Philippines rejects European Parliament’s call on De Lima

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine government on Friday rejected a call by the European Parliament for the release of Sen. Leila de Lima, a leading critic of the president who has been detained on drug charges, and told the international community to refrain from influencing her case.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said a European Parliament resolution calling for de Lima’s release “casts aspersion on Philippine legal processes, its judicial system.”

“The pillars of the criminal justice system remain to be effective and well-functioning in the Philippines, not only for Sen. de Lima but for all,” it said in a statement. “The case is pending before the proper Philippine courts and the Philippine government will allow the legal process to proceed accordingly.”

De Lima said she was elated “that the international community is closely monitoring the trumped-up charges brought up against me.” She called on President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to heed the call.
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De Lima is a former top human rights official and vocal critic of Duterte’s brutal crackdown on illegal drugs. She was arrested last month on charges she received bribes from detained drug lords when she served as justice secretary under Duterte’s predecessor.

She has vehemently denied the charges, which she said are part of efforts by Duterte and his officials to muzzle critics of his anti-drug crackdown, which has left thousands of mostly poor drug suspects dead. Western governments, along with EU and U.N. officials, have expressed alarm over the crackdown.

When de Lima headed the government’s Commission on Human Rights, she tried unsuccessfully to have Duterte prosecuted when he was mayor of Davao city for unlawful deaths in a similar crackdown on illegal drugs he had launched there. However, no witnesses came forward to testify against him.

Duterte expanded the crackdown nationwide after becoming president last June, and de Lima continued to criticize him after winning a Senate seat last year. Duterte has denied condoning extrajudicial killings, although he has repeatedly threatened drug suspects with death in public speeches.

The European Parliament strongly condemned “the many extrajudicial killings” under Duterte’s crackdown and urged his government “to prioritize the fight against trafficking networks and drug barons over tracking down small-scale consumers.”

Source: By Jim Gomez (Associated Press)

MPs take 13 minutes to double Royal family income and approve £360m Buckingham Palace refurbishment

A tiny, temporary committee of MPs set up explicitly to consider doubling the publicly funded income of the Royal Family took thirteen minutes to decide that, yes, the Royal Family should indeed have its income doubled.

The “Seventh Dedicated Legislation Committee” was only established to consider raising the so-called ‘Sovereign Grant’ from 15 per cent to 25 per cent of the Crown Estates income, in order to fund the estimated £360m upgrade to Buckingham Palace, and now it has done so, it will be disbanded.

Only the Scottish National Party, via its representatives Tommy Sheppard and George Kerevan objected to the decision.

Mr Sheppard said: “We cannot support this decision and this statutory instrument being passed in this way.

“It is not a suggestion that Buckingham Palace is not a public asset of historic importance that deserved to be preserved.

“What we object is using a change in the Sovereign Grant to pay for an infrastructure project. If a major investment of £400m needs to be made, then that should be treated as a separate capital project.

“It would be similar to saying the works that needed to be conduced at the Palace of Westminster should be funded by doubling the salary of MPs and asking them to make a contribution.”

The SNP’s objections are sufficient to mean that there will be a ‘deferred vote’ on the matter among MPs next week, but that vote will not come with any further debate or scrutiny of the matter, and it will almost certainly be approved.

Renovations are due to begin at Buckingham Palace in April. The project will involve replacing around 100 miles of electrical cabling 30 miles of water pipes, 6,500 electrical sockets, 5,000 light fitting and 2,500 radiators.

In 2014, the Public Accounts Committee found that the Royal Houshold had mismanaged its finances.

“The Household needs to get better at planning and managing its budgets for the longer term,” Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the committee at the time said in a statement.

Occupied royal palaces are held in trust for the nation by the Queen – but the cost of maintaining them falls on the Government.

Source: Independent

‘Muslim travel ban’ – take two: Trump to sign new executive order banning Middle Eastern and African countries

President Donald Trump is expected to sign a revised executive order early next week banning travel from several Middle Eastern and African countries.

