April 20, 2018

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.
April 20, 2018

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. Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.
April 20, 2018

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. Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.
April 20, 2018

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. Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.