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Friday
Apr202018

North Korea says it will suspend all nuclear and missile tests

iStock/Thinkstock(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea has announced a freeze of all nuclear and missile tests, according to South Korean media reports.

“The North will shut down a nuclear test site in the country's northern side to guarantee transparency in suspending nuclear tests,” media reports quoted North Korean state media.

Kim Jong-un was cited by Korea Central News Agency saying the country had already proven it has nuclear weapons and “therefore we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid and long and ICBM rocket tests.”

News of the announcement comes just weeks before a potential meeting between the North Korean leader and President Donald Trump. Kim is set to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in next week.

Trump responded on Twitter to the reports: "North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit."

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Apr202018

Trump administration's first human rights report sparks fierce criticism

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. State Department has released its first human rights report fully compiled under the Trump administration, and it's generating controversy for several changes and omissions - including eliminating references to "reproductive rights" and dropping use of the term "occupied territories."

The report – which is mandated by Congress – is published every year and details human rights in virtually every country and territory around the world. It's compiled by diplomats at posts on the ground over the course of the previous year.

Last year, there was controversy because then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not publicly appear to roll out the report, which critics say signaled his disinterest in promoting human rights early in his tenure.

This year, acting Secretary John Sullivan spoke briefly at the launch, explaining the importance of the report and taking a moment to call out certain countries – Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela, Turkey, China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia – the last four of which were labeled "forces of instability" because of their human rights abuses.

Here are some of the headlines from this year's report and from a briefing with Amb. Michael Kozak, the senior official in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

ELIMINATING REFERENCE TO 'REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS'

Generating the most attention is the replacement of sections on "reproductive rights" with ones on "coercion in population control" – a sign of the Trump administration's anti-abortion push that spreads beyond the U.S., like reinstating the so-called Mexico City policy and reportedly trying to remove references to contraception, abortion, and sex education at the United Nations.

In 2012, under Hillary Clinton, the department first included "reproductive rights," but the term has been misconstrued to mean abortion rights, according to Amb. Kozak, so the Trump administration wanted to dispel that notion: "It's not a diminishment of women's rights or a desire to get away from it. It was to stop using a term that has several different meanings that are not all the ones we intend."

The U.S. has never taken a position on whether there is a right to an abortion because there's no internationally recognized standard, Kozak added – but there is one that no one should be forced to have an abortion or be sterilized, and that's what the reports are meant to target.

Still, the omission has been decried by some rights groups. "Reproductive rights are human rights, and omitting the issue signals the Trump administration’s latest retreat from global leadership on human rights," Amnesty International said in a statement. Human Rights Watch pointed out that the report is silent on the obstacles many women face in countries from Bolivia to Poland to Nepal on reproductive issues.

DROPPING USE OF THE TERM 'OCCUPIED TERRITORIES'

This year's report uses the section title, "Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza," as opposed to last year's "Israel and the Occupied Territories" – a first, according to Amnesty International.

Within the 2017 section, the Golan Heights is still referred to as 'Israeli-occupied,' but not the West Bank, as in years past.

When a journalist tried multiple times to ask a question about the Palestinian territories, he was shut down by spokesperson Heather Nauert, who called on others and then whisked Amb. Kozak away at the end.

DEPARTMENT'S REPORTS VS. TRUMP'S WORDS AND ACTIONS?

The report is tough on many countries, but its impact has been called into question given President Donald Trump's own behavior – both his embrace of some of the world leaders called out and his use of some of the bad behaviors called out – in particular, denigrating the press, his travel and refugee bans, and transgender military ban.

Should the Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte, for example, take notice of the report's condemnation of his brutal war on drugs – or of Trump's "great relationship" with him, as Trump said in November?

Amb. Kozak said Trump's engagement with world leaders is "complementary" to the reports because "usually part of your policy is engaging with the people whose behavior you’re trying to change at some level."

"The fact is, these other governments and their populations do read the report, and I don’t think they discount it because the President speaks with their leader or otherwise," he added, noting that Trump raises these issues in his conversations.

