic’ moment as Palestine takes over reins of G77

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the “historic leadership” of Palestine which assumed the chairmanship of G77, the global body’s largest intergovernmental organization of developing countries including India.

Egypt was the previous Chair of the Group of 77 (G77), a coalition of 134 members, along with China which aligns itself with the bloc.

India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin Tuesday wished Palestine success, saying “India is privileged to stand up for the global South’s quest for greater equity and justice”.

The decision to elect Palestine as the 2019 Chair of the G77 was taken in September 2018 by the foreign ministers of the Groups’ member states.

A month later, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution that enabled Palestine – a non-member Observer State at the world body – additional privileges and rights, such as participating in international conferences held under its auspices, for the duration of its role as G77 Chair. “You are well-placed to take up the chairmanship of this important group of countries,” Guterres said.

As multilateralism continues to come under “intense pressure from many sides”, the UN chief underscored the importance of the G77 and China’s continued support. “The Group of 77 and China have demonstrated strong leadership throughout 2018 and proved once again to be a central force in demonstrating that multilateralism is the only way to address our shared challenges,” Guterres said.

G-77, established in 1964 by 77 developing countries in Geneva, claims to provide the means for the countries of the South to articulate and promote their collective economic interests and enhance their joint negotiating capacity on all major international economic issues within the UN system and promote South-South cooperation for development

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Guatemala: UN anti-corruption body will continue working, as Constitutional Court blocks Government expulsion

The International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) was set up by the UN in conjunction with the Guatemalan Government, 11 years ago, and has successfully highlighted corruption cases involving hundreds of politicians, bureaucrats, and business people. Its mandate is due to run through to 3 September this year.

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel met UN chief Guterres at UN Headquarters in New York and presented him with a letter notifying him of the Government’s decision to terminate the agreement that established the CICIG, within 24 hours. Under the agreement, the mandate of the Commission was scheduled to end on 3 September 2019.

The UN chief “strongly rejected” the move, led by President Jimmy Morales, who foreshadowed this week’s announcement last September, by banning CICIG Commissioner, Ivan Velasquez, from re-entering the country. The Commission has launched probes into the President’s financial affairs as well as other family members.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Secretary-General, recalling the “important contribution of the Commission to the fight against impunity in Guatemala”, strongly rejected the contents of the letter and stated that the Government is expected to “entirely fulfill its legal obligations” under the agreement.

Mr. Ponce explained that Commissioner Valasquez – who has been continuing his job from outside Guatemala – and his team “are evaluating the different actions that will be taken to continue with the Commission’s tasks”.

“At the same time”, he added, “we are grateful for the support that the citizens and various movements of civil society in Guatemala, the international community, the national and international press, international aid workers, national justice authorities and the United Nations have given to the work of CICIG in Guatemala.”

According to news reports, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court backed the continuation of the Commission’s work through this year, during all-night deliberations, after considering appeals against the Government’s cancellation of its agreement with the UN.

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Trump Signs Asia Reassurance Initiative Act Into Law

On the final day of 2018, U.S. President Donald J. Trump signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which passed the U.S. Senate earlier that month.

The act “establishes a multifaceted U.S. strategy to increase U.S. security, economic interests, and values in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to the White House.

The ARIA Act, specifically, calls for America’s increased engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and strengthened support, including arms sales, for U.S. allies in the region.

The act develops a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United States policy for the Indo-Pacific region.

Key highlights of the Act:

  • Authorizes US$ 1.5 billion annually for 5 years to enhance U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Reaffirms U.S. security commitments to our allies in the Indo-Pacific, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia and builds security partnerships with nations in Southeast Asia.
  • Establishes a policy goal to peacefully denuclearize North Korea through the campaign of maximum pressure and engagement.
  • Enhances the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and security relationship with India.
  • Enforces U.S. freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Expresses support for regular arms sales to Taiwan and to enhance the economic, political, and security relationship between Taiwan and the United States.
  • Promotes robust cybersecurity cooperation with our allies in the region.
  • Sets U.S. policy to pursue effective arms control and nuclear nonproliferation policies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Economic Engagement:

  • Promotes economic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region as essential for the growth of the U.S. economy and the success of American businesses.
  • Authorizes bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations with Indo-Pacific nations.
  • Provides for robust U.S. commercial presence throughout the Indo-Pacific region to promote U.S. exports and additional trade facilitation efforts.
  • Authorizes the imposition of penalties on entities and governments engaged in the theft of United States intellectual property.
  • Requires a new comprehensive U.S. policy to promote energy exports.

