News & Current Affairs

January 24, 2009

Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

US President Barack Obama has lifted a ban on federal funding for foreign family planning agencies that promote or give information about abortion.

The US is one of the biggest supporters of family planning programmes globally, but former president George W Bush blocked funds for abortion services.

Powerful anti-abortion groups in the US have criticised the lifting of the ban.

But aid agencies welcomed the move, saying it would promote women’s health, especially in developing countries.

A White House spokesman said Mr Obama signed the executive order without asking for coverage by the media late on Friday afternoon.

The issue of abortion services remains controversial in the US, pitting pro-life conservative groups against more liberal, pro-choice Americans who back a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

This may be why President Obama signed the order with so little fanfare.

Highly contentious

Organisations that had pressed Mr Obama to make the abortion-ban change were jubilant.

They called the funding ban the “gag rule” because it cuts funds to groups that advocate or lobby for the lifting of abortion restrictions.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America hailed the president for “lifting the stranglehold on women’s health across the globe with the stroke of a pen.”

“No longer will health care providers be forced to choose between receiving family planning funding and restricting the health care services they provide to women,” the organization said in a statement.

But anti-abortion groups were quick to criticise the reversal of the funding ban.

“President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

A 1973 decision by the US Supreme Court legalised abortion.

A Gallup poll conducted last year showed that 54% of Americans think abortion should be allowed under certain circumstances, 28% believe it should be legal under any circumstances, while 17% back a total ban.

See-saw issue

The policy has become a see-saw issue between Republican and Democratic administrations.

Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, repealed the policy when he took office in 1993 and George W Bush reinstated it in 2001.

The ruling is also known as the Mexico City Policy, because it was first introduced at a UN conference there in 1984 by former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

In a move related to the lifting of the abortion rule, Mr Obama is also expected to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in the next budget, the AP news agency reported.

The Bush administration contended that the fund’s work in China supported a Chinese family planning policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilisation, claims the UNFPA has vehemently denied.

In a separate move earlier on Friday, US regulators cleared the way for the world’s first study on human embryonic stem cell therapy.

While the decision of the US Food and Drug Administration is independent of White House control, Mr Obama is widely expected to adopt a more pragmatic and science-oriented approach to stem cell research.

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September 12, 2008

Putin defends Georgia offensive

Putin defends Georgia offensive

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Sochi (August 2008)

Mr Putin said Russia was prepared to work with Western partners

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made an impassioned defence of Russia’s military intervention in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Mr Putin accused the Western press of an “immoral and dishonest account of what happened”.

He said Russia had had no choice but to intervene following what he alleged was Georgian aggression.

And he went on to dismiss out of hand European criticism of Russian force as “disproportionate”.

“What did you want us to do? Wave our penknives in the air and wipe the bloody snot off our noses?” he asked, adding: “When an aggressor comes into your territory, you need to punch him in the face – an aggressor needs to punished.”

He added that Russian tanks had, after all, only been 15km from Tbilisi and could easily have taken the Georgian capital and ousted President Mikhail Saakashvilli if they had wanted to.

Mr Putin also accused the US of behaving like the Roman Empire by believing it could pursue its own interests and extending its influence to the Caucasus without regard for Russia’s point of view.

“God forbid that we should tread on US toes in its backyard,” he said, expressing frustration that the United States seemed to think it was alright to arm Georgia on Russia’s border – a move which he repeatedly argued had provoked Georgia to take up military action.

‘Anti-Russian hysteria’

On wider relations with the West, he insisted that current tensions did not amount to the start of a new Cold War, and dismissed arguments that Russia might suffer diplomatic or economic isolation because of the crisis.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map

But he also said Russia was prepared to work with Western partners and wanted a constructive relationship with the European Union but only if what he called “realities” were taken into account.

Russia, said the prime minister, should be treated as an equal partner and all sides agree on new common rules of behavior based on international law.

“The problem is not with us,” Mr Putin said, “it lies with political groups in the West who use old phobias to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.”

