Britain, Defence, Government, NATO, Politics, Society, Uncategorized

NATO defence spending

DEFENCE

nato-funding

Intro: Mr Trump is right to ask serious questions about the budgetary imbalance

The visit by Theresa May last month to Washington won an important acknowledgement from President Donald Trump: ‘he was 100 per cent behind NATO’. This was perceived as something of a coup given Mr Trump’s apparent indifference towards the 70-year-old alliance. His principal objection was not so much its existence as to the disproportionate contribution being made by the United States to its upkeep. By some measures, America pays 75 per cent of the total of NATO spending, most of which provides for the defence of Europe.

Donald Trump’s view – and, also, that of President Obama before him – is that Europe should shoulder a bigger share of that burden. A NATO symposium in Cardiff a few years ago proposed a minimum standard: that all NATO members should spend two per cent of their GDP on defence. This suited the UK because we have been meeting are two per cent commitment. According to the Government and NATO we continue to do so. A think-tank report, however, has caused consternation in Whitehall by suggesting all is not as it seems.

According to The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), last year’s figure was put at 1.98 per cent, below the NATO standard. The report claims that in Europe, only Greece and Estonia met the 2 per cent target in 2016. It has been suggested that the UK fell slightly short of the target because the economy grew faster than expected. The cash shortfall equates to around £380million. The British Government has responded by denouncing the calculation as “wrong” and has pointed to official NATO statistics from last July which put the UK’s defence spending for 2016 at 2.21 per cent of GDP. The Ministry of Defence has blamed exchange rate fluctuations caused by the drop in the value of pound sterling for the IISS ‘miscalculation’.

But this argument is largely specious – superficially plausible, but actually wrong – because, what matters is not a smoke-and-mirrors-game played with national budgetary statistics, but the provision for an adequate defence of Europe (largely paid for by the countries of Europe). Mr Trump is right to ask serious questions about the budgetary imbalance. The recent revelations that the Royal Navy’s entire fleet of seven attack submarines was out of action indicates that this is more than just massaging budgets; what matters is having the military capability to defend the nation and contribute to the requirements of the alliance whenever necessary. The politics and intergovernmental wrangling are secondary to the provision of effective defence systems; and the UK – and many others in Europe – need to pay their proper share towards them.

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European Union, Japan, NATO, North Korea, United Nations, United States

North Korea taunts the US with new missile launch

NORTH KOREA

north-korea-missile-test-wdp

On February 12, North Korea launched a Musudan Intermediate-Range Ballistic missile. The launch contravenes UN Security Council resolutions.

Intro: North Korea is believed to have at least 12 nuclear warheads with explosive power of up to 40 kilotonnes each – over twice that of the Hiroshima bomb. The Musudan ballistic missile can carry at least one of these devices.  

Following the firing of a ballistic missile by North Korea towards Japan on February 12, Donald Trump has given Japan his ‘100 per cent’ backing.

The weapon flew some 300 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan. The timing of the launch coincided with the U.S. President hosting Japanese premier Shinzo Abe at his Florida mansion.

At a hastily arranged press conference Mr Abe said the ballistic test was ‘absolutely intolerable’.

Mr Trump added: ‘I just want everybody to understand that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 per cent.’

The two leaders said their countries would draw closer together.

The South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement that ‘North Korea’s repeated provocations show the Kim Jong-un regime’s nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development’.

Seoul’s military said that it was probably an intermediate range Musudan class missile. The weapons are designed to travel up to 3000 miles – meaning Japan could be reached from North Korea. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said it was a clear provocation to his country.

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said the continuing missile tests ‘undermined regional and international security’. He added: ‘North Korea must refrain from further provocations, halt all launches using ballistic missile technology and abandon once and for all its ballistic missile programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, as required by the UN Security Council.’

Mr Abe said: ‘President Trump and I myself completely share the view that we are going to promote further cooperation between the two nations. And also, we are going to further reinforce our alliance.’

North Korea is barred under UN resolutions from any use of ballistic missile technology. But six sets of UN sanctions since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 have failed to halt its drive for what it insists are defensive weapons.

It conducted two nuclear tests and numerous missile launches last year in its quest to develop a nuclear weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland. The European Union also joined the criticism of North Korea and said its ‘repeated disregard of its international obligations was provocative and unacceptable’.

The South Korean military said in a statement: ‘Our assessment is that it is part of a show of force and is in response to the new US administration’s hardline position against the North.’