In particular, Amb. Kozak was pushed on freedom of the press and Trump's attacks on 'fake news' media, but Kozak distinguished between tough talk and physical threats to media outlets overseas: "We make quite a distinction between political leaders being able to speak out and say that that story was not accurate or using even stronger words sometimes, and using state power to prevent the journalists from continuing to do their work."

GOING SOFT ON U.S. ALLIES?

The U.S. is always accused of going easier on its allies than its adversaries, but this report, in particular, is getting heat for that.

One example: Last year's report cited several "human rights problems" in Japan, most notably "lack of due process for detention of suspects and poor prison and detention center conditions." But this year the report said: "There were no reports of egregious human rights abuses."

But more notably, in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom the Trump administration is particularly close, is making advances on women's rights but flouting the rule of law with his detention and extortion of other princes.

While that's detailed in the report, Amb. Kozak was softer on the detentions than similar crackdowns elsewhere, saying they were "connected, ostensibly anyway, to more concern about corruption, which is another one of our issues... We're trying to encourage that kind of movement on the part of the Saudis."

The report also went lighter on Saudi's airstrikes in Yemen, according to human rights groups. It notes that their airstrikes "caused disproportionate collateral damage" – but makes no mention that they're also "indiscriminate and appeared not to sufficiently minimize collateral impact on civilians," as last year's report pointed out.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Apr202018

US believes Austin Tice still alive as FBI offers new $1 million reward

Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Intelligence gathered over the past 18 months suggests that American journalist Austin Tice is still alive almost six years after he went missing in Syria, ABC News has learned.

The assessment comes as the FBI has, for the first time, announced a new reward for information leading to Tice's safe location, recovery, and return — for $1 million.

Two senior officials recently confirmed to ABC News that Tice, a journalist, and photographer kidnapped in August 2012, is believed to have survived his captivity despite past U.S. intelligence assessments that he might have died in Syria. A former Marine, Tice had been freelancing for several news outlets, including CBS and the Washington Post, and covering the start of the Syrian civil war.

For a long time, the FBI only had one special agent assigned to the case – a person who had been serving in the bureau for less time than Tice had been missing. Some officials privately criticized the FBI for chasing old leads in the case and not devoting more resources to recovering him from what was assessed to be an element of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad’s regime or his family.

By contrast, American hostages of terrorist groups such as Kayla Mueller killed in ISIS captivity, and Caitlan Coleman, who was freed last fall after five years as a Taliban hostage, had teams of FBI agents working their cases. One senior official told ABC News that there were intelligence officers augmenting the FBI’s work and that criticism of their efforts was unfair.

Tice, who would be 36-years old now, disappeared just after his 31st birthday while covering the Free Syrian Army, a group of Syrian military officials who had joined the opposition against Assad. A month later, a video was released, showing him blindfolded, removed from a car, and led by armed men up a hill, saying "Oh, Jesus." He has not been heard from since.

But the FBI reward has given Tice's family renewed hope: "We are heartened by the recent U.S. Government posting of a reward for information," Tice's parents Debra and Mark Tice said in a family statement to ABC News. "We deeply appreciate every increased effort to hasten the day that we see our son safely home."

Debra and her husband Marc Tice have been outspoken in their pursuit to bring Austin home and steadfast in their belief that he remains alive, although they cautioned that as far as they know, the timing of the FBI reward "is unrelated to any specific event," but rather to "the length of Austin’s detention and the Syrian government’s lack of information concerning Austin’s disappearance."

The FBI's announcement also garnered praise from others: "The U.S. government must stay focused on efforts to bring Austin Tice home. Offering a reward is an important way to demonstrate that commitment and could help bring forward new information," Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told ABC News in a statement.

In December 2016, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor that then-U.S. hostage envoy James O'Brien had informed him that Tice was alive.

"Mr. O'Brien and his team informed me that they have high confidence that Austin is alive in Syria along with other Americans who are being held captive," Cornyn said at the time.

The next month, Tice's parents said the Obama administration also told them, "Austin, our son, is alive, that he's still being held captive in Syria."

A current U.S. official confirmed recently that the assessment that he is alive has not changed.