However, he warned that tensions between Russia and the EU may well worsen if, as expected, US missiles are deployed in Poland as part of the controversial missile shield.

He said he expected that to be the moment that Russia would reposition its missiles to point at European targets.

“Why have you placed missiles under our nose?” he said, and warned it would ratchet up an extra notch the nuclear arms race in Europe.

UK relations

Mr Putin also indicated that relations with Britain were unlikely to improve while Russian emigres remained in the UK despite Russia’s requests to extradite them to stand trial – an apparent reference to the Russian business tycoon Boris Berezovsky and the former Chechen spokesman, Ahmed Zakayev.

Vladimir Putin (L) talks with George Bush in Beijing (8 August)

Putin said the US had not intervened early on in the Georgian crisis

“Why do you allow UK territory to be used a launching pad to fight Russia?” he asked.”Imagine if we gave sanctuary to armed members of the IRA – that’s why its not possible to build normal relations with Britain,” he said.

Mr Putin also threw new light on the crisis in South Ossetia.

On 8 August, when he was in Beijing for the start of the Olympic Games, he had spoken to US President George W Bush soon after hearing of the attack by Georgian troops on the South Ossetian capital – but the United States had failed to intervene.

In Beijing, he had already raised the question of Russia recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent territories with the Chinese government, and told them Russia did not expect Chinese support.

This is an interesting comment that suggests Russia was already planning to recognise the two enclaves from very early on in the crisis.

September 4, 2008

BP moves to settle Russia dispute

BP moves to settle Russia dispute

TNK Plaque

The row has focused attention on the rights of foreign investors in Russia.

BP has signed an agreement aimed at solving a festering dispute over control of its Russian venture TNK-BP.

The boss of TNK-BP, Robert Dudley, will step down as part of the deal with the Russian billionaires that control half of the business.

Three independent directors will also be appointed to TNK-BP’s board.

Mr Dudley’s departure had been central to the power struggle between BP and the Russian investors in the venture, which accounts for 25% of BP’s profits.

The memorandum of understanding, signed on Thursday, also includes the option to list up to 20% of the venture on international markets.

TNK-BP’s Russian partners had long called for Mr Dudley’s departure and Mr Dudley left Russia in July in the face of what he said was “sustained harassment”.

This is a positive signal for the Russian market
Igor Sechin, Russian deputy prime minister

BP said it had agreed to offer a Russian-speaking candidate for the post, with extensive Russian business experience.

The Russian shareholders had accused BP of running TNK-BP like a subsidiary and Mr Dudley of favoring the British shareholder.

BP chairman Peter Sutherland said that the agreement, to be finalised over coming months, would relieve recent tensions between the two sides.

“It will create a stable base from which to grow the joint venture to the benefit of everyone involved, including the Russian state,” Mr Sutherland said

He said that Mr Dudley had been an outstanding chief executive and would be hard to replace.

‘Positive signal’

BP owns 50% of the venture while the Russian shareholding is made up of a number of Russian billionaires who control a consortium known as Alfa Access Renova (AAR).

Russia welcomed the compromise between AAR and BP.

“We are pleased that this situation has been resolved and the shareholders have come to an agreement without the involvement of third parties, including the state,” said Igor Sechin, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.

“This is a positive signal for the Russian market. We support the development of TNK-BP and believe that this company has excellent long-term prospects.”

Viktor Vekselberg, chairman of Renova, said the agreement was the result of difficult negotiations.

“Most importantly, emotions were not allowed to prevail over common sense and both sides found the solution that best meets the interests of TNK-BP,” he said.

September 1, 2008

Peru’s first ‘visionary’ editor

Peru’s first ‘visionary’ editor

Doris Gibson, who 58 years ago founded Peru’s leading news magazine, has died at the age of 98. Her strength of character and determination helped the magazine withstand military dictatorships and repressive governments, as Dan Collyns reports.

Front page of Caretas showing a portait of Doris Gibson

Caretas magazine is famous for its mocking of the authorities

She began with 10,000 soles (£2,066), which her uncle had given her, and a typewriter in a single room.