Mr Trump has vowed to get tough with North Korea and has called its leader Kim Jung-un a maniac who butchered his family. At a rally in Iowa last January he said: ‘This guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him.’

He added: ‘The message we’re sending to the world right now is a message of strength and solidarity; we stand with Japan and we stand with our allies in the region to address the North Korean menace.’

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North Korean Missile ranges.

 

 

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Arts, Films, Society, United States

Film Review: ‘Loving’

THE POWER OF LOVE

Inspiring: Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving.

Inspiring: Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving.

Synopsis: The gripping true story of a mixed-race couple who stood against the bigots to become American heroes.

WHEN Richard Loving, a white bricklayer from Virginia, married his black girlfriend, Mildred Jeter, in 1958, a firestorm of publicity and a prominent footnote in the Constitution of the United States were the last things either of them expected. Or wanted.

Richard, as depicted and choreographed by Joel Edgerton in writer-director Jeff Nichols’s wonderful film, was a simple soul, who with his crewcut and slow drawl might have seemed like the prototype of a Southern redneck, but clearly didn’t have a bigoted bone in his body.

He was joined in matrimony by Mildred (Irish actress Ruth Negga) for uncomplicated and old-fashioned reasons. They loved each other, and she was pregnant.

However, interracial marriage was prohibited by Virginia’s miscegenation laws. They sidestepped that by tying the knot in Washington DC, only to find themselves arrested and jailed on their return home.

The judge deemed that ‘Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents . . . The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.’

He gave the Lovings a stark choice; either annul the marriage or leave the state for 25 years. They left, but secretly returned for Mildred to give birth, and were arrested again.

Their lawyer used his friendship with the judge to keep them out of jail, but told them there would be no further leniency.

Although they were country folk who yearned to go back to their roots, the Lovings were compelled to raise their growing family in the city.

A few years later, stirred by the spirit of the burgeoning civil rights movement, Mildred wrote to the attorney-general, Robert Kennedy, who referred their case to the American Civil Liberties Union.

An ACLU lawyer, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), saw their predicament as perfect leverage for an appeal to the Supreme Court, and although Richard in particular recoiled from being leverage for anything, they duly became a legal precedent, a cause celebre.

Journalists descended on them. Life magazine sent a photographer (played here by the ever-splendid Michael Shannon).

 

AND inevitably, the grotesque notion, long enshrined in Virginia’s law, that interracial marriage was ‘against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth’, was overturned.

Loving vs. Virginia remains a landmark civil rights case.

It is a poignant tale, but then civil rights stories always are. Nichols’s great skill is in maintaining its integrity. There are no eloquent, barnstorming speeches about injustice, least of all by the Lovings themselves.

This is not the America of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film in which Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn played the gnarled old white liberals grappling with their daughter Joanna’s decision to marry Sidney Poitier’s urbane black doctor.

This is an America in which you can practically hear the cogs turn when people think.

Edgerton and in particular the Oscar-nominated Negga are both superb, giving heartrendingly sensitive performances as two people bewildered by the events that have engulfed them. When their lawyer asks Richard if he has a message for the Supreme Court justices, it is a plain one: ‘Tell them that I love my wife.’

His surname gave Nichols a conveniently plain title, too, and the narrative doesn’t need much adornment either.

Maybe that’s why the picture itself is not in the frame for an Academy Award, but Nichols’s achievement should not be overlooked. He has made a very fine film.

 

Loving (12A)

Verdict: Rousing true story ★★★★

 

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Britain, Government, Syria, United Nations

Assad’s trail of torture and extermination

SYRIA

Intro: Boris Johnson sickened by Amnesty report that Syrian regime ‘exterminated’ 13,000 captives.

The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has said he was “sickened” by reports that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has tortured and hanged 13,000 political prisoners in four years.

Amid compelling evidence that the Syrian president’s henchmen carried out an unprecedented “policy of extermination”, Mr Johnson said the dictator had “no future as leader”.

Civilians perceived to be opposed to the brutal regime – including medical doctors and aid workers – were executed in mass hangings of up to 50 detainees at a time, according to a chilling Amnesty International dossier.

Victims were given death sentences after sham trials lasting less than three minutes, often on the basis of confessions extracted through torture, the human rights charity has said. Many thousands of others held at the notorious 20,000-capacity Saydnaya military prison, north of Damascus, died from starvation and disease.

Amnesty International’s year-long investigation drew on graphic accounts from witnesses, including judges, officials, and former guards at the prison.