Promoting Values:

  • Provides US$ 150 million annually for 5 years for democracy, rule of law, and civil society support, including $10 million annually for freedom of information efforts in North Korea.
  • Call for additional U.S. efforts against trafficking-in-persons and human slavery; and Authorizes U.S. sanctions against human rights abusers.
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Pakistan Cabinet approves issuance of ‘Panda bonds’ in Chinese currency

Pakistan’s cabinet has approved the issuance of first-ever renminbi-denominated bonds to raise loans from China’s capital markets, as the country moved a step forward to give the Chinese currency status at par with the US dollar.

The ‘Panda Bonds’ was approved in a Cabinet meeting, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, on Thursday, The Express Tribune reported.

The Finance Ministry did not seek the Cabinet’s nod for the size of the bond, but it expects to raise $500 million to $1 billion in various tranches, of which at least one is expected in the current fiscal.

The Philippines has also raised RMB1.46 billion through renminbi-denominated bonds with an interest rate of 4.75 percent. Since the Asia-Pacific nation has a better credit rating than Pakistan, the country will have to pay nearly 1 percent higher.

The approval for issuing bonds in the Chinese capital markets came on the heel of the Finance Ministry’s decision to delay issuance of dollar-denominated Eurobonds, worth $3 billion.

The government successfully continues its multi-pronged approach for bridging the foreign financing needs and building foreign exchange reserves, Finance Ministry spokesperson Najeeb Khaqan was quoted as saying in the report.

He said the approval of Panda Bond’s by the Cabinet was part of the strategy.

This is a well-thought-out decision after several rounds of discussions with Chinese banks, investment groups, regulatory authorities, stock exchange, and traditional financial advisers, the minister added.

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Russia’s Vladimir Putin Accuses US Of Raising Risk Of Nuclear War

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the United States of raising the risk of nuclear war by threatening to spurn a key arms control treaty and refusing to hold talks about another pact that expires soon.

In a news conference that lasted more than three hours, Putin also backed US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, said British Prime Minister Theresa May had no choice but to implement Brexit and that Western democracy was under serious strain.

About the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty:

The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty required the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.

The treaty marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons, and utilize extensive on-site inspections for verification. As a result of the INF Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed a total of 2,692 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles by the treaty’s implementation deadline of June 1, 1991.

Despite its name, the INF Treaty covers all types of the ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles — whether their payload is conventional or nuclear. Moscow and Washington are prohibited from deploying these missiles anywhere in the world, not just in Europe. However, the treaty applies only to ground-launched systems. Both sides are free to deploy air- and sea-launched missiles within the 500-to-5,500-kilometer range.

Withdrawal is likely to be controversial with U.S. allies in NATO, further splitting the alliance at a difficult time for transatlantic relations. Many Western European NATO states favour retaining the INF, in conjunction with previous U.S. policy designed to push Moscow back into compliance. This raises concerns that divisions within NATO may worsen when the United States officially withdraws from the INF.

Trump’s move is also likely to undermine the 2010 New START treaty governing U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear systems. The INF Treaty’s demise will undercut New START by reopening questions on the relationship between intermediate and strategic systems that have been resolved for 30 years by the elimination of ground-based, intermediate-range missiles.

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UAE Holds Next 40th GCC Summit

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and King of Saudi Arabia, chaired the 39th session of the council in the presence of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The Supreme Council of GCC States welcomed the UAE’s hosting of next summit and issued the ‘Riyadh Declaration’, which included 72 items covering matters related to the Gulf countries, the region and the world.

