Afghanistan: Taliban orders women to stay home; cover up in public
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) issued a statement of deep concern on Saturday in response to an announcement made by the Taliban de facto authorities saying that women should only leave their homes in cases of necessity and then, with their faces covered in public.
According to information received by UNAMA, this is a formal directive rather than a recommendation, any violations of which will lead to the punishment of male relatives.
“This decision contradicts numerous assurances regarding respect for and protection of all Afghans’ human rights, including those of women and girls, that had been provided to the international community by Taliban representatives during discussions and negotiations over the past decade,” the UNAMA statement said.
Following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the Taliban assured that women would be afforded their rights, whether in work, education, or society at large.
Female rights in crosshairs, again
News reports on the decree, which calls for women to only show their eyes and recommends they wear the head-to-toe burqas, say that this latest whittling of their rights in the country evokes similar restrictions from the Taliban’s previous rule between 1996 and 2001.
It also follows the reneging on an earlier promise to appease their hardline rule at the expense of further alienating the international community, which has been eager for signs that the de facto authority is ready for positive relations with the wider world.
After seizing power, the Taliban confirmed in September that secondary schools were reopening, but that only boys would be returning to the classroom.
Women teachers throughout the country were also unable to resume work.
Six weeks ago, the de facto authority decided again to postpone secondary schooling for Afghan girls – drawing wide international, regional, and local condemnation.
This latest decision by the Taliban threatens to further strain engagement with the international community.
“UNAMA will immediately request meetings with the Taliban de facto authorities to seek clarification on the status of this decision,” the statement continued, adding that UNAMA would also engage in consultations with members of the international community regarding the implications of this latest decree.
UN remains on the ground
Intense pushback against the Taliban have led to nations cutting development aid and enforcing strict sanctions on the country’s banking system, pushing Afghanistan towards economic ruin.
On 30 August 2021, the Security Council passed a resolution calling on the Taliban to provide safe passage for all those seeking to leave the country. During a high-level meeting in Geneva the following month, the international community pledged more than $1.2 billion in humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people.
Meanwhile the nations is becoming the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with needs surpassing those in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, leaving nearly 23 million people facing acute food insecurity.
In January, the UN and partners launched a more than $5 billion funding appeal for Afghanistan, in the hope of shoring up collapsing basic services there.
Throughout, the UN has pledged to stay and continue to deliver lifesaving humanitarian aid to the Afghan people across the country.
Shangri-La Dialogue: Li Shangfu accuses US of double standards in veiled attack
Chinese Defence Minister General Li Shangfu delivered a thinly veiled criticism of the United States on Sunday, saying “some country” liked to force its rules on others in its “rules-based international order”.
“Its so-called rules-based international order never tells you what the rules are, and who made these rules,” Li said in a speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, without naming the US or its partners.
“It practises exceptionalism and double standards and only serves the interests and follows the rules of a small number of countries,” he told Asia’s biggest defence conference.
In his first public statement to an international audience since becoming defence minister in March, Li highlighted China’s Global Security Initiative, a set of foreign policy principles and directions in line with Beijing’s style of diplomacy announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in April last year.
They include opposition to unilateral sanctions and the use of economic development to stem instability and conflict.
China has accused the US of using sanctions without getting United Nations approval, but Beijing has imposed unofficial retaliatory trade embargoes on Australia, Canada, Lithuania, South Korea and Taiwan.
“We in China believe that the key for countries to live in harmony is mutual respect and treating each other as equals,” he said.
“We are strongly opposed to imposing one’s own will on others, placing one’s own interests above those of others and pursuing one’s own security at the expense of others.”
He said some unspecified countries had “wilfully interfered in other country’s internal affairs”.
China has criticised Western countries for expressing concerns about human and civil rights in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as promoting Taiwan’s international engagement.
He said ties between the two countries – China and USA – in the past few years had reached a “record low” since 1979, when the countries established official relations. “It is undeniable that a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the US would be an unbearable disaster for the world,” he said.
“China believes that a big power should behave like one instead of provoking bloc confrontation for self-interest.”
He said the US needed to act with sincerity and “take concrete action” with China to stabilise and prevent further worsening of ties.
Asked about an incident on Saturday in which a Chinese navy ship manoeuvred near a US destroyer sailing through the Taiwan Strait, Li said: “What is key now is that we must prevent attempts to use freedom of navigation … as a pretext to exercise hegemony of navigation.”
On Saturday, the USS Chung-Hoon guided-missile destroyer and the Canadian frigate HMCS Montreal sailed through the strait. The US Indo-Pacific Command said a Chinese destroyer had overtaken the Chung-Hoon on its port side and crossed its bow at 150 yards (137 metres) in an unsafe way. The Chinese ship crossed the Chung-Hoon again on at 2,000 yards and stayed off the US ship’s port bow.
“Chung-Hoon maintained course and slowed to 10 knots to avoid a collision,” it said, accusing the Chinese navy of violating rules on safe passage in international waters.
Li said: “Every day, I see a lot of information about foreign vessels and fighter jets coming to areas near our territory. They are not here for innocent passage. They are here for provocation.”
Li praised cooperation between countries in the Asia-Pacific that allowed the waterway to remain stable.
“However, we do see some countries outside the region exercising their hegemony of navigation in the name of freedom of navigation,” he said.
“They want to muddy the waters so they can rake in profits. Regional countries should stay highly vigilant and firmly reject these acts.”
Li repeated Beijing’s position on Taiwan, saying the island was “core of China’s core interests”, and remained an internal issue for China, out of bounds for foreign governments.