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Friday
Apr202018

Endangered African penguins threatened by avian flu

iStock/Thinkstock(CAPE TOWN, South Africa) -- Endangered African penguins living in a colony on Boulders Beach in Cape Town, South Africa, have been further threatened by an outbreak of avian flu.

According to Nature, veterinarians detected the virus in February among penguins there as well as Cape cormorants, swift terns and peregrine falcons. By March, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs called for a halt to research activities for fear of further spreading the infection to other colonies.

Over 16 “abnormal deaths” have been recorded since February and residents and tourists have been advised not to handle any sick or dead birds.

The African penguin population has been in a steady decline and is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. In the 1930s there were about 1.5 million adult penguins living along the southern African coast but due to human activity, their numbers have decreased by 90 percent in less than a century. The Boulders population is currently about 1,700 birds.

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Friday
Apr202018

700-year-old Banyan tree in southern India put on a 'drip' to save it

Forest Department/Telangana(NEW YORK) -- A 700-year-old Banyan tree whose branches spread across about three acres is believed to be one of the oldest and largest of its kind in the world.

But when one of the branches of the tree in Telangana in southern India broke off in December, forest officials found the tree to be infested with termites, and the area, a major tourist destination, was immediately closed to the public. The tree has now been put on a "drip" of diluted pesticides.

The Banyan is the national tree of India and is considered sacred by Hindus.

‘We drilled holes in the affected branches and injected the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, every two meters," Chukka Ganga Reddy, the District Forest Officer told ABC News. Two meters is about 6.5 feet.

"We are maintaining the flow of the chemical through drips," Reddy said. "We are also washing the roots with the same pesticide and treating the adjoining areas to prevent the termites spreading."

Concrete pillars are also being built to support the sprawling branches of the tree. Banyan trees are known to spread laterally as roots dropped by their branches mature into thick trunks which support the tree.

"The results are encouraging, and we hope the tree will recover in two to three months. We will then decide when to open the area for tourists," Reddy said.

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Friday
Apr202018

Australian ex-deputy prime minister welcomes baby with former staffer

Michael Masters/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- The former deputy prime minister of Australia and his partner, Vikki Campion, have welcomed a baby boy.

Joyce quit his government post and position as leader of the National Party of Australia after it emerged he was having an affair with Campion, his former media adviser, and that she was expecting a baby.

After the affair, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull banned ministers from having sexual relationships with their staff.

Joyce has four daughters with his wife, Natalie.

After the baby, who has been named Sebastian, was born at Armidale Hospital, Joyce told Australian outlets “We are very happy and just taking it quietly.”

The affair was not Joyce’s only recent political crisis. In 2017, he was disqualified from running in a by-election when he was forced from his seat after it was revealed he held dual Australian-New Zealand citizenship.

After renouncing his secondary citizenship he was ruled eligible and won back his seat with more than 60 percent of the vote, according to Australian media outlets.

The dual citizenship crisis affected several members of Parliament, and resulted in nine seats lost, including Joyce’s.

On the news of his partner's pregnancy, Joyce told Australian media the paternity of Campion's then-unborn child was a "gray area" given his travel schedule and the estimated date of conception.

He added however that he was planning to bring up the child as his own regardless of who the father was.

Joyce later said that the child's paternity was "nobody else's business", and in comments to Fairfax Media on Friday said the arrival of the baby had "comprehensively removed any doubts about paternity on the basis of date".

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Friday
Apr202018

Direct hotline set up for North, South Korea presidents

iStock/Thinkstock(SEOUL) -- A direct hotline has been set up between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
    
A test call was made Friday between Seoul's presidential office and Pyongyang's State Affairs Commission.

The two sides checked connections and talked about weather, according to the South's presidential Blue House.

The two leaders did not talk on Friday.

Their first conversation using the hotline is expected soon -- sometime before next Friday.

That's when the two will meet in person for the first time at the historic summit to take place at the truce village of Panmunjom at the border.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Apr202018

China province tries spraying and publicly shaming jaywalkers to deter them

iStock/Thinkstock(BEIJING) -- Crossing the street in China is often a chaotic business.