What is GCC?

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a political and economic alliance of six countries in the Arabian Peninsula: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Established in 1981, the GCC promotes economic, security, cultural and social cooperation between the six states and holds a summit every year to discuss cooperation and regional affairs.

All current member states are monarchies, including three constitutional monarchies (Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain), two absolute monarchies(Saudi Arabia and Oman), and one federal monarchy (the United Arab Emirates).

The GCC comprises six main branches that carry out various tasks, from the preparation of meetings to the implementation of policies. They are- Supreme Council, Ministerial Council, Secretariat-General, Consultative Commission, Commission for the Settlement of Disputes and the Secretary-General.

Role of GCC today:

Whether the GCC still has a relevant function and role in the region is questionable. Though it was created for the purpose of solidifying union ranks, the blockade imposed on Qatar by its neighbours has largely annulled these principles.

The Gulf states have in the past differed in their views on several issues that have unfolded in the region over the past two decades. The role of the GCC has also been diminishing ever since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, with the six states illustrating various approaches to the war and its consequences. This has been enhanced during the wave of protests that swept the Middle East in 2011, known as the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia has gained a dominant role within the GCC today.

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Ukraine-Russia sea clash: Captured sailors shown on Russia TV

One of the men, Volodymyr Lisovyi, said he was aware of the “provocative nature” of the Ukrainian action.

Ukraine’s navy commander said the men had been forced to lie under duress.

Meanwhile, a Crimean court ordered that 12 of the 24 Ukrainians seized on Sunday be detained for 60 days.

Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of violating international maritime law. They refer to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both states joined in the 1990s.

Ukraine insists on freedom of movement in the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov in accordance with this agreement, while the Russian side is trying to draw territorial borders. The countries also have a bilateral agreement on the free use of the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov, an accord that Russia has never called into question.

The Kerch Strait is the only connection between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and the only way to reach two important Ukrainian ports, Mariupol and Berdiansk. Russia has controlled the strait since annexing Crimea in 2014, which has made traffic significantly more difficult for Ukrainian ships.

About the Sea of Azov: It is a sea in Eastern Europe. To the south, it is linked by the narrow (about 4 km or 2.5 mi) Strait of Kerch to the Black Sea, and it is sometimes regarded as a northern extension of the Black Sea.

The sea is bounded in the north and in the west by Ukraine, in the east by Russia.

The Don and Kuban are the major rivers that flow into it.

The Sea of Azov is the shallowest sea in the world, with the depth varying between 0.9 and 14 meters.

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Australia refuses to sign UN migration pact, citing risks to turnbacks and detention

The Morrison government has confirmed it will not sign up to the United Nation’s migration pact, claiming it will undermine Australia’s harsh policies to deter asylum seekers despite Australia’s role in helping to draft it.

The Refugee Council of Australia and advocates have strongly rejected the government’s claim, citing the fact the compact is non-binding and has a provision stating that countries retain sovereignty over their migration programs.

Australia believes that its immigration policy already promotes safe, orderly and regular migration. Hence, adopting the pact would risk encouraging illegal entry to Australia and reverse the hard-won successes in combating the people-smuggling trade.

Australia’s harsh immigration policy detains asylum-seekers who try to reach the country by boat on remote Pacific islands. While the policy has led to a decline in people-smuggling, hundreds of people are now being held in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

About Global Compact on Migration:

  • United Nations for the first time has finalized Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration to better manage international migration, address its challenges, strengthen migrant rights and contribute to sustainable development. The agreement will be formally adopted by world leaders in Morocco in December 2018.
  • The compact is the first intergovernmental agreement to cover wide-ranging dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner, agreed upon by all the UN member states minus the United States.
  • It sets out 23 objectives to deal issues ranging from factors that compel people to move, legal channels for migration, combating trafficking and smuggling, harnessing the economic benefits of migration and return of the migrants.
  • It is not legally binding.
  • Over 250 million migrants worldwide account for 3% of the world’s entire population but contribute 10% of the global gross domestic production (GDP). Migrants remittance is a huge contributor to their home countries’ development.
  • The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) offers the international community the opportunity to improve workplace productivity and deliver decent work outcomes for migrant and national workers, as well as to shift current misperceptions of migration, by readjusting migration policies to effectively include all labor market aspects.
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Spain offers referendum on greater Catalan autonomy

Spain’s prime minister has proposed a referendum on whether Catalonia should be given greater autonomy, in a bid to dampen tensions between Madrid and Barcelona.