The president will sign the new executive order at the Department of Homeland Security as early as Monday, Politico reports.

It is not clear what changes Trump plans to make to the revised travel ban.

The Associated Press reported last week that the reboot will only apply to six nations – taking Iraq off the list because it is a close ally to the US in the fight against the ISIS terror army.

Citizens of six other predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – will remain on the travel ban list, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Those bans are effective for 90 days.

The new executive order comes just over a month after Trump’s original decree caused controversy across the United States.

It caused chaos at airports when people were detained before being sent back overseas, while others were banned from boarding flights at foreign airports.

Trump’s original January 27 order was widely criticized as amounting to a ban on Muslims, and also for being rolled out sloppily – with virtually no warning to the public or preparation of the agencies tasked with enforcing it.

The order temporarily barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States for 90 days, as well as all refugees for 120 days and Syrian refugees permanently.

The government initially blocked Green Card holders before offering those legal residents special permission to come into the country. It finally decided the order didn’t apply to them.

The State Department provisionally revoked roughly 60,000 valid visas in all, before a federal judge in Washington state blocked the government from carrying out the ban.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision, which could still be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Trump administration has defended the order, saying more restrictions are needed to protect the U.S. from future terrorist attacks.

A new revised order has been rumored for sometime, but the White House decided this week to push back releasing a replacement after Trump’s widely praised speech to Congress on Tuesday night.

‘We want the (executive order) to have its own “moment”,’ CNN quoted an official as saying.

Source: Daily Mail

Veteran music executive and former pop star Tommy Page dies

Tommy Page, a former pop star whose song “I’ll Be Your Everything” went to No. 1 in 1990 and who later became a record company executive, publisher of Billboard magazine, a vice president at Pandora and an executive at The Village Voice, has died. He was 46. Editorial Director, Denise Warner said Page was found dead Friday in New York of an apparent suicide. Page started at the magazine in 2011 as associate publisher and was promoted to publisher a year later.

“We are all mourning the loss of our friend and colleague, Tommy Page,” Billboard Entertainment Group President John Amato said. “He was a magnetic soul and a true entertainer.”

Page, who at the time of his death was vice president of music partnerships at the Voice, previously led artist partnerships, branded content and events at internet radio company Pandora. He also had been an executive at Warner Bros. Records, where he helped shape the careers of Michael Buble, Alanis Morissette, Josh Groban and Green Day. He also had been a senior vice president at Cumulus Media Inc.

Page, a graduate of New York University’s Stern School of Business, started his music career as an artist at Sire Records and topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “I’ll Be Your Everything” in April 1990. He co-wrote the song with Jordan Knight and Danny Wood, of Page’s tourmates New Kids on the Block. Page recorded nine studio albums.

Page appeared as himself on an episode of “Full House” in 1992.

He is survived by his partner, Charlie, and their three children.

In a statement, the Voice said: “Our thoughts are with his partner, their three children, and the rest of his family and close circle of friends. Tommy will be missed.”

Source: ABC News

Government defeated on Brexit bill

The government has been defeated after the House of Lords said ministers should guarantee EU nationals’ right to stay in the UK after Brexit.

The vote, by 358 to 256, is the first Parliamentary defeat for the government’s Brexit bill.

However, MPs will be able to remove their changes when the bill returns to the House of Commons.

Ministers say the issue is a priority but must be part of a deal protecting UK expats overseas.

The bill will give Theresa May the authority to trigger Brexit under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin official negotiations.

The amendment backed by the Lords requires the government to introduce proposals within three months of Article 50 to ensure EU citizens in the UK have the same residence rights after Brexit.

But it could be overturned when MPs, who have already backed the Brexit bill without amendments, vote on it again.

The government is expected to attempt to overturn the defeat when the legislation returns to the Commons.

The Department for Exiting the EU said: “We are disappointed the Lords have chosen to amend a bill that the Commons passed without amendment.