One source, a former military officer known only as Hamid, who was arrested in 2011, described hearing the killings taking place from the floor above. He said: ‘If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling … We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death.’

The bodies of those hanged are believed to have been dumped in mass graves on military land on the outskirts of the war-ravaged capital.

The report said it was ‘inconceivable that these large-scale practices have not been authorised at the highest levels of the Syrian government’.

It is the first evidence said to prove that Assad, 51, has authorised torture to punish opponents and crush dissent. He has long been suspected of such action.

Individual death sentences are supposed to be approved by either the Syrian minister of defence or the chief of staff of the army, both of whom are authorised to act on behalf of Assad.

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Thousands hanged at Saydnaya prison, Amnesty International has said.

Following publication of the study, Mr Johnson took to social media networking site Twitter, and said: ‘Sickened by reports from Amnesty International on executions in Syria. Assad responsible for so many deaths and has no future as leader.’

His comments appear to back away from his suggestions last month that Assad could be allowed to run for re-election in a bid to end Syrian’s civil war, which has left nearly 400,000 dead and half the population displaced.

A statement released by 10 Downing Street said: ‘The Foreign Secretary stressed that Britain [doesn’t] believe that Assad can govern the country or take control of its democratically elected government.’

Amnesty’s report, titled Human Slaughterhouse, reveals that as well as extrajudicial executions, the Syrian authorities are deliberately inflicting horrific conditions on detainees, including torture and denial of food, water and medicine.

Since the uprising began in 2011, the prison has been filled with those accused of opposing Assad or taking part in anti-government protests, as well as military personnel said to be working against the regime or plotting to defect.

Upon arriving at Saydnaya, they undergo a brutal session of beating – referred to as the ‘welcome party’. Witnesses described a methodical routine to the killings, in which the doomed detainees were collected from their cell blocks in the afternoon and told they were being transferred to civilian prisons.

Instead, they were moved to a facility in the grounds known as the ‘red building’, where they were beaten for several hours.

Between midnight and 3am, they were then blindfolded and moved in delivery trucks and minibuses to another part of the jail called the ‘white building’. There, they were taken into a basement room, nooses were placed around their necks and they were hanged. Following the executions, the prisoners’ bodies were taken to Tishreen military hospital where they were registered as having died of natural causes. The corpses were then loaded onto trucks to be secretly buried in mass graves, the report said. Families of the dead were never informed.

Amnesty said the evidence, from between 2011 and 2015, amounted to crimes against humanity and called on the UN to investigate.

A spokesperson for Amnesty said: ‘The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorised at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population.

‘The cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenceless prisoners, along with the carefully crafted and systematic programmes of psychological and physical torture that are in place inside Saydnaya prison cannot be allowed to continue. Those responsible for these heinous crimes must be brought to justice.’ The report adds to previous evidence of abuses, which could result in Assad and key figures in his regime being hauled before international criminal courts charged with crimes against humanity.

In August 2013, a defector known only as Caesar fled Syria with files containing photographs of the bodies of more than 28,000 victims who had died under torture in prison.

The state of the bodies – which were covered in horrific wounds – and their sheer number revealed the scale of the abuse.

Amnesty’s report was published ahead of talks in Geneva aiming to end the bloody civil war.

Assad’s representatives are preparing to meet officials from Turkey, who have backed the rebels, later this month. Russia and Iran, both Assad’s allies, will join the talks.

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Britain, Government, Politics, Society

Theresa May has now been PM for six months

UNITED KINGDOM

theresa-may

Theresa May has now held Office of Prime Minister for six months. On a recent visit to the United States Mrs May said that British Conservatives shared the principles of US Republicans.

Intro: Britain has a prime minister with convictions and a true sense of purpose. After just six months, she is growing fast into the job

AS a generally broad rule, Theresa May doesn’t give much away about her thoughts. But when the British Prime Minister does have something to say, it makes compelling listening.

The last fortnight has been an impressive period for Mrs May, with two speeches of historic importance, both full of substance and good sense.

And to crown it all came last week’s encouraging talks with Donald Trump, who hailed a “fantastic relationship”.

In the first of her momentous speeches, the prime minister outlined her vision for Brexit, with a straightforwardness and clarity that left her critics floundering.

Last week, addressing Republicans in Philadelphia, she set out her political philosophy and ideas about Britain’s relationship with the US and wider world.