While stopping short of offering the wealthy region a vote on full independence, this proposal will still be seen as an olive branch for many in Catalonia who simply want to see more devolved regional powers.

This comes in the wake of a political crisis last year when the Catalan government attempted a unilateral declaration of independence.

Catalonia, which has its own distinct language, was granted autonomy under Spain’s 1978 Constitution adopted three years after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco.

In 2006, a statute granting even greater powers to the northwestern region, boosting its financial clout, was approved by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments. And in a referendum at the time, over 73% of voters in Catalonia approved it.

But in 2010 Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down several articles of the charter, among them attempts to place the distinctive Catalan language above Spanish in the region and a clause describing the region as a “nation”. The ruling sparked a rise in support for independence in Catalonia, which is home to some 7.5 million people and accounts for about one-fifth of the Spanish economy.

Catalonia is an autonomous community of Spain in the north-east end of the Iberian Peninsula, designated as a nationality by its Statute of Autonomy. It has four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona. The capital and largest city are Barcelona, which is the second most populated city in Spain.

The Catalan region has long been the industrial heartland of Spain, with textile and shipbuilding, and more recently, finance, services, and technology. Barcelona has a thriving start-up culture and plays host to the annual Mobile World Congress, where the bleeding edge of technology is on display.

Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions of Spain. It accounts for 20.07% of the Spanish GDP. Secession would, therefore, cost Spain almost a fifth of its economic output, and trigger a row on how to carve up the €836 billion of the national debt.

If Catalonia were to secede from Spain, it would have a GDP of $314 billion, according to calculations by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). That would make its economy larger than Singapore and South Africa and on a par with Israel. Its GDP per capita would be $35,000, which would make the average citizen of the Catalonian state wealthier than his counterparts from South Korea or Italy.

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Israel passes controversial ‘Jewish nation-state’ law

Israel’s parliament on Thursday adopted a law defining the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, provoking fears it will lead to blatant discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.

The Nationality Bill:

The law speaks of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jews and says they have a “unique” right to self-determination there.

The legislation makes Hebrew the country’s national language and defines the establishment of Jewish communities as being in the national interest.

Arabic, previously considered an official language, was granted only special status.

It also establishes the flag, the national symbol, and anthem.

The legislation becomes part of the country’s basic laws, which serve as a de facto constitution.

Critics say the law is “racist” and it legalizes “apartheid”. The passage of the law continues Israel’s rightward shift in recent years amid frustration with failed peace agreements with the Palestinians and steady growth in settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Arab Muslims are also concerned. Israel is currently home to 1.8 million Arab Muslims, roughly 20 percent of its population, who have lived here since the creation of the independent nation-state. They speak and study in the language most widely spoken across the region, by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.

The question of Israel’s status as a Jewish state is politically controversial and has long been debated. Before now, it has not been enshrined in law.

Some Israeli Jewish politicians consider that the founding principles of Israel’s creation, as a state for Jews in their ancient homeland, are under threat and could become less relevant, or obsolete, in the future.

Fears over the high birth-rate of Israeli Arabs, as well as possible alternatives to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which could challenge Israel’s Jewish majority, have spurred on calls to anchor the Jewishness of Israel in law.

For a country that prides itself on being the only strong and stable democracy in a region surrounded by dictators, monarchs and other authoritarian rulers inimical to its existence, this legislation changes that very character. Reducing the status of minorities further is only likely to fuel tensions in one of the most volatile regions in the world. After all, both Jewish national consciousness and Arab nationalism fuel each other.

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