“The bill has a straightforward purpose – to enact the referendum result and allow the government to get on with the negotiations.”

The government said its position had “repeatedly been made clear”, saying it wanted to guarantee the rights of EU citizens and British nationals “as early as we can”.

Source: BBC

REVIEW: On ‘Planet Earth II’ and why David Attenborough is still the greatest voice on earth

It may not feature any recognizable superstars — just some of the world’s rarest and most fascinating creatures — but Planet Earth II has managed to become the most watched natural history program in the UK for more than 15 years. The BBC1 saga documents, in stunning Ultra HD detail, Earth’s various habitats and the ways in which the animals that live in them overcome daily challenges.

It’s rare that documentaries are engaging enough to make learning fun. Like Planet Earth II, National Geographic’s Before the Flood takes a serious topic — climate change — and presents it in a way that mimics entertainment. Of course it helps a great deal that Leonardo DiCaprio is the one presenting it, accompanied by an original score from the likes of Mogwai, Trent Reznor and Gustavo Santaolalla. While Planet Earth II does not have a Hollywood actor to buoy it, it does have someone quite distinguished to narrate it and imbue it with soul: Sir David Attenborough.

The 90-year-old British naturalist has had quite the career. Long before Bear Grylls showed us how to survive in the wild, Attenborough brought remarkable animals into viewers’ living rooms after joining the BBC in the 1950s. Aside from proving that wildlife programs could attract large audiences and result in high ratings, he also commissioned the classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The cult comedy sketch show turned actors John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam into household names.

There’s a reason the Zoological Society of London called Sir David the world’s greatest ambassador for animals. From Zoo Quest 60 years ago, when he famously caught the elusive Komodo dragon for the first time on film, to Frozen Planet in 2011, he has helped shape the natural history documentary as we know it today.

For Planet Earth II, a sequel to the first series in 2006, Attenborough is back, tackling environmental issues with a far subtler approach. Across six episodes, it sets out to showcase the natural world in the hope we might be inspired to preserve it. It doesn’t show how terrible everything is or present the worst possible outcome for Mother Nature. With its a film-worthy soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, Planet Earth II simply and effectively highlights how awe-inspiring the earth still is via, for instance, a brutal mating ritual between snow leopards or a chase scene involving a pack of snakes.

Sir David’s deep, soothing voice and distinct enunciation seem to have become the golden standard by which all nature documentary narrators are now measured. Fortunately, the veteran broadcaster also has a lighter side. Last year he chronicled the music video to Adele’s Hello during an appearance on BBC Radio 1. He even made this summer’s Pokémon GO sound positively heroic when a video mashed up his wildlife commentary with footage of the game.

On voicing nature programs, he once told The Telegraph: “The point about the commentary is that it should be comprehensible and that it should fit the pictures and be delivered in an authoritative way.” The original Planet Earth won four Emmys a decade ago. With Sir David Attenborough on board once more, its follow-up is likely to be as critically acclaimed.


What does Africa need to tackle climate change?

From making jam with cactus fruit, to reviving traditional underground canals to defend against drought, Morocco has a leading role in the fight against climate change in Africa (PDF). One of its long-standing goals has been transforming agriculture to become more sustainable.

This vital sector, which contributes almost a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product, was the inspiration for the Green Morocco Plan, launched in 2008, to modernise agriculture and make it more productive and efficient. And that need remains as urgent as ever with the rising impact of global warming.

Climate-related challenges in agriculture are also common to many of Morocco’s African neighbours. Yet the biggest factor that continues to link experiences across the continent is a lack of investment to adapt and meet the growing demand for food in the face of rising temperatures.

Lack of investment

This is why the Moroccan presidency of this year’s COP climate summit has made African agriculture one of its priorities when addressing climate change. For the first time, pan-African experts and officials meet to discuss their best solutions while making a united plea for $30bn to put them into action.

Such regional action has become critical, as talks to include agriculture in the climate negotiations have once again failed, and will now be postponed until May 2017.