In doing so, it is no exaggeration to say she signalled the end of a grim era for the West. For she brought down the curtain on two disastrous decades of Anglo-American intervention in foreign wars, whose legacy has been the rise of Islamist terrorism and the biggest migrations in peacetime history.

Whilst in America, Mrs May said that British Conservatives shared the principles of US Republicans: ‘The value of liberty, the dignity of work, the principles of nationhood, family, economic prudence, patriotism – and putting power in the hands of the people.’

But in a hugely significant passage, she added: ‘The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.’

Yes, we should intervene when the threat to our interests is real, and we should stand by our friends and allies. But wherever possible, Western values should triumph by example, not by force of arms.

As for those who have accused Mrs May of crawling to Mr Trump, they are a long way wide of the mark.

True, the prime minister did show politeness fitting for a guest – and the friendship due to our most powerful ally and biggest trading partner among individual nations.

Yet she has not shrunk from telling President Trump some home truths, warning him to be wary of Vladimir Putin, speaking up for NATO, free trade, and emphatically rejecting bigotry and torture.

Of course, there was always going to be a limit to how much could be achieved in such a short visit. But on the evidence of what she has said, Mrs May’s message on both torture and NATO appears to have got through. The prospects for a trade deal with the US seem set to be very promising.

There is good reason for quiet optimism that the UK’s partnership with the US will be highly successful – particularly for trade – to the great benefit of both countries.

Britain has a prime minister with convictions and a true sense of purpose. After just six months, she is growing fast into the job.

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Donald Trump, Government, Legal, United States

Federal judge temporary bans Donald Trump’s travel ban

UNITED STATES

A federal judge in Washington has temporarily blocked enforcement of President Trump’s controversial ban on entry to the United States. Airlines have planned to begin to allow passengers from banned countries to board.

Following the ruling, government authorities immediately began communicating with airlines and taking steps that would allow travel by those previously barred from doing so.

At the same time, however, the White House said in a statement that the Justice Department would “at the earliest possible time” file for an emergency stay of the “outrageous” ruling from the judge. Minutes later, it issued a similar statement omitting the word “outrageous.”

“The president’s order is intended to protect the homeland and he has the constitutional authority and responsibility to protect the American people,” the White House said.

The federal judge’s ruling, which was broader than similar ones before it, set up a high-stakes legal confrontation between the new president and the judicial branch over his temporary ban on entry by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries as well as refugees. In his opinion, U.S. District Judge James L. Robart wrote that “fundamental” to the court’s work was “a vigilant recognition that it is but one of three equal branches of our federal government.”

“The court concludes that the circumstances brought before it today are such that it must intervene to fulfill its constitutional role in our tripart government,” he wrote.

The ruling is temporary, and the ultimate question of whether Trump’s executive order will pass constitutional muster will fall to higher-level courts. Legal analysts have said the ban could be difficult to permanently undo because the president has broad authority to set immigration policy.

Robart granted a request from lawyers for the state of Washington who had asked him to stop the government from acting on critical sections of Trump’s order. Justice and State department officials had revealed earlier that about 60,000 — and possibly as many as 100,000 — visas already have been provisionally revoked as a result of Trump’s order. A U.S. official said that because of the court case, officials would examine the revoking of those visas so that people would be allowed to travel.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson hailed the case as “the first of its kind” and declared that it “shuts down the executive order immediately.” Robart, a judge appointed by George W. Bush, said in his written order that U.S. officials should stop enforcing the key aspects of the ban: the halting of entry by refugees and citizens from certain countries. He did not specifically address the matter of those whose visas already had been revoked.

The Justice Department said in a statement that it was “reviewing the court’s order and will determine its next steps.” A State Department official said the agency was “working closely with the Department of Homeland Security and our legal teams to determine how this affects our operations.”

“We will announce any changes affecting travellers to the United States as soon as that information is available,” the official said.

Immigration lawyers have said that they are still assessing the Washington case but were heartened by it.

“The order makes it clear that all of the main provisions of the executive order cannot be enforced at this time,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “That means that a lot will have to change immediately, and the government will have to make clear how they intend to follow the order with respect to all of the ways in which immigrants here and abroad are being affected at the moment.”

Since it was first rolled out a week ago, Trump’s travel ban has been evolving — both because of legal challenges and as a result of decisions by the administration to walk back aspects of it. Green-card holders from the affected countries, for example, no longer need waivers to get into the United States, as they did when the order took effect. And the Department of Homeland Security have asserted that the order does not apply to dual citizens with passports from countries other than the seven listed.