 It seemingly has nothing to do with whether a light is red or green. Instead, people just crowd onto the curb until they reach critical mass, and then off they go.

The government is trying various approaches to address the problem, including one province's experiment with spraying mist at jaywalkers, according to a report in the official Beijing News.

This method, undertaken by the government in Hubei province in central China, uses knee-high yellow poles installed on the curb at each end of a crosswalk.

When someone tries to cross against a red light, the poles spray mist at the scofflaws. At the same time, a recorded message says, “The light’s red. Please do not cross the street. It’s dangerous,” the Beijing News reported.

The system, which reportedly cost the Hubei government the equivalent of $207,000, also uses facial recognition technology. It takes pictures of the jaywalkers and displays the photos, along with the people's names, on huge LED displays on the street in an effort to shame them, the Beijing News reported.

The yellow poles are about 2.6 feet high. Staff change the water every day and keep it at a constant temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Thursday
Apr192018

What you need to know about Cuba's new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, as Raul Castro steps down

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(HAVANA) -- Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez is the first person outside of the Castro family to rule over Cuba in almost 60 years.

Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel in 2006, stepped down as president Thursday and gave power to his successor, First Vice President Diaz-Canel.

The Cuban government voted Wednesday to approve Diaz-Canel’s nomination as the candidate to replace the 86-year-old president.

Diaz-Canel addressed the nation with a speech that was broadcast live on television, in which he promised to preserve Cuba’s communist system while gradually introducing reforms.

"The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial, historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernization of our social and economic model," he said.

Raul Castro will remain head of the ruling Communist Party, maintaining his status for now as the most powerful public figure in Cuba. There was speculation for years that Castro would pick one of his children as his successor. Instead he chose a man who wasn’t even born when his brother started a revolution and took control of Cuba in 1959.  

Diaz-Canel has served as Cuba’s first vice president since 2013. He was born in the central province of Villa Clara in 1960. He climbed his way up the ranks of the ruling Communist Party and gained prominence as party leader in Villa Clara and Hologuin provinces, before becoming higher education minister.  

Diaz-Canel also led the Cuban delegation to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Diaz-Canel has publicly defended bloggers and academics who were critical of the Cuban government, under a system that represses dissent and is intolerant of criticism.

 

Now, as Cuba's newest president, the world will be watching his every move to see whether he strays from the path paved by the Castro brothers.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Apr192018

US has 'credible evidence' Russia, Syria sanitizing alleged chemical attack site: State Department

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The U.S. said Thursday it has "credible information and intelligence" that shows Russian and Syrian regime officials are denying an investigative team access to the alleged chemical weapons attack sites in Douma, Syria, as they sanitize them and remove incriminating evidence.

The accusation comes as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, investigators have still not reached Douma, the city outside the capital Damascus where the attacks reportedly took place. It has been 12 days since the chemical weapons were reportedly used – and nearly one week since President Donald Trump joined France and the United Kingdom in ordering the bombing of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for the attacks, which Syria denies carrying out.

"We have credible information that indicates that Russian officials are working with the Syrian regime to deny and delay these inspectors from gaining access to Douma," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday. "We believe it is an effort to conduct their own staged investigations. Russian officials have worked with the Syrian regime, we believe, to sanitize the locations of those suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use."

In addition to destroying evidence, she said, Russia and Syria are pressuring witnesses to change their stories.

"We have also watched as some people have seemingly been pressured by the government to change their stories about what actually occurred that night," Nauert added. "We have reports from credible people on the ground who have indicated that they have been pressured by both Russia and Syria to change their stories."

She couldn't say whether Russia and Syria had been "successful" in eliminating any trace of sarin or chlorine at the sites, but said it may mean that the OPCW investigation – if its team does get access – will not find any traces of the reported attack.

"It might be, it might be," she said – but she wouldn't "weigh into that conversation" any further and get ahead of the investigation: "We will have to wait and see."

Russian and Syrian responses to the U.S. accusation weren't immediately available.

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