In contrast to this lack of action on a global scale, we have seen at COP22 that there is no shortage of willingness to confront climate change in Africa. Every single African country has included adapting agriculture as part of their climate change strategies submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). What is missing is sufficient investment.

We have the plans, the strategies, the shared knowledge and the examples of best practice. What we really need now is funding to bring solutions such as these to scale.

Out of the 10 countries most affected by greenhouse gas emissions, six of them are in Africa, yet the continent only receives 5 percent of dedicated climate funding.

And without investment, we cannot move forward. In Morocco, only 18 percent of farmers have access to bank loans, hampering their ability to invest in better, more sustainable methods.

The cost of adapting agriculture to cope with the effects of climate change will cost between $20bn and $30bn a year until 2030, according to the African Development Bank.
Where the money should go

At COP, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) is joining forces with the Moroccan government and partners, to suggest that there are three key areas for investment that will help safeguard African agriculture in the face of climate change.

The first is better soil management. Up to 65 percent of soils in Africa are estimated to be degraded. Planting legumes such as faba bean, chickpeas and lentils that naturally fix nitrogen to the soil reducing the need for fertiliser, is an important approach to reversing this trend.

Out of the 10 countries most affected by greenhouse gas emissions, six of them are in Africa, yet the continent only receives 5 percent of dedicated climate funding.

And without investment, we cannot move forward. In Morocco, only 18 percent of farmers have access to bank loans, hampering their ability to invest in better, more sustainable methods.

The cost of adapting agriculture to cope with the effects of climate change will cost between $20bn and $30bn a year until 2030, according to the African Development Bank.
Where the money should go

At COP, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) is joining forces with the Moroccan government and partners, to suggest that there are three key areas for investment that will help safeguard African agriculture in the face of climate change.

The first is better soil management. Up to 65 percent of soils in Africa are estimated to be degraded. Planting legumes such as faba bean, chickpeas and lentils that naturally fix nitrogen to the soil reducing the need for fertiliser, is an important approach to reversing this trend.

The production of legumes has been hit hard in Morocco in recent years, due to labour shortages and plant diseases. Improved varieties of chickpeas and lentils have been tested that will not only improve soil health but are resistant to diseases and suitable for harvest with a machine.

These lines have been well received by farmers and could now go into national breeding programmes in Morocco and beyond.

The second area is water control. A third of areas growing olives in Morocco are still using traditional flood irrigation methods, consuming water levels that are far beyond what the trees actually require.

ICARDA has been working with the Moroccan government to encourage the uptake of drip irrigation, which applies less water at the base of the tree only. Farmers can receive between 80-100 percent of the funds to install drip irrigation equipment, which can reduce water consumption by up to 70 percent.

Conservation agriculture is another important option to conserve soil-water content, particularly for rain-fed farming which is predominant in Morocco.

Locally manufactured seeders have made it possible for smallholder farmers to use zero-tillage technology at an affordable price. This technological package has great potential to expand if investments are made available.

The third aspect is climate-risk management. In Morocco, we have happily re-housed part of the ICARDA gene bank since we evacuated Aleppo in Syria in July 2012.

This important resource stores genetic material to help breeders develop drought and climate-tolerant and disease-resilient crops, limiting future risk to food supplies.

Bringing the collection of wheat, barley, chickpea, lentil and faba bean samples to Morocco puts them within easy reach of seed scientists, breeders and farmers, where they can be most effective.
Implementing solutions

So we have the plans, the strategies, the shared knowledge and the examples of best practice. What we really need now is funding to bring solutions such as these to scale.

Adaptation projects currently account for just 20 percent of climate public funds but need at least 50 percent in order to strike a balance with efforts that seek to mitigate the effects of climate change (PDF).

To benefit from the best methods, we need funding to expand capacity building and means of sharing our knowledge so that African countries can learn how to adapt to climate change.

There are many opportunities and solutions for how to feed the world while better coping with the climate change that we collectively work on to tackle at events like COP. But without investment, these plans will just languish on paper.