The numbers of visas revoked, too, demonstrated the far-reaching impact of the order. Families have been split, students unable to pursue their education, and those in the United States unable to leave for fear of not being able to return — and not by the handful, but by the tens of thousands.

During a hearing in a lawsuit by two Yemeni brothers who arrived at Dulles International Airport last weekend and were quickly put on a return flight to Ethiopia because of the new restrictions, a Justice Department lawyer said 100,000 visas had been revoked.

The figure, though, was immediately disputed by the State Department, which said the number of visas revoked was roughly 60,000. A spokesperson had said earlier that the revocations would have no impact on the legal status of people already in the United States, but if those people left the country, their visas would no longer be valid.

About the same time, in Boston, a group of four students enrolled in area colleges, a researcher and the spouse of a permanent resident — all of whom came from countries affected by the ban — flew into the United States.

The group that entered was aboard the same flight from Frankfurt operated by the German airline Lufthansa, which a day earlier had noted on its website a court decision from last weekend that it claimed had “suspended” Trump’s decree on flights to Boston. Lawyers hailed the development as good news.

Among those who made their way back to the United States were two undergraduate Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who had been visiting their families for a winter break; as well as 27-year-old Behnam Partopour, a PhD student from Iran studying chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who had been working on a project in Germany; and Samira Asgari, an Iranian scientist who was headed to Boston to conduct research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Washington and Minnesota had filed a broad legal challenge to Trump’s order, alleging it was “separating families, harming thousands of the States’ residents, damaging the States’ economies, hurting State-based companies, and undermining both States’ sovereign interest in remaining a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees.” Jeffrey P. Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post and a Washington state resident, has spoken out against the ban.

In the past several days, federal judges in New York, California, Massachusetts and Virginia have issued rulings temporarily blocking aspects of the Trump order — though the orders all seemed to be limited to people who had made their way to U.S. airports, or, in Virginia’s case, to certain people.

The New York and Massachusetts rulings both blocked the government from detaining or deporting anyone from the seven affected countries who could legally enter the U.S., and the Massachusetts ruling added the critical phrase “absent the executive order.” In California, a judge declared that U.S. officials were also prevented from “blocking” people from entering who had a valid visa.

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Britain, European Union, Government, Politics, Society

UK Government announces plans for Brexit negotiations

UNITED KINGDOM

David Davis MP, the Brexit Secretary, has set out the UK Government’s negotiating strategy in a Government White Paper.

David Davis MP, the Brexit Secretary, has set out the UK Government’s negotiating strategy in a Government White Paper.

BREXIT SECRETARY David Davis has set out the Government’s negotiating strategy for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in a keenly-awaited white paper.

Launching the 77-page document in a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Davis said the paper confirmed Prime Minister Theresa May’s vision of ‘an independent and truly global United Kingdom’.

Confirming the UK’s strategy would be guided by the 12 principles set out by Mrs May in her Lancaster House speech last month (see article), Mr Davis said the Government was aiming for ‘a new, positive and constructive partnership between Britain and the European Union that works in our mutual interest’.

The white paper, entitled The United Kingdom’s Exit From And New Partnership With The European Union, was published a day after MPs voted overwhelmingly to permit Mrs May to press ahead with starting withdrawal negotiations under Article 50 of the EU treaties.

Mrs May’s foreword to the white paper was made up of extracts from her Lancaster House speech, in which she said that forging a new partnership with Europe and a ‘stronger, fairer, more global’ Britain would be ‘the legacy of our time, the prize towards which we work, the destination at which we arrive once the negotiation is done’.

In a preface to the document, Mr Davis said that Britain entered the negotiations which the Government intends to trigger by the end of March in ‘a position of strength’.

Stressing that the UK ‘wants the EU to succeed’, he urged the remaining 27 member states and European institutions to be guided in the upcoming negotiations by ‘the principles set out in the EU Treaties concerning a high degree of international co-operation and good neighbourliness’.

Mr Davis said the Government would not publish details of its plans that would undermine Britain’s negotiating position, but promised ‘extensive engagement with Parliament’ and a ‘high degree of public engagement’ as the process went forward.

‘This document sets out our plan for the strong new partnership we want to build with the EU,’ he said.

‘Whatever the outcome of our negotiations, we will seek a more open, outward-looking, confident and fairer UK, which works for all.’

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