The magazine was going to be called Caras y Caretas – faces and masks – but as Peru was under a military dictatorship at the time they decided to call it just Caretas to symbolize the repression they were living under.

They planned to revert to the original title after the dictatorship but it never happened.

Soon afterwards, the magazine was shut down for the first time. It was to be the first of eight closures, most of them during another military dictatorship in the 1970s of General Juan Velasco.

“She would be very creative in how she overcame the closures,” says her granddaughter Diana. “With her everything was possible.”

Genteel poverty

She was born in Lima, by accident, in 1910.

In those days, people travelled by boat between the capital and Arequipa, Peru’s upmarket second city nestled in the Andes to the south.

Her mother was aboard ship and about to head home to Arequipa when her waters broke and she had to go ashore to give birth.

She was the daughter of Percy Gibson, a poet who rebelled from his wealthy merchant family of British descent to live a literary life.

Doris’ younger sister Charo says he never worked a day in his life and she and her many sisters grew up in genteel poverty.

Bohemian life

Doris Gibson

Doris’ son described her as an instinctive fighter

At a young age Doris married an Argentine diplomat, Manlio Zileri, and bore an only son, Enrique, who went on to become the longest-standing editor of Caretas, earning a reputation as Peru’s best journalist.

Just a few years later she was granted one of staunchly-Catholic Peru’s first divorces and she began an intensely bohemian life surrounding herself with artists, intellectuals and politicians.

Doris was a very beautiful young woman and famous for her long, shapely legs. She had a relationship with the artist Servulo Gutierrez to whom she was both a lover and a muse.

He famously painted a life-size nude portrait of her which – following an argument – he sold to a wealthy businessman.

She was independent at a time when women were dependent on their husbands

Her granddaughter Diana says she went to the man’s house with a photographer from the magazine.

They said they needed to photograph the painting in the sunlight, so they put it outside on the car and promptly drove away with it.

“I don’t want to be nude in your house,” she told the man when he called to ask for it back.

Defiance

Despite her upper-class background her friends say she had an old-world warmth for all the people she knew from the shopkeeper down the road to her domestic servants.

Having money, or not, was a question of luck, she was fond of saying.

The magazine is famous for its front covers. Always visually audacious, ironic and mocking authority

Her warmth was also volcanic, says her son Enrique, like the famous Misti volcano which overlooks her home town of Arequipa. Their arguments were legendary.

But she also aimed that fire at successive repressive governments which tried to silence the most important political magazine in Peru.

She confronted soldiers when they raided the office and had photographers poised to record the break-ins.

“Mala hierba nunca muere” – Bad weeds never die – exclaimed the leaflets she had scattered throughout Lima as if freedom of speech would grow up through the cracks in the pavement.

Caretas could not be silenced.

The magazine is famous for its front covers. Always visually audacious, ironic and mocking authority.

When Alberto Fujimori’s birthplace – and thus eligibility to be president – was called into question in 1997, his head was superimposed on the rising sun of the Japanese flag with the words: Once again: Where was he born?

“She was instinctively a fighter,” says her son Enrique, “and a natural businesswoman.”

Visionary

For years she lived on the eighth floor in the same building as the magazine. It survived for all its years due to her intense presence which inspired fierce loyalty in her journalists.

Doris Gibson

Doris’ determination helped Caretas withstand Peru’s military regimes

She was independent at a time when women were dependent on their husbands.

A feminist before the movement had begun, and according to many, a visionary who influenced the course of Peru’s recent history through the brave and defiant reporting of the magazine she created.

For some time we shared the top floor of a block of flats.

Her carer, Chela, invited me across the hall to meet her. The flat she shared with her younger sister Charo was like a museum. Full of copper pans, paintings and artefacts.

She had just celebrated her 97th birthday. Her cheeks were hollow and her eyes had sunken into her skull, but she looked straight at me.

She held my hand in her tight grip, pulling me forward slightly as she tried to utter some words. I told her who I was and Chela repeated what I had said at volume.