Source: Al Jazeera

How Trump’s victory was received in Asia

In one of history’s most shocking electoral upsets, Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, pulled off a decisive victory against his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. It was an outcome that defied practically all leading pundits and polls, putting into jeopardy the credibility of established media outlets and experts.

Though Clinton clinched more popular votes, Trump pierced through the Rust Belts and shattered the “blue wall” of Democratic dominance in one swing state after the other.

While it is too early to judge the merits and impact of a Trump administration, the immediate effect has been less than encouraging.

As post-election market fluctuation and nationwide anti-Trump protests demonstrate, the United States is a deeply polarised nation haunted by political uncertainty, which will certainly have a cascading effect on the rest of the world.

The US’ troubles at home will undoubtedly put into question its global commitments, particularly in key strategic theatres such as Asia. Moreover, Trump’s abject lack of political experience, divisive and often offensive rhetoric, and neo-isolationist philosophy will test Washington’s leadership in Asia like never before.

In contrast, China is likely to be seen as a relative rock of stability and bastion of mature leadership by a growing number of countries.

The shocker

Conversations with senior policymakers and analysts across the region suggest that Clinton was by far the preferred candidate in Asia, with the notable exception of China. As one of the architects of the Pivot to Asia policy, she oversaw deeper engagement with allies and rivals across the region.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton managed to normalise relations between Washington and Hanoi, consolidate relations with the democratising regime in Myanmar, and lay the ground for a deepened American military footprint in archipelagic Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Singapore.

There was also greater engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a whole, as Washington appointed an ambassador to the regional body and studiously deployed senior policymakers, including outgoing President Barack Obama, to regional fora.

His ‘America first’ philosophy, coupled with his ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign slogan, suggests his preference for a more transactional, introverted foreign policy, which puts America’s short-term interests ahead of the international liberal order.

In stark contrast, neither Trump nor his core team of advisers exhibit similar credentials or inspire much confidence. Trump, a billionaire businessman, has had no relevant diplomatic engagement with Asia. Much of his exposure to the region is based on pure business deals.

So far, Trump’s roster of advisers includes loyal friends and supporters, namely former governor Chris Christie, who is overseeing the transition team, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former mayor Rudy Giuliani. But there are indications that Washington insiders are considering joining in.
The neo-isolationist

Aside from his lack of relevant experience, Trump’s rhetoric has also been a source of deep concern across the region. Throughout decades, in one interview after the other, Trump has consistently advocated a mercantilist conception of American global interest.

His “America first” philosophy, coupled with his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, suggests his preference for a more transactional, introverted foreign policy, which puts America’s short-term interests ahead of the international liberal order.

This is precisely why he has repeatedly questioned Washington’s long-standing military commitments in both Asia and Europe, which have benefited from decades of US security umbrella.

He has threatened to withdraw American military support from vulnerable allies, ranging from the Baltic States which confront a Russian threat to South Korea which faces a volatile North Korea, unless they provide strategic “tribute” and fulfil their respective “obligations”.

No wonder then, shortly after his election victory, Seoul convened an emergency National Security Council meeting to assess risks of a potential American disengagement from the region. Strategic anxiety also permeates halls of power in Tokyo, Manila, Canberra and other traditional allied nations.

Not too dissimilar from the George W Bush administration, Trump has expressed more preference for unilateral assertion of American military muscle, particularly in the South China Sea, rather than harnessing regional institutions, international law and multilateral diplomacy.

Grand bargains

He seems to be more concerned with striking grand bargains with major powers, particularly Russia, than engaging with smaller nations and mobilising allies for preservation of public international goods.

Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric, which has transformed the (white) working class into his core constituency, also doesn’t bode well for the US’ economic engagement with the region.

He has opposed both existing (North America Free Trade Agreement) and proposed (Transpacific Partnership Agreement) regional commercial arrangements, which are crucial to the US’ strategic influence and economic wellbeing.