“Taiwan is China’s Taiwan, and how to resolve the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese to decide,” he said.
Li said Beijing would not renounce the use of force to put Taiwan under its control.
“If anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will not hesitate for a second, we will fear no opponents and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity regardless of any cost.”
In response to the Chinese minister’s statement, the American side showed nervousness.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s comments earlier came at a tense time for relations between the US and China, as China rejected an offer from Austin to meet at the summit in Singapore, citing US sanctions on Chinese officials and companies.
Austin addressed the lack of communication in his speech on Saturday, saying that he is “deeply concerned” that the People’s Republic of China “has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management.”
“For responsible leaders, the right time to talk is anytime. The right time to talk is every time. And the right time to talk is now,” Austin said. “Dialogue is not a reward. It is a necessity.”
Austin reaffirmed that the US will “continue to stand by our allies and partners as they uphold their rights,” and maintain “our vigorous, responsible presence across the Indo-Pacific.”
FT: CIA chief made secret visit to China
CIA director Bill Burns travelled to China last month, a clandestine visit by one of President Joe Biden’s most trusted officials that signals how concerned the White House had become about deteriorating relations between Beijing and Washington. Bill Burns’ trip last month was most senior to Beijing by Biden administration official, writes “The Financial Times”.
Five people familiar with the situation said Burns, a former top diplomat who is frequently entrusted with delicate overseas missions, travelled to China for talks with officials.
The visit, the most senior to China by a Biden administration official, comes as Washington pushes for high-level engagements with Beijing to try to stabilise the relationship. The White House and CIA declined to comment. But one US official said Burns met Chinese intelligence officials during the trip.
“Last month, director Burns travelled to Beijing where he met with Chinese counterparts and emphasised the importance of maintaining open lines of communications in intelligence channels,” said the US official.
Burns’ mission took place in the same month US national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, in Vienna. The White House did not announce that meeting until it had concluded. Burns’ trip was also the highest-level visit to China by a US official since deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman went to Tianjin in July 2021.
Biden has on several occasions asked the CIA director to conduct delicate missions, at home and overseas. Burns travelled to Moscow in November 2021 to warn Russian officials not to invade Ukraine.
Several people familiar with the situation said Biden last year sent Burns to Capitol Hill in an effort to persuade then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to travel to Taiwan. The White House has been trying to kick-start exchanges with China after a particularly turbulent period that started in February when a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over North America.
The incident derailed an effort to set “a floor” under the relationship that Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping had agreed was necessary when they met at the G20 in Bali in November. Biden last month said he expected an imminent “thaw” in relations without providing any detail.
Burns travelled to China before Biden made the comment at a G7 summit in Hiroshima. “As both an experienced diplomat and senior intelligence official, Burns is uniquely placed to engage in a dialogue that can potentially contribute to the Biden administration’s objective of stabilising ties and putting a floor under the relationship,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.
Paul Haenle, a former top White House China official, said one advantage of sending Burns was that he was respected by Democrats and Republicans and also well known to Chinese officials. “They know him as a trusted interlocutor. They would welcome the opportunity to engage him quietly behind the scenes,” said Haenle, now director of the Carnegie China think-tank. “They will see a quiet discreet engagement with Burns as a perfect opportunity.”
While Burns is widely viewed as one of the most trusted figures in the US government, his trip continues a tradition of CIA directors being used for sensitive missions. “CIA directors have a long history of secret diplomacy. They are able to travel in complete secrecy and often have strong relationships with the host intelligence services built over time,” said Dennis Wilder, a former CIA China expert who also served as the top White House Asia official during the George W Bush administration.
The US has been trying to resurrect a trip to China that secretary of state Antony Blinken abruptly cancelled over the balloon incident, but Beijing has so far refused to give it a green light. Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu has also refused to meet US defence secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore this weekend because Washington has refused to lift sanctions on him. The two men are attending the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference where they are slated to give speeches.
While the two ministers were not expected to have a formal meeting, the Pentagon said they “spoke briefly” at the opening dinner of the forum, which is held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The two leaders shook hands, but did not have a substantive exchange,” the Pentagon said.
BRICS meet with ‘friends’ seeking closer ties amid push to expand bloc
Senior officials from over a dozen countries including Saudi Arabia and Iran were in talks on closer links with the BRICS bloc of major emerging economies as it met to deepen ties and position itself as a counterweight to the West, informs Reuters.
BRICS, which now consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is considering expanding its membership, and a growing number of countries, mostly from the global South, have expressed interest in joining.
Once viewed as a loose association of disparate emerging economies, BRICS has in recent years taken more concrete shape, driven initially by China and, since the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, with added impetus from Russia.
In remarks opening Friday’s discussions, host South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor spoke of the bloc as a champion of the developing world, which she said was abandoned by wealthy states and global institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The world has faltered in cooperation. Developed countries have never met their commitments to the developing world and are trying to shift all responsibility to the global South,” Pandor said.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros, Gabon, and Kazakhstan all sent representatives to Cape Town for so-called “Friends of BRICS” talks, an official programme showed.
Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Indonesia were participating virtually.
BRICS heavyweight China said last year it wanted the bloc to launch a process to admit new members. And other members have pointed to countries they would like to see join the club.
“BRICS is a history of success,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira said. “The group is also a brand and an asset, so we have to take care of it.”
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said talks had included deliberations on the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures of what an expanded BRICS bloc would look like.
South Africa’s Pandor said the foreign ministers were aiming to complete work on a framework for admitting new members before BRICS leaders meet at a summit in Johannesburg in August.
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