As I walked out of the room I saw a black and white photograph portrait of a beautiful, bright eyed young woman. She had dark flowing hair, porcelain skin and rosebud lips. It was Doris, aged 16.

August 29, 2008

Russia hits back at G7 criticism

Russia hits back at G7 criticism

Georgians mourn soldiers killed in the conflict, 28/08

Georgians have been burying soldiers killed in the conflict

Criticism by the G7 group of nations of Russia’s actions in Georgia is biased and groundless, Russian officials have said.

The G7 was trying to justify Georgian aggression towards the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.

The G7 had accused Russia of breaking international law by recognising the two provinces as independent.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war earlier this month over the issue.

The ministry accused the G7 of making “baseless assertions about Russia undermining Georgia’s territorial integrity”.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

“This step is biased and is aimed at justifying the aggressive actions of Georgia,” the ministry said.

The new statement comes a day after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stoked up the war of words with the US.

He told CNN there was a “suspicion” that the Georgian conflict was created by someone in the US in the hope of benefiting one of the candidates in the presidential elections.

The White House dismissed Mr Putin’s assertions as “not rational”.

Meanwhile, officials in the Moscow-backed South Ossetian government have been quoted as saying Russia intends to absorb the breakaway province within “several years”.

Parliamentary speaker Znaur Gassiyev said the move had been agreed at high-level talks in Moscow earlier this week, the Associated Press reported.

The Kremlin has not yet commented on the claims.

August 27, 2008

Miliband seeks backing on Russia

 

 

Miliband seeks backing on Russia

 

 

David Miliband

Mr Miliband said Russia’s declaration inflamed an already tense situation

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband will visit Ukraine later in an attempt to build the “widest possible coalition against Russian aggression”.

The trip comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared he formally recognised Georgia’s breakaway regions.

Mr Miliband has branded the move “unjustifiable and unacceptable”.

Ukraine’s president Victor Yushchenko has described his country as a hostage in a war being waged by Russia against states in the former Soviet bloc.

And he said the brief war between Georgia and Russia had exposed serious weaknesses in the powers of the UN and other international bodies.

‘Territorial integrity’

Fighting between Russia and Georgia began on 7 August after the Georgian military tried to retake South Ossetia by force.

Russian forces subsequently launched a counter-attack and the conflict ended with the ejection of Georgian troops from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which already had de facto independence – and an EU-brokered ceasefire.

Mr Miliband’s visit comes after he urged Russia to “abide by international law” and to withdraw its troops to positions they held before the confrontation.

Our aim is to suffocate aggression
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

He said Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions “further inflames an already tense situation”.

“It takes no account of the views of the hundreds of thousands of Georgians and others who have been forced to abandon their homes in the two territories,” he said.

“We fully support Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity, which cannot be changed by decree from Moscow.”

Moscow’s move has been criticised by other world leaders.

France, the current holder of the presidency of the European Union, called for a political solution.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: “We think it is against the territorial integrity of Georgia and we cannot accept it.”

Nato said it was a “direct violation” of UN resolutions, and US President George Bush warned his Russian counterpart that his “irresponsible decision” was exacerbating tensions in the region.

Mr Bush called on Russia to reconsider and “live up to its international commitments”.

Cold War

But Mr Medvedev said the West would have to “understand the reason behind” the decision if it wanted to preserve good relations with Russia.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

He said Russia had been obliged to act following the “genocide” started by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in South Ossetia in August.

“The most important thing was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe to save the lives of people for whom we are responsible, because most of them they are Russian citizens,” he told the BBC’s Bridget Kendall in an exclusive interview in the Russian town of Sochi.

“So we had to take a decision recognising the two states as independent.”

He said a new Cold War could not be ruled out, but that his country did not want one.

“There are no winners in a Cold War,” he said.

Georgia said Russia was seeking to “change Europe’s borders by force”.

Most of Russia’s forces pulled out of the rest of Georgia last Friday but it maintains a presence both within the two rebel regions and in buffer zones imposed round their boundaries.

Mr Medvedev has blamed Georgia for failing to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.

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