His plans to impose heavy tariffs on trading partners in Asia, introduce “extreme vetting” on immigrants, and scrap the TPP agreement will heavily undermine the US’ leadership in the region.

Trump’s threat to overturn Obamacare, the Illegal Immigration Act, and other key legacies of his predecessor will surely provoke a backlash at home, further deepening America’s internal polarisation.

The president-elect’s mercurial temperament, incendiary rhetoric, and often-contradictory policy remarks have simply compounded a profound sense of uncertainty over the US’ role in the region in the coming years.

After all, it takes more than a gracious, reassuring victory speech for Trump to restore and harness regional trust in America and its commitment to the Asian strategic order.

He will have to dramatically distance his actual policy from his campaign rhetoric, sign up credible foreign policy advisers, constantly reiterate Washington’s commitment to regional alliances and the broader strategic order, and propose a positive-sum economic initiative, which will deepen, not reduce, trade and investment linkages in the Asia-Pacific theatre.

Otherwise, Trump’s presidency could very well mark the end of “American exceptionalism”, or any credible claim to such.

Source: Al Jazeera

In Gaza, we aren’t mourning Clinton’s loss

On December 14, 1998, we had a day off at school. As an eight-year-old child, I couldn’t be happier.

All the shops were closed and there were roadblocks everywhere. The streets were filled with Palestinian flags, and white and red striped flags I couldn’t recognise. I asked my father and he explained that those were American flags, and that Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, was going to visit Gaza City later that day.

Little did I know that I would be hearing Clinton’s name almost every day for the next 18 years, but it will not be on happy occasions.

The late Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, had invited Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton to inaugurate the  Gaza International Airport . Clinton’s helicopters landed on the airport’s runway in Rafah and then took off to Gaza City, where Clinton addressed the Palestinian National Council in what went down in history as the first visit ever by an American president to a “sovereign” Palestinian entity.

Clinton’s Palestine concerns

The following year, my siblings and I joined 65 other students in the newly opened American International School in Gaza, a school fully staffed by American and Canadian teachers, with textbooks that had come all the way from the United States to Gaza.

In the meantime, Senator Hillary Clinton joined Elie Wiesel in addressing “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic” rhetoric in Palestinian textbooks ( PDF ). In 2001, she  sent a letter  to President George W Bush urging him to force Yasser Arafat into changing the Palestinian Authority’s “hateful rhetoric” as a condition for peace.

In 2007, she questioned Mahmoud Abbas’ eligibility as a “partner for peace”, given that textbooks issued under his administration were “inciting hatred”.

This came after she  co-sponsored a Congress resolution that supported the building of Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank, which she defended by saying: “This is not against the Palestinian people, this is against terrorists.”

Despite Clinton’s passionate interest in Palestinian education, she had little praise for Gaza’s American school; on the contrary, when two American supplied Israeli F-16 jets  razed the school  to the ground in 2008/9, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had nothing to say.

Her indifference came as no surprise, and was no different than her reaction, or lack thereof, to Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s Airport three years after she herself had inaugurated it with Arafat and her husband.

Driven by a  mission from God  to spread peace and democracy in the Middle East, Bush pressed for a Palestinian National Council against all odds in 2006. But when Hamas, as predicted, won the elections, he  approved a plan  to overthrow Hamas by igniting a Palestinian civil war with the help of Israel.

In the meantime, Clinton was busy  co-sponsoring a Congress resolution  entitled, “The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006”. The resolution, which was introduced after Hamas won the elections and taken over Gaza as a result of Bush’s interference, denied Hamas any participation in the “peace process” unless it recognised Israel, disarmed and renounced violence.

The bill was signed into law by Bush in December 2006, and was effectively the approval Israel needed to launch its ongoing siege of Gaza. Effectively, Bush and Clinton tried to change the results of the elections they forced upon us with a violent civil war, and when that failed, they decided to punish us for making the “wrong democratic choice”.

OPINION: Trump and Israel