News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Milan to enforce teen drink ban

Milan to enforce teen drink ban

Italian teenagers drinking alcohol (file image)

Rising binge drinking is forcing changes to Italy’s relationship with alcohol

Milan has banned the consumption and sale of alcohol to young teenagers in an effort to curb binge-drinking.

Parents of children under the age of 16 caught drinking wine or spirits will be liable to heavy fines of up to 500 Euros ($700;£450).

A third of 11-year-olds in the city have alcohol related problems, it says.

In a country where for centuries wine has been part of local culture – and prohibition would be unthinkable – the ban has come as a shock.

But the authorities are deeply concerned about the increase in consumption of alcohol by children as young as 11 in the country’s industrial and financial capital.

So as an experiment, supplying alcohol – either wine or spirits – to youths under the age of 16 in bars, restaurants, pizza shops and liquor stores will be banned.

Heavy fines will be imposed on the parents of offending children and on shopkeepers or bar owners who serve them.

A national law banning the sale of alcohol to under-16s is only loosely enforced, as Italian families are used to sometimes giving young children a teaspoon of wine as a family party treat.

In past centuries, Italian children would sometimes even be given wine to drink in preference to water which was often polluted.

There has been a storm of protest by bar owners who refuse to act as alcohol police for young people.

But changing social customs mean that old easy-going attitudes towards consumption of alcohol in Italy will have to change.

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July 15, 2009

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israeli soldiers deployed on the Israel-Gaza border 28 Decmeber 2008

Soldier testimonies appear to contradict official Israeli statements

A group of soldiers who took part in Israel’s assault in Gaza say widespread abuses were committed against civilians under “permissive” rules of engagement.

The troops said they had been urged to fire on any building or person that seemed suspicious and said Palestinians were sometimes used as human shields.

Breaking the Silence, a campaign group made up of Israeli soldiers, gathered anonymous accounts from 26 soldiers.

Israel denies breaking the laws of war and dismissed the report as hearsay.

The report says testimonies show “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians” was a result of Israeli military policy, articulated by the rules of engagement, and encouraged by a belief “the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions”.

One soldier is quoted saying: “The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt.”

Paul Wood
From Paul Wood,Courtesy
BBC Middle East correspondent:

Until now, Israel always had a ready answer to allegations of war crimes in Gaza. Claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

The common thread in the testimonies is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

The Israeli military says past allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza were the result of soldiers recycling rumours.

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record in getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the army.

Another says: “People were not instructed to shoot at everyone they see, but they were told that from a certain distance when they approach a house, no matter who it is – even an old woman – take them down.”

Many of the testimonies are in line with claims made by human rights organisations that Israeli military action in Gaza was indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Amnesty International has accused both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in charge in Gaza, of committing war crimes during the 22-day conflict which ended on 18 January.

Israeli officials insist troops went to great lengths to protect civilians, that Hamas endangered non-combatants by firing from civilian areas and that homes and buildings were destroyed only when there was a specific military need to do so.

‘Ill discipline’

Other allegations in the testimonies of the 14 conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers include:

• Civilians were used as human shields, entering buildings ahead of soldiers

You can’t identify too much at night and anything that moves you engage in order not to take risks. It was not defined this way officially, but it was obvious
Anonymous Israeli soldier

• Large swathes of homes and buildings were demolished as a precaution or to secure clear lines of fire for the future.

• Some of the troops had a generally aggressive, ill-disciplined attitude

• There was incidents of vandalism of property of Palestinians

• Soldiers fired at water tanks because they were bored, at a time of severe water shortages for Gazans

• White phosphorus was used in civilian areas in a way some soldiers saw as gratuitous and reckless

• Many of the soldiers said there had been very little direct engagement with Palestinian militants.

The report says Israeli troops and the people who justify their actions are “slid[ing] together down the moral slippery slope”.

“This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions,” Breaking the Silence says.

Israel said the purpose of Operation Cast Lead had been to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its southern towns.

Palestinian rights groups say about 1,400 Palestinians died during the operation. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict, including 10 soldiers serving in Gaza.

According to the UN, the campaign damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches.

Investigations

Reacting to the report, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich said:

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] regrets the fact that another human rights organisation has come out with a report based on anonymous and general testimony – without investigating their credibility.”

She dismissed the document as “hearsay and word of mouth”.

“The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation,” Lt Col Leibovich added. “This is even more important where the harm is to non-combatants. The IDF has uncompromising ethical values which continue to guide us in every mission.”

There have been several investigations into the conduct of Israel’s operation in Gaza, and both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the territory, have faced accusations of war crimes.

An internal investigations by the Israeli military said troops fought lawfully, although errors did take place, such as the deaths of 21 people in a house that had been wrongly targeted.

A fact-finding team commissioned by the Arab League concluded there was enough evidence to prosecute the Israeli military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that “the Israeli political leadership was also responsible for such crimes”.

It also said Palestinian militants were guilty of war crimes in their use of indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians.

September 19, 2008

Japan minister quits in rice row

Japan minister quits in rice row

Seiichi Ota. File photo.

Mr Ota only took over his portfolio in August this year

Japan’s farm minister, Seiichi Ota, has tendered his resignation because of a food scandal involving tainted rice.

Mr Ota’s ministry has admitted it was told in January 2007 that a food company was distributing rice tainted with pesticide.

Mr Ota had earlier said he saw no need to make “too much of a fuss over it”.

It has since emerged that the rice, destined for industrial uses, was resold as a food product and served to the elderly.

The rice has been found to be tainted with pesticides and mould, and was known to be unfit for human consumption.

No-one has been reported as ill as a result of eating the rice; a government official said this was because the density of contaminants was low.

“I met Prime Minister [Yasuo] Fukuda and told him my decision to resign, considering the seriousness of the tainted rice problem for the society,” Mr Ota said.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said his resignation had been accepted.

Japan faces general elections soon, possibly as early as next month.

Contamination spreads

As information trickled out, it became clear that the bad rice was sold to more than 300 firms, including brewers, food ingredient wholesalers and sweet makers.

A government report released this week showed that the rice was imported from China, Vietnam and elsewhere, and intended for use in the making of glue and other industrial products.

Instead, the Osaka-based Mikasa Foods company sold the rice on to firms which used it for making foods that have been distributed to hospitals and care homes.

Young people have also been affected as the bad rice was used in making some snacks sold in convenience stores, and in school lunches.

Japanese media reported that police said on Wednesday that the president of one of the small companies that had bought the rice from Mikasa Foods, had committed suicide by hanging himself.

When Mr Ota’s ministry first heard of the tainted rice entering the food chain, he said it was unable to uncover any wrongdoing.

Mr Ota only took over the portfolio in August this year.

The minister has come under fire after admitting his ministry “overlooked” the illegal distribution of rice unfit for human consumption.

Our correspondent says Mr Ota is known for his slips of the tongue, such as his expressed confidence that no-one would die from eating tainted rice and that no fuss was necessary.

The senior bureaucrat at the agriculture ministry had already resigned.

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